Black Hounds of Death
The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume 9
Edited by Paul Herman
These ongoing pieces are overviews rather than reviews and therefore contain spoilers galore
Regular readers of these little ponderings will know how utterly weary I get when that bogeyman buzzword of our time – ‘racism’ – is thrown out. So you can imagine the deep sigh I’m breathing as I approach Robert E. Howard’s most allegedly r- r- r-racist story; and not only that, but preparing to defend it.
Black Canaan appeared in Weird Tales for June of 1936, the same month in which the writer committed suicide, and along with one other posthumously published yarn is probably just about his most divisive tale. (Yep – the other one I’m thinking of would indeed be The Vale of Lost Women.)
This is one of his Southern Gothic ‘Piney Woods’ stories – but in quality, vividness of imagery, and well-paced storytelling it is a million miles from his previous outing in the genre — the wretched Moon of Zambebwei, which was reviewed for Volume 7.
As with Moon we have another two-fisted, square-jawed Howard tough guy returning to his original neck of the backwoods; and this time it is because he has heard word of an uprising among the black population. On his way home, however, Kirby Buckner meets and is bewitched against his will by a quadroon woman.
Now, ‘quadroon’ is today considered to be an offensive word. And rightly so. However, it dawned on me that I wasn’t really sure what the strict definition was. Obvious, when you think of it: it means a person who has one quarter black blood in them. So it seems that in Howard’s day a white could sum up how much black blood a person carried at a glance. This to me is worse, is more horrifying, than anything in the story. And I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Black Canaan is a piece where the word ‘nigger’ is used so endlessly that it at first becomes almost hypnotic and then near-meaningless.
In any case, it is informative that Howard describes the woman with such telling exactitude:
“…a strange turmoil of conflicting emotions stirred in me. I had never paid any attention to a black or brown woman. But this quadroon girl was different from any I had ever seen. Her features were regular as a white woman’s and her speech was not that of a common wench. Yet she was barbaric, in the open lure of her smile, in the gleam of her eyes, in the shameless posturing of her voluptuous body. Every gesture, every motion she made set her apart from the ordinary run of women; her beauty was untamed and lawless, meant to madden rather than to sooth, to make a man blind and dizzy, to rouse in him all the unrefined passions that are his heritage from his ape ancestors.”
As long ago as 1930 Howard had mentioned in a letter to Lovecraft the legend of Kelly the Conjure-man and had been encouraged by him to write a tale featuring this enigmatic character. He appears here as Saul Stark, a friend to neither black man nor white, intending to enslave both. Despite the uncompromising language, I believe that Howard presents the blacks of the region not with racism but with realism; at least, as he saw it. If anything, Kirby’s fellow ‘civilized’ friends come across as moronic, bullying, asshole half-wits:
“’Got a nigger in the shack, tryin’ to make him talk. Bill Reynolds seen him sneakin’ past the edge of town about daylight, and nabbed him.’
“’Who is it?’ I asked.
“’Tope Sorley. John Willoughby’s gone after a blacksnake.’
“With a smothered oath I swung off my horse and strode in, followed by McBride. Half a dozen men in boots and gun-belts clustered about a pathetic figure cowering on an old broken bunk. Tope Sorley (his forebears had adopted the name of the family that owned them, in slave days) was a pitiable sight just then. His skin was ashy, his teeth clattered spasmodically, and his eyes seemed to be trying to roll back into his head.
“’Here’s Kirby!’ ejaculated one of the men as I pushed my way through the group. ‘I’ll bet he’ll make this coon talk!’
“Here comes John with the blacksnake!’ shouted someone, and a tremor ran through Tope Sorley’s shivering body.
“I pushed aside the butt of the ugly whip thrust eagerly into my hand.”
I’m not going to say that Black Canaan is anywhere near Howard at his best, but it is a good, atmospheric yarn that sheds a grim light on some of the folk-tales that he would have grown up with and absorbed as a young man. We can really feel that damp miasma of the swamps. In addition, the supernatural elements are handled with creepiness and the almost-seen transmuted creatures genuinely disturb.
On a subliminal and sometimes not so subliminal level, it is drenched in sex — sexual frustration, sexual fear and sexual guilt. I don’t usually pay too much attention to what psychiatrists think, but if I could find a reputable one (which is to say one that wouldn’t have me committed) I’d be interested in their reading of the entire work. I suppose that one obvious observation is that sex and death are strongly linked here – yeah, I know; it didn’t take a mastermind to work that out –; no more so than after the girl is shot through the heart and yet orgasmically continues her Dance of the Skull.
And how suggestive are the lines:
“Saul Stark stood transfixed, heedless of them as he stared down at the brown girl, dead at last. And suddenly I came to myself, and with my awakened manhood came cold fury and the lust to kill. I drew a gun, and aiming in the uncertain firelight, pulled the trigger. Only a click answered me. The powder in the cap-and-ball pistols was wet.”
Yes indeed. The world is full of pseudomacho shitheads who tend to confuse guns with their pesky awakened manhood, only to end up firing off an impotent damp squib.
This is really less about a black uprising than about walking Evil in the forms of Stark and our quadroon friend, who identifies herself as the non-human Bride of Damballah — which isn’t a good sign if you’re thinking of romancing her. And it is an Evil that affronts and outrages all of humanity, not just good ol’ whip-wielding white folks.
Howard’s last-written Conan story was a novella of some 80-odd pages and was one that fairly tanked along at a breakneck pace. Serialized in three parts for Weird Tales of July, August-September and October of 1936, Red Nails is a longer exploration of the theme of the decadent city in decline, something that fascinated Howard and which he had touched on in a previous Conan yarn, Xuthal of the Dusk.
