Thursday, January 16, 2014

Bibliographies of Doom

Robert E. Howard’s The Black Stone (1931) shares some similarities with a number of H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ stories.  It includes an archaic occult text, (Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults), careful attention to setting and history, and the invocation of a forgotten deity.  There is an ancient and forgotten civilization of enormous stone citadels and monoliths.  Here and there these disturbing ruins poke up through the surface of the familiar earth, becoming in more recent history the location of vile fertility cults.  As in many of Lovecraft’s stories, the plot is delayed by an extensive back story, which lays the groundwork for the horrible revelation that ends the tale.  But there are differences that make Robert E. Howard’s story distinctive.

The Black Stone opens with a sort of annotation of Nameless Cults, and a brief biography of the author of this book.  It is interesting to compare this material to H.P. Lovecraft’s History of the Necronomicon (1938).  According to Lovecraft, the Necronomicon was written in Damascus in 730 A.D by Abdul Alhazred, a “mad poet” who originally came from Yemen.  Though officially a Muslim, Abdul Alhazred was a worshipper of both Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu.  He disappeared mysteriously in 738 A.D.  A twelfth century authority relates a legend that Abdul Alhazred was “seized by an invisible monster in broad daylight and devoured horribly” in front of a large number of terrified onlookers.

In Robert E. Howard’s description of Von Junzt, it is suggested that the author of Nameless Cults was a careful editor, and did not reveal all that he knew in the text of his ‘black book’.  He covered material that was similar to that of his Arabian predecessor.  He also travelled widely to investigate “forbidden subjects”.  He joined secret societies and perused numerous occult manuscripts, often in their original form.  And like Abdul Alhazred, he also died mysteriously in 1840:  inside his locked and bolted chamber he was found strangled, the marks of taloned fingers on his throat, his manuscript torn and scattered on the floor.

Did Abdul Alhazred and Von Junzt encounter the same visitor?

Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults is also featured in a story by Robert E. Howard published just a year later, The Thing on the Roof (1932).  (This story was discussed in an earlier post; see Always Read the Manual First.)                                                          

The narrator of The Black Stone, also a scholar of the occult, comes across an interesting passage in Von Junzt’s book about a strange monolith near Stregoicavar, in modern day Hungary.  He consults additional texts, as well as a “weird and fantastic poem” called The People of the Monolith, written by yet another mad poet, Justin Geoffrey.  Geoffrey had been inspired by a visit to the monolith in Stregoicavar, and so the narrator also makes plans to visit the site—in time for Midsummer Night, the traditional pagan holiday celebrating the summer solstice.

Timing is everything.

It is clear that Robert E. Howard did considerable historical and perhaps some linguistic research as well when he produced this story.  There is clever blending of historical detail—which involve the Turkish attacks on southeastern Europe during the time of Suleiman the Great—with events in the story.  He also uses place names to suggest an intercontinental existence of his fictional weird civilization.  (The aboriginal name of Stregoicavar is Xuthtlan, for example.)

At this point in the story, readers familiar with Howard’s work will be asking themselves “But where is the mayhem?”  The author more than makes up for the slow moving back story with a vividly grotesque  reenactment of a pagan worship service.  The narrator reaches the site of ‘the black stone’ after dark—of course!—then falls asleep nearby.  Was he only dreaming that terrible night?  His horrendous vision is the climax of the story, filled with remarkably graphic violence and eroticism, (for 1931), as well as a memorable invocation of something representing the “monstrous evil that has stalked the sons of men…”

Unlike similar scenes in Lovecraft’s work—for example, in part 2 of The Call of Cthulhu (1928), “The Tale of Inspector Legrasse”—Howard’s pagans are coed, include children, and are overtly and weirdly sexual in their ritualistic behaviors.  There are individuals depicted, not just a mass of indistinct revelers.  He pushes the envelope well beyond what the more Puritan Lovecraft would have tolerated.  Howard is also much less cosmicist and more content to connect his evil minions with more traditional and biblical notions of evil and Hell.  Finally, in this story at least, Howard’s evil cult is a bad memory but not much more.  It is not a small but thriving conspiracy actively seeking a return of the old ways, as in Lovecraft.

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