Sangre Bárbara (2021) by El Torres, Joe Bocardo, & Manoli Martínez

“Sabed, oh Principe…

“…que entre los años en que los océanos enguilleron Atlantis y sus resplandecientes ciudades, y el surgir de los hijoes de Aryas…

“…hubo una edad no soñada.”

Brillantes reinos se esparacían por el mundo como mantos azules bao las estrellas.

“Nemedia, Ofir, Brithunia, Hiperbórea…”

“Zamora, con sus mujeres de oscuros cabellos y sus torres plagadas de arácnidos misterios…”

“Zingara y su gallardía, Koth, que lindaba con las tierras de pastoreo de Shem.

“Estigia, con sus tumbas custodiadas por sombras.

“E Hirkania, cuyos jinetes vestían de acero, seda y oro.

“Pero el reino más orgulloso del mundo era Aquilonia, que reinaba suprema en el oeste.

“Ya hacía años que allí regia el poderoso Rey Conan, el cimmerio, aquel que fue guerrero, ladrón, pirata y saqueador antes que gran monarca.

“Y llegó el tiempo en que una sombra se agitó en las junglas Pictas que dormitaban al oesta de Aquilonia.”
“Know, oh Prince…

“…that between the years when the oceans engulfed Atlantis and her resplendent cities, and the rise of the sons of Aryas…

“There was an age undreamed of.”

Brilliant kingdoms spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars.

“Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea…”

“Zamora, with its dark-haired women and its towers plagued by arachnid mysteries…”

“Zingara and her chivalry, Koth, which bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem.

“Stygia, with its shadow-guarded tombs.

“And Hyrkania, whose horsemen wore steel, silk, and gold.

“But the proudest kingdom in the world was Aquilonia, which reigned supreme in the west.

“It had been years since the mighty King Conan, the Cimmerian, ruled there, the one who was a warrior, thief, pirate, and plunderer before being a great monarch.


“And the time came when a shadow stirred in the Pictish jungles that slept west of Aquilonia.”
Sangre Bárbara (2021, Karras Comics)

So begins Sangre Bárbara (“Barbarian Blood,” 2021, Karras Comics). It is a fitting opening, with a variation of the incipit that Robert E. Howard wrote for “The Phoenix on the Sword,” which was the very first Conan the Cimmerian story, and which ran as a masthead across the Marvel Conan the Barbarian comics for decades, and even ran in a slightly different form at the beginning of the Conan the Barbarian (1982) film that starred Arnold Schwarzeneggar. The opening sets the mood; it immediately places the reader in the time and place for the action, and then the story opens…

As with The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate (2019) by Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi and The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez, this is an original work which takes advantage of the fact that Robert E. Howard’s characters and fiction have fallen into the public domain in Europe. The creators of this graphic novel are El Torres (script), Joe Bocardo (pen & inks), & Manoli Martínez (colorist); the logo was designed by Ferran Delgado.

Like The Barbarian King, Sangre Bárbara is set after the series of stories written by Robert E. Howard, giving the creators a freer hand in writing the adventure. Unlike that work, the principal character in the story is not Conan of Cimmeria…although he is still very much in the story…it is his son, the Prince Conan. A lean young man with the lean build and close-cropped hair of a boxer or legionnaire, scouting in the Pictish wilderness over the Aquilonian border, much as his father did in “Beyond the Black River.”

The story that follows wears several of its literary and artistic influences openly: the iconography of the 1982 film runs through the book like a river, from the cover to almost the last page. There is strong dedication to the original Howard texts, as shown in the opening. And there are hints of suggestions from the Marvel comics as well; I wouldn’t liken it to any kind of borrowing, but more of an inspiration: there was a storyline in Marvel’s Conan the King series titled “The Prince is Dead” which might have been the seed of this story…but Karras Comics takes the storyline much further than Marvel would ever have dared.

There is nudity, and there is gore; the writers and artist get away with it because they finally can—the same way the writers and artists of the French Glénat adaptations, and the Italian Leviathan Labs The Barbarian King books. Conan comics have almost always been a little more mature than the standard superhero fare, a little more bloody and sexy and visceral, but they have never been primarily ago either sex or blood. There are plenty of pornographic and horror comics that go in for plenty of each, if those are what readers want; so the trick for Conan comics nowadays is finding the right balance—in 2006, Dark Horse released a nude cover for Conan the Barbarian #24, and that was too much for some. In Sangre Bárbara, for the story being told and the atmosphere being set, it is certainly not much more explicit than in the 1982 film.

