Conan: The Black Stranger

The Black Stranger was unpublished in Robert E. Howard’s lifetime.  It first appears in Fantasy Magazine, in March 1953, seven months after the posthumous publication of God in the Bowl. It is the second and last of his posthumous publications, not counting fragments and pastiches.

Apart from the names of places and protagonists and other cosmetic details, this story is identical with the pirate yarn Swords of the Red Brotherhood, which was eventually published in the Howard anthology Black Vulmea’s Vengeance, Donald M. Grant, 1976. This tale was a prequel to the Spanish Main yarn Black Vulmea’s Vengeance which first appeared in the magazine Golden Fleece in 1938, which stars the Irish freebooter and buccaneer Terrance Vulmea, who is much like Conan in description and action.

The order in which he wrote them is disputed: some say the Conan  story was rewritten as the Vulmea story, others that the Vulmea story was rewritten as a Conan story.

The Red Indians in the Vulmea story are changed to Picts, the Frenchmen to Zingarans, Englishmen to Barachans, the pirate ship War-Hawk changed to the Red-Hand, and the dainty lady Francoise d’Chastillon is the dainty lady Belesa, while her uncle Count Henri is Count Valenso, matchlocks are changed into crossbows, and off we go.

Oddly, the little waif Tina of Paris in the in the golden age of piracy is allowed to keep her name as she is pre-incarnated in the Hyborian Age is as the little waif Tina of Ophir.

Conan of Cimmeria or Vulmea of Ireland?

My personal guess, just based on the theme and structure of the story, is that this was originally a pirate story rewritten to be a Conan story, not the other way around.

For the story is well-constructed as a pirate story, with many a bloody pirate in it, but a poorly-constructed as a Conan story, with precious little Conan in evidence, and who only acts like Conan some of the time.

A dozen tiny details lend weight to my guess: to use one small example, when Conan of Cimmeria comes across a wooden door built into a cave side in untrodden Pictish woodlands, he pauses in surprise to note how unexpected that is.

In the Conan version, his surprise is not justified. For one thing, in the Hyborian Age, with ruins of ancient civilizations dotting the countryside, and a mix of stone-age, cheek-by-jowl with bronze-age, iron-age and medieval works and weapons is everywhere in evidence. For another, Pictland is adjacent to more civilized lands: this spot is three or four day’s journey from fortresses and outposts.

But when the same character, Terrance Vulmea the Irishman, comes across a wooden door of European make in the untrodden Indian woodlands, his surprise is justified.

Conan also is not central to the story, and not the viewpoint character except during the first scene, after which he is whisked offstage for fully half the novella.

Another clue is that the Picts, while often depicted as akin to Indians in Howard’s other tales, here are clearly Indians.

Robert E. Howard had a lifelong fascinations with the Picts, as they summed, for him, both the savage glory and the tragedy of life: he saw them as a tribe unburdened by the strictures of civilization, bold and fearless, but fighting a doomed last battle against the oncoming catastrophe of the cruel civilization of the Roman Empire conquering Britain, men of a twilight which would see no dawn. The stark hopeless courage of this exterminated race — no record of them past AD 900 or so exists — germinated in his imagination, and found expression in his tales from King Kull, Conan the Barbarian, Bran Mak Morn, and Cormac Mac Art.

Picts even appear in his story  The Valley of the Worm, where a tribe of them help the protagonist, an endlessly-reincarnated Nordic hero of many names, from whom perhaps the Eternal Champion of Michael Moorcock takes his inspiration.

Even a warmed-over or readapted Robert E. Howard, however, is still a Robert E. Howard story, and those seeking a dash of verve and adventure should be pleased.

Note the adroit economy of the opening:

ONE moment the glade lay empty; the next, a man stood poised warily at the edge of the bushes. There had been no sound to warn the grey squirrels of his coming. But the gay-hued birds that flitted about in the sunshine of the open space took fright at his sudden appearance and rose in a clamoring cloud. The man scowled and glanced quickly back the way he had come, as if fearing their flight had betrayed his position to some one unseen. Then he stalked across the glade, placing his feet with care. For all his massive, muscular build he moved with the supple certitude of a panther.

