In 2012 the good people at the Robert E. Howard Foundation published a volume (now sold out) of Howard material entitled Adventures in Science Fantasy. The largest component of that volume is Almuric, a fun novel I read in my Iowa days, but I had never read two other pieces with intriguing titles, "People of the Black Coast" and "King of the Forgotten People" (AKA "Valley of the Lost") so I tracked down their initial publications at the internet archive and read them this weekend.
This one was first published in a "Special Moon Issue" of Spaceway, a magazine edited by William Crawford that has a sort of semi-professional feel, with amateurish art and lots of reprints of old stories. Forrest J. Ackerman has a column in this issue in which (among many other things) he promotes A. E. van Vogt's career (Ackerman was our man Van's agent), alerting us of the impending publication of the Ace novels The Battle of Forever (we at MPorcius Fiction Log read it in 2014) and Quest for the Future (we read that fix-up in 2016), as well as one entitled The Other-Men; maybe The Other-Men was a provisional title for Darkness on Diamondia (in 2015 I called DoD one of the most frustrating of van Vogt's works) or Children of Tomorrow (if I read this one, it was before the spontaneous generation of this blog.) Ackerman also tries to drum up interest in a story by van Vogt which will appear in the September Galaxy entitled "A Stage of Kings." isfdb doesn't list a van Vogt piece with "Kings" or "Stage" in the title, but the Canadian madman's "Humans, Go Home!" did appear in that issue of Galaxy. (I read "Humans, Go Home!" long ago and plan to reread it eventually. I remember it being particularly bewildering, but Isaac Walwyn at his terrific van Vogt website provides useful material for understanding the story that I will take advantage of on my next attempt.)
Enough van Vogt esoterica, let's get back to the matter at hand, two stories by Robert E. Howard that are classified by some as science fiction. The narrator of "People of the Black Coast" is a guy with a beautiful and adventurous fiance, Gloria. This girl loves to fly her plane, and on a whim she decides to fly with her betrothed from the Philippines to Guam. This is Kennedy-level hubris, and has the tragic result we can expect: the plane crashes, and Gloria and our hero swim to a sinister island made up of vast black cliffs surrounded by a thin strip of beach.
"People of the Black Coast" really is science fiction, with Howard flinging scientific theories about the brain, references to evolution, and other traditional SF trappings at us, but it has that Howard twist: science and intellectualism in this story are physically and morally degenerate! On this black island is a hidden city inhabited by an intelligent non-mammalian race, people who look like crabs the size of horses! Howard tells us that these crab people are highly advanced, that the difference between their forms and that of a spider crab is like the difference between that of a European and an African, with the one obviously a more highly developed and superior version of the other. Our narrator can sense the crabs' super intelligence and utter contempt for him--the crab people look at our hero as we humans look at an insect!
The crab people are scientists with psychic powers. They trick Gloria into separating from her fiance, and cut her to pieces in the process of conducting an experiment on her! The narrator recovers only her hand bearing her engagement ring! Yikes! The narrator then conducts a guerrilla war of vengeance on the alien scientists. He kills many of the creatures, ambushing them one at a time and beating them down with a hunk of iron he found in some driftwood. The narrator theorizes that women are more susceptible to psychic influence than men, so he can resist their mental powers in a way Gloria could not, and that the crab people's intellectual development over the centuries has weakened them physically and you might say in spirit or elan--he compares himself to a gorilla fighting college professors or a lion attacking a village; while the lower creature is less intelligent and less sophisticated, in a one-on-one fight it has the advantage in strength and ferocity.
As the story ends the narrator figures his time is almost up. In a recent encounter his left arm was severed (Yikes again!), and the crab people seem to gradually be sussing out the weak spots in his psyche so that their mental powers will soon be able to overcome him. After he writes this memoir he will launch one final suicidal assault on the crab people.
This is a pretty effective horror story that hits all kind of terror flashpoints; being stranded in the wilderness, the cosmic horror of meeting superior beings who think you are nothing, the death of a loved one under torture, dismemberment, etc. The pervasive theme of differences across race, sex, species, and level of development, which of course is taboo in our current age, adds a level of interest and uneasiness to the story. It is also nice to know why there is a giant crab on the cover of Berkley's 1978 collection of Howard stories Black Canaan and Baen's 1996 collection Beyond the Borders.
"Valley of the Lost," Howard's preferred title of which appears to have been "King of the Forgotten People," was first published in Robert A. W. Lowndes's Magazine of Horror, another periodical with lots of reprints and somewhat mediocre art. Lowndes prefaces the story with a discussion of why "Valley of the Lost" wasn't originally published in the 1930s in Strange Tales or the pre-Campbell Astounding and how he ended up publishing it for the first time three decades after Howard composed it.
