Robert E. Howard’s “The Pool of the Black One” was published in the October 1933 issue of Weird Tales, which also included H.P. Lovecraft’s memorable and atmospheric tale “The Festival”. Both stories have as their central event a strange and terrifying religious ritual which is observed by the protagonist. Conventional sacramental imagery—baptism in Howard’s story and a Yuletide procession in Lovecraft’s is transmogrified into a much less wholesome but still recognizable ceremony. In both rituals an obscure melody is played on a flute, the sequence of notes precipitating a horrifying transformation.
In Lovecraft’s story, the flute player summons a horde of “something I cannot and must not recall”, winged travesties whose purpose is to convey the narrator down, into darker and deeper caverns, “…pits and galleries of panic, where poison springs feed frightful and undiscoverable cataracts.”
In the “The Pool of the Black One” the change is less psycho-geographic than in Lovecraft’s story. It involves the physical and spiritual violation of a single human body, which undergoes a torment that Howard describes as “…like watching a soul stripped naked, and all its dark and unmentionable secrets laid bare.” Furthermore, the gruesome process involves a grotesque shrinkage and miniaturization, brought about by immersion in a magical pool, a blasphemous baptismal font. Later in the same scene Conan examines shelves where the remnants of numerous previous victims are on display:
These figures, not much longer than a man’s hand, represented men, and so cleverly were they made that Conan recognized various racial characteristics in the different idols, features typical of Zingarans, Argoseans, Ophireans, and Kushite corsairs…Conan was aware of a vague uneasiness as he stared at the dumb sightless figures.
The intent of the passage may be to show the universality of the threat. Despite somewhat different liturgical practices, both “The Pool of the Black One” and “The Festival” deal with the perseverance and evocation of an atavistic evil. However, the variations between the two stories are interesting, and are suggestive of each authors’ particular treatment of enduring evil. Typical of Lovecraft, the horror is one of rediscovery, a revival of ancestral memories to which the narrator is inescapably linked. Horror is in the family, as near as the closest relative.
But who exactly is this “Black One” Howard’s story? He does not actually appear in the story, though his presence is strongly implied in the appearance and actions of his minions. Typical of Howard, horror is a survival and a recrudescence of a primordial Satan, signaled by the prevalence of serpentine or reptilian characteristics among his representatives on earth, as if “evil” and “reptilian” were synonymous.
Conan glared, frozen with repulsion and shaken with nausea. Himself as cleanly elemental as a timber wolf, he was yet not ignorant of the perverse secrets of rotting civilizations…But he sensed here a cosmic vileness transcending mere human degeneracy—a perverse branch on the tree of Life, developed along lines outside human comprehension.
“The Pool of the Black One” precedes more elaborate Conan adventures like “Red Nails” (1936)—probably one of the best—as well as “The People of the Black Circle” (1934) and “Queen of the Black Coast” (1934). But only by a few years at most. In “The Pool of the Black One”, Conan is much less philosophical, much more likely to engage in impulsive, pre-emptive attacks than in several of his other adventures.
For example, he murders his pirate boss at one point in the story, mainly to accelerate his rise through the ranks of his shipmates, and without any obvious provocation. In other tales he is more of a defender and a rescuer, even an agent of justice. In this story readers find a younger, more violent Conan, a restive member of a pirate crew, for the most part unencumbered by any moral or ethical concerns. He behaves instinctively, without much reflection, forethought, or even afterthought. He is drawn to adventure, fighting, theft, and rapine. This is “Conan the Barachan,” an outlaw.
In both earlier work—for example, 1932’s “The Phoenix on the Sword”—and later stories like “Red Nails” Conan isn’t as much like this, though he retains his barbarian habits and world view. The different versions of the barbarian hero are one of the interesting aspects of Howard’s most famous creation. Across the Conan cycle of stories, in no particular chronological order, the character matures and deepens, and his relationship with other characters, especially women, becomes more nuanced and complex.
Compare Conan’s relationship with Valeria in “Red Nails” to his interaction with Sancha in “The Pool of the Black One”. Valeria is depicted as more or less an equal to Conan, essentially a colleague, powerful, cunning, and independent. Sancha on the other hand spends most of the latter story sulking, whimpering and crumpling in the face of oncoming threats.
As a new member of a pirate crew on board the appropriately named Wastrel, Conan arrives on a mysterious island. Zaporavo, his monomaniacal captain, believes that he has located a treasure island described in the Book of Skelos, a sort of nautical Necronomicon, “…whereon, nameless sages aver, strange monsters guard crypts filled with hieroglyph-carven gold.” It seems likely that the island is indeed mentioned in this unhallowed book, but not in the chapter about treasure islands.
While exploring the island along with the crew, Conan makes a deft career move and skewers Zaporavo, one of the more interesting characters, a “celebrity” pirate. Meanwhile, Sancha, the beautiful kidnapped daughter of the Duke of Kordava, finds the boredom back on the ship unbearable, and so sets off to join the men on the island—sans clothing of course. (Readers have seen this scene hundreds of times by now: the most vulnerable female character, clothed or unclothed, complicates the plot by venturing off unescorted, later either getting in the way or having to be rescued.) Conan and Sancha later team up at a weird temple where they fight with giant reptilian Africans in order to save the surviving crewmembers.
Howard’s description of the giants’ temple recalls that of Cthulhu’s briefly ascendant abode: “There was a symmetry about their architecture, and system, but it was a mad symmetry, a system alien to human sanity.” There is also an echo of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” (1927) near the end, as the dwindling crew escape a manifestation of the “Black One”. It is a sinister green snake-like entity that emerges from the pool and pursues them over land and water: “…what they feared they knew not, but they did know that in that abominable smooth green ribbon was a menace to the body and to soul.” But the rest of “The Pool of the Black One” is pure Robert E. Howard, with lots of video-game like action and lovingly depicted, graphic violence.