Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Black Stone

Robert E. Howard (1906–1936)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

“They formed a half-circle in front of the monolith.” Drawing by American illustrator Joseph Doolin (1896–1967) for “The Black Stone” in the November 1931 issue of Weird Tales
In June 1930 Robert E. Howard sent a letter to Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Weird Tales, after he read for the first time H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Rats in the Walls,” which had appeared in the magazine seven years earlier. The tale lived up to the young author’s expectations, and he wrote that Lovecraft “must have the most unusual and wonderfully constructed brain of any man in the world.” Howard also noted that the lead character “speaks Gaelic instead of Cymric,” indicating that Lovecraft subscribed to the theory that Britain had been settled by the Celts—a theory “not generally agreed to.”

Wright dutifully forwarded the letter to Lovecraft, and Howard soon received a response, which he described to his sometime collaborator (and fellow Texan) Tevis Clyde Smith:
I got a long letter from Lovecraft. That boy is plenty smart. And well read too. He starts out by saying that most of my arguments seem logical enough and that he is about on the point of accepting my views—and then follows with about three or four closely written pages with which he rips practically all my theories to shreds.
Three months after his initial letter to Wright about Lovecraft, Howard updated his friend:
I’m going to ask Lovecraft if I can use his mythology in my own junk—allusions, you understand. You know, there’s a scholarly bunch of men writing for Weird Tales—myself excepted, of course. Well, I have a smattering of various bits of knowledge, and a facile and deceptive mind, that should gain me admittance in various circles.
Over the next six years, Howard and Lovecraft (who never met) exchanged dozens of letters, which together fill up a thousand pages in a recently published collection. The correspondence served as Howard’s admission to the group of writers now known as “The Lovecraft Circle”—the “scholarly bunch of men” that included such Weird Tales contributors as Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth.

It was not long before Howard followed up on his idea of writing stories set in his mentor’s fictional universe. The younger author’s first two Lovecraftian tales, “The Children of the Night” and particularly “The Black Stone,” appeared during the next year. In a recent appreciation of the second story, Ruthanna Emrys writes, “Robert Howard shows no shame in imitating (and perhaps ragging, just a little) his mentor. Or in building on the cyclopean foundation he’s created. There are dozens of little shout-outs, but it’s the geekily detailed imaginary library, and the pitch-perfect narrator, that clearly mark this as a Mythos piece.” Lovecraft himself professed admiration for the story and would incorporate some of its elements—most notably the book Nameless Cults, which he renamed Unaussprechlichen Kulten—in subsequent tales of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Biographer Mark Finn remarks that, even though the stories were meant as pastiches, Howard worked into the plots his characteristic “themes of racial memories, forgotten races of men, and slides into barbarism, but he also went back to some of the authors that influenced Lovecraft to further draw out his ancient horror.” In addition, several critics have commented on how “The Black Stone” echoes the evocative setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and an infamous scene in The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper (who had inspired some of Howard’s earlier adventure tales) may well have provided the idea for the gruesome act that ends the Midsummer Night’s nightmare. Although Lovecraft often argued that the most intense terror is caused by “the least concrete” (or as he wrote to Howard, “suggestion is the highest form of horror-presentation”), the story’s unflinching description of pagan sadomasochism “takes Lovecraftian horror to a realm where H. P. Lovecraft himself never tread,” notes Charles Hoffman, an authority on all things Howard.

In all, five of Howard’s stories of the Cthulhu Mythos would be published in the pages of Weird Tales. In the meantime, he was working in other veins: the end of 1932 saw the first of the Conan the Barbarian adventures that would make him famous to a much wider reading public long after his death, and two years later he switched his focus to writing westerns. Yet, still living with his parents in Cross Plains, Texas, he was having trouble finding time to work while tending to his mother, who was suffering from tuberculosis. When she slipped into a coma on June 11, Howard, just 30 years old, shot himself in his car in the driveway of the family home. (His mother died the following day.)

Lovecraft received the news from both the writer C. L. Moore and Howard’s father, and he took it upon himself to inform other contributors to the magazine. “It seems so damn outrageous I can't believe it,” responded fantasy writer E. Hoffman Price—the only Weird Tales contributor who had actually met Howard. Lovecraft collated and condensed the letters he had written to his colleagues into an obituary that appeared in the September 1936 issue of Fantasy Magazine. “It is hard to describe precisely what made his stories stand out so,” he wrote, “but the real secret is that he was in every one of them.”

Note: The local skirmishes during the Turkish invasion of Hungary, as imagined in Howard's story, take place prior to the Battle of Mohács on August 29, 1526, when the armies of the Ottoman Empire, led by Suleiman the Magnificent, soundly defeated the forces of the Kingdom of Hungary, led by Louis II, who was killed as he fled the battle.

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I read of it first in the strange book of Von Junzt, the German eccentric who lived so curiously and died in such grisly and mysterious fashion. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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