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Author Topic: PC297: The Tower Of The Elephant (Featuring Conan The Barbarian)  (Read 5210 times)
Ocicat
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« on: February 09, 2014, 03:05:49 AM »

PodCastle 297: The Tower Of The Elephant (Featuring Conan The Barbarian)

by Robert E. Howard

Read by Graeme Dunlop

Originally published in Weird Tales.

The shimmering shaft of the tower rose frostily in the stars. In the sunlight it shone so dazzlingly that few could bear its glare, and men said it was built of silver. It was round, a slim perfect cylinder, a hundred and fifty feet in height, and its rim glittered in the starlight with the great jewels which crusted it. The tower stood among the waving exotic trees of a garden raised high above the general level of the city. A high wall enclosed this garden, and outside the wall was a lower level, likewise enclosed by a wall. No lights shone forth; there seemed to be no windows in the tower—at least not above the level of the inner wall. Only the gems high above sparkled frostily in the starlight.

Shrubbery grew thick outside the lower, or outer wall. The Cimmerian crept close and stood beside the barrier, measuring it with his eye. It was high, but he could leap and catch the coping with his fingers. Then it would be child’s play to swing himself up and over, and he did not doubt that he could pass the inner wall in the same manner. But he hesitated at the thought of the strange perils which were said to await within. These people were strange and mysterious to him; they were not of his kind—not even of the same blood as the more westerly Brythunians, Nemedians, Kothians and Aquilonians, whose civilized mysteries had awed him in times past. The people of Zamora were very ancient, and, from what he had seen of them, very evil.

He thought of Yara, the high priest, who worked strange dooms from this jeweled tower, and the Cimmerian’s hair prickled as he remembered a tale told by a drunken page of the court—how Yara had laughed in the face of a hostile prince, and held up a glowing, evil gem before him, and how rays shot blindingly from that unholy jewel, to envelop the prince, who screamed and fell down, and shrank to a withered blackened lump that changed to a black spider which scampered wildly about the chamber until Yara set his heel upon it.


Rated PG. Contains violence.

Listen to this week’s PodCastle!
« Last Edit: February 27, 2014, 09:54:43 AM by Talia » Logged
slic
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« Reply #1 on: February 09, 2014, 09:54:50 PM »

Great story, terrific reading. 
I considered starting a mock arguement that this was sci-fi because Yag-Kosha clearly tells Conan that he is a space traveller ;-)

I'm a huge fan (with many books, comics and action figures of the sullen Cimmerian), so I'm obviously biased in favour of these stories.  My one gripe is that along with the Frost Giant's Daughter this story is likely the most reproduced Conan story.  I would love to see A Witch Shall be Born, Red Nails or if you are very daring Queen of the Black Coast.

Thanks for the story :-)
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« Reply #2 on: February 10, 2014, 03:33:38 AM »

People, it starts in THE MAUL, not THE MALL. I couldn't distinguish that with my voice Smiley
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« Reply #3 on: February 12, 2014, 10:43:13 AM »

People, it starts in THE MAUL, not THE MALL. I couldn't distinguish that with my voice Smiley

Under the thousand-eyes empty gaze of the shining Sunglasses Hut, the young Sumerian broke his long fast with a fistful of Cinnabon and a tankard of Carmel macchiato with an extra shot. Here in the furthest reaches of the mall, where the empty-eyed emo devotees of the dark gods gathered, he could watch and observe the gleaming edifice that was his goal. Well lit, gleaming silver under the fluorescent bulbs of a forgotten god it glowed. The blue-shirted priests scurried to and fro within, hastening from supplicant to supplicant. Over it all presided the fell symbol of an eastern god, known to few in years past but now his tentacles grasp reached across the lands. The gleaming Apple of Jobs was slowly consuming the world. The barbarian reached to his hip and loosened his Blackberry.....
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« Reply #4 on: February 12, 2014, 10:50:44 AM »

People, it starts in THE MAUL, not THE MALL. I couldn't distinguish that with my voice Smiley

Under the thousand-eyes empty gaze of the shining Sunglasses Hut, the young Sumerian broke his long fast with a fistful of Cinnabon and a tankard of Carmel macchiato with an extra shot. Here in the furthest reaches of the mall, where the empty-eyed emo devotees of the dark gods gathered, he could watch and observe the gleaming edifice that was his goal. Well lit, gleaming silver under the fluorescent bulbs of a forgotten god it glowed. The blue-shirted priests scurried to and fro within, hastening from supplicant to supplicant. Over it all presided the fell symbol of an eastern god, known to few in years past but now his tentacles grasp reached across the lands. The gleaming Apple of Jobs was slowly consuming the world. The barbarian reached to his hip and loosened his Blackberry.....

Win!  Cheesy
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Moritz
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« Reply #5 on: February 12, 2014, 11:03:36 AM »

Ah, an old Conan story, just like that racist uncle who'll say ignorant bullshit in public, but you still invite him to the reunion because he's part of the family and you like his kids.

