As part of my Robert E. Howard guest blog series I am proud to present another guest blog spot.
In my hopes of getting every awesome REH enthusiast or expert I can to come on my blog and share some of their vast knowledge, I have been recruiting the best of the best. I was able to convince today’s esteemed guest to write a guest blog post for my REH series.
I am very excited and
Would you like to be a part of my guest blog series? Please contact me! (email@example.com)
Now without further adieu here is Bobby’s awesome guest blog.
Other Guest Blogs in this series:
REH Guest Blog Series – The Carnival, The Girl, and The Smitten Teenager by Todd B. Vick
Guest Blog – “By Crom” Conan and The Khoraja Saga: Beyond Robert E. Howard’s Black Colossus by Bob Byrne
Calling on my fellow Robert E. Howard Enthusiast and Experts.
“Conan & Bêlit: Queen of the Black Coast” illustration by Mark Schultz
Bêlit’s Bane: Where the Falling Demon Meets the Rising Ape
by Bobby Derie
In the center space a marble pyramid was spired by a slim column, and on its pinnacle sat or squatted something that Conan supposed to be an image until his keen eyes detected life in it.
“It is a great bird,” said one of the warriors, standing in the bows.
“It is a monster bat,” insisted another.
“It is an ape,” said Bêlit.
Just then the creature spread broad wings and flapped off into the jungle.
“A winged ape,” said old N’yaga uneasily. “Better we had cut our throats than come to this place. It is haunted.”
—Robert E. Howard, “Queen of the Black Coast” (Weird Tales May 1934)
The monster of “Queen of the Black Coast” is one of the most interesting in all of Robert E. Howard’s corpus. It is a hybrid creature which borrows elements from two different of the Texas pulpster’s more common themes: apes and winged men. Yet the way Howard puts them together is distinct from how he developed either of them separately.
It was the era of the Scopes Trial and the Kallikaks, before the Piltdown Man was exposed as a hoax and after the root races of Theosophy had cast a strong influence, when evolution was both a picky and ill-understood subject and belief in eugenics was widespread. For Howard’s part, he seem convinced of the reality of evolution, even if he did not quite understand it. Like many he seemed to hold the conception of a hierarchy or chain of evolution, where species would proceed from least advanced to most advanced, so that it was not the case that apes and men shared a common ancestor, but that the ancestors of men were apes, in a literal sense. Yet Howard’s conception of both evolution and eugenics was somewhat cynical:
Between the fundamental religionist who goes into foaming rages over the idea of evolution, because he can not stand the thought of kinship with a monkey, and the artists who strains his guts to prove his distance from the protozoa, I see no basic difference; both seem outcroppings of the idea concerning the divinity of man.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Sep/Oct 1933, MF2.636
The inherent cynicism—and horror—of evolution in the early 20th century was not simply humanity’s kinship to animals and the denial of the divine, but the fear or expectation that the course of evolution could be reversed; that homo sapiens, having arisen to such an advanced state, could degenerate back to apedom. This was a familiar topic in several pulp stories, not least of which were H. P. Lovecraft’s tales “The Lurking Fear” (WT Jun 1928) and “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (published in Weird Tales as “The White Ape” in Apr 1924 and “Arthur Jermyn” in May 1935), although it known if Howard had read either of these tales (in fact, we know he hadn’t read “Arthur Jermyn” as of 1931, but Lovecraft sent him a copy, MF2.126, 144). This link between ape and man, the idea of humanity cycling between the two forms, was established in Howard’s late essay “The Hyborian Age,” which formed the background for his Conan stories:
A thousand years after the lesser cataclysm, the western world is seen to be a wild country of jungles and lakes and torrential rivers. Among the forest-covered hills of the northwest exist wandering bands of ape-men, without human speech, or the knowledge of fire or the use of implements. They are the descendants of the Atlanteans, sunk back into the squalling chaos of jungle-bestiality from which ages ago their ancestors so laboriously crawled. To the southwest dwell scattered clans of degraded, cave-dwelling savages, whose speech is of the most primitive form, yet who still retain the name of Picts, which has come to mean merely a term designating men—themselves, to distinguish them from the true beasts with which they contend for life and food. It is their only link with their former stage. Neither the squalid Picts nor the apish Atlanteans have any contact with other tribes or peoples.
