Howardian Horror

Pigeons from Hell

I was recently gifted The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard. I’ve had my eye on this one for a while, perhaps since Alex of Barbarian Book Club wrote about it. I’m not sure if the copy he’s got features that sweet illustration of a guy fighting a sea monster, but mine has the seemingly standard Solomon Kane cover. I’m a little jealous.

After I’ve made a little more progress on my current lineup, I may try to sneak a few of these stories into my queue. Howard’s got that leanness to his writing that promises to deliver a relatively quick and almost certainly satisfying read.

It’s only over the past few years that I’ve really started to explore and enjoy more horror stories. I guess I never really realized how intertwined horror often is with fantasy. Look at Poe, Lovecraft, and King – perhaps all best known for their contributions to the horror genre (with the possible exception of Poe, who’s also quite widely-acknowledged for his development of the mystery/detective genre). And yet all three also have firm footing in the SFF arena. Well, count Howard in this group, as well!

A couple years ago I wrote about this at Castalia House, but it bears reposting – Howard and Lovecraft actually wrote much of their work in the same literary universe. And man, I didn’t realized I’d been beating the  “Scifi and fantasy are one genre!” drum for quite so long yet:



In Jeffro’s last Sensor Sweep he made note of the Alexandru Costantin’s recent blog post, which puts forth a rather bold claim – that Robert E. Howard did Lovecraftian horror better than H.P. himself. For those who may be unaware, Howard was one of the major contributors to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. In other words, he wrote stories that took place in and added to Lovecraft’s world of madness and ever-impending doom.

Intrigued by this dark knowledge, I recently decided to dig. I only pray I do not delve too deep and awake the nameless fear!

Many of the links between the worlds of Howard and Lovecraft are subtle; hints and allusions. If you read through the tales of Conan, you’ll find not only stories of bloody glory and adventure, but elements of science fiction and cosmic mystery. Nameless abominations and Lovecraftian aliens scatter Howard’s own mythology. Incidentally, this has been a general and delightful surprise of mine in discovering the old masters of the pulps and prior – the genre lines of today’s literature were much more fluid. It was not uncommon for fantasy and science fiction and horror to intersect and overlap.


While we do not see Conan, to my knowledge, interacting directly with the Lovecraftian world of Cthulhu, there is some argument to be made that they are in fact one and the same, even if the two respective authors did not plan this. Let’s look at one of Howard’s Cthulhu mythos stories, “The Children of the Night.” The start of this one is very reminiscent of Lovecraft’s own works – a gaggle of academics standing around talking about anthropology and forbidden lore. The Necronomicon is specifically name-dropped, so we know what universe we’re dealing with.

The topic turns to cults, and one of the fellows suddenly has this gem to offer:

“This is in strictest confidence, you understand. But my roommate talked in his sleep. I began to listen and put his disjointed mumbling together. And in his mutterings I first heard of the ancient cult hinted at by Von Junzt; of the king who rules the Dark Empire, which was a revival of an older, darker empire dating back into the Stone Age; and of the great, nameless cavern where stands the Dark Man—the image of Bran Mak Morn, carved in his likeness by a master-hand while the great king yet lived, and to which each worshipper of Bran makes a pilgrimage once in his or her lifetime. Yes, that cult lives today in the descendants of Bran’s people—a silent, unknown current it flows on in the great ocean of life, waiting for the stone image of the great Bran to breathe and move with sudden life, and come from the great cavern to rebuild their lost empire.”

Yes, the appearance of Howard’s own Bran Mak Morn – a major character with his own series of stories. Although the Pict king predates Conan, he is of the same world. And so we have a link between the two mythologies. Is this iron-clad proof that our favorite barbarian inhabited the same literary universe as our favorite cosmic horror? Perhaps not, but it’s still plausible enough to be fun.

So how about Alexandru’s claim? How does Howard’s take on horror hold up? Well, we go from a bunch of gabbing professors to this:

Moving cautiously, I shifted until my hand was on the haft of my ax; then I called on Il-marinen and bounded up as a tiger springs. And as a tiger springs I was among my enemies and mashed a flat skull as a man crushes the head of a snake. A sudden wild clamor of fear broke from my victims and for an instant they closed round me, hacking and stabbing. A knife gashed my chest but I gave no heed. A red mist waved before my eyes, and my body and limbs moved in perfect accord with my fighting brain. Snarling, hacking and smiting, I was a tiger among reptiles. In an instant they gave way and fled, leaving me bestriding half a dozen stunted bodies. But I was not satiated.

