“Shadows in Zamboula” is one of the original stories by Robert E. Howard about Conan the Cimmerian, first published in Weird Tales in November 1935. Its original title was “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula“. The story sold for $120.00.

The story takes place over the course of a night in the desert city of Zamboula, with political intrigue amidst streets filled with roaming cannibals. This story also introduced a fearsome strangler named Baal-Pteor, who is one of the few humans in the Conan stories to be a physical challenge for the main character himself.

By present-day sensibilities, the story is seriously marred by including a vicious racial stereotype – blacks as cannibals – though Howard strove to lessen this by making it clear that the cannibals in Zamboula are only the specific blacks from Darfar, other blacks being untainted. A white character, Aram Baksh, proves to be a more sinister antagonist by facilitating, exploiting, and profiting from the cannibalism of the Dafari slaves.

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Plot summary

Despite the warning he received in a suq by an elderly nomad, Conan spends the night at a cheap tavern in Zamboula, owned by Aram Baksh. As night falls, a black cannibal from Dafar enters his chamber, by means of a trick lock, to drag Conan away and feast on him. All of the Darfarian slaves in the city are cannibals who roam the streets at night. Since the cannibals only prey on travelers, the inhabitants of the city tolerate this and stay locked securely in their homes, while nomads and beggars make sure to spend the night at a comfortable distance from Zamboula. Even worse, Aram Baksh has made a deal with the cannibals – he provides them with “fresh meat” and profits from the belongings of his ill-fated guests at the inn. This night, however, the unfortunate cannibal attempts to prey on a fully aware Conan and pays with his life. Realizing his room is actually a trap, Conan escapes into the Zamboulan streets where he encounters a naked woman being attacked by the roaming cannibals. Conan rescues her, and the woman tells him how she tried to secure her fiancé’s affection with a love potion, which instead made a raving lunatic of him, and he chased her out of their home. After promising Conan “a reward” for his assistance, the two capture the mad lover, and then attempt to murder the high priest responsible for the lover’s insanity.

The woman is captured in their attempt, and forced – via hypnotism – to dance before the high priest until she is exhausted. Conan, after defeating a strangler named Baal-Pteor at his own game, rescues the woman and kills the corrupt priest. Right before Conan could claim his payment, the woman reveals herself as Nafertari, mistress of the satrap of Zamboula, Jungir Khan (the insane lover). Taking the antidote to Jungir, Nafertari promises Conan a position in her council and vast wealth.

Conan, however, leaves the city and reveals to the reader how he had recognized the two almost immediately. He takes his revenge on Aram Baksh by cutting out Baksh’s tongue and slicing off his beard. Soon, Conan renders him both mute and unrecognizable. Eventually, he turns Baksh over to the hungry cannibals so they can devour him (one of the most profound displays of Conan’s ironic sense of humor). After dealing with Aram Baksh, Conan leaves the city with a bag of gold and a magic ring which started the night’s intrigues (Conan had stolen it from the insane Jungir during their first encounter), with the intent of selling his prize to another interested party.

From the letters:

In a letter (#342) to P. Schuyler Miller, March 10, 1936, Howard comments on the artwork done in Weird Tales for this story:

Hope you find “The Hyborian Age” interesting. I’m enclosing a copy of the original map. Yes, Napoli’s done very well with Conan, though at times he seems to give him a sort of Latin cast of the countenance which isn’t according to type, as I conceive it. However, that isn’t enough to kick about.

Vincent Napoli illustrated the Conan stories “Shadows in Zamboula,”

Published in

The L. Sprague de Camp edited version of this story appears in the following places:

Sources and links