He was naked except for a rag twisted about his loins, and his limbs were criss-crossed with scratches from briars, and caked with dried mud. A brown- crusted bandage was knotted about his thickly-muscled left arm. Under his matted black mane his face was drawn and gaunt, and his eyes burned like the eyes of a wounded panther. He limped slightly as he followed the dim path that led across the open space.

Halfway across the glade he stopped short and whirled, catlike, facing back the way he had come, as a long-drawn call quavered out across the forest. To another man it would have seemed merely the howl of a wolf. But this man knew it was no wolf. He was a Cimmerian and understood the voices of the wilderness as a city-bred man understands the voices of his friends.

*** *** ***

Please note what is so quickly and vividly established: the brawny, half-nude figure is wounded, bruised and pursued, but so skilled in woodcraft that he can move without startling squirrels, and distinguish wolf calls from mimicked signals by manhunters moving after him.

The romantic ideal of the noble savage, who, unlike soft and civilized men, has not lost any link with nature, is displayed merely in the mention of pantherish grace and burning eyes. We know this to be a dangerous man.

The pursuers, befeathered and painted like Sioux or Zulu, turn out to be Picts. Frightened off when he retreats into an accursed hill, he enters a door found in a cave, sees an ebony table at which sit motionless and silent figures in the dark.

In the center of the table is a glowing jewels of Tothmekri. (In the Vulmea version of the story, it is a shining heap, and called the jewels of Montezuma.)

But when the enters the cave, his throat is constricted by unseen fingers, and he struggles for his life.

We next meet the dainty Lady Belesa forced to live far from the courts and shining palaces of Zingara (or, as the case may be, France), because her uncle fled to this savage coast for reasons he never admits, only to be shipwrecked here.

The exiled nobleman is an interesting character in his own right, as he tries to maintain the splendor and dignity he lost. Here is a description of the log-build main house in his wooden stockade:

The manor house, as he insisted on calling it, was a marvel for that coast. A hundred men had worked night and day for months building it. Its log-walled exterior was devoid of ornamentation, but, within, it was as nearly a copy of Korzetta Castle as was possible. The logs that composed the walls of the hall were hidden with heavy silk tapestries, worked in gold. Ship beams, stained and polished, formed the beams of the lofty ceiling. The floor was covered with rich carpets. The broad stair that led up from the hall was likewise carpeted, and its massive balustrade had once been a galleon’s rail.

When then have two shiploads of pirates and privateers sail into the bay, one chasing the other, both in pursuit of fabled corsair plunder from a hundred years prior, both of which suspect the Count of possessing it.

There is a clash of arms, a bloody siege, a reprieve, and an uneasy alliance formed when Tina the big-eyed waif sees a black stranger coming from the sea.

The report enrages and terrifies the Count, who, after stripping and whipping the big-eyed waif (in a scene of gratuitous and gross brutality) agrees to force his lovely niece to wed the libidinous privateer captain, in return for passage back to civilization, and escape.

In the Vulmea version, black stranger comes from the sea in an open boat. In the Conan version, as an added eldritch touch, he comes from the sea in a strange black boat with blue fire playing all about it, but not a torch in sight.

The next day, there is a storm which wrecks the privateer ship, and all hope of escape. The Count reveals to the Privateer captain that they are doomed never to leave the accursed coast. The Privateer tell him not to fear the woodland tribes.

The Count says, “I do not speak of red men. I speak of a black man.”

Here is another reason why I suspect the Vulmea version was the original. That is a memorable line, nicely balanced in parallel construction, and rolls off the tongue. In the Conan version, the line reads, “I do not speak of the Picts. I speak of a black man.” It is serviceable and bland.

They are interrupted by the arrival of the pirate ship previously chased away by the privateers. Now the three, the Count, the Pirate, and the Privateer, each has something the other needs, and none can get the treasure without the other two.

I notice the disparaging comments common to Conan stories about the crooked and corrupt nature of civilized men do not appear in this scene where they naturally would land, if this had been a Conan story from the outset.

