Authors: Robert E. Howard
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Short Stories, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Anthologies, #Anthologies & Short Stories, #conan, #weird tales, #Sword & Sorcery, #solomon kane, #pulp fiction, #Fantasy
BLACK HOUNDS OF DEATH
ROBERT E. HOWARD
EDITED BY PAUL HERMAN
INTRODUCTION BY MARK FINN
Copyright © 2009 by Paul Herman.
Introduction © 2009 by Mark Finn.
Cover art copyright © 2009 by Stephen Fabian.
All rights reserved.
Published by Wildside Press LLC
The Complete Action Stories
Gates of Empire
A Gent from Bear Creek and Others
Treasures of Tartary
Graveyard Rats and Others
Waterfront Fists and Others
THE WEIRD WORKS OF ROBERT E. HOWARD
Moon of Skulls
People of the Dark
Wings in the Night
Valley of the Worm
Gardens of Fear
Beyond the Black River
Hours of the Dragon
Black Hounds of Death
Through the Southwestern Veil
Robert E. Howard lived during one of the most controversial and fascinating periods in Texas history: a time when, literally, fortunes were made and lost in a week’s time; when the agrarian lifestyle gave way to mechanized manufacturing; when a wild and wooly Texas was shoed and shorn with the trappings of civilization. Many people in that time had trouble comprehending the sudden sweep of it all, and the reaction to the onslaught of progress was cold and bitter.
Outside of a justifiable contempt of the oil industry and its subsequent booms (for he had grown up in a number of different boom town environments), Howard may not have turned his attention to writing about the history of Texas had it not been for his friendship with Novalyne Price. A keen amateur historian, Howard collected folklore and tall tales of Texas, and also interviewed a number of “old timers,” elder citizens who remembered the Civil War and its subsequent Reconstruction, the last, desperate raids of the Commanches before the Texas Rangers finally broke their spirit, and even the not-too-distant Mexican Revolution.
Through his friendship with Price, Howard enjoyed “spinning yarns” about local and statewide Texas history. And while he certainly was professional enough to provide his various markets with stories that sold (such as
), he was also clever enough to take situations and instances from the tapestry of Texas history and Southwestern lore and bend them over the anvil of his creativity. Moreover, Howard did it so well that it wasn’t until late in the 20
century that fans and scholars realized he was drawing inspiration from one of his favorite subjects.
Eventually, Howard turned his full attention to western characters, western settings, and western situations of all kinds, and there is evidence enough to suggest that Howard would have continued in this creative direction for a longer period of time. However, such was not the case, and Howard’s life ended on June 11
, 1936 at the age of 30.
Collected here in Volume nine of this series are the stories that appeared at the end of Howard’s life, representing a period from roughly mid-1935 to may 1936. They are also examples of Howard’s slide from heroic fantasy and weird horror to southwestern action and adventure. Sometimes, Howard would merely change the setting for his fantastic tale. Other times, a Texas character will appear in an unlikely scenario. Occasionally, history itself will take on alien hues as the Hyborian Age borrows a family feud for one of its most memorable tales.
One of Howard’s most controversial stories is “Black Canaan.” Largely misunderstood, and usually presented without any contextual notes, this tale of Southern swamp horror is the most polemical instance of Howard’s “Rise of Rival Nations” plot line. How many other times in Howard’s career, from “Skull-Face” to “Beyond the Black River,” did the opposing forces band together for one, massive attack in an effort to wipe out their political rivals? As fantastic and as interesting a plot that is, when framed in the setting of Reconstruction-Era Louisiana, and the “opposing forces” are the people of color, who live in the swamps, then the story carries a far heavier weight than other presumably escapist fare.
I would challenge the modern reader to look past the now-inflammatory language employed in the story and instead watch carefully the actions of the viewpoint character, Kirby Buckner. His moral compass is more closely aligned with that of current-day thinking, and while he himself is powerless to effect any kind of societal change, he does his best to navigate the two worlds of white landed gentry and black sharecroppers and restore the status quo—such as it was. An interesting and argumentative story that practically demands a dialogue with the reader, this is also a stellar example of Howard’s writing at its most effective.
The last Conan story Howard wrote appeared the month after Howard died, and certainly, if “Red Nails” were the last story Howard ever wrote, it would be a fine final act. Considered by every Robert E. Howard scholar to be one of the best Conan stories, and certainly one of his best stories overall, “Red Nails” draws inspiration from one of the most unlikely sources—the Lincoln County War. Better known by modern audiences as the framing sequence for the movies “Chisum” and “Young Guns,” the feud was among the largest and bloodiest in the Southwest. You won’t find cowboys and Indians in “Red Nails,” but Conan makes a pretty good stand-in for a gunfighter as he encounters a walled city intent on wiping each other out for perceived transgressions on each side. What follows are some of Howard most cutting comments on civilization, brother on brother violence, and the decadence of society—all wrapped up a blood-soaked package of poetic and relentless prose.
