THROWBACK SF THURSDAY: The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, Part 1

Thursday , 28, September 2017 16 Comments

Up, John Kane, the grey night’s falling;

The sun’s sunk in blood and the fog comes crawling;

From hillside to hill the grey wolves are calling;

Will ye come, will ye come, John Kane?

Tor’s Conan pastiches is no way to step away from Robert E. Howard.  I enjoyed them—the Robert Jordan and John Maddox Roberts pastiches, at least—but I need a bit more of the real thing before moving on.  And with Halloween around the corner?  Del Rey’s collection The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard is the perfect hair of the dog.

I don’t know that The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard is the best introduction to Howard.  Conan remains well known and relevant for a reason.  And, of course, Solomon Kane has his partisans.  I really want to get to the Bran Mak Morn stories, and I have a collection of Howard’s Breckinridge Elkins stories.  But The Horror of Robert E. Howard might be the best volume to pick up after your first introduction to Robert E. Howard.

If you don’t start with Solomon Kane, here is an introduction to the Puritan crusader.  Sailor Steve Costigan may very well appear.  Howard’s occult detectives Conrad and Kirowan make multiple appearances.  Howard was also a very fine poet, and a number of his poems are included.  The stories tend toward the short (I only read a couple reaching 20 pages); this is an ideal book to pick up in the evening after each day of work as All Hallows’ Eve approaches, the bite of the coming winter begins to infiltrate the autumn air, and the onset of darkness encroaches a little further each night.

I didn’t savor Howard’s Conan stories.  I won’t make that mistake again.  So I am reading slowly and splitting my thoughts into three posts from now through Halloween.  I have included a list of the exact stories I’m covering at the end of my post.

You can see H.P. Lovecraft’s influence over Howard in these stories, as you would expect.  Both in the Conrad and Kirowan stories and the multiple stories set in the seaside Faring Town.  But this is Howard.  He prefers his heroes and heroines to be heavy on agency.  The book is filled with characters who things like, “Somehow, I will slay the man who kills me, though my corpse climb up forty fathoms of ocean to do it.”

And if a suspected witch needs to lay down a curse?  She isn’t going with some mealy-mouthed, half-hearted curse.  No, she is going to curse with gusto:

“The curse of the Foul Fiend upon you, John Kulrek!” she screamed.  “The curse of God rest upon your vile soul throughout eternity!  May you gaze on sights that shall sear the eyes of you and scorch the soul of you!  May you die a bloody death and writhe in hell’s flames for a million and a million and yet a million years!  I curse you by sea and by land, by earth and by air, by the demons of the oceans and the demons of the swamplands, the fiends of the forest and the goblins of the hills!  And you” – her lean finger stabbed at Lie-lip Canool and he started backward, his face paling – “you shall be the death of John Kulrek and he shall be the death of you!  You shall bring John Kulrek to the doors of hell and John Kulrek shall bring you to the gallows-tree!  I set the seal of death upon your brow, John Kulrek!  You shall live in terror and die in horror far out upon the cold gray sea!  But the sea that took the soul of innocence to her bosom shall not take you, but shall fling forth your vile carcass to the sands!  Aye, John Kulrek” – and she spoke with such a terrible intensity that the drunken mockery on the man’s face changed to one of swinish stupidity – “the sea roars for the victim it will not keep!  There is snow upon the hills, John Kulrek, and ere it melts your corpse will lie at my feet.  And I shall spit upon it and be content.”

Now that is a curse!  (From the Sea Curse.)

Howard isn’t just writing Lovecraftian fiction, mind you.  There are werewolves and vampires and ghosts (oh my!).  Howard puts his own spin on each.  His take on werewolves and his take on vampires are worth lifting for contemporary works.  They are certainly more interesting than much of the contemporary canon (especially for werewolves, who have been underserved).  But there is also plenty of room to flesh them out further.

The ghost stories are a good reminder that Howard was as inspired or more by Texas folklore as by Lovecraft.  These stories, in particular, remind me of those that I grew up with.  (And remind me that Weird Tales also published stuff like the Silver John stories.)  The Dream Snake and The Shadow of the Beast would fit in some of the volumes off my shelves (and my parents’ shelves before that, and my grandparents’ shelves before that).  The only anomaly being that one features a giant snake and one the ghost of an ape.  Because this is Howard, after all.

There are two Solomon Kane stories in the selection I read—Rattle of Bones and The Hills of the Dead.  I am a big fan of both, so I see the collected Solomon Kane stories in my near future.  The Hills of the Dead provides the image for the cover art.  I mentioned that the Sailor Steve Costigan might appear.  I haven’t actually seen these stories listed as Costigan stories, but two stories (The Little People and Casonetto’s Last Song) feature a character with the surname Costigan.  They don’t read like the Costigan stories I’ve seen described, but in one Costigan thinks of himself as “an amateur boxer of ability” and in another smashes something with an iron fist.

Some themes reoccur.  One in particular that struck me was a deep sibling love for a sister (philia, nor eros, this isn’t GRRM we’re talking about here).  Howard touches on it in The Little People and returns to it in Dermod’s Bane.  Howard was an only child, and you get the sense he regretted not having a sibling.  It doesn’t stop him from writing powerfully and poignantly on the subject.

Like the other Del Rey collections, The Horror of Robert E. Howard is packed with original art.

