Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Today: Conan vs. venereal disease.

That might be a snide way of putting it, but pretty much. From 1986, Conan Annual #11, "Bride of the Oculist!" Written by James C. Owsley (a.k.a. Priest) with art by Ernie Chan.

The story is told by the aforementioned oculist, Richel, as he has a drink and watches men construct "the machine." A gallows. Although he occasionally ran into trouble with yokels who considered him an evil warlock; in the dive town of Vesci the oculist could go about his practice in relative peace. His bedside manner might be a bit lacking, however.

His office hours interrupted by a scabrous wreck seeking vengeance, Richel thinks quickly and forces his former patient out of an upper-floor window; as his current one is still clutching his eye-stump. Still, a passing snitch gets the idea that an oculist might be flush with gold, and feeds the info to a certain barbarian-turned-thief. Conan rides out for a little B&E, but wasn't expecting to run into the oculist's wife, Narada. Or her lover, Tolkhan. Kung-fu kicking the barbarian from behind, Tolkhan knocks out Conan, but Narada has an idea: make off with Richel's gold, and pin the crime on Conan.

Days later, Richel visits Conan in jail: he knows Conan was trying to rob him, but his wife beat them both to the punch. He offers Conan his freedom, if he can find Narada and the gold; and will split the gold with Conan if he succeeds. (Taking for granted Conan being too honorable to take the money and run.) Still, Conan may have his work cut out for him:

Being both the most logical suspect and due for an asswhupping, Conan visits Tolkhan. Despite being almost twice his age, Conan still delivers a solid beating to the young whippersnapper; who is actually heartbroken since Narada left him, with the gold. Conan tracks down the next name, a local baron, and here's where things get weird: the baron has became a recluse, since he appears to have contracted a rotting disease, almost like leprosy. Narrating, Richel explains he treated Narada's perfumes with "an elixir" that would give the disease to any man who kissed his wife, rotting first their flesh, then their mind.

Tolkhan catches up to Conan, having realized he's been infected by the oculist's revenge, but wanting to see his love before he dies. Conan's been snowed by women before; but he's old enough to not be especially sympathetic. Especially when the trail leads them to a bar full of poxy faces, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, a small company of the army, a shepherd, and a Pictish chief. At the latter, they find the gold, but no sign of Narada.

Enraged, Tolkhan goes back to Richel's, where the oculist was planning to leave town. Knowing the disease is driving Tolkhan mad, Richel takes pity and lets him know where his beloved is: in a big jar in the closet. Richel killed Narada right off, claiming she'd run away with his money. (This hinges on there being some authority in the town that cared if Richel murdered his wife; in a lot of Conan stories he probably could've done so in broad daylight.) After a gruesome embrace with the pickled corpse, Tolkhan tries to kill Richel, but Conan arrives to pummel him unconscious again, then forces Richel to cure the boy.

His tale concluded, Richel challenges you to find a moral, as he faces the gallows. But not for murdering his wife: the man who lost an eye at the start of his story, was a vengeful captain of the guard. The now one-eyed guard, Conan, and a recovering Tolkhan watch as the oculist is strung up.

I have to wonder if Priest wasn't going through a breakup when he wrote this one. A bad breakup.

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