Wings in the Night The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume 4

Wings in the Night

The Weird Works of Robert E.  Howard, Volume 4

Edited by

Paul Herman

Part One



The first seventy pages of this volume of Wildside Press’s superb collections almost feel like a cleaning of the slate before beginning the chronicling of Robert E.  Howard’s most famous creation – Conan of Cimmeria.

Of course, this is only because I’m reading them from a vantage point and perspective of eighty-three years after the two stories and two poems in those pages were first published.  This alone is extraordinary, as the tales in this volume – and they are from a master story teller at the very height of his powers – seem as fresh and vital as they must have seemed back then.

Even so, it is tempting for me to see this as Howard summing up and saying farewell to some of his most celebrated heroes.  In terms of being published in the author’s lifetime, King Kull of Valusia had bowed out at the beginning of volume 3; and the collection at hand also features the last of his poetry to be published in Weird Tales magazine.

Editor Farnsworth Wright would only feature one piece per writer in any given issue; and since he paid by the word the two poems that he included for August and September of 1932 weren’t of much use to REH’s bank balance, given that they each contained only one verse.  Indeed, it’s hard to see why Howard even bothered sending them in. (There were a final two in 1933.)

I only quote Arkham because of the very tenuous connection to Lovecraft:

Drowsy and dull with age the houses blink

On aimless streets the rat-gnawed years forget –

But what inhuman figures leer and slink

Down the old alleys when the moon has set?

Hardly his finest moment, but there you go.

As Above…

Wings in the Night (Weird Tales, July, 1932) was the seventh and final appearance of Solomon Kane.  A further six tales existed as well as three poems; but this was Kane’s swan song for ‘the Unique Magazine’ until after Howard’s death.

Those of you have taken the trouble to read the previous three reviews for the Wildside Press volumes will know that I’ve never much cared for the adventures of the Puritan wanderer/nutcase.  Having said that, he certainly bows out in style with this, one of the best of his stories.

Pursued through the vastness of Africa by a cannibal tribe, Kane comes to a country where the people live in terror of a race of bat-winged creatures that treat them as cattle.  The tribe’s ju-ju man tells Solomon of a legend that has them come originally from ‘a great lake of bitter water’ to the north and being driven south by a legendary hero.

This leads to one of REH’s marvelous speculations:

“…what was the great bitter lake but the Mediterranean Ocean and who was the chief N’Yasunna but the hero Jason, who conquered the harpies and drove them – not alone into the Strophades Isles but into Africa as well?  The old pagan tale was true then, Kane thought dizzily, shrinking aghast from the realm of grisly possibilities this opened up.  For if this myth of the harpies were a reality, what of the other legends – the Hydra, the centaurs, the chimera, Medusa, Pan and the satyrs?  All those myths of antiquity – behind them did there lie and lurk nightmare realities…”

These People of the Shadow ask Kane to stay and protect them from the man-eating harpies, but everything goes square-shaped and the Puritan fanatic takes a revenge on the entire race that is breathtaking in its ferocity:

“…was he not a symbol of Man, staggering among the tooth-marked bones and severed grinning heads of humans, brandishing a futile ax, and screaming incoherent hate at the grisly, winged shapes of Night that make him their prey, chuckling in demonic triumph above him and dripping into his mad eyes the pitiful blood of their human victims?” 

There is much for the Kane enthusiast to get from Wings in the Night.  For myself, I can’t help throwing out an admittedly half-baked theory of my own before we leave him.

Since a close reading of all the tales and poems in the Kane canon shows that it would be pretty much impossible to reconcile his travels and backgrounds with certain historical events and personages that REH throws into the mix, would it be desirable to see him as a sort of undying or at least quasi-immortal Puritan fanatic?  Although I’m being slightly flippant here, I don’t think that his back story can really be reconciled in any other way.

In truth, though, I think that I just get a kick from conjecturing that this most extreme of Christians was –probably unknown to himself – a creature of sorcery.  At the very least, more a man of Dark than of Light.

…So Below

Worms of the Earth (WT, November, 1932) is both one of Howard’s most popular stories as well as, without a doubt, one his best.  Rereading it yesterday for perhaps the sixth or seventh time in forty years I found that not only do I still find it a near-fresh experience but am able to take yet more meaning from it than I remembered.  It truly is one of REH’s masterpieces.  In fact, one wonders how he would have fared as a film director, so vivid is each image, so smoothly does he progress through time and space from scene to scene.

It opens with a crucifixion that the reader has the equivalent of being unable to tear his eyes away from witnessing.  The atmosphere is both starkly expectant and tensely horrific; and as the man lying on the rough cross grimly awaits the striking in of the nails Howard describes both the arrogant Roman commander, Titus Sulla and the Pictish king, Bran Mak Morn, with what I can only describe as a paradoxical, savagely lush economy that practically paints the images before us.

Then a curious thing happens.  As the verbal barbs go from Titus Sulla towards Mak Morn, the latter’s growing hatred is reflected in terse sentences as becoming so deep, so all-encompassing as to be almost perversely sexual (“Aye!  And the accuser was a Roman, the witnesses Roman, the judge Roman!  He committed murder?  In a moment of fury he struck down a Roman merchant who cheated, tricked and robbed him, and to injury added insult – aye, and a blow!” ).

