There’s more to the creator of Conan the Barbarian than can be contained by sword-and-sorcery
People today tend to remember short story writer Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) as the inventor of Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, and other fixtures of the sword-and-sorcery genre. Howard’s pop cultural cachet rests largely on the Conan films and a 1996 biopic, The Whole Wide World, starring Vincent D’Onofrio as Howard and Renee Zellweger as Novalyne Price, the teacher in Cross Plains, Texas, who dated Howard and wrote a memoir about her experiences.
But a large, if neglected, part of Howard’s oeuvre includes tales of crime, suspense, and horror set in the region of West Texas where Howard, the descendant of westward-pushing pioneers, lived his short but busy life. Though overshadowed by the Conan stories, many of the regional suspense and horror tales show astonishing talent.
Despite his gifts as a writer, critical recognition of Howard is next to nil. While most of his tales are available in Del Rey paperbacks, Howard’s inclusion in the prestigious Library of America series, and his wide academic recognition, have proved elusive.
Arguments against Howard’s recognition as a writer of merit boil down to a few points: He was a pulp author working mainly in a genre, sword-and-sorcery, that serious people do not take seriously. When Howard wasn’t toiling in that particular ghetto, he was a regional writer in the narrowest sense, spinning hoary tales of his native West Texas and its gunslingers and desperadoes ad nauseam. More gravely, a number of Howard’s stories convey ugly and offensive attitudes toward racial minorities.
In reality, Robert E. Howard was a gifted, enlightened, intellectually curious man, and his best writing is both regional and transcendent in the best senses of both terms. It shows poetic flair in its descriptions of the southwest, and is tinged with an implicit, and sometimes explicit, cosmic resonance.
Howard’s finest work reminds the reader of Faulkner’s adage that the past is never dead, it’s not even past. In many of his stories, characters must face the past, and learn about certain events in the tangled history of the American southwest, to make sense of what’s going on around them. Bold explorers, doomed expeditions, hidden riches or rumors thereof, and political and social conflicts of lost decades drive events in the present. Regional history, rich and fascinating as it is, often proves to be just a piece of the puzzle. The same intellectual curiosity that drives Howard to get to the truth of historical events pushes him to seek out a cosmic scheme in which men and women have to stand firm against powerful forces they barely comprehend.
In this regard, Howard invites comparison to his contemporary and correspondent, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). While some might view Howard as the junior partner, from a qualitative standpoint, vis-à-vis his famous correspondent, that assessment is ripe for reconsideration. Lovecraft’s overreliance on adjectives to convey the “unutterable horror” lurking in a “blindly impersonal cosmos” is relatively rare in the work of Howard, who crafted poetic and precise descriptions of actions and scenes.
Howard’s gift for subverting expectations is often on display. In the short story “Pigeons from Hell,” one might expect, at first, to be in for pulp sensationalism. A pair of wanderers, Griswell and Branner, enter a strange old house in the bayou, and only Griswell makes it out alive after awakening to find that someone or something has split Branner’s head open with an axe. A local sheriff, Buckner, shows up to investigate and begins to suspect Griswell of committing the murder.
As so often in his work, Howard roots us firmly in the region before his story begins to grow in scope and to take on cosmic significance. Despite his initial suspicions, Buckner grows sympathetic to Griswell as the awfulness of the scenario sinks in. The sheriff sees a certain continuity between the events of the past night and things he knows about the history of the area. The house where Griswell and Branner sought refuge turns out to be the former dwelling of a proud, vain family called the Blassenvilles, who owned slaves and earned a reputation for cruelty right up through the Civil War. Miss Celia Blassenville gained particular notoriety for her abuse of a mulatto maid. Though the momentous social and political changes following in the wake of the conflict spelled doom for the Blassenvilles’ fortunes, their cruelty went on as before. Miss Celia allegedly tied the mixed-race girl fully naked to a tree and laid into her with a horsewhip, after which the girl quite sensibly ran away.
Investigating further, Buckner and Griswell venture into the hut of a wise and aged black citizen named Jacob, who introduces them to the term zuvembie, a term denoting a supernatural being into which a person can transform through taking part in a certain occult ceremony. The purpose of becoming a zuvembie is to satisfy a deep thirst for vengeance. As Jacob relates, “A zuvembie is no longer human. It knows neither relatives nor friends. . . . It cannot speak human words, nor think as a human thinks, but it can hypnotize the living by the sound of its voice, and when it slays a man, it can command his lifeless body until the flesh is cold. As long as the blood flows, the corpse is its slave. Its pleasure lies in the slaughter of human beings.”
