“Rogues in the House” may have been among the earlier tales of the wandering Cimmerian that Robert E. Howard wrote, but it is one of the best. I reread it last night to get in the mood for Howard Days, and found it to be compelling and exciting, even though I knew everything that was going to happen.
Sometimes it’s good to go back and reread something when you know all the plot twists the author is going to throw at you. Doing so give you a greater appreciation of the author’s skill and technique. Note: There will be spoilers.
The story focuses as much on the secondary character of the corrupt nobleman Murilo. As the story opens he experiences a Vincent van Gogh moment when the Red Priest Nabonidus hands him a small package at a party. The package contains the severed ear of a clerk who had been selling Murilo state secrets which he then sold to foreign powers. I have to wonder if Howard knew about van Gogh’s cutting off of his own ear (a story recently debunked) and if that served as inspiration for this part of the story.
Regardless of whether Howard drew on this bit of van Gogh lore, it’s a great opening. Nabonidus is warning Murilo, sow Murilo hatches a scheme to free Conan from the local jail if he will kill Nabonidus. Conan agrees. But first on the way to Nabonidus’ house, he stops off and settles up with the two people who are responsible for his being in jail. He kills the man his former lover has taken up with and then tosses her into a large puddle of sewage from a second story ledge.
I have always found this part of the story interesting, because it shows that Conan has reservations against physically harming an unarmed woman he has justification for killing.
Although Conan has made good his escape, Murilo thinks the plan has failed because the guard who was his accomplice was arrested earlier in the evening. Desperate, Murilo decides to try to kill Nabonidus himself.
But when he gets to the estate of Nabonidus, he discovers the guard dog brutally slain and one of only two known servants dead in the house. Then he discovers Nabonidus, or who he thinks is Nabonidus, and is knocked unconscious.
Conan sneaks in, finds both Murilo and Nabonidus in a tunnel. Nabonidus shows them through a system of mirrors rigged up like periscopes that the real threat is Thak, the only other servant. Thak is a highly evolved ape from a remote mountain range, representative of a species in the process of evolving into men.
The men agree to help each other escape. The importance of this passage is when Murilo tells Nabonidus that of the three of them, Conan is the most honest because he kills and steals openly, rather than in secret. That’s not the only point in the story that Howard implies that barbarism is better than civilization. Earlier, in the darkened tunnel, Conan tells Murilo he recognized him by the smell of the perfume Murilo wore in his hair, something Murilo can hardly smell when he puts a strand of hair to his nose.
The ensuing fight between Conan and Thak is, of course, the subject of an iconic Frank Frazetta painting. I will say that in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, Mark Schultz pays homage to this painting. (Shultz’s illustrations are fantastic.)
I’ll not give away all the details or how the story ends, but “Rogues in the House” is one of Howard’s best tales. His prose is smooth and polished, the story is well told, and all in all it was a great adventure fantasy.