Pulp Story Review, Robert E. Howard, Sword and Sorcery

The Frost-Giant’s Daughter

The Frost-Giant’s Daughter (first published in 1976)

by Robert E. Howard

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This very short story opens with the last two warriors stand over the snowy field of battle between viking-like fighters, one side with blonde beards and the other hair as red as flame.  One of the tall combatants is a red-headed Vanir named Heimdul, the other is a youthful man with mane of black different from the others as Cimmerian named Conan.  After a brief exchange, Conan slays Heimdul and is the last man standing in this bloody battle of eighty men on frozen fields.

Yet he spies a woman with milky white skin and completely bare of clothing despite the freezing temperature.  She posses an elfin beauty with fair of neither Vanir red nor Aesir but a blend of each.  Conan remarks he knows of no village nearby she could be from.  The beautiful woman leads across plains of hoar-frosted snow to low hills that give way to towering mountains.  It is these silvery mountains of blue ice that the woman springs her trap upon the barbarian warrior.  Her brothers, giants seemly carved of snow and ice with thick armor and frost covered axes, strike  at Conan with the fury of a winter storm.

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This story was originally rejected by Weird Tales hence the publishing date of more than 30 years after the author’s death during the 1970’s fantasy and sword and sorcery boom.  This tale is perhaps the earliest account in Conan’s adventurous life as he is younger than most of Howard’s original stories.

As for the story itself, I can partly understand why it was rejected.  It comes in at a scant seven pages making it the shortest of the Conan stories.  Additionally, there isn’t a whole happening in this story as well.  Conan is the last warrior in a battle of eighty men (which comes off rather incredible even for Conan).  He follows a strange naked beauty for several miles in some strange lust-fueled obsession only to be attacked by frost giants.

For me, The Frost-Giant’s Daughter may be my least favorite Conan story between The Black Stranger and Vale of Lost Women both which are better stories but have elements I dislike more than any of The Frost-Giant’s Daughter.  With The Black Stranger it is swashbuckler/pirate Conan which just seems out of place for the character.  While Vale of Lost Women is one of Howard’s more racist stories though it does have Conan fighting a creature seemly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft.

Bottomline, this is not a particularly good Conan story though it is serviceable and short enough to read without leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

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H.P. Lovecraft, Pulp Story Review

At the Mountains of Madness Review

At the Mountains of Madness (originally published in Astounding Stories in 1936)

by H.P. Lovecraft

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     This novella, like many other of Lovecraft’s tales, is a first person account. This time it is Dr. William Dyer, professor of geology at Miskatonic University who previously led a scientific expedition to Antarctica in 1930 (presumably six years ago being published in 1936).   Dr. Dyer is writing this amendment to his account of the expedition to dissuade further scientific study of the frozen continent.  Like many other of Lovecraft’s narrators Dyer speaks of the dangers of humanity learning too much about the universe as the human mind is simply incapable of some horrible truths.  He explains that he and surviving expedition members purposely redacted the more fantastical discoveries they uncovered in the extreme south of the planet.   Things he hoped he would never be forced to reveal.  However, he has decided to shed additional light on what happened those many years ago to stop others from making the same mistake.

Dr. Dyers begins by recapping some of the resources, routes, and scientific data collected during expedition.  Lovecraft, like in Shadow Over Innsmouth, uses the convention of telling the reader that the finer details can be found in past newspaper articles, telegraph/wire transcripts, and other sources.  Simultaneously cutting down on the supposedly information for the story and giving the tale a fell of authenticity as only be a part of a larger body of information.

At the last portion of the voyage to the Antarctic, describes a bizarre wind that howled through the summits of the Admiralty Mountain Range.  He describes the sound as similar to that of, “half-sentient piping music” that both reminded of a painting Nicholas Roerich of the Plateau of Leng and of the Necronomicon written by the mad Arab Abdul Alharzed.  Almost a month later, while temporarily lost above the icy world of the Antarctic, Danford, a graduate assistant of Dyer, witnesses the volcano of Mt. Erebus which reminds him of a passage in Edgar Allen Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym. 

