Somewhere in Texas, in the late 19th Century, a black man named Joe Cagle shoots down a white man in front of his sister. Joan, “the pale-faced girl”, has been harassed by Cagle—he peers in her window at night, and grabs at her out by the wood pile. When her brother Harry defends her by hitting the black man with a club, Cagle shoots him and runs off, screaming at Joan that he will come back and get her, too—“some night when the woods were dark…”
This racially charged motif is the calculated opening of Robert E. Howard’s The Shadow of the Beast (published posthumously in 1977). Racial stereotyping abounds in the pulp fiction of this author and his contemporaries, but is especially virulent, because unreflective, in this story. There is no nuance or proto-diversity awareness or even a glimmer of sympathy here. The image of a black man killing a white man to steal his woman would have electrified Howard’s readership in the 1930s, and is still unfortunately a powerful energizer of racial fear and hatred.
The shooting prompts a hunt for Joe Cagle, spearheaded by Joan’s suitor, Steve, who is the narrator. As the posse closes in, Steve rides his horse alone into the pine woods, headed for the—in capital letters—“Deserted House.” This is an abandoned antebellum mansion that the locals believe is haunted. Backwoodsmen tell stories of unlucky visitors who are thrown out of upper windows to their deaths.
As he nears this hazardous location, people of African descent are compared to ‘varmints’, gorillas, and apes; there is mention of black magic, voodoo, tom-toms and cannibalism. Howard lays on the racist epithets pretty thickly at this point, perhaps to justify in advance the violence that is intended toward Joe Cagle when he is found. The narrator finally arrives at the “Deserted House” just as the moon is beginning to rise. That this is no ordinary haunted house is made clear by Steve’s mournful description:
“I saw, in this vague light, that the house had once been a mansion of the old colonial type. Sitting in my saddle for an instant before I dismounted, a vision of lost glory passed before my mind—a vision of broad plantations, singing negroes, aristocratic Southern colonels, balls, dances—gallantry…All gone now. Blotted out by the Civil War…and now what grim threat lurked in those dark and dusty rooms where the mice warred with the owls?”
Steve cautiously enters the house, pistol in one hand and electric flash-light in the other. In one room he finds Joe Cagle, unwounded but apparently frightened to death. The cause of his horrible fate is soon apparent, for the long shadow of an enormous beast slides across the floor, even though its source is completely invisible. Steve can barely elude the nightmarish creature, which is large, predatory and seemingly everywhere at once. He throws himself through a window and later awakes in the lap of his beloved Joan.
In my view, had Howard ended the story here, with the ghostly creature left unexplained and still malevolently active, he would have made a much more powerful statement about race relations in our country. A forgotten mansion, built by slaves, haunted by a ghost that terrifies black and white alike, even to death—surely this is a metaphor for our nation’s dark history before the civil war and the lingering aftermath for generations of people both enslaved and free.
The story is weakened at the end by an explanation of the origin of the ghost, and the consignment of the house and its terrifying occupant to flames—“The ancients have always maintained that fire is the final destroyer…” This may be wishful thinking on Howard’s part, that mere flames would cleanse the national soul of its racial sin. Most would agree that America is still pursued by this ghost, which haunts all our houses, not just the antebellum ones.