The parley ends when the pirate and privateer come nigh to blows, but are interrupted by Conan striding into the room, dressed from head to toe in pirate garb, complete with plumed hat, laughing in a roguish pirate fashion, but displaying none of the brooding melancholy for which Conan is famous. Again, another small clue that this is a pirate story with a coat of Conan paint.

I note that illustrations of this story routinely dress Conan in barbarian loincloth, not the lace cuffed shirt, pantaloons, wide boots and plumed hat described in the text.

No one in this story is garbed like this

Likewise for illustrations of the lady, whose garb is particularly described as a low-necked satin gown and jeweled girdle.

No one in this story is garbed like this, either

Interestingly enough, this line appears in the Conan version which is not in the Vulmea version:

And in the midst of her frightened fascination, Belesa’s feminine instinct prompted the speculation as to Conan’s attitude toward her—would it be like Strom’s brutal indifference, or Zarono’s violent desire?

Howard evidently had an well-formed theory as to what drew feminine instincts toward masculine magnetism.

Also, compare these scenes. This is the original:

“I came from the woods,” answered the Irishman. “And I gather there is some dissension over a map!”

“That’s none of your affair,” growled Harston.

“Is this it?” Grinning wickedly, Vulmea drew from his pocket a crumpled object–a square of parchment, marked with crimson lines.

 Note the tone of gay nonchalance. It is consistent for the character. Now compare the Conan version.

‘I came from the woods.’ The Cimmerian jerked his head toward the east.

‘You have been living with the Picts?’ Valenso asked coldly.

A momentary anger flickered bluely in the giant’s eyes. ‘Even a Zingaran ought to know there’s never been peace between Picts and Cimmerians, and never will be,’ he retorted with an oath. ‘Our feud with them is older than the world. If you’d said that to one of my wilder brothers, you’d have found yourself with a split head. But I’ve lived among you civilized men long enough to understand your ignorance and lack of common courtesy—the churlishness that demands his business of a man who appears at your door out of a thousand-mile wilderness. Never mind that.’ He turned to the two freebooters who stood staring glumly at him.

‘From what I overheard,’ quoth he, ‘I gather there is some dissension over a map!’

‘That is none of your affair,’ growled Strom.

‘Is this it?’ Conan grinned wickedly and drew from his pocket a crumpled object—a square of parchment, marked with crimson lines.

Note the jarring change of tone from anger to gay nonchalance. The change is between laughing swashbuckler and brooding barbarian. If one did not have both versions side by side, it would no doubt pass without notice, but once seen, it is obvious.

I also note the insertion of the disparaging comment toward civilization noted earlier. It is not a comment that fits with the theme the story-events, because surely the Picts, who are clearly not corrupted by civilization, greeted the traveling stranger with far less guest-courtesy than the exiled count and the two freebooters.

More to the point, Conan neither asked nor was denied any guest courtesy or right of safe passage, which the Count not only granted, but all the pirates trust his word as inviolate. Conan’s complaint is misplaced here, especially since he scheming to betray and cheat them out of any bargain they make.

As they parley, Conan acts like a laughing Irishman throughout, full of vinegar and blarney. He does not seem in character because he is not: he is Vulmea is a Conan mask.

Also, when we finally discover who the black stranger is, the answer is far more satisfying in the original:

“Who is this black man?” asked Francoise, fear crawling along her spine.

“A juju-man of the Slave Coast,” he whispered, staring at her with weird eyes that seemed to look through her and far beyond to some dim doom.

“I built my wealth on human flesh. When I was younger my ships plied between the Slave Coast and the West Indies, supplying black men to the Spanish plantations. My partner was a black wizard of a coastal tribe. He captured the slaves with his warriors, and I delivered them to the Indies. I was evil in those days, but he was ten times more evil. If ever a man sold his soul to the Devil, he was that man. Even now in nightmares I am haunted by the sights I saw in his village when the moon hung red in the jungle trees, and the drums bellowed, and human victims screamed on the altars of his heathen gods.

“In the end I tricked him out of his share of the trade, and sold him to the Spaniards who chained him to a galley’s oar. He swore an awful vengeance upon me, but I laughed, for I believed not even he could escape the fate to which I had delivered him.

