Monday, August 22, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: The God in the Bowl

With the latest attempt at a movie featuring Robert E. Howard's famous Cimmerian upon us, I found myself thinking of tales actually written by REH that might be ripe for adaptation. My thoughts inevitably turned to "The God in the Bowl." This is an interesting story almost as much for its textual history as for its content. Though submitted for publication to Weird Tales sometime in 1932, it was rejected by editor Farnsworth Wright, a fate it shared with "The Frost Giant's Daughter" (though the latter did see publication in an amateur periodical, with Conan replaced with "Amra of Akbitana"). Consequently, "The God in the Bowl" was unknown to the wider world until it was published in the September 1952 issue of the British magazine Space Science Fiction. Like so many Conan tales published at the time, L. Sprague De Camp edited "The God in the Bowl," often changing the words and phrasing of various sections. Howard's original, unadulterated text did not appear in print until 2002.

Though I am very fond of the story myself, I can fully understand why Wright might have rejected it. Unlike many Conan yarns, this one is slow-paced, even thoughtful, largely lacking in action and having no female character whom Margaret Brundage could paint in a state of undress for the cover of Weird Tales. "The God in the Bowl" is, for all intents and purposes, a police procedural story, with a young Conan the prime suspect in a murder. A watchman at "a museum and antique house men called Kallian Publico's Temple" in Nemedia comes across "the sprawling corpse that had been the rich and powerful owner of the Temple." In death, Publico's face is blackened, as is his tongue, and his eyes nearly pop out from his head. Though his tunic is torn, his many bejeweled rings remain on his fingers, to the amazement of the watchman, who naturally suspects greed as the motive.

Not long thereafter, Arus, the watchman notices a figure coming through one of the openings in the hallway.
Arus saw a tall powerfully built youth, naked but for a loin-cloth, and sandals strapped about his ankles. His skin was burned brown as by the suns of the wastelands, and Arus glanced nervously at his broad shoulders, massive chest and heavy arms. A single look at the moody, broad-browed features told the watchman that the man was no Nemedian. From under a mop of unruly black hair smoldered a pair of dangerous blue eyes. A long sword hung in a leather scabbard at his girdle.

Arus felt his skin crawl, and he fingered his crossbow tensely, of half a mind to drive a bolt through the stranger's body without parley, yet fearful of what might happen if he failed to inflict death at the first shot.

The stranger looked at the body on the floor more in curiosity than surprise.

"Why did you kill?" asked Arus nervously.

The other shook his tousled head.

"I didn't kill him," he answered, speaking Nemedian with a barbaric accent. "Who is he?"
I'm very fond of this introduction to the youthful Conan, because it succinctly establishes that, though a barbarian, Conan is no mere brute. He speaks a foreign language intelligibly and does not attack the watchman, even though he points a crossbow at him. And though, as we later learn, Conan had entered the Temple to steal, he speaks plainly and without guile to the watchman, flatly denying that he is a murderer, a position he maintains even when interrogated by a member of the city's inquisitorial council. The rest of the story consists of Conan and the Nemedians trying to piece together what actually happened to Kallian Publico and dealing with it.

"The God in the Bowl" is a short story and, as I said, not filled with much swordplay or indeed any other kind of action. That's probably why I like it so much: it shows facets of Conan other than his great strength and skill at arms. He's shown to be both intelligent and honorable -- as well as clearly contemptuous of civilization. In short, "The God in the Bowl" is an excellent introduction to the full character of Howard's Conan, as well as to many of the elements and themes of his Hyborian Age tales. It's also a story that's ripe for expansion and development, laying the foundation for original follow-ups to it. What a pity that a story like this is never chosen as the basis for a Hollywood screenplay!


  1. James, have you gone to see the movie yet or are you still dillydallying?

  2. James, have you gone to see the movie yet or are you still dillydallying?

    I'll be seeing it shortly.

  3. I don't understand why you're so insulted that a Conan movie was made, and you find it necessary to take potshots at it constantly. It's getting old. We know your stance on the movie, and also know that it's not based on having seen it. Let's move on.

    That being said, God in the Bowl was a nice little story. And since I feel bad for giving you a hard time on your own blog, I'd like to balance that by letting you know that these writeups that you do are what got me into the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, and I have been enjoying them immensely, so big ups for that!

  4. I've taught this story with much success--but then that's usually the story with REH.

  5. I can feel your apprehension all the way to Idaho. Relax, enjoy the air conditioning and don't bite the end of your tongue off. You will cringe a bit, I did, but I also enjoyed the escapism of it. It isn't that bad.

