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Black Static

Dark Fiction & Film BLACK STATIC ISSUE 61 OUT NOW!

Pigeons From Hell: A Closer Look

10th May, 2009

Author: Peter Tennant

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A while back I commented that some books slip through the cracks, and a case (note) in point would be The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard (Del Rey trade paperback original, 528pp, $18). Released last October, it’s an impressively meaty volume, with sixty of Howard’s stories and poems, each story with introductory artwork by Greg Staples, plus seven full page illustrations that bring to mind the plates I enjoyed so much when a child browsing my father’s collection of Rider Haggard novels. There’s a foreword by Staples, an introduction by Rusty Burke and an appendix containing notes on Howard’s original texts (apparently REH was rather fond of hyphenating words that didn’t need it).

It’s late in the day, so a full review of the book is not going to happen, but I thought by way of compensation for the oversight it might be useful to talk about what is arguably Howard’s most famous horror story, “Pigeons From Hell”. I’m still feeling my way with this blog, and one of the options I’m considering is in-depth reviews of classic horror stories. If I do decide to take that route, then this story fits the bill nicely.

Texan Robert Ervin Howard (1906 – 36) is most famous for the creation of the swashbuckling Cimmerian Conan (and if your idea of the character has been shaped by the Schwarzenegger film, please go to the source material as you may discover that you have missed a real treat), but that’s just a small part of the body of work Howard published in the pulp magazines of the day. Howard and his friends Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft, became known as the ‘three musketeers of Weird Tales’, the most prestigious magazine of its type at that time. Like Lovecraft, with whom he corresponded, Howard was to come into his own posthumously, his stories achieving a fame and recognition that eluded their author during his brief lifetime, and according to many critics exerting an influence on the fantasy genre to rival that of Tolkien. Howard suffered from depression throughout his life, and on June 11, 1936 he committed suicide.  An award winning film, The Whole Wide World, was made in 1996 telling the story of events leading up to Howard’s death. It was based on the book “One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard The Final Years” by friend and romantic interest Novalyne Price Ellis, whose role was played by Renée Zellweger, while Vincent D’Onofrio took the part of Howard.

“Pigeons From Hell” was first published in the May 1938 issue of Weird Tales, and has been widely reprinted since. The story was made into an episode of the TV series Thriller that was aired in June 1961, while in 1988 Scott Hampton adapted it into the graphic novel format, and again in 2008 it was made into a four issue comic mini-series, with script by Joe R. Lansdale (like Howard, a Texan and spinner of wild yarns). In his 1983 love letter to the horror genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King described “Pigeons” as ‘one of the finest horror stories of our century’. I first read the story in The Dark Man, a collection of Howard’s stories released in paperback by Panther in November 1978, and a partial reprint of an Arkham House volume from 1963 with the same name.

Okay, for starters let’s admit that the title is far from inspiring. I’m not sure what sort of an image “Pigeons From Hell” would have conjured up in the minds of 1938 readers, but nowadays it seems slightly risible, given pigeons reputation as ‘rats with wings’, and unnecessary too, as the pigeons are hardly the focus of the story. According to local legend, only those who are doomed see the pigeons sitting on the porch railing of the old, abandoned Blassenville Manor (the family name has obvious echoes of Conan Doyle's Baskervilles), but the birds have no real part in what goes down. They are signifiers of evil, rather than the thing itself.

Howard was not a subtle writer. His stories in the main are plot driven, with each event slotted into a steadily escalating pattern of tension and menace, and captured in a muscular language that, while often both colourful and apt, is attuned to the demands of the plot rather than presented for the simple joy of the prose itself. Storyteller is the word that best describes his approach to the art of fiction, a spinner of tall tales and action packed yarns. Howard’s stories are things of twists and turns, unexpected developments and stings in the tale, but subtexts and metaphor are thin on the ground, when they can be found at all.

“Pigeons” is a textbook example of the type of thing Howard did so well. From the very first line we are plunged into the thick of the action, with the protagonist in danger – ‘Griswell awoke suddenly, every nerve tingling with a premonition of imminent peril.’ In Howard’s work such premonitions are seldom ill-founded and this is no exception.

