The Slithering Shadow!

Our story today is a real corker, “The Slithering Shadow,” written at white-heat speed by Robert E. Howard back in 1933 and starring his most famous creation, Conan the Cimmerian – our particular version today being the Savage Sword of Conan adaptation from the glory days of that publication, in issue #20 from 1977. That veteran Conan-scripter (and one of the greatest comic book writers of all time) Roy Thomas takes Howard’s story and turns it into 50 pages of exciting, creepy, funny, energetic comics writing, and the whole thing is illustrated by the mighty John Buscema (perhaps not one of the all-time great comic book artists, but certainly the best of the next rung on the ladder, the king of craftsmen) with his customary brawny competence. And I’ve already had occasion to praise the inking work of Alfredo Alcala (in this naughty little second Cimmerian ‘Stravaganza, being held in defiance of the sad fact that last summer’s Conan movie, starring the handsome and very talented Jason Momoa, failed to conquer the box office; it’s available on Netflix now, however, and I’d be surprised if you didn’t come away from a second viewing thinking it was a good deal better than you thought it was in the theater last year), who inks Buscema’s pencils this time around as well, and his work is utterly amazing, elegantly scratchy when following Buscema’s signature bravura action-sequences, fine-grained when inking a high-fantasy interior or character study. Buscema was inked by virtually every working professional in the course of his long career, but nobody brings more exotic life into his work than Alcala.

‘Exotic’ is the key word for “The Slithering Shadow,” which Howard originally named “Xuthal of the Dusk,” Xuthal being the name of the city Conan and his female companion Natala stumble upon after some desperate wandering in the desert. The pair are hungry and thirsty, so the ornate food-laden tables they find in the city’s grand halls come as a blessing – although a mysterious one, since the few inhabitants of Xuthal seem oddly distracted – even the guard who attacks them seems almost to be acting in a dream. And something is moving about the halls and corridors of the city (which is actually ‘one great palace’), something inhuman and utterly silent, which consumes the sleeping inhabitants and leaves behind only a drop or two of blood to show they were ever there. Just as they’re thinking of leaving, Conan and Natala encounter a statuesque woman named Thalis (one of Buscema’s justly famous fantasy women, all langorous semi-nudity and hidden ferocity), who tries to explain this weird city to its new visitors, telling them that in certain pits of the city, the fabled Black Lotus flower blooms:

Through the ages, the people have cultivated it – until instead of death, its juice induces gorgeous and fantastic dreams! In these dreams, they spend most of their time. Their lives are vague, erratic … without plan. They dream … they wake, drink, love, eat, and dream again. That meal you found: doubtless one awoke, hungry, prepared the meal, then forgot it and wandered away to dream once more!

Naturally, Conan is curious about the creeping thing he half-glimpsed consuming one of the sleepers. He’s amazed at how complacent Thalis is about it – it’s Thog, the death that haunts the place: “Mostly, he sleeps below the city … but at irregular intervals, he grows hungry and comes up, seeking prey. Then, none is safe.” Obviously having never encountered a basset hound (which Thog resembles in this and every other way), Conan is outraged: “Crom! You mean these people lie down calmly and sleep with this demon crawling among them? I’d like to see a priest try to drag a Cimmerian to the altar! There’d be blood spilt – but not as the priest intended!” Thomas does a very neat job of contrasting a city full of indolent sleepers with a barbarian who craves constant action. Xuthal is as close to Hell as Conan can imagine.

Such barbarian spirit reminds Thalis of the living world outside her dreaming city, and she takes a fancy to Conan – and a hissing dislike to Natala. At the first opportunity, she absconds with the girl, intent on laying her out as a sacrifice to Thog while Conan fights off the awakened soldiers of Xuthal. Natala fights back a bit, and an enraged Thalis decides to string her up and whip her (a kinky scene Thomas faithfully adapts from the original story, where Howard enjoys himself just a bit too much). Thalis is so absorbed in her work that she fails to notice an enormous shadow creeping up behind her – Buscema does a wonderfully theatrical job of keeping Thog concealed in shadow until the ‘big reveal,’ although his efforts are undercut by the fact that ‘Earl Norem’ paints the monster plain as day on the cover. Thog consumes Thalis and turns its nasty attention on Natala – who’s saved from a similar fate by the last-minute arrival of Conan, who fights the creature. In Howard’s story, Thog is a shape-shifting black mass of poisonous tentacles – Romneyesque, in other words. In Buscema’s rendering, Thog is groping and big-mouthed and vaguely adorable – Clintonian, as it were.

In either case, Conan manages to fight the thing off into the depths of a handy pit, but he’s mortally wounded. Natala manages to find some of the city’s wondrous Black Lotus elixir, which heals her barbarian protector. The two don’t wait around for more sleepy guards (or the return of a maimed and maddened Thog) – they collect food and water and head off for the nearest desert oasis, with Conan being typically brusque about the whole thing: “It was a hot welcome we got in that accursed city. Well, they’ll remember our visit long enough, I’ll wager! There are brains and guts and blood to be cleaned off the marble tiles … and if their god still lives, he carries even more wounds than I!”

The issue is great fun from start to finish, including a backup feature starring one of Howard’s other notable creations, the fighting Puritan Solomon Kane. The feature has workmanlike art by ‘Virgillio Rendondo’ (there’s a good deal of backstage amusement going on in these early Savage Sword issues) and utterly glorious embellishment by the sublime Rudy Nebres, whose work I’ll have occasion to praise more often in the future here, as we slowly but surely cover the whole world of Steve’s favorite comics. But for now, the deadly dreaming city of Xuthal is a perfect place to spend an hour when the hot sirocco winds blow through that 119 degree old town of Boston …

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