by Robert E. Howard
“Man was not always master of the earth—and is he now?”
Here he is, the legendary creator of the Sword and Sorcery genre, in his element. Even in their adventure tales it was horror and darkness that shaped Conan’s stoicism and provided the motive for Solomon Kane. Bran Mok Mon lived it, as did the Picts. Along with many others these characters are represented here with either an undercurrent of terror or a tidal wave. The book is a monster, a massive collection so rich in dread it’s best to take it slow. Let ‘em sink in, there won’t be any more.
One of the recurring motifs is the fever dream, when a person is ripped from normal, current life and deposited into a violent Earth long since passed in order to experience war or other monstrosities. Another is the idea we’re barely scratching the surface of what’s actually happening in our world, that unknowable mysteries are not just everywhere, they’re the foundations upon which everything is built. Lovecraft used this too, that we’re better off not knowing what’s really going on, and a great example of Mr. Howard’s use is “The Black Stone.”
There’s a lot to love in this collection, but this is old horror. You won’t find torture porn here. Nor will you find graphic depictions of gratuitous, naked college girl dismemberment; this is the real deal. With this book containing a whopping 60 stories and poems, here are a few favorites. There’s a wall of text at the end of the review for those brave souls who want to see brief descriptions of each story in the full story list.
“The Dream Snake” – A man is telling his friends about a recurring dream he’s had since childhood where he believes he’s being hunted by a giant serpent, but the dream is more vivid than ever before and the serpent is getting nearer.
This was an excellent story but not actually a favorite. It deserves special callout because there was something extraordinary about the atmosphere here. The author draws a real, palpable horror even though it’s just a character explaining a dream. Study this one carefully.
“Dead Man’s Hate” (poem) – A man is glorifying the hanging of his enemy, mocking his enemy’s curse upon him, when the corpse reanimates and gives chase.
“He reeled on buckling legs that failed, yet on and on he fled;
So through the shuddering market-place, the dying fled the dead.”
“The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux” – Our narrator, a boxing trainer, tells the tale of his top shelf fighter taking on the recently emerged champion, a man of such ferocity no one can stand in the ring with him. Prior to the fight our trainer witnesses his boxer speaking to the portrait of another champion fighter, 100 years gone, for advice.
Most of this story unfolds in the ring and it’s expertly told. Not only can you picture in vivid detail the blows raining down like sledge-hammers, you can hear their impacts; you can feel them. And you can smell the blood on the canvas as the warriors dig into each other among the cheers. Even the mighty Hemingway’s boxing tales get dropped to the mat and counted out by Mr. Howard. Highest marks and congratulations are due to a perfect boxing story.
“The Song of a Mad Minstrel” (poem) – This poem was killer, the story of a man who has seen and reaped it all bringing gifts of horror and death.
“Worms of the Earth” – Bran Mak Morn, in disguise, witnesses one of his men crucified unjustly by the Romans and exacts revenge through an alliance with unspeakable creatures from below.
Everyone is familiar with the thirst for revenge, and some have taken the idea far enough to enlist Hell for aid. But rarely do we see Hell quail in the face of human mastery. This isn’t sweet, sweet revenge, it’s bittersweet, and a fantastic end to a horrific story.
“Man on the Ground” – Two men who’ve hated each so hard and for so long they can’t even remember why have trapped each other in the rocky hills, pinning each other down with rifle fire, each unwilling to give an inch and may the best man win.
This one was extra special in a collection of special stories. We’ve all seen countless stories about the power of love, some of them excellent. This one’s about the power of hate.
“The Dead Remember” – Bill has received a stack of letters. The first is from his brother, Jim, detailing an incident with a witch that has left his life in danger. He explains the ill luck he’s suffered since the encounter. The rest of the letters are from witnesses.
Not only was the story superb here, the structure lends it extra power as we begin to guess what’s happening before events revealed in the letters.
These five stories and two poems are outstanding, but the list of show stoppers is limited to them only to keep the length of the review down. This book is incredible and is packed with the monstrous in the classical tradition, and there are a ton of other 5 star entries to be found.
Accompanying the numerous stories and poems is a striking series of color and black and white illustrations by Greg Staples, who captures the darkness repeatedly in a heavily illustrated volume released by Subterranean Press.
Robert E. Howard was a talented craftsman, no doubt, known not only for his world building but his genre building. There’s something else here, too … something harder to name. Other, successful world-builders start with characters interacting with environments and we eventually learn about the worlds they inhabit through those interactions. Mr. Howard’s worlds seem to rise up out of the mists, materializing somewhere between our mind’s eye and our nightmares.
“Darkness and silence were the natural state of the cosmos, not light and the noises of Life. No wonder the dead hated the living, who disturbed the grey stillness of Infinity with their tinkling laughter.”
If you’re a student of horror, this is one of the ultimate single author collections.