When reading this neo-Howardiana, it is interesting to see the choices that the writers and artists make in the depiction of the Hyborian Age. In this particular case, it is notable how racially diverse the cast is. Robert E. Howard held many of the racial prejudices one would expect of a young white man who grew up primarily in small towns in Texas; it was mentioned in the memoir One Who Walked Alone (1986) by Novalyne Price Ellis how Cross Plains was a sundown town. Some of this 1930s Texas racial stratification made it into Howard’s tales of the Hyborian Age—and some of that was continued in the Conan pastiches by other authors, which is why Charles R. Saunders wrote “Die Black Dog! A Look At Racism In Fantasy Literature” (1975, rev. 2011)—but they aren’t essential to it. Of course you can have Black characters in the Hyborian Age. Why not?

It is difficult not to compare Sangre Bárbara and The Barbarian King, since both works are branching off from similar premises, but they go about their work very differently. The Barbarian King is more acid sword & sorcery, heavier on the magic and the melancholy, the dream-like sequences and monstrous clash of color. Sangre Bárbara is much more gritty, subdued, and realistic; there is sorcery, but it isn’t bolts of flame erupting from fingertips, and the conflicts in the story are more complex than just a math problem of how many bodies can be piled up with a sword. There is a constant thread on the nature of civilization that runs through the story…right down to the last, and my favorite page.

As regards African-legend sources, I well remember the tales I listened to and shivered at, when a child in the “piney woods” of East Texas, where Red River marks the Arkansaw and Texas boundaries. There were quite a number of old slave darkies still living then. The one to whom I listened most was the cook, old Aunt Mary Bohannon who was nearly white—about one sixteenth negro, I should say.

Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Sep 1930, A Means to Freedom 1.44

This is, as far as I am aware, the first appearance of Mary Bohannon in comic book or graphic novel—and I like the sentiment, that to honor the past does not mean to be bound to every part of it irrevocably, and that the future remains to be written. The adventures of Conan are far from over, there are tales of the Hyborian Age left to tell—and maybe they will be a little more mature in more ways than just enough blood and nudity to ensure an NC-17 rating, but in what stories they tell and how, and how race fits into the age undreamed of. Certainly, this is a good start.

Sangre Bárbara can be purchased from Karras Comics; they are working on other new works based on Robert E. Howard’s stories and characters as well.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Barbarian King: Salomé (2020) by Barbara Giorgi & Nicolò Tofanelli


Salomé muore e arriva nell’Aldilà.

La vista dell’Inferno è così terrificante de spaventare a morte anche la strega.

Con le ultime energie rimaste stringe un patto con un demonio, un traghettatore di anime, prigioniero anch’egli degli Inferi.

Salomé gli dona parti del suo corpo e quel che rimane della sua anima per fuggire dall’Inferno. In cambio dovrà donare al demone un erede, ma fare patti con il Male ha sempre delle consequenze terribili.
Salomé dies and arrives in the afterlife.

The sight of Hell is so terrifying that it scares even the witch to death.

With her last remaining energy she makes a pact with a demon, a ferryman of souls, also a prisoner of the Underworld.

Salomé gives him parts of her body and what remains of his soul to escape from Hell. In exchange she will have to give the demon an heir, but making deals with Evil always has terrible consequences.
Back cover copy to The Last Barbarian: Salomé (2020)

One of the surprises in The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate (2019) by Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi was the appearance of Salomé, the witch-queen from Robert E. Howard’s Conan story “A Witch Shall Be Born” (Weird Tales Dec 1934). This was a surprise not only because of a tie-in with another classic Conan tale, but because Salomé was quite firmly deceased at the end of that episode, long before Conan won his kingdom of Aquilonia. So how did she show up in The Barbarian King?

To answer that, Leviathan Labs published a spin-off: The Barbarian King: Salomé (2020). The creative team for this effort was Barbara Giorgi (script), Nicolò Tofanelli (pencils/inks), Angelo Razzano (colorist), Massimo Rosi (editor), Mattia Gentili (letter), and Lucrezia Benvenuti (logo & map design). This graphic novel covers what happened to Salomé between the end of “A Witch Shall be Born” and her appearance to aid the stricken Conan in The Barbarian King 1.