 

Stories covered:

In the Forest of Villefère

A Song of the Werewolf Folk (poem)

Wolfshead

Up, John Kane! (poem)

Remembrance (poem)

The Dream Snake

Sea Curse

The Moor Ghost (poem)

Moon Mockery (poem)

The Little People

Dead Man’s Hate (poem)

The Tavern (poem)

Rattle of Bones

The Fear That Follows (poem)

The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux

Casonetto’s Last Song

The Touch of Death

Out of the Deep

A Legend of Faring Town (poem)

Restless Waters

The Shadow of the Beast

The Dead Slaver’s Tale (poem)

Dermod’s Bane

The Hills of the Dead

Dig Me No Grave

 

H.P. is an academic, attorney, and “author” (well, blogger) who will read and write about anything interesting he finds in the used bookstore wherever he happens to be for the moment.  He can be found on Twitter @tuesdayreviews and at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.

16 Comments
  • deuce says:

    ” I haven’t actually seen these stories listed as Costigan stories, but two stories (The Little People and Casonetto’s Last Song) feature a character with the surname Costigan.”

    Neither are the boxer with a bulldog. The main protagonist of “Skull-Face” is also a “Steve Costigan”. “Costigan” is an Irish Gaelic surname and REH was quite fond of it, just as he was other surnames like O’Donnell, Dorgan, Allison and Brill.

    • Andy says:

      I think it’s hilarious that his most famous character has a classically Irish name and yet everyone assumes it’s some kind of primitive “fantasy” name. I remember when the Momoa movie came out and people bitched about his name finally being pronounced correctly – “No, it’s not COnan, it’s Co-NAN! Get it right! GEEZ!” One of the few things the movie did right 🙂

    • deuce says:

      “I think it’s hilarious that his most famous character has a classically Irish name and yet everyone assumes it’s some kind of primitive “fantasy” name.”

      Right on, Andy. Do they think Arthur Conan Doyle’s parents were REH admirers?
      Howard was an ACD fan, BTW.

      Howard wrote of a Gael from Erin, Conan the Reiver, in “People of the Dark” which preceded the first Conan yarn by a good year,

      We know from two witnesses that Bob pronounced the name “CO-nun”, just as most Americans at the time pronounced Doyle’s middle name. There is no controversy over that fact. SO many non-thanks to Milius and Ahnie for muddying the waters on the issue.

  • deuce says:

    “Like the other Del Rey collections, The Horror of Robert E. Howard is packed with original art.”

    IMO, Greg Staples pulled off the best art of the entire Del Rey run. And yes, I’m counting Gianni and Schultz in that. Staples can do ANYTHING Howard-related, from what I’ve seen. In many cases, his illos are the only professional ones in existence for particular REH yarns and they’re all GREAT. I wasn’t that aware of Staples before this volume and he really impressed me. He’s also a huge fan personally of Howard.

  • Ostar says:

    Zebra published a number of books in the 1970’s that included Howard’s more obscure tales and poems. One of them, “Pigeons from Hell”, was billed as more horror-oriented works. And yet I see on this list a number of items that I don’t remember reading.

    Thanks! I’ll have to check this out to see if it is my memories of 40 years ago failing, or actual works I have never read.

    • deuce says:

      Believe me, you haven’t read all of them. A couple had only been published in small press ‘zines before this. This is the full ToC:

      http://howardworks.com/horrorstoriesofrobertehoward.html

      Look around Howard Works while you’re there. REH wrote hundreds of yarns. BTW, was the Zebra you read THE BOOK OF ROBERT E. HOWARD or PIGEONS FROM HELL? The former was the first Howard book I ever bought/read and “Pigeons From Hell” was the first Howard story I ever read. I was 9 and it spooked me good.

      http://howardworks.com/bookonez.htm

      • Ostar says:

        Thanks for the link!

        I read the Lancer/Ace Frazetta Conan first, then searched for whatever else I could find of Howard. The BOOK OF REH was my encounter with Pigeons from Hell, and it scared me too at age 15.

  • Paul says:

    It must be Fate, but I’ve just posted an extensive review of REH’s horror story Black Canaan over on my site, which is one of his horror stories not listed above. It was in one of those Zebra books Ostar mentioned: The Second Book of Robert E. Howard.

    Black Canaan is certainly a strange story, unlike anything I’ve read before. I can’t do it justice in a comment.

    As for alternative takes on werewolves etc, I’ve been told that Weird Tales writer H. Warner Munn did a nice variant in his Werewolf of Ponkert series, but I’ve never tried them myself.

  • john silence says:

    He is remarkably underrated as a horror writer. “Pigeons from Hell” is one of those all time great horror stories, from how its impeccable southern gothic atmosphere to just how viscerally scary it can be (I mean, that opening is just perfectly executed, it wouldn’t be out of place in any contemporary horror movie). Plus, if modern critics weren’t conditioned to instantly scream racism, they would have something to say about that story’s final reveal. He isn’t pulling any punches content-wise either, see the culmination of that ecstatic ceremony from “The Black Stone”.

  • john silence says:

    Also, if you like his treatment of the little people, be sure to read No Man’s Land by John Buchan. It can be read in its entirety online, of course. Great weird yard, and far closer to Howard’s little people than to Machen’s. I am not too familiar with REH scholarship to say whether he has read that Buchan story or was influenced by it (whereas his appreciation of Machen is fairly obvious).

  • DanH says:

    “Pigeons From Hell” is a very good story! Howard could definitely tell a great horror story when he wanted to.

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