I’ve long believed that Edgar Rice Burroughs tenth novel, The Mucker, had a stronger impact on Robert E. Howard than those of Burrough’s works featuring his better-known characters. This occurred to me when I worked up a small article on the evolution of Conan’s character; how the wandering barbarian is at first a careless thief, than a mercenary soldier and pirate, and at last evolves into a responsible frontier scout, and finally a benevolent king. Burough’s Billy Byrne undergoes an even more drastic change of character though the two lengthy serials that ran in “All-Story Cavalier Weekly” in 1914 and 1916, and gathered together in book form in 1921. We do not know for sure if Howard read the magazine appearances, but the book was among those in his library, along with several other works by Burroughs.
In both cases, the change in character can be seen as a kind of redemption, and there are many points of similarity. I also think Howard would have been impressed by the way ERB manages to combine crime, piracy, lost race, boxing, intrigue in war-torn Mexico, and romance. This one book practically spreads the field by itself. We are introduced to Billy Byrne as a product of the streets and alleys of Chicago, a thug with no respect for women, a fierce hatred of the law, and a great disdain for the well-dressed and well-behaved upper class. A thief and a robber, “his idea of indicating strength and manliness lay in displaying as much of brutality and uncouthness as possible. To assist a woman over a mud hole would have seemed to Billy an acknowledgement of pusillanimity –to stick out his foot and trip her so that she sprawled full length in it, the hall mark of bluff manliness.”
Conan is introduced in “The Tower of the Elephant” as a tall, strongly made youth browned from outland suns, not of any civilized race, quick to fight and kill over an insult. He undertakes a difficult robbery, as he does in “The God in the Bowl”, where his relations with the Nemedian police are far from cordial. Even less friendly is the sudden beheading of the foppish nobleman who betrays him. And “Rogues in the House” provides one of the most famous instances of Conan’s displeasure toward a “lady”: “Conan glanced down into the muck and slime of the alleys below, he listened briefly to the clamor inside and the pleas of the wench, then he dropped he with great accuracy into a cesspool. He enjoyed her kicking and flounderings and the concentrated venom of her profanity for a few seconds, and even allowed himself a low rumble of laughter.”
Consider this scene for a moment. Granted, this woman betrayed Conan to the police. But Conan has no way of knowing how deep the cesspool is, and it is just as likely that she would be injured by the fall, perhaps severely, as to make a safe, if nasty, landing. Conan laughs, though — it is a very mucker thing to do, and he is moving in a very “mucker” underworld — the Maze. Forced to take it on the lam, Billy is shanghaied aboard a small brigantine. His initial rebellion is beaten down, and after surviving a week of beatings he begins to become a sea-man. “The men of the forecastle were of the kind he had always known — there was no honor among them, no virtue, no kindliness, no decency. With them, Billy was at home — he scarcely missed the old gang.” Conan also finds himself forced to join a crew, in “Pool of the Black One”. The first sailor to bait him he kills with a single punch, after that he is just one of the gang, though harder-working and more respected than the rest.
The real impetus in Billy Byrne’s transformation, though, is the girl he and the other pirates of the Halfmoon kidnap, Barbara Harding. Rich and beautiful and extremely courageous, he loses a lot of his hatred for her station as he comes to appreciate her courage. The remolding is not instant, but it does move forward in great lurches and bounds — as when he realizes he could never harm her, and again, when he realizes he can’t take advantage of her even though there’s nothing to stop him.
Of course there are many women in the Conan saga, not one. But think of Atali, running panic-stricken on the snows with a lust-crazed Conan racing after. And think of Livia, held captive in a black village, her brother recently tortured to death in front of her eyes, delirious and terrified. The property of Bajujh, “abysmal, repulsive, a toad-like chunk of blackness”. She sees this white man, obviously a man of power and rank. She sneaks out to meet him after all are drunk. Flaunting her body, she says she will be his slave if he will only kill Bajujh for her. And what does he do? He says, if I wanted you I could just ask Bajujh for you. Women are cheap here. “Dazed bitterness crushed her soul as the realization of her utter helplessness was thrust brutally upon her.” Howard says. Note the sexual text in that line. But it’s not left there. Conan agrees to slay Bajujh and it is agreed she will have sex with him. It’s pretty much a win-win for him, anyway. But when Conan comes to Livia, with the bloody head of Bajujh raised high, she freaks. Conan runs her down just in time to drive off a soul-sucking demon for the outer dark, then he rewrites their deal. “After I thought awhile, I saw that to hold you to your bargain would be the same as if I had forced you.” One wonders exactly when this insight came to him — before or after the girl fled. Though “Vale of Lost Women” is considered a minor Conan story, and a bad Conan story, this tale seems to represent an important turning point in the character’s morality.
And finally, consider Belesa. She’s a countess, presumably attractive, and Conan rescues her. Yet he doesn’t even put a move on her.And gives her a fortune in jewels to see her safely put up back home. He’s been overdosing on chivalry pills! Yet this is all part of the transformation from thug to hero. Oh, there are a few backsteps along the way — Valeria’s having to defend her honor with her sword in “Red Nails” for one — but I think rather than looking at the Conan saga as a Horatio Alger “rags to riches” story, it should be seen as a story of another hero rising out of the muck.