The first page of Shadows in Zamboula (1935) finds Conan attending a trade show—the “Sword-Makers’ Bazar”—in a culturally diverse city. Stygians, Hyrkanians, Shemites, and Turanian soldiers mingle with cannibals and the minions of the local sorcerer, Totrasmek. Zamboula is a multicolored tapestry in constant danger of unravelling at the seams. A helpful map of the Hyborian world, which opens Glenn Lord’s 1977 collection of Robert E. Howard’s novellas, gives readers a sense of the geo-political history of “clamorous” Zamboula. The novella has a fragmented quality—it seems to contain the germ of several different stories in one—but is still entertaining as picaresque or rogue literature.
Conan is financially stressed, and needs an inexpensive place to spend the night—a rating of just one or two stars is sufficient. He is warned by an associate who tells him that travelers who stay at the inn run by Aram Baksh are never seen again. Somehow connected with Baksh’s tavern and inn is an ominous pit of blackened human bones just outside of town, where the local desert demons and their followers worship “Yog, the Lord of the Empty Abodes.” Conan should avoid the place. But pride goeth before a lousy choice of hotel, and Conan, low on cash, heads straight for Aram Baksh’s establishment. Wisely, he keeps his broadsword handy when he settles in for the night.
Howard fans will be reminded of an earlier Solomon Kane adventure, Rattle of Bones (1929), in which Conan’s Puritan cousin encounters similarly risky lodgings at a “Bedlam and Breakfast” place. In both stories, the characters nearly wind up on the menu. (See also Cleft Skull Tavern—Not Recommended.) But the really bad service at the inn is only the prelude to a much more elaborate adventure. Conan fends off a cannibal who had contrived to bludgeon the sleeping strongman into a more reliable unconsciousness and drag him off to the human barbecue pit at the edge of town. Conan discovers later that this is an ongoing arrangement Aram Baksh has with the Yog-worshipping cannibals, who pay him generously in loot for quality protein.
Later, while on reconnaissance in the neighborhood, Conan rescues Zabibi, an exotic dancer who had been captured by some other cannibals looking for a late evening snack. She had been driven out into the hazardous streets by her violent, drug-addled lover, a soldier inadvertently poisoned by a tainted love potion she had given him. She purchased the potion from a disreputable sorcerer, the evil Totrasmek—he had wanted the beautiful but treacherous Zabibi for himself. Astute readers will understand that Zabibi is far from being innocent or particularly helpless. She is in fact a cunning femme fatale. Conan agrees to help the woman get revenge on the evil wizard, probably in exchange for sex afterwards.
Several decapitations and impalements later— Shadows in Zamboula is one of the more violent of the Cimmerian’s adventures—Conan discovers that he has played only an ancillary role in a much larger scheme involving Zabibi, her lover, and the evil sorcerer. As in much of Howard’s fiction, the evocation of snake or reptilian imagery is typically used by the author to signal the manifestation of an atavistic or primordial evil. Totrasmek is described as having “snaky eyes” and at one point torments the dancing girl with cobras. Near the end of the story there is an interesting hallucinogenic struggle between Conan and Baal-pteor, one of the sorcerer’s hench-entities. He nearly overwhelms Conan with a series of terrifying illusions. Baal-pteor’s powerful arms are compared to “the stroke of twin cobras”.
During his fight with Baal-pteor, the barbarian identifies his opponent’s weapon of choice as “mesmerism”—a term that would not have existed until the 1780s, long after the close of the Hyborian age. Another odd anachronism is a magnetized table that grabs Conan’s sword at one point. It is interesting, to me at least, to discover in antediluvian fantasy some image or philosophical notion that has crept in from a much later time period. Why is it showing up here?
There does not seem to be any overarching theme to Shadows in Zamboula, other than perhaps the horror of miscegenation. However, there is an appealing absence of good guys—only a collection of opportunists, Conan among them, with varying degrees of ruthlessness. Shadows in Zamboula seems to have been written mainly for entertainment, without any pretensions to expounding a philosophy of life or some such—though Howard can surprise readers with occasional gravitas. Africans are unfortunately depicted as blood thirsty, ape-like cannibals, as they were in much pulp fiction of the time period. Sensitive readers will detect other racial and ethnic stereotypes as well.
There is surely no defense of racism in literature, and yet it is naïve to assume its excision from contemporary literature will somehow control its presence and power in society. In the fictional city of Zamboula, on the border of warring states, Howard depicts cultural and economic diversity as a roiling mass of potentially violent, competing histories, interests, and opportunities—but without the contemporary obligation to feign respect for difference and withhold judgment or valuation. It is tempting to think that Howard’s archaic view is at least more honest than ours. Could his vision in fact be the best we can hope for?