A very long time ago, when I was still in high school, Texas-born Robert E. Howard was one of my favorite authors, and this reader could not get enough of him, whether it was via such legendary characters as Conan the Cimmerian, King Kull, Solomon Kane or Bran Mak Morn.
Flash forward more years than I’d care to admit, and one day I realized that I hadn’t read a book of Howard’s in all that intervening time. Sure, I’d run across the occasional story of his now and then; when your tastes run to vintage pulp fiction, as do mine, and you read a lot of old anthologies and Best of Weird Tales collections, the man is practically unavoidable. But an entire book devoted to Howard … it had been eons, for me.
Thus, the collection entitled The Haunter of the Ring & Other Tales — a big, 400-page affair from Wordsworth Editions’ economically priced Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural subdivision, which has rescued from oblivion dozens of writers of the macabre — was just too much for me to resist. The book includes a scholarly essay on Howard by M.J. Elliott, followed by no less than 21 of Howard’s best tales (none of the stories deals with those four famous characters listed up top), conveniently arranged in chronological order so that the reader can better appreciate Howard’s increasing skill as a wordsmith as he practiced his craft. Fourteen of these stories have been culled from the pages of Weird Tales (although the collection does not include his first story sold to the legendary magazine, “Spear and Fang,” from the 7/25 issue) and the rest from other competing pulp publications: Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, Strange Detective Stories, Super-Detective Stories and Thrilling Mystery. Chronologically, the tales span Howard’s entire writing career, from 1925 until the posthumously released “Pigeons From Hell” in 1938 (two years after Howard’s suicide, at age 30). And, as it turns out, the book is a wonderful overview of REH’s enormous oeuvre. I just ate this book up, and absolutely loved each and every story in it. Simply stated, this is one helluva collection.
As for the tales themselves, Howard wrote in many different genres — although he almost single-handedly created the genre now known as sword & sorcery — and many of his genres are represented here. The collection kicks off with two tales dealing with a French werewolf named de Montour. “In the Forest of Villefore” serves as merely a short introduction, but its sequel, “Wolfshead” (the cover story of the 4/26 Weird Tales), is a tremendously exciting affair that transpires in East Africa, of all places, and gives the reader an explanation of how werewolves arose in the first place. Howard was a big fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard, and his story “The Hyena” is surely reminiscent of those two great writers. He was also a fan of Fu Manchu creator Sax Rohmer, and in the novella-length “Skull-Face,” Howard does a Rohmer pastiche that is dead-on, replacing the Chinese supervillain with Kathulos, a diabolical mastermind posing as an Egyptian, but who is ultimately revealed to be (slight spoiler ahead) a survivor of the lost continent of Atlantis! This pulpy tale, crudely written as it is (it ran as a three-part serial in Weird Tales in late 1929), is still wonderfully entertaining, and remarkably, features the destruction of 1/10 of London! Howard, of course, was also a fan of (and penpals with) his fellow Weird Tales contributor H.P. Lovecraft, and his short tale “Sea Curse” is a very well-done homage. Howard was fond of referencing Lovecraft’s Elder Gods (such as Cthulhu) in his own stories, as well as Lovecraft’s dreaded book The Necronomicon, and likewise, Lovecraft would repay the favor by mentioning Howard’s imaginary evil tome Nameless Cults in his own tales. The collection in question gives us two marvelous stories featuring Howard’s infamous book: “The Black Stone,” a marvelously written piece in which an ancient Hungarian monolith gives an explorer a glimpse of a horrible worship ceremony centuries ago, and its sequel of sorts, “The Thing on the Roof,” in which another explorer in the Yucatan somehow arouses the wrath of a toad-shaped monstrosity.
In three of the stories here, men are vouchsafed a vision of one of their previous lives, via a knock on the head or magical influence. Thus, in “The Children of the Night,” a man sees himself as a warrior battling the inhuman inhabitants of England who predated the Picts (in this story, a character mentions that the three greatest horror stories ever written are Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Arthur Machen’s “Black Seal” … and Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”!); in “People of the Dark,” a man sees himself as Conan the Reaver (NOT the same character that Howard is most famous for), battling a subterranean people, set against a love triangle dealing with a triple reincarnation (!); and in the oft-anthologized “The Cairn on the Headland,” an Irishman flashes back to the time when he helped fight off the Vikings in the year 1014.
And speaking of stories that have been anthologized often, and for good reason, the collection also includes the wonderful tale “The Thing From the Mound,” a Western/vampire hybrid story, as well as the truly frightening horror masterpiece “Pigeons From Hell”; this is the story that introduced readers to the female creature known as the “zuvembie,” an even scarier proposition than a zombie, trust me! Continuing in the Western vein, the collection gives us “Black Wind Blowing,” in which a modern-day Texas cowboy goes up against the monstrous cult known as the Black Brothers of Ahriman. Then there is the ubercreepy tale “The Fearsome Touch of Death”; the title story, “The Haunter of the Ring,” in which a pleasant young woman is somehow being compelled to make repeated murder attempts on her husband; and “The Fire of Asshurbanipal,” a tale very much in the sword & sorcery vein (the cover story of the 12/36 Weird Tales), in which two modern-day explorers in the Arabian desert discover a lost city, an invaluable gem … and its hideous guardian….
Howard, to expand his market for selling stories, and on the advice of his agent, Otis Adelbert Kline, began, in 1933, to write crime and detective fiction, but always included some grisly or macabre touch, of course. This collection gives us four such detective tales. In “Black Talons,” an historian and a private dick team up to battle a pantherish killer from Africa. Howard would write 10 stories featuring River Street detective Steve Harrison, one of which is deemed lost forever, and the Wordsworth collection gives us three of these wonderful tales. In the senselessly titled “Fangs of Gold,” Harrison pursues a Chinese murderer to a Southern bayou, where he witnesses a shocking voodoo ceremony. In “Names in the Black Book,” Harrison and his allies, including a remarkably tough Afghani, go up against another Fu-like mastermind, Erlik Khan, and his criminal horde of Mongolians. And in the amazingly grisly “Graveyard Rats,” Harrison tries to discover who has been killing four brothers one by one, and almost gets eaten alive by the titular rodents in the process, leading to this wonderful paragraph, which practically typifies pulp fiction in a nutshell:
In a murdered man’s grave, his hand locked in the coffin of a headless corpse, with a thousand grey ghoul-rats ready to tear the flesh from his living frame!
These three Harrison stories are so much fun, incidentally, that this reader is tempted now to splurge for the $40 hardcover Steve Harrison Casebook, which includes all nine extant Harrison stories, and is currently available from the Robert E. Howard Foundation.
Howard, of course, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and those readers who relish polished diction and meticulous prose (a la the works of, say, Clark Ashton Smith), and who are easily put off by blood, torture, violence, grisly mayhem, monsters, battle carnage and suchlike, will probably have a tough time here. Howard’s style is very much masculine, rugged and no-nonsense, and his tales proceed with a virile drive and an emphasis on fast-moving plot. For many, though, including myself, the man’s work is irresistibly fun, and this Wordsworth collection (despite featuring more typographical errors than any book should be allowed to have) proves to be a most excellent compendium of his legendary career. How nice to reacquaint myself with my old high school pal! More than highly recommended!