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Sunday 5 January 2014

The Fortean Fiction of Robert E. Howard

For many people, the work of Robert E. Howard begins and ends with his most famous character, Conan – seen here in Savage Sword of Conan #7 (I dug the magazine out intending to photograph the classic cover by Boris Vallejo, then I decided I liked this frontispiece by Vicente Alcazar better). However, Howard’s Conan stories only represent a small fraction of the fiction he published in his lifetime. He contributed to numerous pulp magazines, but his most distinctive work appeared in Weird Tales between the late 1920s and late 30s... the very period the same magazine was publishing the most distinctive work by Howard’s slightly older contemporary H.P. Lovecraft. Although the writing style of the two men was very different, some of their preoccupations were surprisingly similar, and bordering on paranoia (a word that is often used as a pejorative, but we Forteans know better).

“Man was not always master of the earth—and is he now?” That’s a recurring theme in Lovecraft’s fiction, but the quote actually comes from a short story by Robert E. Howard (“The Black Stone”, which I’ll get to later). The same idea is at the heart of much internet paranoia today, particularly the kind that talks about shape-shifting reptilians infiltrating the corridors of power. That idea became widespread in the 1990s, but it’s present in fully fledged form in Howard’s novelette “The Shadow Kingdom”, published in Weird Tales in August 1929. This features a predecessor of Conan named Kull – an Atlantean warrior who becomes king of an ancient country called Valusia. He soon discovers that the Valusian court is riddled with non-human shape-shifters called Serpent Men, who are surreptitiously killing key officials and taking their place: “For as he watched, Tu’s face became strangely dim and unreal; the features mingled and merged in a seemingly impossible manner. Then, like a fading mask of fog, the face suddenly vanished and in its stead gaped and leered a monstrous serpent’s head... He plucked forth his sword and gazed more closely at the nameless thing that had been known as Tu, chief councillor. Save for the reptilian head, the thing was the exact counterpart of a man.”

The idea of an ancient race of malignant, humanoid reptiles (possibly the remnants of those from “The Shadow Kingdom”) appears in another story by Howard set in much more recent times, during the Roman occupation of Britain. This is “Worms of the Earth”, from the November 1932 Weird Tales, which August Derleth considered to be Howard’s best story. By this point the snake-like reptiles (“worm” is used figuratively) have withdrawn from human contact and live in underground caves. In a series of bizarre episodes the hero, a Pictish leader named Bran Mak Morn, tries to force the “worms” to do his bidding by stealing an object they worship called the Black Stone.

This isn’t the same Black Stone as the one in the story of that title I quoted from earlier. The latter, published in Weird Tales in November 1931, is one of Howard’s most Lovecraftian stories. It’s set in the present day, and the first-person narrator is a bookish academic – not Howard’s usual musclebound protagonist! However, rather than being set in New England, like most of Lovecraft’s own fiction, “The Black Stone” takes place in a part of Hungary that was invaded by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century... where the narrator encounters “a curious legend of a strange deity which the witch-people of Xuthltan were said to have invoked with chants and wild rituals of flagellation and slaughter”. As in any Lovecraftian story worthy of the name, the deity in question turns out to be a surviving representative of an ancient, inhuman race.

In “The Black Stone”, Xuthltan is the old name of a village in Hungary where unspeakable goings-on used to go on. But that’s not the only Xuthltan. In “The Fire of Asshurbanipal”, set in the modern-day Middle East, Xuthltan is described as having been “a magician at the court of Asshurbanipal” (cf. From Sardanapalus to Ashurbanipal), who acquired a gemstone of terrifying power that had its origins in the very depths of Hell. This story was published posthumously in Weird Tales in December 1936, six months after Howard shot himself (and I really wish he hadn’t done that).

Most of Howard’s stories have exotic settings – usually foreign countries, and often distant times in the past. But some, like “The Black Stone” and “The Fire of Asshurbanipal” are set in his own time, and a few are even set in the southern United States where he lived. Another posthumous story, “Pigeons from Hell” (Weird Tales May 1938) is a good example of this. Despite the silly-sounding title, it’s one of the best stories in the “voodoo” subgenre of horror fiction that I’ve ever come across.

Another Fortean theme that Howard returned to on several occasions is the “were-creature”. An intriguingly non-supernatural version – in this case a were-leopard – can be found in “Black Talons”, from the December 1933 issue of Strange Detective Stories: “A leopard man! I learned of them when I was on the West Coast [of Africa]. He belongs to a native cult which worships the leopard. They take a male infant and subject his head to pressure, to make it deformed; and he is brought up to believe that the spirit of a leopard inhabits his body.”

Another story with a cryptozoological twist is “Rogues in the House” (Weird Tales, January 1934), one of the more light-hearted of the Conan stories. The villain is a pet-gone-bad called Thak, whose erstwhile owner says of him “Some would call him an ape, but he is almost as different from a real ape as he is different from a real man. His people dwell far to the east, in the mountains that fringe the eastern frontiers of Zamora. There are not many of them; but, if they are not exterminated, I believe they will become human beings in perhaps a hundred thousand years. They are in the formative stage; they are neither apes, as their remote ancestors were, nor men, as their remote descendants may be. They dwell in the high crags of well-nigh inaccessible mountains, knowing nothing of fire or the making of shelter or garments, or the use of weapons. Yet they have a language of a sort, consisting mainly of grunts and clicks.”

Sounds like a Yeti to me!

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