“It is well known that inanimate objects retain psychic associations.”
—from The Cairn on the Headland (1933), by Robert E. Howard
Racial memories of past lives occur frequently in the horror and fantasy fiction of Robert E. Howard. These visions are typically evoked by a blow to the head, though not always. In The Little People (1970), Joan’s big brother reverts to a prehistoric Celtic tribesman at the sight of his sister being harassed by the “spawn of Hell” near a Druid ruin. However, the essential pattern is concussion followed by bloody scenes of gore and mayhem as racial memories of ancient epic battles are re-experienced.
In The Children of the Night (1931), John O’Donnel is accidentally struck on the head with an ancient flint mallet at a gathering of antiquarian friends. He becomes the murderous Aryara, a blond haired, blue eyed Aryan tribesman forever at war with a subterranean race of reptilian humanoids. (He is not invited back.)
In People of the Dark (1932), John O’Brien knocks himself out by falling down some stairs in a cave. When he wakes up he is Conan the Reaver. The author and reader assume that a traumatic event or mild concussion is enough to ignite prehistoric racial animosities and even ancestral personalities in an otherwise educated, sane individual.
James O’Brien, probably a close relative of John, is spared a head injury in The Cairn on the Headland (1933). He falls asleep cradling a stone he has taken from the site of an ancient ‘cairn’. During the night he has vivid, lifelike visions of being an ancient Celtic warrior—he is Red Cumal, “and my ax was dripping with the blood of my foes.” He is fighting at the side of Brian Boru, the famous 10th century Irish king. They are busy ridding their country of the hateful Vikings who have enslaved them.
The Vikings have brought with them an avatar of Odin, their fearful deity, who is fighting among them. The Irish are victorious after a gruesome battle, and it is left to Red Cumal to dispose of the wounded remains of “the Gray Man, the One-Eyed, the god of the North”. Though an immortal god, Odin is rendered vulnerable by the wounded flesh he had taken form in—and realizes too late that the one he has called on for help is his sworn enemy. O’Brien’s vision of the ancient battle is the groundwork—literally—to the rest of the story, which cleverly links the ancient past, racial animosities, a helpful ghost, and the modern day pilfering of an ancient burial site.
Not a lot makes sense in The Cairn on the Headland, but then it doesn’t have to in order to be entertaining. O’Brien’s talismanic rock was taken from a cairn, a ceremonial heaping of stones that his partner Ortali was excavating in hopes of finding gold, silver and jewels. Fans of Howard’s horror and fantasy stories will recall that this is essentially the same opening scene as in The Horror from the Mound (1932). (In that story, an ancient Indian Mound out west is desecrated by treasure hunters, with consequences that no one was expecting).
O’Brien had surreptitiously picked up the stone in order to bash in Ortali’s skull. He decides against doing this and slips the stone in his pocket instead. Ortali had been blackmailing him, threatening to tell the authorities some information that would implicate O’Brien in the suspicious death of his professor years before. O’Brien had clashed with this professor, and while challenging him in his academic office, the professor had lunged at him with a dagger—well, it’s a long story. (I must have gone to the wrong college…)
At one point, Ortali picks a sprig of holly and puts it in his lapel, an act that becomes significant later on in the story. Besides having visions of being Red Cumal a thousand years ago, O’Brien is helped by a Celtic spirit named Meve MacDonnal, who provides a spiritual weapon that comes in handy near the end. Unlike other Howard stories, O’Brien the narrator is fairly passive in this story—he triumphs chiefly through dreams, fate and the interactions of various supernatural forces.
The Cairn on the Headland is filled with Howard’s characteristically imaginative retelling and reworking of history and mythology. It is interesting to read the aforementioned stories and see the development of the author’s ideas about “psychic associations” with objects and places. There is also some interesting theology: who knew that all you needed to revive an ancient, menacing Norse god was a sprig of holly?