I was fortunate enough to locate, last year, the bulk of the long lost Howard files. This includes a number of unpublished items, some of which appear in this issue. The unpublished fragment was among these papers; it is impossible to definitely determine whether this is an unfinished story or whether the remaining portion has been lost. Conan fans will be pleased to learn that several previously unpublished Conan stories were found: “Wolves Beyond the Border”, “The Snout in the Dark”, “The Hall of the Dead”, “The Hand of Nergal” and “The Vale of Lost Women”. Only the latter was finished; L. Sprague de Camp has completed the first three titles, while Lin Carter has finished “The Hand of Nergal.” “The Hall of the Dead” has been accepted by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction , while “The Vale of Lost Women” will appear in Magazine of Horror. All titles will appear in the Lancer Conan series in due course.
—Glenn Lord, The Howard Collector #9 (Spring 1967), 2-3
We know almost nothing about the origins of “The Vale of Lost Women.” There are two drafts extant, one unfinished (17 pages) and one complete (21 pages), with editing marks not in Howard’s hand, both undated. It is mentioned in none of Howard’s surviving correspondence, and if it was ever submitted to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales, no records of its submission or rejection have come to light. Howard scholar Patrice Louinet has stated in his essay “Hyborian Genesis” that the story was written circa February 1933—before Howard took Otis Adelbert Kline as his agent, and at the end of the first period of writing Conan stories (The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian 450).
Reader response to the “new” story—unearthed after thirty years and in the midst of the Howard boom of the 1960s—was mixed.
Charles Hidley writes: “The so-called ‘Conan’ story with its fantasy domino slightly askew is a thinly-masked ‘porny’ of the cheapest sado-sexual variety and doesn’t belong in your pages and wasn’t, I’m sure, authored by Robert E. Howard. Sick as that lad may have been, he at least was an author with imagination and writing skill—of sorts—and had the taste and discretion to flesh out his erotic fetishes with some semblance of narrative—and that in a category that could be honestly labelled macabre, outre, fantastic. If this was Howard (and I seriously challenge that labeling) it was surely a segment of something of greater length and depth—and less spuriousness.”
Carrington B. Dixon, Jr., writes from Texas: “1967 seems to be a good year for Conan. First FANTASTIC reprints People of the Black Circle, and now both MOH and FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION bring out new Conan stories! Of the two new ones, however, yours is 100% Howard, and it is easily the better of the two. I cannot imagine why The Vale of Lost Women was not published during Howard’s lifetime; unless it was that he did not live to submit it. It is certainly one of Howard’s better works. It is somewhat atypical for a Conon [sic] story but magnificent nonetheless. The fact that it is told in third person limited from Livia’s point of view adds a great deal to the story. The fight scenes still have gusto, but something has been added. The descent into the Vale has a chill missing in most Conan stories; we know that, no matter what the odds, Conan will come out with a whole skin, but women do not always fare so well…. This was easily the outstanding story of the issue.”
—The Magazine of Horror #16 (Summer 1967), 119-120
The mixed opinion have much to do with the combination of racial and sexual dynamics in the story, which reflect a mix of Howard’s influences and themes. The story is, somewhat unusually, told from the perspective of Livia, an Ophirian woman held captive:
As she lay on the angareb in the great hut, her state bordered between delirium and semi-unconsciousness. Outward sounds and movements scarcely impinged upon her senses. her whole mental vision, though dazed and chaotic, was yet centered with hideous certitude on the naked, writhing figure of her brother, blood streaming down the quivering thighs.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 303
“Angareb” is a Sudanese word for a low, wooden-framed bed, which Howard probably picked up from the pages of Adventure; the image of the tortured, probably castrated, brother comes from what Patrice Louinet considers the story’s likely inspiration: the story of Cynthia Ann Parker and her brother John, who were captured by the Comanche in 1836. Robert E. Howard was familiar with versions of the story, which he mentioned to H. P. Lovecraft as early as 1931, and related in some detail to August Derleth in a letter written around January 1933 (Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard 3.4-9) In adapting the story to the Hyborian Age, however, the captors are not Native Americans but black people.
This was before Howard published his essay “The Hyborian Age,” but it is evident in the story that he had generally conceived of the broad outlines and some of details of the geography in Conan’s world, specifically:
South of Stygia are the vast black kingdoms of the Amazons, the Kushites, the Atlaians and the hybrid empire of Zembabwei.
The black people in this story are thus portrayed as black Africans in all but name; despite the confusion of names (which Lovecraft sometimes chided Howard for), the Kushites here should be seen as more or less metaphorical ancestors of the Kingdom of Kush, located in Nubia south of Egypt; hence the use of a Sudanese term like angareb, and the presence of bamboo is another detail suggesting the general geographic locale of the story.
