Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Cowboys, Indians, and a Vampire

Way out west, another Indian mound is desecrated in Robert E. Howard’s The Horror from the Mound (1932).  The story strongly resembles the H.P. Lovecraft's collaboration with Zealia Bishop, The Mound, which is a much more ambitious story. The latter was written around 1930 but published about 10 years later.  (The Mound was discussed in two earlier posts; see 1.H.P. Lovecraft, Ethnographer of Doom and 2.But Zamacona Does the Heavy Lifting).  Howard places his Indian mound in west Texas; Lovecraft and Bishop locate theirs further north, in Oklahoma.

There are immediately recognizable differences in tone, style and plot that make each tale distinctive, but it is interesting to compare the two.  It is almost as if someone back in 1930 asked Howard and Lovecraft the question ‘What can you do with an old Indian mound?’—just to see what each would come up with. 

Linguistically sensitive readers may blanch at the overt racism and racist terminology present in Howard’s story, which is reflective of language and attitudes that were common circa the early 1930s.  In my humble opinion, the appearance of politically incorrect ideas or verbiage cannot be the sole criterion of whether a work of fiction has merit.  But they can serve to remind us of how attitudes change as a result of being openly expressed and then consciously dealt with.  It is the unspoken and unwritten words that are the greatest hazards to social peace and justice.   

Howard’s characters are a cowboy named Steve Brill and his neighbor, an old Mexican named Juan Lopez.  Because both are barely literate, there is no long winded back story about the history of the Indian mound—no antiquarian scholarship or poring over documents, as in the Lovecraft story.  Nevertheless, Howard contrives an ingenious way to get some of this earlier material before the reader.  When the cowboy presses his neighbor to say more of what he knows about the mysterious mound, Lopez responds that he “swore to silence on a Holy Crucifix…”  Brill then asks Lopez to write down what he knows instead, which his neighbor is agreeable to.  Lopez gets to work on this homework project, while Brill makes plans to dig up the mound in hopes of finding buried treasure.

The cowboy decides to excavate the mound by night of course, working well past sun down.  (This is the best time to dig anything up, especially in an old burial mound.)  Brill does not find gold, but does uncover a stone that conceals a burial chamber.  He goes back to his shack to obtain a lantern so that he can keep on working, but when he returns, he discovers the stone shoved aside, revealing a small cave-like opening.  It appears empty.  He immediately suspects Lopez of coming behind him, and stealing the treasure that he was trying to steal for himself.  (Lopez was probably unaware of the7.5th Commandment, which is: “Thou shalt not steal what is already stolen.” Or in the process of being stolen.)

In the distance, Brill can see a suspicious figure loping back towards Lopez’ shack, and Brill suspects the worst.  A light is on in his neighbor’s place.  He decides to investigate, but just as he is close to Lopez’ shack, he hears a terrible scream.  The cowboy bursts in, and finds Lopez sprawled on the floor, “arms spread wide like a crucifix”, with his freshly written notes scattered about.  Lopez had completed his essay about the age old curse on the Indian mound, but has also apparently been exsanguinated.

Brill returns home to study Lopez’ papers, his “reliable old Colt .45” at his side.  As in Lovecraft’s The Mound, the Spanish had arrived first at the site, about 400 years earlier, led by the wandering caballero Hernando de Estrada.  In Lovecraft’s tale, an early Spanish explorer discovers that what appears to be an Indian Mound is actually the outpost of an ancient subterranean civilization of telekinetic humanoids—The Mound is a Cthulhu Mythos story. 

In Howard’s story, the Spaniards actually bring the horror with them: the hapless de Estrada expedition had earlier rescued the mysterious nobleman Don Santiago de Valdez.  He was the sole survivor on a ship where all the other passengers had allegedly died of the plague and been thrown overboard.  Is there any connection between his presence and the increasing number of Estrada’s men found drained of blood in the morning? (Yes.)  It takes forever for the dwindling party to make this connection and determine the cause of their steady decline, but when they do, they inter the vampire in one of the Indian graves in the mound.  Brill has inadvertently dug him up 400 years later.

As in his werewolf stories—see his wonderful In the Forest of Villefère (1925) and Wolfshead (1926)—Robert E. Howard provides useful and original procedural information about vampires.  When a vampire is gorged with blood he is easily subdued.  One should then drive a stake through his heart, cut off his head, and have a priest utter the holy words that convert his mortal remains to dust.  Timing is everything.  Lacking the appropriate clergy, the best one can do is to seal the vampire in a stone tomb, (as is often done with radioactive waste), and hope that no one digs him up hundreds or thousands of years later.  Effective signage is a must.

This being a Howard story, there is a climactic fight in the end, with bullets, clawing, strangling, ripping, and bone breaking, among other techniques used.  What makes his stories entertaining are the vivid action scenes and lovingly depicted violence.  The cowboy always wins of course.

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