Monday, March 28, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Pool of the Black One

If much of contemporary discussion of pulp fantasy literature is to be believed, there are only two kinds of these tales: ground-breaking stories that transcend their origins or worthless hackwork without any enduring value. Now, I have no difficulty in acknowledging the existence of these two categories and could easily cite examples of stories I've read that fall into each of them. For me, the problem lies not so much in the categories themselves as in the seeming inability of some to admit any middle ground between them. As with so many things, there are shades of gray.

I mention this because of the story I wish to bring to your attention today, Robert E. Howard's "The Pool of the Black One," which first appeared in the October 1933 issue of Weird Tales. No one, I think, considers this one of Howard's best Conan yarns, especially when compared to, say, "The Tower of the Elephant," which appeared earlier in the same year. At the same time, comparing "The Pool of the Black One" to Howard's unarguably best efforts is not only unfair but misses a larger point about the purpose of pulp fantasy literature (or any pulp literature, come to think of it), namely, escapism. 

Don't misunderstand me: I'd much rather that every Conan story were "Red Nails" rather than "The Devil in Iron." That this is not the case says little about the quality of "The Devil in Iron" than it does about our own expectation that every pulp fantasy tale be one that we can read again and again, finding something new in it each time. There's nothing wrong with ephemeral, unexceptional stories so long as we find them diverting while we're reading them. Put another way: not every work of literature must have enduring value to be worthy of our time. Sometimes – often even – it's enough that we enjoy it.

"The Pool of the Black One" begins memorably, with Conan climbing onto the deck of a pirate vessel, where the captain's mistress, Sancha, is sunning herself garbed only in a "short silk kirtle [that] veiled little of her voluptuous contours." 

But at that instant a sound reached her ears unlike the creaking of timbers, thrum of cordage and lap of waves. She sat up, her gaze fixed on the rail, over which, to her amazement, a dripping figure clambered. Her dark eyes opened wide, her red lips parted in an O of surprise. The intruder was a stranger to her. Water ran in rivulets from his great shoulders and down his heavy arms. His single garment—a pair of bright crimson silk breeks—was soaking wet, as was his broad gold-buckled girdle and the sheathed sword it supported. As he stood at the rail, the rising sun etched him like a great bronze statue. He ran his fingers through his streaming black mane, and his blue eyes lit as they rested on the girl.

"Who are you?" she demanded. "Whence did you come?"
Say what you will, but Conan can make quite an entrance. His arrival causes quite a stir on the vessel, a pirate ship whose name is the Wastrel we soon learn. Its captain, a Zingaran named Zaporavo, confronts the Cimmerian and asks him first his name and then "how did you get aboard my ship?" Conan replies in a delightfully laconic way, "I swam."

Zaporavo asks Conan,

"Why should I burden myself with every nameless vagabond that the sea casts up?" snarled Zaporavo, his look and manner more insulting than his words.

"A ship can always use another good sailor," answered the other without resentment. Zaporavo scowled, knowing the truth of that assertion. He hesitated, and doing so, lost his ship, his command, his girl, and his life. But of course he could not see into the future, and to him Conan was only another wastrel, cast up, as he put it, by the sea. He did not like the man; yet the fellow had given him no provocation. His manner was not insolent, though rather more confident than Zaporavo liked to see.

"You'll work for your keep," snarled the Hawk. "Get off the poop. And remember, the only law here is my will."

One might uncharitably call "The Pool of the Black One" formulaic. In the span of a couple of pages, Howard tells the reader exactly where he's taking this story. Zaporavo is a dead man walking and soon Conan will not only take his place as captain of this band of pirates but also his woman. Is it a bad story because of this? From a certain high-minded point of view, perhaps it is, but I think this perspective overlooks the pleasure to be found in seeing how a particular instance of a well-worn formula unfolds.

Conan soon wins the respect and admiration of the crew (and Sancha), much to Zaporavo's dismay. 

He mixed with the crew, lived and made merry as they did. He proved himself a skilled sailor, and by far the strongest man any of them had seen. He did the work of three men, and was always first to spring to any heavy or dangerous task. His mates began to rely upon him. He did not quarrel with them, and they were careful not to quarrel with him. He gambled with them, putting up his girdle and sheath for a stake, won their money and weapons, and gave them back with a laugh. The crew instinctively looked toward him as the leader of the forecastle.
In time, the Wastrel drops anchor off a mysterious island, where "the wind brought scents of fresh vegetation and spices." Zaporavo orders everyone ashore, except for Sancha, whom he commands to stay behind. She's understandably angered by this but nevertheless obeys. From her vantage point aboard the ship, she watches the pirates as they climb the trees along the beach and take the fruits from their branches. She also observes Zaporavo head into the jungle alone, followed not long after by Conan. This strange turn of events piques her interest and she decides to swim secretly to the island to find out what these two men are doing away from prying eyes.