If it seems weird to contemporary readers that Native Americans may be portrayed as Africans in this manner—it would not be the last time Howard made such a racial transposition. Most notably, in the Conan story “Beyond the Black River” the Picts—one of Howard’s favorites, appearing in not just the Conan stories but the Bran Mak Morn and Kull tales, as both historical Picts of the British Isles and as mythological predecessors from Lemuria and Atlantis—essentially take the place of Native Americans, a theme that John Bullard explored in “Beyond the Black River”: Is It Really “Beyond the Brazos River”? In general, it can be argued that one of the ways that Howard kept the Conan series fresh was by continually adapting different genres and settings to the Hyborian Age, and part of that involves the odd transpositions, as in the case of “The Vale of Lost Women.”
The transposition would have been easier for Howard’s intended audience because of popular pulp (and in general Colonialist fiction) depictions of indigenous peoples of both Africa and the Americas as “savage.” The idea hold connotations beyond the immediately obvious; in the 1930s to be a barbarian was to be juxtaposed to “civilization,” but to be savage was to be incapable of civilization. Even seemingly ambivalent terms like “Noble Savage” have inherent in them the basic racist bias that the people so described would never obtain civilization by their own skill or effort. This is perhaps more important for stories like Howard’s “The Moon of Skulls,” which features a black African kingdom living in the remnants of an ancient Atlantean outpost, but it is implicit in many works from many writers of this period, and one reason why it was “easy” for Howard to translate the Comanche to the Kushites in this story is because they were both, in his understanding, “savages.”
The contrast of savage vs. barbarian vs. civilized, white vs. black, is presented by Howard in very stark relief in “The Vale of Lost Women.”
The hut door opened, and a black woman entered—a lithe pantherish creature, whose supple body gleamed like polished ebony, adorned only by a wisp of silk twisted about her strutting loins. The whites of her eyeballs reflected the firelight outside, as she rolled them with wicked meaning.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 303
Most of the women in this story are either underdressed or nude; Robert E. Howard had learned by this point that Farnsworth Wright preferred a nude or near-nude female character in a scene for the cover illustration, so the use of a nude character in a Conan story is not itself unusual or weird—Seabury Quinn and other writers at Weird Tales were doing the same thing. What sets this scene and interaction apart is the contrast between the white woman, embarrassed at her nudity, and the black woman who flaunts it. This depiction between woman light and dark (not always white and black, but light-haired and brunette, etc.) is a recurring theme in Howard’s fiction, Charles Hoffman discusses this tendency in his essays “Return to Xuthal,” “Blood Lust: Robert E. Howard’s Spicy Adventures,” and “Elements of Sadomasochism in the Fiction and Poetry of Robert E. Howard,” and it can be seen more clearly developed in later Conan stories like “The Slithering Shadow” and “Red Nails.”
The combination of racial and sexual elements centers now on Livia. Jim Crow was alive and well in the United States of the 1930s; the K.K.K. would be vocal about the need for the “color line” and many jurisdictions had laws against interracial marriage, racist stereotypes about the supposed licentiousness of African-Americans were rampant, and underlay the accusations of the Scottsboro Boys Trial. Social attitudes, however, were sexist as well as racist; many white male Americans found it acceptable for a white man to visit black female sex workers. The distinction makes up a particularly poignant passage in Howard’s life:
“Every man has to uphold his race and protect his women and children,” Bob said earnestly. “He has to build the best damn world he can. You mix and mingle the races, and what do you get? You get a mongrel race—a race that’s not white and not black.”
It seemed to me he was leaving out something important. “Very well, then,” I said flatly. “If a man’s going to fight to keep his race pure, don’t let him go down to the flat and leave a half-white, half-black child down there.”
Bob jerked the steering wheel so abruptly that we almost ran off the road.
“Well, damn it,” he groaned. “There’s something there that you don’t understand.”
He looked at me, ran his hand over his face, and glared. “Well, sometimes a man—Well, damn it. Sometimes a man has to—”
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone 96
So, it’s not just that Livia is being held captive, but she is being sexually threatened in a way that would specifically speak to the (presumably primarily white and male) audience of Weird Tales—and the nature of this threat is not strictly heterosexual either:
The young black woman laughed evilly, with a flash of dark eyes and white teeth, and with a hiss of spiteful obscenity and a mocking caress that was more gross than her language, she turned and swaggered out of the hut, expressing more taunting insolence with the motions of her hips than any civilized woman could with spoken insults.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 304
Howard’s specific understanding of lesbianism was tied up in contemporary interpretations of homosexuality as a psychological disorder; he appears to have associated lesbianism with both the adoption of masculine attributes (as with his character Dark Agnes in “Sword Woman”) and with sadism, where it represents distorted sexual appetites (for more on this subject, see “Conan and Sappho: Robert E. Howard on Lesbians”). This in particular can be seen in the relationships between women in “The Moon of Skulls,” “The Slithering Shadow,” and “Red Nails”—all three of which dovetail with the light/dark female dichotomy already mentioned as a theme in Howard’s work. The presence of a “mocking caress” in this context then is not surprising—but unusually, in this case it also serves as a foreshadowing of the events later in the story.
