Beyond the Black River
The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume 7
Edited by Paul Herman
These ongoing pieces are overviews rather than reviews and therefore contain spoilers galore
When you have a hero who is described as having a voice ‘as harsh as the rasp of steel’; who has a yell that is ‘less like the cry of a man than the grunt of a charging lion’; and – listen now, this is the big one – who can take a blow that ‘might have crushed the skull of a man whose physique and vitality were not that of a bull’; if you have that kind of hero then you can be reasonably sure that he is a Robert E. Howard kind of hero.
These guys are so tough that they shave with rusty razor blades. Rusty ladies razor blades, with bugger-all edge (or so I’m told).
These guys are so tough that they use the very cheapest brands of toilet paper, the 70s crinkly kind that used to take half of your arse with it.
Such a hero is… Bristol McGrath!
For February of 1935 Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright seems to have decided that it was time to give the tireless Conan of Cimmeria a break and instead he gave us one of Howard’s contemporary tales of the Deep South Piney Woods, Moon of Zambebwei. Unfortunately, it was not only one of REH’s more woeful and downright awful attempts, but in addition Farnsworth had one of his rushes of blood to the head. This would happen occasionally, when he found that he just had to exchange the author’s decent title for a truly crap one – and this time he really outdid himself with… The Grisly Horror. (Dum-da-DUM dum!)
Mind you, the awful cheesiness of that title suited this drivel to a T: Southern adventurer returns from Africa to save his old love Constance and is caught up in all sorts of devilish goings-on, involving – in the main – terrible foreign types.
This was my first time reading this story and I had been really looking forward to it, having heard that it was truly, truly offensive. Well, it is and it isn’t. At this stage I’m weary of the whole argument. Yes, the ‘n’ word gets thrown around and blacks are shown as barbarians; but given that Howard had a lot of time for barbarians that would hardly be an insult. Arabs don’t come out of it too well, either.
The plain fact is that it is nothing but a very poor pulp story of the 30s; and had it not been penned by Howard it would be long forgotten today.
Conan the Asshole
And the same could be said for the March issue: it’s just an average pulp action tale, the only surprise this time being that it is a Conan one.
The Servants of Bît Yakin also suffered a name change courtesy of ruthless Mr. Wright — this time to Jewels of Gwahlur. It later appeared under Teeth of Gwahlur, possibly the most appropriate title; but in the end it scarcely makes any difference. It’s a very poor and routine outing for the Cimmerian, of interest purely for the furthering of our knowledge of Hyborian Age geography, this time far to the South, in and near the Black Kingdoms.
It is also interesting for the chronology-head in being a little more specific than usual. He is described as being ‘late of the Baracha Isles, of the Black Coast, and of many other climes where life ran wild…’. He is also described as having a legend and reputation that precedes him, reminding us of that myth cycle referred to as long ago as the second story, The Scarlet Citadel.
Those points aside, it is a tedious tale that involves a lot of running around a deserted palace and its catacombs, a fabulous treasure and a beautiful girl in need of rescuing – who Conan routinely thinks of with some unpleasantness as a ‘little slut’ and a ‘little trollop’, something the girl just doesn’t deserve.
All in all, it is by far my least favourite Conan tale – and not the first time I thought that the man could be a bit of a prick at times.
Frontier Masterpiece: Howard’s Finest Hour
Robert Ervin Howard grew up listening to rousing tales of those tough frontier men and women who built and tamed the harsh country around him. And to my mind he never used those sagas to more powerful effect than in his longish short story (around 60 pages) Beyond the Black River.
At a time when the character of Conan might have been in some danger of simply turning into a wizard/monster of the month effort, he had the inspired idea of casting him here as a frontier scout on the borders of the Pictish wilderness as Aquilonia wages an undeclared war of expansionism. Substitute the Hyborian settlers for 19th century Americans and the Picts for Native Americans and you have an idea of what takes place in this tale.
And although the Picts are painted as savage, it is impossible not to feel Howard’s sympathy for their plight seeping through, as does his distaste for those who wage war from afar.
“’Soft-bellied fools sitting on velvet cushions with naked girls offering them iced wine on their knees – I know the breed. They can’t see any farther than their palace wall. Diplomacy – hell! They’d fight the Picts with theories of territorial expansion. Valannus and men like him have to obey the orders of a set of damned fools. They’ll never grab any more Pictish land…’”.
I would put Conan in his early forties here, even though some disagree as to the tale’s placement (I’m looking at you, Dale Rippke!). This is surely one of the final stages in Conan’s career before he seized the throne of Aquilonia. In fact, the suggestion of him becoming king of a civilized nation is raised not once but twice; and he is certainly liked and admired by the people of the border.
There is just such a feeling of sheer hopelessness permeating the entirety of this great story. It seems to reflect completely the writer at his darkest. Indeed, I would agree with those who feel it to be very possibly the young Texan’s most personal work. The main character is in fact not the Cimmerian, but the sturdy young pioneer Balthus, through whose eyes we see most of the events. In many ways he is Howard as he was whilst Conan represents Howard as he wished he was. There is even a hard-bitten version of REH’s beloved dog in a Pict-hating canine called Slasher, who has survived – barely – the butchery of his master.
And of course, it ends with Howard’s most celebrated comment on how he saw the world:
“’Barbarism is the natural state of mankind’, the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. ‘Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.’”
That sums up this tale perfectly. As much, perhaps, as even in the Bran Mak Morn stories, there is this overbearing feeling of the weight and inevitability of history. And you just know that it’s not going to end well for any of us.
Howard’s earliest yarns as a young teenager dealt with the Picts; and here, in a tale that has been favourably compared to James Fenimore Cooper’s classic The Last of the Mohicans he bids them his most brilliant and unbearably poignant farewell.
In July of 1935, Robert Howard finished writing his last fantasy story, as desperate circumstances forced him to try his hand at better-paying markets. These stories would eventually all see publication over the decades that followed.
Beyond the Black River appeared in Weird Tales in two parts for April and June of that year. Twelve months later Howard would take the gun from the glove compartment of his car — and at the age of thirty his life was over.
“Despair is the only unforgivable sin, and it’s always reaching for us.”