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.
“Many of us sometimes wonder what Howard would have done if he had continued to write for the rest of his life, whether he would have continued writing pulp stories – westerns, boxing yarns, oriental tales, and supernatural adventure – or whether his ambitions would have grown. I like to think of him becoming, like Larry McMurtry, a big enough writer to tell the story of Texas herself, in all her glorious and inglorious reality, maybe doing for Texas what Steinbeck did for California…”
Mazed by the trail, and by the whole world plan,
Drudging and toiling, never knowing why,
The Cosmic Jester of the gods is man,
Philosophers are fools, priests jest and lie.
Nothing is real. Leaves and song-birds fly.
‘Futility’ – Howard, 1926.
Apart from the not-inconsiderable drawback of being dead, 1936 had turned out to be a good year for Robert E. Howard in terms of Weird Tales appearances. In fact, between the Decembers of ’35 and ‘36 he had featured prominently in every issue.
The November 1936 copy marked the Texan’s 50th story for the Unique Magazine; and it would have carried a graceful touch if it had been a really major landmark outing such as the previous Conan novella, Red Nails.
Instead, that particular milestone was marked by the mainly undistinguished Black Hound of Death, another tale of horror and macho doings in the Deep South Piney Woods.
It’s really quite a demented little story, on so many levels; and it would be nice to report that it is saved by good writing; but despite conjuring up a solid atmosphere – which the man could do in his sleep – this is REH at his pulpiest.
‘Sinister Masters of Super-Science…’
We have, of course, a damsel in distress; but in this case the main protagonist is, by his own admission, one hell of a scarred and beat-up fighting man, who has little hope of winning said fair maiden; and the demonic threat comes from one of those Eastern Cults (so beloved of pulp writers of the period) who have spent considerable time, money and ingenuity in torturing a white man by turning him into a sort of rabid hybrid hound. Of Death, obviously. Why and to what purpose, I’m not sure.
- M. Sterling has a rather amusing commentary on the story in the entertaining Howard anthology Trails in Darkness:
“Obscure, secretive, and thought by their Muslim neighbours to be Satanists, the Yazidis were a perfect ‘evil cult’ for those pulp writers who used the Orient as their backdrop. Especially those who like Howard (and unlike, say, Talbot Mundy, who lived and travelled extensively in the East) knew very little about the eastern countries. In this story, Howard combines the piney-woods Southern backlands of many of his stories with the nameless evil of the Yazidis – here placed in Mongolia, about four thousand miles from their actual homeland in northern Iraq, and transformed into sinister masters of super-science.”
Yet even in a minor piece such as this there is a dark power in Howard’s descriptions of both the terrain and the tormented, transformed and deliciously named Adam Grimm. And I simply have to quote this almost pathologically over-the-top section which can’t help but make the reader wonder if dear old Two-Gun Bob might not have benefitted from some psychiatric help:
“Each of us was aware of only one desire, one blind crimson urge to kill with naked hands, to rend and tear and maul and trample until the other was a motionless mass of bloody flesh and splintered bone…
“There was a crack of bone, an involuntary groan; blood spurted and the broken jaw dropped down. A bloody froth covered the loose lips. Then for the first time those black, tearing fingers faltered; I felt the great body that strained against mine yield and sag. And with a wild-beast sob of gratified ferocity ebbing from my pulped lips, my fingers at last met in his throat…
“In that drunkenness of battle, I did not know when he died, did not know that it was death that had at last melted the iron thews of the body beneath me. Reeling up numbly, I dazedly stamped on his breast and head until the bones gave way under my heels…”
I find a kind of frenzied lunacy in that which appears to go beyond simple pulp bloodiness and instead gives us the uncomfortable image of a writer who is so lost in the moment that he is screaming, yelling and raging over his old Underwood No. 5 like a frigging maniac – as indeed he was wont to do.
In fact, if I’m honest, I find it damned disturbing.
Robert, wherever your troubled soul is now, I’ve read and loved you my whole life, but I have to say: You had issues, man.
No wonder the neighbours were known to complain.
“…Some Yet Unborn Rainbow.”
The Fire of Asshurbanipal appeared in the December issue of Weird Tales and put a full stop to that grim and momentous year of 1936. When Lovecraft followed Howard’s shade into the Grey Lands three months later, editor Farnsworth Wright lost two of his most popular contributors. With Lovecraft, he had quite a lot of material – and really choice stuff, at that — he could still draw on; with Howard, not so much, and of that it was mainly poetry. So there is a feeling, rightly or wrongly, of what we were now seeing being pieces that would have been (or indeed had been) rejected if he had lived.
The Fire of Asshurbanipal is a case in point. Neither good nor bad, it is pretty standard pulp fare of the day. And the two leads are standard Howard heroes:
“Wanderers, soldiers of fortune, thrown together by chance and attracted to each other by mutual admiration, [Steve Clarney] and Yar Ali had wandered from India up through Turkistan and down through Persia, an oddly assorted but highly capable pair. Driven by the inherent urge of relentless wanderlust, their avowed purpose – which they swore to and sometimes believed themselves – was the accumulation of some vague and undiscovered treasure, some pot of gold at the foot of some yet unborn rainbow.”
