Conan: Rogues in the House

Rogues in the House, the seventh published Conan story, first was published in Weird Tales, January 1934.

Here, Robert E Howard has finally hit his stride: the characters, the action, and above all the theme leap vividly from the page and into a permanent place in the reader’s imagination. This is a fan favorite, and for good reason. If you want to introduce Conan to someone who has never read a Hyborian Age tale, this is the one to recommend.

And I do recommend it. Please read no further if you have not read it, because I must spoil several clever twists in order to discuss them.

The plot is straightforward in concept, even if carried out with surprising reversals: a corrupt and treasonous young aristocrat named Murilo springs Conan from death row and promises him yellow gold if he will break into the deadly house of an even more corrupt and even more treasonous old priest named Nabonidus, and murder the old man in cold blood.

If Conan fails, the corrupt old priest will whisper in the king’s ear, and have Murilo executed.

The twists happen immediately: Murilo hears that the corrupt jailer who was supposed to free Conan is arrested. He assumes Conan did not escape, and so he goes to the mysterious house of Nabonidus to do the deed himself. He passes a dead watchdog and enters an oddly unlocked door, to approach a hunched figure seated, perhaps in slumber, and wearing the deep hood and rich red cloak of the high priest. The figure stirs and stands, and in the hood is no human face at all, but a fanged apelike visage, perhaps a demon from hell. Is Nabonidus in truth a were-beast able to shed his human shape? Murilo faints.

Murilo’s assumption is wrong. The corrupt jailer had been actually arrested for some unrelated crime, and replaced on his watch by an honest jailer. Conan brains the honest man with a beefbone and lets himself out of the jail. Nonetheless, his barbarian sense of honor requires him to continue on the murder mission, but only after he avenges himself on the half-naked blonde wench who sold Conan to the police, and the young thug she took as her new lover. The thug is murdered in the dark, the wench is dropped into sewage.

More twists: the house of Nabonidus turns out to be defended by a set of secret passages, one-way mirrors, unbreakable glass walls, poisonous vapor traps, and sliding panels worthy of Fu Manchu or H.H. Holmes, complete with a buried labyrinth designed to trap victims, and acid vats beneath to dispose of bodies.

Murilo finds himself locked in the pitch black maze, and stumbles across Conan in the dark, and would have been gutted instantly by him, had not the acute senses of the barbarian recognized his employer by the scent in his perfumed hair.

A second twist is that Nabonidus is also trapped in the buried maze.

His house of death-traps is also defended by Thak, who is a half-ape half-man discovered in a far country, some early Cro-Magnan or Missing Link lingering from the antediluvian world and into the Hyborian Age. Thak had been the loyal pet and bodyguard for many years of his evil master, but conceived in his savage, dull, apelike mind the desire to ape Nabonidus in all ways, to become him by stunning his master, locking him in the maze, and dressing in his robe.

Now the three rogues together must combine forces to overcome the monstrous Thak, while wary for the expected betrayal of each other.

The three watch, aghast, through a periscope, as a group of loyal nationalists, coming to assassinate Nabonidus, are locked behind transparent, airtight panels and exterminated by venous gas … for the ape-man had watched his master over the years, and knew which bellropes to pull or switches to close to release the doom of the gray lotus. While Thak is occupied deposing of the bodies (a trick he also learned by mimicking Nabonidus), the three emerge from the secret panel, and launch a desperate attack on the brute.

Mayhem, betrayal, and bloodshed ensue. For what happens next, please read the tale yourself. It is worth the idle hour.

There are several things to note about this tale that make it good, and one thing that lifts it above that, makes it great. The economy of wording, the rapid pace of the action, and the sustained mood of danger and horror, and Howard’s ability to portray a vivid and memorable complexity of character and motive, mostly bad motive, in a few curt lines of dialog make the story good. The relentless theme is what makes it great.

It is not a theme I myself believe, but I can see the hand of a master-craftsman at work when I see it.  You do not have to like the point Howard is making with this story, but, by gosh, look at how well he makes it. By the same token, I do not myself adore the pagan gods of Olympus, but I would be as blind as Homer if I did not see Homer’s genius in the ILIAD and ODYSSEY.

What theme? Let me place the elements before your eyes, dear reader.

As he stalks the unlit streets of the filthy city, Conan is, for once, dressed in his costume later illustrators made his trademark:

He discarded his ragged tunic and moved off through the night naked but for a loincloth.

I note in passing that this is one of the few times he is garbed, or ungarbed, thus.

Conan is not the viewpoint character at first. He is not even given a name yet. We hear of him through the reports of spies working for Murilo. He is mentioned in passing:

There was a priest of Anu whose temple, rising at the fringe of the slum district, was the scene of more than devotions. The priest was fat and full-fed, and he was at once a fence for stolen articles and a spy for the police. He worked a thriving trade both ways, because the district on which he bordered was the Maze, a tangle of muddy, winding alleys and sordid dens, frequented by the bolder thieves in the kingdom. Daring above all were a Gunderman deserter from the mercenaries and a barbaric Cimmerian. Because of the priest of Anu, the Gunderman was taken and hanged in the market square. But the Cimmerian fled, and learning in devious ways of the priest’s treachery, he entered the temple of Anu by night and cut off the priest’s head. There followed a great turmoil in the city, but the search for the killer proved fruitless until a woman betrayed him to the authorities and led a captain of the guard and his squad to the hidden chamber where the barbarian lay drunk.