Nor is this the only case of racial stereotypes being used in this story:
On an ivory stool, flanked by giants in plumed head-pieces and leopard-skin girdles, sat a fat, squat shape, abysmal, repulsive, a toad-like chunk of blackness, reeking of the dank rotting jungle and the nighted swamps. The creature’s pudgy hands rests on the sleek arch of his belly; his nape was a roll of sooty fat that seemed to thrust his bullet head forward. His eyes gleamed in the firelight, like live coals in a dead black stump. Their appalling vitality belied the inert suggestion of the gross body.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 304
This description of Bajujh, king of Bakalah, is not far off from the first shot of Jabba the Hutt as portrayed in Return of the Jedi (1983)—and there is a similar logic at work. Howard, through the gaze of Livia, is setting up Bajujh as the epitome of disgust. Like in “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch, Howard is building up this individual as a visceral ultimate expression in the minds of the readers. Robert E. Howard was more than capable of describing black characters in many different ways—from obsequious to defiant, young to old, powerful to weak, intelligent and wise to animalistic—and many of his stories build up particular characters as particularly capable or dangerous to the protagonists. Yet Bajujh is not a rival for Conan—he is established as an opposite, a study in contrasts for the Cimmerian who he wanders onto the page a few paragraphs later.
Conan’s interactions with the Kushites deserves attention:
He was clad like his followers in leopard-skin loin-clout and plumed head-piece, but he was a white man. […] He himself, with a few of his chiefs, sat with Bajujh and the headmen of Bakalah, cross-legged on mats, gorging and guzzling. She saw his hands dipped deep into the cooking pots with the others, saw his muzzle thrust into the beer vessel out of which Bajujh also drank.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 305
Bajujh treats Conan as an equal, and by his actions Conan shows no discrimination with sitting and feasting with the Kushites, even to the point of drinking from the same vessels. To Livia, this is a display of Conan’s power, but to the audience the interaction could be seen as more ambiguous: after all, here is essentially a scene of racial equality and getting-along. Lingering Colonialist attitudes may be at play in this depiction, since Conan is depicted as a white man among chiefs, and accorded respect as such; the idea of white men being deemed special and equivalent to black leaders was also a theme in several Solomon Kane tales set in Africa. Yet it is clearly Livia’s own preconceptions about race that are at work when she notes:
But she made no effort to classify his position among the races of mankind. It was enough that his skin was white.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 306
It’s worth mentioning that in 1933, not all European nationalities and ethnicities were seen as equal, even if they were often nominally “white.” Ethnic sentiment against Jews, Italians, Irish, and Eastern Europeans was still widespread, sometimes flaring into violence. So unspoken in this statement is that sentiment that Livia places herself at or near the top of “whiteness”—but that ethnic considerations fade when, outnumbered and alone, she sets up the stark racial dichotomy of white vs. black, us vs. them. This is her view of the world, in this situation, which the readers are expected to recognize and sympathize with. That’s important to set up what comes next.
“You care naught that a man of your own color has been foully done to death by these black dogs—that a white woman is their slave! Very well!” She fell back from him, panting, transfigured by her passion.
“I will give you a price!” she raved, tearing away her tunic from her ivory breasts. “Am I not fair? Am I not more desirable than these soot-colored wenches? Am I not a worthy reward for blood-letting? Is not a fair-skinned virgin a price worth slaying for?[“]
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 307-308
Robert Bloch in the November 1934 issue of Weird Tales would already be lamenting “Conan the Cluck” who every issue “won a new girlfriend, each of whose penchant for nudism won her a place of honor, either on the cover or on the inner illustration.” The idea that the hero wins the girl at the end is part of the casual misogyny of pulp fiction—and of much fiction generally. Livia’s offer is playing very specifically and deliberately to reader’s expectations, based on the almost formulaic trope of the good guy getting the girl and them living happily ever after, and reinforced by the racial and sexual aspects of the story already established.
Which is why Conan’s response catches readers by surprise.
“You speak as if you were free to give yourself at your pleasure,” he said. “As if the gift of your body had power to swing kingdoms. Why should I kill Bajujh to obtain you? Women are cheap as plantains in this land, and their willingness or unwillingness matters as little. You value yourself too highly. If I wanted you, I wouldn’t have to fight Bajujh to take you. He would rather give you to me than to fight me.”
