Hey there, weird fiction aficionados! It’s time for The Longbox of Darkness to once again wade into the murky world of pulp; specifically the pulp of legendary weird fiction scribe Robert E. Howard. However, before we embark on this journey into darkness, let’s give a brief overview of REH and his career for those new to his brand of weird horrors.
Born in the small town of Peaster, Texas, in 1906, Robert E. Howard was a prodigious talent from a young age, already dreaming up fantastical worlds and larger-than-life characters. Though his life was tragically cut short—he took his own life at just 30 years old—Howard’s impact on the literary world is immeasurable.
He’s perhaps best known as the creator of the sword-wielding, adventure-seeking Conan the Barbarian, yet his repertoire spans beyond the rugged landscapes of the Hyborian Age. Howard’s foray into the realm of horror is a lesser-known, yet equally riveting aspect of his work—a dark and haunting world teeming with ancient curses, eerie folklore, and chilling supernatural entities. He was even a correspondent of H.P. Lovecraft, the father of modern horror, whose work appeared alongside Howard’s in the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales.
In the field of pulp horror, Howard proved himself somewhat of a pioneer, crafting stories that would shape the genre and inspire future generations of writers. These tales offer a window into his rich imagination, displaying his unique ability to weave together elements of horror, fantasy, and adventure to create thrilling narratives that capture the reader’s attention and linger long after the last page is turned.
So, prepare yourselves, fright fans, as we delve into this shadowy realm and count down what the Longbox of Darkness considers the ten best horror stories from this master of pulp fiction. I should warn you, though: these tales are not for the squeamish. They’ll take you on a roller coaster ride of suspense and terror, often leaving you with more questions than answers, and a sense of creeping unease that’s the trademark of any great horror story.
But then again, isn’t that exactly what we’re here for? So, tighten your grip, steady your nerves, and join me on this thrilling journey into the darkness, where the line between reality and nightmare blurs, and the past’s lingering specters emerge from the shadows to haunt the present.
10. The Shadow Kingdom
“The Shadow Kingdom,” published in ‘Weird Tales’ in 1929, is considered the first of the Kull of Valusia stories, featuring the eponymous hero who would eventually serve as a template for Howard’s later, more famous character, the afore-mentioned Conan the Barbarian. However, Kull and his adventures have a distinctive charm and complexity of their own, not to mention the inclusion of strong horror elements.
Set in the surreal, ancient realm of Valusia, the story follows King Kull, a barbarian who has seized the throne of Valusia. Kull must face not only the political intrigue of his court but also an ancient and sinister threat—the Serpent Men, a primordial shape-shifting race who have infiltrated the society he rules.
One of the standout elements of “The Shadow Kingdom” is the sinister atmosphere of suspense and uncertainty Howard masterfully creates. The presence of the monstrous Serpent Men introduces a pervasive sense of paranoia as Kull grapples with the chilling realization that enemies could lurk behind every friendly face. This gives the story an ‘Invasion of the Body-Snatchers’ feel, and the ultimately grotesque Serpent Men and their slimy transformations are described in horrific detail by Howard.
In essence, “The Shadow Kingdom” is more than just an adventure tale—it’s a suspenseful, thoughtful exploration of themes like power, identity, and the disturbing nature of reality. It’s an early testament to Howard’s storytelling prowess, blending action, horror, and philosophical musings in a gripping narrative.
9. Black Canaan
“Black Canaan,” first published in ‘Weird Tales’ in 1936, is a potent blend of Southern Gothic tradition and Lovecraftian horror. Set in the mysterious, haunted swamps of the fictitious Tularosa in the deep South, this tale uses its setting to craft an atmosphere thick with supernatural dread.
Our protagonist, Kirby Buckner, is a tough and courageous Southern scrapper who finds himself standing against an ancient and malevolent power: a voodoo queen named Somballa who is stirring up dangerous forces in the swamps of Black Canaan. Buckner’s battle against this creeping, malignant force forms the backbone of this tension-laden narrative.
A crucial element of “Black Canaan” is Howard’s successful use of setting to inspire fear. The swamps of Tularosa are almost a character themselves—an environment that seethes with unseen perils, old curses, and the haunting legacy of slavery. Howard’s vivid descriptions imbue the setting with a palpable sense of unease, reminding readers of the horror that can lurk in familiar places.