Mac Morn’s utter feelings of hate almost reach a climax; but he is denied release due in part to his inability to attack Titus Sulla and in part to the very silence of the crucified man:

“The Pict shut his iron jaws with a snap that told Sulla further badgering would elicit no reply.  The Roman made a gesture to the executioners.  One of them seized a spike and placing it against the thick wrist of the victim, smote heavily.  The iron point sank deep through the flesh, crunching against the bones.  The lips of the man on the cross writhed, though no moan escaped him.  As a trapped wolf fights against his cage, the bound victim instinctively wrenched and struggled.  The veins swelled in his temples, sweat beaded his low forehead, the muscles in arms and legs writhed and knotted.  The hammers fell in inexorable strokes, driving the cruel points deeper and deeper, through the wrists and ankles; blood flowed in a black river over the hands that held the spikes, staining the wood of the cross, and the splintering of bones was distinctly heard.  Yet the sufferer made no outcry, though his blackened lips writhed back until the gums were visible, and his shaggy head jerked involuntarily from side to side.”

It is a remarkable scene, possibly ‘less in need of analysis than of psychoanalysis’. * (Although in fairness you may well be thinking that of the current reviewer, heh.)

Note the description of the heavy spikes.  Not for Howard were the almost dainty little nails of contemporary crucifixion scenes.  These resemble the monstrous creations of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  And Gibson, of course, remains even at his age now, my first choice to play Mak Morn if some enterprising studio ever sees the wisdom in bringing the Last King to the big screen.

The Morni swears by the black gods of R’lyeh a dark and bloody revenge on the Roman commander, even if it means enlisting the aid of the Children of the Night, those who had lived above ground long and long ago.  Now, though, they were very far regressed back down the evolutionary road indeed.  To this end he steals their sacred artifact, the Black Stone, whose location he has learned from Atla, the witch-woman of Dagon-moor:

“The woman was not old, yet the evil wisdom of the ages were in her eyes; her garments were ragged and scanty, her black locks tangled and unkempt, lending her an aspect of wildness well in keeping with her grim surroundings.  Her red lips laughed but there was no mirth in her laughter, only a hint of mockery, and under the lips her teeth showed sharp and pointed like fangs.”

It soon becomes apparent that she herself is the offspring of one of the ‘worms of the earth’ and a raped human woman, an appalling notion very much in the manner of Arthur Machen, the brilliant Welsh writer who Howard admired greatly.

And her price for telling Mak Morn what he needs to know?  It is nothing less than a night of passion with the obsessed king.  I can still remember my shock when I first read this and realised that even this was not too high a price for Bran to pay in order to have his revenge.  Howard may have been writing in the fantasy vein, but his heroes were a million miles removed from the likes of, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s characters.

And in the end, the vengeance he visits on Titus Sulla is a terrible one indeed.

Worms of the Earth is an essential Howard story on so many levels, far too many for me to feel the need to go into here.

However, as you may have noticed from his use of the names ‘R’lyeh’ and ‘Dagon’ it is set very firmly in the Lovecraftian universe.  And in fact, Lovecraft himself had used the name of Bran in his story, The Whisperer in Darkness, which had been published in Weird Tales for August, 1931.  In fact, Worms of the Earth is a very successful melding of Lovecraftian fiction with a style that is purely Howard’s own.  As with the best of his output, absolutely no one but him could have written it.

And the sheer hatred that is here for the Roman Empire is so totally believable simply because it was in no way faked.  Howard truly hated it with a passion — something that led to some fine arguments with Lovecraft, who admired it.  One can imagine Two-Gun Bob, down in Texas, almost having a massive brain embolism as he tried to stay civil enough to reply to Lovecraft up in New England:

“How do you know the Romans didn’t use the blood-eagle?  They wrote their own history, and left out what suited them.  Anyway, they had crucifixion and red hot irons and other persuaders, and their descendents, your Fascist friends, are not lacking in similar ingenuity – their famous ‘nut-cracker’ for instance, which crushes the testicles of the victim to a purple pulp.

“I read with interest your rhapsodies over the Romans, and am puzzled, as I have been in the past, as to how you can idealize one people of a former age to such a degree and at the same time so bitterly attack me for my interest in another.  But I suppose it’s in keeping with your own peculiar intolerance for interests differing from your own.

“I was deeply interested in your remarks concerning the Roman occupation of Britain.  That gives me another reason to be thankful that there is so little English blood in my veins, and that what is there is more Danish than Briton or Saxon. If I thought I had a drop of Roman blood in my veins, I’d be glad to take a knife and let it out.  My pride in my distant ancestors is not based on the fact that they were conquered by the Romans, but on the fact that they whipped the socks off those big-shot racketeers of antiquity.”

This is a bleak, grim finale and farewell to the Last Pictish King.  And it is made more so for me because I can’t help dwelling on something that could easily escape the notice.

Much is made in the few Bran Mak Morn stories that there are of his pure bloodline; yet has he now polluted it irredeemably and in a manner that would be both grotesque and ironic?  Is it sick of me to imagine that perhaps — just possibly – there was a child from that night of carnality with Atla, the were-woman?  If so, then Bran would have fathered a line that contained the blood of the degraded Children of the Night.  It is even hinted at in the last words that Atla throws at him:

“…you are stained with the taint – you have called them forth and they will remember!  And in their own time they will come to you again!”

It is a shuddersome conclusion to a Howard masterpiece.

Next:  Conan…and a Cairn on a Headland.

* I can’t recall who I stole that fine phrase from; but it was used in a review for Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

Author: Charley Brady

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