In light of what Jacob has imparted, the sheriff decides not to charge Griswell. This may sound like a happy ending, but, in an inspired and devious touch, we learn that it was not the runaway mulatto girl who turned into the zuvembie that murdered Branner. Rather it was someone from a different socioeconomic caste—Miss Celia herself. The implications of the killer’s identity could take thousands of words to explore in full.
Sensational and lurid as it may sound from this brief summary, “Pigeons from Hell” is a work of high literary merit. There are descriptive passages in the story with real analytical energy and descriptive flair, recalling Faulkner in early novels like Soldiers’ Pay. Here is one example: “Griswell saw a clearing and a small cabin squatting under the shadows of the huge trees. There pines gave way to oaks and cypresses, bearded with gray trailing moss, and behind the cabin lay the edge of a swamp that ran away under the dimness of the trees, choked with rank vegetation. A thin wisp of blue smoke curled up from the stick-and-mud chimney.”
In “Pigeons from Hell,” Howard has given us a story with a comparable sensibility to some of Faulkner’s best work, and not just in its narrative momentum and descriptive brilliance, but also in its sly juxtaposing of northern invaders possessing little knowledge of the history, culture, and folklore of the South, with veterans of the most traumatic experiences of Southern history. Griswell is a blundering New England transplant. It is the Southerners, Buckner and Jacob, who are adept at analyzing and explaining what is going on in a region where, as Faulkner had it, the past is not dead, it’s not even past.
For someone who died at the tender age of thirty, an age when many writers are waiting tables and still dreaming of placing their first short story, Howard’s output is amazingly vast. “Pigeons from Hell” is a triumph, and it is far from the only one. “The Shadow of the Beast” is a Southern Gothic tale with explicit references to the tensions and conflicts that tore the country apart. It is hard not to detect undertones of racism in the narrator’s reaction to the shooting of a local youth by a black drifter, Joe Cagle, who had romantic designs on the boy’s sister. On this level, the story is reminiscent of Faulkner’s great dramatic novel, Light in August. However the villain of the story turns out not to be Joe Cagle at all, but a giant gorilla that has taken up residence in an abandoned house long associated in the minds of locals with weird rumors of suicide and murder. Again, an understanding of local history holds the key. Only by delving into the events of past decades, and learning of the gorilla’s escape from a passing circus, can the narrator—or the reader—make sense of events in the present.
The story is different from others in offering a non-supernatural explanation for what takes place. Howard brilliantly evokes the Southern setting, his prose rising again to lyricism: “There is no darkness in the world so utterly devoid of light as the blackness of the pine woods. The silent trees rose like basaltic walls about me, shutting out the stars. Except for the occasional eery sigh of the wind through the branches, or the far away, haunting cry of an owl, the silence was as absolute as the darkness.”
A similarly evocative passage follows: “I had no idea of knowing the exact time, but far away in the east a faint glow began to be apparent through the masking blackness of the pines. The moon was rising. . . . A few moments later a large clearing opened and a gaunt dark building bulked against the stars. The Deserted House at last! The moon glimmered evilly through the trees, etching out black shadows and throwing an illusive witch-light over the country.”
Howard’s work positively brims with resonant passages like the above.
While ugly attitudes do rear their heads in a few of Howard’s tales, it would be a grave mistake to view Howard as a simple-minded bigot, incapable of any irony or sophistication about the complexities of his region’s past and present. In the story “The Horror from the Mound,” Howard presents a gently mocking, satirical take on the attitudes of a West Texas frontiersman and farmer named Brill. After a spell of horrendous weather ruins Brill’s crops of fruit, grain, corn, and cotton, leaving him desperate to eke out a livelihood, Brill begins to obsess over the behavior of a neighbor, a Hispanic man named Lopez. Brill at first feels disdain over Lopez’s seemingly superstitious aversion to approaching a mysterious knoll near Brill’s property, then grows increasingly suspicious of Lopez. He comes to believe that there may be treasures buried in the mound and someone may be trying to thwart his efforts to find them. Once again, it is impossible to tease out the strands of characters’ attitudes and motives without delving into the history of the region, where the Spanish explorer Hernando de Estrada arrived in 1545. Brill believes that Estrada’s party must have placed gold in the depths of the earth, but Lopez insists that the explorers came only with weapons. As Brill digs around in the hope of finding treasure, it turns out that Lopez was wise to avoid the mound. Estrada’s party fell victim to an extra-dimensional being, a demon with vampiric tendencies that still dwells in its nearby lair and is still highly dangerous.
