It turned out to be a bit of both, fortunately more the former than the latter on a second reading. I wasn't prepared for the heavy, somewhat Conan-deflating amount of magic in it, and there's something haggard in its narrative tonality, a lot of running around and double-crosses and so on. Afghulistan doesn't quite come alive the way other Howard settings do; its just a bunch of mountains and a couple of passes sprinkled with villages of desparate people who seem to act in mob-like fashion if they do anything at all. But it's also a structurally unique storyline for Conan, at least in my reading experience, with a vital and unique central character in the Devi Yasmina and the absorbing complication of two key villains working at cross purposes, Khemsa and Kerim Shah.
Khemsa is almost a bit too much; I think Howard knows this too and has some fun with it, like when the mesmerist displays his absolute command over a hypnotized prison guard. "I have no more use for you. Kill yourself!" The moment is not only ghoulishly over-the-top, but serves as relationship seasoning for Khemsa and his enrapted partner in crime, Gitara. Despite their overriding evil, Gitara and Khemsa emerge as strange foci of sympathy in this unusually asympathetic story (even for a Conan tale; there are no good guys here).
I like Conan as a king, and I like him as a wandering soldier of fortune or thief, but I find his runs as bandit chief serve better as background than as story focus. (I haven't read "Queen Of The Black Coast" yet, so maybe I'll turn around). He has the responsibility of command, but to selfish ends, and too often his underlings come off like Red Shirts in "Star Trek". Here, it's the Iraksai under Kerim Shah who wind up with that honor, not really Conan's underlings but working with him all the same. Still, its a big finale, and a good one, nicely staged in three sections, each of which lasts just long enough to resolve itself and up the ominousness on what's to follow.
The part I liked best in the second reading which I disliked intensely the first time was poor Yasmina's ordeal going through her past lives with the Master. He's a pretty uninteresting demigod for the most part, with a bad habit of decorating his lair with potential catastrophic pitfalls to himself and his underlings, but when he throws Yasmina into that yeasty void which mutates into a Past-Life Cuisinart, its a fine display of Howard's descriptive powers. I'm sure I'd find very much I'm sure in the Lovecraftian mode if I ever actually got myself to read some H.P. It pushes everything right to the edge, with Poe-like control, then blacks out on one of the most disturbing images I'm sure in Howard's canon - or anyone else's.
One question has been dogging me: What exactly is the "Black Circle", and who are its People? Was it the Yimsha set-up? If so, was the Black Circle meant metaphorically, or was there some black circle in the final castle whose reference I missed?
Also, what do others think of "Black Circle", either as a stand-alone story or as part of the Conan experience? I can't say I like it as much as "Hour Of The Dragon", "Red Nails", or "A Witch Shall Be Born", but it definitely is a grower...
Edited by Slokes, 06 August 2009 - 02:22 PM.