Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Horror from the Mound (1932)

Pulp fiction author Robert E. Howard is probably best-remembered for his prehistoric strongman Conan the Barbarian, but this Sherlock Holmes to Howard's Conan Doyle overshadows the tremendous breadth of his work. A writer needs to make a living, after all, and the Pulps demanded voluminous effort. He is also known for other Swords and Sorcery characters like Solomon Kane, Kull and James Allison, for detective stories and boxing stories, true adventure and horror. He even contributed a few entries into the broader Cthulhu Mythos.

Howard was also famous, in his day, for a series of Westerns. His most well-known character was Breckinridge Elkins, a simple but upright cowpoke. When crossing over as many genres as he did, it would have been inconceivable for Howard to not engage in genre crossovers in themselves. Equipped by experience in writing straight horror stories, and enchanted with the history and lifestyle of his native Texas, he fused the two into some of the best examples of the Weird Western.

The first of these to be published, and arguably the best of them, is The Horror from the Mound. Printed in the hallowed pages of Weird Tales in 1932, this short story tells of a foolhardy cowboy turned failing farmer who notices how his superstitious Mexican neighbour makes a wide circle around an unmarked burial mound every day. Never will this man, nor any other person of Latin blood, risk coming anywhere near it in broad daylight, and none ever come out at all at night. His curiousity piqued, Steve Brill, the cowboy, tries cohercing the reason out of his neighbour to no effect. The secret is an old one, going back to the days of the conquistadors, and only passed down through family lines. Impatient with waiting, the cowboy reckons on finding out for himself and excavates the mound, releasing the nightmare within.

The Horror in the Mound is not only the ostensible best of Howard's Weird Westerns. One might safely say that it is one of the best Weird Westerns, period. Its brevity as a short story keeps the story taut and suspenseful. At such an early point in the genre, Howard also touches on all the characteristics that make for a good supernatural thriller set in the Old West. A number of vivid passages articulate the genre's themes and setpieces nicely:
What if, after all, that grassy heap of brown earth hid riches-virgin ore from forgotten mines, or the minted coinage of old Spain? Was it not possible that the musketeers of de Estrada had themselves reared that pile above a treasure they could not bear away, molding it in the likeness of an Indian mound to fool seekers? Did old Lopez know that? It would not be strange if, knowing of treasure there, the old Mexican refrained from disturbing it. Ridden with grisly superstitious fears, he might well live out a life of barren toil rather than risk the wrath of lurking ghosts or devils-for the Mexicans say that hidden gold is always accursed, and surely there was supposed to be some especial doom resting on this mound. Well, Brill meditated, Latin-Indian devils had no terrors for the Anglo-Saxon, tormented by the demons of drouth and storm and crop failure.

...

As he passed into the darkness of the brush along the dry creek, Brill found his tongue strangely dry. He kept swallowing, and he held the lantern high. It made but faint impression in the gloom, but seemed to accentuate the blackness of the crowding shadows. For some strange reason, the thought entered Brill's chaotic mind that though the land was new to the Anglo-Saxon, it was in reality very old. That broken and desecrated tomb was mute evidence that the land was ancient to man, and suddenly the night and the hills and the shadows bore on Brill with a sense of hideous antiquity. Here had long, generations of men lived and died before Brill's ancestors ever heard of the land. In the night, in the shadows of this very creek, men had no doubt given up their ghosts in grisly ways. With these reflections Brill hurried through the shadows of the thick trees.

He prefigures the observations of Desperadoes and Graveslinger writer Jeff Mariotte, who said "The West was a weird place. There are ghost towns and haunted mines and when you bring Native American beliefs into it, then the possibilities are even greater."

The Horror from the Mound was followed in 1933 with the less horrific but no less weird The Man on the Ground and Old Garfield's Heart. Twist endings and well-constructed suprises empower Howard's Weird Westerns, which also makes it difficult to talk about them in any depth. The Man on the Ground delivers a unique perspective on the ubiquitous Western gunfight that would have been worthy of Rod Serling. Old Garfield's Heart tells of a seemingly immortal man waylaid by a series of accidents what reveal the secret of his ageless existence.

2 comments:

Taranaich said...

Excellent overview, though is there a particular reason you left out "The Valley of the Lost" and "The Shadow of the Beast"?

Cory Gross said...

I haven't read them yet ^_^