Although Howard describes Brill, admiringly, as a “true son of the iron-bodied pioneers who wrenched West Texas from the wilderness,” Howard also makes Brill’s limitations clear, particularly his bigotry toward Mexican-Americans and his failure to probe deep enough into the region’s history to grasp what is really going on and why sensible people do not want to go near the knoll. For anyone who seeks to understand Howard’s concerns as a horror fiction writer, his literary sensibility, and his nuanced historical and social views, “The Horror from the Mound” is an indispensable tale.
While Howard on one level is a quintessential regional writer, on other levels he is a visionary who refuses to let any local identity or affiliation limit him creatively. In “The Hoofed Thing,” we find a prime example. Here, as in “Pigeons from Hell,” a sense of cosmic terror builds. The tale begins with the all too familiar scenario of a woman named Marjorie crying over the loss of her cat Bozo and wondering where Bozo could have possibly gone. The narrator, Michael, quickly comes to suspect his odd, reclusive, bookish neighbor, John Stark, not just in Bozo’s disappearance, but in the subsequent vanishing of more cats, then dogs, and then finally human babies. At first Stark appears friendly, earnest, and in no way implicated in the terrible events, but Michael cannot help noticing heavy footfalls on the boards of an upper room of Stark’s house. When Michael uncovers the answer to the mystery of the disappearances, the full cosmic scope of Howard’s vision is evident. John Stark, it turns out, is far more than the harmless recluse Michael assumed. He is a deeply curious man who has turned to the occult to find knowledge and insight not available through his liberal arts education. (One thinks of Sting’s lyric on the 1982 album Synchronicity: “I have only come here seeking knowledge, / Things they would not teach me of in college.”)
Exploring Stark’s house, Michael picks up a book at random, a rare Dusseldorf edition of Nameless Cults by Von Junzt. The book offers handy instructions for the conjuring of demons. In a chilling passage, Michael relates: “More than ever I sensed a deep and sinister wisdom behind the author’s incredible assertions as I read of the unseen worlds of unholy dimensions which Von Junzt maintains press, horrific and dimly guessed, on our universe, and of the blasphemous inhabitants of those outer worlds, which he maintains at times burst terribly through the Veil at the bidding of evil sorcerers, to blast the brains and feast on the blood of men.”
Indeed, Stark has gone far beyond dabbling in the occult and has used his arcane knowledge to conjure such a beast, which has feasted first on cats, then dogs, then babies. Having crossed that threshold, it cannot go back to eating animals.
In the remarkable story “Old Garfield’s Heart,” Howard achieves a number of feats. The Jim Garfield of the title is a frontiersman who sustained a near-fatal chest wound years before during a skirmish with Comanches. Garfield might easily have died. It turns out that the heart that sustains him was the gift of a Lipan Apache mystic, who was not only blessed with wondrous powers but also with the decency and magnanimity to insert a magically endowed organ and save someone he could easily resent. An account of the aftermath of Garfield’s wounding leaves no doubt that the Apache savior risked his life to get to Garfield’s fallen body and to conduct the rite that allowed Garfield to go on living.
In the present, Garfield and other locals have the ill luck to live in proximity to a lowlife named Kirby, who tries to threaten and bully his way out of paying off debts. During a climactic shootout with Kirby, Garfield finally receives a wound he cannot survive, at which point the Lipan Apache mystic who originally endowed him with the life-saving heart shows up to reclaim it.
“Old Garfield’s Heart” further illustrates how Howard’s authentic regionalism shades subtly into the most resonant cosmicism. Howard also refutes charges of bigotry by casting a Native American as the hero of the story. From this point of view, the story is symbolic of wider tendencies in Howard’s best writing.
Mark Finn, in Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, reminds us that Howard grew up in a time and place in America where, unfortunately, ugly and insensitive attitudes were common. In spite of this reality, Finn sees a steady progression in Howard’s thought and work. While developing his literary talents, Howard also gained an increasingly broad-minded and tolerant view of other peoples and cultures. Finn writes, “His love of the underdog of any nation or race, his admiration of black boxers such as Peter Jackson, and his early exposure to black storytellers in East Texas all softened the hard-nosed sentiments of his youth.”
