Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Robert E. Howard's horror stories

Of late I've been reading a collection of the horror tales of Robert E. Howard, who is most famously known as the creator of Conan the Cimmerian. The stories have been somewhat of a revelation to me. I have written on this blog previously about how some of Howard's historical tales were re-written by L. Sprague de Camp to satisfy an appetite for more Conan escapades from the deceased master. Hence, his story Hawks Over Egypt became Hawks Over Shem, with Conan being swapped in for the Spanish protagonist of the original tale.

Howard liberally plundered ancient history for much of his inspiration, and it was only after I completed an A-level in Ancient History that I began to realise just how many of the seemingly original names and civilizations of Howard's Hyborian epoch had been liberally transplanted from Herodotus and other ancient sources. The more familiar I myself became with the original civilizations, and having spent time in the Middle East and further afield, the more extrinsic they seemed in Howard's work.

The first thing one notices when reading through a range of Howard's horror fiction is how flexible he was as a writer. He was trying to make a living writing for editors serving a particular market for fiction, in the days before television. Hence, like screen writers today, he had to produce what sold. Indeed, if he were born 50 years later, perhaps he would have ended up in Hollywood, which would have been a waste of a great talent.

Howard was a correspondent of H.P. Lovecraft, and at times he seeks to emulate Lovecraft and import elements of his Mythos into his tales. Perhaps the most obvious is the Black Stone, but even here, the story is blessed by salacious elements which Lovecraft would likely have shied away from. Other stories, like Skull Face and Names in the Black Book are obviously targeted at the pulp adventure and detective market.

Reading a range of stories, it is also obvious how Howard matured as a writer. Earlier horror stories, like his werewolf tale Wolfshead (1925) are a far cry from Pigeons From Hell (1938) which has been singled out by none other than Stephen King as arguably one of the greatest horror short stories of the 20th century. The Fire of Asshurbanipal (1936) is another superb tale, mixing elements of Lovecraft with Howard's love of two-fisted action. And indeed, I would not be surprised if it served as the inspiration for some of the 1999 film, The Mummy. Brendan Fraser's character in the film could easily be Howard's Steve Clarney.
Tim Bradstreet's Steve Clarney

For all Howard's love of swords and sorcery tales, he really comes into his own when writing about his home state of Texas. His story Skull Face, which is set in 1920s London, does not feel like London at all. Not only is it obvious that the writer has never set foot in London, but he shies away from describing specific streets or landmarks. It becomes a very generic 20th century metropolis, but exhibits no obvious characteristics of the British capital.

On the other hand, some of Howard's horror tales of Texas and the Deep South smack of the writer's knowledge and familiarity with the people, the flora and the fauna. In particular, stories like the Horror From The Mound, Fangs of Gold, Graveyard Rats and Black Wind Blowing all serve to bring to life a region that Howard knew well, and the sorts of tough, no-nonesense men who farmed ranches there between the wars. Just as Lovecraft used New England as an evocative setting for his mystery stories, so Howard knew his Texas and could make it more than credible on the page.

However, I particularly like the two protagonists from Pigeons From Hell, one a hiker from New England of Puritan stock (Griswell), and other the local sheriff (Buckner). Could they be a pastiche of Howard and Lovecraft? I leave you with a description of Howard / Buckner from this story, which is a magnificent piece of genre fiction:

The rider, etched in the moonlight, looked down at him, smoking pistol still lifted in his right hand. He was a compactly-built man of medium height, and his broad-brimmed planter's hat and his boots marked him as a native of his country as definitively as Griswell's garb stamped him as a stranger...

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