The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
by Robert E. Howard
Edited by Rusty Burke
Cover Artist: Greg Staples
Review by Sam Tomaino
Subterranean Press Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596063327
Date: 30 Sept 2010
Like many fans of my age, I discovered the works of Robert E. Howard through the reprints of his Conan stories in Lancer paperbacks in the late 1960's. Fortunately, Lancer also published a collection of Howard's horror fiction called Wolfshead and I became a fan of his horror fiction as well. At about that time, I was able to obtain the Arkham House collection The Dark Man And Others just as it went out of print and was still at a reasonable price. I was further lucky that my college library at the University of Delaware had a copy of Arkham's Skullface and Others. Through these three collections, I read the cream of Howard's horror fiction some 40 years ago. Pretty much everything that could be considered horror (as opposed to adventure, sword and sorcery, humor, etc) from those volumes is in this collection, with a bunch more tasty morsels added to the mix. The collection runs more than 500 pages and includes 36 stories, 20 poems, and 4 fragments. They also give us a list of where each story and poem was first published, a brief foreword by artist Greg Staples (who contributes 7 beautiful color plates and a wealth of black and white illustration) and an informative introduction by editor Rusty Burke.
The fiction begins with two related werewolf stories, "In the Forest of Villefère" and "Wolfshead". I would like to note that these are very early stories in Howard's professional career. His first nationally published story "Spear and Fang" was accepted by Weird Tales just before Thanksgiving of 1924. "In the Forest of Villefère" was accepted shortly afterward. The stories were published in Weird Tales in, respectively, July and August of 1925 and Howard was off and running. "In the Forest of Villefère" and "Wolfshead" are interesting in that these two werewolf stories precede not only the famous lycanthrope movies The Werewolf of London (1935) and The Wolfman(1941) but Guy Endore's Werewolf of Paris, the first major werewolf novel which was not published until 1933. There had been a dime novel called Wagner the Wehr-Wolf by G.W.M. Reynolds published in 1847, but this was long out of print and forgotten. Algernon Blackwood had published some werewolf stories and H. Warner Munn's "The Werewolf of Ponkert" was published in Weird Tales at about the same time. So much of the werewolf lore that we consider standard today had not been established. Howard was on his own. Both these werewolf stories involve a man known as De Montour of Normandy and feature the beginning and the end of his experience with lycanthropy. Howard's version of werewolf lore is summed up in "Wolfshead" with "if a werewolf is slain in the half-form of a man, its ghost will haunt its slayer through eternity. But if it's slain as a wolf, hell gapes to receive it. The true werewolf is not (as many think) a man who may take the form of a wolf, but a wolf who takes the form of a man!" Those italics are Howard's not mine and I have not forgotten them in the past 40+ years. These stories get this collection off to a fine start.
The collection includes Howard's two Faring Town stories and a poem, "A Legend of Faring Town". "Sea Curse" was actually published in Weird Tales in May of 1928. The town is full of foul men but none fouler than John Kulrek and his crony, Lie-lip Canool. When they rape and (apparently) murder the niece of the town witch, Moll Farrell, she lays a nasty curse on them. How that works out makes for a nice little chiller. "Out of the Deep" was not published until 1967. Adam Falcon and Margaret Deveral are in love. His body washes up on shore, apparently all that was left of his ship, but Margaret insists the body is not his. She is later found dead in the arms of John Gower, who also loved her. He insists the dead body of Adam rose and killed her but he is not believed, even though the body of Adam is missing. This culminates in quite a story and it is a shame that Howard was not encouraged to write more with the Faring Town locale.
There are two excellent stories featuring Howard's Puritan avenger, Solomon Kane, that are deemed horrific enough to be included. "Rattle of Bones" was not the first Kane story published but it is considered the first in the chronology of his career. Kane is traveling in the Black Forest and just before coming to a tavern, meets a man calling himself Gaston L'Armon. They meet the owner of the tavern who gives its name as the Cleft Skull Tavern but not his own name. The two men do not trust the tavern owner and when they find a skeleton bound by the leg in an upstairs room, they grow more wary. But there are more menaces than apparent as Kane finds out. "Hills of the Dead" finds Kane in Africa. He rescues a young girl named Zunna from a lion but before he can bring her back to her village, they are set upon by two fierce creatures that Kane finally destroys. He realizes that they are vampires and the girl tells them of the a large number of the walking dead that bedevil her village. Kane need to call on the magic of the voodoo priest N'Longa to destroy them.
The volume also includes what is one of the best Bran Mak Morn stories, "The Worms of the Earth". The Pictish chieftain despises the Romans who have invaded his land. He calls on ancient magic to take care of the brutal Roman governor, Titus Sulla. But there are limits to even where Bran will go. This tale is rightly considered one of his best.
There are so many great stories here, that I can't talk about them all. Two of the best are part of his piney woods tales, set in a Texas locale that he knows best. The one drawback is the use of racist language by the characters, but the horrific power that they have cannot be denied. "Black Canaan" starts out with our narrator, Kirby Buckner, being warned about "Trouble on Tularoosa Creek". He knows to got to Canaan, located between Black River and Tularoosa Creek, where the descendants of white frontiersman and the black slaves live in a uneasy peace. He learns of a black conjer man named Saul Stark who means to kill all the white people of Canaan. He is, however, no hero of his own people whom he makes monsters of by "putting them in the swamp". Howard makes good use of legends that are unfamiliar to us.
Another story is one of his most famous and one of his best "Pigeons from Hell". Two men named Branner and Griswell decide to spend the night in a decayed old Southern mansion. Griswell wakes to see an indistinct yellow face and sees his friend, seemingly in a trance, get up and walk up the stairs. When Branner comes back down he had a hatchet in his hand and his skull has been split open. He flees and tells his story to the sheriff, who at first does not believe him. He knows the mansion used to belong to a family named Blassenville, some of whom disappeared a long time ago. Again, Howard introduces us to a new kind of monster called a zuvembie, something a bit different from a zombie and much more dangerous. This story was well-adapted for the old horror television series Thriller, which has been recently released on DVD. It's one of the best of that series, too.
This collection is long overdue and should be part of any Howard collector's library.