Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Worms of the Earth" by Robert E. Howard

Yesterday I read a middling Howard story that was not published during Howard’s lifetime, but today I read a more famous Howard tale, printed in the November 1932 issue of Weird Tales. I read this story some years ago, and found it memorable, and the critics seem to consider this one of the best of Howard’s stories.

The major theme of Howard’s work, of course, is the superiority of the barbarian to the civilized man, and he hammers this point in the opening scene of “Worms of the Earth.” Our tale begins with the Roman governor of Britain making hypocritical statements about justice while watching with pleasure the crucifixion of a Pict. The Pict is being punished for killing a Roman merchant, but as we might expect in a Howard story, the merchant had it coming, having cheated and insulted the barbarian. The torture meted out to the Pict is an open challenge to the authority of the king of the Picts, Bran Mak Morn, who watches the crucifixion incognito, disguised as a Pictish diplomat.

Howard takes pains to distinguish the nobly barbaric Bran from the soft, sadistic and corrupt Romans. Bran hates fluted columns, he refuses to sleep on silks and cushions, he cares nothing for money, and Roman women prefer his primitive virility to the caresses of civilized Roman men. At the same time, Bran cannot deny that his people are outmatched by the wealth and power of Rome, and so when he vows revenge on the Roman governor he turns to unconventional warfare.

Unconventional warfare in the form of an army of troglodytes summoned from beneath the surface of the earth! In a dream a Pictish wise man warns Bran not to take this unspeakably sinful course, but the evil of the Romans has unleashed in Bran another evil. In the same way that the parsimony of his mercantile uncle led Dondal in “Swords of the Purple Kingdom” to betray his friends, the cruelty of the Roman governor and exploitation of the Roman merchant have led Bran to betray his elders and their wisdom. Contact with civilization has corrupted Bran’s soul.

Raising the army of prehistoric underworld denizens is no easy task, and Bran must seek the aid of a witch woman of the western moors, a hideous yellow-eyed and sharp-fanged creature, half human and half monster. In return for her guidance to “a Door to Hell,” Bran offers her money, and then the head of an enemy but, in a scene that amazed me when I first read it, the witch instead demands that Bran take her virginity! Grotesque and inhuman as she is, this is her one chance to experience physical affection, and with a king no less!

With the aid of the witch, and after crawling through a lot of slimy tunnels and swimming in a monster-haunted lake, Bran summons the army of reptilian troglodytes. These ophidian creeps are the degenerate descendents of the natives of Britain whom Bran’s own people, the Picts, drove underground centuries before. There is an interesting parallelism here: just as Bran’s people today are being oppressed and conquered by the Romans, in their own day the Picts destroyed the culture of those who had preceded them as masters of Britain. Before their defeat at the hands of the Picts the Worms of the Earth were men, now they are monsters: will defeat at the hands of the Romans similarly corrupt the Picts?

Through devious means Brak persuades the monsters to help him. The troglodytes undermine a Roman fort, causing it to collapse and kill the garrison, and drag to Bran the Roman governor, who has been driven insane by the horrors he has witnessed among these weird creatures. Bran realizes he was wrong to have summoned the subterranean monsters, and when he kills the Roman governor it is not out of revenge, but out of mercy.

This is a good story, and it is full of stuff for the Weird Tales aficionado to contemplate. Howard’s view of race and ethnicity, for example: there is a section about how Bran Mak Morn carries the pure blood of his people, and looks down on other Britons who are the product of racial mixing. There are also overt references and other similarities to the work of Howard’s friend, H.P. Lovecraft: the witch lives in “Dagon-moor” and directs Bran to “Dagon’s Barrow,” and one of Bran’s oaths is “Black gods of R’lyeh!” “Worms of the Earth” is also a good example of a Howard story that doesn’t rely on hand to hand combat to generate excitement; Howard is most famous for Conan, and rightly so, but he also wrote horror stories, and “Worms of the Earth” shows him in “eldritch horror” mode.

I read “Worms of the Earth” in the 2005 Del Rey collection Bran Mak Morn: The Last King, illustrated by Gary Gianni. Gianni’s drawings are not bad, but I think he did a still better job in the 1998 Del Rey edition of Howard’s Solomon Kane stories.

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