“The Black Hound of Death” is a
reader’s delight—a kitchen-sink kind of story where all of the standard tropes of devilish dealings and supernatural vengeance get a Howardian twist. Set in the Piney Woods of East Texas, Howard pits Southern man against Easterner, strength versus savagery, and ultimately man versus man and never fails to deliver the gore-splashed goods. Again, the language may challenge modern readers, but within the context and setting of the story, such terminology was
Of the stories in this volume, “Dig Me No Grave” is something of a mystery. Originally written in 1929 as “John Grimlan’s Debt,” it was rejected by
Ghost Stories Magazine
, for whom it was originally intended. As it appeared in
under its current title, it is presumed that Isaac Howard submitted the manuscript to Farnsworth Wright, who dutifully published and paid for its appearance. This is a throwback to an earlier Robert E. Howard, who was still working in the horror genre. Regarding the appearance of some of the more recognizable names in the Cthulhu Mythos, it is unclear whether or not Robert added them to make the story friendlier to Wright, or if someone in the
offices inserted them. As a mythos story, it delivers thrills and chills in equal measure, even if more knowledgeable readers can spot the ending coming before the narrator does.
Howard was fond of using Texans and southerners as characters, flinging them to the far corners of the Earth, if for no other reason than to watch their peculiar brand of stoic pragmatism at work in his fantastic plots. Such a man is Steve Clarney in “The Fire of Asshurbanipal,” an Oriental (before it was called the Middle East) tale of Clarney and his Afghan friend in search of—what else is there?—a fabulous bauble. This was one of a handful of tales that Howard rewrote to either insert or remove supernatural elements in the hopes of it finding a market. Considering that this was published by
in 1936, you can guess what eldritch things brought in to bring the story up to standards.
Howard was a born poet; he wrote poetry for all of his adult life, and in such quantity and depth that it’s difficult to comprehend. He wrote verses to amuse his friends, to express his feelings, and occasionally managed to sell some of his vivid vignettes to magazines. Herein you’ll find several of his best-known poems, among them “Always Comes Evening” and “Which Will Scarcely be Understood.” Another real treat is “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming,” a full-blown story about the Puritan Wanderer that really showcases just how accomplished and well-rounded a writer Howard really was.
These stories are meant to engage you; read deeply and let your heart race, your brain spin, and your breath come quickly. Howard at the end of his life was a very different writer than Howard at the beginning. More confident with his craft, more in control of his stories, but always able to put you right at the outer edge of the action and force you to look at fierce battles, nameless monstrosities, and sheer derring-do. His legacy lies in these stories, and every time we read or re-read them, we keep his legacy alive.
Weird Tales, June 1936
1. CALL FROM CANAAN
“Trouble on Tularoosa Creek!”
A warning to send cold fear along the spine of any man who was raised in that isolated back country, called Canaan, that lies between Tularoosa and Black River — to send him racing back to that swamp-bordered region, wherever the word might reach him.
It was only a whisper from the withered lips of a shuffling black crone, who vanished among the throng before I could seize her; but it was enough. No need to seek confirmation; no need to inquire by what mysterious, black-folk way the word had come to her. No need to inquire what obscure forces worked to unseal those wrinkled lips to a Black River man. It was enough that the warning had been given — and understood.
Understood? How could any Black River man fail to understand that warning? It could have but one meaning — old hates seething again in the jungle-deeps of the swamplands, dark shadows slipping through the cypress, and massacre stalking out of the black, mysterious village that broods on the moss-festooned shore of sullen Tularoosa.
Within an hour New Orleans was falling further behind me with every turn of the churning wheel. To every man born in Canaan, there is always an invisible tie that draws him back whenever his homeland is imperiled by the murky shadow that has lurked in its jungled recesses for more than half a century.
The fastest boats I could get seemed maddeningly slow for that race up the big river, and up the smaller, more turbulent stream. I was burning with impatience when I stepped off on the Sharpsville landing, with the last fifteen miles of my journey yet to make. It was past midnight, but I hurried to the livery stable where, by tradition half a century old, there is always a Buckner horse, day or night.
As a sleepy black boy fastened the cinches, I turned to the owner of the stable, Joe Lafely, yawning and gaping in the light of the lantern he upheld. “There are rumors of trouble on Tularoosa?”
He paled in the lantern-light.
