James LaFond's Impressions of From What Hell Have You Crawled, Chapter 4 of Robert E. Howard’s Hour of the Dragon
Gianni’s illustration of Conan forced down by four hyper-masculine slaves as he is weighted with chains before his ancient-countenanced master, is a starkly powerful piece.
Conan suffers the fate of some million of historical European souls, being held as a slave by a Semitic master who makes cruel demands of him as he is manhandled by the Semite’s brutal ebony servants, in this case four giants. Conan’s captor, Xaltotun is an awesome figure of nightmare and piercing mesmerism, with even “a weird nimbus” plying about his head, with an aspect of ellusiveness giving the captive the impression that the fiend of dignity had stalked forth from some vile dream.
Conan, matter-of-factly growls, “I sensed a brain behind this,” to which Xaltotun extends the oft offered pact that assailed the conscience of captured European mariners who found themselves enchained in North Africa and the Middle East, the limited freedom to betray their own kind and war against their native land. Conan, of course vehemently declines to turn traitor against his adopted subjects while the sorcerer, suffused in “an alien aura of Time and Space,” seeks to tame the savage, by confessing that warrior arts were no called for, as the unleashing of his arcane powers of manipulation set unguessed forces in motion that even he might not be able to check.
At last the interview ends with one of the best lines spoken by a fantasy villain:
“I am wearied of conversation with you; it is less fatiguing to destroy a walled city than it is to frame my thoughts in words a brainless barbarian can understand.”
Conan is then taken into the dungeons by the negro slaves, “like the descent into hell of a corpse borne by dusky demons.”
Then, taken to a grim cell inhabited by bones which had been split to get at the marrow, Conan is insulted by his black handlers, a race of people bestowed with much agency by Howard in his various fictions, as the leader of the slaves taunts the barbarian, “This your place now, white dog-king!”
This permits Howard to play out his deepest trope that the races of dark barbarians are the devolved remnants of civilized folk whereas the “white” barbarians of northern Europe are a pure, untainted form of savage.
Gianni’s illustration of Conan being dragged down a dark stair by four brutes barely able to contain his savage wrath does justice to Howard’s description of the fallen kind as reverting to near-animal form in crisis.
(c) 2019 James LaFond