THROWBACK SF THURSDAY: The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, Part 2

Thursday , 12, October 2017 15 Comments

The mighty poets write in blood and tears

And agony that, flame-like, bites and sears.

They reach their mad blind hands into the night,

To plumb abysses dead to human sight.

Tuesday was World Mental Health Day.  When Damon Knight and L. Sprague de Camp were denigrating Robert E. Howard, they were doing it used terrible pseudo-psychology.  Their criticism of Howard belongs in the dustbin of history with that pseudo-psychology.  What happened to Howard was a tragedy.  A transcendentally talented young man, who may have been mentally ill, made a terrible mistake during a crushing time.  And people go through every day what Howard went through.  He wasn’t a weirdo, except in that it was weird how damned good a writer he was.

I didn’t quite get through a full third of The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, but the middle has some of the meatiest stories, including my favorite so far.  I already posted on the first part of his collected horror stories, and I will post on the rest of the stories in two weeks.  The stories and poems covered in this post are listed at the bottom.

In case you’re wondering who Howard’s horror influences are, he gives us a pretty good clue when a character identifies Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu, Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, and Machen’s Black Seal as master horror tales.  (And in Howard’s world, erudite men don’t blush at serious discussion of horror in the salon.)  But you don’t need that to see Lovecraft’s influence, at least.  It is plain, especially in these stories.  Even though, per Jim Fear, they should probably only be labeled quasi-Lovecraftian.

A character called Conan of the reavers appears in the (excellent) People of the Dark.  Howard would use that name again.  Delenda Est and The Cairn of the Headland are historical, supernatural horror, and each has a nice twist to it that really leverages the history.  There are two stories in particular from this chunk of the book that are worth discussing: Worms of the Earth and The Valley of the Lost.

Worms of the Earth is my first Bran Mak Morn tale.  Before picking this collection up for a little HallowRead, my intuition was to go from Conan to Bran Mak Morn.  It was a good intuition, though.  Bran Mak Morn is a Pict king during the twilight of his people, fighting the encroachment of the Roman Empire.  I always loved Howard’s depiction of the Picts in his Conan stories.  Bran Mak Morn is no Conan, though.  He is more normal in stature, and distinctly wolfish.  Where Conan might have lashed out immediately when a Roman governor crucified his countryman (if he even cared that it was one of his countrymen),* Bran Mak Morn coldly plots revenge.  And to get it, he goes straight to dabbling in the black arts, negotiating with a degenerate, fae race dwelling underground to strike at his foes.

“Bran, there are weapons too foul to use, even against Rome!”

Bran barked short and sharp as a jackal.

“Ha!  There are no weapons I would not use against Rome!  My back is at the wall.  By the blood of the fiends, has Rome fought me fair?  Bah!  I am a barbarian king with a wolfskin mantle and an iron crown, fighting with my handful of bows and broken pikes against the queen of the world.  What have I?  The heather hills, the wattle huts, the spears of my shock-headed tribesmen!  And I fight Rome – with her armored legions, her broad fertile plains and rich seas – her mountains and her rivers and her gleaming cities – her wealth, her steel, her gold, her mastery and her wrath.  By steel and fire I will fight her – and by subtlety and treachery – by the thorn in the foot, the adder in the path, the venom in the cup, the dagger in the dark; aye,” his voice sank somberly, “and by the worms of the earth.”

*Bran Mak Morn rejects Roman justice for one of his countrymen out of hand.  It is another particularly American touch from Howard, smacking of Americans’ insistence during the run-up to the American Revolution that they couldn’t possibly get a fair trial in England and similar arguments used during the Civil Rights Movement.

I’ve seen Howard crowned the king and inventor of the Weird Western, and after reading The Valley of the Lost, I know why.  The Valley of the Lost is just about a perfect story in every way (although the prose is a little pedestrian for Howard).  The structure, the tension, the payoff, the twists, the worldbuilding.  Howard does a phenomenal twist on the zombie.  Again, if you’re looking for new ideas about old monsters, Howard riffed on all the big ones.  And none of them sparkle.  Howard again features a degenerate race grown stunted in their pursuit of wickedness, their glory and millennia of evil behind them.  All against the backdrop of the red Texas sun, leather-skinned cowboys, and bloody red Texas feuds.  It is a very personal story, both in how it ends, the setting, and lines like this:

John Reynolds was a man of the outlands and the waste places.  He had never seen the great cities of the world.  But he knew that nowhere in the world today such a city reared up to the sky.

