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People of the Black Circle: A Review


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#1 Slokes

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Posted 30 June 2009 - 01:32 AM

[Be warned there are some modest spoilers] "The People Of The Black Circle" seems to be written about as one of the finest of Robert E. Howard's Conan tales, as well as one of the longest, so I approached it with some wariness. Was it going to be a brilliant, outsized piece of fiction on a par with "The Hour Of The Dragon"? Or was it going to be something of a letdown, not possibly as good as advertised?

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.


#2 matsellah

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Posted 30 June 2009 - 03:10 AM

Interesting take. And a good post.

I think the term 'circle' is just a descriptive; circle of friends, cirle of trust, etc. The wizards of Yimsha work in concert with each other and are underlings to the Master, so it's simply a term of reference for the wizards. The wizards are the People of The Black Circle.

It's interesting to note our differences here; you're inclined to consider this tale a good one, ranking closely to Hour of The Dragon and Red Nails. I actually consider it better. In fact, I rate it as Howard's best work, edging out HoTD. Dragon's appeal lies in the pace and the pagentry and the sheer heroics. It has a stronger villian, it has a multitude of conspiraces and influences at work, both good and evil.

PoTD is more isolated. It's Conan against everything; elements, enemies, wizards and time. I think it gives the reader time to become better acquainted with the principle characters, to examine them without the furious pace of HoTD.

It lets you in, nails you to your seat and only lets you go after everything has been satisfied.

JMHO
"Their present king is the most renowned warrior among the western nations. He is an outlander, an adventurer who seized the crown by force during a time of civil strife, strangling King Namedides with his own hands, upon the very throne. His name is Conan, and no man can stand before him in battle." ~ Orastes, 'The Hour Of The Dragon'

"Damned degenerates!" ~ Conan 'Xuthal Of The Dusk'

#3 Libaax

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Posted 30 June 2009 - 12:07 PM

I think as a story about Conan himself its not one of the best. As a part of his history,Conan experience its one of my favs,one of the best Conan stories i have read so far.

I wished we saw more of him as the bandit leader. But also the Asian setting made it very interesting. Running around among eastern peoples,mountains,villages. Much more different than western nations,lost cities. It was more epic,political than the other stories. It was great story. In top 3 for me along side Queen of the Black Coast,Xuthal of the Dusk

I havent read The Hour of the Dragon yet. Im reading the stories publishing order wise in Complete Conan tales i have read 14 stories so far.

Im thinking about buying The Hour of the Dragon itself and reading as a novel. Not only as one novella in the huge complete collection. I mean it was closest thing REH got to a novel length.

Edited by Libaax, 30 June 2009 - 12:08 PM.


#4 guilalah

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Posted 05 July 2009 - 06:58 PM

Finished re-reading PotBC yesterday; the fortuitus arrival of the Vedhyans lets Conan of the hook -- he wants Yasmina to wait while he helps the Afguhli's; she says that, if he does so, he'll probably die with them, and she'll be stranded, helpless in the hills. Indeed, Conan agrees that this is likely, and doesn't know what to do.
What would Conan have done, I wonder?

#5 Slokes

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Posted 05 July 2009 - 11:33 PM

Finished re-reading PotBC yesterday; the fortuitus arrival of the Vedhyans lets Conan of the hook -- he wants Yasmina to wait while he helps the Afguhli's; she says that, if he does so, he'll probably die with them, and she'll be stranded, helpless in the hills. Indeed, Conan agrees that this is likely, and doesn't know what to do.
What would Conan have done, I wonder?


Probably ridden off with her, and left the Afguhlis to their fate. He has a strong moral code where women are concerned, and he had a patchy relationship with the Afguhlis even before the execution of the seven chieftains - the tribe was "baying at [Conan's] heels" for the headsmen's release - and after they met him with a volley of arrows he might have taken the hint his connection with them was over. Once he saw the Vedhyans riding to her rescue, Conan knew he could let Yasmina go safely and do what he wanted, which was to fight and die with his former comrades, though not out of affection but rather from his concept of honor and the brotherhood of battle.

#6 Evil Thoth-Amon

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Posted 06 August 2009 - 09:06 AM

This novella would be THE PERFECT movie. Is like a classic Hollywood adventure tale... with Conan!!
I love all the sword fights and the evil sorcery. The story is easy to follow but it deal with deep themes. Khemsa and Gitara are great: there are not only "villains", but human beings in love. Yasmena is my favorite female character of the whole series and his relationship with Conan is very interesting. The novella was written more than 70 years ago and still looks modern. Awesome.
In my opinion, if you read "People of the black circle" and still don?t love Howard?s writing is because you don?t like a good fantasy-adventure.
This book is like the complete opposite of the Millius film.
The natural state of mankind is slavery. The only question is who commands and who obeys...

#7 Trond

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Posted 07 August 2009 - 10:20 PM

It's one of my favorites as well. I'll re-read it when my copy of "Bloody Crown of Conan" arrives.