Robert E. Howard did populate his Conan tales with various non-Conan characters, but he never wrote any separate adventures of Bêlit or Valeria, or of Conan’s grandfather or sons or daughters, so there was no exact precedent for spin-offs. Thus it should not be surprising that in the seventy-odd years of Conan pastiche stories and novels, and fifty-odd years of Conan comics, spin-offs for side characters are comparatively rare. Pasticheurs, faced with the choice of writing new Conan tales or new non-Conan tales set in the Hyborian Age, generally went with the former; although The Leopard of Poitain (1985) by Raul Garcia-Capella is a notable early exception, and The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez focuses in large part on Bêlit, though it is still a Conan story at heart.

In comic books, Marvel was largely skittish about spin-offs, early in Conan the Barbarian‘s run Roy Thomas and Gil Kane had produced a “Tale of the Hyborian Age” backup feature, echoing the successful “Tales of Asgard,” but the idea was never repeated. As Thomas tells it:

So I enlisted Gil to do a “Tale of the Hyborian Age”—a series I’d hoped to use occasionally in the 52-page Conan to give Barry [Windsor Smith] a rest. “The Blood of the Dragon” introduced the concept (which may have been Gi’s idea, since we co-plotted the story) that, when the hydragon was killed, its human assassin was magically changed to take its place. I was always proud of the name “hydragon,” combining the mythical “hydra” and the word “dragon,” and intended one day soon to use the hydragon of the Bossonian Marches in an actual Conan story.

Roy Thomas, Barbarian Life. vol. 1, 76

Conan never faced the hydragon, and there would be no more “Tales of the Hyborian Age.” Instead, Thomas created Red Sonja—an original Hyborian Age character loosely inspired by Robert E. Howard’s Red Sonya of Rogatino from “The Shadow of the Vulture” (The Magic Carpet Magazine Jan 1934). Red Sonja would go on to become a character who could be the protagonist of her own series—or series of series—which are still ongoing as of this writing.

Leaving Red Sonja aside, there were very few non-Conan series to spin-off from the main line: Conan: The Book of Thoth (2006, Dark Horse), Age of Conan: Bêlit (2019, Marvel), Age of Conan: Valeria (2020, Marvel), and Bêlit & Valeria: Swords vs. Sorcery (2022, Ablaze) are the only other spin-off series centered on characters from the Conan line; one might add Robert E. Howard Presents Thulsa Doom (2010, Dynamite) which spun out of Dynamite’s Red Sonja comics, though the character shares little more than a name with Howard’s original creation. Even so, that is a rather sparse showing from the dozens of series and hundreds of Conan and Red Sonja comics produced.

Red Sonja probably gives a good explanation why: for all of the worldbuilding that was put into the Hyborian Age by Robert E. Howard and subsequent writers, many of the comic adventures made little use of this. Red Sonja and Conan often tackled monster-of-the-month in their individual comics, or adventured through cities and countries never named by Robert E. Howard, in what were effectively generic sword-and-sorcery stories starring familiar protagonists. Even when Marvel published both Conan and Red Sonja comics at the same time, the two series were not written with reference to one another; they were effectively standalone S&S series that only nominally shared the same setting.

The same issue is evident in the spin-off series based around Thoth-Amon, Bêlit, Valeria, and Thulsa Doom. Many of these stories were well-written and illustrated—Sana Takeda’s covers for Age of Conan: Bêlit are absolutely gorgeous—but for the most part, these stories veer fairly far from Howard’s original conception of the characters and often have limited continuity with the Hyborian Age in the series they’re nominally spinning off from. Readers interested in greater lore for the Hyborian Age, like readers of the Cthulhu Mythos that desire more fragments of the artificial mythology to fit into their puzzle, were disappointed.

The Barbarian King: Salomé certainly takes it liberties with the character and the setting—but it begins very faithfully to “A Witch Shall Be Born.” Salomé begins just as Howard and Conan had left her, dead and her schemes unraveled. What we get next is her afterlife, which Howard never depicted or wrote about, so the writer and artist had a very free hand. I rather suspect that a possible inspiration for the series was Claudia Chevalier Vampire (2004- , Pat Mills & Franck Tacito), which is a spin-off of the popular Requiem Chevalier Vampire (2000-2012, Pat Mills & Olivier Ladroit)—both series have an emphasis on Hell, violence, sexuality, and mature storytelling, with the spin-offs taking a prominent female supporting character and turning them into a protagonist to expand on their characterization and tell their story.

