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Negari, black queen of a former Atlantean colony deep in sixteenth-century Africa, is a wildly contradictory figure. I believe it’s not merely because she features in a story that appears to have been written in haste for the 1930s pulp market. A dying priest, described by himself as the last Atlantean, is biased in his contempt for her, and his bias is partly racial. (He belongs to an ancient, brown-skinned people whose civilization was among the very first, if not the first, and he’s equally scornful of black and white “savages.”) It’s also social. “Slave and the daughter of a slave!” he snarls.
He has valid personal reasons for loathing her as well. Nakari kept him shackled in a dungeon and tortured him for years. But going by his record, he deserved his fate. He’d sacrificed human victims and presided over monstrous rites before Nakari overthrew him.
The question arises straight away: how was she able to? These priests knew the ancient secrets and sorceries of Atlantis, even though they had become a captive sacred clan in a city ruled by barbaric squatters. Nevertheless – and the last of them says it without equivocation – “Alone of all the black Negari she feared us not, and she not only overthrew the king and set herself on the throne, but she dominated the priests – the black satellites and the few brown masters who were left. All these last, save me, died beneath the daggers of her assassins or on her racks. She alone of all the myriad black thousands who have lived and died between these walls guessed at the hidden passages and subterranean corridors, secrets which we of the priestcraft had guarded jealously from the people for a thousand years.”
Quite an achievement for a slave and daughter of a slave. The priest is contemptuous of the black people of the city, describing them viciously as “apes” and “fools” because they had lived in the ancient city for centuries and never discovered its inner secrets. It was Atlantean, though, and they were African tribesmen. Moreover, they had been infected with the madness that emanated from the ancient wizard’s skull they worshipped. Newton and Galileo, given an opportunity, would hardly have been able to fathom how an electric light bulb worked, either.
Nakari may have been more than she seemed, and more than she allowed people to know. By reputation she was a “vampire queen.” Solomon Kane describes her as such when he explains, at the outpost of her realm, that he has come seeking her. Sharing his memories with his townsfolk in Devon, he says in “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming”:
And I have known a deathless queen in a city old as Death;
Where towering pyramids of skulls her glory witnesseth.
Her kiss was like an adder’s fang, with the sweetness Lilith had,
And her red-eyed vassals howled for blood in that City of the Mad.
Deathless and a vampire. Even though “struck with admiration for her lithe beauty” Kane felt “a shudder of repulsion, for her eyes gleamed with vibrant and magnetic evil, older than the world. ” Looking upon her, he compares her to Lilith. However, in other moments, she seems to Kane like “a spoiled, petulant child engaged in a game of make-believe and using for her sport a toy discarded by her elders.”
Perhaps significantly, in that paradigm of all vampire novels, Dracula, the fiendish Count is described by Abraham van Helsing as possessing “a great child-mind. ”
The best known deathless female vampire in REH’s stories is Akivasha. She was ten thousand years undead when Conan encountered her below a Stygian pyramid in The Hour of the Dragon. She, however, could not have been identical with Nakari. She belonged to “an ancient Stygian noble family” and had “ivory skin.” But she tempts Conan with the words, “Give me of your blood to renew my youth and perpetuate my everlasting life! I will make you, too, immortal! I will teach you the wisdom of all the ages, all the secrets that have lasted out the eons in the blackness beneath these dark temples. I will make you king of that shadowy horde which revel among the tombs of the ancients … I am weary of priests and magicians, and captive girls dragged screaming through the portals of death. I desire a man.”
Suppose Nakari, a Kushite slave, had been one of those “captive girls”, and then one of the shadowy horde of the undead? Most would have been destroyed when the cataclysm came, and great areas of West Africa were hurled up from beneath the waves of the ocean. Nakari might have been among those who survived, and the Atlantean colony deep in Africa, protected by an ancient super-science, must have survived also, if it still existed in Elizabethan times.
Nakari knew where to find it. She knew some of the “secrets that … lasted out the eons” which Conan had rejected. She found human prey to sustain her on her journey. She reached the city that would become known as Negari. She passed as one of the African slaves who did the menial work. The rulers never knew what a serpent had come among them. “There were more of these slaves than there were masters. And they increased while the brown people dwindled. ”
This post isn’t the place to examine the racial attitudes embedded in the story “The Moon of Skulls.” They are repellent and worth examining – but here I’ll simply suggest that Nakari, immortal, superhuman and subhuman at the same time, was behind the revolt which overthrew the brown-skinned Atlanteans in favor of their black slaves . She apparently had a partner, described in “The Moon of Skulls,” Chapter V, as “the last great wizard of Atlantean Negari. A brown renegade … who conspired against his own people and aided the revolt … ”Mighty as he was, he may have been nothing but a tool in Nakari’s female hands. Possibly it was she who killed him and set his fleshless skull high in the Tower of Death to be the people’s fetish. She was probably the queen, and power behind the throne, of the empire-building black king whose forces “swept the land from sea to sea” millennia before King Djoser ruled in Egypt. Then, as all empires do, it declined. Perhaps Nakari, growing bored with “the whole huge world a toy” allowed it to decline. Perhaps even she could not prevent it. Perhaps the skull of the wizard she had slain, which had “housed the awful brain of a king of magicians,” corroded even her will and wit until she was only somewhat less deranged than the people she ruled.
