Authors: Robert E. Howard
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Anthologies, #Epic, #Sword & Sorcery, #Anthologies & Short Stories
MOON OF SKULLS
Copyright © 2005 by Paul Herman.
Introduction copyright © 2005 by Mark Finn.
Cover art copyright © 2005 by Stephen Fabian.
All rights reserved.
It goes without saying that Robert E. Howard was a lifelong student of world history. He read extensively on the subject, both fiction and non-fiction, and was familiar with the sweep of mankind and its subsequent rise and fall. In particular, Howard was interested in the decay of civilizations, the backward slide into barbarism. Given his interest in history, Howard’s preoccupation with gothic themes is self-evident. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines gothic as: “...of or relating to a style of fiction characterized by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious, or violet incidents.” That can apply judiciously to most of Howard’s fiction in some way or another; most of his horror and fantasy stories include throwback civilizations, ancient cults, and forgotten secrets of one kind or another. But there is another meaning to the word gothic, and curiously, it is listed before the more familiar definition quoted above: “uncouth, barbarous.”
Also of interest to Howard was “the Orient,” as it used to be called. He read extensively on the subject of Asian history and its people, both for self-education and for entertainment. Asian places and themes figure prominently into Howard’s fiction throughout his writing career.
This brings us neatly to Howard’s first novella, “Skull-Face.” Originally serialized over three issues of
magazine, it is the story of an American World War I veteran, Stephen Costigan, and his descent into depravity as a hashish user. Broke, homeless, and at the end of his rope, Costigan is rescued by a mysterious Asian woman who introduces him into a vast criminal organization. Conspiracy piles up on intrigue as Costigan is cured of his addiction and forced to commit crimes for the mysterious leader of the secret society. Eventually, Costigan finds out the truth about his benefactor, but not before he falls for the woman who saved his life.
Told at a breakneck pace, “Skull-Face” is rife with sinister Orientals, stalwart British adventurers, and the requisite amount of fighting and action that was part and parcel of Howard’s signature style. Many have commented on its passing similarity to Sax Rohmer’s “Fu Manchu” series, particularly in the resemblance of the titular Skull-Face himself. In making such a comparison, it would seem that the character was supposed to be a recurring one (Howard started, but never completed, “Taverel Manor,” the return of Skull-Face).
Written sometime in 1928, “Skull Face” wasn’t published until October 1929. “Skull-Face” is a curious story for most Howard fans. It’s a long (over 33,000 words), intricately plotted tale that can’t make up its mind if it wants to be all-action or creeping horror. It seems familiar to fans of serialized fiction characters, but Howard never made good on the implication of a series. Where does “Skull-Face” fit in the larger framework of Howard’s career?
To me, “Skull-Face” was Howard’s first hybrid story. Howard wrote intuitively, feeling his way through a plot or an idea. Many times in his career, he would experiment with a new type of story by writing within a familiar structure, and then adding elements of the new genre he wanted to try out.
In “Skull-Face” we see many pieces of what will show up in later Howard stories. The use of exotic locales was nothing new to Howard’s fiction, and the use of modern London was important because of its rich history going back to ancient times, and was easy for Howard to co-opt for his uses. The fact that Costigan is mostly surrounded by various Asians serves to make them more of a backdrop than a commentary on “the White Man’s Burden.”
Later in Howard’s writing career, he would abandon London’s Chinatown for different Asian cities and locations altogether. Howard would use the ports-of-call in the Asiatic Seas, the Middle East, and other remote locations for his action-packed stories.
Here too we can see the strains of Orientalism as defined by Edward Said in his seminal work on the subject: the notion that the Orient is “Other,” its people lascivious and depraved, and their ideals alien and antagonistic to the rest of civilization. Clearly, Howard is repeating rather than reporting with conviction, since most of the literature and non-fiction at the time is infused with such biases. Howard kept the framing sequence of a racial revolt and co-opted the rhetoric of Rohmer and Kipling to the needs of his story.