Salomé’s harrowing, and the physical and mental transformations of her character—something less than redemption—lead her very far from the character that Robert E. Howard created. Yet it does change her into exactly the strange, wan, damaged character who aids Conan in the pages of The Barbarian King. Nor do they ever lose sight of where Salomé came from; her own abandonment as an infanticide and rescue being important themes in her interactions with other characters.

In that sense, Salomé follows the same philosophy of The Barbarian King: Robert E. Howard’s work is the launching point from which the creators start, but they are pushing into new, unwritten territory…but not without losing sight of where they came from, or where they’re going. If you like The Barbarian King, Salomé is an interesting accessory that goes deeper into the background and character of an important supporting character.

The Barbarian King: Salomé (2020) is available from Leviathan Labs. Like The Barbarian King it is in Italian, with no English translation yet.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate (2019) by Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi

Oggi Aquilonia has ottenuto la pace a caro prezzo e il Barbaro ormai è un vecchio stanco Re pieno di rimorsi, sognando il clamore della battaglia e l’adrenalina dell’avventura… questi sono tempi in cui il fuoco e l’acciaio potrebbero dettare le nuove leggi dell’uomo.

Today Aquilonia has obtained peace at a great price and the Barbarian is now a tired old King full of remorse, dreaming of the clamor of battle and the adrenaline of adventure … these are times when fire and steel could dictate the new laws of man.
— The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate

Dead pulp authors can eternal lie, and in strange aeons many of their works may still be under copyright or have certain characters trademarks depending on the intellectual property laws of any given country. In Europe, the works of Robert E. Howard may be in the public domain, and because of that they are fair game for reprinting and reimagination. This applies both for prose works like the novel The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez, and for comic books and graphic novels like French publisher Glénat’s gorgeous series of new adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s original stories of Conan the Cimmerian.

Comic books and graphic adaptations of the Cimmerian are intriguing because from 1970 to 1993 Conan (and other Robert E. Howard characters) were licensed to Marvel Comics, which provided a distinctive and iconic interpretation of the character—all the more so because the Conan comics were translated and published everywhere from Japan to Turkey. Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian was the most successful sword & sorcery comic of all time, with tie-ins to the 1980s Arnold Schwarzeneggar films, merchandise, and the lore of Robert E. Howard became intimately entangled with the Marvel Universe—including the Serpent-god Set, the Serpent Men, the eldritch entity Shuma-Gorath, the sinking of Atlantis, and by extension the Hyborian backstory of Varnae the Vampire and Kulan Gath, the villain of a popular X-Men event.

Marvel wouldn’t be the first to publish a Conan comic—La Reina de le Costa Negra in Mexico has that honor with its blond barbarian—nor the last, as Dark Horse held the license for many years. Yet Marvel’s Conan remains distinctive in fixing the barbarian’s appearance and some of his mannerisms and the development of his world. Even Dark Horse’s Conan under various artists and writers looked a bit more like the Marvel Conan than it did the original illustrations in Weird Tales, although the Frank Frazetta covers for the Lancer paperbacks in the 60s had their influence on both. Both Marvel and Dark Horse worked to both adapt Robert E. Howard stories and to publish new adventures of the barbarian, woven in and around his published career.

Which makes it really exciting to see how different creative teams handle the character.

The Barbarian King is an Italian-language series of fumetti (comics, equivalent to perfect bound graphic novels in the United States) from publisher Red Dragon and Leviathan Labs. The creative team for the first volume, Le Spade Spezzate (“The Broken Swords”) is Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi (script); Luca Panciroli, Federico de Luca, & Alessandro Bragalini (pencils, ink, & layout); Marco Antonio Imbrauglio (colorist); Enrico Santodirocco (editing); Mattia Gentili (letterer); and Lucrezia Benvenuti (logo & map design).

In adapting Conan to comics there are traditionally two routes to take: adaptation of the original stories or the creation of new works that are based on past works and/or the same characters—Marvel also had a habit of adapting some non-Conan Robert E. Howard stories, non-Robert E. Howard Conan stories, and even some non-Conan sword & sorcery stories as Conan comics. One reason Marvel could “get away” with this is because they took a very different approach to continuity than Robert E. Howard did.

