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.
In the Forest of Villefère
A Song of the Werewolf Folk (poem)
Up, John Kane! (poem)
The Dream Snake
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)
The Shadow of the Beast
The Dead Slaver’s Tale (poem)
The Hills of the Dead
Dig Me No Grave
Summer of Conan: The John Maddox Roberts’ Pastiches was originally published at the Castalia House Blog.