Depression-Era pulps often invoked the unimaginably ancient and unimaginably decadent civilizations based vaguely on the Orient: the cities all warrened with harems, opium dens, dungeons, lairs, and oubliettes; the rulers all fat, bejeweled, and lecherous; the people childlike; the laws brutal; the religions by turns esoteric and superstitious: the distant past worlds of Hyperborea and Atlantis, the distant future world of Xiccarph, or the aging jungle-cities of Mars.
Placing Adventure Boys in realms of Oriental myth allowed for a lushly sensual homoromance. In H.P. Lovecraft's "Quest of Iranon”(1921), a young man wanders a stern, unfriendly world in search of the city of Aira, where there are “men to whom songs and dreams. . .bring pleasure.” He meets “a young boy with sad eyes” who also dreams of escape, to a city where “men understand our longings and welcome us as brothers, nor even laugh or frown at what we say.” They travel together, happy in a way yet always longing. They grow old together and finally die, never finding their true home.
Often the outskirts of these unimaginably ancient cities were teaming with mighty-thewed, sword-wielding barbarians -- Henry Kuttner’s Elak, Clark Ashton Smith’s Tiglari, Robert E. Howard’s Conan, Brak, and Kull (played by Kevin Sorbo in the film version). Their plots usually involved a masculine/feminine colonizer/colonized myth, with the muscle man rescuing a naked woman from some effeminate, ruby-ringed satrap.
Fellow muscle men appeared only as bullies, cads, or at best, untrustworthy companions who ended up betraying the hero -- except when the barbarians are teenagers rather than men. Then they rescue no naked women, and their same-sex bonds are true.
Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian spends his seventeen stories in Weird Tales rescuing the requisite naked woman and being betrayed by men, except in the only story set in his adolescence, “The Tower of the Elephant” (1933). About sixteen years old, a “tall, strongly made youth” with “broad, heavy shoulders, massive chest” and so on, Conan sneaks into the Tower of the Elephant with the hope of stealing a fabulous jewel hidden there. At this point, plot conventions decree that he find a naked woman. Instead, he finds a naked man.
An alien named Yag-kosha, elephant-headed but otherwise human, has been blinded, crippled, and imprisoned in the tower by an evil sorcerer. They become friendly, and Yag-kosha asks Conan to rescue him through the strange-sounding expedient of cutting out his heart. Conan never hesitates about killing monsters and enemies, but he will not kill a friend, and complies only when Yag-kosha assures him that he will not die. In fact, he uses the magic of the heart to take revenge on the evil sorcerer, and then, restored to his original strength and beauty, he jubilantly flies away to join his companions on his home planet.
This story is fascinating because it precisely mirrors the adventures of the adult Conan, only transformed from hetero-erotic to graphically homoerotic. In the shimmering tower, the adult Conan would find a female object of desire (naked, beautiful, benevolent) contrasted with a male threat (clothed, hideous, evil). However, the teenage Conan finds a male, both object of desire (naked, benevolent) and threat (blind, crippled, aged, with a hideous face “of nightmare and madness”). Then ritualized death and resurrection removes the threat, leaving only desire: Conan perceives the new Yag-kosha as beautiful.
Even the hints of heterosexual intimacy that the adult Conan often enjoys with the naked ladies he rescues are mirrored when the naked Yag-kosha gets to “know” Conan by caressing his chest and shoulders with his soft phallic trunk: “its touch was as light as a girl’s hand,” Howard tells us, suggesting a tender, gentle sexual congress. Conan’s desire here is for the male, a yearning for masculine intimacy that must be sublimated beyond all recognition among the adults in Cimmeria but can be expressed freely, with only a veneer of euphemism, during the paradox of youth.