Thursday, June 5, 2014

Not Just Another Inscrutable Asian

Several of Robert E. Howard’s horror stories begin with a gathering of colleagues in someone’s study or library, as for example in  Dig Me No Grave (1937), The Children of the Night (1931), and The Thing on the Roof, (1932).  Inevitably, something unpleasant either transpires or is revealed about either the host or one of his guests.  This is also the situation in The Noseless Horror, posthumously published in 1970.

With a title like The Noseless Horror, readers already have some sense of what to expect in the ensuing pages.  Well-to-do white gentlemen meet at the house of a famous Egyptologist, Sir Thomas Cameron.  John Gordon is a wealthy sportsman and Slade, the narrator, is a scientist.  Cameron has a discovery that he wants to share with his friends.  Slade describes their host as “…always an interesting study, though I disliked his brutal manner and ruthless character.”  A little later it is implied that Cameron is implicated in the mysterious and untimely death of one Gustave Von Honmann.  Cameron had given Von Honmann a false map to “the hidden city of Gomar”, causing him to fall into the clutches of a wild tribe in Central Africa.

Experienced horror readers, trained to expect gruesome, karmic justice in such situations, know that something unpleasant is going to happen to the host—has to happen.   But the “horror”, at least one of them, makes a relatively early appearance, just as the narrator and his friend arrive at the front gate.  They are greeted and assisted by Ganra Singh, Cameron’s servant, a tall turbaned man of India, who has a hideous facial disfigurement—he is missing his nose.  This is never explained, though perhaps it would have been rude to ask.  Gordon and Slade immediately begin to make assumptions about the man’s character and trustworthiness.

Given what people knew or suspected of Asians in circa 1930s America, Ganra Singh becomes the prime suspect when a shocking murder occurs in the mansion later that night.  Here the author appears to be anticipating his readers’ prejudices: surely the murderer is the foreigner, the Asian, the one with the hideous disfigurement.  The character of Singh is certainly a caricature and a stereotype, but not nearly as predictable as similar figures in other pulp fiction of the time.  The Noseless Horror is an example of Robert E. Howard’s surprising and consistently nuanced view of race and cultural differences.  Compare his Ganra Singh to Surama, the evil Asian in the Lovecraft collaboration The Last Test (1927), for example.  (See The Curse of ‘Chuckle-Head’ )

Much of the action in The Noseless Horror involves searching and fleeing down dark corridors and dimly lit rooms filled with archaeological debris.  Cameron’s mansion is essentially a private museum filled with ancient artifacts he has purloined from various places around the world.  Howard has carefully mapped out the chambers and passageways; details may remind gamers of scenes from numerous videogames.  A confrontation with the real horror nearly results in the deaths of Gordon and Slader, but Ganra Singh saves the day.  An apology is in order, and is readily given.

Howard’s story was published posthumously in the February 1970 issue of Magazine of Horror, (“The Bizarre, The Frightening, The Gruesome”).  This magazine emulated Weird Tales and other pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s, offering reprints of old stories as well as newer material.  Magazine of Horror was in print from 1963 to 1971 and edited by Robert A.W. Lowndes.  Lowndes was an author and editor who specialized in both science fiction and horror, but also worked on pulp magazines in other genres, such as crime, sports and western fiction. 

As a young fan of horror and science fiction, Lowndes was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft.  In 1937, one source has it that Lowndes received two letters from Lovecraft supporting his early efforts as an author.   These must have come early in 1937, (or perhaps in 1936), since Lovecraft died March 15th of that year.  S.T. Joshi quotes Lowndes from a statement he made in the August 1937 issue of Weird Tales as saying “…it may seem somewhat strange for me to say that it is as though I had lost a beloved friend of many years acquaintance.  Yet this is the case…”

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