By the time Marvel got Conan, essentially all of his adventures had been published. These were initially written and published out of chronological order; Robert E. Howard was not setting out to create a single sprawling epic novel like The Lord of the Rings or The Odyssey, the adventures of Conan were written and published out of order, telling different stories from different periods of Conan’s life. This freed Howard from any strict timeline of events, much as the Hyborian Age—as a prehistoric hodgepodge of different places and eras—allowed him the freedom to shift setting and tone. Conan could be in a young thief in police procedural one story (“The God in the Bowl”), then an experience adventurer in a pirate story (“The Treasure of Tranicos”), then a king of a mighty nation overthrowing usurpers in a medieval war (The Hour of the Dragon), and it was up to the fans to piece together a probably outline of Conan’s career…which a couple of early fans did in the 1930s, and which other fans have added to or revisited ever since.

Marvel and to a degree Dark Horse would use these outlines as the skeleton on which to build their own storylines. By starting more or less linearly from the beginning of Conan’s career, they could intersperse Robert E. Howard adaptations with original storylines, follow the trace of Conan’s journeys and develop additional characters and plots—sometimes expanding on what Howard and others had written, sometimes adding new elements, even borrowing from the Cthulhu Mythos or staging crossovers. As a method, this has the advantage in that the Conan comics often had a kind of narrative flow that is usually missing from monthly comics in the United States: you can often literally trace Conan’s travels on the map of the Hyborian Age.

It also allows the development of series characters—sidekicks, reoccurring antagonists, etc.—which are almost entirely absent from Howard’s stories. Robert E. Howard’s Conan is not like Michael Moorcock’s Elric to have a Companion to Champions along for the ride for several subsequent adventures, neither does he have the same lover or enemy. Stygian sorcerer Thoth-Amon as Conan’s arch foe is entirely a creation of later writers; they never even meet in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” or in any other Howard story (although Conan runs afoul of the wizard’s deeds in “The God in the Bowl”). Conan’s habit of killing every wizard he meets and always ending the story with a different girlfriend was one of the major critiques laid against the pulp hero—but in the comics, many more encounters could be planned and carried out, more tension built up, relationships would have more lasting impact because they lasted longer from issue to issue and story to story.

The Howard’s Conan chronology ends, effectively, with The Hour of the Dragon. There he is king, he has survived multiple attempts on his life and rule, and he is going to take as queen the young woman Zenobia. No Howard stories are set after this point, though other authors and comics picked up at this point because it is a natural gray area: anything can happen, because nothing more is written after this point! Conan could even die—an impossibility in earlier tales, because of course he has to survive for the next adventure that is already planned out.

So after the events of The Hour of the Dragon is where The Barbarian King picks up.

King Conan is conspicuously different in this incarnation than the Marvel or Dark Horse versions: heavier, hairier, with grey streaks in his beard and scars on his face. While Conan comics have often been a bit more mature than others on the stands, able to get away with more gore and nudity than most comics, The Barbarian King leans into both more than most, but less for exploitation than because this is a very different, darker, more mature story than more readers will be familiar with and occasionally gritty, multi-media artwork fits the tone.

If acid sword & sorcery is a thing, this might be it.

When Roy Thomas and other writers began to adapt Conan to comics in the 1970s, they did so in part with the guidance of L. Sprague de Camp; de Camp had inserted himself into the editing of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and had written several Conan pastiches, finished various fragments and synopses, and expanded the outline of Conan’s career. He didn’t do this for free or even directly, and Roy Thomas is frank about their relationship in his great memoir Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, but de Camp’s influence was still strong on the series. Dark Horse’s comics, on the other hand, were published after a revolution in Howard studies & publishing had strongly emphasized the publishing of the original, unedited Robert E. Howard texts and the decline of pastiche—so show fairly less influence from de Camp—but they still follow Campian certain trends, like the emphasis on Thoth-Amon as an archvillain.

The Barbarian King ignores de Camp more or less entirely. Rather than setting Thoth-Amon up as the villain, they turn to one of the most iconic Conan stories of all time: Yara from “The Tower of the Elephant,” who has escaped from his prison and is now in command of new and inhuman powers from the Cthulhu Mythos to revenge himself on the barbarian king. This crossover isn’t the first time the Mythos have entered a Conan story (Robert E. Howard himself included explicit refrences to Lovecraft’s Mythos in the first draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword”), but it set the tone for the series as it develops: this is sword & sorcery with a strong blend of horror into the mix.

