Captive of the Vampire Queen — Part One

It’s a familiar theme in myth, fantasy, horror and pulp literature. The immortal and terrible queen who rules in the shadows, whether she literally drinks blood or not. Ereshkigal, the Babylonian Queen of Hell … Persephone in Greek myth … the death-goddess Hel of the Norse legends, and the grim Choosers of the Slain, the Valkyries … Rider Haggard’s She … the brides of Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel, to a degree, though they are unmistakably subordinate to the Count … a number of modern incarnations in literature, like Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned

There is also the cliched figure of the sweet, innocent, pure girl who falls victim to this awful (and usually lustful, even if in a symbolic and kinky sense only) creature. Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra in Dracula (two for the price of one) are literally classic examples. They were created in the Victorian era, of course. After Lucy became a vampire she turned into a lusting, impure temptress herself, and her activities had more than a hint of pedophilia.

In REH’s “The Moon of Skulls” the vampire queen of hell is the black woman Nakari, and her pure sweet Anglo-Saxon captive is Marylin Taferal. Whether Nakari is a literal vampire or not is never made overt. It often appears not. But I’ll take the two archetypes of the post title above, virgin captive and vampiric harlot, in order. Marylin and her experiences first. Nakari and her (possible) history next post.

Marylin Taferal began getting a rough deal as a little girl. Her unprincipled cousin, Sir John, faked her death by drowning and sold her to a Barbary corsair, because he was afraid his uncle would leave the great family estates to her, having no children. (See “The Taferals and the Kanes.”) By my calculations this happened in 1574, when Marylin was eight. The corsair, a renegade known as El Gar, was probably known to Sir John because he had been an Englishman in former days. “El Gar” was perhaps an English mispronunciation of “El Giaour,” a derogatory Turkish term for infidels. Lord Byron wrote a poem called “The Giaour”.

(Sir John, I suspect, dealt illicitly with a number of pirates. It was common in those days, even on the part of highly placed English officials. Even a partial list would be lengthy.)

Whatever his origins, El Gar took Marylin south on his ship and entered the Mediterranean. As she recounted the tale later, the corsair met a merchant of Istanbul off the coast of France and sold her to him. The merchant intended to sell her in turn to “a black sultan of the Moors,” but he was attacked near the Straits of Gibraltar (“Gates of Hercules”) by a slaver out of Cadiz. The slaver, in turn, no doubt by questioning Marylin, learned she was the daughter of a wealthy English family, and meant to ransom her back to them, but he met with disaster on the dark African coasts first.

This blogger believes that Marylin’s memories were jumbled and foreshortened by her terrifying experiences. Kane, too, when he finds her, cuts his account of his long search down to the barest essentials. She says that when Sir John handed her to El Gar she was “little more than a baby,” but by my estimates she would have been eight.

It’s possible that the Barbary rover and the merchantman out of Istanbul met off the southern coasts of France, as Marylin says. France was being friendly to the point of collusion with the Turkish Empire in those days, despite the French monarch’s unctuous claim to be “the Most Christian King.” The French crown craved to gain an advantage over its bitter Christian rival, the Holy Roman Empire (whose ruler was also the King of Spain). The corsair and the merchant would both have had to watch sharply for any galleys of the Knights of St. John, based on Malta. The knights were sworn to combat the Turk and were exceptional fighting seamen. Exceptional pirates, too, when their victims were not Christian and Catholic. On balance it’s more probable that El Gar went to Algiers, and Marylin was sold to the Stamboul merchant there, along with other Christian captives. Afterwards, they were all taken to the Sublime Porte.

There had to be an interval of years. Even if, as I suppose, Marylin was taken from Devon as old as eight, she was a young woman when Kane finally found her, eighteen or at least seventeen. That’s nine years. She might, for a while, have been a slave in Cyprus, in Moldavia, in Greece – anywhere, in fact, from Egypt to Hungary, both of which were part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. Possibly, after that, she was purchased by another merchant, who took her west, as she said, meaning to sell her to the Sultan of Morocco. It must have been then that a Portuguese slaver – and sometime pirate, we can bet – attacked the merchant ship which carried Marylin, and formed the intention of selling her back to her English family for a pretty penny. But first he attempted to complete his run to the Slave Coast, where his luck ran out. He was ambushed in a bay and only one man, a Greek rascal, survived to tell the tale. His luck too ran out in the end. He was crucified in the Levant for piracy. Kane heard his last words.

Marylin had been taken by the river tribes and sent inland as tribute, ending up, eventually, in Negari – a hell-hole of blood and insanity. (For details, see “The City of the Mad.”) Here some speculation as to her experiences is due. If she came to the coasts of Africa aged fifteen, after having been a slave in the eastern Mediterranean for years, it’s hugely improbable that she was still a virgin. This was the 1500s. “If they’re big enough, they’re old enough,” was a view held even by Christian gentlemen.Of course, in pulp fiction of the ‘thirties, all kidnapped white heroines had that improbable luck. Even, in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels, a few red-skinned ones. Thuvia, in The Gods of Mars, is for ten years “a plaything and a slave” of the Holy Therns, a decidedly unholy cult of debauched voluptuaries with a nice taste in cannibalism for lagniappe. (They consider they are divine and other humans lower, lesser creatures, so by their measure it’s okay.) But Thuvia appears again in another novel, as the stalwart hero’s love interest, and the title of that book is Thuvia, Maid of Mars.

