Sunday, September 15, 2013
Toads and Snakes and Ghostly Apes
Nice little collection of Robert E. Howard horror stories, some but not all of them additions to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. Howard added Nameless Cults, another evil tome of lore that should have been forgotten, to the Mythos, along with a few creatures, characters, books, and quasi-gods.
Among the Mythos tales, "The Black Stone" is by far the strongest. It places the action in Eastern Europe rather than North America, where much of Lovecraft's work was set. Besides introducing some of the poetry of Justin Geoffrey, who would be driven mad by the cosmic horrors he experienced and die screaming in an asylum, the story also gives us an extremely unpleasant toad-thing. It also introduces Muslims as, if not heroes, then not as villains -- their sweep into Hungary results in the destruction of a particularly horrible witch-cult. And in the Cthulhu universe, witch-cults aren't worshipping anything as mundane as Satan.
The other stories include a desert adventure into a lost city reputed to be guarded by something awful ("The Fire of Asshurbanipal") and a couple of heroic fantasies with major horror elements ("The Worms of the Earth" and "The Valley of the Worm"). "The Worms of the Earth" also ties in with "People of the Dark", as both present a subterranean race of reptilian 'men' driven underground by humanity some time in the dim past. These stories echo some of Arthur Machen's prototypical dark fantasies about the 'Little People', but with a typical Howard flavour (snakes and snake-like beings were one of Howard's most-favoured tropes).
"The Thing on the Roof" and "Dig Me No Grave" are fairly standard Mythos stories, although the former doesn't really achieve shock in its final revelation. "The Shadow of the Beast", one of Howard's many posthumously published stories, conjures up some nice atmospherics in a haunted house. The thing doing the haunting turns out to be quite interesting, partially because Howard's hard-bitten narrator shows some pity for its plight.
And then there's "Pigeons from Hell," adjudged by Stephen King to be one of the scariest stories ever written. It is quite a creep-out, and may be made even more creepy by the heavy lifting required to make a story with that somewhat goofy title legitimately scary.
Here, Howard seemed to be riffing on Lovecraft's repeated use of whippoorwills as psychopompic omens of death and the supernatural in the New England states, substituting pigeons for the Southern United States. It's the only thing about this horror story that doesn't quite play -- otherwise, this is a masterpiece of building tension and repeated shocks. It's Howard's finest horror short story, and one that stands up well against anyone else's horror stories, anywhere, anytime. In all, recommended.