Snakes On A Comparatively Mundane Plane

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Having enjoyed [redacted]’s recent “Thoth-Amon, Lord Voldemort. Voldemort, Thoth-Amon” post, I’d like to follow up on Mark’s references to ophidians as “an eternal symbol of menace, ” and “a symbol of ultimate evil.” They aren’t invariably the ultimate evil in Howard’s work, and therein lies a tale, or two tales, “The Scarlet Citadel” and “The Valley of the Worm.” The former story debuted in the January 1933 Weird Tales, the latter in the February 1934 issue; did readers who were paying close attention wonder about a connection between the Satha of “Citadel” and that of “Valley”?

In the Conan story, once the king of Aquilonia is shackled in Tsotha-lanti’s “very Halls of Horror named in shuddersome legendry,” the next order of business is to introduce Satha, which Howard does by way of “a soft rustling sound, blood-freezing in its implications.” Conan, by this point in his life a formidably experienced practical herpetologist, recognizes “the unmistakable sound of pliant scales slithering softly over stone.” What torchlight is available reveals the owner of those scales to be “the ultimate horror of reptilian development,” an eighty-footer the “titan coils” and footlong, scimitar-like fangs of which beggar “all Conan’s previous ideas of snakes.” Satha’s hide “white as hoar-frost” (Frazetta was unfaithful to the text of “Citadel” in his cover painting for Conan the Usurper) leads the Cimmerian to conclude “Surely this reptile was one born and grown in darkness,” but that doesn’t keep its eyes from being “full of evil and sure sight.” Just how sure, we learn as the story progresses.

“Citadel” offers a rare, fleeting flash-forward as Howard tells us that a single drop of Satha’s venom leaves a scar on Conan’s thigh “he bore to the day of his death.” The snake’s inspection is interrupted by the arrival of a vengeance-minded ex-chief of Abombi, whose eventual fate it had been to become Tsotha’s slave after Conan and the black corsairs sacked his hometown. The snake hangs back while the man gloats over Conan’s helplessness, until the Cimmerian espies “a vague horrific form swaying in the darkness.” Satha strikes, and Conan opportunistically scoops up the keys the luckless Abombean has dropped.

With the snake intent upon ingestion, the now fetter-free barbarian begins to explore the Halls of Horror, and Robert E. Howard begins to explore just how remarkable a macabre writer he is capable of being. Much of the fear is induced by sound effects — “tittering, squeals of demonic mirth, long shuddering howls, and once the unmistakable squalling laughter of a hyena ended awfully in human words of shrieking blasphemy.” Best, or worst, of all might be the brilliantly specific merriment of a gelid, amorphous side-tunnel dweller: “It was exactly such laughter as he heard bubble obscenely from the fat lips of the salacious women of Shadizar, City of Wickedness, when captive girls were stripped naked on the public auction block” (Thus economically does Howard foster the lurid mystique of Shadizar, a city never actually visited in the Conan series, even while his actual setting is the Kothian capital of Khorshemish).

Hearing Satha’s somewhat torpid postprandial progress, the Cimmerian discreetly absents himself from the central hallway, and comes to a realization:

From his very side something whimpered in fear and slunk away in the darkness. Evidently the main corridor was the great snake’s hunting-ground, and the other monsters gave it room.

So Satha intimidates and exacts deference from the rest of Tsotha’s benighted bestiary, but Howard immediately rings a change on that idea:

To Conan, the serpent was the least horror of them; he almost felt a kinship with it when he remembered the weeping, tittering obscenity, and the dripping, mouthing thing that came out of the well. At least it was of earthly matter, it was a crawling death, but it threatened only physical extinction, whereas these other horrors menaced mind and soul as well.

That almost-kinship anticipates the affinity between Cimmerian and dragon Howard will stress in “Red Nails.” And he is not done establishing Satha’s place in “Citadel”‘s hierarchy of horripilation. Conan soon discovers Pelias in floral flagrante delicto with the hell-plant Yothga. It is Pelias, he of the dark, meditative eyes, high, splendid forehead, and overall aristocratic appearance, who first puts a name to Satha when Conan warns him that a “cursed big snake” is about the place; it seems the reptile once dined on ten of the wizard’s acolytes.

As Pelias briefs the barbarian on the origins of the Scarlet Citadel and Tsotha himself, the serpent reappears, “an ageless hate in its eyes.” Conan is preparing a suicidal-but-sincere torch-thrust and swordstroke when he becomes aware that he is merely a bystander. Pelias stares Satha down, “his arms folded, smiling,” and makes of Conan an eyewitness who witnesses something unprecedented in a pair of eyes.

And in the great, cold yellow eyes slowly the hate died out in a glitter of pure fear — the only time Conan ever saw such an expression in a reptile’s eyes.