Months later in the expedition, Professor Lake of the Biology department  at Miskatonic University radios to the base camp while flying as part of a sub-expedition discovers a mountain range that may rival the Himalayas with peaks taller than even Mount Everest.  Lakes aircraft is later forced to land before they can reach camp.  Not wanting to waste time or opportunity Lake radios back about strange cubical formations upon the highest peaks on this colossal mountain range than appear to give off strange reflection of light and wants to set up a camp there. The following day Lake’s sub-expedition discovers a cave in the ice while drilling core samples.  Inside were a whole host of fossils many different ages in geology.  More fantastic than the treasure trove of fossils was the discovery of large plant-like specimens eight feet tall, with a three and half foot diameter with five ridges with tubular, wing-like growths folding within the ridges of the main barrel shapedImage body.  Dark grey in color the things have five light gray tentacle appendages around its pentatonic body.  The things are topped an apparent head like a starfish tipped with reddish globe like eyes.   Even as a biologist, Lake as difficulty determining if the things are vegetable or animal.  What is known it the sled dogs hate the things and likely would destroy them if given a chance.

I like this the adventurous nature of the At the Mountains of Madness.  The idea of being on a scientific expedition appeals to me a great deal and I even enjoy the little details that Lovecraft throws in to make it feel like you are in fact reading the account of a geology professor.  Unlike earlier works of Lovecraft, he goes into great detail to describe the Elder Things that are discovered in cave Lake drilled and blasted into.  By virtue of having scientists as the protagonists, Lovecraft could go into great clinical detail about them.

As as I like the setup of this story, I feel that Lovecraft plays the ending too close to the vest.  I want to know what Danforth saw or at least have his experiences more than a few fragmented words and references to other stories and the Cthulhu Mythos at large.  I will admit though, like any good horror writer, Lovecraft likely stop the story where he did so the reader who have to wonder what exactly happened as have their imagination put together what they think it was.

My biggest compliant with In the Mountains of Madness, is a theme that sometimes appears in many of Lovecraft’s other weird horror stories: man should not explore the universe as its truth can only cause madness.  The only reason that Dyers wrote this is to stop any future expedition to Antarctica.  I understand his reasoning, the Elder Things and shoggoths are extremely dangerous creatures that can wipe out mankind.  If they were to learn of humanity existence, it may very well mean our extinction or at very least subjection by this ancient beings.  I am not sure of H.P. Lovecraft’s stance on science because of this.  He dabbles into science-fiction and clearly likes using academics as his protagonists, but he keeps coming back to this line mankind should never explore.  I’m just not a fan of the trope, “things man was not meant to know.”

Elder Signs

Bottomline, while I have a slight issue with the theme of In the Mountains of Madness, it is a chilling tale of exploration and discovering ancient monsters.   Six out of six Elder Signs.

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H.P. Lovecraft, Pulp Story Review

The Dunwich Horror Review

The Dunwich Horror (first published in Weird Tales 1929)

by H.P. Lovecraft

dunwich horror

by Santiago Caruso

The novella begins with a prolonged setup of the Massachusetts town of Dunwich and the surrounding features such as Round Mountain, The Devil’s Hop Yard, and Sentinel Hill atop which a strange ring of stone columns thought to have built by now extinct tribes of Indians. It is perhaps these stones that started the stories of witches and devils that haunt the areas around Dunwich, however, what is know is the general disdain travelers have for loitering in the town any longer than they absolutely have to.  The Dunwich folk are mostly composed of but a few families such as the Bishops and the Whatelys.  A few of the branches of these familial trees have fallen into degeneration over the decades.  It is one such family that story revolves largely around.

Wizard Whately and his albino daughter, Lavina, bizarre and deformed part of the degenerated Whatelys living our at a farm near Dunwich.  The xenophobic townsfolk usually take little interest in affairs others, but the birth of Lavina’s son is of note for several reasons.  For one, the boy is a bastard with the father unknown by any in Dunwich.  Cursorily, Lavina doesn’t shun the boy, but in fact, seem proud of the goatish looking baby.  The other oddity is the the boy’s, Wilbur,  astonish rate of growth and mental development.  By a year and half the boy had grown to the size of a child normally thought to be four.  Wilbur began speaking at eleven months seemly skipping lisping and forming sentences almost immediately.

Wizard Whately began odd projects soon after Wilbur’s  birth.  He found renewed wells of stamina to repair and make additions to his old dilapidated home.  Old Whately also began to purchase additional cattle though the surrounding folk noted that his herd size never appeared to increase.  For years after none of the people of Dunwich paid this branch of Whatelys any mind as was common for them to mind their business.  However, ten years after the birth of Wilbur, the boy who have the appearance and demeanor of a man aided his grandfather in restoring the old barn on the property for some strange purpose.  It was later in the spring that old WIzard became worn out and sick.  The Whippoorwills had gather in frightening number at the Whately farm.  According to Wizard to try an take his soul as he died.