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 308
The response utterly deflates Livia; while Howard would not have put it in such terms, she comes face to face with her own white privilege, and the shock of realizing that her assumptions regarding her value and relationships with other people just because of her gender and skin color aren’t absolute values is crushing to her self-esteem. Her essential powerlessness, carefully developed throughout the first part of the story, and her offer of her virginity are designed to appeal to what white male Americans expected of white female Americans. Livia had wanted to be Helen of Troy, she ended up as Briseis. As one critic noted about this exchange, Conan’s is:
A realistic attitude, but one that is rarely encountered in most sword-and-sorcery. Usually women are masterminds who plot and deceive, using their sex as a weapon. As Howard summed it up best shortly afterward, “In spite of all Livia had experienced, she had still instinctively supposed a woman’s consent the pivotal point of such a game as she proposed to play.”
—Robert Weinberg, The Annotated Guide To Robert E. Howard’s Sword & Sorcery (1976), 106
Winter Elliott in his essay “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Women: Gender Dynamics in the Hyborian World” describes how Livia has “so clearly internalized her society’s consumerist construction of a woman’s sexuality.” (Conan Meets the Academy 62), and it is the transactional nature of the exchange which is at play here: Livia sees herself, and especially her body and virginity, as things of value which are to be exchanged for other things.
Livia, however, is trying to sell herself; she is not participant in an exchange between men, so her offer has no value. It does, however, correctly suggest that she has internalized her society’s view of female flesh as a commodity to be sold. […] In fact, the supposedly barbaric culture in which she finds herself has acted perfectly in accordance with her own civilization; her own society might more delicately treat her as property, but she would still be a possession. […] Livia’s captivity derives not from any fault of her own but from the weakness of her male guardians, who were unable to sustain their hold on their property in the face of fiercer male competition.
—Winter Elliot, ibid. 63
So Livia is not approaching this exactly in the sense of sex work. Having been raised to value herself and think of herself in these terms, she is still not yet cognizant of the fact that she does not really own herself and her own sexuality. The bargain she seeks to strike is emotional and presupposes that she and Conan share more than just skin color, but common values and assumptions of gender roles.
There’s a volatile mix of racial, gender, and sexual politics at play here. If Livia had been a man instead of a woman (or Conan a woman, or homosexual), the same offer and exchange would almost certainly not have taken place—at least, not in 1933 with any hope of getting published in Weird Tales. If Livia had been a been black, Asian, multiracial, or something other than “white,” the sexual offer might still have been part of the appeal for rescue, but not with the specific racial overtones which were such a part of Colonialist rhetoric. With the character of Livia, Howard has very carefully set up exactly this moment of conflict, and specifically so that Conan can poke a hole in it.
The subversion of expectations that takes place can still be framed as sexist; the whole exchange emphasizes the complete lack of power that Livia has as a woman, even over her own body, and serves as a kind of masculine sexual fantasy. Howard may be bending the rules by not having Conan play the noble hero willing to risk all for sexual intercourse with a white woman right away, but he’s still operating well within the general frame of preconceptions that led eventually to John Norman’s Gor and Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty novels. Once it’s clear who is in charge, Conan goes on:
But I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man; and though your kind call me a robber, I never forced a woman against her consent. […] If you were old and ugly as the devil’s pet vulture, I’d take you away from Bajujh, simply because of the color of your hide.
“But you are young and beautiful, and I have looked at black sluts until I am sick at the guts. I’ll play this game your way, simply because some of your instincts correspond with mine.[“]
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 308-309
There’s a lot to unpack here. These are the first racist statements made by Conan himself in the entire story, if not exactly his entire career to this point; Howard had already written “The Queen of the Black Coast,” which involves Conan joining the crew of Bêlit and her black corsairs, although it wouldn’t see print until 1934, so it wasn’t that he hadn’t interacted with black characters at this point, but it emphasizes that while he might lead them and interact relatively equally with them, Conan isn’t above all the prejudices of his own time. Certainly the “black sluts” comment implies sexual experience with black women, illustrating the same double-standard Howard faced in Texas in the 1930s. The language isn’t necessarily too “blue” even for Weird Tales, other stories would use the word “slut.”
The last phrase, “because some of your instincts correspond with mine” echoes the language of H. P. Lovecraft, who would use similar but not identical phrasing in some of his letters to describe the racial homogeneity of different nationalities (cf. A Means to Freedom 1.77) It wouldn’t be the only time some of the arguments and discussions from their letters made their way into Howard’s fiction (or maybe vice versa), “The God in the Bowl” echoes aspects of Lovecraft and Howard’s discussions on the inequalities of justice and policing.
Racism is not just about epithets and depictions, but also absence. In this story, the black characters are almost all unnamed and never have a speaking role. In large part, this is because the story is told from Livia’s perspective: Conan can speak the same language as the Kushites, Livia cannot, so in her narrative they are either silent or voice obscenities and animalistic cries. Livia’s worldview does not encompass how they think or view themselves, except in relation to their interactions with her—which are minimal. The only hint we have at their history and inner life is through her, as it impacts her own life.
