R’lyeh’s Finest Hour?


Great Cthulhu just keeps coming up around here; the stars must be right or something. As in a 2007 post, I’m uncomfortably aware that for a JRRT/REH/KEW adherent like myself to delve into Lovecraftian lore is rather like de-planing at JFK after an international flight, clearing Customs, and then making a scene in the main concourse by announcing my discovery of America. Such a claim would be more likely to irritate than impress bystanders, because of how well and truly discovered the New World already is. Similarly, all those decades of Esoteric Order of Dagon-zines and Necro Press journals weigh on the upstart like “something frightfully suggestive of old and unhallowed cycles of life in which our world and our conceptions have no part.” Here I go, though.

Let’s turn to the deathless first paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu,” about which S. T. Joshi and Peter Cannon have this to say in their More Annotated H. P. Lovecraft (1999): “Arguably the most famous passage in Lovecraft’s fiction, setting forth his view of man’s precarious and insignificant place in the cosmos. The opening sentence has been enshrined in the fifteenth edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1980).”

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Linkage and Thinkage

Howardists’ Howardist Charles Hoffman turns in an Amazonian review of The Collected Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard. He’s none too affrighted by “Rattle of Bones” (for my part I don’t think “Delenda Est” is classifiable as a horror story unless one is on the payroll of the late-period Roman Empire) and sticks up for the excluded “The Hyena,” “Black Wind Blowing,” and especially “The People of the Black Coast.” I tried to push that story hard in a TC essay back in February, but it seems that “People” is a rare blind spot for His Editorial Excellency Rusty Burke; perhaps he’s simply dined too well on too many crabmeat dinners over the years to accept the crustaceans’ oversized and supersapient brethren as a credible threat.

Today is of course Black Friday for those of us who unswooningly prefer the gore-and-gravedirt-reeking, hemoglobin-slurping, food-chain-topping undead of yester-fiction, so it’s great to see Hoffman plugging The Collected Horror Stories at the expense of “contemporary horror…recently dominated by chicks’ overheated erotic fantasies about their imaginary vampire boyfriends.” I don’t think Del Rey did themselves any favors in terms of imprinting a strong visual identity for each REH collection this time, though. Here’s the Greg Staples tentacular spectacular that for months was the front runner for front cover:

Instead they went with this:

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“The Horror….”

This volume is set to be loosed onto a terrified populace just in time for Halloween, on Tuesday October 28, 2008. There’s been no Table of Contents released for this as far as I know (Rusty, if the lineup is set give us a sneak-peek rundown at REHupa.com!), but it’s going to be big, and chock full of Howard’s most memorable horror tales and verse.

Some readers who haven’t read widely in this area of the Texan’s oeuvre might be asking, “Exactly how good was Robert E. Howard at horror?” The most influential horror writer of the twentieth century, H. P. Lovecraft, wrote that

He [REH] was almost alone in his ability to create real emotions of fear and of dread suspense. Contrast his “Black Canaan” with the pallid synthetic pap comprising the rest of the current issue of W. T. Bloch and Derleth are clever enough technically — but for stark, living fear…the actual smell and feel and darkness and brooding horror and impending doom that inhere in that nighted, moss-hunted jungle…what other writer is even in the running with REH?

Now granted, Lovecraft didn’t live to see Robert Bloch write Psycho, and thank God he didn’t live to see what Derleth did to his Mythos, but I think the point stands. If you want a more modern take on Howard’s horror credentials, Stephen King wrote in his 1981 critical overview Danse Macabre that Howard’s “Pigeons from Hell” was “one of the finest horror stories of our century.” That same tale was adapted for Boris Karloff’s Thriller, and is still considered one of the scariest episodes of anthology horror television ever produced. Howard’s horror stories have lots of fans — check out this blog post, where the proprietor proclaims that “The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard is the exact reason Peggy and I established the Dark Forces Book Group.”

Yep, Howard’s horror stories and poetry are pretty freakin’ awesome, and it’s going to be wonderful to have the best of them collected in one textually pure, fully-illustrated volume. All praise to Rusty Burke, Patrice Louinet, and the rest of the Del Rey editorial gang for making this book happen.

UPDATE: Rusty has just posted the Table of Contents along with some art samples and more details at the REHupa website. Looks like an incredibly meaty book.

Larry Fessenden and the Spirits of the Lonely Places

Deep silence fell about the little camp, planted there so audaciously in the jaws of the wilderness. The lake gleamed like a sheet of black glass beneath the stars. The cold air pricked. In the draughts of night that poured their silent tide from the depths of the forest, with messages from distant ridges and from lakes just beginning to freeze, there lay already the faint, bleak odour of coming winter.

