“Shadows in the Moonlight” reads as if it is a hybrid of atmospheric horror and action-adventure. With Howard's association with Lovecraft, E. Hoffman Price and Clark Ashton Smith, his darker passion was stirred to author hair-raising tales like “Pigeons from Hell” (Stephen King named it one of the finest horror stories of the 20th century). But, beyond Conan battling evil sorcerers, snake behemoths, and the undead, how does “Shadows in the Moonlight” incorporate a less “on the nose” horror element?
By placing Conan, and a damsel in distress, Olivia, on a deserted island, Howard branches this story off into new directions. First and foremost, this deserted island that Conan and Olivia sail to is deathly quiet, an atmosphere that the always colorful Howard is able to describe in an eerie fashion. When exploration begins, out of both boredom and hunger, the two find a crumbling, ancient ruin. Inside, they discover lifelike black statues that are placed in a half-circle. Finding no other shelter, the two decide to spend the night at the ruins (terrifying!) and Olivia has a nightmare that these statues come to life. I found this entire section of Howard's story to be chilling in its total abandonment of this archaic art.
But, the horror element is temporarily swept aside as Conan and Olivia see a pirate ship on the shore. Hoping to gain passage, Conan fights the pirate captain and wins. But, these pirates are a bad lot (even for pirates) and they soon overtake Conan while Olivia runs into hiding. With Conan beaten and unconscious, the pirates take him to the ruins. But, there's a surprise with the statues, and I'm not going to ruin it for you here.
“Shadows in the Moonlight” is set during the buccaneer era of Conan's life. In the story, Conan reveals to Olivia that he was in a a brigade called Free Companions, raiding the borders of Koth, Turan, and Zamora for a prince in Eastern Koth. Apparently, all of the Free Companions were killed except for Conan. By the story's end, Conan has become a pirate captain, complete with his own crew and ship. In the grand Conan mythos, this sets up his life under the alias Amra and his pirate empire in the Vilayet Sea. Details of this period make up the narrative of Leonard Carpenter's 1994 novel Scourge of the Bloody Coast.
Sitting aside all the horror and pirate talk, “Shadows in the Moonlight” is a barbaric tale with plenty of sword fights and heroic saves set in an exotic location. As a men's action-adventure novel, there's nothing to dislike here. Robert E. Howard was in top form when he wrote the story and it's entertainment value has yet to dwindle. Highly recommended!