That being said - and who doesn't have an uncle like that (well, in my family it's my uncles wife who's the problem) - I was surprised at how smooth the story was language wise. There is less purple prose than in other short stories of that time, and the last part of it felt weird enough to make it stand out among the other Conan stories.

Great reading again, but I wasn't expecting anything else Smiley
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Devoted135
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« Reply #6 on: February 12, 2014, 11:26:57 PM »

Oh Conan, you ridiculously muscled and perfectly adapted to sense death approaching guy, you!

I must say that you guys have picked three amazingly different Conan stories to feature here, which makes it pretty hard for me to form an opinion of him and his stories. I think I liked this one second best? I could have done without the women kidnapping/selling, and I was seriously rolling my eyes at all the monologuing that the alien did. Seriously, I was complaining out loud to my computer, wishing he would shut up and die already! But the "dungeon crawl" part was pretty cool, and I liked how Conan had a "buddy," at least for a short time. So a mixed bag, but I'm not mad about it. Smiley
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« Reply #7 on: February 14, 2014, 02:53:20 PM »

What this episode accomplished for me was to cement my opinion that Conan stories are not even slightly entertaining for me. I'm just going to skip future ones entirely and save myself the trouble of trying and failing to get involved.

Great reading, though. I just couldn't focus on the story itself.
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« Reply #8 on: February 14, 2014, 03:06:21 PM »

FWIW, I really meant it when I said I don't think we'll be running any more Conan stories. We could change our minds, but I don't see it at this point. It's been a good survey of the character.

Great story, terrific reading. 
I considered starting a mock arguement that this was sci-fi because Yag-Kosha clearly tells Conan that he is a space traveller ;-)

I'm a huge fan (with many books, comics and action figures of the sullen Cimmerian), so I'm obviously biased in favour of these stories.  My one gripe is that along with the Frost Giant's Daughter this story is likely the most reproduced Conan story.  I would love to see A Witch Shall be Born, Red Nails or if you are very daring Queen of the Black Coast.

Thanks for the story :-)

We actually talked about "Queen of the Black Coast" at one point, but didn't feel comfortable with it in the end. Anna had read it when she was younger, and remembered Belit being black. Which would've been pretty radical and kick-ass for the time - not only a strong female warrior character, but a minority. Unfortunately, that isn't what's in the story.

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bounceswoosh
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« Reply #9 on: February 17, 2014, 12:17:40 AM »

Am I the only one who thought "poor Ganesha!" once we got to .. was his name really Yoga?
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« Reply #10 on: February 17, 2014, 03:09:48 PM »

Am I the only one who thought "poor Ganesha!" once we got to .. was his name really Yoga?

Nope- I was in the car at the time and I think I said approximately the same thing. Out loud. Now that I'm not quite as punchy as I was the other day, I'd like to say that it was a fantastic reading as always. Conan does not have a place in my heart, but the purple prose of early fantasy definitely does so it was probably a push as far as liking the actual story was concerned. I did feel really bad for poor Ganesha (or his fictional analogue). Alternative name for this episode "Honey, I Shrunk the High Priest"
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« Reply #11 on: February 19, 2014, 10:12:28 AM »

Most of the story was pretty much what I'd expect--actiony, pulpy, Conany.

When we got to the part with the space alien, now that I thought was pretty cool.  Monologuey, sure, but I didn't find that too bad because I was interested in his story.  And Ganesha did cross my mind as well.

Neat!

But I also wouldn't be terribly sad if Conan didn't come back as suggested.
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« Reply #12 on: February 19, 2014, 10:59:45 AM »

People, it starts in THE MAUL, not THE MALL. I couldn't distinguish that with my voice Smiley

Haha, I just assumed it was using Mall in some way that I wasn't familiar--sort of a Forum, a public gathering place.
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« Reply #13 on: February 20, 2014, 10:41:06 PM »

Great story!  The Ace paperback Conan books were my first introduction to fantasy back when I was in 6th or 7th grade and they've remained a favorite.  The prose may be a bit overblown, but these stories were originally published in the 1930's during the height of the Depression.  Readers were looking for escapism, and at a time when most movies were still in black and white, these stories delivered exotic settings and over the top heroes and villains.  The opening passage, describing the thieves' den in the maul, is tremendously vivid.
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« Reply #14 on: February 27, 2014, 08:12:13 PM »

BY CROM!!

THis one was pretty cool as it is the first time I heard this one. Great job peeps!
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« Reply #15 on: February 27, 2014, 11:21:50 PM »

Crom's teeth this was good! I'm going through the Dark Horse comics right now, and I'm looking forward to see how they adapt this story. I think Dark Horse did a good job with The Frost Giant's Daughter. Between those comics and the Conan stories on PodCastle, it's a great primer on REH's Conan.

Also, nicely done on the lampshade hanging in the intro. I think it was just the right size.

