Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Somewhere in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

“If man, molded of divinity, could sink to such verminous obscenities, who could contemplate his eventual destiny unshaken?”—From The Valley of the Lost, by Robert E. Howard

What if you took the Hatfields of West Virginia and the McCoys of Kentucky and moved them and their bloody, late 19th century feud to west Texas?  What if you added an encounter with a lost race of telepathic, subterranean snake people?  This is the premise of Robert E. Howard’s The Valley of the Lost, published posthumously in 1967. 

The story is a startling combination of a violent western and a weird “lost race” story.  It contains a number of elements that appear in other Howard stories, such as The Children of the Night, (1931), People of the Dark, (1932) and another posthumously published tale, The Little People (1970).  All of these deal with a race of subterranean humanoids with reptilian features.  The “snake people” devolved from their human ancestors after living for millennia underground.  Metaphorically speaking, they are a stand-in for the Serpent in the Garden, and there are a lot of them.

John Reynolds is nearly the sole survivor of his clan, relentlessly hunted down by members of the vicious McGrill family.  He finds some shelter in the hills surrounding the ominously named Lost Valley, known for its unusual stone ruins and mysterious murders and disappearances.  Old-timers and Indians have avoided the area for decades, which has remained uninhabited.  Reynolds manages to ambush one of the members of the McGrill party, and later watches as his attackers bury the body in a nearby cave.  Later, he goes to the cave in hopes of stealing ammunition from the belt of the corpse.  But the body is mysteriously missing.   

He should have known better—just before entering the cavern he had reviewed in his mind everything he knew about the dark legends of the Lost Valley.  Perhaps he did this for the reader’s benefit, if not for his own.  In the dark of the cave he stumbles against a stone wall, which suddenly gives way.  He falls into a hidden stairwell.  From this point on the story morphs from a familiar western motif of vengeance and gun fighting to something completely different. 

Reynolds explores the dark passageways and blunders into a mind-blowing revelation about the true nature of reality—what literally and figuratively exists below the ground we walk on.  The effect is a more intense version of what happens to Young Goodman Brown in the Hawthorne story of the same name.  It is a life changing vision of Hell.

The influence of his colleague H.P. Lovecraft is very apparent in the second half of The Valley of the LostWhile among the snake people, Reynolds is granted a vision of their history up to the present day.  The effect is very similar to that in Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936), when the narrator is deciphering the history of “those star-headed things” from the sculptures and hieroglyphs found deep under Antarctica.  Howard’s history is much more violent and less restrained than Lovecraft’s, but the purpose seems to be the same: to provide an overall sketch of the mythos he was creating out of elements from earlier stories.

The Valley of the Lost is an ambitious story.  Howard seems to be saying something about the nature and persistence of evil, using vaguely Calvinist ideas recast as weird biology.  The ending is surprising and ironic.  Given how the author himself died, the last image is a haunting one.

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