The theme of one race or nation rising up to overthrow another is a recurring one in Howard’s fiction. At a time when eugenics was an accepted and prevalent theory throughout the country, Howard often wondered what would happen if, as French author Pierre Louys and most of his history books seemed to think, a dominant country or world power grew so fat and contented that they were susceptible to a takeover from a minority group. This was certainly borne out in Ancient Rome, Egypt, and other places. Why not London? Or Valusia, in the case of the Kull stories, when a clearly inferior outland barbarian seizes the throne? Howard’s Bran Mac Morn stories emphasize the rise of Rome’s power and their extermination of the Picts. These flashpoints of revolt and revolution come up over and over again in Howard’s series and short stories. Whether or not the scenario is successful depended entirely on the point-of-view that Howard wrote the story from.
Also present are the elements of the gothic style; secret passages running, forgotten but not empty, under the streets of ignorant London, are just one little touch. The best example of the gothic is Skull-Face himself. His ancient lineage, his methodology, and his organization are gleefully archaic and strange.
The hero in “Skull-Face” isn’t Costigan, but rather John Gordon, a stalwart British agent cut from the cloth of the Empire. Stiff upper lip, quick to act, and all of the trappings of the kind of characters found in pulp fiction in literal droves. Howard tried several times in his career to write what he considered to be mystery stories, and he claimed that he was no good at it. The truth is, he never wrote any British mystery fiction in the Sherlock Holmes fashion, although “Skull-Face” may be considered such an effort. Actually, Howard was flirting with American hard-boiled fiction, and had he abandoned some of the weird elements and focused on plot complications, he would have been a smash. As it was, Howard tried several times to redo Weird Menace in the Orient stories, in stories like “Black Talons” (see
Graveyard Rats and Others
) and “Lord of the Dead.” Howard eventually abandoned the British detective and the oriental villain and tried out an American man-of-action, Steve Harrison, a more fitting Howard leading man.
By comparison, Steve Costigan is also a world traveler in the streets of London, and the first-person star of the show, even if he is a passive character. The character name shows up, albeit quite differently, in a series of prizefighting stories written for a different market (see
Waterfront Fists: The Complete Fight Stories of Robert E. Howard). Howard also used the name to describe himself in a fictional autobiography, “Post Oaks and Sand Roughs,” which was also written in 1928.
What makes Costigan memorable is the gift he is given from the eponymous villain. “As always the barbarian,” remarks Skull-Face to Steve Costigan, a reference to his general disposition and seemingly inhuman strength (and harkening back to the definition of “gothic”). Costigan appears to be a kind of mutant with his gorilla-like physical prowess (and even makes a brief appearance as an ape), and this is one of the strongest elements that Howard reused for many of his recurring characters: whether they were protagonists or antagonists, Iron Men or Barbarians, successes or failures, Howard was interested in the personalities that were more capable by design or environment than everyone around them. Sometimes they were genetic supermen, and sometimes they were a holdover from a previous age of mankind, but they were always stronger, faster, tougher, and sometimes even smarter and better looking. In the Costigan character, we can see the beginnings of what will later become Howard’s most compelling characters. “Skull-Face,” then, is a plateau and possibly a gateway to the rest of Howard’s fiction career.
The rest of the stories and poems in this volume are no less engaging, as Howard’s skills as a wordsmith were improving with each story. “The Fearsome Touch of Death,” a strange little study in fear, is one of the most unknown Howard stories of all, and this marks its first appearance in book form since it debuted in Weird Tales in February, 1930.
“The Moon of Skulls,” another Solomon Kane story, sends the Puritan avenger to Africa to rescue a woman from a vampiric, decadent civilization (sound familiar?). The next Solomon Kane story, “Hills of the Dead,” puts a fresh spin on the tired old zombie as Howard methodically worked his way through the monster canon of Weird Tales clichés. We saw ghosts and werewolves in Volume 1. In Volume 2, we get vampires and zombies and mummies (after all, the villain in Skull-Face is a mummy returned to life).
“The Voice of El-Lil” rounds out the fiction in this book. Again we see world travelers, British men-of-action, and a tale of one of their adventures gone horribly wrong. This gothic oriental story precedes “Skull-Face” and these characters will re-emerge in an altered form later on in Howard’s El Borak tales. For now, they do a credible job of conveying atmosphere and suspense.
You may again be tempted to skip the poetry that is scattered throughout the book. Fair warning: if you do, you’ll miss some of Howard’s best, most interesting work. Sure, it’s short, and it’s poetical, but trust me, Howard was a master at packing thought and emotion into a very short space. At the very least, you must read “Dead Man’s Hate.” It’s one of the great Howard poems, and one of my favorites as well. Howard reveals much about himself in his poetry.
