Monday, March 15, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Rogues in the House

Robert E. Howard completed twenty-one tales of Conan the Cimmerian, only seventeen of which were published during his lifetime. Many of these stories are reasonably well known, even by those who haven't read them, while others remain obscure. A good example of the latter is "Rogues in the House," though, as we shall see, there are elements of and images derived from it that have passed into popular consciousness.

The short story first appeared in the January 1934 issue of Weird Tales, featuring a cover illustration (of another story) by Margaret Brundage. At its start, Conan is in prison for having slain a priest who was "at once a fence for stolen goods and a spy for the police." These details are important to the story, which, like many Conan yarns, dwells on the hypocrisy and corruption of supposedly civilized societies. The fact that the tale contains not one but two different venal priests makes this quite plain. It's little wonder that Con – and Howard – had so little use for religion or its purveyors.

A man, "masked and wrapped in a wide black cloak," comes to Conan in his cell. Named Murilo, he is not the executioner the Cimmerian thought him to be but rather a nobleman with a proposition for him.

"Would you like to live?" asked Murilo. The barbarian grunted, new interest glinting in his eyes.

"If I arrange for your escape will you do a favor for me?" the aristocrat asked.

The Cimmerian did not speak, but the intentness of his gaze answered for him. 

"I want you to kill a man for me."


Murilo's voice sank to a whisper. "Nabonidus, the king's priest!"

Nabonidus is a political enemy of Murilo, which is why he wishes him killed. In exchange for his help, the nobleman unlocks Conan's chains, provides him with food, and tells him to wait one hour for a guard (named Athicus) to unlock his cell so that he can escape and then kill Nabonidus in his home. Once he has slain the Red Priest (as he is known for the color of his robes), Murilo will provide Conan with gold, a horse, and the means to flee the city to freedom.

Unfortunately, Murilo's plan doesn't go quite as expected. The guard who was supposed to open Conan's cell is arrested for corruption – graft seems rampant in this city – leaving another guard who does not know the plan. Conan has no choice but to slay this second guard and escape on his own. At this point, the barbarian is unsure of his next course of action.

It occurred to him that since he had escaped through his own actions, he owed nothing to Murilo; yet it had been the young nobleman who had removed the chains and had food sent to him, without either of which his escape would have been impossible. Conan decided that he was indebted to Murilo, and, since he was a man who discharged his obligations eventually, he determined to carry out his promise to the young aristocrat.

This is one of the key passages in the entire story, since it shows Conan to be a man of his word, in contrast to the behavior of the supposedly civilized inhabitants of the unnamed city. Conan then sets off to enter the home of the Red Priest and do as he had agreed. Once there, he discovers that Murilo is already there, attempting to do what he had hired Conan to do, since he learned about the arrest of Athicus and thought Conan still in prison. Since this is not the case, Conan suggests the two of them work together to slay the priest. Murilo replies with fear.

Murilo shuddered. "Conan, we are in the house of the archfiend! I came seeking a human enemy; I found a hairy devil out of hell!"

Conan grunted uncertainly; fearless as a wounded tiger as far as human foes were concerned, he had all the superstitious dreads of the primitive.

"I gained access to the house," whispered Murilo, as if the darkness were full of listening ears. "In the outer gardens I found Nabonidus' dog mauled to death. Within the house I came upon Joka, the servant. His neck had been broken. Then I saw Nabonidus himself seated in his chair, clad in his accustomed garb. At first I thought he too was dead. I stole up to stab him. He rose and faced me. Gods!" The memory of that horror struck the young nobleman momentarily speechless as he relived that awful moment.

"Conan," he whispered, "it was no man that stood before me! In body and posture it was not unlike a man, but from the scarlet hood of the priest grinned a face of madness and nightmare! It was covered in black hair, from which small pig-like eyes glared redly; its nose was flat, with great flaring nostrils; its loose lips writhed back, disclosing huge yellow fangs, like the teeth of a dog. The hands that hung from the scarlet sleeves were misshapen and likewise covered with black hair. All this I saw in one glance, and then I was overcome with horror; my senses left me and I swooned."