Zaporavo, we're told, 

desired to learn if this island were indeed that mentioned in the mysterious Book of Skelos, whereon, nameless sages aver, strange monsters guard crupts filled with hieroglyph-carven gold. Nor, for murky reasons of his own, did he wish to share his knowledge, if it were true, with any one, much less his own crew.
For his part, Conan follows the captain solely for the purpose of killing him without any witnesses, which he succeeds in doing, as Howard already stated he would. Elsewhere, the crew fall fast asleep, seemingly as a result of the golden fruits they've eaten. This enables Sancha to make her way across the beach without anyone seeing her and then into the jungle, where she stumbles upon Zaporavo's dead body with a "gaping wound in his breast." 

The young woman is not shocked to see this and "did not weep or feel any need for weeping." Instead, she looks for Conan, assuming he would be nearby. Instead, she finds someone else.

Unbelieving horror dilated her brown eyes. Her red lips parted to an inarticulate scream. Paralysis gripped her limbs; where she had such desperate need of swift flight, she could not move. She could only shriek wordlessly.
As it turns out, the late Zaporavo was more right about the nature of this island than he would ever know. The remainder of the tale is spent chronicling Conan's exploration of the island and his discovery of just who dwells here and what their plans are for the hapless pirate crew and, of course, the beauteous Sancha.

"The Pool of the Black One" is a by-the-numbers Conan story, written because Howard needed money and he knew the kind of story that would be quickly accepted by Weird Tales. In that sense, it's nothing special and there are few surprises in its narrative. Nevertheless, I found it fun. It's simply a fast-paced, adventuresome yarn in which the reader gets to see Conan be Conan and all that that entails. Sometimes, that's enough.


  1. The later parts of the story have always reminded me more of Burroughs than Howard, although that's more of a sidegrade than change in quality. Avoiding spoilers, the mysterious baddies, their strange signature trick, and even the ending would all be at home in a Tarzan story, albeit a somewhat bloodier than average one. Maybe that's what makes it a middle-of-the-road Howard piece - when you could plausibly tell an almost identical story with an entirely different main character it doesn't really feel like a Conan tale.

  2. Pulp, like any genre, must establish a base line "formulaic" style. If there wasn't an established pattern there could not be revolutionary stories that exceed, break and go beyond the normal scope.

  3. This story is a pot-boiler and that's fine; even a middle-of-the-road story from REH is entertaining. As you say, that's enough. I

  4. I've always enjoyed it. Formulaic, just-needs-a-sale Howard is still a lot better than most writers' best. I've always been sympathetic toward Zaporovo because even though he's clearly a jerk, it's also clear that Conan fully intends on dispatching him simply because he's in the way. It gives a more cold-blooded aspect to Conan than you normally see.

    1. Conan's a ruthless SOB in this, but in fairness Zaparovo is pretty hostile to him right from word one. Here's a fellow seaman climbing aboard in the middle of the ocean and he's greeted with suspicion and hostility rather than the sympathy a shipwreck survivor might expect. And that's before Conan admits to having swum out from Baracha - which is a hostile rival to Zaparovo's Zingara, so both have reasons to dislike and distrust one another after that.

  5. Unavoidably, some of REH's twenty-one Conan stories are better than others, but that is unimportant. What matters is that all of them are good.

  6. I always liked that bit "He hesitated, and doing so, lost his ship, his command, his girl, and his life." because it always felt like REH was winking at us, the reader... because we also knew the minute he took Conan aboard, all those things were going happen.

    1. True. It's a bit like the pirates encountering Asterix & Obelix, or Groo setting foot on anything that floats. You know it's not going end well, it's just a question of how it's going to get there.

    2. Jason, me too! I think that's the innovation in this formulaic story.

      Stephen King rips it off, early in 'The Mist.' After a weird storm, the unsuspecting protagonist leaves his wife and their home to drive into town with his son:

      "We pulled out. I haven’t seen my wife since then."

  7. Sometimes, what people look for most of all is a fun story, and there's nothing wrong with that.

  8. All writers to one degree or another are uneven. Howard was no different.

  9. I love the scene when Zaparovo is fighting Conan and realizes he won't win. The comparison being that fighting Conan for all of Zaparovo's skill it is like a boxer fighting a tiger.