This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
So, at the start of this year I wrote a mammoth-sized article about Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories which attracted a certain amount of attention, including some posts by Howard’s defenders, and much earlier I wrote a review of the Solomon Kane stuff which got S.M. Stirling all hot and bothered. A few of these comments were broadly reasonable in their tone; others, well, ended up sounding a bit like this. I hadn’t really intended to return to Robert E. Howard’s work after this because I find it bigoted and amateurish and was sceptical that any of the other material out there would make me change my mind, but when I saw copies of Conan’s Brethren and The Haunter of the Ring and Other Stories going for £1 each at the sprawling used book shop in Notting Hill I swing by from time to time to hunt down rarities, I thought “hell with it, let’s go in for another round”.
A frequent complaint in the discussion on Ferretbrain provoked by my last article was that I was mischaracterising Howard based on only a limited set of his material, and I needed to read more widely if I was going to get a proper picture of his work. The complaint itself doesn’t really stand up as a counter to my criticism of the Conan stories because, well, I was criticising the Conan stories. What judgements I made about Howard’s worldview as an author and the racial theories he put forth there were based on how those stories present said subjects. If the views Howard presented in the Conan material did not accurately reflect his own views, then that doesn’t exonerate the stories at all, and it doesn’t really let Howard off the hook: writing an overtly racist story you don’t really believe in for the cash is just as odious, though in different ways, as writing an overtly racist story you actually believe in. I did, in fact, concede in the previous post that the market Howard was targeting with the Conan stories might have brought out the worst in him – a point at least one of his defenders also made – which is about as fair as I can be to the guy without saying stuff I don’t actually believe myself.
Still, I’ve got these tomes now, and I may as well put them to good use. By which I mean entertaining use. By which I mean waving them about and yelling “Look, look damn it! It’s not just the Conan and Solomon Kane stories that air these racist views! They’re not even the worst examples!”
A little word about the publications in question. Conan’s Brethren is a chunky hardback put out by Gollancz, and the selections within it are meant to be representative of Howard’s non-Conan sword and sorcery and historical adventure material – it’s part of that line of ostentatiously huge editions of Lovecraft and Howard and (inexplicably) Jack Vance they have with the ornate pseudo-leather covers so you can pretend you have the actual Necronomicon on your bookshelf (except they stopped naming the things after Mythos tomes after the first Lovecraft volume they did). Happily, my edition is a more compact normal-sized version made for Book Club Associates, so yay for not trying to read this ridiculously big thing on the train in the morning. The Haunter of the Ring is published by Wordsworth Editions and picks out stories to represent his horror output (including a cross-section of his Cthulhu Mythos stuff, written in honour of his dreamy penpal HP “Creepy Howie” Lovecraft), being part of their “Wait, we can totally do a Horror Masterworks series using solely out-of-copyright material” line.
Neither publisher fancied shelling out for the actual rights to any of this stuff, which meant that the collections are stuffed with out-of-copyright material. That means that there’s no collaborations (or at least no stories explicitly presented as collaborations) in the set, since the time limit for copyright expiry would run from the death of the last surviving collaborator and most of the folk who finished off Howard’s incomplete works after his suicide died long after him. The Howard material which is in the public domain for the purposes of UK law consists of everything he published when he was alive, plus any posthumously released works which were first made available to the general public 70 years ago (so, only posthumous releases from the first few years after his death are out of copyright). That represents a goodly chunk of his output, but it doesn’t actually include everything – for instance, none of the Dark Agnes stories saw print for decades after Howard’s death.
So, reader beware! It could be that Howard was actually an extremely progressively-minded sort with a passionate devotion to Minority Warrior causes, but due to the vicious market he was writing for this was never reflected the stories that were published in his lifetime; conversely, his posthumously published stories reveal an outlook distinctly at odds with the sexist, racist balderdash his editors lapped up when he was still with us.
Given that his in-copyright works include dreck like The Vale of Lost Women – yes, the one with the flappity space bat worshipped by a tribe of undomesticated African lesbians – I suspect that might not be the case.
In terms of how this is going to be arranged: I’m going to tackle the Conan’s Brethren stuff first and follow up with the horror material. This is a mildly artificial distinction in Howard’s work since there’s a substantial amount of crossover and overlap between the material, but the sword and sorcery tends to bleed into the horror more than the horror bleeds into the sword and sorcery, if you see what I mean, so by tackling the sword and sorcery material first and then moving on to the horror stuff I can better illustrate that. I’m also not necessarily going to tackle stories in the order they are presented in the collections or in the categories they’re offered up in the collections, instead bunching them together in a way which leads to a logical discussion that flows nicely. Lastly, I’m not going to cover the Solomon Kane stories because I already did ’em once.
Sword and Sorcery and Historical Adventure
Kull of Atlantis
Composed at around the same time as much of the Solomon Kane material, only a fraction of Howard’s stories of King Kull were ever published in his lifetime. Famously, Howard cannibalised the Kull story By This Axe I Rule! to form the first Conan story, The Phoenix On the Sword, though surprisingly he never gave the small stack of other Kull tales he had stashed away the same treatment – odd, considering that this would have been a quick and easy way to produce more Conan tales to feed a hungry market.
I do wonder whether part of this is down to Howard having moved on in terms of his creative and philosophical interests since the penning of the Kull stories. Conan is a man of action who has more or less no time for brooding and philosophising; Kull, conversely, has a tendency to philosophise and consider profound questions of identity and metaphysics and the philosophy of rulership and so on. This has parallels in Solomon Kane’s internal struggle between the call of the wild and his moralistic Puritan worldview. Because the Kull and Kane stories are so much more open to direct questioning of their protagonists’ worldviews and philosophical ponderings – and open to this in a way which later stories by Howard aren’t – it seems as though they were composed at a time in Howard’s life when he himself was putting his worldview under the microscope, whereas the Conan tales and other later material seem to be penned by a Howard who is much more sure of himself and his outlook.
Take, for instance, The Shadow Kingdom, the first Kull story actually published. Just as Conan was introduced to the world in The Phoenix On the Sword as a rugged adventuring barbarian turned ruler of a civilised kingdom (Aquilonia) that isn’t actually the land of his birth (Cimmeria), so too are we presented with Kull as a barbarian hailing from Atlantis who has recently become the overlord of Valusia. There are, naturally, those who have misgivings about this – but there’s a bigger problem in the form of an ancient pre-human race of shape-shifting snake people who’ve maintained an iron grip over the civilised realms of human beings through a prolonged campaign of assassinating leaders before they even think of moving against them and replacing them with snakey impostors. Only a tiny number of human beings are aware of this sinister secret government, and Kull isn’t one of them; over the course of the story, his allies in the Picts – led by Ka-nu, ambassador of the western isles – clue him in, and alongside his Pict sidekick Brule the Spear-slayer Kull is able to purge his palace of the snake people and expose the menace to the world.
The place of the Picts in the Kull stories is an interesting one. In effect, the Kull tales begin Howard’s epic Pictish timeline – a saga which begins here and runs through the Conan stories and Bran Mak Morn stories and pops up often in his modern-day tales. The general concept is outlined in a letter from Howard to Creepy Howie from 1932, a substantial extract of which is reproduced in Conan’s Brethren as an introduction: the essence of it is that Howard believed that the Picts of Scotland were representatives of a short, dark-haired, garlic-eating Mediterranean race who occupied Britain before the coming of the Celts, and which fought mighty battles against the encroaching Roman Empire to halt them at Hadrian’s Wall before eventually fading away entirely. As far as the timeline of his Pictish saga goes, we begin with them here at their cultural height before the fall of Atlantis causes them to degenerate into savagery (savagery with, bizarrely, a sort of Native American aesthetic – particularly evident in Beyond the Black River and The Black Stranger); their elevation to barbarism thanks to the teachings of Aryas prompts the end of the Hyborian Age when they sweep in and conquer more or less all of Europe, but eventually they degenerate once again to become the mostly-savage creatures of Bran Mak Morn’s time and, finally, go almost entirely extinct except for a few individuals of Pictish blood who thanks to their racial memory perpetuate the Bran cult.
In The Shadow Kingdom we find a lot of the assumptions of Howard’s subsequent fiction already present and correct. The concept of racial memory, central to a surprisingly high proportion of Howard’s works, is present and correct; in this case, because all of humanity were involved in the striving against the serpent people and other beast-people in the dim prehistory of Earth, Kull finds himself able to instinctively recall certain facts about the conflict – for example, the shibboleth “Ka nama kaa lajerama“, a phrase which the serpent people are unable to replicate due to their not-quite-perfect mimicry of human voices. On top of that, you have this weird concept of a sort of spiritual Darwinism (based on Howard’s fairly loose, sloppy usage of Darwinistic ideas), a hinted-at fantastic prehistory in which human beings strived against various sorts of animal-people to see who would be the dominant species of Earth, which also pops up in a few subsequent stories – a metaphor, perhaps, for the sort of social Darwinism Howard liked to apply to the interactions of human cultures, particularly when he was waxing lyrical about the distinction between savage, barbarian and civilised ways of life.
The idea of that distinction is still here to some extent – Kull is, like Conan, a barbarian who has taken over the civilised Valusians and, as a consequence of his barbarian instincts and forcefulness, is able (with good advice and a little assistance from Ka-na and Brule) to solve a problem the civilised kings of the realm have been unable to confront. The Picts, too, seem to be organised along barbarian lines; their social structure is tribal (something Howard never ascribes to civilised peoples) and they have long-running blood feuds with the Atlantean barbarians, though they are willing to set that aside here for the sake of joining with Kull in taking down the snake people.
That said, Howard seems to conflate the savage and the barbarian here in a way which he tends to avoid in later stories, as though he hadn’t made that distinction in his personal theories yet. This is not the only way in which Howard’s savage-barbarian-civilisation worldview does not seem to have solidified yet; Ka-na as the Pict ambassador is a subtle, manipulative politician, qualities which are more typically ascribed to the masters of civilisation in later fiction by Howard. He’s also a more contradictory figure than is typical for Howard’s fiction: whilst his fiction dealt in fairly simplistic stock characters for the most part, Ka-na presents the front of a self-interested leader but claims, in fact, to be working for lofty aims:
“And then warfare will cease, wherein there is no gain; I see a world of peace and prosperity – man loving his fellow man – the good supreme. All this can you accomplish – if you live!“
This is a fairly ironic statement if you consider it in the context of how Howard would develop the history of the Picts – Ka-na doesn’t know it, but they’re staring down the barrel of millennia of incessant warfare, bloodshed and violence. It also doesn’t seem to be possible considering Howard’s view of history as expressed in Conan and other post-Kull stories; it appears axiomatic to Howard most of the time that cultures will inevitably wax, wane, and then come crashing down in an orgy of violence, so it’s hard to see him concurring with Ka-na’s statement here. At the very least, it seems that Howard changed his mind about some things since penning the story; given the fact that Ka-na is described in less than attractive terms by Howard, it seems more likely to me that he never really considered these to be possible goals, but the ideological dream of someone who dared to hope he could defy history.
Ka-na certainly does defy history in this story, since his influence and intervention help Kull break the serpentine grip on Valusia, but he doesn’t break the cycle of interracial conflict within humanity in the slightest. Indeed, in the other Kull story in this tome, The Mirrors of Tuzan Thune, Kull is almost magically transported out of the universe altogether through the machinations of jealous individuals from the long-lost Elder Race of humanity. But to be honest, it’s hard to come up with a full assessment on the Kull stories here based on the limited selection here; there’s nine stories which aren’t represented in this collection, so really we’re only looking at a fraction of the Kull material here. These two certainly aren’t, taken in isolation, remotely as offensive as the Conan tales; no real-life cultures are represented, for starters (the Picts don’t really resemble Scottish people in the slightest) which rather scales back Howard’s ability to be outrageously racist at people, and “Kull fights snake people” or “Kull is nearly befuddled by weird wizardy people” aren’t really premises which lend themselves to bigotry in the same way as “Conan finds a town where the night watch consist of roving hordes of cannibalistic black slaves”. On top of that, Kull is a mildly more interesting character than Conan given his perchant for philosophy, though said philosophy does tend towards a rather boring sort of nihilism or solipsism (particularly in Mirrors).
However, in the spiritual Darwinism and implied social Darwinism of the setting, we see seeds which grow to bear a mixture of utterly offensive and completely ridiculous fruit. You see, the thing about Howard is that he isn’t just a kind of offensive writer: he’s also a lukewarm prose stylist and occasionally runs with downright silly ideas. All too often, he says things which might not be especially bigoted, but at the same time are still deeply, deeply stupid. We can find some good examples by turning ot the Bran Mak Morn stories.
Bran Mak Morn
Though it’s often lumped together with the Bran Mak Morn stories – and indeed opens the Bran section in Conan’s Brethren – The Lost Race doesn’t actually feature Bran at all. However, its association with the Bran tales is perfectly logical because it gives a fairly decent introduction to the status of the Picts in Bran’s time. In structure the story is simple enough – the adventurer Cororuc, journeying in Cornwall seeking to take down the infamous bandit Baruc the Cruel, ends up falling into the hands of the Picts and is able to get away alive thanks to him saving a Pictish maybe-werewolf earlier in the story. In the course of doing so, he encounters the king of the Cornish Picts, who gives a brief rundown of the state of his people.
Although the story came out in 1927 – meaning it was penned well before the other Bran stories, all the Conan material, and probably precedes Kull and Solomon Kane – the basic principles of the Pictish saga are well-developed here. The Atlantean connection and the Pictish resurgence that swept away the Hyborian Age aren’t mentioned because Howard hadn’t cooked them up yet, but the basic skeleton of Howard’s conception of the Picts are here: they’re a race hailing from the region of the Mediterranean who once ruled all Europe but who, in the face of the Celtic influx, were eventually driven into remote regions of the British Isles. The Cornish Picts presented here are pure-blooded and so have retained the noble stature of their mighty ancestors, but alas!, rumour has it that the Picts who fled north to Scotland interbred with the “red-haired giants” the Picts themselves had displaced, and consequently their race have become warped, twisted dwarfs.
Yes, it’s true: Howard, at least for the purposes of these stories (and a bunch of stories that build on them… and a heap of his other fiction… and as far as can be told his everyday life…) wants us to understand that this whole “miscegenation” thing might seem hip and cool, and it might feel good at the time, but unless you’re reaaaaaally careful about it and make sure to pair off elite races with elite races (as occurs occasionally in the background of the Hyborian age) you end up with gross little mutants. (He also seems monumentally confused about whether the Picts were driven into Scotland by the Celts or whether it was the other way around: when it comes to national/ethnic stereotypes of we simple tribal folk from the British Isles, red hair is typically presented as a classically Celtic trait, and since Howard never met an ethnic shorthand or stereotype he didn’t like I’d have really expected him to know that.)
I mean, we can laugh it up and make gags about ginger people here but this actually ties into something Howard does a lot. Based on other stories of his (which I’ll be going into later in this artlce), it seems fairly clear to me that he considered Northern European and Southern European peoples to be distinct and clearly separate races, with both a different cultural outlook and different bloodlines – and the mixing of bloodlines is a matter which fills Howard with horror. Here, we have an example of a “Mediterranean” race making contact with a Northern European people (who, interestingly, Howard does not seem to give the Celtic/Germanic/Aryan status he ascribes to most of northern Europe) and when we get into the actual Bran Mak Morn stories we see the results: more or less all the Scottish Picts except Bran are precisely the sort of stunted degenerates they are described as being in The Lost Race – except Bran, who is explicitly presented as being a random throwback from a prouder time before the Picts descended into savagery.
I find this interesting because Howard’s more dogmatic defenders – the ones who refuse to contemplate the idea that he might have been racist rather than accepting that really the argument is over precisely how racist he was – occasionally like to point to a very, very few stories Howard wrote with a sympathetic black protagonist. Pointing out an occasional exception to Howard’s generally terrible approach to race is an interesting exercise but doesn’t constitute an argument which survives contact with the evidence, precisely because of characters like Bran. Bran might be a mighty, thewful hero, but his people as a whole are debased mutants who are well on the way to extinction. In other words, Howard is willing to concede that every so often you might come across a few members of an inferior culture or a degenerate ethnicity who may be exceptional and rise above their squalid origins, but that doesn’t change his assessment of the class of people as a whole. Howard’s portrayal of black people as a race warped into savage beasts by the jungles of Africa – don’t worry friends, I will be quoting you chapter and verse on that later on – is a slam against an entire demographic which can’t be worked around by pointing out that he conceded that occasionally an exceptional black person might arise because, hey, guess what, the people who wrote The Bell Curve would say that too and that doesn’t change the fact that that book tried to make a statistical case for black people being on average measurably more stupid than white people.