The period between 1929 and 1931 was a busy time for Robert E. Howard. He was writing quickly and often, and while humorous boxing fiction made up a lot of his income at the time, he was busy exploring his darker thoughts, his more pessimistic impulses, and trying them out for other markets. He never really stopped writing weird tales for Weird Tales. He was clearly searching for something, and each completed story brought him closer to the fictional answer he sought. These stories show the beginning of Howard’s steps toward literary immortality. Enjoy!
— Mark Finn
, October 1929, November 1929 and December 1929 (3-part serial)
1. The Face in the Mist
“We are no other than a moving row
Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go.”
— Omar Khayyam
The horror first took concrete form amid that most unconcrete of all things — a hashish dream. I was off on a timeless, spaceless journey through the strange lands that belong to this state of being, a million miles away from earth and all things earthly; yet I became cognizant that something was reaching across the unknown voids — something that tore ruthlessly at the separating curtains of my illusions and intruded itself into my visions.
I did not exactly return to ordinary waking life, yet I was conscious of a seeing and a recognizing that was unpleasant and seemed out of keeping with the dream I was at that time enjoying. To one who has never known the delights of hashish, my explanation must seem chaotic and impossible. Still, I was aware of a rending of mists and then the Face intruded itself into my sight. I though at first it was merely a skull; then I saw that it was a hideous yellow instead of white, and was endowed with some horrid form of life. Eyes glimmered deep in the sockets and the jaws moved as if in speech. The body, except for the high, thin shoulders, was vague and indistinct, but the hands, which floated in the mists before and below the skull, were horribly vivid and filled me with crawling fears. They were like the hands of a mummy, long, lean and yellow, with knobby joints and cruel curving talons.
Then, to complete the vague horror which was swiftly taking possession of me, a voice spoke — imagine a man so long dead that his vocal organ had grown rusty and unaccustomed to speech. This was the thought which struck me and made my flesh crawl as I listened.
“A strong brute and one who might be useful somehow. See that he is given all the hashish he requires.”
Then the face began to recede, even as I sensed that I was the subject of conversation, and the mists billowed and began to close again. Yet for a single instant a scene stood out with startling clarity. I gasped — or sought to. For over the high, strange shoulder of the apparition another face stood out clearly for an instant, as if the owner peered at me. Red lips, half-parted, long dark eyelashes, shading vivid eyes, a shimmery cloud of hair. Over the shoulder of Horror, breathtaking beauty for an instant looked at me.
2. The Hashish Slave
“Up from Earth’s center through the Seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate.”
— Omar Khayyam
My dream of the skull-face was borne over that usually uncrossable gap that lies between hashish enchantment and humdrum reality. I sat cross-legged on a mat in Yun Shatu’s Temple of Dreams and gathered the fading forces of my decaying brain to the task of remembering events and faces.
This last dream was so entirely different from any I had ever had before, that my waning interest was roused to the point of inquiring as to its origin. When I first began to experiment with hashish, I sought to find a physical or psychic basis for the wild flights of illusion pertaining thereto, but of late I had been content to enjoy without seeking cause and effect.
Whence this unaccountable sensation of familiarity in regard to that vision? I took my throbbing head between my hands and laboriously sought a clue. A living dead man and a girl of rare beauty who had looked over his shoulder. Then I remembered.
Back in the fog of days and nights which veils a hashish addict’s memory, my money had given out. It seemed years or possibly centuries, but my stagnant reason told me that it had probably been only a few days. At any rate, I had presented myself at Yun Shatu’s sordid dive as usual and had been thrown out by the great Negro Hassim when it was learned I had no more money.
My universe crashing to pieces about me, and my nerves humming like taut piano wires for the vital need that was mine, I crouched in the gutter and gibbered bestially, till Hassim swaggered out and stilled my yammerings with a blow that felled me, half-stunned.
Then as I presently rose, staggeringly and with no thought save of the river which flowed with cool murmur so near me — as I rose, a light hand was laid like the touch of a rose on my arm. I turned with a frightened start, and stood spellbound before the vision of loveliness which met my gaze. Dark eyes limpid with pity surveyed me and the little hand on my ragged sleeve drew me toward the door of the Dream Temple. I shrank back, but a low voice, soft and musical, urged me, and filled with a trust that was strange, I shambled along with my beautiful guide.