What a challenge this coup de theatre would be for a whole team of CGI mavens. Assuming that the Child of Set in “The God in the Bowl” is another order of being altogether, the other big snakes in the Conan series are mere obstacles, notches on his swordbelt, whereas Satha is a character, an actor in the drama. “What did he see to frighten him?” the Cimmerian wants to know, setting up one of the weirdest frissons our Texas weird fictionist ever committed to paper.

“The scaled people see what escapes the mortal eye,” Pelias explains. “You see my fleshly guise; he saw my naked soul.” A variation on the wonderful coinage “scaled people,” with its implication of trans-bestial status, can be found in “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula,” where Totramesk refers to “the poison people.” Conan is understandably worried as to whether Pelias is even a man, “or merely another demon of the pits in a mask of humanity.” He considers backstabbing the wizard, and is in no way reassured by Pelias’ conscription of the dead Shukeli. Nor do the Kothian’s parting words — “At dawn the people of Khorshemish will know they have a new master” augur the advent of a shining city on a hill.

The great serpent is mentioned once more in the story — “Conan has been in Satha’s belly for days,” Tsotha insists when the Aquilonians ride to the relief of Shamar — but he’s already slithered into immortality, much to the betterment of “Citadel” — shrinking from Pelias in effect notarizes the latter’s sinister bona fides as nothing else could. The Cimmerian’s unlooked-for ally is no Gandalf or Dumbledore, but a student of the black arts far closer to a Zothiquean mage.

A year and a month later, Howard made Weird Tales readers a present of another Satha, in “The Valley of the Worm.” Satha’s role in this story is not only to provide the poison that will undo the worm-god, but to help define the titular entity. Once Niord is acquainted with Gorm, we are told that of beasts “the Picts [fear] only Satha, the great snake, and they [shun] the jungle where he lived.” But they dread “another thing” — not a beast, like Satha; no, this is a thing, one “connected in some manner with the Valley of Broken Stones,” likely “a god summoned up from the nighted abysses of mid-earth uncounted fathoms below the black mold by sorcery unknown to the sons of man.” This deity even has its own theme music, courtesy of a “hairy anthropomorphic being” originally a “formless spirit drawn up from below and cased in flesh.”

With Æsir clansmen to avenge, Niord and Gorm venture into Satha’s “jungle realm,” and Niord backstories that the snake is “a survival of a grimmer age when life and its forms were cruder and more hideous.” As “a crawling death” (note the recurrence of the description from “Citadel”) Satha is “terrible enough to be a god,” but it is important to the story that he isn’t, although it will be his destiny to be worshipped as Set, Leviathan, and Satan. He’s an eighty-footer like his “Citadel” namesake, but this Satha’s scales are refulgent with “a thousand changing scintillations.” Trapped by Niord’s contrivance, he glares with “such concentrated evil” that the hero actually trembles. Still, he is natural and biologically classifiable; he belongs in this world, or at least a world, “the black elder world that was when man was not.”

The worm-thing is something more, something alien, as Howard emphasizes by way of an ill-omened, pre-human temple, the “weird demon-piping that was a symphony of madness,” and the “repulsive obscene noise as of a quaking unstable mass heaving up out of a well.” We are several contrary-to-fact counties past Satha here: “I, who had expected a horror yet cast in some terrestrial mold, looked upon the spawn of nightmare,” James Allison-as-Niord recalls. The point is hammered home: “It was not a beast, as humanity knows beasts,” and the intelligence in the entity’s forty eyes is “not human, nor yet bestial,” but “a night-born demoniac intelligence.”

In the worm-slaying that follows, Satha supplies Niord’s equalizer, but his presence in the story also accentuates the “exteriority” or “not-from-around-hereness” of the worm-god. To steal a phrase from James Allison, both Sathas are of the earth earthly. By being for that reason not so much “symbols of ultimate evil” as embodiments of penultimate danger, they help to hard-sell what Don Herron would be within his rights to sap me down for calling Howardian scaryland.

“Generally speaking, when scary things get scared, not good,” is Xander Harris’ nigh-epigrammatic rendering of this principle in the 3rd season Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Dead Man’s Party,” but in the best dark fantasy, when scary things get scared, it is very good indeed. Lovecraft pulls off something of the sort in the final pages of At the Mountains of Madness, and Peter Jackson is canny enough to have the Moria-orcs panic and scatter when the Balrog shows up, but scary-things-getting-scared is a gambit that might boost the ascension of more heroic fantasists to grandmastery were they to add it to their repertoire. Howard’s one-two in “The Scarlet Citadel” — the other denizens of the Halls of Horror yielding the right of way to Satha and the snake’s own retreat in the face of Pelias — will always be my favorite example.