Interestingly, Kull and Conan may also be such exceptions since despite being barbarians they are able to be accepted as the leaders of foreign kingdoms – not by all their subjects, by any means, but enough to hold onto power. Indeed, by showing a bit of iron and shaking up the pampered fools of these civilised realms, they may even prolong their kingdoms’ lifespan before the culture degenerates entirely as a result of the inherently unnatural state civilisation places people in. Howard certainly seems keen to draw parallels between Kull and Bran because the first story to actually feature Bran as a prominent character, Kings of the Night, is actually a Kull/Bran crossover story! (I hasten to add that, despite moments of bromance during the tale, I mean the “/” in Kull/Bran in a non-fanfic sort of way.)
The premise is that the Romans, having conquered England, are drawing up their plans to push north into Scotland, and Bran is trying to pull together a grand alliance of the Picts and the Gaels and the Celts
and the Centauri and the Minbari and the Narn and the bizarrely anachronistic Vikings to face them down. The Vikings, however, are causing a headache – aside from apparently launching a bunch of raids on Northern England and Scotland centuries before the Viking incursions were really a thing, their king is dead, and their new leader Wulfhere is more inclined to side with Rome than Bran’s alliance. Therefore, he gives Bran and the Gaelic leader Cormac an ultimatum: they need to provide the Vikings with a king to lead them, and he can’t be a king of Pictish or Celtic blood, or they go fight with the Romans.
Bran and Cormac aren’t especially bright and Howard has this weird fetish surrounding kingship, so they don’t immediately go “All hail Wulfhere, King of the Vikings!” Gonar, Bran’s wizardy advisor and (it is implied) a reincarnation of an elder Gonar who was a sorcerer of Kull’s time, is smart enough to come up with a solution which doesn’t offend either the author’s or the characters’ reverence for the sanctity of kingship: simply summon mighty Kull from the ancient past to lead the Vikings, since they never made a “No Atlanteans” clause! Thus Kull is summoned and he and the Vikings are able to hold off the Romans and help the Celts and Picts defeat them partially because the Romans are softies who’ve not faced real men in battle (“Marcus was used to lashing the cringing peoples of a decadent East; little he guessed of the iron in these western races”), and partly because he and the Vikings understand shield walls and the Romans don’t, so-
Now the first line of the legionaries, compressed because of the narrowness of the gorge, crashed against the solid wall of shields – crashed and recoiled upon itself. The shield-wall had not shaken an inch.
This was the first time the Roman legions had met with that unbreakable formation – that oldest of all Aryan battle-lines – the ancestor of the Spartan regiment – the Theban phalanx – the Macedonian formation – the English square.
This is one of those situations where Howard’s rampant, irrational “ethnic chauvinism” (or straight-up racism if you’re not into coy euphemisms) combines with his blunt ignorance and contempt for silly bookish pursuits like “Doing even the remotest smidgen of research into Roman battle tactics when you’re writing a story about Romans going into battle” in order to to make him say something profoundly, astonishingly stupid.
You see, Roman military tactics were more than capable of taking shield walls into account, particularly since the Romans were damn fond of the things themselves; more or less the first distinctly Roman battle trick that anyone who reads up on Rome finds out about is the testudo, which is not so much a shield wall as a full-blown shield fort. On top of that, the Romans certainly encountered shield walls in battle prior to the conquest of England because we know that the Greeks were into them (and the Romans had smashed the Greeks before turning their attentions north), and indeed the testudo was inspired by shield wall tactics deployed by the Gauls against the Republic a few centuries prior. In fact, Plutarch notes that Mark Anthony used the testudo against the Parthians in 36 BC – in other words, in one of those eastward-facing wars Howard likes to cheer on. (As he said in a letter to Lovecraft: “I am with the Romans as long as their faces are turned east. While they are conquering Egyptians, Syrians, Jews and Arabs, I am all for them. In their wars with the Parthians and Persians, I am definitely Roman in sympathy. But when they turn west, I am their enemy, and stand or fall with the Gauls, the Teutons and the Picts! Fantastic, isn’t it?”)
Taken on its own, the idea that the Romans didn’t use shield wall tactics is a “You didn’t even bother to do any research, did you?” moment that’s near-guaranteed to shake the suspension of disbelief of any reader who knows more about Roman warfare than Howard – or, in other words, any reader who knows anything about Roman warfare at all. It’s not just a factual inaccuracy but a full-scale charge directly away from factual reality, like the polytheistic Muslims alluded to in Angels and Demons. I don’t mind stories about Roman times which get some of the facts wrong, but when you get the facts quite this wrong you’re better off just junking history altogether and writing about invented worlds. It’s clearly the consequence of Howard making the classic blunder of trying to write about a subject he freely admits to having no personal interest in (“I have tried to study Greek and Roman history, but have found it dull and to some extent inexplicable. I can not understand their viewpoints. The Achaeans of the Heroic Age interest me, and to a lesser extent, the Romans of the early republic, when they were a struggling tribal-state, if they could be called that. But soon that interest dwindles”).
However, combined with that statement about Aryans the idea takes on full-blown tinfoil hat proportions. Firstly, Howard would have us believe that shieldwall tactics are a sure sign of Aryan descent, as though battlefield gambits were a matter of genetic descent rather than inventions anyone could come up with when military technology and circumstances in the field mean it’s logical to use a shieldwall (or, indeed, by observing other people using shield wall tactics and adapting and improving them yourself – which is precisely what the Romans did). Secondly, he includes Spartans, Thebans and Macedonians in his definition of Aryan but not Romans – nor, for that matter, those Persians off East the Romans have supposedly been battling, which given the history of the term “Aryan” seems downright weird until you realise that this is Howard’s
ethnic chauvinism racism at work again.
Basically, Howard had cultures he liked and didn’t like, and that applied as much to history as it did to the present day. Here, he is transparently including in the Aryan club those cultures he is fond of whilst excluding the Romans because he had a well-documented irrational dislike of them. On top of that, he’s abandoning everything we know and understand about Roman military tactics because in this case reality isn’t co-operating with his prejudices; he takes it as axiomatic that proud independent Aryans are superior to perfidious civilised Romans, so he denies the Romans any qualities he ascribes to the Aryans, including military strategies which are as distinctly Roman as you can get. I begin to see where those who try to argue that Howard wasn’t racist get their rhetorical strategies from: it’s the same “blindly assert an axiom and dismiss all evidence to the contrary” approach. Between this, the rather predictable arc of the “Kull is summoned to the future” angle, and the rather uninteresting battle scene which dominates the latter part of the story (where the patchiness of Howard’s research really hurts his ability to narrate warfare convincingly), there’s not much to recommend Kings of the Night.
(Incidentally, Howard’s enthusiasm for shield walls explains why people who write manifestos about their crusade to make people be nice to Howard sometimes refer to their collective efforts as a fannish “Shield Wall” – sometimes an acronymous S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L.. I’m not saying – and don’t seriously believe – that they’re doing this as some sort of declaration of their proud Aryan identity but given this context it’s a mildly unfortunate connection.)
The Worms of the Earth – the sole Bran story here which is actually rooted in Bran’s point of view – is somewhat better, not least because aside from the opening sections in which they crucify someone the Romans don’t actually do much in it. Bran, masquerading as a Pictish diplomat, has gone to visit the Roman colonial authorities to get the measure of them, and is so sickened by their corruption and cruelty he decides to take drastic measures. How drastic? This drastic:
“Black gods of R’lyeh, even you would I invoke to the ruin and destruction of those butchers! I swear by the Nameless Ones, men shall die howling for that deed, and Rome shall cry out as a woman in the dark who treads upon an adder!”
Yep, it’s another crossover story, with Bran seeking a pact with Lovecraftian horrors in order to wipe out the Roman garrison. The specific beasts in question are the titular Worms of the Earth – the warped, reptile-like descendents of the original inhabitants of the British Isles who went all morlocky after the Picts drove them deep underground. If you assume that the Worms were always murderous reptoid hordes with sinister magic on their side this isn’t a terrible addition to the Cthulhu mythos; however, taken in the context of the Bran stories (and the Pict-featuring stories in general) it adds an additional layer of gloom to Bran’s world: not only is he the king of a decaying and doomed race, but in the form of the Worms he gets a good, close-up look at what the future may well hold for his people if they follow the same trajectory, and that’s exactly what they appear destined to do. And when you take it in the wider context of Howard’s fiction as a whole, and in particular his specific misunderstanding of Darwinism as he applies it to different cultures and ethnicities, it’s faintly disappointing that at the end of the day the Worms are a slightly more occult-tinged version of the various degenerate ape-men who occasionally pop up in Howard’s fiction: the products of a higher culture reverted to “savagery”.
In short, if I’d read Worms of the Earth in isolation, I’d probably have enjoyed it much more than I am able to now with the knowledge of how it fits into the wider body of Howard’s work. (Though I suspect I’d have still had a problem with a certain “evil witch demands Bran have sex with her in return for her co-operation in summoning the Worms, which she’s implied to be related to, and this is played as being a disgusting attempt to sap Bran’s Precious Bodily Fluids” angle that develops about halfway through the tale.) This is an issue I constantly ran up against when writing this article: the fact that reading more widely in Howard’s bibliography doesn’t make him more palatable – if anything, it makes the bigoted, hateful, and at point just plain bizarre ideas underpinning the less obviously offensive stories easier to notice.
Turlogh Dubh O’Brien
Although it’s collected with the Bran stories in Conan’s Brethren, The Dark Man is really a tale of Turlogh O’Brien, an Irish adventurer who, having been exiled from his clan for woeful deeds committed when one of his occasional “bursts of strange madness” came upon him, swans around medieval Europe having adventures. Here, he’s on the trail of a gang of vicious Viking pirates who’ve kidnapped his old friend Moira after a raid. As Turlough races in order to save her from rape and slavery at the hands of their brutal chief Thorfel, he Turlogh encounters a mysterious idol belonging to a remnant population of Picts – in fact, it’s no less than the idol of Bran himself, whose legendary spirit now resides in that graven image. Bran isn’t much of an active god, but he does seem to show Turlogh a little favour – which might be the only thing standing between Turlogh and destruction when the Picts invade to get their own bloody vengeance against the Vikings.
It’s interesting that once again we have a situation where, like Kings of the Night, the Vikings are causing grief to Pictish and Celtic sorts. This isn’t just a case of Bran himself just plain not getting on with them – the Vikings really don’t come across at all well in the narration, with Thorfel strutting about and demanding that Moira agree to marry him and declaring that he will make her his slave if she won’t be his life. (Weirdly, he has a Christian priest captive he keeps around for this purpose and speaks of marriage as though it were an invention of Christianity; I’m pretty sure the pagan Vikings had their own marriage traditions, Howard.) I am mildly puzzled by the demonisation of the Vikings here since Howard doesn’t seem to have a beef against Nordic folks in the same way he hates Rome; that said, he does talk elsewhere about how the Aryan peoples have a tendency to fight each other so this might be intended as a manifestation of that phenomenon, but it seems to go beyond that – in other stories such as The Cairn On the Headland, which I’ll cover later, Howard demonstrates a mild distrust of Viking religion too, whereas he tends to lump most Aryan myths and legends together into his racial monomyth.
Aside from this angle, the tale is a fairly typical “They gonna rape our wimmin!” story which ends in an alarming amount of bloodshed. The ultimate fate of Bran is pretty interesting – and certainly in keeping with the doomy tone of the Bran stories – though I can’t help but wish it had come out in a story with a sufficiently interesting plot to match. A better Turlogh story, if you’re able to get around a rather cliched racial premise, is found in The Gods of Bal-Sagoth. Here, Turlogh once again encounters Athelstane, a Saxon freebooter who had fallen in with the Vikings in The Dark Man but managed to survive the Pictish raid at the end of that episode. Shipwrecked on a mysterious island, the pair agree to set their differences aside for the sake of survival, and soon enough they end up entangled in the internal politics of the city of Bal-Sagoth, the decadent remnant of a fallen empire of dark-skinned people who, having not seen white folk before, naturally are inclined to see them as gods. (As opposed to, say, diseased/anemic sorts, or not-quite-albinos, or just weird-lookin’ fellas, or anything else that people who have never seen or heard of white people before might think of when first encountering Caucasians.)
In particular, the people of Bal-Sagoth have recently taken to worshipping Brunhild, a shipwrecked Orkney woman, as a goddess; when Turlogh and Athelstane encounter her, she has been driven out of the city by the machinations of Gothan, the sinister high priest of Gol-goroth. As it turns out, the island is home to various monsters and magical manifestations, which the priests exploit to the hilt in their pursuit of power, and between this, Brunhilde’s exploitation of their presence to return herself to power, and a mass invasion of the red-skinned raiders who tore down Bal-Sagoth’s ancient empire long ago there’s plenty of carnage before the dust settles.
Aside from the downright appalling old “white people worshipped as god by brown people” trope being wheeled out yet again, I found The Gods of Bal-Sagoth to be one of the more interesting and memorable stories in this collection, though it’s decidedly patchy. It’s fairly obviously an early attempt at a portrayal of an isolated and massively decadent civilisation on the cusp of extinction of the sort which Howard would portray with somewhat more success (and a similar amount of exotifying) in The Slithering Shadow and Red Nails: as in both stories, you have this ancient city reared by a culture which doesn’t seem intended to be European and riddled with secret passages, as in both stories a woman exerts a powerful influence over the city’s culture and works to manipulate our protagonists, as in The Slithering Shadow you have a monstrous shadowy god of indistinct form, as in Red Nails you have participants in an internal conflict in the city using strange magics against each other.
Unlike in those stories, the climax consists of unintentionally hilarious slapstick. The section in which the great idol of Gol-goroth, prime god of Bal-Sagoth, falls over and squashes Brunhilde is, from context, supposed to be horrifying – the hint being that the god has manifested specifically to knock the statue over – but the abruptness of it and the whole “squashed by a giant statue just as she accomplishes her great victory” angle makes it just unutterably silly. Aside from laying the groundwork for better tales and inspiring the daftest symphonic black metal band in the world, The Gods of Bal-Sagoth doesn’t do very much which isn’t overshadowed by other fantasy authors of the era – or, indeed, Howard himself.
Howard’s dedication to proclaiming dubious racial theories in his fiction hit new heights in the James Allison series, which offers up a sort of precedent for Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion material – the John Daker material in particular. Allison is a modern-day gentleman cursed with an unspecified illness which precludes him from having much of an active lifestyle – however, through some unspecified means he has attained total recall of all of his past lives, in each of which he was a mighty hero doing epic deeds.
Specifically, a mighty Aryan hero.
I have been Man in many lands and many conditions; yet – and here is another strange thing – my line of reincarnation runs down one unerring channel. I have never been any but a man of that restless race men once called Nordheimr and later Aryans, and today name by many names and designations. Their history is my history, from the first mewling wail of a hairless white ape cub in the wastes of the Arctic, to the death-cry of the last degenerate product of ultimate civilisation, in some dim and unguessed future age.
(Yeah, this “out of the Arctic” theory seems to be a recurring theme in Howard’s thoughts about the Aryans. I… I dunno how that’s supposed to have worked.)
The Allison stories seem inspired primarily by Jack London’s Star Rover, another story about a man who goes on a tour of his past lives; Howard was a big fan of London, and in Star Rover London does allude to some odd theories about Aryans (“And on the great drift, southward and eastward under the burning sun that perished all descendants of the houses of Asgard and Vanaheim, I have been a king in Ceylon, a builder of Aryan monuments under Aryan kings in old Java and old Sumatra…”), but the crucial difference here is racial purity: Allison has never been anything but an Aryan. Possibly this is a special case of Howard’s recurring racial memory theme – the idea being that Allison is actually recalling the lives of his ancestors, who all happened to be purebred Aryans – though this wouldn’t explain how he is able to tell stories where his past self dies at the end so the idea of actual reincarnation seems far more supported by the texts.