Robert E. Howard never got very far from Crossplains, Texas, but imagined things that nowhere in the world had anyone quite imagined just the same.


Stories covered:

The Song of a Mad Minstrel (poem)

The Children of the Night

Musings (poem)

The Black Stone

The Thing on the Roof

The Dweller in Dark Valley (poem)

The Horror from the Mound

A Dull Sound as of Knocking (poem)

People of the Dark

Delenda Est

The Cairn of the Headland

Worms of the Earth

The Symbol (poem)

The Valley of the Lost


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.

  • deuce says:

    “Their criticism of Howard belongs in the dustbin of history with that pseudo-psychology.”

    I’d be curious to hear/read Jordan Peterson’s thoughts on REH and his fiction. We know JP has read, liked and commented upon Tolkien. Peterson, like REH, recognizes that, beneath the veneer, there is the “ape, roaring and red-handed” within every man.

    “But you don’t need that to see Lovecraft’s influence, at least. It is plain, especially in these stories. Even though, per Jim Fear, they should probably only be labeled quasi-Lovecraftian.”

    Machen’s influence on REH is quite evident after one has read the Welshman’s greatest weird tales. Just because Machen ranked slightly behind HPL in Howard’s book — Bob considered Lovecraft the greatest living writer — doesn’t mean that Machen’s tales of elder survivals living beneath the hills of Wales didn’t deeply influence REH and HPL both.

    As far as Howard being “quasi-Lovecraftian”… REH tended to write different tales featuring different protagonists than those written by Lovecraft. They still took place in the same universe. REH made that explicit more than once. REH engineered things where we can see fighting men fighting — and often dying — in battle with cosmic horrors. In order for his guys to win, REH tended to scale back the power of his abominations. Thog was about the worst thing Conan ever faced, and it was a mere spawn of Tsathogguah. That said, despite the stereotypes, some of HPL’s protagonists DID fight back. One reason that “Call of Cthulhu” and “The Dunwich Horror” ranked so high with Robert E. Howard.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    There are some great stories in that list. Well worth a look.

  • JonM says:

    Based on your earlier recommendation, I’ve been listening to a bunch of these on audiobook courtesy of YouTube. You ain’t kidding although the explanation for “The Shadow of the Beast” makes me laugh for some strange reason.

  • A. Nonymous says:

    Robert E. Howard never got very far from Crossplains, Texas, but imagined things that nowhere in the world had anyone quite imagined just the same.

    Apparently by imagining that men everywhere and every time in the world were indistinguishable from the types drifting through Crossplains, Texas.

    • deuce says:

      There were Puritan wanderers with more than a touch of the pagan in their souls and penultimate kings of primordial races “drifting through ‘Crossplains'”? Bibliophilic archaeologists, too? I’ll be damned. I reckon the townsfolk were a bit astonished.

  • PC Bushi says:

    Great write-up, HP! I can’t wait to get back into Howard again. Maybe with this volume!

  • deuce says:

    “Robert E. Howard never got very far from Crossplains, Texas…”

    Howard spent a solid third of his life in other towns in Texas. Beyond that, he traveled to virtually every corner of the state. A reasonably good rough map of Texas could be made just plotting out the towns REH visited/lived in.

    He visited New Orleans, Carlsbad Caverns, Lincoln County NM, Arkansas and southwest Missouri. Not to mention visiting Mexican border towns, literally for the purposes of wine, women and song. Not bad in a region which, at the time, possessed spotty infrastructure.

    “Howard the Homebody” is a myth originally put forth by Spraguey and perpetuated by many others later, including Moorcock, who always seems to disdain REH just a bit more than he respects him.

    Check out the TGR blog link. Rob Roehm’s posts are especially good. He’s been to 90% of the places Howard either lived in or visited.

    The wiki entry on Cross Plains, Texas:,_Texas

    • HP says:

      Going to Mexican border towns for “wine, women, and song” is the God-given right of every Texan. I’m not sure how well traveled it made him.

      You shouldn’t interpret any of my comments as endorsing the view that Howard was weird because I invariably think that stuff that people thought weird about him less weird than that they felt the need to comment on it.

    • deuce says:

      Shakespeare — a Howard favorite — wasn’t well-traveled either. He did all right.

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