“Worms of the Earth” by Robert E. Howard

[Beware, for though the road is lit, spoilers yet lurk beneath.]

First off, a note: to fulfill certain minimum sanity requirements, I will be scaling back my plans (slightly) by cutting out the weekends, which drops off eight books from my overall schedule, and has the added benefit of me not having to scramble around to find a few more books/authors to fill out the pattern.  Besides, if all those employed people get to take two days off, I might as well do so too, eh?  Now back to our regularly scheduled programming . . . .

ROBERT E. HOWARD

Want some pulp with your Lovecraft?

I know Lovecraft is often identified as pulp, but his elaborate, pained style is taken more from 18th-Century poets and early 19th-Century Gothic than what the other contributors to Weird Tales were doing.  His friend and correspondent, Robert E. Howard, is on the other hand a leader of the pulp style.  Quick to action, short on description, Howard’s writing comes at the reader fast—maybe a little too fast.  Howard is best known as the originator of the character Conan the Barbarian, but this underplays his world-building: between his various stories, he constructed a massive prehistory of Europe, linked even to the present day by his frequent employment of metempsychosis and time-traveling dreams.

But what has this to do with horror?  Well, as I mentioned Lovecraft was a friend and over time they began to influence each other, with Howard adopting the timeless horrors of Lovecraft’s writing, fitting them nicely into his nihilistic view of history.  Here in “Worms of the Earth” we have our first cross-genre story, as Howard’s traditional sword-and-sandal fantasy incorporates the Lovecraftian nightmare.

WORMS OF THE EARTH

Our story starts with the Pict king Bran Mak Morn witnessing the seemingly wrongful execution of one of his subjects at the hands of Roman soldiers.  The brazen attitude of the Romans, in particular the military governor Titus Sulla, infuriates Bran Mak Morn, who decides to enact a plan of revenge.  He kills the soldier who executed his subject, then arranges for a distraction that will get Titus Sulla to head over to the Tower of Trajan.  It seems to me that there’s a certain relevance to the question of chemical warfare (and, in the post-WWII world, nuclear warfare) in the discussion that then rises between Bran Mak Morn and his priest attendant, Gonar:

“‘But in the name of the gods, Bran,’ expostulated” [expostulated?  really?  only in pulp . . .] “the wizard, ‘take your vengeance in another way!'”  He then lists such ways, Bran says “I will have a vengeance such as no Roman ever dreamed of!,” and the wizard says, “Bran, there are weapons too foul to use, even against Rome!”  The standard biowarfare scientist-and-general dialogue, with the twist here being that the violent general is actually the protagonist, and we follow him as he enacts his revenge—summoning the forces of chthonian horror.

First, he has to screw a witch and then gets sent on a fetch quest to steal the Black Stone of these underground masses.  The Black Stone is a recurring object in Howard’s horror stories, to the point where I have to wonder why they didn’t just call this collection that.  (Instead it’s called Cthulhu because . . . marketing, I guess, given that there’s no Cthulhu in the damn book.)  It’s the precious stone of a race of subterranean beings, “a race whose beginnings lay lost and hidden back beyond the dark oblivion of antiquity.”  As it do.  He hides the stone and confronts “the slanted eyes of the beings who had come upon him in such numbers that his brain reeled at the contemplation.”  He arranges a trade: he will return the stone if they bring him Titus Sulla.  Impressed by his manly manliness, and apparently the fact that the race of Picts obliterated most of their race and drove them underground, they agree.

When Bran rides near the Tower of Trajan, he sees that it has been demolished, and soon he meets with the subterranean race, and they do their exchange.  Titus Sulla is brought forth mindless and gibbering after the horrors he has seen, and Bran says, “I had thought to give this stroke in vengeance … I give it in mercy.”  Right at the end we get our canned moral: “Gonar was right—there are shapes too foul to use even against Rome!”

So . . . the racial content in Howard’s writing is hard to ignore, but I have to say it’s less racist, or differently racist, than it might initially seem.  Howard seems to see history as the interplay between various races, their characteristics determined in a sort of Social Darwinist way, but he generally doesn’t pick sides.  Even the pro-Aryan perspective of “The Valley of the Worm” can easily be attributed to its narrator, not the author.  Still, it seems that the theme Howard primarily picked up from Lovecraft is that already-uncomfortable racial degeneracy we see in stories like “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “Arthur Jermyn.”  While no race may be preferred in the long run of history, even casting the conflict between Picts and Romans, or earlier “Mongoloid” groups, as an explicitly racial battle raises too many questions.

Another problem I have with Howard is that he’s not comfortable sitting still.  His characters are always fighting, moving, shooting, doing everything you don’t really need characters in cosmic horror to do.  Many of the stories here, like “The Fire of Asshurbanipal” and “People of the Dark” would have done better with a little less action and a little more description and mood-setting.  That said, the ever-reliable Wikipedia credits Howard with inspiring Lovecraft to use more action segments, such as in “Innsmouth,” and since that sequence is one of the best in Lovecraft’s fiction (even inspiring a harrowing direct imitation in the Call of Cthulhu video game) maybe what we really need here is a healthy midpoint.

Final verdict: you could probably already tell, but I’m not as enamored with Howard as I was with James and Brite.  I give this story a 6/10.  It’s pulpy fun, but it’s also pedantic, overly long, and clichéd.  That said, I enjoy Howard’s pulp a lot better than the other similar author I’ve read, Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I’m not that familiar with these sorts of adventure writings, but at least Howard’s characters are self-aware Gary Sues, the kind of people who flaunt their violence, sexism, and racism in a way that mockingly calls attention to it.  I can safely say that while I’m not really interested in reading any more about John Carter, this collection has inspired in me a desire to one day pick up some good Conan books, maybe even the other collected adventures of Bran Mak Morn.  If you’re looking for some silly but enjoyable adventure horror, you could do worse than Howard.  At the very least, the short story “Pigeons from Hell,” which is often anthologized and therefore easy to find, is worth checking out for some good bayou gothic.

A quick note on this collection: the full title is Cthulhu: the Mythos and Kindred Horrors and if you’re interested in reading Howard’s horror I recommend not getting this collection.  It’s typo-ridden, arbitrarily put together, and honestly it really bugs me that there’s just nothing more than maybe a couple name drops of Cthulhu in the whole damn thing.  Chaosium put out a Howard collection called Nameless Cults that probably has a better selection of his writings on the Black Stone and the Temple of the Toad.  On the other hand, it doesn’t have “Pigeons from Hell,” so there you go.

Tomorrow we head overseas to check out “The Hold” by Koji Suzuki.

All quotations from Cthulhu: the Mythos and Kindred Horrors, Robert E. Howard, Copyright Alla Ray Kuykendall and Alla Ray Morris, 1987.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.

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