If The Barbarian King avoids de Camp and Marvel’s legacy for the most part, the influence of the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian is still very obvious, in theme, language, and occasional artistic flourishes that call back to the iconic Atlantean sword. Perhaps some of the costuming and nudity may also be reminiscent of 1980s Italian Sword & Sorcery films that were inspired by Conan, such as the Ator series or Sangraal…or perhaps not; the artists and writers on this project are obviously keen on the genre, but this is a Robert E. Howard project through-and-through.

Il desiderio era fondere il Fantasy Eroico Howardiano con un qualcosa di quasi Lovecraftiano e Barkeriano, cosa che immaginai quando lessi i VERMI DELLA TERRA con Bran Mak Morn la prima volta, nonché flavour che ho ritrovato da poco in Britannia di Milligan e Ryp, ad esempio.

The desire was to blend Howardian Heroic Fantasy with something almost Lovecraftian and Barkerian, which I imagined when I first read WORMS OF THE EARTH with Bran Mak Morn, as well as the flavor I recently found in Milligan and Ryp’s Britannia, for example.
—Massimo Rosi, “Intervista a Massimo Rosi a cura di Italian Sword & Sorcery” in The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate

The story is brutal enough in some places to edge toward grimdark, although I don’t think the story is amoral or dystopian in that sense. It is definitely less reminiscent of Howard’s more high-hearted hero and more Conan in his darker and broodier moods, pushed in directions that Howard would never have dared take him in the pulps—and in that respect, I think, the series is highly reminiscent to the new Elric graphic novel adaptions being published by Titan books beginning with The Ruby Throne. Comic storytelling can be grittier and more explicit now than ever before, and in revisiting these characters these writers and artists are pushing the limit a little, going beyond just the words in old paperbacks and pulp magazines…and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Questo è il Re Barbaro! E sono sicuro che lo riconoscerete nell’albo che stringete ta le mani, perché gli autori che lo hanno realizato sono figli di Cimmeria e hanno compreso da temp il segreto dell’acciaio; ad animarli è la passione per le battaglie e per le donne; a contraddistinguerli uno lo spirito libero, sprezzante della censura e del politically correct. Chi sono io per dirlo? Son il cronista delle loro imprese e brindo alla loro gloria. Ma ora, bando alle ciance, è tempo di tornare nel mondo hyboriano.

Buona lettura cimmeri!

This is the Barbarian King! And I’m sure you will recognize it in the book that you hold your hands, because the authors who made it are sons of Cimmeria and have long understood the secret of steel; to animate them and the passion for battles and women; to distinguished by a free spirit, contemptuous of censorship and political correctness. Who am I to say? I am the chronicler of their exploits and I toast to their glory. But now, no more chatter, it’s time to go back to the Hyborian world.

Happy reading Cimmerians!
—Enrico Santodirocco, “Introduzione” in The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate

A preview of the first few pages of The Barbarian King can be read for free on Issuu, and there is a video trailer on Facebook. While The Barbarian King is not yet available in English, the series and its art volumes can be purchased from Leviathan Labs, and some translations into other languages are available; O Rei Bárbaro (2019) for example is in Brazilian Portuguese and printed in black and white.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

“Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” (1997) by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Ghor, Kin-Slayer was conceived in the late 1970s by Johnathan Bacon, editor of Fantasy Crossroads, a popular fanzine during the Robert E. Howard “boom” of that period. At the time Bacon had been presented with an unfinished story by Robert E. Howard, “Genseric’s Son”, which he quickly recognised as having strong possibilities if completed not by one, but a whole series of authors.

Beginning with Fantasy Crossroads in March 1977 Bacon lined up top authors in the fantasy field to each contribute a chapter until the novel would be completed some 17 installments later. Each issue of Fantasy Crossroads would include two or three chapters until the saga was finished. Unfortunately, thouh, after on 12 chapters saw print with the January 1979 issue, Fantasy Crossroads was no more, and for all intents and purposes, Ghor, Kin-Slayer was lost forever.
—Publisher’s Note, Ghor, Kin-Slayer (1997), 176

“Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” is the sixteenth and penultimate chapter in the saga of Ghor, the round-robin which began with an incomplete story by Robert E. Howard and in time included some of the most prominent names in fantasy and horror—including Karl Edward Wagner, Michael Moorcock, Manly Wade Wellman, Brian Lumley, Frank Belknap Long, Ramsey Campbell, and many others. The only black author was Charles R. Saunders. The only woman was Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Marion Zimmer Bradley had been involved with science fiction & fantasy fandom since the mid-late 1940s, claimed to have met her first husband through the letters pages of Planet Stories, and by the mid-1950s was a published author in her own right, and found particular success in her Darkover series, a science-fantasy sword & sorcery world that takes its inspiration, and some of its names, from Robert W. Chamber’s The King in Yellow (1895), as well as from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1955). She was also published in Amra, one of the premier Robert E. Howard ‘zines of the 1960s, and became one of the most outspoken and well-known women in science fiction and fantasy, and much of her most popular and celebrated work involved female protagonists and a focus on their points of view and concerns—a rarity in male-dominated fantasy and sword & sorcery at the time. After Ghor, Kin-Slayer, she would go on to edit the long-running Sword and Sorceress anthology series, and find international acclaim with The Mists of Avalon (1983).

The story up until the point that Bradley received it was, like many round-robins, not well-balanced in terms of plot and pacing. Ghor had begun as a James Allison tale;  Howard had written several tales with Allison, most notably “The Valley of the Worm” (Weird Tales Feb 1934) and “The Garden of Fear” (Marvel Tales Jul-Aug 1934). In each of these stories, the crippled Allison in the present day would cast back his mind into previous, more heroic incarnations, to relive the glories of past lives and loves. This literary device allowed Howard to explore different fantasy historical periods and settings—in this case, Howard set the stage of Ghor’s adventures in Vanaheim and Asgard, and so implicitly in the Hyborian Age, making Ghor a contemporary (of sorts) with Conan the Cimmerian.

Whatever initial plot Howard had in mind and never finished, in the hands of other fantasy writers, the Ghor saga got properly weird; involving as it does the Cthulhu Mythos, a prophecy, losing a limb and gaining a magical prosthetic (a la Lludd of the Silver Hand), becoming a werewolf, and gaining an affinity with the Hounds of Tindalos. Old pulpster H. Warner Munn left off the previous chapter with Ghor leaving the Caves of Stygia…

Out of the caves of Stygia, then, with the great river Styx bursting forth at our feet and across the desert; Shanara, still unconscious against my breast, and at my feels the dread Hounds, invisible, only a rustling and a panting and a fleeting brush against my thigh. On, Northward through the night, drawn by the northern stars that flickered cold above us; but even the giant strength that I, James Allison, wielded in those nigh-forgotten days when I was Ghor, kin-slayer and great were-wolf, was waning.
—Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ghor, Kin-Slayer (1997), 152

Despite this being the penultimate chapter, it is really in many ways the wrap-up of the whole preceding saga; Richard Lupoff, who got chapter 17, offers something more along the lines of a postscript or epilogue. So Bradley’s 11-page chapter is, in essence, a short story in itself trying to bring about a satisfying conclusion to whatever threads are left—principally, the three curses Ghor had accumulated—starting with:

[…] Shanara had probably been less than faithful wife to me. Well, I thought, looking at her haggard, ravaged features, for that too she had paid. And indeed in such a world as this, a woman had no choice but to obey whoever held her body; she had become my bride by no less forceful process, and that we had come to love one another was only a single blessing showered on me amid many curses. No; I would not ask Shanara what price she had had to pay for surviving the long ordeals of capture. (ibid. 153)

If the tone seems reminiscent of “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967) by Robert E. Howard, it should be remembered that this bit of casual sexism is being filtered through a female fantasy writer, and Bradley is neither entirely unsympathetic to Shanara nor does she ignore the physical and psychological impact of the implied rape. Which includes one of the oldest tropes of body horror, well-familiar to Mythos fans:

For her body was swelling, ripening…and I knew that look. Even her sullenness and the persistent thirst was part of that, and it was not hunger alone set her to seeking the bitter desert herbs as we travelled. Within her breeding body the curse of Gaea was ripening. (ibid. 154)

There is a question of who is the father; and Ghor entertains that it might be his, the sorcerer who kidnapped her, or even “some nameless thing somewhere in the realms of sorcery and evil” (ibid). Ironically, Ghor has no real issues if the child isn’t his; the wild-man’s own family situation being what it was (exposed at birth as an act of infanticide, raised by wolves, killing his own birth-family), he is rather progressive in his determination to adopt Shanara’s kid.