“I don’t know. I’ve heard talk. But you people in Canaan are a shut-mouthed clan. No one
knows what goes on in there —”
The night swallowed his lantern and his stammering voice as I headed west along the pike.
The moon set red through the black pines. Owls hooted away off in the woods, and somewhere a hound howled his ancient wistfulness to the night. In the darkness that foreruns dawn I crossed Nigger Head Creek, a streak of shining black fringed by walls of solid shadows. My horse’s hoof splashed through the shallow water and clinked on the wet stones, startlingly loud in the stillness. Beyond Nigger Head Creek began the country men called Canaan.
Heading in the same swamp, miles to the north, that gives birth to Tularoosa, Nigger Head flows due south to join Black River a few miles west of Sharpsville, while the Tularoosa runs westward to meet the same river at a higher point. The trend of Black River is from northwest to southeast; so these three streams form the great irregular triangle known as Canaan.
In Canaan lived the sons and daughters of the white frontiersmen who first settled the country, and the sons and daughters of their slaves. Joe Lafely was right; we were an isolated, shut-mouthed breed, self-sufficient, jealous of our seclusion and independence.
Beyond Nigger Head the woods thickened, the road narrowed, winding through unfenced pinelands, broken by live oaks and cypresses. There was no sound except the soft clop-clop of hoofs in the thin dust, the creak of the saddle. Then someone laughed throatily in the shadows.
I drew up and peered into the trees. The moon had set and dawn was not yet come, but a faint glow quivered among the trees, and by it I made out a dim figure under the moss-hung branches. My hand instinctively sought the butt of one of the dueling-pistols I wore, and the action brought another low, musical laugh, mocking yet seductive. I glimpsed a brown face, a pair of scintillant eyes, white teeth displayed in an insolent smile.
“Who the devil are you?” I demanded.
“Why do you ride so late, Kirby Buckner?” Taunting laughter bubbled in the voice. The accent was foreign and unfamiliar; a faintly Negroid twang was there, but it was rich and sensuous as the rounded body of its owner. In the lustrous pile of dusky hair a great white blossom glimmered palely in the darkness.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded. “You’re a long way from any darky cabin. And you’re a stranger to me.”
“I came to Canaan since you went away,” she answered. “My cabin is on the Tularoosa. But now I’ve lost my way. And my poor brother has hurt his leg and cannot walk.”
“Where is your brother?” I asked, uneasily. Her perfect English was disquieting to me, accustomed as I was to the dialect of the black folk.
“Back in the woods, there — far back!” She indicated the black depths with a swaying motion of her supple body rather than a gesture of her hand, smiling audaciously as she did so.
I knew there was no injured brother, and she knew I knew it, and laughed at me. But a strange turmoil of conflicting emotions stirred in me. I had never before paid any attention to a black or brown woman. But this quadroon girl was different from any I had ever seen. Her features were regular as a white woman’s, and her speech was not that of a common wench. Yet she was barbaric, in the open lure of her smile, in the gleam of her eyes, in the shameful posturing of her voluptuous body. Every gesture, every motion she made set her apart from the ordinary run of women; her beauty was untamed and lawless, meant to madden rather than to soothe, to make a man blind and dizzy, to rouse in him all the unreined passions that are his heritage from his ape ancestors.
I hardly remember dismounting and tying my horse. My blood pounded suffocatingly through the veins in my temples as I scowled down at her, suspicious yet fascinated.
“How do you know my name? Who are you?”
With a provocative laugh, she seized my hand and drew me deeper into the shadows. Fascinated by the lights gleaming in her dark eyes, I was hardly aware of her action.
“Who does not know Kirby Buckner?” she laughed. “All the people of Canaan speak of you, white or black. Come! My poor brother longs to look upon you!” And she laughed with malicious triumph.
It was this brazen effrontery that brought me to my senses. Its cynical mockery broke the almost hypnotic spell in which I had fallen.
I stopped short, throwing her hand aside, snarling: “What devil’s game are you up to, wench?”
Instantly the smiling siren was changed to a blood-mad jungle cat. Her eyes flamed murderously, her red lips writhed in a snarl as she leaped back, crying out shrilly. A rush of bare feet answered her call. The first faint light of dawn struck through the branches, revealing my assailants, three gaunt black giants. I saw the gleaming whites of their eyes, their bare glistening teeth, the sheen of naked steel in their hands.
M first bullet crashed through the head of the tallest man, knocking him dead in full stride. My second pistol snapped — the cap had somehow slipped from the nipple. I dashed it into a black face, and as the man fell, half-stunned, I whipped out my bowie knife and closed with the other. I parried his stab and my counterstroke ripped across his belly-muscles. He screamed like a swamp-panther and made a wild grab for my knife wrist, but I struck him in the mouth with my clenched left fist, and felt his lips split and his teeth crumble under the impact as he reeled backward, his knife waving wildly. Before he could regain his balance I was after him, thrusting, and got home under his ribs. He groaned and slipped to the ground in a puddle of his own blood.