Another thing the texts appear supportive of is Howard’s particular vision of ethnoseperatism. In The Valley of the Worm, Allison recollects his life as
Nerd Niord, a member of a wandering tribe of Aryans roving about the world for no apparent reason (Howard having decided that the migration of populations around the world in prehistory happened because of the whims and mysterious instincts of ancient populations). In the course of their travels this time, they encounter some Picts, which of course initiates a massive battle because the Picts talk smack at the Aryans and the Aryans love to fight. (“And we, mad with the fighting joy, dropped our bows and ran to meet them, as a lover runs to his love.”) The Aryans win (“because we were a superior race”) and take a captive, Grom, who is able to go convince the Picts to play nicely with the Aryans. The Aryans guest with the Picts a bit but there is a carefully-maintained distance between them: the Aryans do not intend to settle with the Picts because “Our young men cared not for their squat beady-eyed women, and our rangy clean-limbed girls with their touseled yellow heads were not drawn to the hairy-breasted savages” – the idea Howard puts forward here is that there’s a natural repulsion between purebred folk of different races which is only overcome after generations of living together.
This in turn seems to suggest that the Aryan peoples were racially homogeneous from the beginning and never had contact with other races until they started strolling out of the Arctic, which in turn implies that different races of humanity arouse simultaneously in geographically separated regions of the world – in other words, white people and black people literally stem from different bloodlines with nothing in common, as Howard once remarked to Novalyne Price. Speaking of black people, in this story Howard lets slip a little theory about why they have the characteristics they have when he has Allison wax lyrical about the Picts:
I believe this particular tribe represented the easternmost drift of the race. They were the most primitive and ferocious of any I ever met. Already they were exhibiting hints of characteristics I have noted among black savages in jungle countries, though they had dwelled in these environs only a few generations. The abysmal jungle was engulfing them, was obliterating their pristine characteristics and shaping them in its own horrific mould. They were drifting into head-hunting, and cannibalism was but a step which I believe they must have taken before they became extinct. These things are natural adjuncts to the jungle; the Picts did not learn them from the black people, for then there were no blacks among those hills. In later years they came up from the south, and the Picts first enslaved and then were absorbed by them.
Moral of the story: rainforests turn human beings into cannibalistic monsters.
Anyway, Grom becomes
Nerd Niord’s little sidekick, Nerd Niord encounters a big old Cthulhoid monster and slays it, dying after the battle, and Grom tells the tale to all, making Nerd Niord the model for all dragonslayers in folklore ever because… er… because monomyth. That’s why. Monomyth.
In The Garden of Fear, we shift gears to hear of the Aryan exile Hunwulf and his lover Gudrun as they are threatened by a black man with wings, though Allison is careful to tell us that “there was no suggestion of the negroid about him” – in other words, he’s yet another one of Howard’s Black People Who Are Not Black People who represent the remnants of evil civilisations of ages past (this particular winged variety will make another appearance in Almuric). Hunwulf, naturally, defeats the blighter and gets past his garden of carnivorous plants by provoking a mammoth stampede.
Now, mammoth stampedes are an awesome concept, I love the idea, Howard gets full credit for that one. But I couldn’t fully enjoy the mammoth stampede in this story for a simple reason: I was pondering what the point of “James Allison” as a character was, when both this and The Valley of the Worm could have happily been recast as standalone tales. Frankly, it’s hard to see what purpose the framing story serves at all beyond dropping a Jack London reference for the sake of dropping a Jack London reference, and to link the stories together into a portrayal of the ways and deeds of the Aryan peoples over a massive span of history. Howard doesn’t give a Utopian image of the Aryans’ accomplishments here – in particular, he claims that they have a distressing tendency to fight each other, though given how much he lionises combat and warfare this might not be considered a bad thing – but the overall picture of them you get from both stories is that they are a heroic race who slay monsters and throwbacks to protect their women and inspire those of lesser races, who can at best aspire to be sidekicks of Aryans, and that the people of today are weak milksops compared to the glorious, pure Aryans of the past. See, for instance, this quote from The Valley of the Worm:
Oh, we were fighters! Let me speak of Niord. I am proud of him, the more when I consider the paltry crippled body of James Allison, the unstable mask I now wear. Niord was tall, with great shoulders, lean hips and mighty limbs. His muscles were long and swelling, denoting endurance and speed as well as strength. He could run all day without tiring, and he possessed a coordination that made his movements a blur of blinding speed. If I told you his full strength, you would brand me a liar. But there is no man on earth today strong enough to bend the bow Niord handled with ease. The longest arrow-flight on record is that of a Turkish archer who sent a shaft 482 yards. There was not a stripling in my tribe who could not have bettered that flight.
In other words, through the medium of the James Allison stories Howard seems to be either pushing theories about glorious racial purity and the superiority of a purebred race of Northmen unafraid of violence or bloodshed or imposing their will on lesser races as part of the process of making a quick buck, or he actually believes this shit and he’s trying to tell us the horrifying truth about de-evolution. I’m not sure which option reflects worse on him.
Crusades and Other Orientalist Jaunts
Between 1930 and 1934, Weird Tales produced a spin-off magazine – originally called Oriental Stories and later called Magic Carpet Magazine. In this case the term “Oriental” appears to mean “everything east of Greece”, because the magazine accepted tales in a wide range of settings. The crop of tales from this short-lived endeavour – whose usual tone you can pretty much infer from the cover featured above – included a range of yarns by Howard which mainly (but not exclusively) focused on the Crusades – a cross-section of which are included in Conan’s Brethren. These Hawks of Outremer include one of the tales of Cormac FitzGeoffrey, the bastard son of a Norman knight and an Irish woman of the O’Brien clan whose adventures take place at around the time of the Third Crusade.
Hawks of Outremer is interesting because it finds Howard perpetuating the Christian tradition of painting Saladin as a noble, honourable figure who is generally considered to be a good person despite being the scourge of the Crusaders – indeed, the man himself swings by at the end of the story to save Our Hero’s ass. This does not, however, extend to a more general concession that Islam has a right to exist – and in particular, a right to coexist alongside Christianity. First off, the tradition surrounding Saladin has always had a mildly exceptionalist tone to it, with an undercurrent of “isn’t it a massive historical tragedy that he wasn’t a Christian”. Secondly, the bad guys are a cabal of Christian barons (including Baron Von Gonler, on whom “The luxury of the East had worked quick ruin”) and Muslim military leaders who plot to create a new state in the Middle East beholden neither to Christendom nor to the Muslim world. Why this is a nefarious and evil plot which ought to be countered whereas it’s alright for the Crusaders to swing in and try to set up Christian kingdoms in the Middle East is a point the story is not clear on; either way, the unfortunate implication is that, once Cormac wins through, we end up with the happier situation where the Muslims are ruling over their territory and the Crusaders are ruling over the Crusader kingdoms and so long as strict separation is observed nobody needs to get hurt in the immediate future.
Whereas Hawks of Outremer has the occasional hint of Howard’s doubts concerning Islamic cultures and societies and their dubious influence, Sowers of the Thunder makes them explicit. A rather disjointed and patchy saga telling the story of the exploits of Red Cahal of Ireland in the Holy Land – another Irish warrior heading off to Crusade due to political shenanigans and personal drama like Cormac – and in particular, those points where his personal history intersects with the raise of Baibars, the Mamluk leader who historically ended up rising to become Sultan of Egypt and dealing both the Crusaders and the Mongols some nasty defeats. Howard takes this character, recasts him as a pseudo-Mongol who pays only lip service to Islam, and although he doesn’t deviate enough from history to have Cahal actually beat Baibars to stop him becoming the big man in the region Howard actually has the gall to have Baibars prophesise the absolute humiliation of Islam and the innate superiority of the Frankish race in his moment of victory:
“I have conquered,” answered Baibars, shaken for the first time in his wild life, “but I am half-blind – and of what avail to slay men of that breed? They will come again and again and again, riding to death like a feast because of the restlessness of their souls, through all the centuries. What though we prevail this little Now? They are a race unconquerable, and at last, in a year or a thousand years, they will trample Islam under their feet and ride again through the streets of Jerusalem.”
I begin to see why Steve Stirling is so keen on Howard.
Granted, this might be a reference to the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, but that doesn’t change the fact that Howard takes a real historical figure, turns him into one of his generic barbarians who take over a civilisation thanks to the brutal instincts he ascribes to them, and then puts words in his mouth to the effect of “Europeans are brilliant and we should be bloody ashamed for standing against them.” It’s the final insult in an incredibly incompetently-told tale, which includes a last-minute revelation that the masked knight Cahal meets once in a not particularly consequential encounter earlier in the story was in fact Elinor de Courcey, the woman who ruined him back in Ireland, who has realised after the fact that she loves him and come to join him in Outremer only to get killed in the final battle. Although Howard does do at least some groundwork for this revelation, in the sense that he establishes that Cahal has a tragic past involving a lady and we see him briefly meeting a mysterious masked knight on the road, it still doesn’t feel like a natural revelation or plot twist and more like something Howard yanked out of nowhere.
The difficulty with Howard’s historical stories of Christianity-vs-Islam bloodshed, aside from the fact that his sympathies are so transparently with the Christian side (or, at least, very strongly against the various Islamic cultures he writes about, which are almost always hyper-decadent) that they frequently amount to dreary propaganda in favour of bloody intercultural warfare, is that they are often extremely tedious. Howard has clearly done a certain amount of research for them (he knows who Baibars was, for instance, which is more than I knew before I read this stuff) but he never quite lets go of Orientialist fantasies about the decadence and luxury of the East enough to turn his research notes into a believable portrayal of a historical society. His Crusader kingdoms may as well be Aquilonian outposts in the Hyborian age for all the difference it makes, and his depiction of Islamic cultures consists of heaps of heaps of moral disapproval of their decadent ways with a sneaky hypocritical side order of jealousy, which I guess makes them perfect fit for a magazine whose mission statement seems to have been “Let’s be as unrelentingly Orientalist as we possibly can.”
On top of this, his insistence on revisionist takes on history where invented Franks – usually Howardian heros in the Red Cahal/Cormac FitzGeoffrey – end up playing pivotal roles in historical events means that his stories in this style tend towards a tedious repetitiveness. Rather than grasp the opportunity to tell a wider variety of stories about different types of protagonists, Howard’s Crusade tales tend towards the same old liturgy of battles and murders and fights that he usually rattles forth, with protagonists who after a while all tend to blend together. In Lord of Samarcand Howard’s invented Frank not only plays a key role in Timur’s defeat and humiliation of the Ottoman Emperor Bayezid, but also the death of Timur himself – said role being covered up on Timur’s own orders (given as he lay dying) so that nobody would know he was cut down by an unbeliever. In The Lion of Tiberias, Howard invents a heroic backstory for Yarankash, the Frankish slave who murdered Zengi of Aleppo, so that he could lionise the killing as a glorious moment of revenge timed perfectly to save the Crusader States from destruction. Both tales are, along with Howard’s other Crusade sagas an absolute chore to read, not least because of the woefully limited characterisation; the impression given after reading two or three in a row is that Howard kept rewriting the same story about the same unlikeable douche of a protagonist battling the same sinister and corrupt Muslim time and time again.
Slightly more interesting is Shadow of the Vulture, the sole Howard story to include the famed Red Sonya. Whereas Red Sonja-with-a-J was essentially invented for comic books by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith in order to provide a chainmail bikini-clad foil for Conan, Red Sonya-with-a-Y is a riff on another Howard character, Dark Agnes. Both are red-haired women with bad tempers and a propensity for violence from the 16th Century and hailing from a comparatively privileged background which they’ve walked away from in order to go fight people. The main differences, so far as I can tell, are as follows: whereas Dark Agnes is French, Sonya hails from Rogatino; where Agnes is seen as a swordswoman, Sonya prefers to use firearms (though she’s competent with a blade too); and whereas Agnes is the main character of the stories about her, Sonya is a supporting character who only shows up halfway through this story.
The main character, in fact, is Gottfried von Kalmbach, a former Knight of St. John who is bumming around Europe getting drunk and feeling sorry for himself when the Siege of Vienna happens and he throws himself in the defence, in the course of which he meets Sonya and between them the two psychopaths help to turn the tide. People who like to play up the whole clash of civilisation have a raging history boner for the Siege of Vienna because it featured Catholic Europe clearly on the defensive against an expansionist aggressor from the Islamic world and giving the other side a bloody nose, so you get to be all triumphalist without having to face awkward questions like “But what legitimacy did the Crusader States have in the first place?” or “Wasn’t the Reconquista followed by a massive clampdown on the religious freedom previously enjoyed under the Moors?” Consequently it is no surprise that Howard sees fit to tell a story about it. What is surprising is the figure of Sonya, who is an extremely pure example of the “strong, tough woman” archetype who occasionally shows up as a love interest in Howard’s works. Typically proactive women with their own agenda in his material tend to be villains, and the sympathetic female leads tend to be helpless sorts who need a big strong daddy like the protagonist to look after them – in other words, fairly typical fare when it comes to pulp adventure love interests. Howard, however, always seems to be mildly more excited when he’s bringing in a love interest with a bit more grit to her – see Bêlit in Queen of the Black Coast, see Valeria in Red Nails, see Sonya here. (Zenobia in The Hour of the Dragon seems to be a special case, in that she acts proactively to help Conan and seems reasonably tough and efficient about this but couches this in viscerally submissive terms).
Sonya, if anything, manages to beat Bêlit and Valeria at this game because she saves Gottfried’s life when he gets captured by treacherous Armenians instead of the other way around, never accepts being talked down to or groped against her will like Valeria does, and doesn’t get herself killed like Bêlit. The violence she deals out is every bit as effective, brutal, and nasty as the violence Gottfried dishes out. By the end of the story, in fact, she seems to have clawed her way up to co-protagonist status, co-signing with Gottfried their mocking letter to the Sultan in the box containing his agent’s head at the conclusion.
However, it’s markedly disappointing that Sonya’s motivations are driven by how huge a slut her sister is.
Specifically, Sonya’s sister is Roxelana, the historical favourite concubine and eventual wife of the Sultan, and Sonya is really not keen on her brother-in-law – or, for that matter, her sister:
“Why did you wish for the Sultana Roxelana for a target, my girl?” he asked.
“Because she’s my sister, the slut!” answered Sonya.
It’s an enormous shame that Howard’s least faily attempt at a strong female character – the one which falls the least into the strong female character trap, in particular – stumbles on this level. Why does Howard think that the general mayhem of the Ottoman expeditions into Europe or the desire shared by Gottfried and most others to halt what they see as a direct threat to Christendom wouldn’t be enough of a motivation for Sonya to get involved in the Siege? Why does she have to have this personal beef with Roxelana which has nothing to do with religion or politics and everything to do with her disapproval of her sister taking up with a foreigner – a matter which, according to Howard at least, Roxelana didn’t actually have much choice in?
The implication that women don’t really appreciate the macro-scale dimensions of events and are motivated entirely by personal-scale motivations seems mildly patronising to me. That said, the fact that I have to drill down to the motivational level to find something to object to here is telling in itself – again, Sonya transparently isn’t disposable jerk-fodder like Bêlit or a theoretically strong woman who in practice becomes yet another damsel in distress like Valeria – but still, yeesh. I get why Howard fans like to point to her and Dark Agnes as evidence of Howard not being an utterly sexist shitheel, but there seems to be a different variety of sexism at work here, and moreover Sonya, like Bran, seems to be designated as being special and exceptional and generally a cut above the rest of her gender, to whom Howard applies more or less all the usual nastiness in this story. Note that the only other significant female character in the story is Roxelana, a concubine who doesn’t actually do anything germane to the plot aside from just kind of be there in the background screwing someone Sonya doesn’t approve of; note also how incredibly, eye-wateringly exceptional Sonya and Agnes are when compared to the vast swathe of other female characters in Howard. “Very occasionally looks like he’s about to get it almost right but usually gets it very, very wrong” is a long way away from “not sexist”.
