Conan meets Cthulhu

Saturday , 18, March 2017 22 Comments

In Jeffro’s last Sensor Sweep he made note of the Alexandru Costantin’s recent blog post, which puts forth a rather bold claim – that Robert E. Howard did Lovecraftian horror better than H.P. himself. For those who may be unaware, Howard was one of the major contributors to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. In other words, he wrote stories that took place in and added to Lovecraft’s world of madness and ever-impending doom.

Intrigued by this dark knowledge, I recently decided to dig. I only pray I do not delve too deep and awake the nameless fear!

Many of the links between the worlds of Howard and Lovecraft are subtle; hints and allusions. If you read through the tales of Conan, you’ll find not only stories of bloody glory and adventure, but elements of science fiction and cosmic mystery. Nameless abominations and Lovecraftian aliens scatter Howard’s own mythology. Incidentally, this has been a general and delightful surprise of mine in discovering the old masters of the pulps and prior – the genre lines of today’s literature were much more fluid. It was not uncommon for fantasy and science fiction and horror to intersect and overlap.

 

While we do not see Conan, to my knowledge, interacting directly with the Lovecraftian world of Cthulhu, there is some argument to be made that they are in fact one and the same, even if the two respective authors did not plan this. Let’s look at one of Howard’s Cthulhu mythos stories, “The Children of the Night.” The start of this one is very reminiscent of Lovecraft’s own works – a gaggle of academics standing around talking about anthropology and forbidden lore. The Necronomicon is specifically name-dropped, so we know what universe we’re dealing with.

The topic turns to cults, and one of the fellows suddenly has this gem to offer:

“This is in strictest confidence, you understand. But my roommate talked in his sleep. I began to listen and put his disjointed mumbling together. And in his mutterings I first heard of the ancient cult hinted at by Von Junzt; of the king who rules the Dark Empire, which was a revival of an older, darker empire dating back into the Stone Age; and of the great, nameless cavern where stands the Dark Man—the image of Bran Mak Morn, carved in his likeness by a master-hand while the great king yet lived, and to which each worshipper of Bran makes a pilgrimage once in his or her lifetime. Yes, that cult lives today in the descendants of Bran’s people—a silent, unknown current it flows on in the great ocean of life, waiting for the stone image of the great Bran to breathe and move with sudden life, and come from the great cavern to rebuild their lost empire.”

Yes, the appearance of Howard’s own Bran Mak Morn – a major character with his own series of stories. Although the Pict king predates Conan, he is of the same world. And so we have a link between the two mythologies. Is this iron-clad proof that our favorite barbarian inhabited the same literary universe as our favorite cosmic horror? Perhaps not, but it’s still plausible enough to be fun.

So how about Alexandru’s claim? How does Howard’s take on horror hold up? Well, we go from a bunch of gabbing professors to this:

Moving cautiously, I shifted until my hand was on the haft of my ax; then I called on Il-marinen and bounded up as a tiger springs. And as a tiger springs I was among my enemies and mashed a flat skull as a man crushes the head of a snake. A sudden wild clamor of fear broke from my victims and for an instant they closed round me, hacking and stabbing. A knife gashed my chest but I gave no heed. A red mist waved before my eyes, and my body and limbs moved in perfect accord with my fighting brain. Snarling, hacking and smiting, I was a tiger among reptiles. In an instant they gave way and fled, leaving me bestriding half a dozen stunted bodies. But I was not satiated.

I won’t give away how this comes to pass, or how the situation resolves, but know that it is indeed mysterious and dreadful – the series of preceding events as well as the story’s conclusion. I urge you to give it a read yourself – it’s relatively short, and once the action begins it will carry you quickly to the end. I will say that I much enjoy this sort of horror. The protagonist does not despair, but rather rages against evil and seeks to smite. The other side of the coin is this: while Howard’s story was wondrous and creepy, it didn’t carry the same mind-bending madness as Lovecraft. I mean, I am pretty weak sauce when it comes to scary stories, so bear that in mind, but what little Lovecraft I read made me feel as if I were in actual danger of going a little bit mad. I couldn’t keep reading the stuff.

