by Robert E. Howard
416 pages, Wordsworth Editions, Ltd.
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
The problem with creating an iconic figure like Conan the Barbarian is that your name will always be indelibly linked with the character regardless of however many other great stories you write. Robert E. Howard's name will forever be linked with his most famous creation but it is worthwhile noting that the pulp-fiction writer penned a great many stories other than those of the muscle-bound warrior of the Hyborian age.
Howard's contribution to pulp-fiction cannot be overlooked – he popularized the sword and sorcery genre with his tales of Conan and his Lovecraft-inspired tales based within the Cthulhu mythos helped to cement his position as a master of weird fiction. This collection of stories, released as part of the Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural, is a welcome addition to the series. Collecting twenty-one of Howard's short stories, the book wisely avoids any of his endlessly-reprinted Conan tales and focuses instead on his lesser-known characters.
Three of the stories feature Steve Harrison, a tough no-nonsense detective whose Chinatown beat means that he often finds himself up against shadowy assassins, power-mad Mongol warlords and mysterious magical forces. “Fangs of Gold”, “Names in the Black Book” and “Graveyard Rats” are all great fun tales with suitably lurid, over-the-top thrills and moments of staggeringly brutal violence. Reading these stories, it's not hard to see how Howard's writing was criticised back in the 1920s and 30s for being “gross”. “The Children of the Night” and “The People of the Dark” are both tales featuring past-life regression and you can guarantee that the past-lives have more than their fair share of rippling barbarian muscles and blood-drenched battle axes.
Although many of the tales touch on familiar horror or fantasy tropes such as werewolves, cursed jewellery and angry old gods, Howard is able to imbue each of the stories with enough youthful energy and vigour that they seem fresh and original. The author's admiration for H.P. Lovecraft has already been mentioned, but it is worth noting that his Cthulhu-esque tales focus more on high adventure and heroes overcoming their terrible foes than Lovecraft's misanthropic tales of gloom and insanity. Die-hard fans of Lovecraft might feel that Howard's softer approach is a cop-out but for me they are no less enjoyable.
Howard was one of those writers who gained inspiration from other authors and a few of the stories feel more like tributes than wholly original works of fiction. A great example of this is “Skull-Face”, an utterly barmy novella which bears more than a passing resemblance to Sax Rohmer's tales of Fu Manchu. Whilst not the most original concept, in Howard's hands the tale becomes a gloriously excessive story that was, for me, one of the highlights of the collection. The hero of the tale is Steve Costigan, a veteran of the trenches of the first world war and a hopeless hashish addict. He finds himself in the thrall of the mysterious Kathulos, a powerful sorcerer and leader of the underworld who also happens to be a living, breathing survivor of the sunken land of Atlantis with his sights set on world domination. To fully enjoy this story, the longest in the collection, requires a willing suspension of disbelief. An assassination attempt disguised as a gorilla, hypnotism, secret passages full of poisonous snakes and a (literally) explosive climax where one tenth of London is destroyed are just some of the goofy thrills readers can expect.
Another noteworthy tale is “The Horror form the Mound” - masterfully paced tale where Howard plays one the reader's expectations and gradually cranks up the tension up throughout. As well as being a tight little story, this is also one of the earliest examples of a “Weird West” genre story where the historical setting of the Old West is mixed with aspects of horror and fantasy.
Howard was by no means a subtle writer. His horror stories rarely stop at the suggestion of lurking evil, rather he appears to relish showing the hideous terrors and describes in gory detail the gruesome wounds they inflict on their victims. Severed heads fly, blood gushes, skulls are crushed to pulp and stomachs are torn out. This penchant for blood-letting does not mean the writing is clumsy or lacking in skill. Howard's pacing and ability to sustain tension puts many modern thriller writers to shame. Those who grumble about the lack of detailed characterisation are totally missing the point. Pulp fiction aimed to provide as many thrills and chills as possible within the constraints of the relatively short stories, characterisation was a luxury that few writers could indulge in. Besides which, the predominantly young male readership had little interest in complex and realistic central characters, they wanted square-jawed heroes with fists of iron and unshakeable courage. To put it another way, this isn't prime cuts of steak – this is hamburger with extra relish.
“The Haunter of the Ring and Other Tales” is a great collection. The outlandish action-packed stories of heroes and monsters might not appeal to readers with more sophisticated literary tastes but this is pure pulp, and a fantastic introduction to a writer who deserves greater recognition than just being known as the creator of Conan.
Hereward L.M. Proops