With the death of old Wizard Whately, it was up to Wilbur to finish what sinster task his grandfather has started.  To do so required an earlier edition of the Necromonicon written by the Mad-Arab Abdul Alhazred for a passage written on page 751.  Wilbur writes many universities and even visits Arkham’s own Miskatonic University to get his hands on own.  It only by Dr. Henry Armitage’s refusal that the boy is unable to get the required knowledge from the book.  Yet something urgent is requiring Wilbur to return to home…

The Dunwich Horror is a departure from Lovecraft’s normal first person narrative.  Although, the author doesn’t stray that far from it.  The story is still told in a typical account style writing that gives feels like Lovecraft wanted to have it told from single source (such as a newspaper reporter) but could make all the elements he wanted fit.  This does allow the story to give the reader information  and immediate tension not usually found in his story.  Because the story isn’t written after the fact, the climax can actually generate a more visceral experience that typically found in H.P. Lovecraft.  Not withstanding first short chapter, the Dunwich Horror has an easier narrative for readers new to H.P. Lovecraft to follow.

Elder Signs

Bottomline: The Dunwich Horror is one of my top five favorite Lovecraft tales.  It makes a good entry into reading the author as the story is about villains trying to bring about the end the world and academicians attempting to stop them. Six out of six elder signs to keep the gate and the key of Yog-Sothoth sealed away.

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Pulp Story Review, Robert E. Howard

Blue Flame of Vengeance Review

Blue Flame of Vengeance (originally titled Blades of the Brotherhood and first published in Red Shadows in 1968)

by Robert E. Howard

This short story was never published in Howard’s short life time and was finally published more than thirty years after the author’s death.  The story, as many Howard stories often do, opens sans the title character between a duel between the offended Jack Hollinster and a nobleman named Sir George Banway near the shore of an English town.  Sir George had offended Jack by publicly slandering, Mary Garvin, the woman he loves.  The local magistrate halts the duel after Jack’s quicker blade wounds Sir George’s arm.  While the magistrate considers the matter of honor concluded, the two men seek a clash of rapiers to the death.  However, each second as well as the magistrate break up the two men before it becomes lethal. Image

Jack Hollinster decides to walk the English shore line to cool his head where he encounters a tall swordsman dress in black with a slouch hat, the only bit of color about him a green sash made of fine silk.  The wanderer introduces himself as Solomon Kane and speaks with Jack who is still furious from the duel.  Kane has come here seeking Jonas Hardraker, whom some call The Fishhawk.  Out on the sea is a black ship keeping its distance from the English settlement and Kane believes it to be the Fishhawk’s.

Later, Jack Hollinster wakes from nightmares to discover from his Mary has been abducted by Sir George.  Jack takes with him Sam who told him of the fiend’s deed to go to Banway’s home to rescue poor Mary.  Jack and Sam reach the dilapidated home of Banway, and before Jack can find entrance he is betrayed by Sam.

When Jack awakens he finds himself in the the large cellar of the Banway estate bound hand and foot.  He is surrounded by garish and dangerous pirates as well as Sam and Sir George.  Mary is bound to a great oak ring with him in the cellar where the couple is taunted by Sir George.

The carousing pirates at interrupted by Solomon Kane who had infiltrated the Banway estate.  Armed with two wheellock pistols Kane seeks to rescue Jack and Mary and pierce the black heart of the Fishhawk with a pistol bullet.  The Fishhawk realizing he is dead-to-rights frees the captives and taunts Kane.  He calls Solomon a coward for not having the courage to face him in an honest duel. The ploy works as Kane hands his pistols to Jack and prepares to duel the Fishhawk in a fight with daggers.  Kane armed his dirk and the Fishhawk banishing a wicked-looking Turkish dagger.

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     The Blue Flame of Vengeance is only complete story that Howard wrote about Solomon Kane that has no fantastic or supernatural elements to it.  Even the uncompleted fragments of Kane stories alluded to some sinister supernatural start.  It may have been the lack of any fantastical elements that prevented Howard from being able to sell this story.  It is merely a work of swashbuckling action without any of usual weirdness to it.  This does not take away from the story.  The swordplay and action scenes are Robert E. Howard’s usual visceral and vividly descriptive style the author is known for.  As are the expertly crafted visages of the pirates.  I felt like I was there in the cramped cellar with these brigands.

This story may also be one REH’s more dialogue heavy stories.  Unfortunately, the author tends to be a little weak there, but in Blue Flame of Vengeance to conversing is serviceable.  The character of Mary is largely a plot device which like Red Shadows and nearly every other Howard story with notable exceptions (Red Nails being one) is very typical for him.