So I will say this – Howard’s horror is more accessible and more fun. But if you want to be scared, Lovecraft is the way to go. Just my two cents.

PCBushi can also be found on Twitter or at the PCBushi blog, where he ruminates on scifi/fantasy, games, and other spheres of nerd culture.

 

22 Comments
  • NARoberts says:

    You linked the PG Australia page.

    Sadly the story does not seem to be in public domain in the US.

    How could you be so cruel to us American folks? I had my hopes up for a free REH story!

    • PC Bushi says:

      Yes indeed, for the internet is borderless! If you live in a place where clicking on that link is illegal or your scruples prevent you from doing so, my regrets and a tip of my hat to you.

  • deuce says:

    Conan, Bran Mak Morn — all of them are in the Mythos and it was obviously Howard’s intent. In a story frangment by REH, he makes Von Junzt, the author of Nameless Cults/Unaussprechlichen Kulten, our source of knowledge about the Hyborian Age. You can see how much of it intertwines here:

    http://www.rehtwogunraconteur.com/von-junzt-and-the-black-book-part-one-2/

    Clark Ashton Smith’s work is also part of the Mythos. He created his toad-god Tsathoggua in 1929 but that story got published AFTER “Children of the Night”. Thus, Howard actually debuted that Great Old One. He followed this up with Conan fighting toad-demons named Thog and Thaug. Smith and HPL actually name-checked/used Howard’s serpent-folk more than he ever did.

    Yeah, HPL, REH and CAS’ tales all intertwine to make one huge, eldritch history of the world. Each brought his own complementary strengths to the effort. Between them, they created something to rival Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

  • Nathan says:

    Would Bierce be Mythos as well, or just an inspiration?

  • deuce says:

    Basically an inspiration. Chambers, on the other hand… I look upon his stories as often highly inaccurate, garbled tales of the Mythos. Para-Mythos, if you will. His SLAYER OF SOULS is a very flawed novel with a lot of potential. It was a big influence on Howard. HPL and Smith were also Chambers fans. He had a sporadic brilliance and fevered imagination rarely seen, but there’s almost always junk mixed in there as well.

  • Jesse Lucas says:

    I’m not sure the concept of a “universe” is applicable this far back. Cameo, certainly, but the idea that each story is a portal to some discrete universe bound by its own rules, with the author standing by as gatekeeper, seems to be an outgrowth of more modern fandoms.

    • Gaiseric says:

      It was more a kind of in-joke than a Mythos. Even Lovecraft was essentially just name-checking his own work, not trying to create anything consistent. That’s part of the reason he self-deprecatingly referred to it as “Yog-Sothothery” and made transparent references to his friends and colleagues as characters and minor elements of the Mythos from time to time.

    • deuce says:

      You’re certainly taking the side of those who want to keep Lovecraft hermetically sealed from his lesser, pulpish brethren. They do everything possible to keep pulp cooties off HPL. Joshi, the man whose doctrine you’re parroting, LOATHES Robert E. Howard. He has dismissed all of Howard’s fiction as “subliterary hackwork”. You might want to check out a more balanced view; one backed up by voluminous documentation:

      https://www.amazon.com/Look-Behind-Derleth-Mythos-Origins/dp/1500543985

  • deuce says:

    You’re basing this on what? When Smith found out that HPL had posited a different advent on Earth for Tsathoggua than what he, himself, had written, he immediately set to work to retcon it in. As I noted, REH was in such a rush to use Tsathoggua he actually got in print before CAS. I assume you’re aware of the fact that those three regularly corresponded, right?

    The Cthulhu Mythos was the first “shared universe” in modern fantasy fiction.

    Lovecraft was enthralled with the idea of working all their tales in together. Just for instance, telling CAS that Lomar — an HPL creation — lay just west of Smith’s Hyperborea. The list goes on and I can provide links. If you’ve read twaddle from some HPL enthusiasts — those seeking to wall Lovecraft off from his contemporaries — that HPL “really didn’t want there to be a ‘Mythos’ “, I suggest you read Haefele’s magisterial A LOOK BEHIND THE DERLETH MYTHOS.

    https://www.amazon.com/Look-Behind-Derleth-Mythos-Origins/dp/1500543985
    He provides example after example of HPL saying the opposite. Just one is Lovecraft griping that Hugh B. Cave wasn’t “following the style-sheet” for the Mythos. HPL also sent Robert Bloch a hand-drawn map of Arkham so he would get it right. Why gripe? Why worry about “getting it right”?

