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Literature / Rogues in the House

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"Rogues in the House" is a Conan the Barbarian story by Robert E. Howard. First published in January, 1934.

Conan is sitting in prison after killing a priest (he had it coming) when he is approached by a nobleman named Murillo, who has a proposition for him: kill the Red Priest Nabonidus for him, and he will provide Conan a horse, a sack of gold, and a one way ticket out of town and away from the gallows.

Conan escapes from jail, and, after dealing with the prostitute who turned him in, heads off to Nabonidus's mansion. Conan tries entering through the sewer, only to get stuck down there thanks to one of the mansions traps. While down there, he runs into Murillo, who had arrives there first with the intention of killing Nabonidus himself, thinking Conan had high tailed it out of town. They soon discover Nabonidus trapped down there as well, a prisoner in his own home.

Turns out Nabonidus's servant, a man-ape named Thak, has rebelled against his master, and now uses the assortment of traps set around the mansion to keep out unwanted guests (and keep his prisoners in). The three rogues will have to work together if they ever want to get out of the mansion alive, lest they fall victim to Thak, or perhaps, to each other.

The story has been adapted by Marvel Comics in their Conan the Barbarian comic, as well as by Dark Horse Comics.

Notable as being one of Howard's personal favorite stories, and one of the stories that he was most happy with the finished result, only having to go through two drafts before publishing. He also remarked on how he was especially happy with the story as his editor didn't force him to add a fetish/nude scene, which was almost a requirement for pulp stories at the time.

Tropes in the House:

