Thursday, January 9, 2014

Blood Will Out

In Robert E. Howard’s The Little People (1970), the protagonist reverts to a prehistoric Celtic tribesman at the sight of his sister being harassed by the “spawn of Hell” near a Druid ruin.  In People of the Dark (1932), the narrator knocks himself out by falling down some rocky steps.  He regains consciousness as an early Conan—before he obtained his credentials as ‘the Barbarian”.  In Howard’s The Children of the Night (1931), an accidental blow to the head with an ancient flint mallet transforms John O’Donnel into the murderous Aryara, a blond haired, blue eyed Aryan tribesman.  In the latter two stories, the concussion is accompanied by vivid, bloody scenes of carnage and mayhem, as racial memories of epic battles are relived.

The basic principle seems to be that a traumatic event or mild concussion is enough to ignite prehistoric racial animosities and even ancestral personalities in an otherwise educated, civilized individual.  Behind the rational eyes lies a brain seething with genetically latent hatred for ‘the other’.  In these stories this ‘other’ is a humanoid race of creatures with “stunted bodies..gnarled limbs…snake like beady eyes…grotesque, square faces with their unhuman features…” The creatures live in caverns and tunnels beneath the English moors.  As with H.P. Lovecraft’s ghouls, this devolved, subterranean race is capable of interbreeding with respectable surface humans, leading to unfortunate results later on.

The Children of the Night begins with a gathering of friends.  They are in a study filled with occult books and ancient artifacts.  The men are well educated, professorial types whose primary interest seems to be skull and jaw structure, and the connection these features have with racial distinctiveness.  “The Mediterraneans were as long-headed as the Aryans; would admixture between these dolichocephalic peoples produce a broad-headed intermediate type?” one of the men passionately asks.   And so on. 

There is some Lovecraftian discussion of ancient books that are present in the study—Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, for example—and the survival of secret cults that worship Cthulhu, Yog Sothoth, and the like.  But this is a digression from the focus of the story, which is race.  The narrator goes on to classify his friends according to racial category:  “Each of the six of us was of the same breed—that is to say, a Briton or an American of British descent.”  But Ketrick, the seventh individual was not.  John O’Donnel, the narrator, describes Ketrick in this way:

“…to me the man always seemed strangely alien.  It was in his eye that this difference showed externally.  They were a sort of amber, almost yellow, and slightly oblique.  At times, when one looked at his face from certain angles, they seemed to slant like a Chinaman’s…I remember Professor Hendrik Brooler once remarked that Ketrick was undoubtedly an atavism, representing a reversion of type to some dim and distant ancestor of Mongolian blood—a sort of freak reversion, since none of his family showed such traces…As for the man himself, this defect of his eyes, if it can be called a defect, is his only abnormality, except for a slight and occasional lisping of speech…”

Alert readers will immediately identify Ketrick as probably a mongrel descendent of the reptilian subterranean race described above.  He is the member of a minority.

While wielding an ancient flint hammer in the study, Ketrick accidentally knocks O’Donnel out cold with it—which seems awfully suspicious.  While unconscious, O’Donnel has a vision of an ancient skirmish in which he is eventually overwhelmed by the evil ‘children of the night’, but not before bludgeoning and hacking several of them to bits.  When he awakens, he attempts unsuccessfully to kill his fellow guest, Ketrick.  He is now O’Donnel, but also Arayara, a prehistoric Aryan warrior.  Both personalities are now active and combined into one individual.

The epilogue of the story is the most chilling part.  O’Donnel’s experience does not bring greater understanding, wisdom or peace, although he says that it ‘opened my eyes’.  Rather, the narrator outlines a deterministic Aryan racial theory that ensures his kind will always be at bloody war with their kind:  “…the brand of the serpent is upon him…”   At the end of the story, O’Donnel intends to keep faith with his tribe, hunt Ketrick down, and kill him.  There is almost an Old Testament echo here:  “So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”  (Several sections of Deuteronomy, for example.)

The story is remarkable, coming as it does near the outbreak of hostilities leading to the Second World War.  What we would consider nonsensical racial ‘science’ was dismayingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic, leading to horrible violence and oppression.  Howard and his contemporaries certainly breathed this air in the early thirties.  To be fair, Howard does not seem so concerned to rank or denigrate different racial or ethnic groups as H.P. Lovecraft often does.  His focus seems to be on the grim notion that racial tensions are ancient, enduring and unavoidable, because in the blood.  The view is profoundly conservative.  Amid the blood and dashed skulls it is nature, not nurture, that wins.

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