Moon of Skulls
The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume 2
The first volume in this series– which presents in chronological order all of the weird fiction of the Texan master– contained twelve short stories and a group of poems that documented the writer’s progress from his initial, halting efforts very quickly on to damned-near pure perfection. Indeed, until I re-read Shadow Kingdoms I had forgotten just how swiftly Howard had reached the high standard that he continued to write at, give or take a few misfires, until his untimely death.
It is extraordinary how each of those initial stories acts as a step up to the next. We see his first descriptions of the vast tide of history and racial drifts; his first fine outings as a writer of horror tales; the introduction of his enduring Puritan hero, Solomon Kane; and finally his triumphant unveiling of a new type of fiction – ‘sword-and-sorcery’ or ‘heroic fantasy’—in his tales of the exiled Atlantean, King Kull.
The long opening piece here, Howard’s first published novella, at first sight seems to be a departure from his previous work. Skull-Face was a 3- part serial that finished out Howard’s Weird Tales *year, running from October through December of 1929. It is obviously inspired by Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories, but even a cursory examination reveals many of Howard’s themes crystallizing here. It really has two heroes: the initially opium-addicted Stephen Costigan, an American adventurer suffering through his own private Hell after the horrors of World War One; and a stiff upper-lipped Nayland Smith type called John Gordon.
The villain is Kathulos, the titular character and—rather than a superbrained representative of the ‘yellow peril’ so beloved of the period– is in fact a survivor of lost Atlantis. Or so it seems. ** There is a certain amount of geekish fun to be had here, trying to fit this tale in with the King Kull continuity of Howard’s previous two WT tales.
Like the original Kull story, The Shadow Kingdom, which featured a hidden cult of serpent men bent on establishing a New World Order, Kathulos (who is even described as reptilian) is bent on uniting the brown, yellow and black races in order to create a new Empire – which, oddly, he has a few choice positions for whites in.
Of course, it’s this kind of racial carry-on that has Howard’s detractors throwing wobblies and frothing at the mouth. And God knows I do enjoy seeing them get upset. Personally, I couldn’t care less: he was a child of his time and environment and anyway, doesn’t Costigan fall head-over-heels for the very beautiful and very brave Asian heroine, Zuleika?
Get over yourselves.
You know, I didn’t particularly enjoy this the first time I read it, years back; and now I can’t for the life of me think why not. It is an absolute hoot of a yarn. I can’t help seeing it as one of the old black and white chapter plays (or serials) that they used to show at Saturday morning cinema, back in the day. There’s even a scene where Costigan has to dress up in a gorilla suit in order to kill someone, in what is a kind of fucked-up homage to Edgar Allan Poe. It is just priceless. Yet take it on its own terms and it is a good, solid piece of Howard fiction.
In his interesting introduction/essay The Gothic Orient, Mark Finn notes:
‘Here…we can see the strains of Orientalism as defined by Edward Said in his seminal work on the subject: the notion that the Orient is “Other”, its people lascivious and depraved, and their ideals alien and antagonistic to the rest of civilization. Clearly, Howard is repeating rather than reporting with conviction, since most of literature and non-fiction at the the time is infused with such biases. Howard kept the framing sequence of a racial revolt and co-opted the rhetoric of Rohmer and Kipling to the needs of the story.
‘The theme of one race or nation rising up to overthrow another is a recurring one in Howard’s fiction. At a time when eugenics was an accepted and prevalent theory throughout the country, Howard often wondered what would happen if, as the French author Pierre Louys and most of his history books seemed to think, a dominant country or world power grew so fat and contented that they were susceptible to a takeover from a minority group. This was certainly borne out in Ancient Rome, Egypt, and other places. Why not London?’
Seen in this light, Skull-Face is very much an essential part of the Howard canon. Yet in the end what I am left haunted by is the suggestion from Kathulos that there are other sarcophagi waiting to rise from the deeps, as his has done:
‘”At night I dream of them, sometimes”, I muttered, “sleepless in their lacquered cases, which drip with strange seaweed, far down among the green surges – where unholy spires and strange towers rise in the dark ocean.”’
After that major outing, Howard’s next tale and his fourteenth for Weird Tales was the slight and quite eerie meditation on mortal terror, The Fearsome Touch of Death (February 1930) reprinted here for the first time in seventy-five years.
Passion and Poetry
This is as good a time as any to mention that, as with the previous volume, even those who wouldn’t normally read poetry should check out the passion of Howard’s stuff. It has a vitality and dynamism that can’t be beat. One of my favourites here touches on his well-documented loathing of the Roman Empire. In the first verse of Shadows on the Road (May, 1930) he writes:
Nial of Ulster, welcome home!
What saw you on the road to Rome? –
Legions thronging the fertile plains?
