Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Monkey Reads: Pirates, Vikings & Ancient Magic

The Black Stranger and Other American Tales
By Robert E. Howard
Introduction/Edited by Steven Tompkins
The title story opens this collection with a magnificently tangled plot involving pirates and buccaneers racing to claim a cursed stash of treasure secreted away on the shores of the Pictish Wilderness*, where a nobleman lives in self-exile, on the run from the titular stranger, to whom he owes more than he can repay.

Howard lays out details at just the right points to give all the major players enough back story and motivation to keep the pulp-hungry reader chewing at the pages until the moment Conan re-enters the plot. Yes, the character better known by his usual job title "the Barbarian" has adapted to changing times, trading a fur loincloth for Errol Flynn finery in order to conquer the pirate racket. Howard's best-known creation behaves as both deus ex machina and secret star of "The Black Stranger." And he's still an ass-kicking good time.

After the mini-epic start, the subsequent Viking and conquistador-era tales slow the momentum until the next pirate yarn, "Black Vulmea's Vengance," quickens the pace again. Both "Stranger" and "Vulmea" could easily translate into films, though the former would have to get audiences past the idea of Conan outside of his expected sword-and-sandals milieu.

The final third of this set lives up the American Tales promise by wading waist-deep into late 19th and early 20th century Southern-gothic grime. Pitting white Christian men against all the ancient magic the New World, and its bounty of imported faiths, can dredge up.

Readers sharp enough to cope with the period-referential language will be rewarded with Howard's urban legend-like "Kelly the Conjure-Man" which acts as a sort of prologue for "Black Canaan" and its humid tale of a voodoo-fueled slave uprising in the swampy outskirts of a small farm village.

Howard deftly uses the Victorian horror structure ("Pigeons from Hell" and "The Horror from the Mound") in territory more familiar to him, and allows for a reverential take on American Indian spiritualism in "Old Garfield's Heart."

Anyone with a moderate level of curiosity about Howard's writing might as well start here. There are enough violent thrills to inspire a return to the world of Conan and to Howard's horror tales.

Reference material: If you read Conan or Kull comics as a kid, reading the texts from which those bloody panels were derived makes for a joyfully adolescent summer read. Also EC Comics fans and readers of early Stephen King will dig Howard's words.

*In the first published draft of this review, The Typing Monkey incorrectly identified the location of the events in the title story as a "not quite colonial American coast" presuming that Howard's vague references to Pict tribes was his way of defining Native Americans in terms that Europeans might have. Not so. The Picts, a real life warrior clan in pre-Roman invasion Scotland, are incorporated into Howard's Hyborian Age, the fictional age he created for the Conan stories, so that his hero might interact with a variety of historical types that weren't necessarily concomitant. We regret the error.