Friday, January 31, 2014

Better Read the Contract

Robert E. Howard’s Dig Me No Grave (1937) was published just a month before his friend and colleague H.P. Lovecraft passed away of cancer.  Howard himself had died the previous year of a self administered gunshot wound.  His story belongs to the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, and contains reference to such Lovecraftian elements as Yog-Sothoth, “Kathulos”, “Elder ones” and a 50 year old wizard who never appears to age, (as well as a devolution to eighteenth century English in a couple passages).  Coincidentally, the story is about an acquaintance of the narrator who has died under mysterious circumstances and left peculiar instructions regarding the disposal of his earthly remains.

Dig Me No Grave shares some characters with an earlier story by Robert E. Howard, The Children of the Night (1931).  The curmudgeonly Professor Kirowan, a minor character in the earlier story, is the narrator of this one.  John Conrad, a friend of Kirowan’s, was the host of the party in The Children of the Night.  (At that gathering, two of their colleagues, animated by racial memories of an epic battle between “Aryans” and snake-people, get into a brawl in Conrad’s library.)

In Dig Me No Grave, Conrad asks Kirawan to come with him one night to the house of one John Grimlan, a renowned and feared occultist who has just died.  Grimlan has left post mortem instructions for Conrad to carry out.  These involve reading the contents of an envelope Grimlan has left for him.  It is of course the dead of night when they have to do this.  Grimlan’s residence is essentially a haunted house with bats, candles, an antique lock, cold drafts, and a dead body on a table in the library.

The library is one of the most dangerous rooms in horror stories from this time period.

The two men are startled by a third visitor, a mysterious ‘Oriental’, who encourages them to proceed with Grimlan’s instructions.  Conrad begins reading out loud.  The document initially reads like a contract—“which I entered intoe of mine own free will & knowledge beinge of rite mynd & fiftie years of age…”—which in fact it is.  The rest of the story is the fulfillment of that contract. 

What is interesting about both of these stories—as well as the 1932 story People of the Dark and the posthumously published The Little People (1970)—is that Howard was developing his own ‘mythos’, a cycle of stories centered on a hidden race of snake-like subterranean creatures.  Humanoids with reptilian features, they were able to mate with humans and so propagate their genetic traits as well as their “unspeakable” religious practices into subsequent generations.  Dig Me No Grave, coming later in the cycle, seems to consolidate and refine some of Howard’s ideas about this vile, forgotten race.  We learn that they worship Malik Tous—“the old Serpent—the veritable Satan!”—yet favor the incongruous emblem of a peacock with a spreading tail.

In my view, the stereotypical ending of Dig Me No Grave—a version of ‘give the devil his due’—was a disappointment.  With an interesting title and such an ominous lead in, I expected that the evil old wizard would have found a way to cheat death again.  What are Elder Ones for, anyway? 

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