Review: Skullcrusher – Volume One / Author: Robert E. Howard / Publisher: Oneiros Books / Release Date: Out Now
This is the first in a two-part edition of Howard's weird tales. Sorry, no Conan – he's in Vol 2. Instead, we have such mightily-thewed personages as King Kull, Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane dealing death to all and sundry, with a body count so high the corpses practically topple off the page.
As a collection, it has its highs and lows. Among the latter are the Solomon Kane stories, ruined by their cardboard-thin African backdrops, their lack of plausible motivation (“All his life he had roamed about the world aiding the weak … he neither knew nor questioned why”) and their elastic chronology. (Each of the adventures seems to take years, which leads you to wonder how Kane manages to fit them all in, or is he perhaps juggling several at the same time?). The highs, by contrast, come courtesy of Bran Mak Morn. Placed in Roman Britain, these tales benefit from a hero who's brainier than Howard's usual strongmen and less inclined to let his dirk do the work. In the most celebrated of them, Worms of the Earth, Bran recruits a bunch of unlovely underworlders to put the scares on the dastardly toga-lovers. It's Howard at his best, a winning mix of Lovecraftian atmospherics and monumental English gloom.
One story shows Howard at his best and his worst. Set in the American Deep South, Black Canaan sees a group of white folk trying to suppress a violent rebellion of “swamp Negroes” led by a powerful witch doctor. Along the way, the hero has several unsettling encounters with a beautiful black girl. Irresistibly drawn to her, he'd love to shoot her with his big gun, but can't pull the trigger … and afterwards, he doesn't like to talk about it. Well, you don't have to be Freud, do you? As a dramatization of racial fear, with a dollop of sexual guilt mixed in, it's all horribly repugnant, but there's no denying the electricity of the writing.
Not that Black Canaan is alone in serving up derogatory racial stereotypes – it's simply the most spectacular example. Women, on the other hand, cut rather a fine figure in Howard's world – feisty vixens, many of them, who react with hilarity to macho attitudinizing: “her laughter slashed him like a keen silver knife”. (Ouch!) And even the most shoddy of Howard's stories has its flashes of vitality: corpses twitching to life, fish-men slithering about in swamps, blade-wielding Picts rising “like a sudden flight of birds from the grass”. Small print, masses of typos and a dull cover spoil things somewhat, but otherwise this is a reasonable survey of the stuff Howard wrote when he wasn't dreaming up Conan.