    Again and again, the Big Three — REH, HPL and CAS — anticipated/paralleled each others’ themes and ideas. You can see it in the parallels between “The Nameless City” and “The Shadow Kingdom”, despite REH never reading that story. Even moreso are the numerous and highly idiosyncratic congruences between CAS’ “The Uncharted Isle” and REH’s “The Isle of Eons”. They don’t just share elements, they’re perfectly compatible with each other, despite neither author having read the other’s story.

    This is not to say that all three sat in a boardroom minutely synchronizing things. It’s more like three master jazz musicians in a decade-long jam which fits — if not seamlessly, then quite well — together. Even parts that the others couldn’t quite hear at the time. The extent to which the works of the Three agree is quite amazing, really.

    I hope that helps. 😀

    • Jesse Lucas says:

      The jazz musician model is different enough from the “Word of God” model anyway. Of course they regularly corresponded, but you wouldn’t claim Lovecraft took large amounts of time to bring Mythos elements in harmony with the Conan”verse,” would you? They cared about details, yes, but the urge to write a backstory for every extra in the Star Wars cantina story just wasn’t there. The details were looser, had more room for improvisation, more room for collaboration.

    • deuce says:

      That’s a reductio ad absurdum argument. I never stated that there was any “Word of God” going on.

      “you wouldn’t claim Lovecraft took large amounts of time to bring Mythos elements in harmony with the Conan”verse,” would you?”

      You have an amazing talent when it comes to putting words in my mouth. Are there any other strawmen you’d like to toss out there? HPL was definitely concerned with making sure Bloch got things right. We know that for a fact.

      “They cared about details, yes, but the urge to write a backstory for every extra in the Star Wars cantina story just wasn’t there.”

      Where did I state that or anything like it?

      The Cthulhu Mythos was a shared universe.

      You’re setting artificial constraints and setting exteme parameters on that simple statement. The fact that CAS retconned HPL’s origin for Tsathoggua is a huge example that shouldn’t require another. But then again, you seem more interested in word games and moving goalposts than really discussing it. You’re imposing what you think a “shared universe” is supposed to be upon three of the greatest American fantasists. I would say they’re immune to your consultations. Their interconnected works speak for themselves.

      “He shuddered to see the vast shadowy
      outlines of Cthulhu, Tsathogua, Yog-Sothoth, and the Nameless Old Ones, and he knew somehow that mortal feet had not traversed the corridor for centuries.”

      That is from the first draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword”, the first Conan tale ever.

      • Jesse Lucas says:

        I’m reductio ad absurding because modern fanfic shared universes are absurd. However close they may have done things it wasn’t Firefly.

        Give me a break, dude, I’m not putting words in your mouth, I’m not disagreeing with you, I’m just saying the modern concept is stupid and the laid-back Conan way is cool. I’m not saying they didn’t have a shared universe, I’m saying they didn’t have an Expanded Universe(tm) and we can learn from that.

        Are you still a little hostile from the hard SF thread? Because I’m not trying to bring that atmosphere here.

      • deuce says:

        “I’m reductio ad absurding because modern fanfic shared universes are absurd. (…) I’m just saying the modern concept is stupid and the laid-back Conan way is cool. I’m not saying they didn’t have a shared universe, I’m saying they didn’t have an Expanded Universe(tm) and we can learn from that.”

        See how easy that was? That’s all you needed to say to begin with. If you’ve got a beef with Expanded Universes but not how HPL et al did it, you should have stated it like you did right there. Instead, we have this vague statement here:

        “I’m not sure the concept of a “universe” is applicable this far back. Cameo, certainly, but the idea that each story is a portal to some discrete universe bound by its own rules, with the author standing by as gatekeeper, seems to be an outgrowth of more modern fandoms.”

        From that, it was impossible to tell whether you were attacking the entire concept of there being a shared universe between the Three or against something having to do with “modern fandom”.