    Deep breath, buddy, you can do this!

  6. I love "The God in the Bowl" - a young Barbarian being introduced to civilized ways via being a suspect in a 'police procedural' really shows REH's talents and skill.

  7. It's a great story, but I have to wonder if it's the kind that would be adapted to a big-budget Hollywood film. This seems more likely a candidate for an independent film treatment by dedicated amateurs, much as the HP Lovecraft Historical Society has done with "Call of Cthulhu" and now "Whisperer in Darkness."

  8. This was one of the first Conan stories I read, and I found it really compelling. [SPOILER WARNING] I'm going on possibly faulty memory here, but I remember the main Nemedian inspector in particular--he is an appealing, thoughtful character who actually seems a more relatable protagonist at points than uncivilized Conan does--yet he is killed while the cunning Conan survives. The casual contempt for civilization, even its more admirable representatives, was really striking and (to me at the time, at least) really unique in fantasy literature.

  9. I've always loved the denouement of this one.
    *Thats* how you handle a supernatural horror!

  10. This post surprises me. GOD is my least favorite Conan story -- basically no plot at all, pages and pages of dull dialogue leading up to an overly obvious 'surprise' ending. That FROST GIANT'S DAUGHTER was never published in WT is a crime; that GOD was even written is a mystery. Howard's usually excellent instincts failed him on this one.

    This could never be made into a film, primarily because almost nothing actually *happens* -- you'd be hard pressed to get a 24 minute Twilight Zone episode out of this story, let alone a 90-120 minute feature. And no one would ever finance a Conan film with this little action.

    If you want to adapt an authentic REH yarn into a feature, you have slim pickings, since most are far too short to craft a feature out of.

    - SCARLET CITADEL and HOUR OF THE DRAGON have enough plot, but in fact are *so* epic in scale that the production would cost a fortune and would never be financed.

    - PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE has enough going on, but is a very unusual and exotic Conan tale and would probably have difficulty securing financing for that reason.

    - RED NAILS would work as a film, almost beat for beat. It's also one of the top 3 Conan yarns. This is the one I would adapt, given any say in the matter.

    - BEYOND THE BLACK RIVER would need to be beefed out with some more plot -- it's sort of missing a 2nd act. It would also need a female lead, so you'd have to rewrite quite a bit. However, the amazing action and counter-intuitive setting would really set it apart from all other Sword and Sorcery films, so the effort would be worth it. This would be my second choice for a film adaptation.

    That's pretty much it. Maybe A WITCH SHALL BE BORN or BLACK COLOSSUS would work if heavily reworked, but neither is as good as RED NAILS or BLACK RIVER, so I can't see the point of that exercise.

  11. That said, GOD is probably the only Conan story that could be adapted into a stage play -- that would be a pretty cool project. But you'd have to remove the line 'the god has a long neck!' which totally spoils the end.

  12. For some reason this story in particular sprang to mind while reading your earlier post about the film and the comments. It is one of my favorites.

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  14. I like GITB BECUASE its so different from the rest of the Conan yarns.

    Personally, I think People of The Black Circle would make an awesome movie!

  15. In some ways, it would probably be easier to adapt a less-than-perfect story, because there's legitimately room to change things (which Hollywood loves).

    Hollywood being Hollywood, they would probably add a Brundage dame. (And it really would be amusing if somebody would costume the women in a Conan movie in that style instead of fantasypunk. Also, it would probably be worth a lot of bucks....) The only question would be whether they'd make her the detective, or a suspect, or a possible motive.

  16. (Obviously, the Brundage costuming couldn't emulate one of those covers using the Barsoom community standards for garb. Though a lot of mainstream Twenties movies apparently did go there.)

  17. Great choice. GitB is a good one to show people who think the character is only a dumb brute.

    Several of the early career stories like GitB and Tower of the Elephant could be strung together to make a fantastic film.

  18. This is one of my favorite Conan stories, the best adaption of it that I've personally seen was the one Dark Horse did a few years back. That was a great series.

  19. Actually, the magistrate, Demetrio, survives the story, but I too find him to be a fascinating character.

    I'll say this much, though - De Camp did improve the story by replacing 'neck' with 'reach'. I know, it's a sin to admit something like that, but it was a good fix.

  20. My wife and I both enjoyed this story, but I have to admit that we did end up dubbing it "CSI Conan". :D