Friday, October 06, 2017

Skull-Face by Robert E. Howard

I've only read a handful of the non-sword & sorcery stories of Robert E. Howard.  I'm, of course, familiar with the fact that he wrote in many markets, but other than a few Bran Mak Morn and pseudo-Lovecraftian horror stories, I've read few of them.  Heck; some of them are rather harder to find that the Conan stories, certainly.

But today, I just read Skull-Face, his pseudo-Yellow Peril story, about a Fu Manchu character who's goal is to overthrow and enslave the white race.  I suppose this is one of the stories that the "oh noez, muh fainting couches!" crowd use to condemn Howard of the worst (and in fact, only) sin acknowledged in today's sick society: racism.  I, on the other hand, thought that the story was quite good and disturbingly prescient in some ways.

And, it must be noted, it has an unusual take on the Lovecraftian itself.  The character for whom the story is named; the main villain, is more than merely a Fu Manchu wannabe.  Heck, Ming the Merciless is a Fu Manchu wannabe, on Barsoom, for all intents and purposes.  But Skull-face's real name is Kathulos—and it's deliberately fashioned to resemble Cthulhu.  As with Lovecraft's creation, there are long-running myths among the primitive and debased peoples of the earth that Kathulos will rise from the sea and destroy the modern world for their benefit.  To quote a small section from near the end of the story:
"At night I dream of them, sometimes," I muttered, "sleeping in their lacquered cases, which drip with strange seaweed, far down among the green surges— where unholy spires and strange towers rise in the dark ocean." 
"We have been face to face with an ancient horror," said Gordon somberly, "with a fear too dark and mysterious for the human brain to cope with. Fortune has been with us; she may not again favor the sons of men. It is best that we be ever on our guard. The universe was not made for humanity alone; life takes strange phases and it is the first instinct of nature for the different species to destroy each other. No doubt we seemed as horrible to the Master as he did to us. We have scarcely tapped the chest of secrets which nature has stored, and I shudder to think of what that chest may hold for the human race."
Does that passage not sound like it's deliberately paraphrasing Call of Cthulhu?  I'm quite certain that it is.  Kathulos, as it turns out, is an Atlantean sorcerer.  He, as well as numerous other Atlanteans, saw the writing on the wall, found some way to turn themselves effectively immortal and post-human, and then slept as Atlantis sank, and sleep still at the bottom of the sea in lacquered sarcophagi, waiting for conditions to be right for them to rise again.  Which is the end to which Kathulos works; to raise his brethren from the bottom of the sea.  The black races were the traditional slaves of the Atlanteans, but the yellow and the brown races he uses as well, seeing them as ultimately disposable.  The white race, on the other hand, is to be exterminated, or at least nearly so, leaving only a tiny remnant to exist as slaves.

So Kathulos actually ends up being not only Fu Manchu, but also The Mummy and Dracula and Voldemort (he has an unusual control over snakes and other reptiles, and is often described as oddly reptilian) and the D&D lich archetype, all rolled up into one single character.  He's truly a great example in most respects of what I envision for the Nizrekh royal heresiarchs from TIMISCHBURG.

Of course, this being Howard rather than Lovecraft, the next passage in the story following that overtly Lovecraftian quote is one that is equally Howardian:
"That's true," said I, inwardly rejoicing at the vigor which was beginning to course through my wasted veins, "but men will meet obstacles as they come, as men have always risen to meet them. Now, I am beginning to know the full worth of life and love, and not all the devils from all the abysses can hold me." 
The protagonist and his friend—Steve Costigan (no relation to his boxer character of the same name) and John Gordon, a kind of 1930s era James Bond) are interesting characters too—I don't know if Howard, or any other pulp writer, wrote a hashish addicted protagonist, a victim of the Great War and the psychological toll that it inflicted on many.  Zuleika provides the romantic interest, and she represents a literary and cultural trend that's been completely forgotten in the years since except by a few, that of the Circassian Beauty.  Not that she resembles, necessarily, any real Circassian person in any detail, nor does she resemble the "moss-haired girls" of P. T. Barnum, which he called "Circassian beauties."  But it's worth remembering that for centuries, Circassian women were supposedly the most beautiful on earth, were the mistresses of de Medici Genoan leaders, and were highly sought after by Ottomans who could afford harems as concubines.  Looking at the pictures below, they may have been on to something.  In any case, this story is highly recommended.  It's not that long—short novel or maybe novella sized in length—moves quickly (as is Howard's wont) and is amazingly creative and interesting.

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