“Worms of the Earth”
by Robert E. Howard
Every June, the small West Texas town of Cross Plains emerges from obscurity for a few days to celebrate the life -- ironically, on the anniversary of his death -- of its most famous resident, Robert E. Howard. And in honor of Howard, Texas’s best-known writer, June at Adventure classics is all-Howard, all-month.
Unlike more classically-Western writer Larry McMurtry, Howard isn’t invariably linked to Texas in many readers’ minds. His great fantasy land of Hyperborea isn’t on any maps, much less maps of Texas. (Although, as Herman Melville, another writer of adventure noted, “true places never are.”)
When I first scheduled a story about Robert E. Howard’s ancient Pictish hero, I only meant to feature a character who wasn’t Conan. Not until I realized the wonderful British writer of historical fiction, Rosemary Sutcliff was slotted for the previous month did the idea of juxtaposing two such very different writers’ takes on the ancient British Picts enter my mind.
One of Sutcliff’s glories is putting readers in the minds and bodies of her historical characters, making us feel the shifting of an ancient British war chariot -- a feeling apparently more like being tossed into a kayak running rapids than riding in anything approaching a modern vehicle.
Howard puts us into his characters’ nightmares.
In “The Barbarian at the Pantheon-Gates,” an appendix to volume 2 of The Best of Robert E. Howard, the late Steve Tompkins quotes the dictum of academician Brian Attebery: “The American writer must find some way of reentering the ancient storytelling guild: he must validate his claim to the archetypes that are the tools of the trade.”
Howard’s modus operandi, Tompkins writes, “involved straightforward breaking and entering, after which he helped himself to whatever archetypes he needed.”
So “Worms of the Earth” begins as disguised Pictish king Bran Mak Morn watches the gruesome but historically-accurate crucifixion of one his subjects and determines to seek revenge on the British-Roman magistrate who ordered the execution. Without the manpower or weaponry to challenge the Romans in conventional warfare, he seeks help from the near-mythical pre-Celtic peoples his Pictish ancestors drove into hiding as the Romans are doing to Bran Mak Morn’s own people.
To force their aid, Bran Mak Morn descends into an underworld peopled by creatures once almost-human, now worse than beasts. As Tompkins writes, “against the Conqueror Worm, Howard sets the worm-conqueror. . .” And however good Bran Mak Morn’s intentions, by story’s end he will learn “the myths had prepared him for horror in human aspect. . . But this was the horror of nightmare and the night.”
Read it if your inner claustrophobic dares. I like The Best of Robert E. Howard, available in two volumes at www.amazon.com. But the story is widely anthologized. Bran Mak Morn got his own movie, Bran Mak Morn: The Last King, available at www.youtube.com/. The original stories are scarier. And for more about Steve Tompkins’ work and untimely death, see www.thecimmerian.com/.
(Next Wednesday -- Adventure classic looks at the Conan story, “People of the Black Circle,” which Stephen King says glows with a “fierce and eldritch light.”)