The character of Somballa is another of the story’s triumphs. As a voodoo queen, she embodies the fear of the unknown and the unexplainable. Her enigmatic character is a nod to Howard’s appreciation of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, showcasing the author’s skill in crafting inscrutable, terrifying antagonists.
However, “Black Canaan” is not without its controversy. It’s a tale steeped in the racially charged atmosphere of its time, featuring racial stereotypes and prejudices that can be jarring to modern readers. It’s a reminder that, sadly, even our literary heroes are products of their era, and their works can reflect the attitudes and misconceptions of their time.
Despite these significant shortcomings, “Black Canaan” stands out as a unique piece within Howard’s oeuvre—a chilling exploration of Southern Gothic horror, supernatural dread, and the echoing impact of history. It’s a tale that weaves a dense tapestry of fear, heroism, and the inexorable pull of the past.
8. The Cairn on the Headland
“The Cairn on the Headland,” published in ‘Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror’ in 1933, offers an intriguing blend of historical adventure, Norse mythology, and supernatural horror that only a writer of Howard’s caliber could pull off.
Set in contemporary Dublin, the story follows an American tourist named James O’Brien who becomes entangled in a sinister plot involving an ancient Viking burial mound. O’Brien discovers that beneath the mound lies Olaf the Bloody, a long-dead Viking chieftain with a centuries-old grudge against his descendants, including O’Brien himself.
What distinguishes “The Cairn on the Headland” is Howard’s masterful blend of different genres and elements. At its core, it’s a historical horror story, but it also incorporates elements of action and Norse mythology, creating a unique narrative stew that’s as rich and heady as a Viking mead.
The story excels in its atmospheric description of the ancient burial mound, the restless spirit that lurks within, and the menacing aura that pervades the site. Howard’s portrayal of Olaf the Bloody as a wrathful, enduring spirit imbued with ancient magic is both fearsome and fascinating—a spectral reminder of a blood-soaked past reaching out to claim the present.
Moreover, Howard’s evocation of Irish and Viking history adds depth and color to the narrative, grounding the supernatural elements in a tangible reality. By weaving together historical facts and mythological elements, Howard creates a compelling, visceral backdrop for the story’s unfolding horror.
“The Cairn on the Headland” also explores themes of destiny and inherited guilt. O’Brien, despite his American upbringing, cannot escape the ancestral blood feud that dates back to Viking times, illustrating how sometimes, the past’s shadows can prove inescapable.
In essence, “The Cairn on the Headland” is a thrilling journey into the intersection of history, myth, and horror. It’s a reminder of the enduring power of the past and the chilling echoes that old grudges can leave behind.
7. The Haunter of the Ring
Originally published in ‘Weird Tales’ in 1934, “The Haunter of the Ring” centers on Howard’s recurring character, occult detective John Kirowan. Kirowan is a refreshing departure from Howard’s better-known warriors and wanderers, bringing an intellectual approach to the mystic menaces he faces.
The story revolves around a sinister ancient ring (the ‘Serpent Ring of Set’ – which was worn by the ancient sorcerer Thoth-Amon in Howard’s Conan tales) believed to summon a murderous, ghostly entity—the titular ‘Haunter.’ When the ring falls into the hands of a man with a deep-seated grudge, it triggers a series of dark events that draw Kirowan into a twisted investigation.
One of the standout elements of “The Haunter of the Ring” is the compelling blend of detective work and supernatural horror. The story exudes a palpable sense of dread as Kirowan races against time to solve the mystery of the ring, lending the narrative the thrilling pace of a mystery intertwined with the creeping terror of a horror tale.
Howard’s exquisite depiction of the ancient ring adds a layer of chilling fascination to the story. It’s not just a tool of malevolent forces but a character in its own right, imbued with a sinister history that stretches back into the mists of time. The Haunter, too, is a memorable antagonist—a chilling reminder of the dark powers lurking in the world, just waiting for the right moment to strike.
“The Haunter of the Ring” also illustrates Howard’s deep understanding of human psychology. The story probes the depths of obsession, revenge, and fear, revealing how easily these powerful emotions can be manipulated by external forces. It’s a haunting reminder that sometimes, our own feelings can be the most potent catalyst for horror.