The second twist in the story is Livia’s flight from Conan as she imagines him coming to claim her, bearing the price she asked for sexual access to her body. A parallel could be drawn here with the earlier story “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” though unlike in that story, Conan has already stated he has no intention of rape, the fear of it drives Livia into the supernatural menace which Weird Tales would require, the eponymous “Vale of Lost Women”:
[…] she thought of a valley of which the blacks had spoken with fear; a valley to which had fled the young women of a strange brown-skinned race which had inhabited the land before the coming of the ancestors of the Bakalas. There, men said, they had turned into white flowers, had been transformed by the old gods to escape their ravishers. There no black man dared go.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 313
The legend has echoes with Greek myth, particularly that of Daphne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and likewise echoes Howard’s “brown race” of Atlantis as being distinct from both white- and black-skinned peoples in “The Moon of Skulls,” or the discussion of the Boskop Man in his letters with Lovecraft (cf. A Means to Freedom 1.141, 159, 169, 183); Lovecraft himself would refer to the “general of the great-headed brown people who held South Africa in B.C. 50,000” in “The Shadow out of Time.”
The appearance of a third race queers the binaries of Livia’s world in more ways than one:
The lithe brown women were all about her. One, lovelier than the rest, came silently up to the trembling girl, and enfolded her with supple brown arms. Her breath was scented with the same perfume that stole from the great white blossoms that waved in the starshine. Her lips pressed Livia’s in a long terrible kiss.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 313-314
It’s interesting to compare this lesbian kiss with that in “Red Nails.” Both sexual displays are part of or prelude to occult ritual, or have some supernatural effect. Salacious as the scene may be, Howard’s reserve for such overt displays of homosexuality between women to part of a distinctly weird and supernatural scene may in effect have been his effort to get them past the censor. Or perhaps he felt the broaching of sexual taboos complemented and gave weight to scenes that were set to violate natural laws; his letters are generally silent on the subject.
The denouement is almost perfunctory. Conan’s unusually talkative explanation encompasses the demon from the Outer Dark, how he decided it wasn’t appropriate to hold Livia to her bargain, and that he’s sending her home nearly in the same breath. It is anticlimactic in more than the sense that the last action beat has passed.
Conan’s assurance that “I saw that to hold you to your bargain would be the same as if I had forced you” is in keeping with his previous statement that he had never forced a woman, but there is a thread here which neither Livia nor Conan delve into, which is that due to Livia’s status as a slave it is impossible for her to give consent; they are in an unequal power relationship, and Conan is the one in a position of dominance. One could draw parallels with slave women in the South before and during the American Civil War: Livia’s ability to say “No” is meaningless if Conan chooses not to respect it, and Conan (and Howard) appear perspicacious enough to realize that.
So, Conan’s decision doesn’t change the essential relationship: Conan is still the one making all the decisions about Livia and her body. If they’re not having sex, it’s because that’s what he decided, regardless of her feelings in the matter. Things might be looking up for Livia, in that she’s headed home, but she still has almost no agency as a person and hasn’t learned any particular lesson regarding being racist or assuming privilege for being white and female—since Conan is basically affirming all that by giving her exactly what she wanted for just the reasons she thought he should.
One suspects that there was a desire to give a happy ending which yet left Conan unencumbered by any sort of ongoing romantic relationship; which underscores how Conan circumvents the tropes by not ending up with the woman at the end, and is in stark contrast to the eventual fate of Cynthia Ann Parker. So rather than a tragic ending, or the expected sexual conquest, Howard ends “The Vale of Lost Women” with a gruff masculine joke:
“Crom, girl,” grunted Conan, embarrassed, “don’t do that, you’d think I was doing you a favor by kicking you out of this country; haven’t I explained that you’re not the proper woman for the war-chief of the Bamulas?”
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 317
When picked apart like this, it is easier to see how “The Vale of Lost Women” came to be, from a rough idea translated to the Hyborian Age, to the addition of various commercial elements (nudity, check; weird monster, check), and some of Howard’s common themes (light and dark women, a possible reference to ancient Atlantis, echoes of his discussions of race and civilization with Lovecraft). On top of this, there is the unusual interplay of gender, racial, and sexual dynamics—aspects which Howard doesn’t always get credit for, as noted in “Black Canaan” vs. “Black Cunjer.”
On a cold read, however—how much of that would actually come across? This story was published the year before the Civil Rights Act of 1968; would African-American readers have appreciate a story where they exist only to be either subservient to a white Conan and/or slaughtered? Second-wave feminism was pushing reforms for women in post-WWII America as well, questioning previous popular media images of women as solely homemakers and housewives and pushing for equal access to education and equality in the workplace. Howard may have been relatively liberal for 1930s Texas, but what story poking at tropes of the hero ending up with the girl in 1933 reads very differently in 1967. Or 2020.