As I stated before, I’m a bigger Solomon Kane fan than Conan fan, and I enjoy this story as standing apart fro the other Kane stories having no supernatural element.  It is a good read and well worth it for a fan of swashbuckling action, sword and sorcery, and 1930s pulp stories.  In terms of Solomon Kane stories I rate it a little less than middle of the road.

Bottonline: This is the one Kane story without any supernatural elements that is a decent enough read.  However, it is a little less than average writing for Robert E. Howard and not likely to sway someone who is not already a fan.

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H.P. Lovecraft, Pulp Story Review

The Shadow Over Innsmouth Review

The Shadow over Innsmouth (published in 1936)

by H.P. Lovecraft

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By DamnEngine

The novella begins with a unnamed protagonist referring to a secret investigation made by the federal government of the small coastal New England town of Innsmouth.  The protagonist describes a few of the reports leaked about the investigation made to the general public but hints to there being far more to what happened and directly informs the reader that he has decided to ignore the speech ban placed by the government concerning anything about this nearly abandoned fishing town and tells the story of his first and currently last visit to this unsettling settlement.

It seems that the narrator learned of Innsmouth while touring New England to study genealogy and sight see the region’s various architecture on the cheap.  While in Newburyport on his way to Arkham to learn more about his mother’s side of the family.  Talking to the tick agent to find the least expensive method to Arkham the ticket agent reveals details about Innsmouth.  The agent suggests that the narrator just take the steam train up to Arkham as most folks in Newburyport find the people of Innsmouth very off-putting.  In fact most locals are spiteful toward the Innsmouth denizens though the agent suspects it could be do to the better fishing found near Innsmouth.  However, even he gets uncomfortable in the presence of the Innsmouth people as they have an odd look about them.  They all sort have big bulgy, unblinking eyes, flat noses, big blubbery lips and big, clumsy hands and feet.  The narrator makes his up mind to take the bus to Innsmouth.  The ticket agent tells him that he could likely find a place to stay a the Gilman House, but the last traveler that did said he heard strange voice talking in a sort of weird language.       When the narrator first encounters people with the Innsmouth look he understands why other would be disgusted.  He was well is oddly repulsed by these people though he can’t exactly explain why.  Taking bus to Innsmouth narrator Innsmouth to be a dense town of decaying buildings and degenerate people.  Even the Freemason Hall seems to have been taken over by a cult known as the Esoteric Order of Dagon.  During his day in Innsmouth, the narrator takes in some light sight seeing and investigation of the history of Innsmouth mostly from conversations with the town’s few transplants including a grocery boy and ancient drunkard by the name of Zadok Allen.

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Bribed with a bottle of whiskey, Old Zadok is still hesitant to tell tale of the terrible things he has see in Innsmouth.  The old alcoholics tongue does loosen, and he talks about Captain Obed Marsh back before the Civil War who performed evil Kanaky Indian rituals out at Devil Reef, a reef that scant sits above the waterline even in low tide, to summon frog-fish creatures from deep below the ocean’s surface.  It seems that Captain Obed made a kind of Faustian Pact with the creatures for gold and immortality and it wasn’t long before others of the town also made that same deal.

The narrator thoroughly weird ed out by people with the ‘Innsmouth look’ and the stories he has heard decides against staying at the Gilman House and Innsmouth over night and attempts to hire the bus driver Joe Sargent to take him to Arkham.  Both unfortunately and conveniently, the decrepit bus has broken down and won’t be repaired until tomorrow.  Forced to stay the night, the narrator’s terror is increased as he begins to suspect the local’s of Innsmouth know of his investigation and are none too happy with an outsider asking questions…

That is as far as I will reveal the story.  I must say I really enjoyed The Shadow Over Innsmouth. It has quickly became my personal favorite story of H.P Lovecraft edging out The Mountains of Madness.  Its foreshadowing in both obvious but still quite clever to a modern reader who will quickly piece together Innsmouth’s insidious secret.  Yet I came to really empathize with the narrator which made the ending that much more horrific.  The writing is filled with less purple prose that many other of Lovecraft’s stories though it does slightly suffer from even fairly mundane items/occurrences have overly menacing descriptions.  This at times made wonder if Lovecraft intended for it to seem as the narrator was in fact slightly paranoid.  Though when it did actually seem like the town was against him he seemed less concerned about the machinations of the Innsmouth residents.

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Bottomline: The Shadow of Innsmouth is would definitely be an excellent story for someone to start reading some of H.P. Lovecrafts works.  6 out of 6 Elder Signs

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