When you exist as a contemporary to Lovecraft you’re already in something of a bind when you write horror stories. Like it or not you will be compared and that’s…a difficult prospect. Now when you are also his BFF and their endless piles of correspondences between the two of you, the comparisons are no longer obligatory, but mandatory. And once more, when you find yourself altering your future stories based on ideas Lovecraft gave you, you’ve effectively attached yourself to him like an insecure younger brother. This is not to say that Robert E. Howard was not an excellent writer in his own right, he was. He was and to my limited knowledge remains the master of dark violent adventure.
I think Stephen King was right when he said there are three tiers of horror: 1 – The Gross-out, the gore and guts, 2 – The Horror, the unnatural moving and seething around you, and 3 – The Terror, the phantom wrongness that exists in every direction and yet never comes to view. Howard’s horror exists firmly between tiers one and two, his prose thrives in the viscerality of movement and action over anything near the psychological. There are guts, grotesque creatures seething through cramped tunnels, but only occasionally does he manage to find his way to that place overwhelming terror.
As a sort of primer to Howard’s work, I can see the collection going quite well, you get introduced to a sort of prequel Conan (as a gaelic reaver of all things), Solomon Kane (though they selected Hills of the Dead as opposed to the much more haunting Wings in the Night), Bran Mak Morn (Worms of the Earth is easily my favorite in this collection), but none of them are the best foot forward, which is a shame.
Many of the stories included here exist without the characters that most are familiar with, replaced as they are with generic Texan men saying and doing obviously stupid/ominous Texas things before the horror of the month arrives. They were bodies made to engage, and as need be, succumb to horror, and at that point they are an impediment to what you’re trying to accomplish.
I was surprised to realize how much I enjoyed the poetry that was included in this book. The horror in these poems is palpable in a way that few of the tales ever really manage to muster. They almost beg to be read in dark forests, seas, and faraway lands. Horror lies in absence and poetry is absence incarnate.
And as with any author who kills themselves, he left a great number of writing fragments. Prone as he was with writing sketches and then moving on to other things there seems to be an almost inordinate amount of them in every Del Rey collection. I understand the need to pad the page count in some instances, but I’m not sure broadcasting the naked half-thoughts of a writer is ever worth doing next to their whole and completed work. Now, shame the dead with a separate volume of incomplete thoughts? Sure, a man’s gotta eat, but here they just come across as out of place, ideas shackled to a history and mind that didn’t stick around long enough to complete them, which I guess is an existential sort of horror, but I do that enough outside of books, I really don’t need publishers piling on as well.
I suppose it would also behoove to mention that there is also a bunch of sexism, racism, and generally archaic modes of thinking in this book. If you can’t take that in the context of his time and appreciate what lies past you probably also believe that Huckleberry Finn deserved to be censored, in which case we should make sure never to meet as I guarantee we will end up screaming at each other.
‘”Aye,” he growled, “I am a Pict, a son of those warriors who drove your brutish ancestors before them like chaff before the storm!–who flooded the land with your blood and heaped high your skulls for a sacrifice to the Moon-Woman! You who fled of old before my race, dare ye now snarl at your master? Roll on me like a flood now, if ye dare! Before your viper fangs drink my life I will reap your multitudes like ripened barley–of your severed heads will I build a tower and of your mangled corpses will I rear up a wall! Dogs of the dark, vermin of Hell, worms of the earth, rush in and try my steel! When Death finds me in this dark cavern, your living will howl for the scores of your dead and your Black Stone will be lost to you forever–for only I know where it is hidden and not all the tortures of all the Hells can wring the secret from my lips!”‘ – Robert E. Howard, The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard