“Are they more foul than a mortal who seeks their aid?”
Atla, the untrustworthy were-woman, asks this question of Bran, who has just accomplished a gruesome vengeance upon Titus Sulla, the Roman oppressor his people. Atla, a half-breed and witch, has helped Bran invoke an ancient subterranean evil to use against the overwhelming strength of his adversary—a kind of biological warfare indigenous to the Welsh highlands. But Bran recoils at the final horror, and kills the man himself out of mercy. It is just too much, even for a warrior and barbarian king like Bran.
An epic and mythological tone pervades Robert E. Howard’s Worms of the Earth (1932), one of his best and most interesting stories in my view. Worms of the Earth was published in Weird Tales in November of 1932, only five months after a closely related story, People of the Dark saw print. The latter has the distinction of being the first story in which Howard’s famous Conan character appears. (Bran, the hero of Worms of the Earth, is virtually indistinguishable from Conan.)
Other closely related stories include The Children of the Night (1931) and a posthumously published tale called The Little People (1970), among others. All of these stories make reference to the threat of a subterranean race of snake-like humanoids that reverted to reptilian form after retreating underground for millennia. In Worms of the Earth readers learn that it was Bran’s ancient race of Picts who drove them underground, centuries before the arrival of the Celts and other invaders of ancient Britain.
Worms of the Earth begins provocatively with a crucifixion, identical in virtually all details to the one we know from the New Testament. However, in this one a hapless Pictish warrior is put to death by the Roman governor of Eboracum, Titus Sulla, in order to set a gruesome example for the rebellious population of Pictland. There will be no resurrection here, at least not a Christian one. I can recall only one other author who dared to make explicit use of such powerfully resonant religious imagery: William Hope Hodgson, in his very disturbing Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani (1919). (See Hodgson’s Passion Play)
Bran, alias ‘Partha Mac Othna’, is in reality the Pictish king, and is forced to watch impotently as his countryman is brutally executed. He plots revenge against the Roman governor, and considers his options. The Pictish warriers are unfortunately no match for the Roman Legions. He must rely on stealth and cunning. He considers calling upon dark, supernatural forces, which he may not be able to control once invoked. He even thinks of consulting the “Black gods of R’lyeh”, but reconsiders—doing that might be overkill. In a dream, he speaks with old Gonar the Wise, a sort of mentor spirit, who warns him against using occult methods of vengeance.
So he turns to his native land—or what may still lie beneath it. Atla, a half-breed witch and were-woman helps him locate an ancient underground chamber containing the ‘Black Stone’, which he steals from an altar. This attracts the attention of vile subterranean beings that are willing to do Bran’s bidding in exchange for the return of their precious stone. Bran accomplishes his revenge, but has literally opened the door to future encounters with the evil multitude that inhabits the caverns beneath Wales.
Worms of the Earth is an entertaining action story in the Conan tradition, and is interesting because of its connection with several of Howard’s other stories. Much of the narrative contributes background to the author’s unique mythos of an underground race of reptilian humanoids, which he cleverly interweaves with what was known at the time of ancient and pre-historic Europe. And there is the striking use of crucifixion imagery—probably accurate historically—combined with an ultimate evil depicted as snake-like in form and habit. Familiar images of traditional Western Christianity are present, but there is no recognizable salvation, and little hope.