Robert E. Howard set a number of his horror stories in the South, often in the ruins of antebellum mansions and woodland cabins. Examples include The Shadow of the Beast (1977), Kelly the Conjure Man (1964) and Black Canaan (1936). Superficially, these stories depict appalling racism in their frequent use of racially derogatory labels and stereotypes about African Americans. Often there is preoccupation with Voodoo or survivals of more primitive belief systems. These hidden and fearful elements are supposedly traceable to western Africa and brought to America by the enslaved peoples of that continent.
However, beneath the surface of these disturbing narratives are powerful nightmares about racial hatred, injustice and revenge—themes that Howard returned to often in his work. How did the powerless and oppressed make their way in a violent, racially divided land? As with narrative action and physical violence, the author graphically detailed the ugliness of racism and the consequences of slavery over time. Then as now these issues remained unresolved and so a fertile source of new nightmares.
One of the most effective of these racially charged stories is Pigeons from Hell (1938). It was published in Weird Tales about two years after the author’s death. A young man named Griswell and his friend spend the night in Blassenville Manor, an old abandoned mansion built before the Civil War. Howard uses the decayed architecture as a symbol of the nation’s troubled racial history, as he did in The Shadow of the Beast, (see also A Racist Nightmare). The house is haunted, just as our national conscience is, and this being a Robert E. Howard story, readers can expect considerable violence and mayhem to ensue. Interestingly, the lead character is not a Texan, as Robert E. Howard was, but a visitor from New England.
One of the pleasures of reading this author is his inventiveness in mixing a variety of genres together in a single story. Pigeons from Hell is a vengeance tale, a who-done-it, and an historical piece. Howard at one point makes the case that the Old South is just as haunted and terrifying as the more antiquated regions of New England. In a passage that seems written with H.P. Lovecraft in mind, he remarks:
“Witchcraft has always meant the old towns of New England, to me—but all this is more terrible than any New England legend—these somber pines, old deserted houses, lost plantations, mysterious black people, old tales of madness and horror—God, what frightful, ancient terrors there are on this continent fools call ‘young’!”
This seems an echo of Lovecraft’s opening comments in The Picture in the House (1921) and elsewhere:
“But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.”
Pigeons from Hell is also of course a horror tale, this one involving a zuvembie. This creation of Howard’s resembles a zombie, but possesses additional powers, such as the ability to hypnotize her victims, control the actions of nocturnal creatures, and absorb light. Only a woman can become a zuvembie by drinking the Black Brew—the ingredients are listed in the story for the interested reader. (Howard probably coined the term, but until 1971 zuvembie was used as a replacement for the term zombie in various American comic publications. This was in order to comply with the restrictions on some horror content put forth by the Comics Code Authority.)
The appearance of the zuvembie in Pigeons from Hell is the supernatural consequence of events that occurred in the troubled Blassenville household, whose dark history is revealed as the story progresses. The title is a reference to an omen seen outside the mansion by her future victims. Justice of a kind is achieved for a past victim of racial violence and subjugation, but ominously, the violence continues: Griswell, his friend Branner, and the local sheriff encounter the monster in the modern South. Not everyone lives to tell about it later…
Howard deftly creates some genuinely creepy dreamscapes. Readers may wonder at points whether the lead character is actually awake or even still alive, let alone sane. As in a nightmare, Griswell must return to the haunted house again and again despite his mounting terror, knowing that each visit could be his last. Howard uses the Lovecraftian technique of slowly revealing the horror through gradually uncovered historical detail. Unlike Lovecraft, Howard did not find in this history a hidden, mind blowing cosmic horror threatening to overwhelm sanity and civilization. Instead, he found violence and injustice, made lingering, spectral, powerful, and active because unresolved.