Book corner: Skull-Face (Howard, R., E., 1929)

I was teetering between two choices, to write or not, about Skull-Face. While it is an interesting story, it has elements, that are not very pleasant, especially in the modern light. Not the violence or the horror, but real life racial prejudices.

Now, Howard wasn't a stranger about prejudices in his work and there's been a lot of talk about how much of it was the product of the time and place he was born and lived in and how much of it was just him.  I've never thought that it was present in the way that he'd had an agenda about it until I read Skull-Face.

 See, the villain of the story, an ancient being from ages past destroyed Atlantis, is very much about igniting a race war, where one group of people, in this case, white Europeans, would be annihilated or enslaved.

You can always argue that Skull-Face himself,  an ancient brown skinned wizard and necromancer, is presented as a superior being in comparison to other people, but that still doesn't remove the fact, that black people and other non-white, in general, are presented as simple-minded and superstitious lot, who've, even those living in England all their lives, been waiting for their true master to rise and deliver them to the promised land.

The thing about Skull-Face is, that if it wouldn't have those specific scenes with the Scotland Yard detective Gordon spouting things about the race war and had the whole Skull-Face agenda been just about your basic world dominance, with no bearing towards skin color, I wouldn't have felt so squeamish about the rest of the story. Though, it also is in many ways sending mixed messages about all the prejudices.

Costigan, the main character, and the narrator don't himself seem to have any huge racial issues towards people. He's a drug addict, who gets swept away with the whole sordid business, after Zuleika, a dark-skinned oriental girl and a servant of Skull-Face and love interest of Costigan's, pities him and gets the drug house merchants to provide him more hashish, the drug of his choice. In fact, when it's Costigan who's doing the talking, he feels more like a typical 1920's type, using words and description without really thinking if they're offensives or not. It's really the way Gordon and Skull-Face relay their views that make the story feel viler and more purposeful with an agenda.

All things considered, one has also wonder how serious Howard was with all this or if the characters of Gordon and Skull-Face are meant to be as deeper commentary, as they both see each other as evil. Costigan as a character is more on the neutral ground, as he even at first feels gratitude towards Skull-Face on the grounds of getting rid of a drug habit thanks to him, whereas Gordon feels paranoid about the matter and Skull-Face is just plain old power-hungry dictator, who sees everyone else as a lesser being and mere tools in achieving his own goals. (In the end, though, Gordon is painted in more favourable manner, as you know, not a power-hungry dictator looking for world dominance.)

Howard himself never was one to praise modern societies in his stories and he often saw the old, ages dead civilizations as better and stronger than the modern world. The modern world, in his view, is rotten and weak, whereas the ancient worlds he romanticizes and that's what he does with Atlantis here, despite the main villain coming from there.

I'm actually now more interested than ever to visit the writings of Howard. Shortly after I finished Skull-Face, I jumped on the story People of the Black Circle, and that one, set in the mysterious Hyperborean age, seems to largely be void of similar racial tones. It actually does seem to me, at least as far I can recall from ages back when I read Conan and Solomon Kane stories,  the further back Howard was in the history, the less racial baggage he had: Solomon Kane is clearly more racially skewed than Conan is.

So based on this, I do want to look the stories of Howard more closely. Is it really so, that the more modern his setting is, the more racial tones the get. And if so, does that really tell something of what he thought about the modern society at large, more than it tells of his own prejudices.

Not that his Hyperborean stories are happy to get together with people of all colour mind you, but they do seem, to my recollection, to be a bit more tolerant towards differences.

Some of the Howard stories have fallen under public domain, so finding them should be relatively easy from services like Project Gutenberg. There are also fairly cheap e-book collections with most, if not all, Howard stories.

As a bonus, my own take on some of the characters from Skull-Face