Whereas, in the Conan version, this becomes:

‘Who is this black man?’ asked Belesa, chill fear crawling along her spine.

‘A demon loosed by my greed and lust to plague me throughout eternity!’ he whispered. He spread his long thin fingers on the table before him, and stared at her with hollow, weirdly luminous eyes that seemed to see her not at all, but to look through her and far beyond to some dim doom.

‘In my youth I had an enemy at court,’ he said, as if speaking more to himself than to her. ‘A powerful man who stood between me and my ambition. In my lust for wealth and power I sought aid from the people of the black arts—a black magician, who, at my desire, raised up a fiend from the outer gulfs of existence and clothed it in the form of a man. It crushed and slew my enemy; I grew great and wealthy and none could stand before me. But I thought to cheat my fiend of the price a mortal must pay who calls the black folk to do his bidding.

‘By his grim arts the magician tricked the soulless waif of darkness and bound him in hell where he howled in vain—I supposed for eternity. But because the sorcerer had given the fiend the form of a man, he could never break the link that bound it to the material world; never completely close the cosmic corridors by which it had gained access to this planet. A year ago in Kordava word came to me that the magician, now an ancient man, had been slain in his castle, with marks of demon fingers on his throat. Then I knew that the black one had escaped from the hell where the magician had bound him, and that he would seek vengeance upon me.’

And so on for three more paragraphs. The reader may make his own judgment, but, to my ear, the line is much more powerful and economical that reads I built my wealth on human flesh.

Chills went up my spine when I read of the dread secret haunting the past of Count Henri, and the terrible vengeance vowed on him by the man he betrayed. I was merely bored by the uninspired and detail-free description of the parallel backstory of Count Valenso.

One is more chilling than the other because it is more coherent with the surrounding plot and setting, and simply written with more skill. One imagines Howard dashing off the changes to the Vulmea manuscript in haste, changing as little as possible, in order to post it to a waiting editor. What new material he adds is neither brief nor polished. He does not have the time to keep the story short and tight.

Consider: a Juju-Man of the Slave Coast who captures slaves but was sold into slavery himself is a much more fearful figure than the somewhat generic black shadow in the form of a man. The mention of screaming victims sacrificed to heathen gods is far more chilling that the anodyne report that the demon-shadow crushed an enemy.

More to the point, the Witchdoctor has good cause to seek revenge, and it is impressive almost eerie that any Black African in the Sixteenth Century could makes his way from the Ivory Coast to the New World to do so.

The demon-shadow, on the other hand, only need sail up the coast. Zingara abuts the Pictish lands. It is not clear why he needs a boat. And there is nothing necessarily impressive or fearful about the shadow finding the Count again, because no reason is given as to why he cannot easily do so with whatever demon powers he possesses.

This is a false note. When a savage witchdoctor, whom all civilized men scoff at as a fraud, saves himself from slavery, crosses an ocean on a rowboat, and finds a single man in the vastness of the unexplored New World, the scoffing is choked off in a shock of surprise: for now the figure of fear seems as if he may be supernatural after all.

But when a demon-shadow, said to be demonic, haunts someone he seeks, or creeps through corridors without a sound, because there is no scoffing, there is no shock of surprise to discover him supernatural.

Indeed, in this case, the opposite happens: for an incarnate devil-being, this black stranger never displays any powers or abilities a well-built wrestler or lithe gymnast could not equal.

Instead of being a witchdoctor so subtle that he seems almost supernatural, the black stranger is a devil so bland and mundane that he seems almost natural.

A similar false note is sounded in the tale when the barbarian, the corsair and the privateer find the fabled treasure in the cursed cave. At last we discover what were the unseen fingers choking Conan in the first scene.

These unseen fingers are mephitic vapors released from the underworld by an earthquake, which filled the cave and slew the pirate kings while sitting at their celebration, wealth heaped unspent about them, so their perfectly-preserved corpses still clutch untasted wine-goblets. It is an eerie image.

In the Vulmea version, the vapors are poisonous volcanic vapors, and the Red Indians think them to be evil magic. In the Conan version, the Picts think they are vapors from hell, and Conan thinks so too, and nothing in the story makes it unlikely that they are, because magic is a real and obvious thing in the Hyborian Age.

