The City of the Mad

“Do not look at the skull! … In life it housed the awful brain of a king of magicians! It holds still the life and fire of magic drawn from outer spaces!”

Robert E. Howard, “Red Nails”

Solomon Kane encountered no less than three of the classic pulp-fiction “lost civilizations” in Africa. One, founded by Assyrians, in the fragment “The Children of Asshur” was probably in East Central Africa, far to the south-west of Egypt – which had once been part of the Assyrian Empire. Another was Basti, which shared the practice of human sacrifices to the moon with Negari, where the innocent Marylin Taferal was held a captive until Kane rescued her. Basti may well have been an offshoot, a satellite city, of Negari’s.

The most memorable of these “lost cities” was Negari itself. It had been founded as an Atlantean colony, thousands of years before. The question immediately rises, was that Atlantis the same as the Thurian Age Atlantis which bred King Kull, and whose barbaric people were ancestors of the Cimmerians – Conan included — or did Howard imagine a different, unrelated Atlantis when he wrote the Solomon Kane yarn?

The Atlanteans and Cimmerians were white people, black-haired and blue- or grey-eyed, and they were barbarians without cities or writing. They were – in REH’s pseudo-history – the remote forebears of the Irish Gaels. But the last surviving Atlantean priest, found in a dungeon in Negari by Kane, tells of a different Atlantis. “Our cities banded the world,” he boasts, rambling in his dying mind. “We sent our colonies to all lands to subdue all savages, red, white or black, and enslave them. All over the world the brown people of Atlantis reigned supreme.”

However, he was born many thousands of years after Atlantis sank. He may be recounting the traditional myths he’s heard. Besides, in REH’s essay, “The Hyborian Age”, Howard says only that “the barbarians” (of the pre-Hyborian, Thurian times) were the Atlanteans, the Picts, and the Lemurians. The “barbaric” Atlanteans would have been Kull’s black-haired, blue-eyed people. But there might have been civilized Atlanteans as well; the last Negarian priest’s race. Perhaps they came from elsewhere; the “nameless continent” to the west. To dominate Atlantis in the face of folk like Kull wouldn’t have been easy. The “brown people of Atlantis” – if they had ever existed anywhere but in the dying priest’s beliefs – must have been advanced indeed, as he claimed, and privy to “the secret things of land and sea and sky.”

Whence did they come at first? Maybe from the lands now known as the Americas. There might even be a link with REH’s horror story, “The Valley of the Lost.” The feuding Texan cowboy of the story, hiding from his pursuers in a cave with an evil reputation, encounters degenerate monsters of quasi-human aspect. They telepathically show him the city that stood in Lost Valley in a former, incredibly remote age, “a gigantic city of dully gleaming stone”. Its inhabitants are human, yet “of a humanity definitely different from his own.” One of their differences is in the shape of “the curious peaked skull.” More importantly, he perceives that these people are “very ancient and very evil. He saw them enact rituals that froze his blood with horror, obscenities and blasphemies beyond his understanding.”

It sounds very like the terrible things the Atlantean priest tells Kane about, the rites and sacrifices of Negari which are quite horrible enough, even though they have declined and become naive compared with the ancient originals. If the people who conquered Atlantis and went on to found colonies in the depths of Africa (or the Thurian Age equivalent) were like those envisioned in “The Valley of the Lost,” they must have been appalling.

They may have been the reason why a large transplanted population of Kull’s Atlanteans, the savage, proto-Gaelic ones, came to the Thurian mainland. Perhaps they were escaping, not emigrating. Then they forgot or denied that humiliating exodus. It would have been consistent with their ferocious pride. Their descendants, thousands of years later, became the Cimmerians.

“We worshipped Valka and Hotah, Honen and Golgor,” the dying priest maunders. (Valka, of course, is King Kull’s god, by whom he swears frequently, and Golgor sounds like Gol-Goroth, the demon worshipped in the island of Bal-Sagoth, where Turlogh O’Brien is shipwrecked at one time.) “Many virgins, many strong youths, died on their altars. Then the sea rose and shook himself … new lands rose from the deep and Atlantis and Mu were swallowed up by the gulf … the colony cities in barbaric lands, cut off from their mother kingdom, perished … only the colony city of Negari remained as a symbol of the lost empire.”

Negari must have been protected by super-science or super-sorcery (as Arthur C. Clarke observed, when they are sufficiently advanced, they are indistinguishable) to survive the great cataclysm that wiped out the Thurian Age, and then the lesser one that came afterwards. But granting that … it could still have existed, isolated and dreaming, in the age of Conan. During the Hyborian Age, vast areas of what is now the great bulge of West Africa still lay beneath the sea, but Negari, as “The Moon of Skulls” makes clear, was situated in central Africa. Its vampire queen even uses that phrase. (But it was probably West Central Africa; it must have been within reach of the coast to be accessible to ships of Atlantis.)

