Wednesday, June 11, 2014

My Brother’s Keeper

Though not one of his best stories, Robert E. Howard’s The Dwellers Under the Tomb (1976) is interesting to compare to other works that feature the author’s subterranean race of reptilian humanoids.  One of the pleasures of reading a cycle of stories like these is to see the development of ideas over time and across publications.  It is often possible to see the influence of the author’s colleagues and mentors on an evolving style or area of interest. 

For example, in The Dwellers Under the Tomb, the denizen from deep underground is “a flaming-eyed dog-headed horror.”  In more developed stories, this creature becomes a reptilian, snake headed humanoid.  (Its eyes still glow in the dark.)  This is consistent with Howard’s evolving theory of human devolution: people driven to live underground for many generations physically revert to a more primitive life form.

Near the end of the story is this melodramatic passage:

“Spawn of the black pits of madness and eternal night!  Crawling obscenities seething in the slime of the earth’s unguessed deeps—the ultimate horror of retrogression—the nadir of human degeneration—good God, their ancestors were men!  The pits below the fifteenth tier, into what hells of blasphemous black horror do they sink, and by what demoniac hordes are they peopled?”

Which of Robert E. Howard’s colleagues does this text remind you of?  

Howard also appears to ape Lovecraft’s archaeological analysis of the alien hieroglyphics found in At the Mountains of Madness.  Though published in 1936, Lovecraft wrote this story in early 1931, according to his biographer, S.T. Joshi.  Like the record of the Old Ones in Lovecraft’s story, Howard’s cave dwellers show cultural and technological deterioration over time, eventually regressing to a bestial form of life.

The Dwellers Under the Tomb is closely related to several other stories by Howard, among them, The Children of the Night (1931), People of the Dark (1932), The Valley of the Lost (1967), and The Little People (1970).  Each of these features Howard’s lost race of subterranean humanoids, typically encountered near openings in the earth.  The posthumously published stories, of which The Dwellers Under the Tomb is one, must have been written sometime before 1936, when the author died.  The reader may wonder whether Howard felt these were ready for print at the time he penned them.  With the exception of The Valley of the Lost, these later stories appear less developed, contain more flaws, and are of generally lower quality than the items published during Howard’s lifetime.

The Dwellers Under the Tomb is about two aged twin brothers, Job and Jonas Kiles, who hate and fear each other.  Job is successful, but miserly and disagreeable.  Jonas is impoverished, but scheming and possibly demonic.  Their situation is another version of the story of Cain and Abel, which has many iterations throughout horror literature.  See for example, Walter De La Mare’s The Tree (1923) or Clark Ashton Smith’s The Return of the Sorcerer (1931). 

Jonas fakes his own death in hopes of luring his brother to the grave site, killing him, and taking his place.  Witnesses to the unfolding crime are two neighbors, John Conrad—who also appears in Dig Me No Grave—and John O’Donnel, who with Conrad appears in The Children of the Night.  These are well-to-do gentlemen who live in nearby mansions.  Despite great wealth and ample leisure, all of these characters live in a rough neighborhood. 

In the other story, Conrad watched as a neighbor, two mansions over, was seized by a demon in fulfillment of a contract he had signed with Satan.  In The Children of the Night, O’Donnel channeled the spirit of a murderous Aryan warrior, and nearly killed a houseguest in the process.   Job and Jonas live within walking distance of the mysterious Dagoth Hills, which are riddled with tunnels and caverns.  (In People of the Dark, the entrance to the lair of the subterranean race is “Dagon’s Cave”.)

Jonas makes the critical mistake of locating his fake sepulcher near the entrance to the underground tunnels where “the dwellers” are massing.  He succeeds in luring his brother to the tomb, where Job is promptly frightened to death by an appearance of one of the subterranean humanoids.  Conrad and O’Donnel discover a diary kept by Jonas—the last entry is a preposterously long passage that gleefully explains the plot to murder his brother Job.  It also speculates about the mysterious race that constructed the more or less orderly series of tunnels and chambers beneath the tomb.  Justice must be done, and Jonas soon suffers a gruesome fate as he tries to escape via a secret passageway.  It is just as well.   

The Dwellers Under the Tomb originally appeared in Lost Fantasies 4 in 1976.   Lost Fantasies was a series of anthologies published in the mid to late 1970s that featured pulp fiction from the late 1920s to the early 1940s.  Many of the issues were edited by Robert Weinberg, an avid fan and collector of horror, fantasy and science fiction entertainments.  His site is a great place to find examples of cover art, as well as tips for would be horror-writers and other useful information.

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