The remaining Crusade-themed story in the collection, the posthumously published Gates of Empire, is an intriguing one because it takes a comedic tone the others don’t. Rather than focusing on a typical Howardian hero its protagonist is Giles Hobson, a buffoonish and gluttonous servant who, after some late-night trolling of his masters which almost involves them killing each other due to each being under the impression that the other is an interloper, decides it might be best to go on the lam. His journeys eventually end up with him winding up in the Holy Land, where a series of misunderstandings results in him being ingratiated to both Crusader and Muslim leaders and through incompetence and blind luck he muddles his way through battles and political nefariousness with his skin intact. Although its portrayal of Islamic cultures still reeks of the Orientalism of the other tales, the tone of the story is much less biased when it comes to its sympathies in the sense that it doesn’t really sympathise with anyone; Giles is a bungling chancer and both sides in the Crusades end up looking like fools for buying into his lies to the extent that they do. Because of the sheer novelty of Howard telling a story about a protagonist he doesn’t actually have very much sympathy for, it’s an interesting change of pace which at points shows rudimentary signs of a sort of Vancian wit; this being the case, I don’t dislike it to the extent I do the more offensive Crusade stories, though I wouldn’t say it’s a glorious gem whose glory makes all the other crap in Conan’s Brethren worthwhile.
Miscellaneous Sword and Sorcery Scraps
Conan’s Brethren also contains The Frost King’s Daughter, which was published as a Conan story (with Conan copy-pasted in as the protagonist) as The Frost Giant’s Daughter. Same shit, different name, see my Conan review for my thoughts on it (summary: it tries really hard to get us to root for the protagonist whilst he is trying to chase down and rape a goddess). Additionally, it includes Spear and Fang, interesting only because it happened to be first story Howard managed to sell to a publisher. It’s a mercifully brief “one caveman tries to rape cavewoman, ape-man kills rapist caveman, nice guy caveman kills ape-man and gets cavewoman as lovely prize” tale which you can tell was a first effort from someone who already has some vague pet themes: violent conflict between prehistoric humans/proto-humans, sloppily-applied Darwinism as far as the eye can see, and a cast assembled from two-dimensional stock characters as developed by superior authors. Moving on…
Almuric, a Novel By
Edgar Rice Burroughs Robert E. Howard
This posthumous novel presents the saga of Esau Cairn on the distant planet of Almuric; like most sword and planet stories, the book is presented as Cairn’s own account of his adventures, as conveyed to a mad scientist of his acquaintance through mysterious means, and presents a brief framing story outlining how he ended up in Almuric. As it turns out, Cairn was on the run from the law – having been set up to take the fall by certain corrupt individuals he’d tangled with – and was sure that his only escape would be a fatal firefight with the cops when he happened to take refuge with the mad scientist who is the narrator of the framing story, whose research has given him the means to project Cairn to Almuric. Preferring this escape to a futile suicide-by-cop, Cair finds himself in a wild, untamed planet, where the men are men, the women are women, and the evil winged black people who enslave normal humans for use by their depraved bondage-and-murder culture are evil winged black people who enslave normal humans for use by their depraved bondage-and-murder culture. Cairn’s task in this strange new world is to attain the respect of the men, the love of a woman, and the destruction of the evil winged black people. As it turns out, almost all of this can be obtained through massive amounts of violence – yay!
It’s quite common in the sword and planet Edgar Rice Burroughs-imitating genre for novels to read a bit like Utopian tracts at points – not in the sense that everything is perfect on the perilous world the protagonists find themselves exploring, but in the sense that they end up finding a better way of life away from the bonds of Earth. It’s a sort of personal Utopianism rather than a societal one: rather than finding a perfect society which is the best fit for absolutely everyone, the sword and planet protagonist often ends up joining a society which suits their particular personality and needs much better than Earth society, which they often feel out of step with. Certainly, John Carter in Burroughs’ original Barsoom material becomes enamoured of Mars to the point where he doesn’t really want to go home, as does Michael Moorcock’s Kane of Old Mars, and the attractions of Gor for its aficionados are well-documented.
Of course, the protagonists don’t get everything their way; there may be aspects of the cultures that take them in which they wish to change, and the cultures in question are almost always under some kind of threat. This drives the action of sword and planet stories – the heroes not only have to muck in and face down threats to their new homes, but they also have to either reconcile themselves to or inspire reform of the aspects of these societies which they find less than appealing. This doesn’t undermine the “personal Utopian” aspect of the subgenre as much as you might think: often, the protagonist will be the sort who exalts in swinging into action to face down menaces to his friends and neighbours, and it is common to them to feel (either stating it directly or the narration telling us) that their struggles on this distant world represents what they were born to do, their former lives on Earth being as pale shadows compared to this.
As a result of these features the sword and planet subgenre can be surprisingly open to philosophical expression and thought experiments on the part of their authors, often in ways which reflect their real life interests. John Norman of Gor infamy published a Gorean sex manual under the title of Imaginative Sex giving his own highly idiosyncratic take on BDSM, and supposedly includes a lot of more general philosophical musings in the novels in reflection of his day job as a philosophy professor. Michael Moorcock’s Kane stories were an experiment in writing a genuinely ethical sword and planet series with a hero who really does exhibit the finer qualities which are ascribed to but not shown by John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ genre-spawning Barsoom novels. As for Almuric, it offers up a three-act sequence in which Cairn experiences in turn the three basic lifestyles of humanity according to Howard’s philosophy: savagery, barbarism and civilisation.
We begin with savagery. Cairn is alone and nude in a world where more or less the only thing he’s met so far are hostile and he has no idea of whether there are any settlements at all, so he spends the early chapters of the novel living all by himself in a beast-infested valley, competing with baboons for food and shelter. This is essentially an Edgar Rice Burroughs pastiche within an Edgar Rice Burroughs pastiche, throwing in a Tarzan-like tale of a man living alone in a savage, red in tooth and claw jungle in the middle of a John Carter ripoff. The main point of this section seems to be to narrate how Cairn goes from being a regular issue badass to a hyper-badass capable of competing on a vaguely even footing with the mighty men of Almuric – for you see, the men of Almuric make everyone on Earth seem weak and feeble and puny, much as the mighty Aryans James Allison reminisces about are superior to modern-day people to the extent that our world record holders would routinely be outperformed by even average members of their tribes. Sword and planet readers might recognise this as an inversion of a plot point from the John Carter stories; in those, because Mars has notably less gravity than Earth, John Carter – who is something of a badass by Earth standards – attains nigh-superheroic powers of strength and athleticism, because having grown up and developed on a higher-gravity world he has more muscle power to bring to bear.
In the Barsoom tales this is a clever feature because it both highlights John Carter’s status as a stranger in a strange land and helps put him at the centre of the action – once people realise that he has what is, to them, super-strength they all want him on their side in their various conflicts. It also helps the wish-fulfillment angle (“why, if I went to Barsoom I’d have super-strength too!”) without getting overly-Utopian – if anything, it mildly complicates the “Barsoom is so awesome, my life on Earth pales in comparison” dimension of the stories because whilst Carter is special on Barsoom because of his strength, he wouldn’t have that strength without his Earthly background, even though he much prefers to be on Barsoom. Here, Howard’s inversion of the device serves more or less no plot purpose – Cairn is a badass on Earth, for most of the novel he is also a badass on Almuric, a section in which he becomes an Almuric-scale badass could have been excised entirely if Howard had simply decided that the Earth and Almuric scales of badassery were roughly the same. The segment is only necessitated by Howard making a deliberate decision that Almuric badasses are an order of magnitude more badass than Earth badasses, because of course they have been made hard and pure by a life of barbarism and racial purity, like the Aryans of long-ago days.
This leads to a much more simplistic interaction between Cairn’s Earth background and Almuric experiences than the intersection between John Carter’s Earth origins and his Barsoomian adventures. Here, Cairn’s background on Earth is almost completely irrelevant, save that it gives him just sufficient badassery not to be utterly helpless when he arrives on Almuric; it is his savage early existence on the planet which allows Cairn to survive and thrive in the long term. His old life is no more than a prologue which is rapidly forgotten. Although at the ending Cairn claims he’s going to introduce some Earth customs to Almuric, he never specifies which one and it’s hard to point to an aspect of Almuric life in his adopted tribe which he doesn’t seem to actively prefer to Earth life. (Plus, as I’ll get into later, there’s good reason to have doubts about the ending.)
So, the savagery section of the novel consists of Cairn living on his own and having to survive by his wits and a sword he stole from some dude on arrival on the planet. Since he has to live in a nature which is red in tooth and claw to an almost cartoonish extent, he just kind of becomes super-strong by Earth standards because that’s what happens when the comforts of civilisation are set aside.
I was fully alive. That phrase has more meaning than appears on the surface. The average civilised man is never fully alive; he is burdened with masses of atrophied tissue and useless matter. Life flickers feebly in him; his senses are dull and torpid. In developing his intellect he has sacrificed far more than he realises.
I don’t think it works like that, Howard. The thing is, I don’t think a lone hermit is going to become superhuman simply by virtue of being a lone hermit, which is what this section asks us to accept. I’m not keen on the term “unnatural” as applied to human behaviour or lifestyles – human beings arose in nature, consequently anything we end up doing is arguably the end result of the natural processes that created us and so can’t really said to be “unnatural” as though they originated from and exist outside of nature. However, if we’re going to play that game, Cairn’s existence as a hermit on Almuric isn’t a return to nature from the artificiality of civilisation so much as it’s an adoption of a profoundly unnatural state. Most great apes are social creatures, human beings most certainly qualify as some of the more social of the apes, a person living outside of society is anomalous and a person living by themselves in a super-dangerous environment isn’t magically going to become super-dangerous to fit – not to an extent that takes them outside of the range of abilities available to Earthly humanity.
Eventually, the savagery section is over and Cairn falls in with a bunch of barbarians – the Kothans, a tribe of the Gura people, who accept him as one of theirs after a sweaty, super-manly wrestling match which reads like WWE fanfic. Remember how I said that on Almuric the men are men and the women are women? Well, this is the point where things get really cartoonish. The Gura men are all enormous, burly, hairy dudes who live more or less solely for fighting and hunting and other boisterous, manly pursuits. The women, because the men are so protective of them and keep them safe and cozy, are all soft and delicate and submissive. When I say that the Gura are “all” like this, I don’t mean “every Gura who gets any significant spotlight time in the story has these characteristics”, I mean “the narration literally tells us that the men are brick shithouses without exception and that the women exist to look pretty and do what they are told”.
More or less the sole exception is Altha, Cairn’s love interest, and even then Howard doesn’t exactly do a brilliant job of distinguishing her from the other Gura women. She’s fascinated by Cairn partly because he’s less hairy than the Gura men (which, in their culture, gives him a mildly effeminate look, a fact which causes Cairn great annoyance but apparently appeals to Altha), but mainly because he’s an outsider who apparently has interests beyond the simple, narrow worldview of the Kothans. However, what these interests might be is never actually apparent – so far as I can tell, Cairn wants nothing more than to be accepted as one of the dudes – and this mild curiosity on Altha’s part doesn’t lead to her doing much beyond showing a blatant and unambiguous interest in Cairn and occasionally mildly breaking the rules in order to go after him. This isn’t really much of a change from the general submissiveness of the Gura women save that Altha is specifically trying to place herself in Cairn’s power, and in most other respects she’s exactly the same as the rest of the Gura women. Her main role in the plot is to get captured and be helpless.
Altha is a good example of the other major trend in the love interests in Howard’s fiction; as well as enjoying hot-tempered, adventurous sorts like Red Sonya, Valeria or Bêlit, Howard also had a fine line in pampered, sheltered women who need a big strong daddy to shield them from an unfriendly world. Of course, Howard is far from alone in writing characters like this, but whereas other authors might do this simply as a matter of recycling genre tropes without really thinking through the implications, Howard often takes this sort of paternalism to incredible extremes. For instance, at the start of The Slithering Shadow Conan is contemplating killing Natala and committing suicide so they don’t have to suffer the indignity of dying of thirst, and of course he doesn’t even think of trying to get her thoughts on the subject – he just assumes he knows what is best for her to an extent that he can kill her whenever he wants if he thinks it is in her best interests. (Bearing this in mind, the mystery of where Natala disappeared to after that story – or, indeed, where Octavia went after The Devil In Iron, or where Olivia went after Shadows In the Moonlight, or where Muriela went after The Jewels of Gwahlur, or where Sancha went after The Pool of the Black One, or where Valeria went after Red Nails – becomes kind of sinister.)
There’s an air of irritation in the way Howard depicts these characters – they usually make rash decisions which cause difficulty for the the heroes in their stories (in this case, Altha leaves the safety of the town to go running after Cairn when he’s off on a stroll, meaning she’s out in the open when the black people attack) – and I guess that kind of makes me mildly sympathetic to the notion that he included such feeble female characters in his stories because that’s what the market wanted. Certainly, like I said before, it’s the stronger (or at least “stronger”) female characters in his stories who actually seem to get his blood racing; the enthusiasm with which he writes about Sonya or Bêlit is a stark contrast to the way he writes about characters like Altha – but even if this theory were true, the fact remains that Howard did still write these stories with weak, helpless women, and did write about them in a paternalistic and sometimes alarming manner. Doing it for the Benjamins isn’t an excuse for sexism; in some respects, it makes it worse because you’re dehumanising half the people on the planet for the sake of money.
Combine this with rather sloppy and inept treatment of the dialogue, and the romance between Cairn and Altha becomes a hilarious trainwreck. For instance, at one point she upbraids him for “riotous wassail”, and this exchange is just hilarious:
Seeing that one of her sandals had slipped off, I replaced it on her small foot, and while I was so occupied she asked unexpectedly: “Why do they call you Ironhand? Your fingers are hard, but their touch is as gentle as a woman’s. I never had men’s fingers touch me so lightly before. More often they have hurt me.”
I clenched my fist and regarded it moodily – a knotted iron mallet of a fist. She touched it timidly.
“It’s the feeling behind the hand.” I answered. “No man I ever fought complained that my fists were gentle. But it is my enemies I wish to hurt, not you.”
Her eyes lighted. “You would not hurt me? Why?”
The absurdity of the question left me speechless.
The absurdity of the dialogue leaves me equally speechless.
In respect of the riotous wassail, the lifestyle of the Kothan men is just hilarious. They literally never have to do anything which doesn’t involve partying or violence. The settlement they live in was built by an earlier culture, and they don’t need to do any blacksmithing or make any tools because there’s swords and stuff just kind of lying around for them to pick up and use. Cairn, of course, is having the time of his life with them (“I felt no need of art, literature or intellectuality; I hunted, I gorged, I guzzled, I fought; I spread my massive arms and clutched at life like a glutton”), so something has to intervene to stop that.
Yes, as you may have guessed, it’s the black people who are to blame – specifically, a winged race of black people who are obsessed with the letter Y:
They told me of the Yagas, a terrible race of winged black men, dwelling far to the south, within sight of the Girdle, in the grim city of Yugga, on the rock Yuthla, by the River Yogh, in the land of Yagg, where living man had never set foot.
Clearly, the Yagas are a riff on the winged black guy in The Garden of Fear, himself a remnant of a lost and corrupt civilisation, and it’s equally clear that they are the representatives of civilisation in the novel. Their city is the typical pile of secret passages and sexual perversion that Howard loves to associate with decadent civilisations (see Red Nails, see The Slithering Shadow), they have masses of slaves of varying ethnicities under their thumb, and their favourite sports are rape, torture, and murder. They’re basically Warhammer dark elves only, you know, winged. And black.