The interesting irony of having the savages recognize the danger, if even they mistake what we recognize to be the geological and natural cause, is lost if the vapors are magic. The Conan version does not say that the vapor were caused by any sort of “Curse of Tothmekri ” or anything of the sort.

Having men choke on fumes released by an earthquake is an ironic example of blind nature looking like fate. Having men choke on a magic curse released by blind nature during an earthquake, on the other hand, is simply senseless.

The whole point of introducing black magic into any story is to discover things mistaken for natural disasters instead to be the benign or malign will of some hidden spirit, divinity, or distant witch. Having a natural disaster be a magical natural disaster is silly.

The roof of hell is not supposed to crack open and kill evildoers with cursed vapors creeping up from underfoot except on purpose.

At the treasure-cave, the three brigands fall into dispute. After betrayals and counter-betrayals, we find our hero trapped on a hilltop surrounded by pirates trapped at the foot of the hill who are surrounded by savages. He shouts that he could leave them to their fate…but…

But I’m not going to do that!” Vulmea roared. “Not because I have any love for you dogs, but because a white man doesn’t leave white men, even his enemies, to be butchered by red savages.”

In the other version of the story, where the hero is Conan, the line reads:

‘But I’m not going to do that!’ Conan roared. ‘Not because I have any love for you dogs, but because a white man doesn’t leave white men, even his enemies, to be butchered by Picts.’

Which makes no sense, because in Howard’s background, the Zingaran are mongrels of Pictish and fair-haired Hyborian peoples, which means they are related races.  Neither one is related to the dark-haired Cimmerians, who come from Atlantean stock.

Neither race is more “white” than the other, since the whole Hyborian Age explicitly takes place “before the rise of the sons of Aryas” that is, before the Aryan migrations alleged to link Norse and high-caste Hindu bloodlines and form the Caucasian race.

Moreover, in Beyond the Black River, the author explicitly states:  “The Picts were a white race, though swarthy, but the border men never spoke of them as such.”

An Irishman feeling sympathy for fellow Christians in danger of the notorious Red Indian tortures might say that line. Conan would not.

Conan does know and does mention of the endless war between Atlantis and the Picts which outlasts epochs of the world: So he should have mentioned this, not asserted a racial solidary which does not exist in the invented background of the Hyborian Age.

Once more, I note this exchange:

“I am afraid,” murmured Tina. “I hope Villiers and Harston are killed.”

“And not Vulmea?” asked Francoise curiously.

“Black Vulmea would not harm a woman,” said the child confidently.

“You are wise beyond your years, Tina,” murmured Francoise.

The parallel version strikes my ear as stiff and forced:

‘I am afraid,’ murmured Tina. ‘I hope Strom and Zarono are killed.’

‘And not Conan?’ asked Belesa curiously.

‘Conan would not harm us,’ said the child, confidently. ‘He lives up to his barbaric code of honor, but they are men who have lost all honor.’

‘You are wise beyond your years, Tina,’ said Belesa, with the vague uneasiness the precocity of the girl frequently roused in her.

The girl does seem precocious, but there is no reason for Belesa’s unease. That Vulmea would not harm “a woman” shows he is indeed chivalrous; that Conan would not harm “us” does not necessarily show anything.

Even as Tina is confidently asserting Conan’s code of honor, he is provoking the two pirates into attacking each other, and leading them into an ambush of poisoned gas. I can think of few things less honorable. But, on the other hand, he does save pirates from Picts, and women and children from both.


With his help, the pirates escape the savages and make it back to the stockade, where they prepare for battle.

Fighting rages in the midst of a burning fortress, as buccaneers suddenly betray each other, allowing themselves to be overwhelmed by the savages from the forest. The Count, the Corsair and the Privateer die. Our hero meets the Black Stranger in the burning manor house.

In the Vulmea tale, out of the smoke comes the tall black witch-doctor, who raises a blowgun to slay the Irishman with a poisoned dart; but the strength and swiftness of our hero allows him to tear up a massive silver bench and hurl it on the fellow, who falls into the fireplace, bones broken, and a mantlepiece falls in on him.