In this case their quest takes them to a lost city and a haunted gem; and Howard is at his most interesting when speculating on things that he himself found absorbing, such as the drift through history of tribes and nations:
“’The winged bulls of Nineveh! The bulls with men’s heads! By the saints, Ali, the old tales are true! The Assyrians did build this city! The whole tale’s true! They must have come here when the Babylonians destroyed Assyria – why, this scene’s a dead ringer for pictures I’ve seen – reconstructed scenes of Old Nineveh!’”
In stark contrast to the previous story, I get a good feeling from this one, modest as it is.
Whilst Black Hound of Death was set closer to home and obviously with the writer in one of his darkest of moods, here Howard could let his imagination soar as it roamed through lands he would never see, vicariously living lives he would never know, and all of it outrageously idealized:
“It was not altogether greed for a fabled gem that had prompted Steve Clarney to risk his life in that grim wilderness; deep in his soul lurked the age-old heritage of the white man, the urge to seek out the hidden places of the world, and that urge had been stirred to the depths by the ancient tales.”
Some people class this as ‘one of REH’s tales of the Cthulhu Mythos’, along with crediting him with having written another two dozen or some such nonsense.
Now there are two dopey statements that always make me want to put my fist through something.
Look, throwing in a reference to Yog-Sothoth does not a Mythos tale make, no more than the mention of a Cimmerian in Lovecraft’s The Shadow Out of Time made it a Conan yarn.
In my less-than-humble opinion there were two – count them, two! – tales by Howard that should be properly considered part of the Mythos. And they would be the excellent The Black Stone and its kind-of sequel, The Thing on the Roof.
That’s it. Two.
And yet there are at least a couple of anthologies to my knowledge that claim to be collections of ‘Howard’s Cthulhu Mythos stories’.
For Christ’s sake, get a grip.
John Doesn’t Dig Graves…And Neither Does John
And here’s another case in point. Dig Me No Grave appeared in the February 1937 issue of Weird Tales, although it certainly seems to have been written years before.
Oddly enough, I’ve just been trying to establish when exactly by going through Rusty Burke’s indispensible Howard Fiction and Verse Timeline and I’m damned if I can find it. Since Burke tends to be exhaustive in his research I’m guessing that these tired old eyes of mine are just missing it.
I’m going to place its origin around 1930/1931 for several reasons: first, a specific 1930 date is given in the story; second, it mentions Kathulos, his character from Skull-Face which would have recently seen print; thirdly, in the REH collection Beyond the Borders it is introduced as being the first John Kirowan tale, and since another of his stories was printed years before (that God-awful junk, The Haunter of the Ring), it must have predated that; and finally just because it feels like a story that was initially rejected.
And after all that, is it any good? No, not to me it’s not. And yet I can think of at least three anthologies it appears in, so somebody likes it.
Unusually for Howard, there’s no real sense of place and it’s really sloppy in the bargain. John Kirowan’s friend John Conrad starts battering his door down just after midnight to tell him that John Grimlan has died and that he’s been stuck with the totally mental, off-the-wall death-duties. (Notice anything odd there? Concerning the name John in a story with only four characters in it? And where one of them is dead and the other isn’t human?)
Instead of shooting the asshole on the spot for putting the fear of God in him by talking weird shit in the dead of night, John jumps out of bed to look out the window, gets back into bed, leaps back out of bed, John lets himself in and John accompanies John along to John’s remains where it turns out that John had sold his soul years before to the deity Malik Tous, whose middle name may well be John, for all I know.
If The Haunter of the Ring had a brother it would be called Dig Me No Grave, John; Dig Me No Grave
Oh, yeah; and just to wreck my head altogether it is considered a Mythos tale.
No, it’s not.
Blood of the Poet
The remainder of this penultimate volume is made up of some more of Howard’s poetry, always excellent: The Soul-Eater, The Dream and the Shadow, Which Will Scarcely Be Understood, Futility, Fragment, Haunting Columns, The Poets and The Singer in the Mist. They appeared in Weird Tales between August, 1937 and April, 1938.
This post has gone on long enough – and in any case, I’m not authority on poetry, just someone who knows what he likes. However, if you wish to learn more about Howard’s poetic output (and many consider it superior to his prose) you could do worse than start by consulting Steve Eng’s Barbarian Bard from The Dark Barbarian: The Writings of Robert E. Howard or Michele Tetro’s Words from the Outer Dark, published in Two-Gun Bob: A Centennial Study of Robert E. Howard.
For my part, let me quote just two verses from Which Will Scarcely Be Understood:
The Poets know that justice is a lie,
That good and light are baubles filled with dust –
This world’s slave-market where swine sell and buy,
This shambles where howling cattle die,
Has blinded not their eyes with lies and lust.
Break down the altars, let the streets run red,
Tramp down the race into the crawling slime;
Then where red Chaos lifts her serpent head,
The Fiend be praised, we’ll pen the perfect rime.
Next: The Thunder of Trumpets