The story skips forward to the birth, and then to the final fulfillment of the curse. Ghor’s story comes full-circle.

In one sense, Bradley had her hands tied: fifteen chapters of increasingly odd sword & sorcery, bringing in everything from the Moorcockian Gods of Law and Chaos to the Cthulhu Mythos—and there were prophecies and curses to wrap up, physical distances to travel to get Ghor back from Stygia to Nemedia and finally in the icy forests where the story started under Robert E. Howard. In another sense, by putting the focus on Shanara and the goddesses who cursed Ghor, by addressing the sexism and realities of sex and family in the Hyborian Age, she makes the chapter her own.

It’s not a bad penultimate chapter by any means. Not something Robert E. Howard was likely to write, but then nothing that any of the other authors had contributed attempted to really pastiche Howard; they all knew better than to try and ape his prose, and they all brought their own ideas to the table while trying to keep the story moving. For fans in 1997 when this was published for the first time, they could likely appreciate that.

Today, readings of Bradley’s fiction tend to be colored by other factors in her life.

Walter Breen was prominent in Darkover fandom. Breen had been convicted of child molestation in 1954 and received a suspended sentence; his continued pederastic activities resulted in his banning from the 1963 Second Sci-Fi Pacificon. This caused an uproar in fandom, with Marion Zimmer Bradley vocal in her defense of Breen, though the actual cause of Breen’s banning was not universally known, and was called the “Boondoggle.” Breen and Bradley would marry in 1964.

In a 1998 deposition, Bradley said she was aware of Breen’s pedophilia and child molestation. They would separate in 1979, although Breen would continue to live on the same street and in Bradley’s employ for the next decade; they would get divorced in 1990. In 1991 he would be sentenced for child molestation, and die in prison in 1994. In 2014, her daughter Moira Greyland came forward to admit that Marion Zimmer Bradley herself had molested children, including her own children. Links to further accounts, and the story as it unfolded, can be read here.

The personal accounts of Marion Zimmer Bradley both as a serial child sex abuser, and as someone that facilitated Breen’s sexual molestation of children, cast a shadow on her fiction. Readers now look for any evidence of predilections which were perhaps not obvious to fans previously—and there are definitely scenes and relationships in Bradley’s work which, in light of these allegations, appear much more skeevy than perhaps they once were.

How do we read “Doom of the Thrice-Cursed,” through this lens? There are, fortunately, no incidents of child sexuality in this story. But the revelation of Bradley’s history of sexual abuse, and her marriage to Breen—how does that reflect on Ghor’s oddly accepting attitudes with regard to Shanara’s pregnancy? Is he actually being weirdly progressive in not caring if the child is his, and supportive of Shanara despite the social ramifications of rape in Hyborian culture—is it at all reflective of Breen and Bradley explicitly condoning and supporting each other in their own extramarital sexual relationships?

There are no good answers for these questions. Many folks, reading this story, would be glad not to have been aware of it at all. In 1967, Roland Barthes published the essay “La mort de l’auteur,” which would have strong and wide-ranging impact on literary criticism. With the death of the author, authorial intent needs no longer be a primary concern of literary criticism; the text can be read and interpreted on its own, apart from the facts of the author’s own life.

A straight reading of the text, with no knowledge of the author, would almost certainly not raise any associations with pedophilia in the reader’s mind. If you take Bradley out of the equation, then “Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” becomes little more than a chapter in a long but not-terribly-great Robert E. Howard fanfiction. The comments on sexism and the Hyborian Age remain, and the story can be ready, studied, critiqued, and enjoyed.

Yet…it is important that Marion Zimmer Bradley was the author, the only female author, in this round-robin. That she choose to address sexism in the Hyborian Age, or at least Ghor’s understanding of it, becomes important—because her male contemporaries in Sword & Sorcery largely didn’t. If you as a reader or critic consider sexism and gender disparity in the field of fantasy fiction important at all, then her presence, as more than mere tokenism, has to count for something.

Marion Zimmer Bradley inspired many. She injured many too.

Marion Zimmer Bradley also wrote a novel with Mythos elements, Witch Hill (1990).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Vale of Lost Women”(1967) by Robert E. Howard

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 a 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 elementsWeird 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 meas 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 Magiciansand 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.
Roy Thomas,
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 about 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.

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 shaped his 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).