Algernon Blackwood, “The Wendigo”

The small screen can deliver big scares; Eric Kripke has been proving that more often than not for two full seasons and a strike-shortened third with Supernatural. That show, in which two brothers drive the unluckiest backroads of the American night while being driven by a family mission that asks too much of them, crashes through The CW’s sugar-and-spice-and-spite like a classic rock power chord. And at least half the episodes of Mick Garris’ Masters of Horror were good unclean fun; sixty minutes without commercials can amount to the functional equivalent of a novelette, if not a novella. When Showtime wasn’t interested in a third season, the MOH auteurist anthology approach lived to affright another day as Fear Itself, eight episodes of which aired this summer before NBC switched to scaring us with flexi-dwarf gymnasts instead. As soon as the opening credits of “Skin and Bones,” the episode shown on the night of Thursday, July 31, revealed that the director du semaine was Larry Fessenden, I began hoping for a particular monster with which Fessenden has worked almost as often as did Scorsese with De Niro. . .the rottenest tooth in a knowing primordial grin, the blackness at the core of the rampaging blizzard.

At the start of “Skin and Bones” (written by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan. who also scripted one of my favorite Masters of Horror episodes, the John Carpenter-directed “Cigarette Burns”), the ranch-owning but city-dwelling Grady Edlund has been missing for 10 wintry days. He returns as the only surviving member of a party that unwisely elected to ride the high country in the teeth of a storm, and even while indoors, bed-ridden and being cared for by his wife, sons, and brother, reeks of . . .externality, of having come back wrong. If Famine rather redundantly put itself on a starvation diet, the result might look like Grady, who is played by Doug Jones, an actor-turned-human-canvas worthy of the best efforts of a Bernie Wrightson or Gahan Wilson, perhaps even a Goya or Bosch; as Larry Fessenden proudly notes of his “Skin and Bones” work “He is the special effect.”

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The Complete (er, Selected) Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard

For those who haven’t heard, the Random House website (and Amazon) are both listing this as being released on October 28, 2008. The book is set to have 400 pages and sell for a retail price of $18. No word on whether it will be illustrated and/or by whom, or what the final contents will be.

UPDATE: Horror Stories editor Rusty Burke writes in to correct the Random House website: “Want to nip a potential problem in the bud. Don’t know why the Random House site has complete horror stories listed, because from day one my title for the book has been The Mad Immensities of Night: Selected Horror Stories and Verse by Robert E. Howard. The book probably includes at least three-quarters of REH’s horror fiction, but does not include *everything* and I would not want someone to buy it thinking it does. As it stands, we have just over 500 pages of REH content alone, so it’s a big book, like the Best Ofs. I’ve written to my editor at Del Rey to see about getting the title on the webpage (which was probably just a “filler”) corrected.”

AND FOR THE RECORD: Conan the Phenomenon (p. 139) calls this book simply Robert E. Howard’s Horror Stories — no Complete, but no Selected either. Phenomenon also says that Greg Staples is set to illustrate it (an English comic book artist who also has done some concept art for the forthcoming Solomon Kane film).

Walking Up and Down in the Earth

No getting around it; cinematic sword-and-sorcery is a world of suck. Definitional elasticity is desperately needed so that we can claim artistic successes like John Boorman’s Excalibur, John McTiernan’s The Thirteenth Warrior, and Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers for a subgenre to which they don’t incontrovertibly belong. Hell, George Miller’s The Road Warrior and Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans capture more of the feel and frisson of the best sword-and-sorcery (recall the Mann movie’s endgame of inevitable, almost Iliad-ic death-duels against an impossibly dramatic backdrop with a soundtrack that is all Celtic keening and skirling) than does anything ever dumbed down and screwed up by a member of the De Laurentiis family.

So heroic fantasy aficionados usually have to settle for table-scraps and objets trouvĂ©s, an extended sequence here or the better part of a Chronicles of Riddick there. Case in point: the 2 tentacular spectaculars of kraken-on-ship action in this summer’s Dead Man’s Chest, prodigies of special effects, editing, and stuntwork, like Jackson’s Kong-versus-three-tyrannosaurs tour de force last Christmas. Davey Jones’ kraken dragging down its tall-masted prey is probably as close as we’ll ever get to the Oraycha setpieces of Karl Edward Wagner’s sorcery-and-superscience-permeated sea battle in Darkness Weaves.


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