Of the three factions of his savagery-barbarism-civilisation threefold model of culture, Howard has the least sympathy or respect for civilisation, so the depiction of Yugga turns into a crazy carnival of horrors. You essentially have Yasmeena, their ruler, as chief dominatrix in a pecking order based around the Ys indulging every lustful urge which they can dream up. Interestingly, there are a few features of quasi-barbarism in Yaga society; chiefly, Yasmeena could in theory be challenged for dominance by any other winged female (usually Yaga women are de-winged at birth to prevent this), and she’s fought one-on-one to protect her position before. However, in general the Yagas fit the usual profile of Howard’s fantastic civilisations. For instance, the duel thing means they are clearly bound to an extent by their customs and traditions and laws – Yasmeena doesn’t rule because she has personally earned the loyalty of the group or because she has taken on all-comers, but because there is only a select class of people who can rule over the Yagas and she is the dominant member of that class. Moreover, they live in a city, dabble in demonic secrets, manipulate people with fake religions, and keep slaves, all of which are characteristics of Howardian civilisations. As in Red Nails, in which Howard’s declared aim was to show how cultural degeneracy in a ciivlisation results in lesbianism, there’s a lot of titillating disapproval in this section – by which I mean Howard is basically sayng “Oooooh, look at this, isn’t it so naughty and bad!” in a way which allows the reader to go “Yes, this is clearly bad and immoral” or go “Oooh yeah, I am totally getting off on this” as they wish. (Weird Tales under Farnsworth Wright was rife with this sort of stuff once the authors realised they could get a shot at a cover story if they incorporated a bondage angle in their writing.) To be honest, there’s not much more to say about the Yagas here – because in physical form they are a riff on the antagonist from The Garden of Fear, and culturally they’re another retread of The Gods of Bal-Sagoth and The Slithering Shadow and Red Nails, Howard doesn’t really show off many new tricks at this point.
In addition, around this point the story itself begins to disintegrate. Almuric, you see, was written in 1936, and the process of its composition was overshadowed by Howard’s final split from Novalyne Price, disrupted by his mother’s final illness, and terminated by his suicide. Unfortunately, Howard’s original manuscript has been lost, so it’s impossible to assess how much of Almuric is genuine Howard and how much, if any, was grafted on posthumuously. I’m reasonably happy with ascribing most of the novel to Howard alone – from the start to, say, Cairn’s captivity with the Yagas and maybe his escape. At the same time, I also have a lot of sympathy with the notion that the actual conclusion of the novel may have been ghost-written. There’s an odd tonal shift in the last pages of the book, accompanied by a patchiness of the action scenes and a jarringly sudden acceleration of the pace which, taken together, makes me suspect someone other than Howard might have written the last major battle, possibly based on whatever notes Howard had left behind. Then again, it could just be that Howard’s second draft of the novel hadn’t reached that point and so the rather skeletal climax may be from Howard’s first draft, massaged here and there to bring it into alignment with his revisions. Either way, the very end of the book seems incredibly uncharacteristic for Howard – for instance, it is here where Cairn declares that he intends to teach the Guras Earthly ways, but as I mentioned we never really get the impression that Cairn is dissatisfied with the Guras’ culture or especially misses much of Earth. But the real clincher, the thing which even before I heard about the rumoured ghost-writing thing made me go “Woah, there’s no way Howard wrote that!”, is this:
With them came fifty thousand women, the freed slaves of the vanquished Yagas. Those who were neither Kothan nor Khoran were escorted to their own cities–a thing unique in the history of Almuric. The little yellow and red women were given the freedom of either city, and allowed to dwell there in full freedom.
Howard would never have treated the establishment of a harmonious multiethnic society as a happy ending.
De Montour the Woofles
In the Forest of Villefore – the first tale in Howard’s brief series about De Montour, a Norman noble who is secretly a werewoof – is a fairly early Howard effort and consequently is extremely short. De Montour is travelling late one evening in the titular forest, he meets a guy who offers to guide him out, they talk about the monster woof that supposedly haunts the forest, the mystery man unsurprisingly (seeing how he has been wearing a wolf mask all this time) turns out to be the woof, the pair fight and there’s an ambiguous ending where the curse may or may not have passed to De Montour. Obviously it does, considering that there’s sequel stories building on the premise, but despite being a bit hackneyed and obvious the story is quite fun. Howard doesn’t say or do anything ragingly offensive or obviously stupid in it, the concept of lycanthropy as a case of possession by an ancient wolf-spirit from before the dawn of man is both reminiscent of the Kull concept of a prehistory of humans fighting animal-spirits for dominance over Earth and fairly fun in its own right, and the ending sets things up for an intriguing sequel. Why, if Howard keeps this up for the followup, Wolfshead, and doesn’t hamfistedly drag the story into subject areas he typically doesn’t handle very well, then…
Dom Vincente was a strange, far-sighted man-a strong man, one who saw visions beyond the ken of his time. In his veins, perhaps, ran the blood of those old Phoenicians who, the priests tell us, ruled the seas and built cities in far lands, in the dim ages. His plan of fortune was strange and yet successful; few men would have thought of it; fewer could have succeeded. For his estate was upon the western coast of that dark, mystic continent, that baffler of explorers – Africa.
God fucking damn it, Howard.
Wolfshead, the other De Montour story published in Howard’s lifetime (there’s a posthumous one not in this collection with the incredible title of Wolfsdung) is narrated not by De Montour himself but by a certain Pierre, who along with various other minor European nobles is invited to visit the castle of Dom Vincente on the west coast of Africa, where Vincente is laying the groundwork for what in later years would become the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Of course, nobody knows De Montour is a woof, so when there’s signs of someone prowling the halls at night and occasional bestial ripping up of guests there’s a fair amount of confusion and finger-pointing. Eventually, it is discovered that De Montour is the murderous woof, but Vincente and his guests might have to call on De Montour to use his woofy powers for good when, after a botched attempt by a traitor in their ranks to sell the white nobles into slavery, the local tribes besiege the castle.
In a career littered with disgusting racism, this one takes the cake. It also vividly illustrates why the whole “but most people were racist back then!” excuse often wheeled out in connection with Howard’s work. The fact is that there’s a wide continuum of racism, from “Nazi and proud of it” to “unquestioningly accepting cultural assumptions and being mildly prejudiced as a result” to “aware of their own racism and working to overcome or at least minimise it”. This was as true in Howard’s time as it is today. As I said in the previous article, in the exact same era in which some white people were lynching black people in the South, many other white people were campaigning against this. Were these latter white people perfect? No, undoubtedly not, I’m sure if you poked around you could find some outrageously paternalistic statements from their camp. But to say “everyone was racist back then so you should overlook historical racism” is to suggest an equivalence between the “stop the lynching” campaigners who happened to be racist and the lynch mobs which I don’t think really works.
And whilst Howard’s era in general might have been by and large a fairly racist one, I think by then a general consensus had been reached that slavery probably wasn’t a good thing.
The disparity in Howard’s treatment of the enslavement of black people versus the enslavement of white people is startling. I think it would be desperately difficult, unless you were wanting to push a pacifistic non-violent resistance angle (traditionally not helpful against conquistador types), to argue that the Africans aren’t wholly justified in their siege of Vincente’s castle. Admittedly, the intention to enslave the white people, whilst it would be poetic justice, doesn’t exactly grant them the moral high ground; however, the castle is a fortress of a colonising power which has been actively encouraging and enabling the local slave trade and has been playing divide-and-rule amongst the locals, encouraging client tribes to go forth and gather slaves for them. (People who say outrageous dinosaur bullshit about the slave trade love to point out that some Africans happened to have a role in selling other Africans into slavery – it helps them downplay the extent to which white people ought to feel ashamed about the whole thing – so I was utterly unsurprised to see Howard pull the same stunt thing.) The Africans trying to tear the castle down, to me, would be exactly like World War II resistance fighters attacking a Nazi stronghold or, hell, the strike on the Death Star at the end of Star Wars: the building is a key part of the infrastructure of their destruction, they know it, you can’t blame them for wanting to deal with it.
So, obviously Howard turns the concluding sections of the story into a desperate struggle against scary demonised Africans. Just check this language out:
And the shadows rose about us. Then it was back to back, sword and dagger, three men against a hundred. Spears flashed, and a fiendish yell went up from savage throats. I spitted three natives in as many thrusts and then went down from a stunning swing from a warclub, and an instant later Dom Vincente fell upon me, with a spear in one arm and another through the leg. Don Florenzo was standing above us, sword leaping like a live thing, when a charge of the arquebusiers swept the river bank clear and we were borne into the castle.
The black hordes came with a rush, spears flashing like a wave of steel, a thunderous roar of savagery going up to the skies.
In particular, Howard hypes up how terrible it would be for the white people to be sold into slavery, but as far as black people ending up slaves goes… Uh…
“Look you, Pierre,” quoth Dom Vincente, “I have here a slave who, wonder of wonders, desires to be your man. Though the devil only knows why.”
He led up a slim young Jakri, a mere youth, whose main asset seemed a merry grin.
“He is yours,” said Dom Vincente. “He is goodly trained and will make a fine servant. And look ye, a slave is of an advantage over a servant, for all he requires is food and a loincloth or so with a touch of the whip to keep him in his place.”
It was not long before I learned why Gola wished to be “my man,” choosing me among all the rest. It was because of my hair. Like many dandies of that day, I wore it long and curled, the strands falling to my shoulders. As it happened, I was the only man of the party who so wore my hair, and Gola would sit and gaze at it in silent admiration for hours at a time, or until, growing nervous under his unblinking scrutiny, I would boot him forth.
Yes, you read that right: Pierre gets a little slave sidekick of his very own because Gola wants to be the slave of a white person so that he can touch Pierre’s pretty, pretty hair. Really, it’s for his own good – perhaps Pierre’s influence will make Gola less of a heathen little savage, right? Honestly, us Euros were doing the Africans an enormous favour by enslaving them.
There’s some interesting crossover here with the Solomon Kane stories in the sense that at one point in the story De Montour proposes a strange toast to King Solomon:
“To Solomon,” he exclaimed, “who bound all devils! And thrice cursed be he for that some escaped!”
The obvious implication of this – later directly stated when De Montour is coming out of the woof closet – is that the woof spirit that turns De Montour into a woof is one of the demons that Solomon missed. Towards the end of the story, where he is fighting against the anonymous hordes of nameless, faceless blacks, De Montour ends up freed from the woof spirit as it is driven out of him mysteriously, apparently preferring to possess the local wildlife of Africa; this is highly reminiscent of the point in the Kane stories about how the spirits banished by King Solomon made their sinister abode in Africa. But it’s clear that the woofles isn’t really the big bad of the De Montour series: that role is filled in by generic Africans who exist to be cut down in the climactic battle.
I would love to see how Howard’s fans try to argue that this story isn’t racist. I’m sure some of the more dogmatic ones have tried.
Fanfic For Creepy Howie
Howard’s Cthulhu Mythos material crosses over frequently with his sword and sorcery material, to the point where you get the impression that Howard’s heart wasn’t actually in the whole Lovecraftian horror thing; some of the stories are basically purely Howardian hack-fests with a paper-thin vaguely Lovecraftian framing story. I like to call these the “Clonk-on-the-head Mythos”.
A perfect example of this strand is The Children of the Night. A bunch of professors, including John Kirowan (who would become something of a recurring character in Howard’s Mythos-related stories) and our narrator John O’Donnel, are sat around discussing racial theories, in the course of which our narrator notes that one of the party, Ketrick, has curious facial features which he can’t quite place with any native race of the British Isles. The conversation dips into the discussion of various cults – the Cthulhu Cult, the cult of Gol-goroth from The Gods of Bal-Sagoth, a cult of Pict-descendants who apparently still venerate the Bran idol from The Dark Man – as well as one bit where O’Donnel declares that the three greatest works of horror literature are Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, Arthur Machen’s Black Seal and Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu, a blatant act of circle-jerking on Howard’s part which gives rise to the incongruous image of these refined dons reading trashy pulp American magazines which probably didn’t even make it over to the UK in any great numbers.
Anyway, the conversations meanders around slowly and drearily until Howard decides it’s time to start the story, and he has Ketrick accidentally bonk O’Donnel on the head with a prehistoric weapon their host happens to have mounted on his wall. This causes our narrator to recall his past life as one of the various Celtic folk sweeping into the British Isles and driving the Picts back – and, in particular, a nightmarish encounter with the Children of the Night, who seem to be the same dudes as the Worms of the Earth from The Worms of the Earth. When he comes around, he identifies more with his ancient barbaric predecessor than with his present life – and what’s more, realises that Ketrick carries in him the blood of the Children, and so the story concludes with the narrator stuck in an insane asylum plotting to eliminate Ketrick, in whom the racial memory of the Children of the Night is already manifesting.
This is a profoundly weird story, and I don’t mean in the Weird Fiction thing people who want to drag pulp writing into respectability like to waffle about. For starters, the meandering early discourse between the professors seems to be an incredibly ham-fisted way of declaring the themes and ideas Howard wants to explore with the story – his usual obsession with his cranky racial theories, the point that the story is meant to be an addition to both the Cthulhu Mythos and the Bran series, and so on – but the really confusing thing is the ending. What, exactly, is meant to be horrifying here? Are we supposed to be horrified that the protagonist, awoken to ancient racial grievances, is plotting to kill an innocent man, or are we meant to be horrified that this subhuman descendant of the Children of the Night is walking about free whilst the one person who knows the truth about his sinister ancestry is locked away?
If you read this story in isolation from the rest of Howard’s fiction you’d tend to assume the former, but if you read it in connection with a broader sampling of his material – particularly his Cthulhu Mythos and Bran-related stories – it actually seems to be the latter. Certainly, in most of the rest of Howard’s fiction which deals with this subject matter racial memory and past-life regression are a real phenomena – and one which by and large ought to be trusted – and the Children/Worms are absolutely evil, connected to vile sorcery and horrific practices and well beyond the pale of any right-thinking human being. Furthermore, one has to consider Howard’s usual preference for barbarism over civilisation. Here, civilisation would say that our narrator is clearly insane, whereas the narrator’s barbarian instincts tell him that he is not sane and that Ketrick is a terrible threat.
A somewhat less ambiguous story in the same vein is People of the Dark. The story at least begins with the action in full flow; the narrator, John O’Brien, is heading into the mysterious caves at Dagon’s Cove, where he knows that Richard Brent – his rival for the affections of Eleanor Bland (no, I’m not fucking joking, that’s her surname) – intends to come for a little nocturnal exploration tonight. His intent is to kill off Brent so that he can be the shoulder for Bland to cry on and have her all for himself. To be fair to Howard, the tone of the story seems to acknowledge that this is creepy fucker behaviour: rarely for Howard, we don’t seem to be intended to entirely side with the narrator. Well, not at first at least…
After a clonk on the head, the narrator has a flashback to his past life as a proud Irish barbarian, Conan. This is not the famous Conan, although as a Cimmerian the famous Conan is an ancestor of the Irish people according to Howard’s Hyborian Age chronology – also, as we’ll come to see, this Conan has some of the other Conan’s bad habits. See, Conan-who-is-not-Conan has come across the water to trade with the Britons and has been rather distracted from the trade mission by Tamera – the past-life version of Bland – who he decides to chase down and rape. He’s on the verge of catching her when Vertorix, the past-life version of Brent, catches up with them. The confrontation leads to Tamera the Bland tearing off into the caves of Dagon’s Cove, and soon enough it turns out the place is infested with the Children of the Night. Conan-who-is-not-Conan and Vertorix decide their best odds of survival are in teaming up, but the rescue attempt ends tragically; Vertorix and Tamera the Bland end up jumping to their deaths rather than letting the Children take them, whilst Conan-who-is-not-Conan dies at the hands of the Children. Restored to his present life, he finds Brent and Bland having a rendezvous in the cave, and overhears Bland telling Brent that she loves him instead of the narrator; at the conclusion, O’Brien-who-is-Conan-who-is-not-Conan emerges from hiding with his gun to shoot not Brent, but a Child of the Night who had emerged to slay the happy couple.
What Howard seems to be going for here is a protagonist who really isn’t very sympathetic who manages to redeem himself in the eyes of the readers, his acquaintances, and the cosmos at large by fighting alongside Vertorix in the distant past and saving the Bland couple in the present. The end result is a story which is still a little muddled with all of this racial memory reincarnation stuff – the present-day framing story is sufficiently lightweight that it could have been dispensed with and you’d still have an exciting tale – and also asks us to forgive O’Brien for being a rapey, stalkery, murdery sort of guy because when it came to the crunch he sided with his fellow humans against inhuman underground monsters. This being the case, whether the story works – and, in particular, whether you buy O’Brien’s character development – kind of hinges on whether you think “does not let subhuman monsters kill folk” really outweighs “treats women like prizes that he can snatch through violent, underhanded means” when you’re judging O’Brien. Personally, I dunno whether I’m sold on that.