Not terribly surprising then that critical reception of the story in the ensuing decades since its publication has been almost uniformly negative. To give a handful of reactions:
Two Conan stories, “The Vale of Lost Women” and “Shadows in Zamboula,” are typical antiblack hysterics. Reading them is like having a front-row seat at a Ku Klux Klan rally. In their depiction of blacks as savages, cannibals, and slaves, these stories deserve a place of dishonor beside Edgar Rice Burroughs in the lowly annals of racist literature.
—Charles R. Saunders, “Die, Black Dog!” (1975)
“The Vale of Lost Women” is probably the worst of the Conan stories and it is not surprising that it was never published during Howard’s lifetime. The supernatural element just seems to be added as an afterthought. The plotting is basic formula, with little complexity. However, the story does have a few noteworthy graces.
—Robert Weinberg, The Annotated Guide To Robert E. Howard’s Sword & Sorcery (1976), 106
Rejected for obvious reasons. Certainly this is the worst Conan story, with the possible exception of “Pool of the Black One.” But it does shed some light on Conan’s career as a chief of the Blacks.
—Darrell Schweitzer, Conan’s World and Robert E. Howard (1978) 52
Not surprisingly, the story failed to sell. If Howard was trying to discreetly infuse some of his growing interest in Western lore into the Conan stories, he was perhaps too subtle: it is impossible to detect the source without having access to peripheral documents. The powerful story of Cynthia Anne and John Parker was lost between the unconvincing supernatural threat and Livia’s penchant for nakedness. As to the racial overtones of the story, while the violent ethnocentricism of the tale is understandable when we recognize its origin in the nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon settler viewpoint, with the blacks standing in for Indians, it makes for unsettling reading for the modern audience. At any rate, Howard’s first foray into the American southwest version of the Hyborian Age was a failure, and it would be another year before he made another attempt.
—Patrice Louinet, “Hyborian Genesis” in The Coming of Conan (2003) 450
Racial overtones aside (the tribesmen of Ersatz-Africa stand-in for the Native Americans, leading to some really strong “anti-Kushite” rhetoric on Conan’s part), what draws the most heat from this story is Conan bartering to rescue the captive Livia in exchange for a roll in the hay. No one looks good in this story. Not Robert, not Conan, not even Livia. No one. This is perhaps the worst Conan story and a real low point for the series. The commercial elements all misfire, and the allegory of “Kushites = Native Americans” when Kush has previously equaled Africa doesn’t work at all. Worst of all is the insulting and contrived hackneyed ending. “Oh, I was going to kill all of the tribesmen anyway, and how dare you think that I’d bed you as payment, even though I’ve given you no reason to suspect otherwise?” Honestly, this reads more like Robert trying to work out a story, or at least work something out in this story.
—Mark Finn, Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard (2013) 226
This story, “The Vale of Lost Women,” contains some of the most problematic—and racist—passages in Howard’s work.
—Winter Elliott, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Women” in Conan Meets the Academy (2013) 65n5
“Vale of Lost Women” doesn’t stand in the top rank of Howard’s Conan tales. Some might say it is the worst. But best and worst are relative. In “Vale”, Howard’s prose crackles with poetic lyricism, even at the tale’s grimmest moments. The story, so crude and harsh outwardly, rests on a foundation of myth springing from mankind’s basic fears and needs. By any standard “Vale of Women” is a memorable tale that draws in a reader with furious intensity and edge-of-the-seat suspense. If this is Howard at his worst, then he has earned his accolades.
—Dave Hardy, “Hither Came Conan: Dave Hardy on ‘The Vale of Lost Women'” (2019)
The assumption is that the story was rejected. If so, it was not necessarily because of the racial or sexual elements—Weird Tales certainly had both in its pages, and it is hard to say where the line was on such tales. Howard and many other writers had included racism before, nudity was often accepted (even encouraged), suggestions of lesbian interaction were not unknown. Perhaps Howard himself thought the story didn’t come together and chose not to submit it.
We don’t know.
The lesbian touches in “The Vale of Lost Women” has sometimes also been subject to some rather unusual takes, a couple of which are worth examining:
Written in the 1930s, this story was not published until much later, most likely because of its explicit lesbian content. Conan comes upon a young white woman captive of a tribe of black Africans. Conan rescues the woman, but when he comes to collect her as his reward she has other ideas. Rejecting the brutality of men, she flees to the Valley [sic] of Lost Women, an idyllic all-women society. She finds, to her dismay, that the valley is filled with lesbian natives who seduce her despite her fears. Again, Conan rescues her, and chivalrously allows her to retain her virginity. Sexist and racist.
—Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo, Uranian Worlds (1983) 65
Perhaps because of this story’s length and deceptively simple plot, many readers have dismissed it as one of the lesser stories of the canon, some even going so far as to designate it the worst Conan story. It is not—and by quite a margin. It is necessary to correct this oversight by examining his, one of Howard’s most underrated stories. […] When Livia flees from Conan to the vale of lost women, she is fleeing not only her captors, but the male sex as well. […] What Howard seems to be saying is that, although men and women constantly brutalize each other physically and mentally, they belong together nonetheless. To seek refuge from the battle of the sexes in either homosexuality or asexuality is to deny one of the most important constants of the human condition. At best, it can bring about spiritual emptiness; at worst, it can cause spiritual degradation. When Conan rescues Livia, he saves her not from any physical harm, but from a shadowy existence without a soul.
“The Vale of Lost Women” is an interesting counterpoint to “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter.” Composed around the same time, both were among the first stories in the Conan series to be written. Neither story was published during Howard’s lifetime, almost certainly owing to their explicit sexual themes. But, though sexuality lies at the heart of each short tale, in execution they are polar opposites. […] Howard unflinchingly shows his own sex at its absolute worst, wallowing in rapine, murder, and wanton cruelty. Driven to attempt rape in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” Conan opposes it in word and deed in “The Vale of Lost Women.” He turns against sworn allies to keep Livia’s body unsullied by her rapist-captor, he battles a monster to prevent her spirit from being violated, and finally he forsakes any ulterior motives of his own concerning her.
The story’s denouement is that Livia will be returned home; Conan has reestablished normalcy in her life. By keeping her body and spirit inviolate, and by restraining his own passions, Conan also symbolically restores Livia’s normal sexuality.
—Marc A. Cerasini & Charles Hoffman,
Robert E. Howard: Starmont Reader’s Guide 35 (1987) 77-79
The take given in Uranian Worlds seems to be a misreading. Part of the problem is that the majority of the lesbian content focuses on the supernatural section, which is relatively brief. The brown women are utterly speechless except for their alien, inhuman song, and we basically get nothing of their inner life or motivations for trying to sacrifice and/or convert Livia. Far from the uranian utopia Garber and Paleo would have it be, there is no indication that the Vale of Lost Women is a human society in any sense. While it might be interesting to see a piece that actually explores the Vale of Lost Women from that perspective—it is interesting to think of the implications of the Vale of Lost Women (Lost to whom? In what way?), the story itself does not really support the reading in Uranian Worlds.
Cerasini and Hoffman’s reading has simply aged badly; based on the idea of homosexuality or asexuality as deviations from heterosexuality rather than equally valid and natural. Such an interpretation still fails to address the essential lack of agency that Livia has in the story; the idea that she needs a man to “rescue” her from homosexuality is just as misogynistic as the idea that Livia has no right to refuse Conan sex. They are correct in that it is a fundamentally different approach to the pursuit of sex that characterizes “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” and the attitude that Conan displays in this story toward refusing to take sex by force would be one of the most important legacies of “The Vale of Lost Women.”
It did have a legacy. In 1979, “The Vale of Lost Women” was adapted for the Marvel comic book Conan the Barbarian #104 (Roy Thomas, John Buscema, Ernie Chan, Ben Sean, Joe Rosen), set chronologically after the events of “The Queen of the Black Coast,” when Conan was adventuring among the black kingdoms of Kush.
After those three original stories, I got a chance in #104 to adapt another REH story: “The Vale of Lost Women.” This was not one of Howard’s best—in fact, not a few of his admirers consider it the worst Conan story he ever wrote. Some editor somewhere may have agreed; the tale wasn’t published until three decades following the author’s suicide in 1936. Still, it was a Howard Conan story, so I was bound and determined to adapt it—and it really didn’t make a bad comic book issue.
Two things commend this story to my memory. One is the fact that it contains the only mention ever by Howard of “Kheshatta, City of Magicians,” a mysterious locale in Stygia. The phrase always fascinated me—as it doubtless did sometime Conan prose writer Lin Carter, who in the late 1960s had scribed a paperback novel titled Thongor and the City of Magicians—and I wondered what a city with a sobriquet like that might possibly be like! After all, it’s not as if the rest of Stygia was exactly lacking in the black magic department—so a whole “City of Magicians” must really be something to see! Alas, Howard, gives no clue—for the story’s heroine Livia is captured by the savage Bakalah en route to the place, and never gets there! (It was thus left to me to set a multi-part tale in Kheshatta when I became scripter of The Savage Sword of Conan again in the 1990s—and it was one of my favorite story arcs.)
The other thing I loved about “The Vale of Lost Women” was a line of dialogue Conan speaks near the end of the story. After killing the “demon from the dark” that tries to fly off with Livia, he casually dismisses the creature as just one of many: “They’re thick as fleas outside the belt of light that surrounds this world.” Howard had a real way with a phrase, and this disparagement by Conan of the fanged, bat-winged monstrosity he’s just slain strikes precisely the right note.