This is not the high priest, obviously, who was beheaded, merely a venal priest preying off the poor and downtrodden, and cheating the police.

Murilo visits him in jail and sees his man.

Even in the dim light of the dungeon, with his limbs loaded with chains, the primitive power of the man was evident. His mighty body and thick-muscled limbs combined the strength of a grizzly with the quickness of a panther. Under his tangled black mane his blue eyes blazed with unquenchable savagery.

When Conan is asked, in return for his escape, to kill the most rich and powerful man in the kingdom, the barbarian’s reaction is this:

The Cimmerian showed no sign of surprise or perturbation. He had none of the fear or reverence for authority that civilization instills in men. King or beggar, it was all one to him.

When the three are trapped together in the buried labyrinth, the two civilized men exchange words. The corrupt old high-priest speaks first.

“I had suspected you for some time. That was why I caused that pallid court secretary to disappear. Before he died he told me many things, among others the name of the young nobleman who bribed him to filch state secrets, which the nobleman in turn sold to rival powers. Are you not ashamed of yourself, Murilo, you white-handed thief?”

“I have no more cause for shame than you, you vulture-hearted plunderer,” answered Murilo promptly. “You exploit a whole kingdom for your personal greed; and, under the guise of disinterested statesmanship, you swindle the king, beggar the rich, oppress the poor, and sacrifice the whole future of the nation for your ruthless ambition. You are no more than a fat hog with his snout in the trough. You are a greater thief than I am. This Cimmerian is the most honest man of the three of us, because he steals and murders openly.”

This statement is as clear as the last line of an Aesop fable, if Aesop ever wrote cynical film noir type yarns.

In adventure tales, there are usually three types of villains: the savage, who overcomes his foes by brute strength; the dandy, who is charming to the ladies, quick with his wits and quick with his rapier; and the mastermind, who is usually old, sometimes dwarfish, and often blessed with occult powers, who intellect is his weapon. In this story, all three are on display. Conan is the savage, Murilo is the dandy, and Nabonidus is the mastermind.

But, unexpectedly for a Weird Tale, no occult nor psychic powers are involved. Nabonidus has deadly gadgets like Fu Manchu living in the lair of a Bond villain, but no magic.

We often seen the scene where the young schoolteacher or scientist and the old peasant wife both see something spooky, and the scientist says there must be a rational explanation, and old wife says croaks a warning that it is from the night world. If the scientists is right, you are in a science fiction story, or an episode of SCOOBY-DOO. If the crone is right, you are in a horror story or a fantasy.

But Howard and Lovecraft and the whole weird circle of the weird tales genre ignores such imperial boundaries like smugglers and rogues should. In this tale, the evidence that the high priest is a were-creature is a red herring. All his cunning traps, in fact, are mechanical.

As the rogues are peering through a vision plate, operated by mirrors, Conan wonders how Thak does not see through the window and merely break it.

Murilo realized that Conan supposed the mirror to be a window through which they were looking.

“He does not see us,” answered the priest. “We are looking into the chamber above us. That door that Thak is guarding is the one at the head of these stairs. It is simply an arrangement of mirrors. Do you see those mirrors on the walls? They transmit the reflection of the room into these tubes, down which other mirrors carry it to reflect it at last on an enlarged scale in this great mirror.”

Murilo realized that the priest must be centuries ahead of his generation, to perfect such an invention; but Conan put it down to witchcraft and troubled his head no more about it.

Nor is Conan wrong, except literally. Nabonidus is plying a craft as clever as the hollow statues equipped with speaking or self opening temple doors designed by ancient engineers to fool the victims of the pious frauds of priests.

Let me emphasize how craftily Howard makes his point without dwelling on it, without ever slowing the action or mounting a soapbox, a temptation to which all to many lesser writers (myself included) are prone.

Everyone is corrupt. All are sinners. But better are the men who are honest and open about it, only because the charge of hypocrisy cannot be leveled against them. But let us see how each man dies who dies:

We know Conan makes it out of the mansion of death alive, because we have already seen him as a weary king in later years in an earlier story. Thak does not make it. He dies in combat, as befits a beast-man of his savage nature. Nor does the wicked old high-priest. The wicked young noble? He lives happily ever after. In his case, crime pays.

While Murilo is described as dressing like a foppish dandy, complete with perfumed curls in his hair, the very first thing said about him in the tale is that he is no weakling. He is clearly a crook, and he is selling state secrets to enemies, making him a traitor as well. But he is not a coward, and, more the point, he keeps faith with Conan, and even with Nabonidus, once he gives it. Only his oath of fealty to the king evidently means nothing.

