Gardens of Fear The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard Vol 6

Gardens of Fear

The Weird Works of Robert E.  Howard, Volume 6

Edited by Paul Herman

Part One


These ongoing pieces are overviews rather than reviews and therefore contain spoilers galore



By May of 1934 and having already published eight tales of Conan the Cimmerian to considerable reader approval, it was obvious to Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright that with Robert E.  Howard’s barbarian he had something of a tiger by the tale, although of course no one could have predicted just how popular the character would eventually become.

And so in that month he had no hesitation in presenting the ninth tale in the saga and a firm fan favourite – Queen of the Black Coast.  And let me swiftly add that it is not one of this fan’s favourites.  Not even remotely.

The Cardboard Woman with Permanent PMT

It starts off well enough, with Conan finding himself amongst the pirates of the Black Coast (the Hyborian Age’s equivalent to the West Coast of Africa), who are led by a Shemitish woman whom they revere as a Goddess.  This is Bêlit, who a still relatively young Conan falls in love with – possibly the only true love of his life.  There is also an engrossing exchange of dialogue between the two where we learn something of the Cimmerian’s attitude towards his cold Northern deity, Crom:

“He dwells on a great mountain.  What use to call on him?  Little he cares if men live or die.  Better to be silent than to call his attention to you; he will send you dooms, not fortune!  He is grim and loveless, but at birth he breathes power to strive and slay into a man’s soul.  What else shall men ask of the gods?”

The grim clarity of this is far outweighed, however, by the frankly embarrassing pronouncements of Bêlit, especially coming up to her teeth-curling mating-dance, which honestly made me cringe.

I get that this is an important period in the Cimmerian’s life as he probably sails the Black Coast for at least a couple of years, but it’s all just too compressed.  As I’ve often noted, writers like Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs could tell a story in thirty pages that some modern tale-spinners would spend a lengthy volume on; but in this case it’s just too much.

And I have a real problem with Bêlit herself.  If you can manage the huge mental leap that will let you see her as anything other than a two-dimensional cardboard prop then it will unfortunately only be to discover what a sour, greedy and cold-heated bitch she is.  And as a result of her utter callousness towards her loyal crew Conan considerably drops in my estimation into the bargain, simply by virtue of his not raising an objection.

In fact, considering that by this stage we had gotten used to an exaggerated depiction of the ultimate Alpha-male, it’s quite a surprise to realise that he’s coming across as more than a teeny bit pussy-whipped by the perpetually pissed-off Bêlit.

And yet more than one writer and essayist has found her fascinating enough to do an extensive back story to the character.  So in this case I’m willing to concede that perhaps it’s just a matter of personal taste that makes me view this as one of Howard’s worst stories in quite a while; but I am willing to make no such concessions for the short story that appeared in the next issue, for May.

No Place to Lose Your Howard Virginity

Oh boy – deep breath and let’s get this one out of the way as quickly as possible because, knowing my luck, after years of raving to people about REH, some Howard virgin will decide to start with this stinker and whatever bit of reputation I have will be down the Swanee.

The Haunter of the Ring is a contemporary tale, although since the Ring in question is the one worn by Thoth-amon in very first Conan story, The Phoenix on the Sword, it ties in to Howard’s wider, interconnected mythology.  And that is the story’s single saving grace.   The dialogue is appallingly clunky; the elements of coincidence simply beyond any kind of hope that the most willing suspension of disbelief can give; and the prose itself is completely diabolical.

And of course, yes, I know that Howard was — in the final analysis — writing pulp fiction for monetary gain, not literature for Artistic approval.  I suppose it is just that I had at this point become so used to him turning out such wonderful work, even when writing at breakneck speed, that it is a shock to come across this.   And this is probably one of the very worst of his stories ever to appear in the Unique Magazine.

The next tale in this collection appeared in Marvel Tales for July-August of 1934 and I find The Garden of Fear something of an oddity.  As the previous two stories in the James Allison cycle (Marchers of Valhalla and The Valley of the Worm) were so exceptional it is also something of a disappointment.

Once again Allison recalls an existence as a sort of super-Aryan warrior, this time Hunwulf the Wanderer who is on a mission to rescue his mate, Gudrun.  There are some startling images such as the lone winged survivor of an ancient, demonic race brooding in a tower that is set amidst a field of man-eating blooms.  Yet the whole thing seems too rushed, as if it was a first draft.

Perhaps it was.

Meanwhile, back home in Weird Tales the month of August also saw yet another Conan story, The Devil in Iron.  Again the Cimmerian is the leader of an outlaw band and again we are on the Vilayet Sea and again there is a voluptuous hottie in need of rescuing.

And here I have to hand it to Conan.  As chat-up lines go it would be hard to beat “I’ll burn Khawarizm for a torch to light your way to my tent”. 

It’s a serviceable and enjoyable enough tale, but at this point, as the tenth Conan story, there is also a feeling of sameness that is not helped by similarities to previous tales such as Black Colossus and Iron Shadows in the Moon, amongst others.

However, if WT readers thought that the mighty barbarian was almost played out they must have changed their minds right back again pretty sharpish.  Because the novella that ran through the September, October and November issues of 1934 was nothing less than a masterpiece – The People of the Black Circle.

