The neighborhood where John Kirowan, John O’Donnel, and John Conrad live is a very busy place, supernaturally speaking. These three gentlemen are stock characters who appear in several of Robert E. Howard’s horror stories from the early to mid 1930s. Professor Kirowan will remind some readers of William Hope Hodgson’s psychic detective, Carnacki, though he is much less verbose and overbearing. O’Donnel likes to collect rare and ancient weapons, which sometimes cause him to channel the reincarnated spirits of forgotten warriors. Conrad is another member of this circle of friends who shows up often in these stories. None of them ever have to work, attend to their families, or take the garbage out.
Kirowan is the narrator of Dig Me No Grave (1937) in which a neighbor, two mansions over, is seized by a demon in fulfillment of a contract for his soul. Conrad is also a witness. In The Children of the Night (1931), O’Donnel becomes a murderous Aryan warrior after being knocked on the head by a Neolithic flint mallet. He nearly kills a suspicious houseguest—Professor Kirowan was also at that party.
In The Dwellers Under the Tomb, (published posthumously in 1976), O’Donnel and Conrad team up to uncover a bizarre premeditated murder: a greedy brother fakes his own death in hopes of luring his identical twin to the grave site. He wants to kill his brother and take his place. The mayhem is complicated by the appearance of “the dwellers” referenced in the title.
(With the exception of the villains, these characters all seem to be a fictional representation of the circle of writers that visited and corresponded with H.P. Lovecraft. Perhaps Howard simply re-imagined his colleagues as successful intelligentsia, and surrounded them with the horrors they created in their stories.)
John O’Donnel is the narrator of The Haunter of the Ring (1934), originally published in Weird Tales. He arrives at Kirowan’s study eager to show off his latest acquisition, a “jewel-hilted Afghan dagger”. As he flashes the knife, Kirowan’s other guest, a mutual acquaintance named James Gordon, reacts violently. “Keep back! Get away from me!” he screams.
Gordon is bit jumpy, and who wouldn’t be? His wife Evelyn has tried to kill him three times in the last week. Could her frightening behavior have something to do with that “ancient and accursed ring” she is wearing, the one that won’t come off? The one that depicts “a scaly snake coiled three times, with its tail in its mouth and yellow jewels for eyes”? It turns out the ring was a belated wedding gift from an earlier suitor, one Joseph Roelocke, whom Evelyn turned down in favor of James Gordon.
After Evelyn’s fourth attempt to kill her husband is apparently successful, Kirowan suspects the worst. He and O’Donnel speed across town to Roelocke’s high rise apartment.
In case the reader is uncertain of Roelocke’s true nature, the author describes him as an “elegant sophisticate” and a “young exquisite”, who displays “infernal indolence and blasé indifference”. One suspects this is code for homosexual, but the villain is perhaps less classifiable. When Kirowan and O’Donnel confront Roelocke in his apartment, he is wearing a Chinese silk dressing gown decorated with dragons. He is draped languidly across a divan, smoking a cigarette. Worse, his real name is Yosef Vrolok. Combining widely disparate ethnic, racial and gender stereotypes seems intended to amplify the sense of evil and treacherousness in this diabolical character.
From a previous encounter, Kirowan knows that Roelock—Vrolok, (warlock?), is in reality a notorious Hungarian vampire and occultist. And not only that: years ago he stole away from Kirowan the only woman he ever loved. (On the other hand, Evelyn was probably not the only woman Vrolok ever loved.) There is a climactic but confusing struggle between Kirowan and Vrolok, and Gordon somehow survives being shot in the head by his wife. Vengeance and reincarnation are in view, but not very clearly, and readers may find The Haunter of the Ring one of Robert E. Howard’s less coherent stories.
Fans of Cthulhu Mythos inspired stories may want to check out Acolytes of Cthulhu (2014) a new anthology just out. Edited by Robert M. Price, it contains selections from the 1930s, 40s, 60s, 70s and 80s—alas, nothing from the 1950s! The book is valuable in showing the development of this literature in the decades immediately following Lovecraft’s passing.