It’s interesting that in “Red Nails” Conan and Valeria discover a lost city inhabited by weird, degenerate and cruel folk, originally founded by people who possessed super-science and super-sorcery. They could restore the fossilized bones of ancient dragons to life, and there was at least one weird weapon in the catacombs that seemed to fire bolts of electricity. The bizarre city stands without fellows or known history in a region which also corresponds to Central Africa.The city, Xuchotl, is inhabited by folk who have pseudo-Nahuatl names and are more like ancient Toltecs or Olmecs (the brutish prince of one faction is even called Olmec) than like any people one would expect to find in a prehistoric quasi-Africa. Xuchotl was in the same general region – apparently – as Negari. Like Negari, it contained at least one very ancient skull, the skull of a “king of magicians” which could taint the mind with madness and death. The folk of Xuchotl gave even Valeria – a red-blooded and decidedly red-handed pirate — the horrors. She didn’t take long to reflect, “These people were neither sane nor normal. She began to doubt if they were even human. Madness smoldered in the eyes of them all …”

An assessment that applies to Negari’s inhabitants also. And in Xuchotl, as in Negari millennia later, when the skull was destroyed, the barely leashed insanity in the minds of those who dwelt around it soon broke loose. The utter destruction of them all quickly followed.

The flavor of the ancient Americas to be found in the Tlazitlans’ names could form another link with the weird people of the primordial city in “The Valley of the Lost.” Their skulls had a curiously peaked shape. The skull Valeria destroyed in Xuchotl is “undeniably human, yet with curious distortions and malformations of contour and outline.” When she smashed it with her sword, “Somewhere … in the void or in the dim reaches of her consciousness, an inhuman voice cried out in pain and rage.”

The Tlazitlans were not the people who built Xuchotl. A former slave there asserted that the builders came, not from Atlantis or anywhere in the west, but from the east, in “Old Kosala”. Conan, too, seeing the ancient friezes on the walls, says that they are “easterners, all right … Vendhya, maybe, or Kosala.” He comments on the “disgustingly peaceful life” they must have lived, for their reliefs to depict no conflict. Possibly a large tribe of easterners driven out by fiercer conquerors did trek far to the west and discover the deserted city, just as the Tlazitlans did after them. These Old Kosalans may have settled there, carving their friezes on the ancient walls and leaving other traces. Perhaps they even claimed, after a while, to have been the builders, and believed it – but it wasn’t necessarily true on that account. Olmec says himself that “[Xuchotl] was ancient when [my ancestors] first came into the land. How long it had stood here, not even its degenerate inhabitants knew.”

Certainly the architecture of the two cities has its points of similarity. Negari is not built under a single roof, but there are vast halls and dim corridors, labyrinthine passages through which a man can wander for days without coming out into the sunlight. Xuchotl is covered by a single roof like one vast mansion or castle, divided by courtyards, tiers and a broad corridor running from one outer gate to the other, straight through the city. The difference appears to be one of degree rather than kind. Unlike Xuchotl, Negari does have open spaces, as well as tall towers, but again, this might be accounted for by the differences in size, Xuchotl being much smaller. Perhaps Negari consists essentially of a number of enclosed citadels like Xuchotl, separated by open thoroughfares, squares and plazas.

It’s possible that during the Hyborian Age the people of Negari had super-weapons such as lay in the catacombs of Xuchotl, and ways of growing food without tilling the fields, too. Perhaps by Solomon Kane’s time those devices and weapons were long since corroded, worn out, and no longer functioned. The wizards of Xuchotl had been able to raise the dead bones of prehistoric monsters and make them live again; perhaps, once, those of Negari had possessed the same power. If Queen Nakari remembered such things, or suspected their existence somewhere in the city, she would surely have been more interested in finding them than in having Solomon Kane bring European firearms to equip her warriors. Perhaps that was why she kept the last priest alive and tortured him for a long slow time; in an attempt to extract his secrets.