Shouting hordes of the country folks
With the harvest heaped in their groaning wains?
Shepherd piping under the oak?
Laurel chaplet and purple cloak?
Smokes of the feasting coiled on high?
Meadows and fields of the rich, ripe green
Lazing under a cobalt sky?
Brown little villages sleeping between?
What saw you on the road to Rome?
“Crimson tracks in the blackened loam,
“Skeleton trees and a blasted plain,
“A heap of skulls and a child insane,
“Ruin and wreck and the heap of pain
“On the wrack of the road to Rome.”
In the best of Howard’s work his images are so vivid that he constantly teeters on the verge of going completely overboard, something that he manages in the unforgettable Black Chant Imperial (September, 1930):
Tempers rock and the singers falter,
Lights go out in the rushing gloom –
Slay the priests on this blackened alter,
Rip the babe from the woman’s womb!
Virgins wail and a babe is whining
Nailed like a fly on a gory lance;
White on the skulls the stars are shining,
Over them weeps our demon’s dance.
Return of the Puritan
The summer of 1930 saw the return of the Puritan fanatic, Solomon Kane; and after the two previous vignettes which placed him in England and Germany he is back in Africa for a two-parter, The Moon of Skulls (June and July).
When I think of this story, I mainly recall a lot of trudging around long passages; but it is yet another of those yarns that Howard’s detractors use in order to throw around the tedious race card. Well, there’s no doubting that the African black man comes in for a hard time of it here. I’m going to argue, though, that this is the point of view of Kane, who is after all a 16th/17th century Puritan wandering a savage, untamed and largely unmapped continent.
The story itself is, like Kane’s debut Red Shadows, centred on a quest to rescue a young Englishwoman that has spanned literally years. At some point the chronology of the Solomon Kane stories will have to be addressed, but not yet, Lord – not yet.
When the girl, Marylin, tells Kane of what has befallen her, it comes out almost as a parody of heroic fiction:
“Sir John took me on his saddlebow…he carried me to the seashore where a galley’s boat waited, filled with fierce men, dark and mustached and having scimitars, and great rings to the fingers. The captain, a Moslem with a face like a hawk, took me, a-weeping with fear, and bore me to his galley. Yet he was kind to me in his way, I being little more than a baby, and at lost sold me to a Turkish merchant, as he told you. This merchant he met off the southern coast of France, after many days of sea travel…”
Then she was to have been sold to a black sultan and then they get set on by a Cadiz slaver and…you get the idea.
Then Kane launches into his adventures over the years and the reader is sitting there, bludgeoned and bewildered at Howard hammering this out. I can just see him at his old Underwood No. 5, smoke flying from the tips of his fingers, shouting out the prose at the top of his voice as he typed (much to the annoyance of his neighbours). I’m not kidding you: George R. R. Martin would have turned Marylin’s saga alone into an 800-page volume and another 800 for Kane’s story.
Two-Gun Bob has the whole thing done and dusted in 50 pages, tops. And that’s with a lost city and an evil African queen thrown in, to boot.
As to The Hills of the Dead (August, 1930), he has that one sorted out in less than half the time. Still in Africa, Solomon Kane is reunited with N’Longa, the fetish-man that he befriended in his first adventure and together they destroy an entire lost city of vampires.
The story is slight in the extreme; but it is interesting that Howard talks of different African racial types – some of whom he approves and others, not. Yet N’Longa and he are not only equals but blood-brothers. Kane even begins to carry here a stave that the Slave Coast sorcerer has given him. ***
The final piece in this second collection was first published in Oriental Stories for October – November, 1930; and of course this particular pulp magazine dealt with the kind of fantasy- Orient that I quoted Mark Finn on earlier. Still, The Voice of El-Lil is an effective tale, to my mind. It is one of those ‘lost race’ romances that were so popular during this period and of which Edgar Rice Burroughs turned out a huge amount.
Considering how short the story is, it is impressive just how much detail REH puts into explaining a surviving outpost of ancient Sumeria. He devoured history and must have often chafed at how confined the part of Texas in which he lived left him in his quest for more knowledge.
*Unless otherwise indicated, all the stories and poems in this collection appeared in Weird Tales.
**For an alternative take on the character of Skull-Face, see Rick Lai’s piece ‘Revelations of Kathulos’ in The Pulp Collector, reprinted in James Van Hise’s excellent collection The Fantastic Worlds of Robert E. Howard (2001). Van Hise himself has an interesting article (‘Skull-Face: A Closer Look’) in the same volume.
***If you really want to persist with the racist question because you are doing a thesis, or want to find something to be offended about, or are – I don’t know – a masochist or something, then simply type in the words Howard Southern Discomfort on your computer and you will find more articles, both for and against, than you can deal with.
Moon of Skulls (2005) is published by Wildside Press.