Friday, June 24, 2011

Adventure classics -- Howard rides into the sunset

“The Dead Remember”
by Robert E. Howard


I wanted to include a Western for this final entry in Adventure classics’ “All Robert E. Howard month,” to indicate the breadth of Howard’s interests. After all, as he wrote to his friend August W. Derleth less than a year before his death, he was “seriously contemplating devoting all (his) time and efforts to western writing, abandoning all other forms of work entirely.”

But I labored under a handicap -- I don’t personally like the typical fast-shooting, slow-talking, happy-ending Western story. And Howard, although far from the typical writer of Westerns, studied his markets well enough to know what would sell and what wouldn’t. I also flinched at his often unthinking racism -- although it was normal, even moderate for his time. “The Dead Remember,” the first of the Western stories he sold to Argosy, is a tale of witchcraft and vengeance that would have fit right on the pages of Weird Tales, except that magazine already owed Howard more than a thousand dollars, and he was eager to try other markets.

“The Dead Remember,” in which a black witch’s ghost haunts her murderer, deals frankly with the mores of the times, both of the story, set soon after the end of the Civil War, and the time of writing in the Great Depression era South.

Howard’s genius, transcending his time, lies in treating neither the victims of violence -- a pair of ex-slaves -- nor their cowboy murderer as either purely good or evil. If anything, the victims are the more courageous and sensitive of their honor -- always pluses for Howard’s characters. As former slave Old Joel says when threatened, “You can’t eat my
beef and drink my licker and then call my dice crooked. No white man can do that. I’m just as tough as you are.”

So ponder Howard’s decisions for yourself in this widely-available tale. (I found it in Rusty Burke’s anthology entitled “The End of the Trail: Western Stories,” from the University of Nebraska Press.) It obeys the dictates of Anton Chekov, that anything mentioned must be pertinent. So what exactly was the color of the witch’s dress? And why will Jim Gordon never be able to get it out of his mind, even in death?

(Next month : Adventure classics explore science fiction, beginning with Frank Herbert‘s “Dune.”)


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