This dying priest gives Kane his own version of Negari’s history. But he’s a mortal man with a mortal man’s normal life span. Without doubt his elders had taught him sacerdotal fables, distorted over the thousands of years since Atlantis sank. The city of Negari had survived the great cataclysm, followed by a lesser one, which ended the Thurian Age, and then the further disaster which reshaped the world after Conan’s time. This last “Atlantean” priest, as he calls himself, has racial attitudes that would do credit to Adolf Hitler, and he despises Queen Nakari. “Slave and the daughter of a slave!” he spits out. She’s kept him chained in a dungeon and tortured him, so his hatred is easy to understand, but he also scorns her because she doesn’t belong to his race. According to him, she is the daughter of “one of the lesser priests, black men who did the menial work of the brown masters.” He also refers to her as “the black queen” and the people of Negari as “black apes – fools!” In the Ballantine/Del Rey collection I have, he does, anyway. That no doubt is the original text. On the Gutenberg Australia website, the racial slurs are considerably toned down and “barbarian” is substituted for “black.” Nor is Nakari described as a “black” queen, but a “savage” one.

This bowdlerizing is justified if we’re looking solely at making the story less offensive on racial grounds. I cannot see how any black person could read it without rage. But the racial attitudes evident in the story, and the nature and history of Nakari herself (is she a genuine vampire or is she not?) would require an entire post to discuss adequately. Personally, I don’t think the toning-down is a good idea. If nothing else, we need reminders of how short a time it’s been since those attitudes were mainstreamed and accepted. Oh, the racist references jar like hell even on a white person’s sensibilities, these days … but once they were respectable, taken for granted, and maybe we should remember it.

However, this post is chiefly about the city itself, and why its inhabitants were so devilishly cruel, so bloodthirsty, and so mentally unstable. The people of Xuchotl, too, were like that. They lived “a cold, loveless and altogether hideous life” in which their “only emotions were hate, lust, and the urge of sadistic cruelty.” Conan watches one of the Tlazitlan warriors who shows signs of cracking from a traumatic sight, “knowing that Tlazitlan sanity was hung upon a hair-trigger.” In Xuchotl, as in Negari, there is an ancient wizard’s skull which presents “an alien and monstrous aspect.” Techotl, the single friendly Tlazitlan, warns Valeria that “Madness and death lurk in it.” It belonged to one of “the terrible kings who ruled in Xuchotl in the black centuries of the past. To gaze upon it freezes the blood and withers the brain … To touch it causes madness and destruction.”

Negari also contains the skull of an ancient, dreadful wizard, an object of veneration and power. “The skull of evil, the symbol of Death that they worship,” the dying priest tells Kane. It belonged to “the last great wizard of Atlantean Negari … High in the Tower of Death his fleshless skull is set, and on that skull hinge the brains of all the people of Negari.”

Kane has already reached his own conclusions about the people of the city. “They lived, like some terrible beast, only to destroy. There were strange gleams behind their eyes which at times lit those eyes with upleaping flames and shadows of hell … They were the henchmen of death, who stalked among them, and whom they worshipped.”

(The passage reminds me of another well-known REH story which features a living-dead wizard from ancient Atlantis – “Skull-Face”. He speaks of “the old masters, the wise men, who foresaw the day when the sea would gulp the land, and who made ready … ancient kings and grim wizards …” One of the chapter epigraphs quotes Poe … “While from a proud tower in the town, Death looks gigantically down.” And Kathulos, the Skull-Face, also seeks domination over the black and white races alike.)

When Kane finally sees this terrible skull, he notices that it is surrounded by “a faint eery glow,” and assumes that it is “lit somehow from within the tower.” Maybe he’s mistaken. Maybe the glow comes from the skull itself, just as the wizard’s skull in Xuchotl “glowed and pulsed”. And perhaps the two wizards whose brains they once contained were members of the same debatably human race. Kane doesn’t look closely at the skull in Negari’s Tower of Death before he blasts it to bits with his pistol. Perhaps if he had, he too would have concluded that in life “the wearer of that skull must have presented an alien and monstrous aspect.” (“Red Nails.”)

Once the skull is destroyed, “A babble of bestial screams rose to the shuddering stars … All the red visions which lurked at the backs of their corroded brains leaped into fearful life, all the latent insanity which was their heritage rose to claim its own … a whole nation turned to bellowing maniacs.”

REH didn’t write it specifically in “The Moon of Skulls,” but going by what he did write, it’s a fair conclusion that members of any race who lived in close proximity to such a diabolical sorcerer’s skull would soon become blood-lusting, sadistic madmen. The Tlazitlans of Xuchotl and the black Africans of Negari certainly belonged to very different races, but the effect of the wizards’ skulls on them was identical. “They were drunken but not with wine!” as Kane says. “Nay, blood was their drink and in that red flood they dipped deep and terribly.”

Art credits: “Red Nails” by Barry Windsor Smith, “The Moon of Skulls” by Gene Day, Solomon Kane vs. Nakari by Gary Gianni and “Skull-Face” by Ken Kelly