In essence, “The Haunter of the Ring” is a gripping tale that melds mystery with the macabre, showcasing Howard’s storytelling versatility. It’s a journey into the shadows of the human heart, where ancient evils lurk, and fear can be the deadliest weapon.
6. Worms of the Earth
Worms of the Earth,” published in ‘Weird Tales’ in 1932, features one of Howard’s most enduring characters, Bran Mak Morn, the last king of Howard’s doomed Pictish race. This grim tale is celebrated among Howard fans for its complex character portrayal and its fusion of historical setting with elements of the grotesque and supernatural.
In this dark narrative, Bran Mak Morn, desperate to protect his dwindling kingdom from the conquering Romans, makes a dreadful pact with the grotesque creatures known as the ‘Worms of the Earth’—a subterranean, pre-human race long since driven underground. The story unfolds with the haunting allure of a nightmare, raising questions about the moral limits of vengeance and the haunting consequences of power obtained at a terrible cost.
One of the hallmarks of “Worms of the Earth” is Howard’s successful blend of historical fiction and supernatural horror. The Pictish kingdom’s despair under Roman rule provides a potent backdrop for the horror that unfolds, as the boundary between humanity and monstrosity becomes blurred in the face of survival.
Moreover, Howard’s atmospheric description brings to vivid life the story’s central characters. The ‘Worms of the Earth’ themselves are grotesquely fascinating, echoing humanity’s most primitive fears of the unknown, the monstrous, and the buried darkness within the earth—and within ourselves.
The moral ambiguity of Bran Mak Morn is another intriguing aspect of the tale. His decision to bargain with the ‘Worms’ pushes him into ethically murky waters. This element adds a layer of depth to the narrative, suggesting that sometimes, the real horror isn’t the monster lurking in the dark, but the lengths to which desperation can drive us.
“Worms of the Earth” stands out as a grim but fascinating exploration of the line between humanity and monstrosity, and the devastating cost of power. It’s a story that leaves us uneasy, disturbed, and contemplative—in short, all the things that a great horror tale should do.
5. People of the Dark
First published in 1932 in ‘Strange Tales’ magazine, “People of the Dark” is a standout narrative that marries sword & sorcery elements with Howard’s unmistakable brand of brooding horror.
This story breaks the traditional mold with its narrator who, in a modern American setting, is inexplicably thrust into a previous life. In this past existence, he is a brutal warrior battling against evil in a bygone age. This narrative technique of reincarnation is a rarity in Howard’s works, adding a rich layer of complexity to the plot.
The horror element manifests in the form of the ‘People of the Dark,’ a creepy subterranean race of ghoulish creatures that lurk in the depths of the earth. These vile beings harken back to Howard’s fascination with ancient, forgotten races, highlighting his talent for weaving the mundane and the fantastical into an engrossing narrative tapestry.
A notable strength of this story lies in Howard’s signature, vivid description. The harsh realities of the narrator’s present life contrast sharply with the raw, untamed world of his past. Howard’s prose brings these settings to life with visceral immediacy, making the reader feel as if they are walking alongside the character in both of his lives.
Moreover, the concept of destiny and fate plays a significant role in “People of the Dark.” Despite the vast gulf of time between the narrator and his past incarnation, their destinies are intertwined, leading to a climax that transcends both time and space.
At its heart, “People of the Dark” is a compelling exploration of the past’s persistent echoes in the present. It’s a chilling reminder of how our past selves can shape our present circumstances, and a testament to the enduring power of Howard’s storytelling genius.
4. The Horror From the Mound
First published in ‘Weird Tales’ magazine in 1932, “The Horror From The Mound” stands apart as one of Howard’s few forays into Western horror, i.e. horror stories set in the Old West. In it, he successfully intertwines the grit and swagger of a classic Western with the creeping dread of a vampire story.
Our tale unfurls in a desolate Texas landscape, where an aging cowboy named Steve Brill unwittingly stirs an ancient terror. Curiosity overcomes Brill’s better judgment, leading him to excavate a mysterious Indian burial mound—disregarding local superstitions and warnings from his Mexican neighbor, Juan Lopez.
Inside the mound, Brill discovers more than he bargained for—an ancient Spanish vampire named De Valdez, entombed by the local Native tribe centuries ago. The vampire’s escape sets off a horrifying chain of events as Brill and Lopez find themselves in a life-or-death struggle against this bloodthirsty apparition from the past.
