Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Adventure classics -- Zombies and a woman wronged

Pigeons from Hell

by Robert E. Howard


I promised not to ignore Robert E. Howard this year, despite making room for other Texan and southwestern writers during June, the month when fans gather to observe the anniversary of his death in the tiny West Texas town of Cross Plains. Far from ignoring him, placing his stories within their representative genres only shows the extent of Howard’s range, as in his gruesome zombie tale, Pigeons from Hell.

Since its first posthumous 1938 appearance in Weird Tales magazine, the story has been remade over the last several decades as a television episode, a graphic novel and a serial by fellow Texan Joe R. Lansdale for Dark Horse Comics. Stephen King has praised it as one of the best horror stories of the twentieth century.

With all this, and zombie mania in full bloom as well, why isn’t it as well-known as Conan?

It suffers on two fronts, neither of which has to do with its power as a story. One is its title, which Howard scholar and editor Rusty Burke grants in an introduction to The Best of Robert E. Howard, “may not be the most chilling title in the world of horror fiction.” Its other fault is the more telling sin of racism.

REH and friends
“I’m not going to defend the position that Howard isn’t a racist,” Howard biographer Mark Finn writes in a blog post earlier this year. “In the context of his time and place, Howard was, in fact, a racist. Institutional racism was in full swing, especially in Texas. . . (but) not until I got to ‘Pigeons from Hell’ as a teenager, when I first encountered the word ‘nigger' in the story, did I stop and think about what was going on. . . I had to suddenly walk through the time and place of the story and ask myself, ‘Would a sheriff use that word in casual conversation? In 1936?’ And of course, the answer was yes.”

The issue of racial epithets is one that’s dogged some of our best fiction, especially from Southern writers honest enough to admit it exists, from Mark Twain to Harper Lee. Whatever Howard’s personal opinions, he knew what his characters would do and say, and he knew what his readers would expect. And he was willing, perhaps gleefully, to turn those expectations upside down.

The story takes place in a decaying Southern plantation house, like many Howard must have seen during his family’s sojourns in Louisiana, “rearing black and start and gaunt against the low lurid rampart of sunset, barred by the black pines.”

Benighted travelers Griswell and Branner camp in the deserted house. Griswell wakes during the night to find his friend descending the house’s stair from a mysterious journey to the upper story. “A groping hand, moving along the balustrade, came into the bar of moonlight. . . Then he saw Branner’s face, and a shriek burst from Griswell’s lips. Branner’s face was bloodless, corpse-like; gouts of blood dripped darkly down it; his eyes were glassy and set, and blood oozed from the great gash which cleft the crown of his head!”

Griswell escapes, hoping at first for help from the local sheriff but finding himself accused of his friend’s murder. Attempting to clear himself and solve the mystery of his friend‘s death, he plunges into a maelstrom of ancient injustice, voodoo, and zombies--or in this case, the female version of zombies, zuvembies.

But when Griswell and the sheriff track down the undead to their lair, they find something more--and other-- than they expected. All too willing to close a case whose perpetrators are beyond reach of mortal authority, the sheriff settles for a half-truth. “This clears you, Griswell,” he says at last. “A crazy woman with a hatchet--that’s all the authorities need to know.”

Score another point for the wronged and vengeful women in Adventure classics'  October of Halloween horror. And if you dare, read or listen to the original free, at
For Mark Finn’s full discussion of Howard and racism, see the Mary 10, 2013, post at

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics concludes a month of horror with Toni Morrison’s Beloved.)

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