An old print of it has a pretty decent cover:
http://g-ecx.images-...6f4fb2010.L.jpg
http://www.enworld.o...lackcircle3.jpg

Oh, and here's the Weird Tales Cover (which is a bit weird, as usual :rolleyes: ):

http://upload.wikime...tember_1934.jpg

#8 Axerules

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Posted 08 August 2009 - 08:07 AM

Thanks for the links, Trond. :)
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#9 Ironhand

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Posted 10 August 2009 - 05:44 AM

...
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.
...

Yasmina's humiliation when she recalls her past lives is very Lovecraftian in concept, and hard for me to understand. HPL often shows his protagonists stricken with horror or terror when they come across Elder knowlege. In one of his stories, the protagonist is driven insane with horror when he accesses a library of one of the Elder races. If I came across an Elder library, I'd be in Hog Heaven. If I'd been subjected to reliving my past lives, my take-home lesson would be the triumph of my lineage over primitive vicissitudes.

PotBC would make a great movie. I would cast Jet Li as Khemsa.
"Did you deem yourself strong, because you were able to twist the heads off civilized folk, poor weaklings with muscles like rotten string? Hell! Break the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull before you call yourself strong. I did that, before I was a full-grown man...!" - Conan, in "Shadows in Zamboula", by Robert E. Howard
"... you speak of Venarium familiarly. Perhaps you were there?"
"I was," grunted [Conan]. "I was one of the horde that swarmed over the hills. I hadn't yet seen fifteen snows, but already my name was repeated about the council fires." - "Beyond the Black River", by Robert E. Howard

Read my Conan screenplays at The Scrolls of Ironhand (in particular my transcription of THE FROST GIANT'S DAUGHTER in Act II of "The Snow Devil") at
http://www.scrollsof...d.us/index.html or at
http://www.delicious...ic=ConanProject

#10 Slokes

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Posted 12 August 2009 - 12:55 AM

Yasmina's humiliation when she recalls her past lives is very Lovecraftian in concept, and hard for me to understand. HPL often shows his protagonists stricken with horror or terror when they come across Elder knowlege. In one of his stories, the protagonist is driven insane with horror when he accesses a library of one of the Elder races. If I came across an Elder library, I'd be in Hog Heaven. If I'd been subjected to reliving my past lives, my take-home lesson would be the triumph of my lineage over primitive vicissitudes.


I think its a kind of Kharmic sensory overload she's undergoing, a mountainous wave, the heights of which she's never dared dream, flooding forth the worst moments of her multi-reincarnated life. Everything she's believed about herself has been pulled asunder, and outrages and horrors she's only seen in nightmares she's now experienced directly through the agency of reliving her multiple past lives. It's not just the fact of those past lives, which I agree could be pretty cool if viewed more at leisure. It's dealing with all the associated trauma.

One thing I noticed is the centuries upon centuries of past lives, Yasmina never apparently experienced one as a man. Howard used reincarnation a lot, but I don't believe he ever had one where the man became a woman, or the woman a man.

#11 duaneshadow

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Posted 12 August 2009 - 10:29 AM

...
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.
...

Yasmina's humiliation when she recalls her past lives is very Lovecraftian in concept, and hard for me to understand. HPL often shows his protagonists stricken with horror or terror when they come across Elder knowlege. In one of his stories, the protagonist is driven insane with horror when he accesses a library of one of the Elder races. If I came across an Elder library, I'd be in Hog Heaven. If I'd been subjected to reliving my past lives, my take-home lesson would be the triumph of my lineage over primitive vicissitudes.

PotBC would make a great movie. I would cast Jet Li as Khemsa.



I love Jet LI. I think he's top actor as well as brilliant martial artist (as opposed to acrobat) and a thoroughly decent bloke. Did you know he turned down the lead in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon because he promised his wife he'd be with her during her pregnancy and delivery?

Speaking of which, I would be waiting for him to start throwing some of his arse - kicking moves about, so I'd rather see Chow Yun Fat get the gig myself. I always pictured the black seer chief as looking like Master Kan from the Kung Fu t.v. series
'why does he have to be a misfit? Why can't he be handsome and kind?'

'You're still a dreamer girl'.

#12 Kortoso

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Posted 12 August 2009 - 05:07 PM

I don't "get" Jet Li as Khemsa.

Khemsa is not from Khitai.

He's not a chop-socky martial artist.

If you used Jet Li you'd probably have to add some kung-fu that was not in the story.

There are scores of good actors in India. Why not make it a Bollywood musical? ;)



#13 Hawkbrother

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Posted 12 August 2009 - 07:10 PM

This was the first Conan story I ever read, in the Lancer paperback, Conan the Adventurer way back when. It got me hooked on Conan and Howard.
Maybe its not my favorite Conan story( but I'd be hardput to just choose one), but it does hold a special place.

#14 guilalah

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Posted 12 August 2009 - 11:46 PM

I think the most important thing, for an actor in a filming of 'People of the Black Circle', is whether they give you a sense of what motivates and deters the character, and how the character would react in a given situation; if Jet Li could pull that off as Khemsa, I'd think that would be much more important than whether he corresponds to Khemsa's racial type.
(btw, I think, for the above reasons, a character like Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) is very good in the original 'King Kong' and that, in general, 'King Kong' was a good pulp-film script, even as it strikes some as lacking in sophistication: the characters motivations, and the sense of how they'd react, are quickly established, which makes the action plausible. Howard, too, could establish these things on the first page -- then take the ball and run!).

