Monday, December 16, 2013

A Subterranean Déjà vu

Many horror entertainments have as their setting a dark, airless, claustrophobic space, crawling with repellent life forms, and made treacherous by rocky paths skirting a bottomless, lightless void.  The strangeness of wandering a dim cavern, deep underground, can feel like being somewhere other than earth.  In fact, one is no longer on the planet earth, but in it, or at least well below the surface world that is better known.

Because caves and tunnels lead deep underground, figuratively they serve as routes to the underworld and to the collective unconscious.  Caverns, grottos, dark passageways, underground chambers—all form a timeless geological Halloween as enduring as the damp stone out of which they are made.  What is ‘down there’ after all but death, hell, and the forgotten?  It is an excellent location for a horror entertainment, and is the natural setting for countless stories and films. 

One of the earliest stories that H.P. Lovecraft published was of course The Beast In The Cave (1918), but several of his other stories involved caves and underground passageways, among them The Lurking Fear (1923) and Pickman’s Model (1927).  His friend and colleague, Robert E. Howard wrote an important tale that takes place almost entirely under the ground, People of the Dark (1932).  The story is important, at least to fans of Howard’s fiction, because it contains one of the earliest appearances of his popular character, Conan.

People of the Dark was published in Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, a magazine produced by Clayton Magazines of New York, which also published another renowned pulp fiction magazine, Astounding Stories.  These two publications were later competitors of Weird Tales, which first appeared in 1923.

In People of the Dark, John O’Brien, a feisty American prone to fighting and getting what he wants follows two others to Dagon’s Cave, somewhere in England.  ‘Dagon’—hmm, where have I heard that name before?  (As an ancient Philistine fish god, he certainly got around.)  O’Brien is after Eleanor Bland, whom he loves, and her other suitor, an Englishman named Richard Brent.  Eleanor is not sure which of the men she is really in love with—O’Brien wants to help her narrow the choices by killing Brent.  He has stashed a revolver in the pocket of his coat.  What is a Howard story without mayhem and murder?

But there is more than a romantic triangle here.  Howard provides some back story about the original inhabitants of this region.  Driven into the hills and then into the caves by tribes of marauding Gaels and Britons, they survived in the dark recesses of the earth, and became ‘the little people’ of legend.  Later in the story they are called ‘the Children of the Dark’.  Their underground environment has caused a kind of reverse evolution over generations, and they have begun to resemble other cave denizens, most notably snakes.

(Lovecraft has this understanding as well—that living underground for prolonged periods of time will cause a reversal and degrading of the human form to something more bestial and reptilian.  It is part of his biology of ghouls, and explains why, genetically, ghouls are still able to procreate with humans and produce half breeds like the famous Pickman.  The germ of the idea appears as early as Lovecraft’s The Beast In the Cave.)

O’Brien enters the cave but soon stumbles down some stone steps and falls, knocking himself unconscious.  When he comes to, he discovers that he is…Conan!  This is not yet Conan the Barbarian, or Conan the Cimmerian.  This is Conan ‘the reaver’, but physiologically and temperamentally, this is the warrior we know.  He is wearing a loincloth and sandals, and picks up a heavy iron sword.  He is massively built, with a “square-cut black mane”.

Richard Brent and Eleanor Bland have also been transformed; they are now Vertorix and Tamera, both Britons, at war with Gaels like Conan.  Not only that, but the troubled romantic triangle that the three form together has been transferred from the 20th Century to ancient times. 

Conan and Vertorix begin slashing at each other, Conan with his famed iron sword and Vertorix with an ax.  But Tamera is captured by the Children of the Dark.  Reptilian in appearance, they drag her into the depths of Dagon Cave, where conveniently there is a blood soaked altar and a black stone sitting on top of a pile of human skulls.   It does not look good for Tamera.  Conan and Vertorix put aside their squabbling over the woman and join forces to rescue her.  There is considerable battle action and bloody violence lovingly and graphically depicted by the author.  But there is an unexpected turn of events just as the three are about to get free of the cave and its slimy inhabitants.

Conan—now O’Brien again—wakes on the floor of the cave, woozy from his fall and concussion.  The cave is quiet but for the distant sounds of…something.  Richard Brent and Eleanor Bland are also somewhere in the cave, and O’Brien begins to search for them again.  He retraces the path that he took as Conan during his vision of the ancient struggle with the Children of the Dark.  This is a clever device used by the author to build suspense.   The effect is exactly like that of a video game when the player has destroyed a powerful lich, but must still travel back through hazardous corridors where danger may still lurk.

To O’Brien the cave now appears much older and more decrepit than in his dream.  He resumes his quest to possess the beautiful Eleanor Bland, yet begins to have second thoughts about killing Brent.  However, in addition to O’Brien, his rival Brent and the woman he loves, there is one other in the cave…

The framework of the People of the Dark contains interesting symmetry, with a satisfying, ironic ending.  Howard keeps the plot interesting with lots of action, an imaginative monster, and careful attention to small details that become significant later in the tale.

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