Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Dark man/Night of the Dark God

Some of you may have noticed that often, when I review one of Robert E. Howard's stories, I include a review of the Marvel comic book adaptation. This is primarily because in a great number of instances I read the adaptation long before I read the original. Such was the case with Night of the Dark God, a Conan-ized version of REH's Turlogh Dubh O'Brien story, the Dark Man originally published in Savage tales #4 back in 1974.
Conan scripter Roy Thomas was a big REH fan and in various interviews he talks about how much he enjoyed adapting Howard's Conan stories into comics form. However there were a very few Conan stories to adapt and Thomas, wanting to get as much REH into the comic book as possible, began looking around for other, non-Conan Howard stories to adapt. In this, he may have been following in the footsteps of L. Sprague de Camp, but to my mind, Thomas had a better grasp on the character of Conan and did a better job with the adaptations. Unlike de Camp, who seemed to feel that Howard's work needed 'fixing', Thomas seemed to feel 'the more Howard, the better."
Thomas had a guide for identifying how much rewriting he had done on an adaptation. If the credit box read simply "adapted from the story by Robert E. Howard", then Thomas had stayed very close to the original. "Freely" adapted meant that Thomas had taken more liberties, and this was usually the case with the non-Conan adaptations. However, as we'll see, in comparing Dark God with Dark Man, even many of the free adaptations stay very close to the originals. Thomas begins Night of the Dark God with the same quote Howard put at the front of the Dark Man.

"For this is the night of the drawing of swords,
And the painted tower of the heathen hordes
Leans to our hammers, fires and cords,
Leans a little and falls."

In the Dark Man, Turlogh Dubh learns that a member of his clan, the same clan that cast him out, has been kidnapped by Norsemen, more particularly by one Thorfel the Fair and taken to the Norseman's island stronghold. The kidnapped girl, Moria, is the daughter a chief of the Dalcassians, but her people are embroiled in a border war with two other clans and can't spare many men to search for her. Turlogh, though outcast, is determined to rescue Moria.
In Dark God, a weary Conan has returned for a visit to his homeland of Cimmeria only to find that Mara, a girl he might have married if not for his wandering spirit, has been taken in a raid by the Vanir. The Vanir are enough like Norsemen that Thomas leaves most of their names intact, thus Conan too is seeking Thorfel the Fair.
Conan 'borrows' a fisherman's boat to get to Thorfel's island. (It's on a lake, not the sea, since Cimmeria isn't near the ocean.) In this scene, Thomas uses as much of Howard's prose and dialog as possible, changing mostly place names and adding Hyborian age references, though he does somewhat alter the fisherman's motivations for handing over his boat.
Conan takes the boat out into stormy waters. While seeking the island he comes across a drifting wooden ship. On board he finds a bunch of dead Vanir and about half their number in corpses of smaller, dark swarthy men who Conan recognizes as Picts. In the prow of the boat, Conan sees a statue carved from some strange black stone. He realizes that the Picts have died for this statue and that it was a king or a god to them.
The scene plays out mostly the Same in the Dark Man, though Turlogh finds Norsemen and Picts (Turlogh doesn't recognize the Picts as such) on a small island rather than a drifting boat. Both Turlogh and Conan load the statue into their respective boats, finding the solid relic amazingly lightweight and easy to carry.
The next few pages of the Conan story follow The Dark man almost scene per scene. Conan/Turlogh becomes lost in a sudden storm but hears a voice, that he somehow knows is the Dark Man, guiding him. When the storm clears he is looking at Thorfel's island. Going ashore Turlogh/Conan makes his way slowly and carefully through the woods to the back of Thorfel's great hall. But before he can approach, Conan/Turlogh hears someone coming from the same direction he just came and hiding, he spies two Norsemen/Vanir lurching along, carrying the statue of the Dark Man. Amazingly, two huge men can barely carry the statue which Turlogh/Conan lifted with ease. Conan/Turlogh lets the men go past, then tries to sneak up to the hall. He is almost undone when someone comes out a side door, but he crushes the man's throat and kills him soundlessly. Entering through the side door Turlogh/Conan finds himself in a storeroom which leads to a small, hide hung door through which he can see the goings on in the main room.
Here, Moria/Mara is being forced to wed Thorfel. In the Dark Man it is a Christian priest who is to reluctantly perform the ceremony, and in the Conan tale it is a priest of Mitra. Even Conan/Turlogh, though consumed by rage, realizes that he can't win a fight against the entire roomful of warriors and he plans to allow the wedding to take place, then attack Thorfel when he and his bride are alone, but fate steps in. Moria/Mara refuses to marry Thorfel and the Viking threatens to make her a slave if she won't be a bride. Moria/Mara, unaware that possible rescue is at hand, tells Thorfel that she will be neither, and snatching a dagger from Thorfel's belt, she drives it under her own heart and falls to the floor.
This is a moment of catharsis in The Dark Man. Turlogh's anger has been building and building for the entire story and with this one line, Howard turns his hero loose:

"Silence reigned for an instant, and in that instant Turlogh O'Brien went mad."