In the Conan version, Conan merely shouts the words “Silver and fire!” and performs the same action. So apparitions from the outer dimensions can be killed by silver benches, if thrown into a fireplace. This tidbit of magic lore is mentioned later. A properly constructed story would have contrived a way to put this tidbit earlier into the text.

Conan, the dainty damsel, and the waif escape. At one point the brawny giant picks up waif and damsel and hauls them bodily up over the stockade wall and away from danger.

The damsel knows herself to be perfectly safe in the company of a barbarian, because they live by a strict honor code of chivalry, and are always courteous to ladies.

While I would be willing to believe a French lady might think this about an Irish pirate, him being Catholic and such, there is nothing any other Conan story to suggest a noble maiden of primordial Zingara would ever entertain such a notion about the pirate described in Queen of the Black Coast or Iron Shadows in the Moonlight.

Nonetheless, Conan is Conan, and in this case her faith in his honor is sound.

In the end, while the immense treasure remains resting in the poisoned cave, Conan recovered a handful of rubies, which he gives to the damsel and waif.

I know what it is to be penniless in a Hyborian land. Now in my country sometimes there are famines; but people are hungry only when there’s no food in the land at all. But in civilized countries I’ve seen people sick of gluttony while others were starving. Aye, I’ve seen men fall and die of hunger against the walls of shops and storehouses crammed with food. Sometimes I was hungry, too, but then I took what I wanted at sword’s-point. But you can’t do that. So you take these rubies. You can sell them and buy a castle, and slaves and fine clothes, and with them it won’t be hard to get a husband, because civilized men all desire wives with these possessions.’

The tale ends with this rather heavy handed condemnation of civilized men, with a sneer at their mercenary marital motives, when compared to the egalitarian generosity of savages, and their chivalry toward the fairer sex.

Of course, this is the exact opposite of the truth, since savages, by and large, are savage, and their customs of marriage-by-captive and polygamy are not much better, but if one is not willing to glamorize barbarism as wholesome and vilify civilization as corrupt, one cannot enjoy a Conan the Barbarian story.

The unrealism of glorifying all things uncivilized is the main thing one must suspend when suspending disbelief to allow the mesmeric spell of the tale to take hold.

Indeed mesmeric are the last words of all, the last words ever penned by Howard to issue from the mouth of Conan.

‘A ship and a crew are all I want. As soon as I set foot on that deck, I’ll have a ship, and as soon as I can raise the Barachans I’ll have a crew. The lads of the Red Brotherhood are eager to ship with me, because I always lead them to rare loot. And as soon as I’ve set you and the girl ashore on the Zingaran coast, I’ll show the dogs some looting! Nay, nay, no thanks! What are a handful of gems to me, when all the loot of the southern seas will be mine for the grasping?   

A perfect curtain line! These words rise like a trumpet flourish, and all the adventure and bloodshed and glamor of the long forgotten age seems to echo in them.

A ship and a crew are all I want…

Had I not read both versions side by side, I do not think I would have noticed the slight differences between Conan and Vulmea.

The paint job of turning one hero into another is passable, but not perfect. The insistence that Conan is honorable, while betraying his allies into an ambush of poison, is odd. The laughing Irishman and grim Cimmerian overlap in many ways, but do not quite mesh.

Nonetheless, the story is not the worst Conan story of all time, merely the one with the least Conan in it.

In sum, the story is still worth reading, for some of the elements necessary for a Conan story are present, if perhaps awkwardly inserted, and Vulmea can sometimes pass for Conan in a bad light.

However, if choosing between the two, I recommend reading Swords of the Red Brotherhood, which is a better story, more well constructed and more even in tone.

I propose we grant the title of the last Conan story to the far superior Red Nails.

*** *** ***

Here ends the collected reviews of all the original Conan stories in publication order. The reason for he stature of the hero, his undying place in the popular imagination, and the skill displayed in the craft of writing during the tragically short career of Robert E. Howard, have been examined and applauded.

I hope the reader’s admiration for the mythic figure of Conan and the pen bringing him to life anew each generation is not less than my own.