At the door Hassim met us, cruel hands lifted and a dark scowl on his ape-like brow, but as I cowered there, expecting a blow, he halted before the girl’s upraised hand and her word of command which had taken on an imperious note.
I did not understand what she said, but I saw dimly, as in a fog, that she gave the black man money, and she led me to a couch where she had me recline and arranged the cushions as if I were king of Egypt instead of a ragged, dirty renegade who lived only for hashish. Her slim hand was cool on my brow for a moment, and then she was gone and Yussef Ali came bearing the stuff for which my very soul shrieked — and soon I was wandering again through those strange and exotic countries that only a hashish slave knows.
Now as I sat on the mat and pondered the dream of the skull-face I wondered more. Since the unknown girl had led me back into the dive, I had come and gone as before, when I had plenty of money to pay Yun Shatu. Someone certainly was paying him for me, and while my subconscious mind had told me it was the girl, my rusty brain had failed to grasp the fact entirely, or to wonder why. What need of wondering? So someone paid and the vivid-hued dreams continued, what cared I? But now I wondered. For the girl who had protected me from Hassim and had brought the hashish for me was the same girl I had seen in the skull-face dream.
Through the soddenness of my degradation the lure of her struck like a knife piercing my heart and strangely revived the memories of the days when I was a man like other men — not yet a sullen, cringing slave of dreams. Far and dim they were, shimmery islands in the mist of years — and what a dark sea lay between!
I looked at my ragged sleeve and the dirty, claw-like hand protruding from it; I gazed through the hanging smoke which fogged the sordid room, at the low bunks along the wall whereon lay the blankly staring dreamers — slaves, like me, of hashish or of opium. I gazed at the slippered Chinamen gliding softly to and fro bearing pipes or roasting balls of concentrated purgatory over tiny flickering fires. I gazed at Hassim standing, arms folded, beside the door like a great statue of black basalt.
And I shuddered and hid my face in my hands because with the faint dawning of returning manhood, I knew that this last and most cruel dream was futile — I had crossed an ocean over which I could never return, had cut myself off from the world of normal men or women. Naught remained now but to drown this dream as I had drowned all my others — swiftly and with hope that I should soon attain that Ultimate Ocean which lies beyond all dreams.
So these fleeting moments of lucidity, of longing, that tear aside the veils of all dope slaves — unexplainable, without hope of attainment.
So I went back to my empty dreams, to my phantasmagoria of illusions; but sometimes, like a sword cleaving a mist, through the high lands and the low lands and seas of my visions floated, like half-forgotten music, the sheen of dark eyes and shimmery hair.
You ask how I, Stephen Costigan, American and a man of some attainments and culture, came to lie in a filthy dive of London’s Limehouse? The answer is simple — no jaded debauchee, I, seeking new sensations in the mysteries of the Orient. I answer — Argonne! Heavens, what deeps and heights of horror lurk in that one word alone! Shell-shocked — shell-torn. Endless days and nights without end and roaring red hell over No Man’s Land where I lay shot and bayoneted to shreds of gory flesh. My body recovered, how I know not; my mind never did.
And the leaping fires and shifting shadows in my tortured brain drove me down and down, along the stairs of degradation, uncaring until at last I found surcease in Yun Shatu’s Temple of Dreams, where I slew my red dreams in other dreams — the dreams of hashish whereby a man may descend to the lower pits of the reddest hells or soar into those unnamable heights where the stars are diamond pinpoints beneath his feet.
Not the visions of the sot, the beast, were mine. I attained the unattainable, stood face to face with the unknown and in cosmic calmness knew the unguessable. And was content after a fashion, until the sight of burnished hair and scarlet lips swept away my dream-built universe and left me shuddering among its ruins.
3. The Master of Doom
“And He that toss’d you down into the Field,
He knows about it all — He knows! He knows!”
— Omar Khayyam
A hand shook me roughly as I emerged languidly from my latest debauch.
“The Master wishes you! Up, swine!”
Hassim it was who shook me and who spoke.
“To Hell with the Master!” I answered, for I hated Hassim — and feared him.
“Up with you or you get no more hashish,” was the brutal response, and I rose in trembling haste.
I followed the huge black man and he led the way to the rear of the building, stepping in and out among the wretched dreamers on the floor.
“Muster all hands on deck!” droned a sailor in a bunk. “All hands!”