Compare that with Nabonidus. The moment Conan overcomes the ape-man Thak, and he is safely next to one of his secret switches that to trigger a deadly man-trap, Nabonidus vaunts and sneers and utters a monologue.

He excuses himself on a technicality: he only swore not to turn Murilo over to the king for treason, not to spare his life if opportunity arose to stab him in the back!

Before he can throw the switch, however, Conan flings a stool at his head and breaks his skullbones. Nabonidus is slain in mid-sentence, dead before his body hits the ground. Murilo, realizing each chamber in the house contains some death trap or other, suggests departure.

“It is dawn,” he said. “Let us get out of here, before we fall afoul of some other doom. If we can climb the outer wall without being seen, we shall not be connected with this night’s work. Let the police write their own explanation.”

He glanced at the body of the Red Priest where it lay etched in crimson, and shrugged his shoulders. “He was the fool, after all; had he not paused to taunt us, he could have trapped us easily.”

“Well,” said the Cimmerian tranquilly, “he’s travelled the road all rogues must walk at last. I’d like to loot the house, but I suppose we’d best go.”

Compare and contrast this humiliating, unworthy death with that of the half-ape half-man Conan with such mad savagery is barely able to overcome.

Nabonidus was staring down at the still figure as if he could not believe his own eyes. Black, hairy, abhorrent, the monster lay, grotesque in the tatters of the scarlet robe; yet more human than bestial, even so, and possessed somehow of a vague and terrible pathos.

Even the Cimmerian sensed this, for he panted: “I have slain a man tonight, not a beast. I will count him among the chiefs whose souls I’ve sent into the dark, and my women will sing of him.”

That is chivalry. Pause a moment in awe to reflect how rarely such noble sentiment is spoken in our modern day.

Conan honors a fallen foe whom all others saw as a beast. He alone, facing him in a fight to the death, saw the other man’s true worth.

As in all gnostic myths, the hierarchy of the world is inverted when seen truly. The priests in this tale are not the peak of sanctity, but the nadir of corruption: the lesser ones are police informants and fences, petty criminals, and the high priest is an arch criminal, a mass murderer who has bedeviled and suborned the true government.

The nobleman is ignoble, a mere traitor who hires bravos to murder his rivals, but, ironically, he has some decency and honor. If he gives his word to a fellow rogue when planning a murder, he keeps it.

Basically, the like the good thief crucified next to Christ, he is the good bad guy. The highpriest is the bad bad guy. Both are bad guys, the difference being that one keeps his word … sometimes.

Conan, as the criminal lowlife, is even more noble, and also keeps his word, carries out obligations without consulting technicalities of wording, and is even chivalrous enough to let wenches who betray him for money to the police escape with a mere dunking into filth. Thugs who steal his woman, on the other hand, the barbarian dirks to death in the dark without a word.

Thak the beast man is the oddest case. Conan salutes him as a chieftain, a worthy foe. It is interesting to note that all Thak’s sadistic acts, as when he poisons a group of assassins, Thak learned from civilization.

But he is the only one in the story who took no money for his treason, and betrayed no spoken oaths. His conscience, ironically, is perhaps the most clean.

Conan is not deceived by the hierarchy that puts priests and nobles so far above outlaws and rogues and naked savages.

The point of Conan stories is to denigrate civilization as a corrupt influence, and to glorify barbarism not just as a source of physical health, but also of moral cleanliness.

Taken literally, it is perhaps the most cynical view of life imaginable. This view holds that all evils of man spring from laws and institutions, but that man in his natural state is hale, wholesome, and hardy. Taken literally, this view is an open absurdity. Good and evil are found among all men, great and meek, civilized and barbaric.

Civilized men with an atom bomb can burn a city and slay its people in a moment, but Huns, Mongols, and Muslims can do the same with swords and torches over a longer period, and yet pile a pyramid of skulls no less high. It is no praise of the paleolithic caveman that he never committed piracy on the high seas in the years before the invention of the canoe. Likewise, Eskimos never dive-bombed any civilian cities.

The difference is that civilized men, when they remember to act civilized, restrict their native impulses toward violence by certain codes of honor, conventions of war, and behave with the chivalry and courtesy, that here, in this fantasy, is found only in the robust and broadminded barbarian.

But I do not think Howard, or anyone, literally prefers savagery to civilization. But the metaphor is clear. The warning that wealth and power brings temptation, and sloth and pride brings corruption, is once ever present in this kind of tale.

The metaphor hides a truth. Something about life outside all civilized bounds, at one with nature, reminds us perhaps of Eden, and makes us regret the sins and wearisome compromises simpler eras could not tempt man to commit.

The grim reminder of the brevity of life is one that holds the haunting echo of many a melancholy pagan, great men of elder days who died young, like Achilles, or beneath a treasonous blade, like Agamemnon. Say what you like about barbarians, they are not wealthy and powerful enough to surround themselves in am airtight cocoon of lies, and they see the need for something beyond this life.

Conan’s curtain line as he departs the house of rogues is this:

“There’s many a highway I want to travel before I walk the road Nabonidus walked this night.”