Fearful that Nabonidus is in fact a demon, Murilo suggests that they flee the house by any means possible. However, the house of the Red Priest is filled with traps – and the beast Murilo saw – making this course a potentially hazardous one. Nevertheless, the two set off together, eager to escape with their lives and sanity intact.

Their efforts to escape bring them face to face with multiple surprises and mysteries, one of which is quite famous in Conan lore, so famous that it inspired one of Frazetta's Lancer paperback covers and a scene in the execrable 1984 film Conan the Destroyer. From the vantage point of the present, I don't think it's unfair to say the surprise in question is a little bit silly, but, at the time, I imagine it was fairly effective. Even so, "Rogues in the House" is an enjoyable romp, one that presents Conan's younger days as a thief, when he is nevertheless more honorable than the men from whom he is stealing, precisely the kind of story that whets my appetite for refereeing that all-thief campaign of which I've dreamed for many years.


  1. One of my personal favorites from the Conan canon. Is it really that obscure to non-fans? I'm not a good judge of that, having started reading Howard back in grade school so his work's basically always been part of my life. It's been adapted to comics several times over the years, and it seems to me like many folks over 30 or so first encountered REH through that medium (or perhaps Arnold's films) and went on to the books.

  2. Things I liked about this one: the intrigue, thoughts about the hypocrisy of civilization, “Thak,” the iconic “Frazetta” scene.
    Things I didn’t like: Conan murders a guy at the beginning and tosses a girl who dumped him into a sewer. It makes me go: so what if he “keeps his word?” Hypocrisy isn’t a problem for just civilized people.

    1. Weird take. The girl he throws in a cesspool (not a sewer) didn't just "dump him" she sold him to the police and got him put in jail awaiting execution - and he still didn't kill her despite her clearly expecting him to. The "guy" was leaving the same girl's room, and while we don't get a look in Conan's head, it's not unreasonable for him to have believed that he was involved with her playing informant and to have benefited from that - if in no way other than to get access to the ex, who he'd just finished sexing it up with. Either one's probably grounds for death by Cimmerian values.

      You can call Conan cruel, violent, and hot-headed, by I'm not seeing anything that makes him a hypocrite here.

    2. Conan chose to kill a guy on a hunch. I’m unsure whether that is 1st or 2nd degree murder. No trial, no evidence. Just a one man judge, jury, and executioner who rushed to judgment without really knowing. It’s wrong in many levels and is massive injustice. Conan’s a criminal, and it’s laughable to tout his honesty as though it were a virtue given the gravity of his crime. Straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.

    3. I feel like you might be missing a key element about Conan the Barbarian and why we say brutal and horrific acts are "Barbaric". Conan is honest about being a Barbarian. He is what he says on the tin. That doesn't make him a good person to civilized folk, in fact it quite bluntly states the opposite.

    4. There is barbarism that is cruelty, I.e., evil, which is what you’re talking about, and there is the “noble savage,” barbarism. I think Howard walked a line between these in his Conan stories, sometimes verging into one sometimes into the other. I think this is why I find Conan both repelling and alluring. I can’t appreciate or condone injustice and murder, but I love Conan’s independence, grit, connection to the wilderness, courage, and so on. I’m actually writing a book on this subject. “Lovable Rogue? My Love/Hate Relationship with Robert E. Howard’s Conan.” Maybe someday I’ll finish it.

  3. Easily one of my favorite Conan tales. And the Ape in a Red Cape has become a recurring trope in D&D games in our circle.

  4. Just recently read this when I got a complete REH collection for my Kindle for 49p, brilliant stuff and instantly transported back to being 13 again when I first read it.

  5. Near perfect in media res. Howard's strongest thrust with his word craft.