Monday, May 5, 2014

“Feed Me!”

The influence of H.P. Lovecraft  on fellow pulp fiction writers can clearly be seen in Robert E. Howard’s The Hoofed Thing, a story that appeared posthumously in Weirdbook Three—“the fanzine of weird fiction”—in 1970.  This was a small print publication that started in 1968 and later on became more successful in the mid-1970s and beyond.  (The particular issue that featured this story had a print run of just under 1000.)

Besides Howard’s story, also known as Usurp the Night, the issue contained Manly Wade Wellman’s Cryptic Summons, David Anthony Kraft’s Incantation, and the awesomely titled Say It With Spiders, by Janet Fox.

According to Michael Ashley, in his Gateways to Forever: The Story of Science Fiction Magazines 1970-1980, an early source of stories for the new periodical was “the bottomless trunk of Robert E. Howard”.  Weirdbook struggled early on as it recapitulated the challenges small press productions endure.  It came out only once every 10 to 12 months at first.  But Weirdbook was one of the rare magazines that published weird fiction at the time, and soon grew in stature and respectability.  The magazine thrived for thirty years. 

The Hoofed Thing is not one of Howard’s better stories, and it may be that he did not originally intend for it to be published.  Did Howard see the story as too derivative?  Yet the work is interesting in showing the interaction of Lovecraftian ideas and Howard’s own.   The melodrama is over the top but entertaining in itself.   The story also features an important trope in horror entertainments, that of the growing horror that must continually be fed.  (Parents of every species can probably relate to this image on some level.)

The early part of the story is very Lovecraftian in tone, moody, devoid of dialogue, and focused on the character of a mysterious neighborhood antiquarian.  Attention is given to architecture, scholarship, and a copy of Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults.  However, some unLovecraftian elements soon appear:  a woman, for one, an affectionate dog, conversation among characters, and a big sword.  The protagonist is an athletic man of action, not an anxiety ridden scholar overwhelmed by cosmic fear.

The narrator is Michael Strang, whose fiancé Marjory has lost her cat at the beginning of the story.  In fact, cats are disappearing all over the neighborhood.  Strang surprises Marjory with a puppy, “a waddling, bench-legged bulldog with a face like a gargoyle”.   She renames it Bozo, after the missing cat.  Then dogs begin disappearing all over the neighborhood, then a few children, then a vagabond, and then—Marjory!  Michael suspects what the readers already know:  the disappearance of pets, children, vagrants and fiancés is somehow connected with an eccentric old man who lives in a dilapidated house down at the end of the street.

Strang had visited the man—Mr. Stark—on several occasions, and found him to be “a highly cultured man, a charming conversationalist, and a most courteous host.”  Mr. Stark also has a pet that he keeps out of sight upstairs.  Each time Strang visits, the hoof-like footsteps grow louder, heavier, and more animated overhead.  It is hungry in the worst way. 

Stark appears to be an educated and more genteel version of Zechariah Whateley, the evil patriarch of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror.  Mr. Stark’s pet is not an inter-dimensional half-breed spawn of Yog-Sothoth, as in Lovecraft’s story.  However, it took Mr. Stark considerable wizardry and consultation of ancient manuscripts to obtain “the mewling, squalling, naked thing from out the Abyss…”  Puppy chow consisted initially of live flies, spiders, insects, mice, rats, rabbits and so forth, on up to Marjory.

Enraged by the rude incarceration of his betrothed, Strang grabs an ancient broadsword handed down in his family for eight centuries.  In many Howard stories, historical artifacts contain powerful racial memories.  These somehow reincarnate ancient heroes into the bodies and minds of those who pick them up:  “A black fury gripped me, bringing with it the craft that extreme passion often brings.”  Here, Howard and his characters depart Dunwich and head for Cimmeria.  The remainder of the story is much more recognizable as a Robert E. Howard story.

The image of a horror that must be continually fed, and which grows ever larger, more malevolent and more difficult to control, is not uncommon in horror or science fiction.  Think of “Audrey II” in Little Shop of Horrors, commanding Seymour to “Feed me!”   It would be interesting to speculate on the psychological origins of this archetypal terror.   That humans would be complicit in nurturing a predatory horror only adds to the discomfort and growing fear.

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