Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Review: Nameless Cults

Nameless Cults by Robert E Howard, edited by Robert M Price (2001)

Robert E Howard is best known today for creating the sword-wielding barbarian Conan, but what many people forget is that he was a close friend of H P Lovecraft and a major influence on the development of the latter's Cthulhu Mythos. It must have been an odd friendship that bared they effete, Goreyesque Lovecraft with the rawboned Texan Howard, but their correspondence was filled with a common fascination with weird fiction and critiques of one another's stories.  Nameless Cults shows how much the two had in common.  If you've ever wondered what it would have been like if Howard tried to write like Lovecraft, you don't need to.  He did and he also contributed many ideas that found their way back into Lovecraft's work.

Both an examination and an anthology, Nameless Cults is a collection of all of Howard's "Cthulho Mythos fiction", though the editor Robert M Price uses a fairly broad definition that includes stories where the connection is little more than the villain's name.  As with most anthologies, the best stories are in the front with the classic "The Black Stone", practically a pastiche of Lovecraft, leading the pack.  Other stories include a series beginning with "The Worms of the Earth", which examines Howards take on leprechauns, an adventure story that would have credited Talbot Munday, and Howard's own spin on Fu Manchu.  Unfortunately, the collection also includes several "posthumous" collaborations where later authors spun stories around fragments left behind after his suicide in 1936 at the age of 30.

Though Howard was dabbling in Lovecraft territory, there is rarely anything of Lovecraft's wilting heros here.  We are talking about the creator of Conan.  Instead of ending up gibbering in a madhouse, Howard's protagonists are more likely to confront the Thing From Beyond with a broadsword and a snarl.  This may sound paradoxical, but remember that Howard's Conan stories are actually pretty dark affairs about how civilisation is just a quick breath before the world descends back into its natural order of barbarism.  It isn't a far step from there to Lovecraft's idea of an indifferent universe ready to corrupt and destroy mankind on a passing whim.

The one thing that stood out in Nameless Cults is how it showcases Howard's poetic streak.  For a series of horror stories laced with blood and thunder, it's a slow read because of the incredible richness that Howard brings to his prose.  The images he produces are so dense and vivid that reading slows down to a crawl in order to take it all in.  He also creates a world that operates by its own rules–some of which, such as his views on race, are pretty strong meat by any standard, but I suspect that the more tame and effeminate readership of the 21st century may find even his basic take on manhood distasteful.

But then, Howard would probably have found that readership distasteful, too.

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