Not only that, but it would be followed by one of the most visually dramatic of all his stories—A Witch Shall Be Born, which featured the crucifixion of Conan.

I’ll be looking at these two works of wonder in the next review – same Conan-time; same Conan-channel!

Author: Charley Brady

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  1. One person told me a while back (I didn’t find the comment till now) abut Howard

    “Dude, several of the earlier books had savage niggers as the villains.

    That is not a joke, there are literal spearchuckers as antagonists.

    Also he spoke out in favor of eugenics multiple times.

    Guess he must have loved individuality so much he thought inferiors shouldn’t be allowed to have children.”

    How true is this? I mean I know a lot of his works, by modern standards, are racist, but compared to his fellows he was actually tame and even Jason Sanford (who said Howard was racist) argued its possible to make a Conan story that ain’t racist.

  2. First off, apologies for not replying sooner — we just don’t get enough sunny days here that I can afford to miss one.

    I’m not really sure that I have anything fresh to say on the this whole racist thing; but to take your friend’s comments sentence by sentence:

    1) Many of REH’s stories had savage white guys; savage yellow guys (am I allowed to say that?); savage alien guys — of every hue. (‘Almuric’)

    He also had good white guys; and good black guys; and good yellow guys; and aliens of every hue.

    2) Literal spearchuckers? Is he having a laugh? Literal?

    ‘Spearchuckers’ in 2016 is without a doubt a derogatory word when applied to a certain race — but for Heaven’s sake most of his Aryan super-macho’s were LITERALLY spear chuckers; and since he was someone who valued physical prowess over the artistic I’m pretty sure he meant that as a compliment.

    I can feel frustration setting in here —

    3) Obviously, a much more serious accusation and deserves to be treated as such. ‘Eugenics’ is one of the more awful pseudo-sciences that this miserable world has spewed out.

    It is what Hitler (to take an obvious example) based a great deal of his half-baked philosophy on. But then again so did a lot of so-called ‘genuine’ intellectuals of the early 20th century.

    Howard lived most of his short life in the tiny town of Cross Plains, Texas; and he was only thirty when he chose to end that life. I’m almost twice the age he was when that dark moment of despair hit him. And I can tell you I am not the same man I was when I was thirty. Nor do I have the same beliefs. Howard would have grown, also.

    The great tragedy for me is that we never saw how Howard might have grown and modified his views as Age and Time changed him — as it does all of us. And I’m damned sure he would have consigned Eugenics to the dustbin where it rightfully went.

    It’s a complete mystery to me that he was as broad-minded as he was. No respect for blacks? (Sorry, terminology of the time.) And yet in at least some of his boxing tales it’s obvious that he just…here we go again…put value on physical prowess. Some of his heroes are *whisper it* black boxers.

    He also argues constantly and with anger in his wonderful letters to HP Lovecraft — and as much as I love Lovecraft’s stuff I’m never going to say that he was anything BUT an out-and-out racist. Off the top of my head I recall one letter where REH was spitting blood at Lovecraft over ‘your Fascist friends’ when Lovecraft was talking about the rise of this interesting new guy; that’s right — Uncle Adolf, who had made his appearance on the international stage three years before Howard’s death, four years before Lovecraft’s.

    Howard wasn’t a racist; I feel confident in saying that with hand on my heart. Within the limits of his environment he was one of the most enlightened writers of that period.

    Compare ANYTHING that the so-called racist Howard wrote, to the much more universally accepted Edgar Rice Burroughs in this excerpt from ‘Jungle Tales of Tarzan’:

    “He had seen Tarzan bring down a buck, just as Numa, the lion, might have done…Tibo had shuddered at the sight, but he had thrilled, too; and for the first time there entered his dull, Negroid mind a vague desire to emulate his savage foster parent. But Tibo, the little black boy, lacked the divine spark which had permitted Tarzan, the little white boy, to benefit by his training in the ways of the fierce jungle. In imagination he was wanting, and imagination is but another name for super-intelligence.

    “Imagination it is which which builds bridges, and cities, and empires. The beasts know it not, the blacks only a little, while to one in a hundred thousand of earth’s dominant race it is given as a gift from heaven that man may not perish from the earth.”

    Can you imagine if Howard had written that?

    4) Inferiors. Ryan, tell your well-meaning friend to go and check out REH’s early short story ‘The Hyena’. It is one of the most nakedly honest stories from the entire pulp period of the 20s that deals with a white guys’ sexual anxiety about how a black guy might just be superior to him in the Trouser Snake department.

    And thank your friend, by the way. I honestly didn’t think I had anything else to say about Howard and racism — turned out I had — and finally, this might amuse you:

  3. Some guys on the new swordsofreh forum said that Howard’s views were “people should get stronger”. He never vouched for Eugenics in the “MASS STERILIZATIONS AND WE SHOULD IMPLEMENT PROGRAMS.”

  4. Considering some of the characters I saw wandering the street last Saturday night, I might change my mind about mass sterilization!

  5. I wouldn’t go that far. Eugenics doesn’t really work and it’s impossible to determine intelligence from the parents.

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