Conan’s Wild, Wild West — Part III

With “The Black Stranger,” Howard and Conan return to the forests, rivers and forts of the Pictish Wilderness, which serves as a Hyborian version of the American frontier.

The story might have been intended as a  sequel to “Beyond the Black River.”  However, Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright rejected the story; perhaps a bit peeved at Howard for re-visiting the Pictish Wilderness instead of returning to the tried and true haunts of Conan. After the rejection, Howard re-wrote “The Black Stranger” into a straight pirate adventure, “Swords of the Red Brotherhood,” with Terence Vulmea, a newly created character. Interestingly, Karl Edward Wagner put forth the argument that the Vulmea version came first and the Conan version later. After Howard’s death, literary agent, Otis Adelbert Kline sold “Red Brotherhood” to Golden Fleece magazine, which folded before it could be published. The Vulmea version finally saw print in the mid 1970s.

It was not until 1987 when Wagner included the original Howard version of “The Black Stranger” in Echoes of Valor #1 did the world finally get  to read this most elusive of Conan stories.  Previously, only the heavily rewritten  L. Sprague de Camp version was available, published as “The Treasure of Tranicos.”

Despite the story’s long and checkered past, it is overall a good story with plenty of action and interesting characters.  Nonetheless, “The Black Stranger” does have its critics and fans.  

The late Steve Tompkins was particularly fond of it and wrote about it several times. Here is an excerpt from his  Introduction to The Black Stranger and Other American Tales:

… “The Black Stranger,” [is] the last and longest of the Pictish Wilderness stories in the Conan series…  We hold the American-ness of “The Black Stranger”  to be self evident; the western edge of Pictland scarcely camouflages the eastern shore of North America. As we venture inland from Count Valenso’s beachhead, we meet D. H. Lawrence’s demons at their most grinning, unappeased and aboriginal in a grandfather of all old-growth forests that weighed and preyed on the minds of European colonists in those first footholds of Plymouth, Jamestown, and St. Augustine.

The critic Alfred Kazin once described the Puritan enterprise as American’s Middle Ages, and indeed, the Puritans were the only Americans ever to dwell in a sword-and-sorcery universe.  Later Frontiersmen called Indians savages, primitives, or even vermin, but only Puritans could employ an apocalyptic terminology – devils, demons, fiends – and believe every word. “The Black Stranger “ (and its more acclaimed and anthologized predecessor “Beyond the Black River”) are key texts in modern American fantasy because they create the literally be-wildered colonists’ mindset described by Richard Slotkin in Regeneration Through Violence: “the eternal presence of native people of the woods, dark of skin and seemingly dark of mind, mysterious, bloody cruel, ‘devil-worshipping:’ to these must be added the tearing up of home roots for wide wandering outward in space, and apparently, backward in time.”

For Belesa, the heroine of “The Black Stranger,” “the world of cities and courts and gaiety [seem] not only thousands of miles but ages away” and she is certain that the forests are “the logical hiding place for any evil thing, man or devil.” The story’s “black man” is on loan from classic American literature: “Art though like the black man that haunts the forest round us?” Hester Prynne asks Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter. Howard’s story is full of hints that he had recently encountered Hawthorne’s novel, whose crowd scenes are populated by “painted barbarians” and “rough-looking desperados from the Spanish Main.” In many ways “The Black Stranger” is the Scarlet Letter after a sex change, a blood transfusion and, some cutlass lessons. Howard’s fey girl child is all but cloned from Hawthorne’s: Tina appears “with the light patter of small bare feet across the sand,” while Pearl plays after “making her small white feet, pattering along the moist margin of the sea.” Howard’s “wild men of the sea” recall Hawthorne’s “swarthy-cheeked wild men of the ocean,” any of whom “might relinquish his calling, and become at once, if he chose, a man of probity and piety” – exactly the agenda of Howard’s Zarono, with his elegant bows and a “tread as stately as if he trod the polished crystal floor of the Kordova royal court.”

Conan, as Lawrence said of James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer, “seems to have been born under a hemlock tree out of a pine-cone.” The early colonists triangulated themselves against both Europeans and Indians and became Americans by taking to the woods and taking them away from their previous owners. Mastery of woodcraft has served as shorthand for Americanization from the Leatherstocking Tales through movies like Deliverance, Southern Comfort, First Blood, Red Dawn, and as an example of how not to survive, The Blair Witch Project. Conan, who is at home even on the hunting grounds of his age-old enemies, the Picts, is self-authenticating and his cultural credentials as a Cimmerian, a white barbarian, are a way around what for so long was perceived as the problem of renegades and runaways  who wanted to join Indians rather than beat them.

The story begins with Conan fighting a party of Picts in a pitched battle to the death.  With the Picts in hot pursuit, he climbs up a rocky crag, which the Picts seem to fear. They leave and a perplexed Conan enters a cave on the crag, finding a lost pirate treasure and nearly being killed by a mist-like demon. He barely manages to escape with his life, but without the treasure in hand.

Meanwhile, a Count named Valenso Korzetta who has fled from his palace in Zingara to live in a wooden fort on the frontier, soon finds he is beset by two rival buccaneers, Strombanni and Black Zarano, who have followed him to the shoreline of the Pictish Wilderness. They believe the Count is there to find the Treasure of Tranicos, a lost pirate treasure.  However, far from being on a treasure hunt, the Count has fled to the wilderness to escape a vengeful demon he had double-crossed. Included among his entourage are his niece, the Lady Belesa, and her handmaiden, Tina, along with soldiers and retainers.

Later in the story, Conan appears at a meeting among the Count, Strombanni and Black Zarano and informs them he knows the location of the treasure they seek. The group comes to a rogues agreement and agree to work together to obtain the Treasure of Tranicos.  But Conan is no fool and knows his cohorts will kill him as soon as the treasure is secured.

Conan is one step of their skullduggery and plans to trap them in the cave with the demon.  However, the Picts return and attack the group at the crag, leading to another hastily declared truce to fight the common enemy. In the final battle, the Picts are defeated, but the Count, Strombanni and Black Zarano all lose their lives. At the end of the story, Conan finds himself being drawn back to the sea and a new piratical career.

Again, the western-like elements of Conan’s Hyborian world and the frontier environs of Howard’s America meld together in a whirlwind of bloodshed, deceit and the supernatural.

Part I / Part II /Part IV