The drama has three acts, each with its own distinctive feel and place in the great story arc. In the first and longest – “The Whistler in the Dark” – we are introduced to the main characters and the stage on which the drama is to be played out. On a tour of the American south, Griswell and his friend John Branner have camped out for the night in an abandoned house which ‘stimulated their imagination with its suggestion of antebellum splendor and ultimate decay’, and these events are reported in flashback as Griswell remembers his dream. He awakens to the sound of eerie whistling echoing down from upstairs, and Branner goes off in pursuit of the sound, as one entranced or sleepwalking, while Griswell himself is helpless to move.  When Branner returns, his head has been split open, and Griswell flees the house in mortal terror. He is chased down the road by a beast with glowing eyes, stumbling into the path of a man on a horse. This is Sheriff Buckner, a character Howard used in several stories of this type. The two men return to the house and find Branner’s body in circumstances that point to Griswell as his killer, but because of Blassenville Manor’s reputation and certain other inexplicable events that occur, the Sheriff is prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The two men undertaking to return to the house on the next night, there follows a bridging section – “The Snake’s Brother" – in which more of the back story is filled in. Buckner knows some of the history of the Blassenville family, four sisters who were renowned for their cruelty to the freed slaves under their care, and its mysterious end, but yet more is filled in by a visit to old Jacob, a black man who lives alone in the wilds and is rumoured to be a practitioner of black magic. He reveals forbidden secrets of voodoo and that Joan, the much maligned mulatto maid of the tyrannical Celia Blassenville, had come to him many years ago in search of the ‘awful brew’ to create a zuvembie (for all practical concerns, a female zombie, but with certain powers not normally associated with the living dead). This section ends with a dramatic and deadly demonstration of the power of voodoo. The groundwork has been laid for “The Call of Zuvembie”, a final section in which Buckner and Griswell return to Blassenville Manor to confront the zuvembie, who ‘finds satisfaction in the slaughter of humans’. It’s all played out with the requisite alarums and excursions, plus a final twist with ‘a horror that overshadowed all the rest of the terror’.

While I shy away from describing “Pigeons” as Southern Gothic, there is certainly a fair bit to the story that merits the G-word; trappings such as ‘somber pines, old deserted houses, lost plantations, mysterious black people, old tales of madness and horror’. And in what was undoubtedly a tip of the hat to the oeuvre of his friend Lovecraft, Howard has his character declare that for him witchcraft ‘was always associated with old crooked streets in waterfront towns, overhung by gabled roofs’ and ‘always meant the old towns of New England’. In a possible case of horror genre one-upmanship he adds ‘all this is more terrible than any New England legend’ (and that puts you firmly in your place, Mr Howard Phillips Lovecraft). But while such matters were central to the mood in HPL's stories, for Howard they seem to be more in the nature of window dressing, the stage scenery against which the drama is played out.

Some things about the story will jar on modern sensibilities, especially the use throughout of the term ‘nigger’ for coloured people, and their depiction in the main as superstitious and primitive, but it needs to be remembered that Howard was writing in 1938 when there was nothing exceptional about this usage and the mindset it reflected. More tellingly, there is little moral introspection on the part of the characters – while far from approving of the sadistic behaviour of the Blassenville brood, Griswell and Buckner are far more horrified by Joan’s desperate resort to voodoo for her revenge. The issue of whether such a dramatic step might have been justified by circumstances is never addressed: Joan has gone beyond the pale by evoking the supernatural.

A telling and original feature of the story is the zuvembie, which is described thus - 'It cannot speak human words, nor think as a human thinks, but it can hypnotize the living by the sound of its voice, and when it slays a man, it can command his lifeless body until the flesh is cold.' It has other powers beside, such as being able to control the 'natural demons' (bats, snakes, owls etc) and blot out the light with its darkness. Two parts sorceress to one part zombie, it represents an evil more intriguing and with far greater potential for malice than its shambling, flesh eating brethren.

"Pigeons From Hell" is a solidly written and entertaining story, a Boy's Own style adventure, with touches of gore added to the mix and a supernatural ambience. It seems very much a product of its era and one that hasn’t aged quite as well as Howard’s Conan tales with their timeless Hyperborean setting. While I enjoyed "Pigeons", I can’t agree with Stephen King’s high estimation of the work. In cinema terms, this is B-movie material, rather than the stuff of which classics such as The Exorcist and Don’t Look Now are made, albeit a superior example of the type.

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