They can’t make degenerate fiends on Mars the way they do on Earth.

Whatever happened to Marylin in the Ottoman Empire, it’s very possible she was actually safer from rape among African tribes who had never before seen a white girl with yellow curls. Why? Because they’d have found her repulsive, like as not. “Hah? What is that? Some evil magician has skinned her and kept her alive!”

It’s another thing never considered in 1930s pulp fiction. It was a convention, if not a tenet, that colored races lusted uncontrollably for Anglo-Saxon girls. The “white slave trade” did traffic profitably in blondes – although the term was a misnomer, biased as usual. Victims of forced prostitution on the international market were also black, brown and yellow.

It’s my speculation, though, that Nakari, Queen of Negari, knew about the light-skinned races of the world, and much besides. (That possibility is for next post.) Kane says to Marylin that after coming to Africa in search of her, he’d heard that “some years ago” a “white child” (emphasis mine) had been sent inland as tribute. Perhaps Marylin had then been only twelve, and lived in the mad city of Negari as the queen’s slave for five or six years. Certainly if she was that tyrannical she-cat’s property no-one would have dared touch her. But she was slated for sacrifice to the skull of the ancient wizard those mad people worshipped, in the end.

The maundering, dying and half-crazy priest Kane encounters in the dungeons of the city tells him the “Moon of Skulls” is the full moon. A virgin is sacrificed at that time. That would imply that Marylin did arrive in the city still a virgin. While virgins surely were sacrificed each month in that demented place, I suspect Marylin had been kept and groomed for a rarer, more special occasion.

If the black Negarians worshipped the Moon and kept a lunar calendar, they might, like the Celts, have synchronized it with the solar year by adding an intercalary month once every two and a half years. Perhaps that, not just any and every full moon, was the “Moon of Skulls.” In that case, Marylin would have been in the city while the grisly rite was performed twice. Her turn was coming next. I believe that Kane arrived in the city five months before it was due, not a matter of mere days or weeks, and that REH streamlined the time span to make the story move along. (Will Shakespeare, in his historical plays, didn’t think that was beneath him either.)

It would realistically have taken Kane that long to find his way around in the city, walking a tightrope to placate Nakari and stay in her favor, learning to follow the secret passages, discovering the tortured Atlantean priest in the dungeon, sorting out truth from lies and delusion in his ramblings, and finding opportunities to talk with Marylin. When he finally discovered that the skull in the Tower of Death was the key to the last shreds of sanity in these mad, blood-lusting people, his course would have been clear to him and his purpose set. I believe that had the full story been told in the original (perhaps a bit hastily written) REH yarn, we readers would have seen that Kane didn’t simply luck out, as the story depicts him doing.

As for Marylin … she arrived in the horrible city of Negari aged twelve, as this blogger supposes. The dying Atlantean priest may have lost his marbles in some ways, and been crazy from the beginning in others, but his description of Marylin’s ordeals shows he had his lucid moments still. “She has danced with the Star-maidens at Nakari’s command, and has looked on the bloody and terrible rites of the Black Temple. She has lived for years among a people with whom blood is cheaper than water, who delight in slaughter and foul torture –” (he should talk!) “ – and such sights as she has looked upon would blast the eyes and wither the flesh of strong men. She has seen the victims of Nakura die amid horrid torments, and the sight is burned forever in the brain of the beholder.”

That hardly comes from an innocent. Only a little later, laughing “insanely,” he asks, “What are mortals but food for the jaws of the black gods? Softer girls than your Mara have died screaming beneath these hands and my heart was as iron to their cries.” Obviously, when he refers to slaughter and foul torture, he knows whereof he speaks.

Marylin describes the awful rites of the city in similar terms. “There are deeds better hidden in the darkness of night and forgetfulness,” she says to Kane. “There are sights which blast the eyes and leave their burning mark forever on the brain. The walls of ancient cities, recked not of by men, have looked upon scenes not to be spoken of, even in whispers.” She adds that Negari holds “nameless evil more ancient than dark Babylon – that spawned in terrible black cities when the world was young and strange.”

It’s probable that she saved her own sanity by withdrawing her mind from that ghastly milieu and hiding what she had seen in “the darkness of night and forgetfulness.” Marylin, the last Atlantean says, had “danced with the Star-maidens” and these would have been some sort of sacred attendants in the Black Temple. Nakari herself – the dying priest also says – a “slave and the daughter of a slave” had been one of the Star-maidens as a young girl. Going by what she had planned for Marylin, that status did not exempt anyone from becoming a sacrifice at the Moon of Skulls. It may well have made one a more likely candidate.

When Kane took her away from the ruins of Negari and back to England, we can hope her mind created its own defenses and blotted out the monstrous things she had seen. (Perhaps taken part in, too, out of compulsion and terror.) Like Tammuz, she had descended into Hell, and then returned to the world of light and life, brought back by one who made an arduous journey into the pit to dispute right of possession with its fearsome Queen.

Art credits: Solomon Kane by Ken Kelly, Thuvia, Maid of Mars by Clyde Caldwell and “In a Sheltered Corner” by Jeffrey Jones

Read Part Two