        My reaction to your initial post probably didn’t benefit from a recent conversation I had recently with someone who claimed to be a Howard fan. He asserted that REH did no worldbuilding — that he simply let his imagination fly free as a pretty little bird with no pesky rules or guidelines at all. Total, utter bulls**t.

        Robert E. Howard wrote 3 drafts of “Men of the Shadows”, a very thinly-veiled origin story for his early vision of his universe. No real plot, just pure worldbuilding. In 1931, he drew up a timeline for the characters in his universe — Bran Mak Morn right alongside Solomon Kane. He wrote “The Hyborian Age” in 1932. FOUR drafts, each draft expanding on the first. Twenty-eight pages of worldbuilding. As he told Don Wollheim, he never intended THA for publication. Pure worldbuilding

        https://www.amazon.com/Hyborian-Age-Facsimile-Jeffrey-Shanks/dp/069244758X

        All of that, plus about 5 more pages of charts and prose for Hyborian Age kings, gods and just possible names to be used for different ethnicities. He specified that Aquilonian males averaged 5’10.7″ tall, for Crom’s sake. REH also drew 3 maps of the Hyborian Age world. Yeah, REH did worldbuilding.

        So, I’m a little wary of people who try to use REH and the others to prove some modern day point or pet agenda like “no worldbuilding”.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    “So I will say this – Howard’s horror is more accessible and more fun. But if you want to be scared, Lovecraft is the way to go. Just my two cents.”

    Very interesting, PCBushi. That is pretty much how I feel about REH and HPL. Tell me, have you read “Pigeons from Hell”? Not Mythos, but one of Howards’s best horror stories.

    Now, we just have to get you reading some Clark Ashton Smith. He gives me the willies worse than Lovecraft does, but in a different way.

    • Alexandru says:

      Agreed that Howard’s horror is more accessible. I think his heroes are more relatable. I personally don’t enjoy HPL’s writing style, and find his characters dull. I enjoy the atmosphere, but with the exception of “Shadow over Innsmouth” I am not a fan.

      • Taarkoth says:

        If for whatever reason you just can’t get into HPL’s writing but still want to experience some of his more famous stories, might I recommend to you the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s Dark Adventure Radio Theatre? They’re a series of audio dramas the chaps over at the Society have been making.

        Their “The Dunwich Horror” and “At the Mountains of Madness” are both especially good.

    • deuce says:

      REH wouldn’t agree. He considered Lovecraft the “greatest living writer” at that time and “The Call of Cthulhu” the greatest horror tale ever written.

    • PC Bushi says:

      I haven’t read that one yet, John! Will have to flag it for when I get a chance. I much enjoyed CAS’s Empire of the Necromancers. I’m hoping to dig deeper into Zothique when I get some more time.

  • Andy says:

    I would put The Black Stone, Pigeons From Hell, or Worms of the Earth up there with Lovecraft’s best in terms of being disturbing despite Howard’s differences in characterization.

    • deuce says:

      I’ve actually brought as many people to REH — on a face to face basis — through his horror as I have through his S&S/fantasy. Maybe more. Conan ’82 tainted a lot of wells for people who weren’t down with the Milius/Ahnuldt “vision”.

  • deuce says:

    Bushi, now that you know REH and HPL’s tales take place in the same universe, you’ll want to check out — as Mr. Boyle advised — the final third of the “Dark Trinity”, Clark Ashton Smith. With “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”, CAS became the second father of sword and sorcery right after Howard himself. Smith laid down the alternate template/path for S&S, subsequently followed by Moore, Leiber and others. Morgan Holmes also agrees with this view. Check out this link for CAS’ sword and sorcery legacy:

    http://leogrin.com/CimmerianBlog/the-sword-and-sorcery-legacy-of-clark-ashton-smith/

    For one of Smith’s best horror tales — and one that incorporates REH’s serpent-folk, try “The Double Shadow”. REH loved it.

    http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/short-stories/53/the-double-shadow

    • PC Bushi says:

      Yup, I will do so, sir!

      I did write briefly about CAS a couple weeks ago, but haven’t really had time to check out much of his work yet. Thanks for the links.

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