Wednesday, January 05, 2011

A Witch Shall Be Born

According to Patrice Louinet's excellent essay, Hyborian Genesis, Robert E. Howard's story A Witch Shall Be Born was probably begun only a few days after Howard had finished his only Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon. Louinet goes on to point out that Witch isn't Howard at his best. I'm pretty much in agreement with that, though I think the story does have some good points. (It's also justly famous as the story where Conan is crucified.)
It looked to me as if Witch was another example of Howard's continuing experimentation with the Cimmerian because Conan is almost a secondary character in this one. The story is more about Taramis, the queen of Khauran and her sister the titular witch, Salome, once again showing that some uninformed critics of Howard, who claim that all the Conan stories are written to some sort of formula, obviously aren't paying attention. The further REH went with Conan, the more experimenting he did with story structures, characters, settings, etc.
The story begins late at night in Taramis's bedchamber when the queen sees what she at first thinks is an apparition, a glowing version of her own face, but this face is twisted by hatred and evil. We learn in short order that this is Taramis's twin sister, Salome, who had the misfortune to be born with a crescent shaped birthmark, a sign that she is a witch. (She also weighs the same as a duck. Just kidding.) As a result, the newborn Salome had been taken into the desert and left there to die.
Unfortunately for Taramis and her subjects, Salome was found by a magician from far Khitai, returning home after a journey to Stygia. The magician recognized the crescent mark and rescued the girl, planning to make her a powerful sorcerer. Salome proved a poor student and she and the magician eventually fell out, allowing her to pursue her own plans of bloody revenge. Impersonating her sister the queen, Salome, aided by the Kothic warlord Constantius and his Shemitish mercenaries, begins a systematic reign of terror against the kingdom that exiled and abandoned her. Human Sacrifices, wild orgies (featuring unwilling participants, both male and female) , public torture, and the conjuring of a nasty Lovecraftian demon are just a few of the things that Salome does to say thanks to her home town.
What impresses me about Witch is that while Conan is offstage for probably 80 percent of this story, he is still a powerful presence. People talk about him quite a bit, keeping him in the readers thoughts and making those places where he does appear all the more impressive. When the big Cimmerian gets back on his feet after being crucified and left for dead, you know that heads are literally going to roll. You don't want to be in town when Conan comes for payback. As I said, perhaps not REH's best Conan, but definitely an interesting story with some nice bits of characterization. Certainly not the worst Conan yarn by any stretch.
I originally encountered A Witch Shall Be Born as a comic book adaptation in Savage Sword of Conan #5. After re-reading Robert E. Howard's original story a few nights ago, I dug out that issue of SSoC for a re-read too. Holds up very well. Roy Thomas did his usual bang up job of adapting REH's work, keeping much of Howard's dialog and staying close to the source material. Most of the few changes he made were to give Conan a bit more screen time. He extended Conan's battle with Salome's pet demon, but it still ends the way it did in the original story. The art is by Big John Buscema at his savage best, with inks by Tony deZuniga and the Tribe. (The Tribe was any and all inkers that happened to be working for Tony when a deadline loomed.) The comic adaptation can be found in volume one of Dark Horse Comic's current Savage Sword reprint series, along with other Thomas Buscema adaptations, such as Iron Shadows in the Moon and Black Colossus. The original story is in Del Rey's The Bloody Crown of Conan. Great stuff.

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