Individuals not entirely unlike the Children of the Night show up in The Black Stone, a more traditionally Lovecraftian story. In summary: dude goes to Hungary, investigates a curious black stone reputedly associated with a village infested by weird little subhumans who were eventually genocided due to their less appealing habits (the whole “kidnapping and sacrificing women and children” thing). Specifically, in what qualifies as one of the few cases in Howard’s fiction where he actually sides with the Turks, it turns out they were slain by Turkish forces who also bound the sinister toad-like god the villagers worshipped with special Arab Magic. The narrator witnesses a ghostly manifestation of the subhuman cultists and their god at the stone, and then investigating the background to the vision uncovers an ancient document describing what happened back when the Turks invaded, at which point he seems to have a mild breakdown due to reading the document and getting confirmation that he wasn’t dreaming or tripping or something.
The Black Stone is fairly loyal to the model Lovecraft himself had established – rather bookish protagonist goes off and investigates some stuff, sees some freaky shit, uncovers a terrible secret, is left with their previously rational view of the world shaken to its foundation, you’ve got all the boxes on the checklist ticked here. Unfortunately, Howard doesn’t seem to work out how to pace such a story appropriately; in particular, the major supernatural manifestation occurs far too early into the story and there isn’t enough of a bang in the final revelation to stop the concluding part feeling like a long, drawn-out anticlimax. Yes, it’s spooky that the black stone is a mystical “key” that allows the toad-god (probably a version of Clark Ashton Smith’s Tsathoggua) to manifest in the world along with its dead followers – but whilst it might be a shock for the narrator to discover that this is the case, it’s not a shock for us as readers to discover this, because as readers we know we are reading a supernatural story and consequently we know that the vision at the black stone was genuine – because if it wasn’t, there’d be no story. As it stands, The Black Stone is mainly an object lesson in how good Lovecraft himself was with story structures, and in particular making sure that the tales ended with a properly satisfying climax rather than blowing his best scare too early.
Even more underwhelming is the stultifyingly predictable The Thing On the Roof, whose plot can be summed up thusly: explorer goes to South America, visits toad temple, takes toad charm, explorer returns home to his mansion, protagonist visits explorer and finds that he’s all jumpy and freaking out about people hearing something tramping about on the roof, sinister demonic force kills explorer off-stage and takes back the toad charm. The toad stuff and the raving about “keys” suggests a connection to The Black Stone but the lack of polish and development means that the story doesn’t really add that much to Howard’s corner of the Mythos.
The other habitual themes of Howard’s Mythos stories – hints at reincarnation along with crossovers with his sword and sorcery stuff – are present in The Haunter of the Ring, which actually has a rather fun premise, although not quite a good enough one to rise above Howard’s shaky prose or flat stock characters. James Gordon is a man with a troubled marriage who throws himself on the mercy of our narrator – John O’Donnel once again – and the erstwhile John Kirowan: several times, always when she had an opportunity to put him in danger, James’ wife Evelyn has apparently gone into a strange, trance-like state and tried to kill him. James is convinced that he and Evelyn have been cursed – one of James’ long-ago ancestors, Richard Gordon, married a certain Elizabeth Douglas, you see, and so James believes that Evelyn is being possessed by Elizabeth so that she can kill him and get revenge. Kirowan, however, isn’t so sure – and when he discovers that Eveyln has been wearing an antique ring which, unknown to her, is the ancient ring of Thoth-Amon, a Stygian sorcerer of Conan’s time, he thinks that the blame may lie closer to home – specifically, in the person of the evil Joseph Roelocke, AKA Yosef Vrolok, who has summoned demonic forces to destroy both James and Evelyn in a fit of pique over Evelyn rejecting him.
This is actually one of Howard’s better-structured stories: there’s hints of Kirowan and Roelocke having played a cat-and-mouse game across the globe earlier on in the story, but they’re fairly subtle ones, and he actually does a fairly successful bit of misdirection with the whole reincarnation/racial memory thing – although, to be fair, the main reason I was misdirected is because Howard uses it as a plot point so frequently in his supernatural fiction that it’s genuinely surprising to see him not run with it this time around (although the last line of the story – a cryptic remark from Kirowan – hints that Kirowan believes James really was a reincarnation of Richard). On top of that, the story feels unsatisfyingly undeveloped; having established a really cracking mystery, Howard skips straight to the resolution when Kirowan just happens to pull all of the answers out of his sleeve, and the conclusion of the story consists of a little too much of Kirowan narrating the backstory and explaining what is about to happen (including lurid proclamations like “you despised me, and you robbed me of the only woman I ever loved; you turned her against me by means of your vile arts, and then you degraded and debauched her, sank her into your own foul slime”). Oh, and also there’s the whole “eastern European guy is the villain out to corrupt and defile our women” angle, but on the scale of Howardian racism this rates as “Depressingly typical of Howard’s writing” rather than “distressingly extreme even by REH’s standards”.
The Fire of Asshurbanipal, however, runs exclusively off ethnic stereotypes. You have your square-jawed American hero, Steve Clarney, you have his Afghan travelling companion Yar Am, who is all sidekicky and servile, and you have a bunch of moustache-twirling Bedouin bandits led by the fearsome Nureddin El Mekru who are on their trail. When Steve and Yar discover a lost city deep in the desert – perhaps one of the selfsame ones written about by Abdul Alhazred in the Necronomicon – Steve decides he wants to explore, and the duo end up discovering a chamber in which a long-preserved king clutches a massive jewel. They argue for a while about whether they should take the jewel, Yar saying it’s a bad idea and Steve being dismissive about Yar’s superstitions. Then Nureddin shows up with his buddies and captures them and decides to take the jewel for himself. Then Nureddin’s buddies say “Hey, not actually a good idea boss” and he’s like “LOL, don’t care, taking the gem” and then tentacles happen. It’s a fairly predictable story notable mainly for being a nice first-generation example of the sort of racist pulp adventure the Indiana Jones movies liked to draw on.
Weird Westerns and Pulp Southern Gothic
Occasionally, Howard would write supernatural and quasi-supernatural thrill stories set closer to home – in the rural country of the South, either in the present day or in the cowboy times which were still fresh in living memory. In principle, these could be much more interesting reads: when Howard runs his mouth off about subjects he clearly hasn’t really researched the result is usually awful tripe (the Romans were shield wall geniuses, for crying out loud!) but I was hoping that when he told stories about the sort of places and people he knew in real life there might be some sort of documentary value to them, in much the same way Kipling’s stories can give us a little insight into the Anglo colonial bubble in India even if we don’t necessarily agree with his depiction of colonialism. Unfortunately, the Southern-based stories collected here are a little sparse in terms of the places described, the casts of characters presented and the situations narrated, so Howard doesn’t really bring his home turf advantage.
Take, for instance, The Horror From the Mound, in which “Anglo-Saxon” rancher Steve Brill decides to excavate a mound purported to contain lost Spanish gold and his neighbour Juan Lopez – a gent descended from the same Conquistadors who are supposed to have stashed their loot there – thinks it’s a crappy idea. As it turns out, Juan is right because there’s a vampire Conquistador in there who follows Juan home and kills him before turning its sights on Steve.
The contrast between the personalities of Steve and Juan in here are, alas, all too predictable. Steve, the “Anglo-Saxon”, is all brash and bold and laughs at superstition, whereas the Hispanic Juan is craven and cringing and servile and all but drops to his knees to beg Steve not to excavate. He’s also kind of dumb – he’s sworn an oath not to speak of the terrible secret of the mound, but when Steve suggests he could write it down he sees no reason why that should break the terms of his oath, so he ends up coming across as the sort of simple-minded chap who doggedly follows the rules but can’t comprehend why a particular loophole might be against the spirit of them. On top of that, who gets killed in this story: the blundering oaf who doesn’t even suspect there may be a vampire in the mound and doesn’t believe in them anyway, or the guy who knows full well what’s down there and what danger it poses? Answer: whoever Howard considers less white. Even though Steve comes off as kind of an arrogant clod in the way he brushes off all of Juan’s warnings, the fact is we’re still expected to root for him in the story and he’s still able to not only evade the consequences of his errors but also put down a beast which a hardy band of Conquistadors couldn’t handle.
A similar “white guy gets through the peril scot-free, his servile Spanish sidekick gets iced” dynamic is at work in Black Wind Blowing, in which rancher Emmett Glanton is summoned to his neighbour John Bruckman’s ranch at more or less zero notice and told that Bruckman’s niece Joan Zukor is here and it’d be great if Emmett would consent to marry her. Unlike Conan in The Frost Giant’s Daughter (or Conan-who-is-not-Conan in People of the Dark), Emmett is aware that consent is a two way street, so he checks with Joan and she assures him that she is desperate for him to go through with this so she can get out of there. Still a little confused – he’s only just met Joan, after all – but not having anything better to do that evening, Emmett decides that he isn’t too bothered about the duress Joan is clearly under and agrees to go ahead with the marriage, which is solemnised on the spot because Bruckman happens to have a justice of the peace handy. This hasty ritual turns out to be a recipe for trouble; Joshua, a local guy who’s got a “Lennie in Of Mice and Men” thing going on, has become instantaneously infatuated with Joan after becoming aware of her existence and is outraged that Emmett gets to marry her instead of him – and isn’t afraid to get violent to press his claim. Less obviously, a mysterious secret society of diabolists called the Black Brothers of Ahriman have arrived, and they’re out to sacrifice Joan using their secret, near-magical electric rocks technology!
This is one of those pulp-era stories which has a sort of off-the-wall Axe Cop charm to it. You have a secret technology which allows large amounts of electricity to be generated from rocks, you have a secret society who possess this weird super-science which is better off kept out of the hands of regular human beings until we are ready to handle the terrible secret of electrochemistry, you have the classic “retard strength” stereotype in play, you have a protagonist who consents to marriage like he’s buying a magazine or something. Let’s be clear about this: this is an extremely silly story. Emmett spends almost the whole story driving back and forth in the dark; the tale opens with him driving to Bruckman’s ranch, then he drives back to his own ranch with Joan, then he decides he needs to talk to Bruckman again so he leaves Joan behind and drives back, then he discovers that bad shit has gone down and then drives back to his own ranch; then he discovers that his Mexican handyman Juan Sanchez has been killed and Joan has been kidnapped, so he goes driving off into the night to try and find the cult’s sacrifice site, which he’s apparently able to sneak up on without them hearing his engine. Accompanying these drives is a romance subplot that’s silly even by Howard’s standards.
Glanton almost screamed aloud at the sight. Joan lay there, stark naked, spread-eagled in the form of St. Andrew’s Cross, her wrists and ankles strapped securely. In that instant Glanton knew what it would mean to him to lose that girl–realized how much she had come to mean to him in the few hours he had known her.
Or, to be more accurate, the few minutes he has known her. Between the two-dimensional characters, depressing “ethnic minority guy acts as servile dogsbody for white guy, gets killed for his trouble” angle, and ridiculous story, Black Wind Blowing is an utter trainwreck of a story,
Pigeons From Hell is one of those stories where the title suggests a plot which is far more interesting than the one you get. Apparently the idea of ghost pigeons living in a haunted mansion comes from ghost stories Howard’s grandmother used to tell him, which I guess means I’d prefer to read Grandma Howard’s Old-Timey Pigeon Stories than this because at the end of the day the pigeons are just background dressing this time around. No: after a fairly effective opening in which two travellers, Banner and Griswell, spend a night in an abandoned old plantation mansion only for Banner to come to a grisly end, the story which unfolds as Griswell (with help from local sheriff Buckner) fights to prove his innocence turns out to be about a group of sisters, the Blassenvilles, who used to live in the mansion until one of the sisters, Celia, got turned into a “zuvembie” – a sort of vampire-zombie mashup which as far as I can tell is Howard’s own invention – when a disgruntled servant slipped the mysterious Black Brew into her food. The zuvembie proceeded to kill the other sisters and haunt the mansion, all in an impressively creepy gruesome manner.
The servant in question does this because Celia subjected her to appalling beatings as though they were back in the era of slavery; Celia does this partially because she was a notorious sadist, and partly because Howard wanted Farnsworth Wright to make Pigeons From Hell a cover story. (“I knew an old man years ago, who swore he saw Miss Celia tie this girl up to a tree, stark naked, and whip her with a horsewhip” – I see what you’re doing there, Howard.) Celia was vulnerable to the Black Brew because, apparently, back in Haiti she had delved into voodoo herself and “danced in the Black Ceremony”. Moral of the story: hanging out with black people makes you vulnerable to their magic. Ew.
The Steve Harrison stories are Howard’s take on detective fiction with a quasi-supernatural twist. The cases Harrison finds himself tackling often appear to have a supernatural basis, but this will often prove to be mere superstition – superstition Steve can lay low with a hail of bullets or a barrage of punches. However, if you want a detective story which even briefly glances in the general direction of realism, you’re not going to find it here. Howard does not seem to have the remotest bit of interest in police procedure and typically has Steve opting to act entirely on his own without a shred of backup, which apparently his bosses tolerate because he gets results. This is likely to do a number on your suspension of disbelief if you know anything about how police detectives operate whatsoever, but then again that’s also true of most police-themed action movies; a more profound problem here is that at points you could almost forget Steve is meant to be a policeman at all.
Granted, there’s a great swathe of action movies out there which have their hero be a lone cop, or a renegade duo of buddy cops, but even Lethal Weapon or Cobra or Dirty Harry or Robocop or, for that matter, even parodies like Last Action Hero do the groundwork to establish that their protagonists are part of the institution of the police. They may spurn backup, but other cops do exist in the same universe as the heroes; they may thumb their nose at their superiors, but they do have superiors who are able to make their presence felt and they are still part of a chain of command. This is not the case with the Harrison stories, in which other cops basically aren’t a presence at all, except occasionally the narration reassures us that they definitely do exist, it’s just that they let Steve kind of do his own thing. Whenever the subject of Steve’s relationship to the rest of the department comes up there’s an awkwardness to it, as though Howard is tying himself in knots trying to find excuses to avoid addressing the subject properly.
Part of the issue, of course, may be that Steve is a big city cop and Howard, living as he did in rural Texas, was more used to a sheriff-plus-deputies setup, which is a bit different from a typical police department, but even so Howard’s grasp of how cops operate in the city seems to be informed by a loose and inattentive reading of the more lurid pulp crime fiction of the era, with a sprinkling of Howardian libertarianism on top – essentially, Steve is a free agent to apply and enforce the law as he sees fit, which often makes him feel less like a cop and more like a vigilante. This is particularly concerning when you factor in the point that Harrison is responsible for River Street, the heart of the Oriental quarter, and consequently the stories involve Harrison as Mighty Whitey swinging in to beat up ethnic minorities.
Take, for instance, Fangs of Gold, in which Harrison is on the trail of Woon Shang, a small-time crook who has murdered a nice old Chinese man and robbed his life savings. Harrison’s main concern is in tracking down the money so that the victim’s granddaughter won’t grow up impoverished, and of course bringing Woon to justice would be a good thing all round, but the problem is that Woon has fled deep into the swamps – swamps inhabited by lethal alligators and scary black people who practice voodoo. Human sacrifice in the name of Damballah ensues.
On the one hand, I’m mildly impressed that Howard actually seems to have heard the term “Damballah” and understood that it refers to an important loa, which represents more research than I honestly expect of him by this point. On the other hand… Yeah. You have a mixed-race dude who just so happens to be substantially more sophisticated in his habits and schemes than the rest of the black people are, you have Howard milking voodoo for all the “this shit is scary and alien” thrills he possibly can, you have a story in which a white person doles out violence and frontier justice to a bunch of black people and one Chinese dude in a swamp. It doesn’t rank amongst the most cartoonishly offensive of Howard’s stories – it does at least include black people who don’t speak a demeaning pidgin and there’s no attempts to spin slavery as a favour white people offered black people as part of the process of civilising them – but there’s enough dubious stuff to leave a sick taste in the mouth. In particular, the fact that actually more or less nothing definitively supernatural is happening means that the black characters fall into two distinct types: superstitious rubes who are dumb enough to think there’s actual magic going on and shameless manipulators who use magic tricks to sway the chumps.