Hassim flung open the door at the rear and motioned me to enter. I had never before passed through that door and had supposed it led into Yun Shatu’s private quarters. But it was furnished only with a cot, a bronze idol of some sort before which incense burned, and a heavy table.
Hassim gave me a sinister glance and seized the table as if to spin it about. It turned as if it stood on a revolving platform and a section of the floor turned with it, revealing a hidden doorway in the floor. Steps led downward in the darkness.
Hassim lighted a candle and with a brusque gesture invited me to descend. I did so, with the sluggish obedience of the dope addict, and he followed, closing the door above us by means of an iron lever fastened to the underside of the floor. In the semi-darkness we went down the rickety steps, some nine or ten I should say, and then came upon a narrow corridor.
Here Hassim again took the lead, holding the candle high in front of him. I could scarcely see the sides of this cave-like passageway but knew that it was not wide. The flickering light showed it to be bare of any sort of furnishings save for a number of strange-looking chests which lined the walls — receptacles containing opium and other dope, I thought.
A continuous scurrying and the occasional glint of small red eyes haunted the shadows, betraying the presence of vast numbers of the great rats which infest the Thames waterfront of that section.
Then more steps loomed out of the dark in front of us as the corridor came to an abrupt end. Hassim led the way up and at the top knocked four times against what seemed the underside of a floor. A hidden door opened and a flood of soft, illusive light streamed through.
Hassim hustled me up roughly and I stood blinking in such a setting as I had never seen in my wildest flights of vision. I stood in a jungle of palm trees through which wriggled a million vivid-hued dragons! Then, as my startled eyes became accustomed to the light, I saw that I had not been suddenly transferred to some other planet, as I had at first thought. The palm trees were there, and the dragons, but the trees were artificial and stood in great pots and the dragons writhed across heavy tapestries which hid the walls.
The room itself was a monstrous affair — inhumanly large, it seemed to me. A thick smoke, yellowish and tropical in suggestion, seemed to hang over all, veiling the ceiling and baffling upward glances. This smoke, I saw, emanated from an altar in front of the wall to my left. I started. Through the saffron-billowing fog two eyes, hideously large and vivid, glittered at me. The vague outlines of some bestial idol took indistinct shape. I flung an uneasy glance about, marking the oriental divans and couches and the bizarre furnishings, and then my eyes halted and rested on a lacquer screen just in front of me.
I could not pierce it and no sound came from beyond it, yet I felt eyes searing into my consciousness through it, eyes that burned through my very soul. A strange aura of evil flowed from that strange screen with its weird carvings and unholy decorations.
Hassim salaamed profoundly before it and then, without speaking, stepped back and folded his arms, statue-like.
A voice suddenly broke the heavy and oppressive silence.
“You who are a swine, would you like to be a man again?”
I started. The tone was inhuman, cold — more, there was a suggestion of long disuse of the vocal organs — the voice I had heard in my dream!
“Yes,” I replied, trance-like, “I would like to be a man again.”
Silence ensued for a space; then the voice came again with a sinister whispering undertone at the back of its sound like bats flying through a cavern.
“I shall make you a man again because I am a friend to all broken men. Not for a price shall I do it, nor for gratitude. And I give you a sign to seal my promise and my vow. Thrust your hand through the screen.”
At these strange and almost unintelligible words I stood perplexed, and then, as the unseen voice repeated the last command, I stepped forward and thrust my hand through a slit which opened silently in the screen. I felt my wrist seized in an iron grip and something seven times colder than ice touched the inside of my hand. Then my wrist was released, and drawing forth my hand I saw a strange symbol traced in blue close to the base of my thumb — a thing like a scorpion.
The voice spoke again in a sibilant language I did not understand, and Hassim stepped forward deferentially. He reached about the screen and then turned to me, holding a goblet of some amber-colored liquid which he proffered me with an ironical bow. I took it hesitatingly.
“Drink and fear not,” said the unseen voice. “It is only an Egyptian wine with life-giving qualities.”
So I raised the goblet and emptied it; the taste was not unpleasant, and even as I handed the beaker to Hassim again, I seemed to feel new life and vigor whip along my jaded veins.
“Remain at Yun Shatu’s house,” said the voice. “You will be given food and a bed until you are strong enough to work for yourself. You will use no hashish nor will you require any. Go!”