The Devil in Iron

May 29, 2015

When I first read the original Conan the Barbarian stories, my favorite was “The Devil in Iron.”  It seems strange that I liked the tale so much at the time.  I reread it recently, after happening on a comment on the Web that suggested that it was one of Howard’s weakest Conan stories.  I don’t always agree with the conventional wisdom about such things.  (For example, while may readers consider “The People of the Black Circle” to be one of the best Conan stories, it is my least favorite of Howard’s original efforts.)

But I read “The Devil in Iron” again, and I agree.  It’s not a good story.  The plot requires two remarkable coincidences just to make sense.  Yet it’s no mystery why I particularly liked the story when I first read it.

There were two reasons, actually.  The first reason was that I like the cover art on the edition of Conan the Wanderer that I first read it in.

The Devil in Iron

I not usually much of a fan of Boris Vallejo, but I find this picture really evocative.  It’s not Conan I’m looking at here; the weird musculature of his back and the odd angle at which he’s holding his knife are rather off-putting, actually.  However, the scenery and especially the larger figure of Khosatral Khel are very creepy.  I can’t quite look away from that face.

The second reason I liked the story was in Howard’s prose itself.  This passage is just very powerful:

The tongue was Nemedian, but the voice was not human. There was a terrifying resonance about it, like a bell tolling at midnight.

“There was no life in the Abyss, save that which was incorporated in me,” it tolled. “Nor was there light, nor motion, nor any sound. Only the urge behind and beyond life guided and impelled me on my upward journey, blind, insensate, inexorable. Through ages upon ages, and the changeless strata of darkness I climbed—”

I like the idea that the demon-god was something entirely different before he emerged in this world.  It had to work its way up, through the physical and metaphysical bedrock, before it could take on a man-like body of impregnable iron.  I also like notion that its voice sounds like the tolling of a bell, because that enhances the feeling the story provides of Khosatral Khel’s metallic character.  When Conan inevitably defeats the monster, its corpse turns back into whatever it was before by the time it hits the ground.  It never says what Khosatral Khel’s true form was, but I believe it when the story says that it was horrible.

All in all, “The Devil in Iron” is not a particularly good story.  But it still has a few passages that really move me, and I wonder if other readers will still react the same way.



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