Turlogh lunges into the room in a scene that only Robert E. Howard could write.

"Lamh Laidir Abu!" the war cry of the O'Briens ripped through the stillness like the scream of a wounded panther, and as men whirled toward the shriek, the frenzied Gael came through the doorway like the blast of a wind from Hell. He was in the grip of the Celtic black fury beside which the berserk rage of the Viking pales. Eyes glaring and a tinge of froth on his writhing lips, he crashed among the men who sprawled, off guard, in his path. Those terrible eyes were fixed on Thorfel at the other end of the hall, but as Turlogh rushed he smote to right and left. His charge was the rush of a whirlwind that left a litter of dead and dying men in his wake"

Conan's entrance is almost word for word and both men wreak havoc in their respective halls, but eventually the weight of numbers begins to take its toll. However, just when it looks like Conan/Turlogh must fall, a Pictish war band breaks in. They have been seeking their stolen idol and the slayers of their kin. The hall runs red.
I noted, as I was reading the Dark Man, that while Howard's sympathies were doubtless with the Picts and the Gael, he still shows the Vikings as equally fierce and skilled. The battle is anything but one sided, and there are many Picts slain before it's over.
As the battle winds down, Conan and Turlogh each finally gets to his version of Thorfel. Turlogh cleaves him almost from neck to waist and then severs his head. Conan pins him to a door with his sword. When Turlogh reaches the dying Moria, he shows the grizzly head to his clanswoman so that she may know she was avenged. Conan shares a more tender moment with Mara before she slips away.
The Picts recognize Conan/Turlogh as a friend of the Dark man so they not only let him live, but also tell him about the statue. To Turlogh they explain that The Dark Man is a statue of Bran Mak Morn, and they believe that Bran's ghost resides within the statue. REH fans will of course recognize Bran Mak Morn as the hero of Howard stories like Kings of the Night and the matchless Worms of the Earth.
Now here, Roy Thomas could have hit a stumbling block, because Conan lived many thousands of years before Bran Mak Morn, so obviously the Dark Man statue can't be Bran in the Conan story. But Robert E. Howard himself supplied an answer. Brogar, the chief of the Picts tells Turlogh O'Brien:

" Rome broke the Britons and came against us. But there rose among us Bran Mak Morn, of the blood of Brule the Spear-slayer, the friend of King Kull of Valusia who reigned thousands of years ago before Atlantis sank."

And so Thomas made the Dark Man a statue of Brule the Spear Slayer, which works well in context. Kull had his own comic book at the time, so he and Brule were probably know to readers of Savage Tales.
Both stories end the same, with Turlogh/Conan vowing to take the body of Moria/Mara home to be buried among her own people. The priest, seeing the dawn turn the waters of the sea/lake to the color of blood, asks Conan/Turlogh when the reign of blood will cease and the Gael/Cimmerian answers "Not so long as the race lasts."
All and all, a fine adaptation and I think even those who don't approve of writers turning non-Conan tales into such will agree that if an adaptation has to be done, one done with respect and attention to detail of the source material is preferable.
Since I am discussing the comic book story as well as the original, I should say a few words about the art. Gil Kane, one of my personal favorite artists did the pencils in cinematic style. Kane's pacing, visual story telling, and knack for drawing figures in action all shine here. The inking is by the somewhat odd combo of Neal Adams & 'diverse hands'. Most of it looks like Neal, so I suspect he missed a deadline and the other folks had to pitch in. Pablo Marcos added the gray tones for the black & white magazine.
A final note. A character from the Dark Man who isn't seen in Night of the Dark God is Athelstane the Saxon. Thomas needed no analog for Athelstane in this story, however the Saxon would play a big part in the next Turlogh O'Brien tale, The Gods of Bal-Sagoth, which was also adapted as a Conan story for the color comic Conan the Barbarian issues #17 and #18. For the burly Saxon, Thomas used Fafnir, originally a throw away character meant to represent Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd in Conan the Barbarian issue #6. Athelstane would have presumably continued as Turlogh's companion in adventure since he and Turlogh are still together in the unfinished story Shadow of the Hun, which picks up immediately following The Gods of Bal-Sagoth.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your review. I'd read this story in a Marvel Treasury edition and always wanted to know more about it.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Very glad you found the review helpful. It was a great story in both versions.