Sunday, January 5, 2014

Oh Those Little People!

Robert E. Howard’s fragmentary The Little People, published posthumously in 1970, begins as many stories do—with reference to another story.  The narrator’s sister Joan, impatient with what she perceives are ‘fairy tales’, throws a copy of Arthur Machen’s The Shining Pyramid at him.   

The two are visiting the “weird West country” of England, where there are ancient and mysterious stone cromlechs and menhirs scattered on the moors.  Big brother sets the stage by giving his sister a lecture about ‘the little people’, otherwise known as Picts, Turanians, and other names.  Dwarfish, primitive and bestial, they were eventually driven into hiding in caves and even further underground by Celtic invaders.
But his little sister doubts that there are any of these creatures still alive.  Though a sibling, the narrator sounds more like the young woman’s father, and he forbids her to go out alone on the moors.

Machen’s 1895 novella also deals with a race of vaguely reptilian humanoids living deep beneath the ground in England.  (Coincidentally, the fifth chapter of Machen’s The Shining Pyramid is also entitled “The Little People”.)  A subterranean race that forms the basis for legends and folklore about ‘little people’ also appears in Howard’s more developed story, People of the Dark (1932).

(People of the Dark was reviewed in an earlier post; see A Subterranean Déjà vu .)

Joan, “willful and high spirited, used to having her way”, just will not listen to her older brother.  He attempts to dissuade her from going out after dark to explore the fen and the mysterious stone ruin nearby.  This seems like sound advice, and she seems to indicate that she will abide by it. But he wakes in the night to discover she is missing from her room.  While fitfully asleep he had dreamed of a strange white fog that came in the window—the fog had taken the shape of a tall, white bearded man who attempted to rouse him.  Downstairs, the night clerk at the hotel confirms his worst fear: “…said she was going to take a stroll on the moor…”

The narrator catches up with his sister just as she is about to be captured by a horde of short subterraneans with “stunted bodies, the gnarled limbs, the snake-like beady eyes..”  Empowered by Celtic racial memories and enraged that the fiends would try to make off with a woman of his family, he attacks them and kills several with his bare hands.  (It may be that he is channeling Howard’s famous character ‘Conan’ at this point.)  One of the devils stabs him in the leg with a flint knife, but despite the bloody wound, he tries to reach his sister, who has collapsed near one of the stone columns of the ruin.  The creatures are almost upon her when the ghost of an old druid appears…

The Little People was apparently missing a page of the original manuscript, and was published decades after the death of the author.  Perhaps this story was still in draft form, and the author intended further revisions.  However, it contains the beginnings of ideas that were elaborated in other Howard stories, as well as his trademark focus on action, graphic violence, and the rescue of a helpless female. 

It is interesting that the sister is depicted as rebellious, willful, and not a little courageous.  However it would be three or four decades before these traits would coalesce with skill and talent to produce an effective heroine—one who could manage without her big brother.

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