Robert E. Howard’s fictional community of Faring Town may have been picturesque, but it was certainly no place to live, at least for long. Robert E. Howard wastes no time in Out of the Deep, which begins with a dead body washed up on shore—probably not far from where the bodies of Moll Farrell’s niece and her alleged attacker John Kulrek were found in Sea Curse. This is certainly an awkward place to go hunting for sea shells or get a tan. Out of the Deep was published posthumously in 1967 in Magazine of Horror.
Howard must have been working on this story as well as Sea Curse and A Legend of Faring Town sometime before his death by suicide in 1936. It would be interesting to know the origin of this series of stories, and whether the author ever intended to make more frequent use of the ‘Faring Town’ setting—as H.P. Lovecraft did with various fictional New England locations.
The deceased in Out of the Deep—the first of many—is Adam Falcon, betrothed to Margaret Deveral, who also dies within a page or two. (Readers unfamiliar with the pace of the mayhem in a Howard story may want to keep a list of characters that are still alive mid-story.) Too late the citizens of Faring Town discover that the corpse of Adam Falcon are in fact a sea fiend in disguise.
The young woman is the first victim. With the corpse of Falcon strangely missing at the scene of the murder, the townspeople merely put her body on the table where Falcon’s was—things are moving fast! A rival suitor for the hand of Margaret Deveral is wrongly accused of her murder and incarcerated, but he too is dispatched by the creature when no one is looking. Soon the bodies begin to pile up. It is not clear why the creature is randomly attacking the people of Faring Town. Bodies are rent but not consumed. The sea fiend acts pretty much like a psychotic serial killer.
Luckily for Faring Town, the narrator, who describes himself as “never a brave man”, remembers old tales and folk lore about sea fiends, also known as ‘mermen’. We learn that they
•can only be killed by a man that does not fear them
•are only harmful when in human form, and on land,
•have to be activated by humans carrying their disguised form out of the water, (as a drowning victim)
•cannot tolerate sunlight.
Knowledge is power, and Faring Town is soon rid of its sea fiend problem. As Howard describes him, the sea fiend is a kind of metaphor for drowning, especially drowning at sea. In fact, it is striking that both of the Faring Town stories reviewed here have drowning as the focus and origin of the horror. At the risk of over-interpreting the data, one wonders if the author struggled with feelings of being emotionally overwhelmed by some personal struggle.
As with his werewolf tales, one of the appealing aspects of the Faring Town stories is Howard’s creation of ‘the rules’ which constrain his malevolent creatures. It was not much of a leap for film makers to later incorporate similar ‘policies and procedures’ in the management of various movie monsters.
S.T. Joshi and others have rightly credited Robert E. Howard with the founding of the ‘sword and sorcery’ subgenre, (e.g., his character of Conan the Barbarian). However, Joshi felt that the underlying views and ideas expressed by the author were not particularly profound or substantial, and that his style “is on the whole crude, slipshod, and unwieldy.” Joshi is also critical of the overt racism in Howard’s fiction, of which there are numerous examples.
Yet similar criticism would fit H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, which after all, was published in the same places that Howard’s was. Racism is also pervasive in Lovecraft’s fiction, poetry and letters, as it was in much of pulp fiction at the time. Lovecraft’s work is also somewhat less than “literature”, despite what his hagiographers say. He wrote little that is remarkable about the human condition, and rarely succeeded in transforming his own personal struggles into anything one could consider universal.
Lovecraft tends to ape so called respectable literature—Poe, or the King James Bible on occasion—by using the verbose, impenetrable, and grammatically complex sentences of the 18th and 19th centuries. These were and are still considered by some a hallmark of cultured, sophisticated writing—Literature with a capital ‘L’.
But few of us read Literature unless we need college credit—there should be some tangible reward for the effort! In my not so humble opinion, literature or any cultural product that is unintelligible to much of the society in which it was produced deserves obscurity. And it takes about 1000 years at least to figure this out, (the Odyssey say, vs. James Joyce's Ulysses).
The focus and purpose of Howard’s work, as well as Lovecraft’s, was entertainment, and both are almost always successful in this regard. Both authors were pulp fiction writers, and that is respectable enough.