  • Admiring the Abomination: Nabonidus is thoroughly impressed with how knowledgeable Thak has become with his patented system of traps and gleefully gives a play by play of the elaborate hell Thak is unleashing upon the happless party of nationalist assassins, much to Conan and Murillo's disgust.
  • Angry Guard Dog: Nabonidus has one, reputed to be exceptionally powerful and vicious. It's dead by the time we see it, killed by Thak in his takeover of the house.
  • Big Fancy House: Nabonidus' house has elegant furnishings and appointments, but only one servant, by the reports of the few men who've been allowed inside.
  • The Berserker: The effect of the gray lotus powder, one of the many traps in Nabonidus' house, on men.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Proves to be Nabonidus's undoing. He could have activated his final booby trap, killed Conan and Murillo, and gotten away with it all, but no, he just had to start Monologuing:
    Nabonidus: And so, Murillo, fool that you are-::BONK::
  • Brick Joke: Conan earlier objects to Murillo not wanting to kill Nabonidus, instead figure out what's going on in the house. Conan insists he wants see what color Nabonidus' blood is, as so many say he has a black heart he must have black blood as well. After Conan kills him. . .
  • The Dandy: Murillo, the soft, pampered nobleman with scented curls who hires Conan to kill Nabonidus for him. Then straps on a sword and goes to do it himself when that plan seems to have failed.
  • Decadent Court: The unnamed city the story takes place is astonishingly corrupt, even by the standards of civilized places in Conan yarns. See Grey-and-Grey Morality.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Implied. In the chronologically-earlier story "The Hall of the Dead," which Robert E. Howard began and L. Sprague DeCamp later finished, Conan meets a Gunderman mercenary named Nestor, and they become Fire-Forged Friends over the course of looting an ancient cursed citadel and fighting the demons and monsters they find there. At the beginning of this story, passing mention is made of Conan's accomplice, an unnamed Gunderman who was captured and executed well before the events of the main narrative. Ohhhh...
  • Enemy Mine: Conan joins with Nabonidus, who he was hired to kill, so they can get past Thak and escape the house.
  • Epic Fail: How Conan get arrested. He is ratted out by a whore so when the guards find him half-asleep and fully drunk he fights his way out until he charges full speed into a stone wall and knocks himself out.
  • Evil Chancellor: Nabonidus is this to the king. He is technically just the king's chief advisor. In truth though he's a powerful sorcerer with many different schemes whom the king fears deeply, and is the true power.
  • Exact Words: Nabonidus promises not to have the king kill Murillo. He didn't say anything about personally killing Murillo though.
  • The Exile: Murillo is not sure whether he's been warned to opt for this. Nabonidus sends him the ear of his spy as proof that he is on to him and the guards have not come to arrest him yet. Later the priest admitted he was gonna do it tomorrow morning and as seen by his sadistic streak and gloating, Nabonidus is the type to play with his victim and likely just wanted to give Murillo a headstart.
  • Finger in the Mail: An ear is sent to Murillo.
  • Frazetta Man: Thak, however see It Can Think. We are told that in 100,000 years or so his people are liable to become human.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Nabonidus who uses a lot of Clock Punk tech to safeguard his house.
  • Gambit Pileup: A fairly good description of the plot. Murillo arranges Conan's escape from prison to have him kill Nabonidus, but then ends up going to Nabonidus's mansion to do the job himself when he hears that the escape was botched. Conan, meanwhile, manages to break out of prison on his own, but decides that he could probably use the sack of gold and the fast horse that Murillo promised him once the job was done (and he felt at least partially indebted to Murillo for getting him unshackled and nourished with a good meal while he was in prison), so he heads to the mansion as well. Unfortunately, this is the exact night that Nabonidus's pet Ape-Man Thak decides to rebel against his master. And then, partway through the story, a band of political rebels breaks in with the intent of assassinating Nabonidus (they do about as well as you'd expect). Everyone wants to kill Nabonidus, they all want to do it right now, and nothing goes according to plan for any of them.
  • Gas Chamber: One of Nabonidus' traps, sealing intruders between glass panels and spraying them with gray lotus powder.
  • Great Escape: Arranged for Conan to escape prison and assassinate a target. It does not go according to plan, and Conan is forced to affect his own.
  • Gray-and-Grey Morality: As per the norm for the Conan universe, the unnamed city where this story takes place is astoundingly corrupt and decadent. Even the guard that Murillo bribes to get Conan out of jail is into a bunch of unscrupulous things, which is what gets him caught and the escape stopped. Murillo is a courtier selling state secrets to rival kings. Nabonidus is a classic Evil Chancellor with all kinds of plots in motion. And between them is Conan, amoral sellsword. Everyone pretty much agrees that of the three of them, Conan is the most morally upright, because at least he's not pretending to be anything but an amoral sellsword.
  • Hidden Depths: Murillo is a dandy and a traitor, but he's no coward. Once he hears that his assassination plot has been thwarted, he straps on a sword and heads off to Nabonidus's mansion. Granted, he's acting out of desperation and he doesn't really think he'll pull it off, but he's clearly not going down without a fight. He also helps out Conan during the final battle with Thak by smashing a stool to pieces on the Ape-Man's back while the two are tearing at each other, stunning him long enough for Conan to get the fatal blow in.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Nabonidus dies when Conan throws a stool at him, with enough force and accuracy to drive one of the legs through his skull.
  • Improvised Weapon User: Conan's a resourceful guy. When the new guard starts hassling him about the joint of beef he's eating, Conan simply wallops him with the bone and walks out of dungeon. And in the climax of the story, he takes out Nabodinus with a stool.
  • I Owe You My Life: Minor example: one of the reasons Conan decides to carry out the assassination even though Murillo's attempt to get him out of prison fails was because he's got a rough code of honor and feels indebted to him: Murillo made sure that Conan got a decent meal and was unchained beforehand, without which Conan couldn't have had the strength and opportunity to make his own escape. The promise of gold and a ride out of town doesn't hurt either.
  • It Can Think: Thak is not just inhumanely strong, he is also much more intelligent than he looks.
  • Just Eat Him: Thak had his chances to merely tear Nabonidus and Murillo limb from limb at different points in the story, but chose instead to drop them into the mansion's sewer system in order to have them disposed of later in one of Nabonidus' more elaborate traps.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Conan chucks a stool at Nabonidus's head right in the middle of his evil monologue. We'll never know what gruesome fate he had planned for our heroes now.
  • Killer Gorilla: Thak's portrayal is somewhere between this and a more typical Frazetta man.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Nabonidus is the man behind pretty much everyone, manipulating everyone from the king on down in his web of intrigue.
  • The Mole: Murillo sells secrets to foreigners.
  • Noble Fugitive: Murillo thinks of this but it might not be allowed.
  • Seen It All: Nabonidus isn't really shocked by the events of the night and finds it amusing the bot Murillo and the nationalist decided tonight was the night to kill him.
  • The Rat: Conan and his Gunderman ally are betrayed by a priest who works as both a fence and a snitch. Conan kills the priest for it, but is then betrayed by a hooker. And that's why he starts this story in jail.
  • Red and Black and Evil All Over: Thak, clad in Nabonidus' red robe gives off this effect through his ebony features.
  • Worthy Opponent: At the end Conan acknowledges Thak as this.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Conan gets revenge on the whore who turned him in to the guardsmen by tossing her into a cesspool. Note that this makes him positively chivalrous by the standards of the Hyborian Age.