I wheeled about, looking for the other. He was just rising, blood streaming down his face and neck. As I started for him he sounded a panicky yell and plunged into the underbrush. The crashing of his blind flight came back to me, muffled with distance. The girl was gone.
2. THE STRANGER ON TULAROOSA
The curious glow that had first showed me the quadroon girl had vanished. In my confusion I had forgotten it. But I did not waste time on vain conjecture as to its source, as I groped my way back to the road. Mystery had come to the pinelands and a ghostly light that hovered among the trees was only part of it.
My horse snorted and pulled against his tether, frightened by the smell of blood that hung in the heavy damp air. Hoofs clattered down the road, forms bulked in the growing light. Voices challenged.
“Who’s that? Step out and name yourself, before we shoot!”
“Hold on, Esau!” I called. “It’s me — Kirby Buckner!”
“Kirby Buckner, by thunder!” ejaculated Esau McBride, lowering his pistol. The tall rangy forms of the other riders loomed behind him.
“We heard a shot,” said McBride. “We was ridin’ patrol on the roads around Grimesville like we’ve been ridin’ every night for a week now — ever since they killed Ridge Jackson.”
“Who killed Ridge Jackson?”
“The swamp niggers. That’s all we know. Ridge come out of the woods early one mornin’ and knocked at Cap’n Sorley’s door. Cap’n says he was the color of ashes. He hollered for the Cap’n for God’s sake to let him in, he had somethin’ awful to tell him. Well, the Cap’n started down to open the door, but before he’d got down the stairs he heard an awful row among the dogs outside, and a man screamed he reckoned was Ridge. And when he got to the door, there wasn’t nothin’ but a dead dog layin’ in the yard with his head knocked in, and the others all goin’ crazy. They found Ridge later, out in the pines a few hundred yards from the house. From the way the ground and the bushes was tore up, he’d been dragged that far by four or five men. Maybe they got tired of haulin’ him along. Anyway, they beat his head into a pulp and left him layin’ there.”
“I’ll be damned!” I muttered. “Well, there’s a couple of niggers lying back there in the brush. I want to see if you know them. I don’t.”
A moment later we were standing in the tiny glade, now white in the growing dawn. A black shape sprawled on the matted pine needles, his head in a pool of blood and brains. There were wide smears of blood on the ground and bushes on the other side of the little clearing, but the wounded black was gone.
McBride turned the carcass with his foot.
“One of them niggers that came in with Saul Stark,” he muttered.
“Who the devil’s that?” I demanded.
“Strange nigger that moved in since you went down the river last time. Come from South Carolina, he says. Lives in that old cabin in the Neck — you know, the shack where Colonel Reynolds’ niggers used to live.”
“Suppose you ride on to Grimesville with me, Esau,” I said, “and tell me about this business as we ride. The rest of you might scout around and see if you can find a wounded nigger in the brush.”
They agreed without question; the Buckners have always been tacitly considered leaders in Canaan, and it came natural for me to offer suggestions. Nobody gives orders to white men in Canaan.
“I reckoned you’d be showin’ up soon,” opined McBride, as we rode along the whitening road. “You usually manage to keep up with what’s happenin’ in Canaan.”
“What is happening?” I inquired. “I don’t know anything. An old black woman dropped me the word in New Orleans that there was trouble. Naturally I came home as fast as I could. Three strange niggers waylaid me — ” I was curiously disinclined to mention the woman. “And now you tell me somebody killed Ridge Jackson. What’s it all about?”
“The swamp niggers killed Ridge to shut his mouth,” announced McBride. “That’s the only way to figure it. They must have been close behind him when he knocked on Cap’n Sorley’s door. Ridge worked for Cap’n Sorley most of his life; he thought a lot of the old man. Some kind of deviltry’s bein’ brewed up in the swamps, and Ridge wanted to warn the Cap’n. That’s the way I figure.”
“Warn him about what?”
“We don’t know,” confessed McBride. “That’s why we’re all on edge. It must be an uprisin’.”
That word was enough to strike chill fear into the heart of any Canaan-dweller. The blacks had risen in 1845, and the red terror of that revolt was not forgotten, nor the three lesser rebellions before it, when the slaves rose and spread fire and slaughter from Tularoosa to the shores of Black River. The fear of a black uprising lurked forever in the depths of that forgotten back country; the very children absorbed it in their cradles.
“What makes you think it might be an uprising?” I asked.