What sets “The Horror From The Mound” apart is its unique fusion of genres. Howard skillfully merges the raw, untamed feel of the Western frontier with the atmospheric dread of Gothic horror. The story is a testament to Howard’s ability to adapt to different genres and create unique narratives that break the mold of traditional storytelling.
Moreover, Howard’s vivid descriptions bring the harsh Texas landscape to life, its vastness serving as a haunting backdrop for the terror unfolding in the foreground. The isolation and desolation of the setting only add to the menacing atmosphere, amplifying the sense of impending doom.
Furthermore, the vampire De Valdez is a compelling antagonist—an ancient, ruthless predator reawakened in a world far removed from the one he once knew. De Valdez is a vivid reminder of the past’s ability to haunt the present, particularly when we ignore or dismiss history’s dark lessons.
In “The Horror From The Mound,” Howard reminds us of the price of curiosity and the dangers of delving too deeply into the unknown. Brill’s cavalier disregard for local superstition results in a nightmarish ordeal, a chilling reminder that sometimes, it’s wiser to let sleeping horrors lie.
3. Rattle of Bones
“Rattle of Bones” stars Howard’s stoic, Puritan hero, Solomon Kane, a recurring character known for his unyielding sense of justice and knack for stumbling upon the supernatural. First published in 1929 in the pages of ‘Weird Tales,’ this story is a classic example of Howard’s ability to fuse elements of horror with swashbuckling adventure.
The tale commences with Solomon Kane’s unexpected arrival at a questionable inn deep in the Black Forest of Germany. Things soon take a ghastly turn when our dauntless Puritan warrior comes face to face with the inn’s dark secret: an accursed skeleton that springs to life every night. Howard’s description of the skeletal figure is masterful, an unforgettable mix of uncanny horror and morbid fascination that sends a shiver down the reader’s spine.
What makes “Rattle of Bones” stand out is how Howard deftly balances elements of horror and action. One moment, you’re witnessing the eerie rattle of the reanimated skeleton, the next, you’re immersed in a deadly sword fight. The pacing is swift, the tension high, and the horror omnipresent.
But “Rattle of Bones” is more than a hair-raising horror story. As always, Howard embeds a moral dimension within the narrative. Solomon Kane, with his unwavering moral compass, is a compelling counterpoint to the grim, cynical world around him. His determination to face and overcome the darkness serves as a potent symbol of humanity’s inherent ability to challenge and conquer fear.
Yet, Howard doesn’t shy away from exploring the darker side of human nature. The real horror in this tale isn’t the reanimated skeleton, but the past actions of the living—the cruelties and crimes that lead to the inn’s haunting. It’s a chilling reminder that sometimes, the skeletons in our closets are the most terrifying monsters of all.
2. The Black Stone
“The Black Stone” first graced the pages of ‘Weird Tales’ magazine in 1931, and it remains one of Howard’s most chilling and memorable tales, especially for fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. It also introduces us to Howard’s own addition to the Cthulhu Mythos – namely the book Nameless Cults by the German scholar Von Junzt; a tome nearly as infamous as Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.
Our journey starts with an English scholar who stumbles upon references to a monolith known as the Black Stone. The stone, located in a remote Hungarian forest, carries a terrifying reputation for deadly happenings and horrifying apparitions on Midsummer’s Night. Compelled by curiosity and a sense of dread, our scholar protagonist decides to investigate.
In true Howard style, this seemingly simple setup is the gateway to a world filled with ancient rituals, monstrous gods, and a creeping sense of cosmic horror that feels all too Lovecraftian. The Black Stone itself is an object of intense foreboding—an imposing remnant of an unimaginably ancient civilization that seems to pulsate with an unspeakable and malevolent life of its own.
What stands out in this tale is how Howard deftly uses atmospheric horror. The sense of place is palpable; you can almost feel the chill of the Hungarian forest, see the ancient monolith standing stark against the sky, and hear the whispering of ancient horrors in the wind. The suspense is a slow burn, gradually building with each line until you are on the edge of your seat, filled with dread.
