I was somewhat surprised when my friend Germano chose Shadows in The Moonlight, published originally in Weird Tales in the April 1934 issue, as the first of his two Robert E. Howard re-read stories.
Shadows in the Moonlight – that was adapted in a comic as Iron Shadows in the Moonlight – is a story I read a long time ago and barely left a mark. Much as I still remember vividly specific scenes from many other Conan stories, this one… not so much.
But because of this I was very interested in what my re-reading of the story would bring to the table.
Shadows in the Moonlight takes us to the shores of the Vilayet Sea, and with its references to the Kozaki and oriental references, shows us – at least in the opening chapter – Harold Lamb’s influence on Robert E. Howard.
We open with Olivia, once daughter of the King of Ophir but now just a slave girl, being pursued by Turanian potentate Shah Amurath. Conan’s sudden appearance puts an end to Amurath’s lecherous intentions. We learn that after a stint as a mercenary, Conan has been part of a multi-ethnic band of raiders, the Kozaki, that Amurath massacred.
To shake any possible pursuer, Conan and Olivia reach a supposedly desert island, where they find a mysterious abandoned ruin, with a scattering of strange life-like iron statues. Olivia – that is somewhat of a scaredy-cat – has a strange nightmare about the origin and nature of the statues.
Some strange creatures lives in the jungle that covers the island.
Conan is captured. Olivia, chased by the strange creature, rescues him.
Conan kills the creature – a giant ape.
The pirates are slaughtered by the re-animated statues.
Conan takes command of the pirates, takes their ship, and looks forward to a life of piracy, with Olivia as his girl.
A lot of stuff happens in this story, that as a consequence feels – to me, at least – a little overcrowded.
Mind you, there is nothing wrong about this story.
And indeed, upon re-reading it, I found at least two elements that made it more memorable than I remembered.
First, there is the way in which Conan – only survivor of a disastrous battle, hell-bent on vengeance – first appears on the scene…
Olivia, staring up from the ground, saw what she took to be either a savage or a madman advancing on Shah Amurath in an attitude of deadly menace. He was powerfully built, naked but for a girdled loin-cloth, which was stained with blood and crusted with dried mire. His black mane was matted with mud and clotted blood; there were streaks of dried blood on his chest and limbs, dried blood on the long straight sword he gripped in his right hand. From under the tangle of his locks, bloodshot eyes glared like coals of blue fire.Shadows in the Moonlight, chapter 1
There is a raw animal nature to Conan as he stalks on the stage, an unrestrained violence, that vanishes as soon as his vengeance is done, and Shah Amurath turned into dead meat.
The second interesting element is the fact that Conan actually needs to be rescued by Olivia – that otherwise would be the standard scared, anxious wench, swoon-prone and in need of being protected, so common in sword & sorcery to have become a cliché. But Conan, for all his combat skills, gets knocked out after a duel, and it’s up to the girl to cut him free.
The story also features Howard’s barbarism vs civilization theme, this time served us through the experiences of Olivia, that indeed is – through most of the story – the main point of view character.
Her father, and Shah Amurath, they were civilized men. And from them she had had only suffering. She had never encountered any civilized man who treated her with kindness unless there was an ulterior motive behind his actions. Conan had shielded her, protected her, and–so far–demanded nothing in return.Shadows in the Moonlight, chapter 2
Shadows in the Moonlight might be considered the “standard” Conan plot – last survivor of a mighty battle, Conan comes to a lost, forgotten place with ruins, finds a woman along the way, faces some wild monster and possibly a crowd of enemies, and then moves on to his next adventure.
Could be Shadows in the Moonlight or The Devil in Iron, Red Nails, The Slithering Shadow or Jewels of Gwalhur, or one of a dozen pastiches or apocrypha.
Readers will probably remember most vividly the first of these stories they read (in my case, it was The Slithering Shadow) and consider the others “also-rans”, at least plot-wise, unless Howard managed to slip in something truly memorable.
In the case of Shadow in the Moonlight, apart from the two points I have already mentioned, on this re-read I appreciated Howard’s prose, and some striking imagery in the description of the mysterious not-so-desert island.
Shadows in the Moonlight is a fun story, and one that might serve as a nice introduction to the Hyborian milieu – it ticks all the boxes, and does it with economy, and a modicum of elegance. Still it is not among my favorites but just, as I said, because I discovered the same formula story in another of its instances in the Howard catalogue.
The story is also a nice jumping off point to discuss Howard’s inspirations and influences.
Re-reading it I found myself wondering whether Cooper & Schoedsack’s King Kong, that had hit the screens the year before the story’s publication, might have influenced Howard.
And I was also reminded that’s been a while since I last read – or re-read – something from Harold Lamb – whose influence on Howard does sometimes go unremarked (especially in my country, where Lamb is all but forgotten).
As usual, I have added links in this post, to a freely available copy of the story, and to the Internet Archive copy of the April 1934 Weir Tales.
And if you don’t feel like reading, here is the audiobook version of Shadows in the Moonlight…