Robert E. Howard's weird west, part 2

These are the rest of the stories marked as weird west in the collection of Howard stories I've been reading. The first part is here.

The Dead Remember In somewhat of an experimental manner, Howard is narrating this tale of a crime and just punishment through letters and testimonials. The story begins with a letter Jim has sent to his brother William. In this letter, he confesses a murder of two former slaves he committed while being drunk. Joel and Jezebel were their names and upon their death, Jezebel placed a curse upon Jim, promising him death.

The next pieces are testimonials of various people, who account on what took place on a night Jim was found dead from a back alley of a saloon. From bits and pieces, it becomes clear, that he was in agitates state of mind until someone called for him. A single gunshot later, his body was found, an exploded revolver in hand.

As a whole, The Dead Remember could have been a better tale, had Howard written in his usual manner. It has the makings of a dramatic, supernatural horror story, which won't really get to shine because of the style he chose to write it in. As you'd expect, the choice to use letters and testimonials as a style make it feel like stitch work, where things don't really flow well. The letter by Jim is the best part of the story, as it describes very well how afraid he is of his looming destiny.

Stylistically it could have been a better choice to write one, a longer story describing the whole thing from a third person perspective and just season it with the letters and whatnot. But now, it comes out a bit like an experimental piece.

Pigeons From Hell Two travellers decide to stay in an abandoned plantation, only to find out a terrifying secret of the old house. Griswell wakes up in the middle of the night and witnesses his friend Branner standing up and walking upstairs. A moment later the man walks down, a hatchet in his hands and half of his face smashed in.

Griswell escapes the scene and stumbles upon sheriff Buckner, who was just on his way back home. The sheriff tracks back to the old house, from where they find the body of Branner, the hatchet in his hands, laying dead on the ground. As some things do point that Griswell might be telling the truth, and not be a murderer of his friend, Buckner decides that they'll return to the house the following night. As a local, he has heard a lot of tales about the house and its past, so he is willing to risk his reputation because of a stranger.

On its glory days, it was a home to a wealthy family, the Blassenvilles, who were known for their cruelty towards the slaves. Especially the aunt, who had returned home from West Indies, from where she had brought a slave girl she was especially cruel towards to. In time, only one of the girls of the family was alive after the rest had gone missing and she then scared witless left the house never to return. Since then, there had been strange deaths and sightings near the house, especially pigeons, which people took as a sign of the gates of hell opening up, as pigeons weren't a common bird to the region.

Pigeons from Hell is a solid horror story, that shows again, that Howard knew how to write other kinds of characters besides super butch heroes, who weren't afraid of a thing. While Buckner might be closer to a typical Howard hero, Griswell sure isn't. And even Buckner knows he might not be able to shoot himself out of the trouble they get in.

As a note, Pigeons from Hell has been adapted into a comic book as well as into an episode of an old Boris Karloff TV-show, Thriller. And apparently, Stephen King considered it as one of the finest modern horror stories or at least did so back in the 1980's.

Secret of the Lost Valley This one is a pretty typical yarn for Howard: there is an ancient, malevolent race living deep under the ground, waiting for their moment to wreak havoc upon humanity because of past sins of our ancestors.

John Reynolds is running from his enemy, McCrill. He ends up in a lost valley, where he hides in a cave after his pursuers bury one of their fallen comrades there. Reynolds has, to that point, lost his horse and is out of ammo, so he figures he'll find at least some ammo from the cadaver.

To his surprise, the cave he goes into is empty. He searches around a bit only to find a secret door, which leads deeper underground. From there he finds a the cadaver walking around and has to kill it all over again.

Deep under the grounds, an ancient race lives, driven there by the people who arrived in America long after them and became the native Americans. Their war was cruel and bloody but ended up in the victory of the man and to survive, the once magnificent beings were forced to go under and plan their vengeance there.  From their ancient god, they had learned the secrets of transferring their spirits to the cadavers of their enemy. This method they used to drive away everyone, who had dared to step to the valley.

This all Reynolds learned from a short, telepathic communication with the leader of the ancients. He then manages to escape and collapse the tunnel after him in order to keep the beings away from people.

Despite Howard has used similar premises before, I'd say Secret of the Lost Valley might be one of his best takes on the subject matter. Not only does it manage to flesh out the underground dwelling people quite a bit, but it also manages to take its narrative to a relatively unexpected conclusion. I'd mark this as a highly recommended reading.

The Shadow of the Beast An ape like, in Howard's words, a black villain has made untoward advances upon a local woman, shot her brother and ran before the law got there. Now the people are after the villain, just is the betrothed of the girl, who is described in familiar hero manner for Howard, you know, the big dude, afraid of nothing kind of a way.

So, as the betrothed is smarter than the rest of the pursuers, he figures that Joe Cagle is not actually running, but hiding in an abandoned house a lot of ghost stories are told. As people believe, the local black folk shun away, like everyone else, of the house because of those stories,  they think he must be somewhere else. The betrothed is right, of course, Cagle is inside the house, as he is thinking the same way.

From here we get to the more peculiar side of the story, as Howard had been colouring the story in a way, where these two Goliath's would be meeting and commencing in a battle of the Titans. That actually never happens, as Cagle is already dead when Steve, that is the betrothed, arrives at the house. He has been killed by some terrifying monsters, which almost gets Steve as well, but he manages to escape through a window and ends up being unconscious for a while until Joan, that's the girl from before, arrives to revive him. And then they burn the house.

I don't rightly know what to make of the Shadow of the Beast. It feels, in a way, almost playful, but also serious, like in a manner of that Howard himself wasn't quite sure what to make of it either. At part, it feels like a story that was meant to be horror, but then it also was kinda like an old-fashioned adventure, but not quite. What I'm saying is, that it just feels off.

And that's the whole lot of the west themed horror stories Howard wrote. No all of them take place in the old west, like Pigeons from Hell as an example, but they do share a setting and in many ways, the world. They aren't necessarily connected to the bigger, Hyperborean universe Howard created, but they do exist in a continuation of their own, juggling around all kinds of ideas ranging from old mythical monsters to things his pen pal Lovecraft made. And that is, in part, what makes them interesting even today.


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