The Chronicles of Conan Volume 13: Whispering Shadows and Other Stories (2007), 145-146
By setting this in the context of Conan’s travels, and toning down or jettisoning some of the more overt violence, nudity, and racism, the result is indeed a pretty good comic book, while keeping the essentials of the plot and much of Howard’s prose. In part, this is because of the familiarity of the character as Roy Thomas, John Buscema & co. had built him up to this point; the look and voice of Conan is consistent with the character from previous issues, and seeing the fear and reactions of Livia makes her much more sympathetic as a character. The reader response was also positive…and in-depth:
Dear Roy, John, and Ernie,
Ish #104 was great, as usual, both in art and in Roy’s story adaptation, but something struck me about that particular adaptation that had never registered before. Roy, you and I rarely see eye to eye on the liberties you take with Howard’s stories, but this time I owe you a long overdue apology and a heartfelt thank-you.
As much as I love Robert E. Howard’s work and idolize his greatest creation, the Conan saga, there is one thing aout the creator of Conan that I cannot stand. Simply put, the man was a bigot.
This fact is painfully obvious to anyone who has read Howard’s original stories. They are full of derogatory remarks about blacks, rife with racial slurs. And although the Conan stories are not as anti-black as some of his earlier works, they too contain their share of prejudice. “The Vale of Lost Women” has always stood out in my mind as one of the worst. As I was reading issue #104, I prepared myself several times for the racial insults I knew to be forthcoming, but, lo and behold, no slurs! Then and only then did I realize that you had edited the derogatory racial barbs from other Conan stories as well as this one. For this, yo u have my eternal gratitude.
Howard was a bigot, this is true, but he died over four decades ago. He lived before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, back when we had to sit in the back of the bus and drink from separate water fountains, and his writing reflects this. Howard was a product of his times. I understand this and overlook his hatred of my people; others may not.
If you hadn’t cut out Howard’s bigotry and allowed the genius of his writing to shine through, you certainly would have antagonized every black in Conan’s reading audience and many liberal-minded whites as well. Most people would have attributed this bigtory to Conan, not to his creator, and this would have been tragic because the best comic magazine in history would have been cancelled long ago.
Once again, thanks Roy—and I’m sorry it took me so long to get around to it.
—Dale Armelin, “The Hyborian Page” in Conan the Barbarian #110 (May 1980)
The matter of racism in Sword & Sorcery, and the pulp revival in general, was alive and well when Conan the Barbarian was being published, when the Conan paperbacks filled displays at bookstores. African-Americans were customers too, and there really was a conversation to be had about how Howard’s racism would be translated; Charles R. Saunders in “Die, Black Dog!” specifically called out L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter both for ameliorating racism in Howard’s work when they edited/rewrote it—and for not taking the same care to avoid repeating the racism of the 1930s in their own contemporary fiction.
Frankly put, the conversation about race & Robert E. Howard (and Lovecraft, and weird fiction, sword & sorcery, etc. in general) is never over. It is a conversation that must be had continually, if only because the fiction these people wrote in the 1930s still finds an audience, and those who wish to expand and adapt their fictional worlds.
Roy Thomas & co. would go on to make Kheshatta, City of Magicians an established part of the Hyborian World, both in the Conan comic books and subsequent media. Likewise, the attitude of Conan toward “the demons of the Outer Dark” would strongly influence later interpretations of the character. While there had from the very first Conan story (“The Phoenix on the Sword”) been an element of sword against sorcery, that immortal horrors might yet be susceptible to cold steel, this cocksure attitude that a man like himself with a sword is a match for such entities would lay the groundwork for many monster-of-the-issue (or novel, or episode, etc.) takes on Conan.
More important, perhaps, is Conan’s attitude toward women. While Conan is far from exactly chivalrous in his attitudes in “The Vale of Lost Women,” his assertion that he won’t take a woman against her will is significant in a setting where slavery is commonplace. Conan has ever been a sexual entity in all of his incarnations, and many depictions of him have no particular qualms about employing sex workers—but it is that particular characteristic that Conan won’t force a woman to have sex against her will has subtly shaped some of his most contemporary depictions.
In the pages of Savage Avengers Annual (2019), for example, when Conan finds himself in contemporary South America, he refuses to sleep with sex workers being held against their will, and automatically sets about on a quest to destroy the human sex trafficking ring that enslaved them. While this might seem a bit of an obvious attitude to take for many contemporary readers, it’s a canonical approach that was embraced as a core tenet of Conan’s ethos that after it had appeared in “The Vale of Lost Women”—and arguably may have been a part of Robert E. Howard’s own evolving attitude toward women in his fiction.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).