Even more cartoonish is Names In the Black Book. The only Harrison story in this collection set on his home turf of River Street, it opens with Harrison summoned to the aid of Joan La Tour, a “half Oriental” acquaintance of his who is paralysed with fear – for the mysterious Erlik Khan, a crime lord both Harrison and Joan saw die recently, has apparently returned from the grave and is mounting a nightmarish campaign of revenge. Enlisting the help of Khoda Khan, an Afghan who in theory is a fugitive from justice but who is trusted by Joan far more than she trust the police, Harrison has to track down Erlik and find out the truth about his return.
As I mentioned, River Street is apparently an important segment of the Oriental quarter of whichever nameless city it is that Harrison is theoretically a law enforcement officer for, and as usual for Howard “Oriental” means “any culture hailing from East of Greece”. (This makes the designation of Joan as “half Oriental” almost entirely useless when it comes to working out what her actual background is.) The opportunities for Howard to talk ludicrous bullcrap are legion. The quarter is a labyrinth and the buildings are all confusingly designed because, apparently, Orientals are obsessed with privacy, whereas of course we Occidentals build houses designed to display as much of ourselves to the world as possible – hell, I had my toilet installed in my front garden so the whole world can watch me take a shit. Erlik Khan does sinister human sacrifice rituals for shits and giggles, weird, esoteric methods of murder and assassination are the order of the day because it’s all so Exotic!, and Erlik’s goons fool Harrison into thinking they are barman Shan Yang and his usual clientele because, hey, these Asian sorts all look the same don’t they? (Even to a police officer who in a professional capacity makes a point of knowing the community figures on his beat? What sort of gullible rube of a cop is Harrison anyway?) In short, we’re talking Howard’s take on Big Trouble In Little China, or maybe The Horror at Red Hook; you have a racist guy who doesn’t really know much about minority communities in American cities except that they look all foreign and mysterious and stuff, and he’s trying to write an adventure story which basically uses their community as a sort of playground, and yeaaaaah, the end results aren’t good. Granted, Harrison does help out a lady who’s “half Oriental” (which in Howardian terms means that one of her parents came from somewhere between Istanbul and Tokyo) and is aided by a Afghan dude, but the former is so superstitious she actually believes Erlik has come back from the dead and the latter is a violent maniac with a robot-like dedication to his honour feuds. The story climaxes with Harrison and Khoda – a good Asian who co-operates with the nice white people! – cutting down Erlik’s hordes of Mongols, naughty Asians who are mean to white people. The overall effect is nauseating.
In Graveyard Rats it almost looks as though Harrison is going to go gunning after an undead Native American who seems to be haunting a rural family, but it turns out the true culprit is much closer to home. The Wilkinson brothers despise one another despite living together in the family home, none of them willing to concede an inch of ground to the others. Before the story started, John Wilkinson was murdered, and the surviving brothers summoned the help of Harrison in tracking down the purported killer. (Here’s another instance where Harrison acts as though he isn’t sure whether he’s a cop or a private dick: surely the police department, not the Wilkinsons, decide who gets sent down to investigate the case?) The action of the story itself kicks off when the severed head of John manifests in Saul Wilkinson’s bedroom, causing Saul to instantaneously go irreversibly and inconsoleably insane. (I don’t think it works like that, Howard.) Clearly, someone is raising the stakes and is determined to make the case look as supernatural as possible – question is, who will survive the ordeal, and who will be nommed by rats in a burning shed?
Liberated from unrelenting racial stereotyping for the most part, the story kind of exemplifies an interesting direction for the Harrison stories that the other tales here kind of go in, but which is obscured by their wallowing in voodoo scare stories and Orientalism. There’s a sort of grand guignol angle to it, with Howard spicing up the pulp detective genre with ludicrously over the top supernatural incidents which, as always, turn out to be faker. This makes Graveyard Rats and its compatriots a sort of two-fisted Texan take on Scooby Doo, except the talking dog is replaced by a man who isn’t afraid to get crazy and start hacking people to bits when he’s in a tight spot. As with so much of Howard’s work, it was clearly knocked out in a hurry for a market which didn’t have brilliantly high standards, and consequently I don’t see myself revisiting it as I would Hammett, Chandler, or Highsmith, and it isn’t really good enough to convince me to go track down the other Steve Harrison yarns, but it doesn’t leave the nasty taste in the mouth that Names In the Black Book does.
The Dream Snake is a story that does what it says on the tin: a man dreams of a snake. Then he mysteriously dies as though he were killed by a snake, even though no sign of a snake can be found.
Also, because this is Howard writing, the snake is from Africa! because, yet again, Howard decides to make Africa the abode of spirits and demons. Aside from a fumbling attempt at a Kipling-esque narrative of colonial hauntings, the story is notable mainly for the incredible repetitiveness of the early sections, in which the man who had the dream narrates multiple times how he had that thing going on in the dream you sometimes have where you “remember” stuff you don’t remember in waking life. In fact, the first two pages of the story consist of the guy explaining this point, making some other brief statement about the dream, and then launching into another lengthly explanation of the dream-memory thing yet again, over and over until the reader becomes thoroughly sick of the story by page 2. Since it is only 6 pages long, this is a serious problem.
The Hyena is another African story, and a particularly offensive one: the titular hyena is, it turns out, an evil shape-shifting witch doctor. How do we know he’s evil? Well, he doesn’t kowtow to the white man and call him “bwana”, and he wants to have sex with a white woman – is that evil enough? Naturally, our narrator Steve (Howard really liked the name Steve for some reason) – has to defend the innocent Ellen Farel against Senecoza the hyena-man’s advances – and rally the Boer ranchers against the Masai menace. It’s 11 pages of disparaging Africans as being a bunch of rapey, superstitious savages with demonic powers; in other words, business as usual for Howard.
Sea Curse is a brief story in a longer series of Howard yarns about a fishing village called Faring Town. A woman puts a curse on a sailor, the curse comes true. There’s not much to say about it, really, beyond that it’s one of those hyper-brief early Howard stories which give the impression that at this stage in his career he wasn’t really one for second drafts. A similarly disposable tale is The Fearsome Touch of Death, essentially a brief joke whose best feature is its title. (Plot summary: a man touches some rubber gloves, dies.)
The Cairn on the Headland is a somewhat meatier proposition, not least because it suggests an explanation of sorts for Howard’s apparent dislike of the Vikings. It features James O’Brien, an academic who has a terrible secret in his past stemming from a combination of his foul temper and some appallingly bad luck, and is being blackmailed by the villainous Ortali into acting as his frontman; O’Brien does the academic legwork and presents a respectable face to the world as they travel around doing the Indiana Jones thing, and Ortali gets to pocket all the tastiest treasures they obtain. As the story starts we find them in Ireland having a little man-to-man bigot-off:
“Nordic superstitions!” the man sneered again.
“Aye, superstitions if you will!” Fired by his scorn, I exclaimed so savagely that he involuntarily stepped back; his hand slipping inside his coat. “We of North Europe had gods and demons before which the pallid mythologies of the South fade to childishness. At a time when your ancestors were lolling on silken cushions among the crumbling marble pillars of a decaying civilization, my ancestors were building their own civilization in hardships and gigantic battles against foes human and inhuman.”
In the midst of this verbal clash of civilisations, it emerges that they’ve come here to investigate a mysterious cairn standing on the site of the Battle of Clontarf – a confrontation between Viking forces and defending Irish forces which (according to the interpretation Howard presents here via O’Brien’s lecturing) represented a turning point in Northern European history: supposedly, the Vikings lost so badly that their raids on Ireland soon came to a halt, and moreover they spontaneously lost their faith in Odin and ended up turning to Christianity when Odin stopped appearing to them in their religious rituals. Anyway, Ortali opens up the cairn, O’Brien doesn’t think it’s a great idea but doesn’t manage to stop him, and it emerges that Odin and the other Norse gods were malevolent Arctic spirits who occasionally took human form – and the dead man in the cairn happens to be the form Odin took for the Battle of Clontarf, and the cairn was built with the power of Fightin’ Christianity in order to keep Odin imprisoned.
Here, in both the interaction between O’Brien and Ortali and, even more clearly, in his treatment of the Vikings and Dark Ages Irish, we see Howard do what he always does in discussions of history: treat it as though it were a sport and the Irish/Celts were his favourite team. He hates the Romans when they come up in the British Isles because they fought his team; he likes the Romans when they go off east to fight those gosh-darn Oriental despotisms because he hates the Eastern League teams even more than he hates Rome United. Likewise, he’s a fanboy for most of the teams in the Aryan-Nordic Premiership, but the Irish are his favourites so any team who historically gave the Irish a pasting like Viking Rovers earns his enmity. It kind of baffles me as to why Howard fans like to suggest he’s an interesting or insightful historical author because his attitude towards history seems, to me, to be completely risible and based more on irrational personal grudges which he takes to heart for no good reason than on any sensibly researched position.
Although Howard made an enormous deal of his Irish heritage, actual people in Ireland – or the British Isles as a whole – tend not to bear massive historical grudges against the Vikings or the Romans. In Ireland during Howard’s lifetime (and ours, for that matter), people have had bigger and more immediate problems to consider; moreover, anyone over here who got as genuinely angry about Viking incursions into the British Isles as Howard seems to, or who was as determined to set his face against ancient Rome as Howard shows himself to be in his stories and in his letters on the subject, would be regarded as being more than a little eccentric. I might be going out on a limb here, but it seems to me that whilst in Europe we’ve got a depressing number of ugly historical grudges and bigotries which do flare up from time to time, you can’t really keep that sort of ongoing hatred going for centuries unless something’s going on to fan the flames. England has been doing monstrous things in Ireland for centuries, but it was perceived injustices happening right then and there in the 1960s and 1970s which got the most recent round of the Troubles kicked off; antisemitism has been regularly popping back into fashion for about as long as us Europeans have been aware of the Jews, but that’s because there’s been a more or less continuous effort to fan the flames since way back in History Times. Conversely, nobody I know from Northern England feels much of a grudge about the whole Danelaw thing because the Danish haven’t really done anything mean to us for a tremendously long time; likewise, Roman atrocities against Boudica’s uprising tend to be talked about in fairly unemotive terms because the Roman Legions haven’t massacred any British tribes for ages. If you poke around in England you can find a few people who think that it’d be awesome if the Kingdom of Mercia would be re-established but anyone who got really agitated and worked up about it would probably be regarded as a bit of a crank. Anglo-Saxon/Norman ethnic tensions in England have been notably quiet since well before Shakespeare’s time.
Howard, however, takes history personally, even the bits of it which haven’t really been very relevant for centuries. In every bit of history he looks into, he latches onto one group or another to support – the closer to Irish Celts the better. I suppose this does help to an extent when it comes to him portraying the grudges, bigotries and other baggage carried by characters in his historical stories; the problem is that he also clearly takes sides as a narrator, and furthermore (as we’ve seen in Kings of the Night) is perfectly happy to mash historical facts out of shape or not bother to research at all if he’s dealing with a historical grouping he doesn’t have any sympathy for. I know different people expect different things out of historical fiction and maybe Howard’s extremely idiosyncratic and personal view of history appeals to some people, but I can’t help but think that a historical story which exists to yell “Fuck you, you pack of heathen dogs, we Irish taught you such a lesson even your gods are afraid of us!” at hordes of Vikings who have been dead for centuries is kind of a waste of the reader’s time.
Black Talons is a story which relies mainly on scaring the reader with how beastly and cruel foreign people can be. Our hero, Joel Brill, is an academic who, along with his policeman friend Buckley, is drawn into the mystery of the sudden death of Jim Reynolds, one of his colleagues, who’s been hacked up as though by a terrible beast. A terrible taloned beast. A terrible black taloned beast. But never mind the beast! Brill has a more immediate problem in the form of Yut Wuen, Ali the Egyptian and Jugra Singh, Reynolds’ former manservants who blame Brill for their master’s death and are out to get revenge. Their suspicions make no sense and don’t even fit the facts, but they don’t care because they’re foreign.
A panic of helplessness swept over Joel Brill. He felt like a man beating at an insurmountable wall–the wall of inexorable Oriental fatalism, of conviction unchangeable. If even Buckley believed that somehow he, Joel Brill, was connected with Reynolds’ death, how was he to convince these immutable Orientals?
And of course, because they are dubious Orientals revenge takes a ridiculously ornate form.
“If it be the will of Allah,” assented Ali calmly. “This is your fate; what ours is, no man can say. It is the will of Allah that you die with a rat in your bowels. If it is Allah’s will, we shall die on the gallows. Only Allah knows.”
Brill made no reply. Some vestige of pride still remained to him. He set his jaw hard, feeling that if he opened his mouth to speak, to reason, to argue, he would collapse into shameful shrieks and entreaties. One was useless as the other, against the abysmal fatalism of the Orient.
Granted, the main villain is a white chap – John “Wasn’t I also in Atlas Shrugged?” Galt, explorer and ne’er-do-well – but he is treated as an ordinary human being, whereas the people you’re actually meant to be scared off are a black dude using scary ethnic weaponry who Galt uses to kill off certain foes of his, and a bunch of dudes who are superstitious enough to believe in black magic, gullible enough to believe that Brill used black magic to kill their boss, cruel enough to try and make a rat chew Brill’s guts out rather than choosing a cleaner and faster method of execution, and disposable enough to be killed off when they’ve come on and provided the above scare.
Skull-Face, a Novel By
Sax Rohmer Robert E. Howard
The hero of Skull-Face is Stephen Costigan, who aside from being unafraid of a good fight has little in common with Sailor Steve Costigan (the star of a ridiculous number of boxing-themed stories in which Sailor Steve floats around the Pacific punching people). We are introduced to Stephen when he is in a pitiful state: absolutely addicted to the hashish he turned to in a bid to escape his traumatic memories of World War I, the American ex-serviceman spends most of his time stoned out of his skull in Yu Shantu’s Temple of Dreams, a drug den in London’s Limehouse district, and whenever he becomes sober enough to recognise what’s happened to him he plans on committing suicide by drowning himself in the Thames.
However, fate has other plans for Stephen, because he has come to the attention of Yu’s sinister master: Kathulos of Egypt, the withered old master of an international conspiracy of which the Temple of Dreams is but one of many fronts. Offering Stephen freedom from his crippling hashish addiction in return for Stephen’s services at first seems to be a good deal – but Stephen balks at it when he realises how much killing will be involved, and ends up allying himself with John Gordon, a British secret service agent who’s been investigating Kathulos’ hidden empire for years. The twist is that Stephen is only free from his addiction thanks to a unique serum, which only Kathulos knows how to brew, and Costigan only has a four day supply – giving him about half a week to defeat Kathulos, save the beautiful Zulieka (another one of Kathulos’ slaves) and either find more serum or muster the fortitude to go cold turkey.
In its general format, Skull-Face is an entry in that hoary old “dangerously foreign supervillain threatens Western-dominated world order, heroic secret service agent has to stop him” genre, which was popular in the early 20th Century – you know, the sort of thing Moorcock was parodying with the Oswald Bastable novels. In particular, the influence of Sax Rohmer’s Yellow Peril novels about Nayland Smith doing battle with Fu Manchu is openly displayed, right down to the cheesy way the ending conveniently leaves the door open for a sequel. As with many such stories, it plays on the fear that the colonised peoples of the world will suddenly turn on the colonising powers and settle a score or two.
As it turns out, Kathulos himself isn’t Egyptian at all, but an ancient undead sorcerer from lost Atlantis. Furthermore, although he does ensnare high-placed members of Western society (usually drug addicts who rely on him for their supply or who have come under the sway of his hypnotic powers), his close assistants are all some variety of highly Othered ethnic minority. You’ve got Yu, of course, with his drug den straight out of any Yellow Peril scare novel you could care to name, along with Yussif Ali the Moor, “the great Negro Hassim”, “Yar Khan the Afghan and Santiago the Haitian and Ganra Singh, the renegade Sikh”. Even Zulieka, the love interest, slots neatly into a racial stereotype – in this case, the notion of the “Circassian beauty”. This is one of the few commonalities the story has with the Sailor Steve Costigan tales, which apparently use racial and national stereotypes as more or less their sole source of characterisation.
