Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard (edited by Rusty Burke, illustrated by Greg Staples)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2009. Reprinted with permission.

Robert E. Howard wrote short stories during the heyday of the pulp era, mostly for Weird Tales, from 1924 until his death by suicide in 1936 at age 30. Howard wrote in various genres, but he is now best known for his stories popularizing the fantasy subgenre "sword and sorcery," and especially the hero he created, Conan the Barbarian. His range of talent, however, is becoming better known, as pulp-era fiction regains a modern readership. Del Rey Books is doing their part to keep his name in front of book-buyers with their affordable trade-paperback collections of his work, of which The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard is only the most recent.

Compiler and editor Rusty Burke has done a great job putting these 40 stories and 20 poems in an order that makes sense, and not just in a chronological or other arbitrary order — the pieces that "belong" together and actually have some connection to each other appear one right after the other. This gives The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard a smooth flow that I've rarely experienced with a short story collection, and certainly not one of this breadth. The evocative black and white illustrations of Greg Staples heading each story, with an additional handful of full-page images, are the perfect accompaniment to Howard's otherworldly tales.

Howard's skill at blending genres — he wrote fantasy, Westerns, historical fiction, even boxing stories — merely showcases the fact that horror can happen in any situation or environ. "Rattle of Bones" features Howard's 17th-century Puritan hero Solomon Kane. Kane and Gaston L'Armon enter a tavern for the night and discover there's a good reason it's called "The Cleft Skull." This story has suspense, death, and insanity portrayed with skill, and it really let me know what I was in for, in a way that the opening tale "In the Forest of Villefere," a werewolf tale followed by the better "Wolfshead," did not. ("Red Shadows," the novella in which Solomon Kane first appeared is not included, but Kane fans have Del Rey's The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane to satisfy them.)

"The Dream Snake" stands out as a particularly well-done pure horror story in the classic told-by-the-campfire vein. That is, its ending is entirely predictable and, in fact, inevitable from the beginning. But Howard's portrait of a man in the grip of an intense lifelong fear (from a horrific recurring dream) is utterly believable. A well-performed reading of "The Dream Snake" could be the highlight of any Halloween night storytelling session.

An unexpected highlight of this collection is a selection of Howard's Lovecraftian horror. H.P. Lovecraft was Howard's friend and mentor, and they corresponded by mail for years. Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu" is immortalized in Howard's "The Children of the Night" as one of "the three master horror-tales" — along with Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" and Machen's "The Novel of the Black Seal" — that "touch the true heights of horror." (Pick up a copy of Horror: 100 Best Books to read Howard's opinion of another favorite horror novel, James Branch Cabell's Something About Eve.)

Howard's confidence is astonishing, as he boldly makes his own additions to the Lovecraft canon (Von Junzt's Nameless Cults, poet Justin Geoffrey) that have become as much a part of the Mythos as Lovecraft's own works. But even as he adds to another author's world, he remains firmly in Robert E. Howard territory, and these tales are just as enjoyable with no prior appreciation for such "Yog-Sothothery" (what Lovecraft called the practice of Mythos-sharing, which he supported).

Having long been enthralled by tales of rare books and their supernatural effects on unassuming readers, I was deeply engaged by these stories (including "The People of the Monolith," "The Children of the Night," and "The Black Stone" among others), especially by the fact of their tangential relationship to one another. One story may make a passing mention of a character, while another focuses more deeply on another aspect. Pict king Bran Mak Morn searches for the same Black Stone in "Worms of the Earth," and the poem "The Symbol" describes it with a tone reminiscent of Shelley's "Ozymandias." Read all together, they immerse the reader in a fascinating otherworld in a way that would be impossible encountering the pieces individually. Later, in the section devoted to horrific Westerns, "The Hoofed Thing" is a marvelous mix of Lovecraftian fiction and the Old West. Though somewhat weak in believability, it remains exceptionally effective. Some of the four unfinished "Miscellanea" pieces add more interesting information in this vein, but they are otherwise frustratingly incomplete.

No collection of Howard horror would be complete without "Pigeons from Hell," the novella Stephen King called "one of the finest horror stories of our century" in Danse Macabre. Some may know it from its adaptations to other media, from an episode of the Thriller anthology TV series to a recent graphic novel (scripted by Joe R. Lansdale). The concept seems laughable, but Howard manages to make it truly terrifying with an ending that's actually surprising. "The Cairn on the Headland" and "People of the Black Circle" "glow with the fierce and eldritch light of Howard's frenzied intensity" (to use another apt King reference). Howard seems to be at his best at this kind of tale, where men awaken to find themselves turned into the superhuman warriors they once were long, long ago.

Not only does Howard write gripping tales, but he also uses the English language with a skill I've not yet seen in genre fiction. His vocabulary range is immensely impressive, and I've never seen so many semi-colons all in one place — and used with such skill. Howard picks his words with a master's touch, making unconventional choices that still retain easy readability:

Some distance behind him loomed the green, rank jungle, thinning out to low shrubs, stunted trees and tall grass. Some distance in front of him rose the first of a chain of bare, somber hills, littered with boulders, shimmering in the merciless heat of the sun. Between the hills and the jungle lay a broad expanse of rough, uneven grasslands, dotted here and there by clumps of thorn trees. [p. 111-112, "The Hills of the Dead"]

Not difficult language, by any means — merely the right word for the purpose. One never gets the sense that such and such a word was "good enough," but that only the perfect one would do to set the proper mood. Yet his descriptive narrative style flows smoothly even as it speaks poetically.

Horror fans who tend to eschew modern poetry need not skip Howard's verse. There's a lot here to appreciate. It is written in an older style that any student of literature will find familiar. This makes it highly approachable, as does its often horrific subject matter. "Up, John Kane!" was especially memorable with its folk-ballad rhythm, and the refrain of "Will ye come, will ye come, John Kane?" "Remembrance" is similarly effective telling of a haunting in 14 lines. "Dead Man's Hate" shows how not even death can staunch some men's lust for revenge. "The Dweller in Dark Valley" sets a palpable atmosphere and then explains it with a twist. And that's just a handful of the 20 poems that act as palate cleansers of a sort to The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard. Interspersed throughout, they only add to the total effect.

For the Howard completists, the editors have included an exhaustive rundown of how the versions of the pieces published in The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard are different from their original sources, from the placement of commas to the cleaning up of misspellings and further. I was for some reason enthralled by this information, mostly because it shows that Burke and company are fans and scholars who want nothing more than to present Howard in the best possible light. Their choice to use en-dashes instead of em-dashes throughout is mildly irritating, but the text is otherwise nearly pristine.

As a final note, I would just like to mention that, while I was reading this book for review, a severe ice storm hit our community that knocked out the power for nine days. During this difficult time, it was nice to have Howard's wild tales nearby as a small bit of escapism after the kids were asleep, before we crawled into our cold bed for the night. I've found myself returning to them during this economic downturn, as well. Howard's work allows my brain to get away from daily concerns in a way I've not experienced before. His breadth of imagination combined with his expert use of language (two things rarely found in the same individual) showcase a highly literate, action-oriented pulp style that is bound to appeal to all readers of intelligent genre fiction.

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