In Finn’s view, what really stands out in Howard’s best work is a cultural pragmatism that flourished in parts of Texas, encouraging people to judge the character of others by their words and actions. Finn sees this pragmatism as common, though unfortunately not universal. “Such broad-minded attitudes were really a phenomenon of exceptions to the rule rather than a policy of benevolent inclusion, but this was a trait of the pioneers, with whom Robert was clearly enamored,” he writes.
It is not going too far to say that in his later life Howard abhorred racism. In “The Dead Remember,” a clever and haunting epistolary story, we learn that a cattle-driver named Jim Gordon has committed a crime from whose consequences he cannot escape. The opening part of the story is a confession in the form of a letter from Gordon to his brother. Gordon relates how he entered the hut of a black Kansan named Joel and Joel’s mixed-race girlfriend, a young woman the locals have taken to calling Jezebel. Gordon drinks and plays cards with his hosts until losing the last of his money. In a drunken rage, he fatally shoots Joel and Jezebel, but before the young woman dies, she puts a curse on Gordon. He goes on to suffer a series of freak accidents, which first draw sympathy but finally make people want to avoid him. The remaining segments of the tale are statements from various people who witness Gordon’s disgraceful behavior in public and finally a fatal accident in which he tries to shoot in the direction of a voice that has been taunting him and his gun blows up in his face. For readers of “The Dead Remember,” a building sense of dread comes from the knowledge that Gordon is not just a lout and a bigot but has committed a sin, an interracial double murder, for which there can be no absolution. This story, with its moral message and its mordant title worthy of Flannery O’Connor, stands as one of Howard’s most powerful works.
A final point to make on Howard’s behalf is that trying to pigeonhole him, in any way, is deeply unfair. The diversity and range of Howard’s fiction are hard to exaggerate. While the Deep South has a central place in Howard’s work, the oeuvre includes many disparate settings, and Faulkner is far from the only writer with whom he draws comparison. In “The Touch of Death,” the protagonist, Falred, spends a night in a desolate house with no company other than the corpse of a recently deceased man who lived there for decades. In the course of the night, Falred’s grip on reality weakens and he comes to believe that the corpse he glimpses dimly in the room may be moving.
It is perhaps deliberately unclear whether Falred finally succumbs to a ghastly supernatural force or to a freak accident brought on by a rush of panic. What the reader can hardly doubt is Howard’s gift for shifting at will from gripping narrative to the kind of playful metaphysical speculation found in the stories and poems of Stephen Crane. At the climax of the night’s bizarre and terrifying events, the protagonist wonders, “What was man but a wailing infant, lost in the night and beset by frightful things from the black abysses and the terrible unknown voids of space and time?” This line encapsulates a core part of Howard’s philosophical outlook.
In “Casonetto’s Last Song,” a man ignores the advice of his best friend and plays a record mailed to him by an opera singer who has since died. The singer also happened to be a notorious cult leader. Playing the record unleashes forces of unspeakable evil. For readers familiar with Howard’s contemporary and correspondent, Lovecraft, this story cannot fail to bring to mind Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann.” The strong thematic overlap is undeniable, even if the famous Casonetto is the social opposite of the reclusive and secretive Zann, who dwells in a building on a street, the Rue D’Auseil, that appears to shift in and out of reality and to disappear from maps of the city.
In one of the most original entries in Howard’s vast oeuvre, “Spectres in the Dark,” Howard again forgoes the familiar Texas setting and conjures up Los Angeles. A young patient has murdered his shrink, a UCLA professor. Or has he? In this mélange of Raymond Chandler and M.R. James, Howard takes us into a world where spectres make the crazier impulses lurking within characters into horrifying realities. On one level, these ghosts are shapes flickering in the dark around his characters, outside and independently of them, but Howard uses the telling phrase “latent insanity” in reference to people’s thoughts and motives. A psychiatric patient, an ex-prizefighter, and your own best friend are all susceptible to dark urges, as you may be yourself, and as Howard proved to be when he took his life at age thirty.
Some readers and critics will continue to pass by Robert E. Howard with their noses high in the air. Some will continue to view Howard as, at best, a minor writer or the literary junior partner vis-à-vis Lovecraft. We may never see Howard enshrined in the Library of America. But if Howard never makes it, that will reflect the lopsided judgment of the great series’ publishers rather than any objective criteria. While Lovecraft all too often made a crutch out of adjectives, and used them as a substitute for the hard work of narration and description, Howard strove again and again to tell a ripping good story, and in doing so brought to bear gifts reminiscent of the greatest writers in our canon. Howard’s best tales unite the regional and the cosmic in ways unequalled by any writer before or since.