Howard had no shame about reusing names in his stories, and a woman named Gloria figures in "Valley of the Lost" as well. You see, Gloria's husband, scientist and explorer Richard Barlow, disappeared in the Gobi desert four years ago. Gloria has hired Jim Brill, he of the broad shoulders and thick chest, to go find Barlow; Brill may hate Barlow, but he loves Gloria, so off he went, hoping to find Barlow's grave so he can marry Gloria! The search for the errant egghead is more fiendishly hazardous than anybody could have expected, and as the story begins, Brill is on the run from Mongols who have massacred his guides and servants, and he is only saved by an opportunely timed giant spider attack!
The giant spider scene is very creepy, the best part of the story and one of the most effectively disturbing scenes I have ever read by Howard. After he has put the spiders behind him, Brill is captured by locals and taken to the city of Khor, built by Genghis Khan as a pleasure resort populated by slaves and then forgotten--the descendants of the slaves have been living here for centuries, enjoying almost no contact with the outside world. When Gloria's hubby Barlow got here he used his unrivaled expertise in manipulating electricity to make himself king of Khor.
("King of the Forgotten People" really is a much better name for this story.)
In keeping with Howard's anti-science/anti-intellectualism themes, Barlow is an egomaniacal exploiter with no scruples. He has been taking advantage of the Khar citizens' belief in the cruel god Erlik (there's Erlik popping up at my blog again!) to conduct experiments on human subjects, leading them to believe that he is a priest of Erlik and the subjects of his experiments sacrifices to that dark god of death. "I've gone beyond the wildest dreams of western scientists," he gloats to Brill. For example, from ordinary spiders that would only scare a guy like me he created the monster spiders that scare away the ferocious Mongol bandits.
Barlow is eager to explain his latest scientific triumph to a fellow white man, even an ignorant dolt like Brill. Reminding me of the central conceit of Kuttner and Moore's 1949 Astounding cover story "Private Eye," Barlow says that radiations and vibrations make impressions on every substance and these impressions can, in theory, be read. With the right equipment, or psychic powers, you could see and hear everything that ever happened in a room by translating the impressions left on its walls. Thought is one of the emanations that leaves an impression, and from a room in which Genghis Khan would drink and take opium and meditate, Barlow, utilizing his psychic powers, has been absorbing the Khan's thoughts, so that the conqueror's personality has been seeping into his own!
"...I am acquiring the uncanny genius by which Genghis Khan, who was born in a nomad's horse-hide tent, overthrew armies, kings, cities, empires!"Barlow says he will eventually become Genghis Khan, and Brill notices the mad scientist is beginning to look like an Asian! Barlow plans to seize control of all Asia, and suggests that Brill go back to America to fetch Gloria so Barlow can give her to some other Oriental potentate as a kind of diplomatic bribe--this request drives Brill berserk and he attacks the would-be Genghis.
One of the interesting things in "Valley of the Lost" is the way Howard deals with the ethnic and cultural diversity of Asia, including in the tale all these Mongols, Tonkinese (people from Northern Vietnam) who serve as Barlow's personal guards, and a Chinese woman, Lala Tzu, who is Barlow's lover, and giving them distinct characteristics that, I guess, reflect Western beliefs circa 1930 about different peoples of the mysterious East.
The Tonkinese save Barlow from Brill, and Brill is tied up and set in Barlow's laboratory. Barlow is about to do some super science on Brill, using an apparatus to de-evolve Brill so he is turned into an ape, when the beautiful Lala Tzu murders Barlow--all the talk of Gloria made her jealous, and, anyway, Barlow had been paying more attention to his Genghis Khan room and his lab than to her. She frees Brill and there is a gory fight with the Tonkinese followed by a chase. Then, in one of those coincidences so common in genre fiction, while American hunk and Chinese babe are fleeing the bloodthirsty Vietnamese, the Mongols attack the city. The citizens of Khor think that Brill, being white, can use electricity to defeat the Mongols just like Barlow used to, so they exterminate the Barlow-loyal Tonkinese and beg for his help. Of course, Brill is no scientist, but fortunately Lala Tzu knows how to use Barlow's electric artillery and the Mongols are annihilated.
(Yes, in this story the sexy Chinese girl, not our Yankee musclehead, is responsible for destroying most of the villains.)
This is a solid weird adventure tale that weds Howard's usual concerns--like the struggle of a strongman against a man with esoteric knowledge and fear of the mysterious foreign Other--with science fiction jazz we are more likely to see in the work of somebody like Edmond Hamilton; remember those horror SF stories he wrote about mad scientists and evolution that I read early in this blog's life?
|Two publications that include translations of "King of the Forgotten People"|
and have what real estate people call "curb appeal"
These are fun stories that manage to generate the chills and disgust we want from a solid horror tale, feature the gross physical violence and celebration of strength and ferocity we look for in Howard's work, and integrate cool SF concepts. I know there are some who look down on these kinds of action adventure tales or are repulsed by their racism and sexism, but I think good Howard stories, and these two are good ones, have a real power, and serve as allegories for our lives, recognizing that we all face overwhelming challenges that we can't even understand (death itself foremost among them) and honoring those who manfully, stalwartly, face those challenges.
Thumbs up for "People of the Black Coast" and "Valley of the Lost"/"King of the Forgotten People."