People of the Black Circle (Howard, R., E., 1934)

Had I been Howard I probably would have named People of the Black Circle as Sorcerers of the Black Circle or something in that vein, as that's what the people in it are: evil, powerful wizards, who can travel through air as crimson smoke, make people kill themselves at their command and whisk around all kinds of deadly spells, that can even make earth shatter. Not that the name as such makes the story itself any worse, far from it, as the story itself is a stellar display of Howard's style. But as far names go, "people" does sound a bit harmless.  Then again, it might have been the publisher, who suggested the name.

I've been led to believe, that People of the Black Circle is also one of the first Conan stories, despite it does depict the character in the later part of his life, after his days of being a corsair. Also, maybe even more than a story of Conan, this is also a story of the young queen of Vendhya, Devi Yasmina, who's looking to revenge the death of the king, his brother, who was killed by the Black Circle. In fact, the story begins from the death bed of the king, just before he manages to tell Yasmina, that his very soul is pulled apart by the devilish forces at the disposal of the sorcerers.

Conan comes into the story a bit later, when Yasmina travels to the border town of Venhya and Afghulistan in order to get Conan, dreaded tribes leader of Afghulian hill men, to kill the Black Seers of Yimsha. She knows, that she might have a shot at that by exchanging lives of 7 imprisoned chiefs for the task. But things go sour when Conan kidnaps Devi in order to use her as a bargaining chip. And they go even sourer when the Seers kidnap Devi in turn. This leaves Conan only one logical choice: to go after her and kill the sorcerers.

People of the Black Circle is a good example of why Howard is considered by some as the best pulp writer who has ever lived. The story itself is quite exciting, and relatively complex all things considered. It also keeps together fairly well, despite it moves forward like a steam engine. Despite its short length it also manages to paint out a vivid picture of the world it takes place at: an ancient, ages forgotten past of Afghanistan and Himalayas when the world was filled with more wonder, darkness, and bravery.

Unlike in some other pulp stories, Yasmina is also a pretty well-rounded character. She's not just an another damsel in distress, despite she does get kidnapped by the villains of the story. She's given proper personality, the motivation of her actions and a certain amount of spunk, that a lot of pulp fiction damsels fully lack. In the end, Conan even looks upon her in admiration.

The character of Conan also feels already quite well thought out in the story. He begins and ends, his own path as the man among men: a wild, noble barbarian, who's willing to take what he wants, but who also is fair and dependable. Through his actions even those, who might have come to doubt him, gain renewed faith in him again.

In a lot of Conan stories magic isn't explained very deeply. In PotBC the magic the seers are using is explained quite a bit. It's described in a relative length in consideration of the actual page count of the story and we even learn a bit of where the magic stems from as well do we get to know what it does to people and why it even works.

As a story, People of the Black Circle is among the strongest of what Howard has written, especially of Conan. The setting it has in interesting, the characters are well fleshed out, especially considering how little room there's for character introductions, the story flows with ease and feels epic in scope. Also, despite the story was originally published as a three-part magazine story, it never feels that way. Some pulp stories had a bad tendency to end chapters in cliffhangers, which in progression made the story itself feel a bit parodic in nature, but that never happens here.  Howard's style is steady and the magazine divides are not visible in the overall structure and the flow feels quite natural.

There are Conan collections out there, that have printed the Conan stories in a chronological order of how they'd happen in Conan's life. But I do think, considering the style of the stories themselves, it doesn't really matter in what order you read them in. And People of the Black Circle is a pretty good starting point.

I also read the story in mind of Howard's tendency of racism I already touched on my review of the Skull-Face, which I found to be a racially sensitive story. There I also pondered, if Howard's stories set further back in time would have less racial prejudices in them and what's it worth, there's none of that in PotBC. In fact, it feels more like Howard very deliberately left all modern racial schisms out of the story, which goes in line with my theory of that the closer the modern time Howard set his stories, the more his real life thinking crept in the narrative.  But as I've read only two if his stories this in mind, this is no means solid evidence yet. But we'll see.

Be it however, People of the Black Circle is a solid pulp fantasy story. It's also a good starting point to the world of Conan if you haven't read any of the stories before. Howard's stories should be available through well-stocked libraries, as well as numerous collections in both physical and digital form. Also, as many of his tales have already fallen in public domain due of their age, a site like Project Gutenberg might be of assistance in finding a free digital copy.