“The Black Stone” also skillfully incorporates one of the more fascinating aspects of cosmic horror: the theme of forbidden knowledge. Our protagonist, driven by academic curiosity, ends up witnessing unspeakable rituals and grotesque monstrosities that push him to the edge of sanity. The narrative provides a classic reminder of the adage “curiosity killed the cat,” painting a stark picture of the potential horrors that lie in wait when we delve too deeply into the unknown.
Moreover, the story embodies the quintessential aspects of Howard’s writing—strong, vivid descriptions, a relentless pace, and deft handling of suspense and horror. It also shows the influence of Lovecraft’s work on Howard, especially in its portrayal of ancient, forgotten evils that lurk just beyond the veil of our understanding.
“The Black Stone” leaves us with a lingering feeling of unease, a testament to Howard’s talent for horror. It’s a chilling reminder that some stones are better left unturned, especially when they sit in an ominous forest and vibrate with the echoes of ancient, dark rituals.
1. Pigeons From Hell
Originally published in the 1938 issue of ‘Weird Tales,’ “Pigeons from Hell” stands out as a genuine masterpiece of Southern Gothic horror, and is widely acknowledged as Howard’s best horror story, and with good reason. It throws us into an eerie realm of decaying plantation houses, blood-soaked history, and uncanny undead apparitions—a setting where the traditional and the supernatural fuse to create a sense of hair-raising dread.
The story starts with two New England boys, John Branner and his friend Griswell, who find themselves stranded in an old, deserted Southern mansion. They choose to spend the night, unaware of the ungodly horrors that await them. As night descends, so does the terror—beginning with an eerie whistling, a strange dream, a sallow-faced leering creature, and the death and reanimation of one of the visitors.
Howard masterfully layers the narrative with elements of the uncanny and grotesque. The pigeon-haunted mansion (which inspired the title) plays a role as significant as any character. Its disquieting history, filled with tales of dark rituals, slavery, and ‘zuvembies’, contributes significantly to the chilling atmosphere.
The brilliance of “Pigeons from Hell” lies in its slow-burn narrative that steadily amplifies the horror. Howard meticulously crafts an ambiance that mirrors the sweltering, stifling heat of the South, turning the screws of suspense until they are almost unbearable. Every rustle of the leaves, every creak of the old mansion, and every eerie coo of the pigeons heightens our sense of impending doom.
What has always struck me about this tale is how Howard manages to incorporate biting social commentary amongst the supernatural chills. The plantation house is a symbol of a cruel past, its ghostly inhabitants forever scarred by the inhumanity inflicted within its walls. It’s a somber reminder that often, true horror is born out of human actions and history.
“Pigeons from Hell” remains one of Robert E. Howard’s most haunting creations—an unforgettable journey into the heart of Southern Gothic horror. It’s a tale that clings to your memory, much like the spectral cooing of Howard’s ghostly pigeons, long after the final page has been turned.
And there you have it, my courageous compatriots in creepiness: a thrilling journey into the heart of Robert E. Howard’s horror repertoire. We’ve explored haunted houses, trekked through putrid swamps, faced down supernatural monstrosities, and battled our inner demons, all within the safety of Howard’s masterfully crafted narratives. Fun!
Through these ten stories, the full spectrum of Howard’s horror writing prowess is laid bare. Each of his unforgettable characters lends depth, complexity, and a unique flavor of fear to the tales. And perhaps most intriguingly, we’ve discovered that there is so much more to Howard than just his famed barbarian hero, Conan. But I guess most of you REH fanatics knew that already.
These stories are only the tip of the iceberg, however, in terms of what Howard’s diverse and extensive body of work has to offer. His writings have stood the test of time, continually fascinating, chilling, and inspiring readers with their unique blend of horror, adventure, and existential thought. They are a testament to his status as a visionary of speculative fiction, a writer whose influence continues to reverberate through the genre to this day.
As we close the book on this pulp horror journey, I hope you’re feeling inspired, entertained, and perhaps a touch unsettled—in the best possible way, of course! So if you’ve enjoyed this thrilling expedition into the realm of Robert E. Howard’s horror stories, why not join us on future literary adventures? Subscribe to the blog to be notified of future posts! The Longbox of Darkness promises to continue our exploration of the dark, the eerie, and the utterly bone-chilling stories that leave us questioning the very nature of reality—and loving every moment of it.
Until next time, fright fans, pleasant screams.
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