Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Creeps in the Crib

Robert E. Howard’s Rogues in the House (1934) finds Conan near the beginning of his career, much less philosophical than he appears in his later adventures, barely aware of the sufferings of the oppressed, more of a punk.  His role in the story is basically that of an assassin.  As the title suggests, Conan is just one of a number of shady characters caught up in a palace intrigue, and he is possibly not the most important character.  The viewpoint of the story shifts between the young barbarian and Murilo, a hapless but corrupt prince who has been targeted by an evil cleric.

The novelette was first published in the January 1934 issue of Weird Tales, where it appeared with David H. Keller’s The Solitary Hunters, a Zothique tale from Clark Ashton Smith called The Weaver in the Vault, and an older story by A. Merritt, The Woman of the Wood.  The latter is an interesting metaphor about environmental degradation, (see also 4. An Ecological Homicide).  With respect to H.P. Lovecraft’s efforts at this time, Rogues in the House appeared a couple months before the preposterous Winged Death, his collaboration with Hazel Heald.  That summer Lovecraft would publish such items as From Beyond and the collaboration with E. Hoffman Price, Through the Gates with the Silver Key, (see also The Tell-Tale…Tsetse Fly, Don’t Look Now, But… and Randolph Carter’s Return).

Rogues in the House is a “picaresque” tale, a narrative about the exploits of thieves, murderers and other miscreants.  There are no heroes, nor are there any victims, at least not innocent ones.  It is useless to summarize the plot, because each of the characters’ plans unravel, leaving only a couple survivors.  Although there is an evil priest and a mysterious palace, there is a conspicuous absence of incantations, occult paraphernalia or supernatural effects.  Instead there are numerous scenes of simple, brutish violence complicated by several of the “red priest’s” treacherous contraptions.  Rogues in the House is much more sword than sorcery, as if the author decided to emphasize straight action in this adventure and forswear all magical gimmicks. 

There are iron grates and invisible glass walls that drop down to trap Conan and his fellow rogues, a hazardous neurotoxic pollen from the “gray lotus, from the Swamps of the Dead”, and a ferocious ape-like monster that may be a man.  There is an interesting sci-fi invention that Nabonidus, the evil cleric, has installed for surveillance purposes:

What had seemed a silver plate was in reality a great mirror set in the wall.  A confusing system of copper-like tubes jutted out from the wall above it, bending down toward it at right angles.  Glancing into these tubes, Murilo saw a bewildering array of smaller mirrors.  He turned his attention to the larger mirror in the wall…they seemed to be looking through a broad window into a well-lighted chamber.

The image is somewhat jarring, resembling as it does the monitor or “vizi-screen” one might encounter in a space opera or other science fiction story of the time period.  But it is a neat device, allowing Conan and Murilo to observe the unfolding doom of some of their fellow rogues, as if they were watching reality TV or a crime drama.  It gives Murilo perhaps the most reflective moment in the story:

The whole affair had a distinctly unreal atmosphere.  He felt as if he were watching a play of puppets, or as a disembodied ghost himself, impersonally viewing the actions of the living, his presence unseen and unsuspected.

Murilo is the most interesting person in the story.  Conan of course would go on to have many other adventures, some of them almost socially redeemable.  But what about Murilo, his upper-class peer, whom he saved from assassination?  Though his career had an inauspicious beginning, one wonders how Howard might have developed Murilo, a young prince already corrupted by power games, steadily acquiring cunning and skill, more of a brain than a barbarian, but still a rogue.

Unlike many other Howard stories, Rogues in the House dispenses with magic and mysticism and relies more on material explanations for its excesses.  The enjoyment of the story comes from observing the frustration of various characters’ schemes by unforeseen events.  If there is any moral at all, it is probably something like “the second mouse gets the cheese.”  


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