Monday, November 9, 2020

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Devil in Iron

I mentioned in last week's entry that I would return to the August 1934 issue of Weird Tales, whose cover image, by Margaret Brundage, depicts a scene from Robert E. Howard's "The Devil in Iron." I wish I could say that "The Devil in Iron" is an amazing, under-appreciated story, but I don't think that's the case. By most measures, it's not one of Howard's best yarns – of Conan or indeed of any of his characters. One could even call it a very "by the numbers" story, almost as if REH were mentally checking off boxes in a long list of items required for a Conan tale. 

"The Devil in Iron" is not bad by any means, but neither is it notable. In many ways, it almost reads like a pastiche by a lesser writer, something one would expect to find in the pages of a De Camp and Carter-edited collection of "Conan" stories from the 1960s. How one feels about those later stories might influence one's assessment of "The Devil in Iron," I suppose. For me, it's one of the weaker stories in the REH canon, but not wholly without merit, as we shall see.

The narrative begins unusually for a Conan story, with the initial focus character being an unnamed fisherman. He finds himself on an uninhabited island named Xapur somewhere in the Sea of Vilayet. Xapur was dotted with ruins, "remnants of some prehistoric kingdom, lost and forgotten before the conquering Hyborians had ridden southward." Exploring the island, he stumbles across a strange sight: a muscular man laying on a golden block beneath a ruined dome. Upon the man's chest lay "a curious dagger with a jeweled pommel, shagreen-bound hilt, and a broad crescent blade." The fisherman believes this to be a tomb and the dagger one of its grave goods. Nevertheless, he wishes to take it for himself, though he does ponder "by what art the ancients had preserved the body in such vivid likeness of life." Plucking up his courage, he grabs his dagger.

And as he did so, a strange and terrible thing came to pass. The muscular dark hands knotted convulsively, the lids flared open, revealing great dark magnetic eyes whose stare struck the startled fisherman like a physical blow. He recoiled, dropping the jeweled dagger in his perturbation. The man on the dais heaved up to a sitting position, and the fisherman gaped at the full extent of his size, thus revealed. His narrowed eyes held the Yuetshi and in those slitted orbs he read neither friendliness nor gratitude; he saw only a fire as alien and hostile as that which burns in the heart of a tiger. 

Now awakened, the giant man attacks the fisherman, who attempts to stab him with his knife, only to find it "splintered against the stranger's corded belly as against a steel column." The giant snaps the fisherman's neck "like a rotted twig" before Howard shifts the narrative elsewhere.

The realm of Jehungir Agha suffers under the depredations of a band of kozaks under the leadership of "that devil Conan." Consulting with his advisor, Ghaznavi, he wonders how he will be able to rid his land of this threat (and appease King Yezdigrd of Turanm who is unhappy with his handling of it up till now). Ghaznavi hatches a plan.

"For every beast and for every man there is a trap he will not escape … When we have parlayed with the kozaks for the ransom of captives, I have observed this man Conan. He has a keen relish for women and strong drink. Have your captive Octavia fetched here."

Octavia is a Nemedian princess, not long ago captured by Jehungir and now reduced to enslavement. Ghaznavi suggests that, once Conan catches sight of her, he will be so enthralled by her beauty that he will wish to acquire her, something Jehungir must refuse. Later, he will accuse Conan of stealing the girl from his seraglio, as she is missing and he knew well his desire for her. Finally, a spy will be sent to the kozak camp, telling Conan that Octavia has in fled to the isle of Xapur, where he is sure to follow. Once there, Jehungir's men will hunt him down and kill him.

If that sounds like a needlessly complicated and indeed nonsensical plan filled with absurd assumptions, you're right. Despite Jehungir's praise of Ghaznavi for his plan, it depends on far too many variables to succeed, a fact he in fact mentions offhandedly in the story itself. Yet, the plan does succeed and Conan is lured to Xapur, where not only do Jehungir's men lay in wait for him but so too do other dangers, most significantly Khosatral Khel, the giant man who slew the fisherman at the beginning of the story. Khosatral, we learn, is ancient being who had assumed the form of a man and established a mighty city on Xapur (called Dagon) over which he ruled and harried the coastal peoples before they rose up against him and seemed to slay him.

"The Devil in Iron" is a mess, though many of its individual elements are interesting. Somehow, though, they don't properly gel, resulting in an instance of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. I'm genuinely sorry that this is the case, but it's not at all surprising. Howard wrote a lot of stories, as any successful pulp writer did, and not all of the results were masterpieces. "The Devil in Iron" is most definitely not a masterpiece.


  1. I remember reading this and having a difficult time following it (I have a bit of dyslexia as well). All the Howard stories do give me d&d ideas however.

  2. The one moment from this story that has stuck with me (although I do have a hazy memory) is Conan being chased by the monster up into a tower, where Conan locks the door behind him. The monster starts pounding the door down and Conan realizes he has absolutely no hope of surviving the encounter once the monster gains entry, so he simply looks at his sword and quietly makes peace with his impending death. The only thing that saves him is the pure luck of the enemy being distracted by a new element in the plot and leaving. It might be the most vulnerable Conan appears in any of Howard's stories.

    1. You're right about that. It's toward the conclusion of the story and it's quite well done, all things considered. Scenes like that are why I wish I liked the story more.