With its secret passageways, trapdoors, gruesome sword fights, and amorphous, blood sucking monster, readers may wonder if Robert E. Howard’s “Xuthal of the Dusk” (1933)—also known as “The Slithering Shadow”—would make an excellent video game. The frenetic pacing of the story, which is its primary weakness, is similar to that of a contemporary C.G.I. game, or an action cartoon.
In one sequence, Natala, the blonde damsel in distress, is kidnapped by the evil, raven-haired Thalis by way of a hidden passage way. The poor girl is tied up and abused by Thalis, (who in a previous scene had failed to seduce the gentlemanly Conan), but is then saved when Thog, a blood sucking molluscan monster, sneaks up and attacks her tormentor. Natala is then saved again from Thog—whose appetites are indiscriminate—by Conan, who drops into the room through a secret trapdoor. All of this occurs in about thirty minutes at most. By this time both heroine and hero have had an extremely busy day in the hazardous city of Xuthal, and are desperate to move on. (They were only looking for food and water, after a tortuous sojourn in the desert.)
This is not one of Howard’s better Conan stories, diminished as it is by the breathless pace, stereotypical good guys and bad guys, an excessive number of helpful coincidences, and preposterous setting: a city build entirely of jade, illuminated by radium, populated by a drugged out gentry, and haunted by an enormous, yet silent carnivore. The creature’s habits recall those of the giant Calvinist mollusk in E.F. Benson’s classic horror tale, “Negotium Perambulans” (1922), though Thog seems much less impressed with the option of repentance. (See also Negotium Perambulans in Tenebris.) Xuthal is also reminiscent of one of the decadent urban settings in Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique cycle of stories.
“Xuthal of the Dusk” is interesting insofar as it probably served as an incubator for ideas the author would elaborate on in later stories—“Red Nails” (1936) comes to mind, and there may be others. The style is somewhat different compared to Howard’s more successful Conan adventures. In fact, the story contains three distinctive elements that characterize it as shudder pulp fiction, namely Gothicism, sadism and weird menacism. This subgenre is affectionately described by Robert Kenneth Jones in his excellent The Shudder Pulps: A History of the Weird Menace Magazines of the 1930s (1975).
Robert E. Howard published numerous stories in the shudder pulps, among them “Fangs of Gold” (Strange Detective Stories, 1934), “Black Wind Blowing” and “Graveyard Rats” (both in Thrilling Mystery, 1936) and “The Girl on the Hell Ship” (a.k.a. “She Devil”, in Spicy Adventure Stories, 1936). The influence of writing for this subgenre, which often verged on the pornographic, can be seen in “Xuthal of the Dusk”. What this Conan adventure lacks in terms of shudder pulp criteria is a realistic explanation at the end for the supernatural phenomena in the story, or really, any explanation for the appearance of the entity called Thog. It is just there, and had been, preying on the unconscious citizenry, for as long as any of the Xuthalites could remember.
The doomed city of Xuthal is illuminated by “radium gems”, radium being a little understood substance at the time the story was conceived. Radium shows up in numerous science fiction stories from the time period, often depicted as somehow emblematic of the future, of applied science, of new wealth and power. It may be the source of light in another of Howard’s doomed cities—Xuchotl, in “Red Nails” (1936), though radium is not specifically mentioned in that story. (See also A Fearful Symmetry and compare the relative quality of the two stories.) Thalis, the evil Stygian temptress, explains the use of the radium gems in Xuthal:
Have you wondered about these lights? They are jewels, fused with radium. You rub them with your thumb to make them glow, and rub them again, the opposite way, to extinguish them. That is but a single example of their science. [That is, the knowledge of the ancestral founders of the city.—Edit.]
The evolution of ideas inspired by this mysterious, unfamiliar substance, as expressed in the weird fiction of the time, would be interesting to study. How did these ideas change as the hazards of radium were discovered?
Readers may know some of the dark industrial history of this glowing substance. Five years before Howard published this story, several employees of U.S. Radium Corporation—the “Radium Girls”—sued the company for gross negligence and misinformation which had led to severe radiation poisoning. The young women painted the dials of clocks and watches with radium, using their lips to shape their brushes into fine points. By the end of the 1920s, dozens of women had died at factories in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois.
The corporation, including the scientists and doctors in its employ, initially tried to minimize or conceal medical findings about the hazards of radium. The women had been assured that the substance was harmless. The Radium Girls even painted their nails, teeth and faces with it for amusement. The inventor of the radium dial paint himself died of radiation poisoning in November of 1928. To the very end he denied that his invention had caused the deaths of the women.
The horrible demise of the Radium Girls happened just under a century ago—not a long time. In fact, Mae Keane, the last survivor among the afflicted women, passed away in 2013. Readers may wonder: Is there currently a substance in our homes and workplaces that “experts” are telling us is harmless?
In nearly every Robert E. Howard story, there is a break from the action in which the author has his characters discuss some philosophical or sociological observation, and “Xuthal of the Dusk” is no different in that regard. Here is Thalis, who is by far the most interesting character in the story—because evil—commenting on the ravages of substance abuse:
Much of the time these people lie in sleep. Their dream-life is as important—and to them as real—as their waking life. You have heard of the black lotus? In certain pits of the city it grows. “Through the ages they have cultivated it, until, instead of death, its juice induces dreams, gorgeous and fantastic. In these dreams they spend most of their time. Their lives are vague, erratic, and without plan. They dream, they wake, drink, love, eat, and dream again. The seldom finish anything they begin, but leave it half completed and sink back again into the slumber of the black lotus.”
Later on, Thalis and Conan debate the merits of human sacrifice to appease a monstrous evil, and fatalism generally. The hero responds:
“Such is not the custom of my people,” Conan growled, “nor of Natala’s people either. The Hyborians do not sacrifice humans to their god, Mitra, and as for my people—by Crom, I’d like to see a priest try to drag a Cimmerian to the altar! There’d be blood spilt, but not as the priest intended.”
And what exactly is Thog? A metaphor for the consequences of drug addiction? A nightmare vision of the insidious effects of radiation poisoning? “The thing glowed all over now with a weird phosphorous radiance, and this glow was in Conan’s eyes…” Conan fights him off in a climactic scene, but is unable to destroy him; the entity returns to an undifferentiated mass of darkness in the depths of the city, surely to rise again and resume his depredations on the citizenry.
“Xuthal of the Dusk” first appeared in the September 1933 issue of Weird Tales. In that same issue was Clark Ashton Smith’s “A Vintage from Atlantis”, Edmond Hamilton’s “The Horror on the Asteroid”, and Hugh B. Cave’s “The Watcher in the Green Room”, among others.