People, it starts in THE MAUL, not THE MALL. I couldn't distinguish that with my voice Smiley

Under the thousand-eyes empty gaze of the shining Sunglasses Hut, the young Sumerian broke his long fast with a fistful of Cinnabon and a tankard of Carmel macchiato with an extra shot. Here in the furthest reaches of the mall, where the empty-eyed emo devotees of the dark gods gathered, he could watch and observe the gleaming edifice that was his goal. Well lit, gleaming silver under the fluorescent bulbs of a forgotten god it glowed. The blue-shirted priests scurried to and fro within, hastening from supplicant to supplicant. Over it all presided the fell symbol of an eastern god, known to few in years past but now his tentacles grasp reached across the lands. The gleaming Apple of Jobs was slowly consuming the world. The barbarian reached to his hip and loosened his Blackberry.....


Fireturtle, I think you have a challenge to expand this to 500 words for the next flash fiction contest.

I also read this entire comment in Graeme's Conan Narration Voice.
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« Reply #16 on: February 28, 2014, 09:14:32 AM »

I also read this entire comment in Graeme's Conan Narration Voice.

I think that Graeme's going to need that voice back at some point.  I'd let him speak for himself but, you know....
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« Reply #17 on: March 05, 2014, 12:53:46 PM »

I havne't been a big fan of the Conan stories to date, and the opening of this one almost led me to spin on.

However, I held on, curious as to what the non-human guards in the garden would be. Ghosts? Demons? By the time the lions were revealed, I was hooked. I admit it, I liked a Conan story.
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« Reply #18 on: March 14, 2014, 11:57:48 AM »

"The Tower of the Elephant" was one of the first Howard tales I read, and probably the one that got me hooked on the big lug. So I suppose I'm a little "biased" as well, though it may be impossible to escape bias towards an eighty year old character who's wormed his way into pop culture about as deeply as any SF&F character can hope to.

But I think there's something particularly special about "The Tower of the Elephant." If your only exposure to Howard's Cimmerian has been in ripping yarns replete with half-naked vixens and the spray of gore, or even trashier pastiches, or, god forbid, the movies, then I think you might be surprised by this story. Conversely, if this excellent reading did nothing for you, it's safe to say that you and Conan were not meant for one another, and you can happily go your separate ways. The barbarian waits for no one.

One thing that stands out to me about this story is the inexperience of Conan. The youth in the loincloth is in over his head breaking into the tower, and it's fairly clear that without Taurus's aid (and ultimate sacrifice) that he would've been captured or killed a few times over before getting to the treasure he sought. He's impulsive, distracted by shiny baubles, and he doesn't understand how "civilized men" think. But what he does have is strength, agility, and maybe most importantly, a barbaric instinct. That's "barbaric" in the sense of "uncivilized," not "cruel." Conan, for all his hulking masculinity, is to some extent best understood as an embodiment for Howard's attacks on the idea of civilization, on a social order that believes itself higher than others because it has invented new ways to hide its evils under the guise of good. Witness Conan's remark: "Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing." The battle in a nutshell.

Compare Conan and Taurus. Would the Prince of Thieves have spared the alien Yogah? We are led to believe not. Taurus desired power just as much as the wicked priest Yara, and, it seems to me, would have no qualms about taking Yara's place as torturer and slaver if it meant he got what he wanted. But Conan? He is "savage" but has no desire to see another being tormented for personal gain. His actions at the beginning mirror those at the end: he kills a "woman stealer" and he kills an alien stealer. His sense of internal justice does not answer to external laws.

And then there's Yogah himself. My copy of the story contained this illustration by Mark Schultz, which I think perfectly captures the bizarre sadness of that scene. Normally, you'd expect Conan to be battling transcosmic demons, not listening to their heart-felt, depressing life stories. And, yes, like some have mentioned, I do think the Monologue of the Elephant goes on for longer than it needs to. But what's happening as this being talks about what it has seen in its incredibly long life is the revelation that civilization is not the final, highest state of humanity -- merely a state. Empires rise and fall and rise, oceans swallow whole continents, life persists and adapts.

The story doesn't end with a triumphant huzzah, bloody swords raised over dead bodies, but "[Conan] turned back uncertainly, to stare at the cryptic tower he had just left. Was he bewitched and enchanted? Had he dreamed all that had seemed to have passed?" Yara is dead, but killing him does not undo his actions, which for me lingered over the end of the story and afterwards. Yes, there is plenty of fantasizing and escapism in "The Tower of the Elephant," but I think there's more going on there than just that, as in the best of the Conan tales.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a couple other stories that might appeal to people who liked this one and want more like it. There is a lot of crap out there. But if you want stories similar to this in content and theme, try: "Beyond the Black River," "Red Nails," or "Queen of the Black Coast."  Anyway, that's all I have to say for now.
« Last Edit: March 15, 2014, 03:18:44 PM by Procyon » Logged
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« Reply #19 on: March 15, 2014, 03:00:10 AM »

Thank you, Procyon, for your wonderful Conan/Howard thoughts. It left me with a smile on my face.

Smiley
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