#15 Ironhand

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Posted 13 August 2009 - 09:18 AM

Ever since the first time I ever read PotBC, I've always pictured Khemsa using martial arts moves when he breaks doors and kills people with what appears to be a slight touch. From a Conan's-eye view, this appears to be magic because it doesn't correspond to any fighting technique he knows, or has ever heard of, and doesn't appear to depend on obvious physical strength. The confusion is plausible, because some of the things Khemsa does really is magic. This ambiguity between magic and not-magic is, IMO, quite Howardian.

Edited by Ironhand, 13 August 2009 - 09:20 AM.

"Did you deem yourself strong, because you were able to twist the heads off civilized folk, poor weaklings with muscles like rotten string? Hell! Break the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull before you call yourself strong. I did that, before I was a full-grown man...!" - Conan, in "Shadows in Zamboula", by Robert E. Howard
"... you speak of Venarium familiarly. Perhaps you were there?"
"I was," grunted [Conan]. "I was one of the horde that swarmed over the hills. I hadn't yet seen fifteen snows, but already my name was repeated about the council fires." - "Beyond the Black River", by Robert E. Howard

Read my Conan screenplays at The Scrolls of Ironhand (in particular my transcription of THE FROST GIANT'S DAUGHTER in Act II of "The Snow Devil") at
http://www.scrollsof...d.us/index.html or at
http://www.delicious...ic=ConanProject

#16 Evil Thoth-Amon

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Posted 13 August 2009 - 12:16 PM

Ever since the first time I ever read PotBC, I've always pictured Khemsa using martial arts moves when he breaks doors and kills people with what appears to be a slight touch. From a Conan's-eye view, this appears to be magic because it doesn't correspond to any fighting technique he knows, or has ever heard of, and doesn't appear to depend on obvious physical strength. The confusion is plausible, because some of the things Khemsa does really is magic. This ambiguity between magic and not-magic is, IMO, quite Howardian.


I?m not agree at all!! Khemsa is a powerful magician and, actually, he CAST spells!!
The natural state of mankind is slavery. The only question is who commands and who obeys...

#17 Ironhand

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Posted 14 August 2009 - 10:02 AM

Ever since the first time I ever read PotBC, I've always pictured Khemsa using martial arts moves when he breaks doors and kills people with what appears to be a slight touch. From a Conan's-eye view, this appears to be magic because it doesn't correspond to any fighting technique he knows, or has ever heard of, and doesn't appear to depend on obvious physical strength. The confusion is plausible, because some of the things Khemsa does really is magic. This ambiguity between magic and not-magic is, IMO, quite Howardian.


I?m not agree at all!! Khemsa is a powerful magician and, actually, he CAST spells!!

As I said, some of the things Khemsa does really is magic.
"Did you deem yourself strong, because you were able to twist the heads off civilized folk, poor weaklings with muscles like rotten string? Hell! Break the neck of a wild Cimmerian bull before you call yourself strong. I did that, before I was a full-grown man...!" - Conan, in "Shadows in Zamboula", by Robert E. Howard
"... you speak of Venarium familiarly. Perhaps you were there?"
"I was," grunted [Conan]. "I was one of the horde that swarmed over the hills. I hadn't yet seen fifteen snows, but already my name was repeated about the council fires." - "Beyond the Black River", by Robert E. Howard

Read my Conan screenplays at The Scrolls of Ironhand (in particular my transcription of THE FROST GIANT'S DAUGHTER in Act II of "The Snow Devil") at
http://www.scrollsof...d.us/index.html or at
http://www.delicious...ic=ConanProject

#18 Alhazred

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Posted 17 May 2011 - 06:11 PM

i hate to dig up old post but i have a question. What gods or demons to the people of the black circle serve?
Under the caverned pyramids great Set coils asleep;
Among the shadows of the tombs his dusky people creep.
I speak the Word from the hidden gulfs that never knew the sun
Send me a servant for my hate, oh scaled and shining One!

#19 Roquefort Raider

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Posted 17 May 2011 - 06:29 PM

i hate to dig up old post but i have a question. What gods or demons to the people of the black circle serve?


The master of Yimsha claims to have grown greater than devils, so he may not worship anything else than himself. Khemsa did curse by Yizil, though.

#20 Boot

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Posted 14 March 2012 - 01:45 AM

Ayodhya seems to be the capital of Vendhya.

Peshkhauri is a Vendhyan walled city Himelian mountains.

The Devi Yasmina is referred to as a Kshatriya princess. What does "Kshatriya" refer to? Is that a Vendhyan racial type? The name of the dynasty that rules Vendhya? Another city in Vendhya? A type or rank of princess? What?





EDIT: Answering my own question here, a wiki says this--one of the ruling order member of the Kṣhatriya caste.

Edited by Boot, 14 March 2012 - 01:52 AM.