She suspected, perhaps, that there were secrets to the city which even she did not know, and which the priestly caste jealously guarded. She allowed them to live for that reason, and spied on them. At times she pretended to “die”, and hid in the shadows for generations before returning to power under a new name. Occasionally knowledge of the outer world filtered into Negari as nations rose and toppled … Babylon, Persia and Rome. Islam appeared. The crusades were fought and came to an end, a futile madness. The Age of Exploration began in Europe. Nakari heard of the Portuguese slavers who ravaged the coasts of West Africa. She heard of Mali and Songhai and Timbuktu. Wearied of isolation and absolute power in a remote, hidden place, she began dreaming of a new empire, greater than the one she had ruled aforetime.
If Nakari was a true vampire, not a figurative one, and had made so by Princess Akivasha in the Hyborian Age, she would have been the same kind. Akivasha seemed to rest in a coffin. She lurked in close proximity to hers, anyhow. Nakari, if she had been a slave, would have no coffin, just a grave in the sand. Presumably she would have to carry some with her to any current resting place, just as Dracula needed earth from his grave when he travelled to London.
Conan noticed that Akivasha’s flesh was “cold as marble.” She had “white pointed teeth” and told the Cimmerian that his blood would renew her youth and perpetuate her everlasting life. She promised to make him, too, immortal, and “king of that shadowy horde which revel among the tombs.” Akivasha is thus a traditional sort of vampire. No mention is made of garlic or crosses, though. None would be. Akivasha existed long before the Christian religion, and Nakari ruled in the depths of sixteenth-century Africa where it was unknown.
Kane, although a Puritan, gets more useful help from the juju staff N’Longa gives him than from a crucifix. He encounters an entire tribe of vampires in “The Hills of the Dead,” but a different sort. They had been killed in an ancient war and brought back to monstrous unlife by the wizards of their race. They have eyes that are “inhumanly large and inhumanly red.” They have snout-like noses and skin tinged with corpselike grey. They are afraid of fire. They apparently don’t drink blood. The girl Zunna informs Kane that they will slay a man, “devouring his ghost as it leaves his quivering body … suckers of souls!” Aside from fire, they fear vultures, for these carrion birds attack the dead as their rightful prey. A highly original REH touch. But these monsters are not the kind of vampires Akivasha (and, it may be, Nakari) are.
I consider “The Moon of Skulls” doesn’t tell the complete story of Nakari and Kane. It does specifically say that Kane is “tempted” by the scheme of imperial conquest she lays before him. If , as this blogger thinks, he spent months in her city, not merely days, it would be strange if the ambience of madness, lust and cruelty radiating from the dead sorcerer’s skull had not assailed him. Kane had a touch of latent madness in his own brain. (See “Wings in the Night.” )
Perhaps he was tempted by Nakari herself – and toppled. Kane was young, as I think, in “The Moon of Skulls.” About thirty. Sex couldn’t be made overt in the pulp fiction of the day, and besides being a vampire, Nakari was, more shockingly, black. White heroes (in the magazines) always had to reject black temptresses. And it was always the black girls who came on to them.
“Her kiss was like an adder’s fang, with the sweetness Lilith had,” said Kane years later. One would think there was just a single way he could know that.
Maybe she concealed her state from Kane by warming her undead flesh by a fire before hitting a couch – or a lion-skin rug — with the adventurer. The “touch of the pagan” in him would have been wholly triumphant over the Puritan then. Maybe for the last time ever. The shock of discovering who, or what, he’d been with could have turned him off sex considerably. Not that Kane would ever have made a rake. He was always ascetic by the rough standards of his age, but also a man, and a powerful one. I believe he bedded a couple of girls in his teens, when he sailed with the Dutch “Sea Beggars”, and he was in love with Bess, but that was romantic and pure. It’s possible he had no other lovers at all … except the vampire queen of Negari.
He could tell himself that he must humor her until he found a way to get her English captive out of the hellish city. Anybody remember the satire on Blackhawk in the old Mad paperbacks? Assailed by a stacked femme fatale, Blackhawk thinks, “I’ll string her along a second … a couple more minutes … one more hour, just, I’ll string her along … ”
Perhaps Kane discovered more in the crypts of the city than a tortured Atlantean priest. Perhaps, towards the end, he saw Nakari crouched near the sand from her ancient grave, drinking the blood of a groaning victim, and came to the senses he’d partially, and briefly, lost. He’d discovered, by then, that smashing the sorcerer’s skull would not only send everybody in the city raving berserk, but destroy the city of Negari into the bargain. (The earthquake coming at the same time couldn’t have been coincidence. ) And so he did.
Nakari does seem to die too easily for a vampire. However, Kane didn’t watch her demise after she was hurled down with a broken back. Instead, he “sprang up the black steps” to save Marylin. He thought Nakari had fallen “shattered and dead”. If he’d looked behind him, he might have seen her dragging herself by her arms, her face inhuman, pulling the maddened folk around her down if they came close enough, ripping at them with her teeth, rending them with her hands. It might have taken a mass of stone crashing down on her to end her frenzy.
Even without seeing that, Kane and Marylin, no doubt, were left with haunted souls.
Art credits: Nakari by Jeffrey Jones, Akivasha by Ezra Tucker and “The Hills of the Dead” by Gary Gianni
Read Part One