In a letter to his lady-love, Novalyne Price, he wrote:
“You see, girl, when a civilization begins to decay and die, the only thing men or women think about is the gratification of their body’s desires. They become preoccupied with sex. It colours their laws, their religion – every aspect of their lives…
“Girl, I’m working on a yarn like that now – a Conan yarn. Listen to me. When you have a dying civilization, the normal, accepted life style ain’t strong enough to satisfy the damned insatiable appetites of the courtesans and, finally, of all the people. They turn to Lesbianism and things like that to satisfy their desires…”
Howard’s Guide to Wooing Women: it could have been a bestseller.
Well, not for the first time I find myself thinking that Howard had some odd ideas on lesbianism (or even Lesbianism), but we’ll leave that as it is. The story itself seems to draw varying responses from REH enthusiasts and I’ve a lot of sympathy for that; because over the years I’ve occasionally thought it was one of his best and at others… just mediocre. Why that is I have no idea, other than that it’s down to my mood at the time. I can say that at the moment I go with it being one of the best of the Conan tales and a decent farewell to the writer, coming out in print in the months immediately following his death.
Red Nails starts off with a long opening chapter that could almost stand as a short story on its own. In it we are introduced to the brilliantly rounded female pirate, Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. I can never, for the life of me, understand why this marvelous, vivacious, sexy-as-hell and dangerous woman is not far more popular than the awful Bêlit, corsair of the Black Coast. She is a true mate for Conan, in my opinion.
This is also one of those chapters that functions a little like the opening of Iron Shadows in the Moon, as a bridge between the ‘normal’ world and one of exotic unreality.
And finally, the dialogue between Conan and Valeria makes it much easier than usual to place it in the Cimmerian’s career. His days as a buccaneer are behind him and his mention of never having been this far to the East before firmly places it after the events of The Pool of the Black One and before those of The Servants of Bît Yakin.
When Conan and Valeria enter the lost city of Xuchotl – in fact it is one enormous palace divided between two almost extinct but still battling groups – Howard captures the claustrophobic feel of the place perfectly. These people name each stair or corridor as carefully as any army marked out its larger battleground.
And in Princess Tascela we have another of Howard’s gorgeous, immortal women – but this one is really scary. On a scale of one-to-ten I’m talking about Spinal Tap ‘this-one-goes-to-eleven’ scary.
And it’s a nice change of pace that instead of making goo-goo eyes at the Cimmerian she only has greedy peepers for Valeria – although not in a healthy girl-on-girl way, it has to be said.
Now that I’ve lowered the tone suitably I must say that in the same way that Black Canaan is subliminally drenched in sex, so is Red Nails in violence. Of course, by today’s standards it is nowhere near as graphic – but as always, it’s just the way that Howard writes. He’s like a maniac let loose with his prose here and wallows in decapitations and disembowelments galore.
And it even has one of those completely over-the-top tough guy passages that I love so much, when Conan gets his leg caught in a trap:
“The steel teeth in his leg were like burning coals, but the pain was not as savage as the fury that seethed in his soul. He was trapped, like a wolf. If he had had his sword he would have hewn off his leg and crawled across the floor to slay Tascela.”
Hewn off his own leg? There’s no answer to that.
Red Nails completed a seventeen-story run of Conan stories that began in December of 1932 – and it was a fitting conclusion to the Saga.
Whilst Weird Tales was running this last Conan story, the Argosy issue for August published a short horror tale, told entirely through letters and reports and played out against a Western background.
The Dead Remember will be offensive to modern readers in its racism; but once again it’s the white protagonist who is portrayed as the most contemptible. Let’s face it: if there’s one thing that REH and his pen-pal Lovecraft had in common, it’s that they didn’t think much of the human race in general.
The Texan Poet’s Homecoming
We hadn’t seen any of REH’s poetry in these volumes for a while but Always Comes Evening appeared in The Phantagraph of August, 1936. This piece would also give its title to the Arkham House edition of Howard’s collected verse, which appeared in 1957.
Also unheard-of for some time was the grim Puritan called Kane. And he made a comeback in verse with the Fall of 1936 issue of Fanciful Tales, which sees him return to England in Solomon Kane’s Homecoming. It is interesting for the manner in which it recalls his battles over the years since he left. There is also a quiet pathos here, and hints of another life that could have been lived had he a less restless spirit:
“Where is Bess?” said Solomon Kane. “Woe that I caused her tears.”
“In the quiet churchyard by the sea she has slept these seven years.”
The sea-wind moaned at the window-pane, and Solomon bowed his head.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and the fairest fade,” he said.
His eyes were mystical deep pools that drowned unearthly things,
And Solomon lifted up his head and spoke of his wanderings.
“Mine eyes have looked on sorcery in dark and naked lands,
“Horror born of the jungle gloom and death on the pathless sands.
“And I have known a deathless queen in a city old as Death,
“Where towering pyramids of skulls her glory witnesseth,
“Her kiss was like an adder’s fang, with the sweetness Lilith had,
“And her red-eyed vassals howled for blood in that City of the Mad.
“And I have slain a vampire shape that sucked a black king white,
“And I have roamed through grisly hills where dead men walked at night.
“And I have seen heads fall like fruit in a slaver’s barracoon,
“And I have seen winged demons fly all naked in the moon.
“My feet are weary of wandering and age comes on apace;
“I fain would dwell in Devon now, forever in my place.”
The howling of the ocean pack came whistling down the gale,
And Solomon Kane threw up his head like a hound that sniffs the trail.
Of course, needless to say, blood wins out and Kane takes up the Adventurer’s Trail once more. Beautiful stuff.
Next: Black Hounds of Death — Part Two