However, where the boxing tales use this as a source of humour, here it is a source of horror. Here, for instance, is John Gordan discussing what Kathulos has achieved in Africa:
“Somewhat over seventeen months ago I was sent to South Africa to investigate the unrest which has been growing among the natives of the interior ever since the World War and which has of late assumed alarming proportions. There I first got on the track of this man Kathulos. I found, in roundabout ways, that Africa was a seething cauldron of rebellion from Morocco to Cape Town. The old, old vow had been made again–the Negroes and the Mohammedans, banded together, should drive the white men into the sea.
“This pact has been made before but always, hitherto, broken. Now, however, I sensed a giant intellect and a monstrous genius behind the veil, a genius powerful enough to accomplish this union and hold it together.”
Kathulos’ influence spreads yet further afield – one of Gordon’s colleagues is murdered after returning from a mission to Mongolia, where he found secret information Kathulos has no intention of allowing to come to light. Granted, Kathulos himself is implied to be a prehistoric horror with a hatred for all humankind who has duped the colonised peoples of the world into thinking he’s going to end the tyranny of the West, but in some respects this is just as offensive as if he had been Egyptian: either way, you have these plotters coming to a bad end because they listened to some guy who wanted them to help end colonialism instead of giving all due obedience to whitey, and our heroes Costigan and Gordon must assert the status quo as representatives of Anglo-Saxon global dominance.
And to be honest, that’s how much of the action of the story plays out: scary foreigners are mean to Costigan, Costigan responds with fists. Add in heaps of hyper-cliched action and a comically inaccurate idea of how hashish affects people (apparently it’s addictive to a heroin-like extent and causes long, trippy hallucinatory journeys that are on a comparable level of freakiness to LSD trips) which, like the thing about Romans not understanding shieldwalls, makes it painfully obvious that Howard is running his mouth off about stuff he doesn’t remotely understand and hasn’t really researched, and the piece as a whole is a mixture of actively offensive material and risibly bad writing. If it weren’t a racist screed in defence of colonialism it’d have a sort of amusing Reefer Madness quality to it.
There is, mind you, a kernel of interest to be had in the character of Kathulos: since he’s the high priest of a race of ancients who are described as dreaming away in a state of quasi-death at the bottom of the ocean and he controls this worldwide conspiracy through his mind powers, he’s incredibly reminiscent of a sort of human version of Cthulhu. Creepy Howie’s The Call of Cthulhu had been out for well over a year before Skull-Face emerged, so Howard had plenty of time to read it before starting on the story; in fact, he seems to directly paraphrase it at points.
“I have come to believe that mankind eternally hovers on the brinks of secret oceans of which it knows nothing. Races have lived and vanished before our race rose out of the slime of the primitive, and it is likely still others will live upon the earth after ours has vanished. Scientists have long upheld the theory that the Atlanteans possessed a higher civilization than our own, and on very different lines. Certainly Kathulos himself was proof that our boasted culture and knowledge were nothing beside that of whatever fearful civilization produced him.”
“As I said, perhaps mankind loiters on the brink of unthinkable chasms of horror. But a fleet of gunboats is even now patrolling the oceans unobtrusively, with orders to destroy instantly any strange case that may be found floating–to destroy it and its contents. And if my word has any weight with the English government and the nations of the world, the seas will be so patrolled until doomsday shall let down the curtain on the races of today.”
“At night I dream of them, sometimes,” I muttered, “sleeping in their lacquered cases, which drip with strange seaweed, far down among the green surges–where unholy spires and strange towers rise in the dark ocean.”
The implication of Great Cthulhu himself taking on this weird parody of the human form in order to take a more direct role in ruling over his cult is a fun one, though it’s much less interesting if he just ends up talking and acting like Fu Manchu; either way, a potentially interesting cross-fertilisation between the two stories isn’t really enough to make up for this one’s deficiencies.
Tedious, Derivative, Bigoted Doggerel and the Fans Who Defend It
That Lovecraft quote about how “most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents” might be mildly overused, but when it comes to Robert E. Howard’s bibliography it’s actually remarkably accurate. Time and again I have been told that a more nuanced picture of the man’s work and the ideas expressed through them develops if you read more than just the Conan stuff. This is true, but not true in a way which really helps those trying to defend the man.
In assessing any writer’s work, an idea which only appears in one story or one particular series probably isn’t that significant to that author. That doesn’t mean that if a writer writes one incredibly offensive story and 99 perfectly benign ones that you can point to the 99 nice stories as a defence of the one nasty tale, but it does mean that you might argue that the one horrid piece represents a momentary lapse of reason which doesn’t reflect the writer’s usual sympathies or ideas.
On the other idea, when an idea recurs in multiple different subsets of an author’s work in multiple subgenres, it’s much harder to assert that the idea in question isn’t somehow significant to that author. The recurring themes and frequently used plot devices an author uses in their work obviously reflects their priorities in a way which a concept used once and then forgotten doesn’t. It seems clear that if an author drags out a particular idea or concept over and over again, it’s either because they genuinely think there’s some merit to it or it’s because they think it’s what the audience wants to hear. In Howard’s case, this is especially true because of his tendency to slip in crossovers between his various series – it seems that he actually doesn’t want the reader to appreciate his stories in isolation, but instead wants to create a big overarching mythos in which certain principles are consistently found to be true.
Based on my readings of Howard, both in the stories I’ve discussed here and in the Kane and Conan tales, I think it is hard to argue that race is not an overwhelmingly significant theme of Howard’s fiction. The Pictish saga (and the associated tales of the Worms of the Earth) which runs through Howard’s Kull, Conan, Bran, Turlogh and Cthulhu Mythos stories is all about the long decay and degeneration of forgotten races, with implicit assumptions that a reversion to “savage” lifestyles and miscegenation with “savage” peoples warps races into monsters. Although the Picts are a fictional race, Howard explicitly states in one story and fairly strongly insinuates in a host of others that he believes that black people hail from a savage environment and savage cultures which have imparted in them bestial characteristics. Meanwhile, in his discussion of those cultures he designates as “Oriental” he seems to have a fixed idea of them as degenerate civilisations, warped by decadent luxury and unchecked despotism – and that’s true whether you’re talking about the Parthians and others the Romans battled or the Muslim nations that bore the brunt of Crusader belligerence or the various peoples who live on Steve Harrison’s River Street.
It also seems fairly clear that Howard’s reductionist sorting of cultures into his savage/barbarian/civilisation categories is a recurring theme in his fiction, rather than something which only occurs in the Conan series. Some have argued that Howard’s views on race and culture became more moderate over the time, but the savage/barbarian/civilisation split is alive and well in Almuric, his last major work, and the Kothans there are exalted in that in terms awfully similar to those in which he praises the Aryans in the James Allison stories. In fact, it’s in comparatively early tales like the Kull stories in which Howard seems to hold to his personal theories of race and culture less dogmatically than in later works; the Kull material expresses a range of doubts, whereas more or less all of Howard’s later works are expressed with a cold, uncompromising certainty.
The concept of racial memory also arises a lot in Howard – a concept which only makes sense if you buy into Lamarckian evolutionary theories which were far from universally accepted in Howard’s time and these days are utterly discredited. (Moreover, the way Howard uses racial memory to give characters conscious recollection of past ages, or even past lives, goes beyond pseudoscience into the realm of crank metaphysics.) I’m not bashing Howard here for using out of date science as such any more than I’d bash someone who wrote a story including phlogiston or the luminiferous aether – but Howard uses the concept of racial memory to exalt the glory of the Aryan race in a profoundly disturbing way, whereas so far as I’m aware nobody ever got sent to a gas chamber over the Michelson-Morley experiment. Moreover, I’m not saying here that Howard necessarily believed this racial memory rot – though there was no shortage of kooks that did back in his day – but the fact that he uses a lot suggests that he does consider it to be a useful way of illuminating his themes, and the themes he uses it to highlight are almost always his garbage ideas about racial supremacy.
In short, Howard has taken rampant social Darwinism, sloppily applied actual Darwinism, reductionist ideas about people’s personalities and motivations reminiscent of some of the evolutionary psychology misconceptions geeks like to throw around in current discourse, and unabashedly biased portrayals of present-day and historical cultures that are unapologetically inspired by Howard’s own personal prejudices, and he’s turned this melting pot of misconceptions and bigotries into the most prominent core theme of his work as a whole. Whether or not he personally believed any of this becomes scarcely relevant: the fact is that he did say all this stuff, and said it loudly enough and often enough that anyone who didn’t take this into consideration when assessing Howard’s bibliography would miss the point of an awful lot of his work. Maybe there’s a story or two where Howard goes against the grain of the rest of his work on this score, but the overall trend is unambiguous. About the only good thing you can say about Howard’s racial politics is that he was opposed to the Nazis – Creepy Howie was always the bigger Hitler fan – but this seems to stem more from his libertarian bent than any anti-racist sentiments on Howard’s part; and of course, libertarianism of Howard’s sort can be oppressive in its own way. Remember how in the civil rights era of the 1960s – or, for that matter, the run-up to the US Civil War – the treatment of black people in the South was cast by the pro-slavery/pro-segregation faction as being a matter of states’ rights, and that their heroic struggle against treating other human beings like human beings was really a fight against a meddling central authority which couldn’t abide the idea of letting people live life they way they want to live it?
As I mentioned in my review of The Shadow of the Vulture, I am somewhat more willing to consider the notion that Howard’s views on gender were not completely one-dimensional, since Red Sonya is clearly a very different prospect both from the sex cartoon later authors would make of Sonja-with-a-J, or from the erotic fantasy represented by Bêlit, or from the theoretically competent but regularly and repeatedly undermined Valeria. But the Sonya and Dark Agnes stories represent only a tiny, tiny fraction of Howard’s work, and again the general trend there is for weak, helpless women who need a big strong daddy to protect them, and indeed are often spoken to like children by the protagonists of the stories they appear in. It certainly seems possible that this, like the occasional inclusion of bondage scenes to tickle Farnsworth Wright’s fancy, is an example of Howard writing to his market as opposed to Howard dwelling on a theme he is personally interested in. Certainly, he doesn’t lecture the reader on any ideas concerning gender roles to anything like the extent he works explicit and implicit racial themes into his writing at every opportunity. But even so, we’re looking at an awful lot of misogynistic bilge on one pan of the scales and two tiny nuggets of “I dunno, maybe he’s going for more than the usual crap here but it still ain’t what you’d call feminist” on the other pan and there’s no prizes for calling which way the scale tips.
Now, of course I still haven’t read his entire bibliography, but I think my sample size is now sufficient that it’d require something altogether radical and unexpected (like a forgotten trunkful of stories that represent the complete opposite of what I’ve already covered in this article, the Kane overview and the Conan monolith) to really turn things around. Oh, sure, there’s a few chunks of Howard’s fiction I’ve not touched yet, but none of them seem likely to harbour a radical change of heart on his part. There’s some Westerns in a comedic vein, which I guess might be amusing (Gates of Empire shows Howard actually had a degree of wit – not that he exercises it in much of his other work) but given that old school Westerns are a problematic genre at the best of times. There’s the boxing tales, but as Howard biographer Mark Finn noted in the comments on the original Ferretbrain publication of my Conan article, “Everyone in those stories is a racial epithet first, and a sailor second”, and given that Howard’s editors felt that titles like Blow the Chinks Down! suited the Sailor Steve Costigan material I am inclined to take Finn at his word there. There’s the El Borak stuff, but “American gunfighter goes to Afghanistan, shoots people” sounds like a premise with massive scope for fail, especially considering some of the sub-Kipling nonsense Howard got into in People of the Black Circle (much of which is set in a thinly disguised pseudo-Afghanistan). There’s the “Spicy” stories Howard wrote – think the closest thing you could get to erotic fiction in the Depression era whilst still getting your magazine stocked at the newsstands – but given Howard’s idea of what passes for eroticism as offered up in Queen of the Black Coast, I think I’ll give those tales a wide berth lest I die of laughter.
Moreover, even if these did reveal a whole other dimension to the man, none of it would make the bigotry expressed here unhappen. The Howard bibliography has a racism monkey on its back that no amount of poking, selective reading, or wilful blindness will ever shift. Any appreciation of his work needs to take it into account. This is particularly the case when between his sword and sorcery material, his historical yarns, and his supernatural thrillers we’ve covered more or less all of the fiction that Howard is well-known for. I hardly think Sailor Steve Costigan would get a shred of the attention he’s already had if it were not for Howard’s contribution to fantasy, adventure fiction, and horror.
These contributions, at the end of the day, are actually rather slim. The most original Howard works – Kull, Bran, Conan – are basically different passes at the same general concept, that of a strong and virile barbarian king of a decaying and decidedly not-virile race (a decadent civilisation in the case of Conan and Kull, and degenerate mutant savages in the case of Branflakes). The kingship angle is almost entirely neglected by subsequent fantasy authors, as is the “it’s actually prehistoric Earth” angle, leaving Howard’s main contribution to fantasy being the cartoonish barbarian Conan is in the earlier tales in his chronology. In the parallel universe where Howard didn’t happen, the impact of the loss of this trope would be minimal; the Grey Mouser’s sidekick might be different, but we’d still have Fritz Leiber (whose primary early influences were Robert Graves and Creepy Howie anyway). We might lose Elric, but he isn’t even Michael Moorcock’s best character and Moorcock cut his teeth as an author writing Edgar Rice Burroughs pastiches so I’m sure a bright dude like him could have latched onto some other trend in fantasy to invert for his first breakout series. The masses of authors who wrote Howard pastiches in his wake may or may not have found someone else to latch onto – I suspect most would, but on second thoughts the fantasy market would have probably been healthier if it didn’t have a glut of second-string Howard wannabes.
Meanwhile, a substantial proportion Howard’s other material is squarely built on the shoulders of giants – Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack London, Sax Rohmer and so on – who weren’t exactly obscure to the Weird Tales crowd. The loss of a few more such pastiches really wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference in the long run. Pastiches are kind of like farts: there’s never really a shortage of them, they’re not really impressive, and at best they are momentarily amusing but are usually just crass and irritating. At best, they can form a stepping stone for an author on the way to higher achievement – Ramsey Campbell started out with Lovecraft pastiches, Leigh Brackett’s work started in a firmly Barsoomian mode before taking her own unique direction, and so on – but for the most part, most pastiches can be safely ignored unless you are such an incurable fan of a particular author you have to read almost everything people write in imitation of him or her, regardless of how incompetent it is.
Even Howard’s material which doesn’t slot nicely into some form of pastiche or another tends to be in fairly well-trodden genres even for his time: Westerns, ghost stories, historical adventures, detectives investigating weird shit, all these are genres which Howard certainly didn’t invent and have superior practitioners both from Howard’s own era and in the present day. Howard might have a distinctive voice and offer a bracing brand of fairly kinetic violence, but I still say it’s no better than, say, an above-average Black Library author can churn out and when it comes to finer prose, a decent level of research, or not being as ignorant and offensive as one man can possibly be there are people who outshine him on all those fronts.
In short, I don’t think the fantasy genre would have lost an awful lot had Howard never existed; or, to be less counterfactual, I don’t think fantasy fans would really miss out on very much if they ignored Howard altogether. As I concluded in the Conan review, the responses to Howard by superior authors (C.L. Moore, Leiber, Moorcock) are more interesting anyway, and why bother with the disposable pastiches of yesteryear when you can get to grips with either the inspirational classics behind them or the disposable pastiches of here and now? Is there any reason by someone reading for pleasure, rather than out of a specific motivation to study Howard, should really bother with Almuric when out of the heaps and heaps of Barsoom ripoffs out there it’s hardly one of the more interesting or competently executed ones?
No, as in the Conan article I cannot recommend to anyone that they attempt to read Howard unless it’s in the service of some particular study of theirs – say, an examination of the history of the fantasy genre, or perhaps research on the development of racial tropes in popular fiction in the run-up to World War II. Certainly, there is a place to study Howard in that context. There may even be a place for what Mark Finn calls Howard Studies. (Though I would say that if you want to create a credible sphere of academic discourse surrounding Howard – or, for that matter, any author of genre fiction – you absolutely can’t conflate critical discourse and fandom, and in particular need to resist the fannish impulse to get all bent out of sorts if someone doesn’t like something you like.) I don’t, however, think there’s any place in credible discourse – whether this is in a rigorous, academic context or a more freewheeling place like good old Ferretbrain – for blunt denial that there are certain overarching themes in Howard’s fiction and they aren’t very attractive ones.