In some sense, a tale about a monster can be seen as an exaggeration or reversal of the typical fishing or hunting story—not so much about ‘the one that got away’ as the one we got away from. One can see this in Robert E. Howard’s ambitious The Valley of the Worm (1934). The story superficially looks like a prequel to Howard’s Worms of the Earth (1932). It describes prehistoric events that occur millennia before the heyday of the Roman Empire, which is the setting for the latter story. (See Other Crucifixions). Both involve an enormous marauding annelid creature. However, The Valley of the Worm is thematically closer to several other stories by Howard, and consolidates a number of ideas he developed in these works.
These include The Dream Snake (1928), The Children of the Night (1931), and People of the Dark (1932), among others. All of them assume that reincarnation is a reality, and that under the right environmental conditions—namely generations spent either underground or in a jungle wilderness—humans will regress to a more bestial and reptilian form. Which regression is not only biological, but also spiritual.
For Robert E. Howard, the original and ultimate evil was serpentine in form and nature. While Freudians will certainly notice the prevalence of caves and snake imagery in Howard’s work, the origin of this preoccupation is probably the traditional Biblical understanding of the serpent as evil, (or at least, powerful). For William Hope Hodgson, ultimate evil took a porcine shape, as in The Hog (1947). H.P. Lovecraft modelled some of his monsters and extraterrestrials on marine life forms. For Howard, it was the snake, or its more primordial image, the worm.
James Allison, the narrator of The Valley of the Worm, is an older man who is dying of a prolonged illness. Yet he is unafraid of what follows death. He has been blessed—perhaps also cursed—with the ability to recall his past lives, and anticipate his future ones. Throughout history he has been reincarnated as various barbarian heroes: “My name has Hialmar, Tyr, Bragi, Bran, Horsa, Eric and John…” As a result of his various incarnations, Allison has repeatedly experienced violent, gruesome death while defending clan and tribe. Howard articulates this understanding of human nature and fate:
“Each man on earth, each woman, is part and all of a similar caravan of shapes and beings. But they cannot remember—their minds cannot bridge the brief, awful gulfs of blackness which lie between those unstable shapes, and which the spirit, soul or ego, in spanning, shakes off its fleshy masks. I remember.”
As he contemplates his immanent death, James Allison’s memories coalesce on his adventures as an incarnation of Niord, a warrior-hero of a tribe of northern Aryans, a race of blond, blue eyed barbarians. (Howard’s racial theories are at best quaint, if not appalling by our standards, but would have been considered mainstream by many of his contemporaries.)
In Howard’s earlier stories, racial memories of a previous existence are present, but unconscious in his characters. In The Dream Snake, a man tells of recurring nightmares in which he is menaced by an enormous serpent—during a previous life lived somewhere in Africa. John O’Donnel channels a bloodthirsty Aryan warrior after being struck on the head by a prehistoric mallet in The Children of the Night. Finally, in People of the Dark, John O’Brien falls and hits his head in a cave—and wakes up as Conan. (This is one of the first stories in which Howard’s famous character appears.) These stories show the development of Howard’s interesting mythos of the “snake people”, his views of subterranean ecology and evolution, and his application of the notion of past lives.
The first half of The Valley of the Worm is both historical and conceptual. The author describes the slow and arduous migration of Niord and his people from their frozen northern homeland to the southern jungles of a prehistoric continent. There is a frenzied battle with another humanoid race, the shorter, stockier, black haired Picts, whom they encounter in the south.
Niord befriends a Pict warrior whose life he spares. The two go off together to hunt a saber tooth tiger, (which is actually more like a bear, according to the author), and later an enormous python. Niord’s relationship with Grom, who is clearly of another race, and possibly a stand-in for someone of African descent, parallels that of two other Howard characters: Solomon Kane and N’Longa. This is an interesting and recurring feature in Howard’s fiction.
From Grom Niord learns of the dreaded Valley of the Worm, in which a Pict outpost as well as an Aryan colony were destroyed by a terrible monster. The creature is connected with an ancient ruined temple. The rest of the story describes a final hunting expedition in which Niord encounters the most horrific creature he has ever battled. Howard masterfully connects these events to the present, as James Allison vividly remembers them on his deathbed.
But The Valley of the Worm is more than a hunting or fishing tale transmogrified into a monster story. Howard mixes in a good deal of myth, religion, paleontology and early twentieth century racial theory to create a uniquely savage and endlessly reiterating world—from which the only deliverance is heroic violence and loyal friendship. This story is strongly recommended reading to those interested in a deeper appreciation for the interconnections among Howard’s fictional works.
In a somewhat lighter vein, I offered last fall a series of posts on the depiction of snakes in early twentieth century weird fiction. Interested readers may want to look at:
1. All About Snakes (Howard’s The Dream Snake)
2. A Snake Keeps the Secret (Dunsany’s The Secret of the Gods)
3. Snakes on the Silver Screen (various)
4. And Finally, a Pestilent Extraterrestrial Snak... (Clark’s The Beast of Averoigne)
Snakes on a Plain (In Oklahoma) (The Curse of Yig, H.P. Lovecraft with Zealia Bishop)