- Paperback: 560 pages
- Publisher: Del Rey (October 28, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0345490207
- ISBN-13: 978-0345490209
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 75 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #240,953 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard Paperback – October 28, 2008
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The latest book in Del Rey’s program to collect the works of Conan the Destroyer’s creator includes more and better horror stories than even Howard’s staunchest fans may have previously believed existed. Here are more tales of Howard’s arguably finest creation, Solomon Kane, and more classic tales of nightmarish things lurking just around the corner on the way to school as well as jumping out at far-flung travelers even in such places as a somewhat pulpish Africa, where they would be expectable. Howard’s vivid depiction of lurking nightmare recalls his contemporary H. P. Lovecraft, and his equally fine use of regional settings makes one think of early Manly Wade Wellman. One cannot do more than sample this volume without deeply regretting Howard’s short career, nor that Conan of Cimmeria so completely and for so long overshadowed the rest of his creations. Add Greg Staples’ grim-toned illustrations, and the resulting volume is a desirable acquisition for any fantasy collection. --Roland Green
“For stark, living fear . . . what other writer is even in the running?”
–H. P. Lovecraft
“[Behind Howard’s stories] lurks a dark poetry and the timeless truth of dreams.”
“Howard had a gritty, vibrant style–broadsword writing that cut its way to the heart, with heroes who are truly larger than life.”
“Howard’s writing seems so highly charged with energy that it nearly gives off sparks.”
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A note on the writing: Remember that this is pulp fiction. If you're already familiar with Howard's style, you'll know what to expect. This does not mean the writing is poor—Howard was a master at painting scenery with just the right amount of brushstrokes, and his characters, while not particularly complex, are powerful presences on the page. But if you're new to this stuff, you'll notice that the adverbs and adjectives that a Faulkner would hunt down and exterminate are peppered everywhere with a lavish hand, the dialogue is not exactly vivid, and there are next to no unexpected plot twists to pleasantly upend your expectations of the outcomes of these stories. In other words, if you adore the crispness of a Stephen King or the eruditely crafted atmosphere of a M.R. James, Howard's style may just be a bit too blunt for your tastes. But if you can bring yourself to look past such things for a bit, there's tons of fun & pleasant shudders to be had here. Howard may not cater to the literary gourmet in you, but if you find yourself craving a big, juicy steak, done rare (naturally), these meaty tales are sure to satisfy your appetite.
The elephant in the room: Some of Howard's stories reflect a racial bias, and some contain overtly racist language. The argument has been made (the same goes for Howard's friend and mentor, Lovecraft) that the author is, after all, "a product of a different time," or that he is merely depicting characters that use racist language (as in the included story "Black Canaan"), and so on. Whether you approve of such apologetics or not (let's face it, R.E. Howard is not Mark Twain), the point here is simple. Whatever the author's ideology or intent, the words are there, on the page. They're not nice to look at. I for one did not feel comfortable seeing them repeated quite so often. For some readers, they may be reason enough to put down a book in disgust. Or not to be buy it at all, which is why I think it needs to be mentioned in this review.
On the Kindle edition: It's well done; the illustrations, as always, are hard to truly appreciate on an e-reader, but at least they have been included. As an added bonus, the stories appear to have been adequately proof-read, leaving only the occasional typographic error to mar your enjoyment.
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 was no way to step away from Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories. 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 of Robert E. Howard was the perfect hair of the dog.
I don’t know that The Horror 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. 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 end of the scale; 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.’”
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.
The weird westerns are highlights. There are three in the last third of the book—The Man on the Ground, Old Garfield’s Heart, and The Dead Remember—and all three are tremendous yarns. Howard was just much better when he was playing in his sandbox instead of in Lovecraft’s. This section of the book also contains a pretty good barbarian, sword and sorcery story, The House of Arabu. This section also contains a story, The Hoofed Thing, that, like his Conan story Beyond the Black River, gives a prominent role to a heroic dog.
I saw a blogger characterize Black Canaan as “the most racist short story I have ever read, but also one of the most effective short stories.” As to the first assertion, I can’t agree, even if I only look at stories from this collection. The racial politics are baked into the story, but that will be true of any story set in the rural Deep South in the decades after the Civil War, at least if it is written with any realism. The surface level stuff like social structure and language isn’t jarring.
Much more jarring is the language that Howard uses in some of the earlier stories in the collection—language more likely to reflect Howard’s own views. We see this language even where Howard shows some sympathy toward the African-American character, such as in The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux. It is very in your face. (Although when Howard describes Ace Jessel’s opponent as “the very spirit of the morass of barbarism from which mankind has so tortuously climbed,” we know Howard had complex views towards barbarians.)
But the really troubling attitude comes up in some of his other stories, particularly The Children of the Night. The racism of The Children of the Night isn’t the visceral racism of the rural South, but the erudite racism of well-educated 19th century American sophisticates. The story opens Kirowan, Conrad, and four others casually discussing skull formation. Pseudo-science like phrenology would power the eugenics movement and be welcomed with open arms by the Progressive movement. Progressive hero Oliver Wendell Holmes would write what might be the most shocking statement ever laid down in a Supreme Court opinion when he rationalized that “three generations of imbeciles is enough” in giving a constitutional ok to forced sterilization of “mental defectives.” We’ve largely memory-holed it, but these were mainstream views—at least among our would-be aristocrats—until the horrors of the Third Reich put a spotlight on the natural end of that particular road.
Howard, then, shows not just the prejudices of his geography but also those of his intellectual class.
As to the latter assertion, I wholeheartedly agree that Black Canaan is tremendously effective. It’s one of the longer stories in the collection, but I blew through it and it felt like quite a short story. Howard is masterful at slowly ratcheting up the tension throughout the story. As the blogger noted, the role of race in the story makes it more effective as horror, not less, and the entire thing is delightfully creepy.
So now that I’m done, how does Robert E. Howard’s horror measure up? The first question to ask: measure up to what? I am woefully under read in horror. I would take Robert E. Howard over the Stephen King I’ve read. But I haven’t read Edgar Alan Poe since high school, and I haven’t read H.P. Lovecraft at all. I read The Turning of the Screw a few years ago, and it bored me to tears.
I’m hardly the best judge of horror. It has never grabbed me as a genre. But I did love these stories. I particularly loved Howard’s weird westerns, and introductions to Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn have me excited to grab those collections. None of these alone will supplant Conan for me (yet), but this collection shows Howard undeniably had serious range as a writer.
As with their other Howard collections, the good people at Del Rey packed The Horror of Robert E. Howard with original art.