Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cleft Skull Tavern—Not Recommended

Few would want to spend the night in an inn called the Cleft Skull Tavern, especially if they knew that one of the rooms contained a skeleton chained to the floor.  When one of the characters asks the innkeeper if he has many guests, he says, “Few come twice.”  Consumers of horror entertainment know that this says a lot about the quality of the customer service, though the average hotel guest may miss this subtle clue.

Wilderness hotels are better regulated these days, though you would never guess this from all the horror movies that take place in such settings.  Choices for lodging were limited deep in the Black Forest around the 17th Century, so Solomon Kane, along with the Frenchman, Gaston l’Armon, decides to give it a try.  Though they have just met along the wooded trail, Kane finds something familiar in l’Armon’s manner and appearance:  “I have seen you somewhere before…”  The landlord gets no points for hospitality; he seems to have an ax to grind, in more ways than one.

This is the set up for Robert E. Howard’s Rattle of Bones (1929), a work that superficially resembles H.P. Lovecraft’s The Picture in the House (1921).    As in the latter work, the main character seeks shelter in the wrong place and at the wrong time.  Lovecraft’s story featured a cannibal who is inspired by pictures he finds in an old text.  The narrator almost becomes his host’s next meal, but is saved by a timely thunderbolt that destroys the house and its owner.  In Howard’s story, the cast of four characters—including the incarcerated skeleton—is halved by the ensuing murder and mayhem.  The notion of naïve guests visiting a hazardous domicile recurs often in horror entertainment, probably going back at least as far as Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Hänsel and Gretel, if not further.

In my view the most effective part of the story is Howard’s creation of a dark, candle-lit, nightmarish setting and his clever use of a fairy tale motif.  Rattle of Bones reads like an especially grim Brothers Grimm fable.  

Rattle of Bones is one of the shorter Solomon Kane stories, and precedes by a year The Hills of the Dead, reviewed in a previous post.  (Rattle of Bones was also published in Weird Tales.)  In this story, Kane, the Puritan hero, is uncharacteristically a passive victim of the violence around him.  First, Gaston l’Armon—that would be Gaston the Butcher—holds a pistol to Kane’s neck and attempts to rob him.  But not for long.  Next, the host of the aptly named Cleft Skull Tavern also aims a pistol at Kane, demanding his gold.  It turns out that the proprietor is a homicidal maniac driven mad by years of imprisonment for a crime he never committed.  So there is some pathos here.  “All men are my foes!” he screams, and now appears to be making up for all those earlier years of innocence and upright behavior.

Fortunately for Kane, the mortal remains of the last guest are actually the bones of a vengeful Russian sorcerer.  L’Armon, just before sharing the fate of all previous guests of the Cleft Skull Tavern, broke the skeleton’s chain in a moment of idleness.  This suspiciously random act becomes critical to the plot later on.  As in Lovecraft’s The Picture in the House, the protagonist is saved through no special effort of his own.  Seemingly random events line up to deliver Solomon Kane from an awful fate—all he does is stand around for much of the story and have weapons aimed at him.   If there is any moral at all to the story, it is something like this:  if just about everyone around you is going to get killed, it’s best to be at the back of the line.

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