I won’t give away how this comes to pass, or how the situation resolves, but know that it is indeed mysterious and dreadful – the series of preceding events as well as the story’s conclusion. I urge you to give it a read yourself – it’s relatively short, and once the action begins it will carry you quickly to the end. I will say that I much enjoy this sort of horror. The protagonist does not despair, but rather rages against evil and seeks to smite. The other side of the coin is this: while Howard’s story was wondrous and creepy, it didn’t carry the same mind-bending madness as Lovecraft. I mean, I am pretty weak sauce when it comes to scary stories, so bear that in mind, but what little Lovecraft I read made me feel as if I were in actual danger of going a little bit mad. I couldn’t keep reading the stuff.

So I will say this – Howard’s horror is more accessible and more fun. But if you want to be scared, Lovecraft is the way to go. Just my two cents.



  1. I tend to agree with you that Lovecraft was scarier than Howard. Lovecraft was also more “cosmic” than Howard. Still, “Pigeons from Hell” is a classic.

  2. Take your time with REH’s horror, Bushi. There is a lot of good stuff there and Pigeons from Hell is indeed a classic. I agree that Lovecraft is more “cosmic” than Howard, who is more accessible, but I still find Clark Ashton Smith to be just a bit more horrific than either.

    They are all three damn good authors.

  3. This all sounds badass. I might buy a copy and see if they are any good. I loved the Solomon Kane stories precisely because of the Horror aspects of those stories.

    Not the biggest Horror fan myself. Every time I tried to read a straight horror story I end up bored and disappointed. My favorite kind of horror is the one that comes unexpected in a story that is not traditionally straight horror. For example, I remember when I read for the first time “The Old Forest” and “Fog on the Barrow-Downs” from LOTR: Fellowship of the Rings, and how fucking awesome that experience was. To this day those chapters still creep me the hell out.

    • I think horror elements can add a lot of flavor to fantasy. I never thought of Tolkien in that regard – maybe shows how long it’s been since I’ve read LOTR.

      I must confess I’m confused – which copy are you thinking of buying? Surely not the book that I wrote about you writing about? =)

      • “I must confess I’m confused – which copy are you thinking of buying? Surely not the book that I wrote about you writing about? =)”

        Um, I think there might be a confusion here. I am not the person you are quoting, Alexandru Constantin 🙂 Sorry for the confusion. And I was referring to “The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard”. I also like Lovecraft’s horror more than Howard’s.

  4. There is a lot of horror elements to LotR: the Witch King, Shelob, Sauron himself. How eerie is a giant floating eye.

    • True, but sometimes that kind of stuff can strike people differently. “Weird” can border on horror but not quite have the same effect, for some people anyway.

      There were parts of one of the Wrinkle in Time books that kind of scared me when I was little. Interesting to think about this stuff..

  5. I am a horro fan myself, both in books and movies. I would say my reading diet is equal parts Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. I love them all.

    Howard definitely had a knack for horror. Many of Conan stories had a terrific vein of dread running through them, especially when sorcery was in play.

    Today, Horror seems like the one place the Pulp sensibility never really stopped. Or at least, the literary virus never really took hold (despite repeated attempts).

    While I am not, nor ever have been a fan of Stephen King, I have always been a fan of Dean Koontz. And that guy has always had a bit of the pulp in him. Though, I will say that my favorite Koontz books are the more suspense or modern “fantasy” (perhaps they are closer to Magic Realism). ‘Life Expectancy’ is one of my favorites.

    Also, if you have the stomach for him, Richard Laymon’s Is as pulpy as it gets. But it’s also quite…prurient at times. But they are still great reads. I recommend trying ‘The Traveling Vampire Show’. Koontz and King consider Laymon, sadly deceased, the best out there.

    • Yeah I’m not really a King fan either, but he’s written some pretty big cultural touchstones.

      Thanks for sharing about Laymon and Koontz – wasn’t familiar with them.

Leave a Reply