There is a distinction, in Howard’s stories, between the “true” apes, ape-like men, and those apes which threaten to rise to the level of human intelligence and ability. The latter—the intelligent ape—is the main antagonist of “Rogues in the House” (WT Jan 1934):
“That is Thak,” answered the priest, caressing his temple. “Some would call him an ape, but he is almost as different from a real ape as he is different from a real man. His people dwell far to the east, in the mountains that fringe the eastern frontiers of Zamora. There are not many of them; but, if they are not exterminated, I believe they will become human beings in perhaps a hundred thousand years. They are in the formative stage; they are neither apes, as their remote ancestors were, nor men, as their remote descendants may be. They dwell in the high crags of well-nigh inaccessible mountains, knowing nothing of fire or the making of shelter or garments, or the use of weapons. Yet they have a language of a sort, consisting mainly of grunts and clicks.[”]
Rogues in the House by Frank Frazetta
The use of intelligent, ape-like creatures as servants is repeated in “The Jewels of Gwahlur” (WT Mar 1935):
They are not humans! They are gray, hairy devils that walk like men and speak a gibberish no human could understand. […] It was no ape, neither was it a man. It was some shambling horror spawned in the mysterious, nameless jungles of the south, where strange life teemed in the reeking rot without the dominance of man, and drums thundered in temples that had never known the tread of a human foot.
Contrast this with the hybrid creature of man and ape from “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” (WT Oct 1931), melded together by sorcerous biology:
The thing was grotesquely like a crooked gnarled man in shape, but its face was bestial. It bared yellow fangs as it lurched silently toward him, and from under penthouse brows small reddened eyes gleamed demoniacally. Yet there was something of the human in its countenance; it was neither ape nor man, but an unnatural creature horribly compounded of both.
Compare this to Howard’s use of a “true” ape in “Shadows in the Moonlight” (WT Apr 1934):
‘A gray man-ape,’ he grunted. ‘Dumb, and man-eating. They dwell in the hills that border the eastern shore of this sea. How this one got to this island, I can’t say. Maybe he floated here on driftwood, blown out from the mainland in a storm.’
Nor are such creatures unique to the Hyborian Age of Conan, for a similar creature appears also in the El Borak story “Three-Bladed Doom”:
The creature was a giant ape, as tall on its gnarled legs as a gorilla. But the shaggy hair which covered it was of a strange ashy grey, longer and thicker than the hair on a gorilla. Its feet and hands were more man-like, the great toes and thumbs more like those of the human than of the anthropoid. It was no arboreal creature, but a beast bred on great plains and barren mountains. The face was gorilloid in general appearance, but the nose-bridge was more pronounced, the jaw less bestial, though there was no chin. But it’s man-like features merely served to increase the dreadfulness of its aspect, and the intelligence which gleamed from its small red eyes was wholly malignant.
Gordon knew it for what it was: the monster whose existence even he had refused to credit, the beast named in myth and legend of the north—the Snow-Ape, the Desert Man of forbidden Mongolia. (EB 141)
Three-Bladed Doom by Jim & Ruth Keegan
While Howard never uses snow-apes or yeti elsewhere, though he mentions them in passing in his essay “The Hyborian Age”:
They found the snow-countries inhabited only by a species of ferocious snow-apes—huge shaggy white animals, apparently native to that climate. These they fought and drove beyond the Arctic circle, to perish, as the savages thought. The latter, then, adapted themselves to their hardy new environment and throve.
Howard’s delineation of ape, ape-man, and intelligent ape in his fiction probably owes much to the to the Tarzan stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which presents a similar distinction of bolgani (true gorilla), mangani (intelligent and bipedal apes), and gomangani (ape-men, combining traits of human and ape)—strongly parallel Howard’s conception, though he never presents them as together in the same story for comparison. Burroughs’ Tarzan novels would likewise appear to be the ultimate origin of the Jermyn clan in Lovecraft’s story, as traced by William Fulwiler in “E.R.B. and H.P.L.” Lovecraft and Howard were in many senses deriving their ideas from the same places. Coincidentally, H. P. Lovecraft would use the legend of the Abominable Snow Men in his own fiction, as a mistaken legend covering the existence of the Mi-Go in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (WT Apr 1931)
Standing in stark contrast to humanity in several of Howard’s stories is a winged race. The first of these is depicted in “Wings in the Night” (WT Jul 1932):
The thing was like a man, inhumanly tall and inhumanly thin; the head was long, narrow, and hairless—the head of a predatory creature. The ears were small, close-set and queerly pointed. The eyes, set in death, were narrow, oblique and of a strange yellowish colour. The nose was thin and hooked, like the beak of a bird of prey, the mouth a wide cruel gash, whose thin lips, writhed in a death snarl and flecked with foam, disclosed wolfish fangs.
The creature, which was naked and hairless, was not unlike a human being in other ways. The shoulders were broad and powerful, the neck long and lean. The arms were long and muscular, the thumb being set beside the fingers after the manner of the great apes. Fingers and thumbs were armed with heavy hooked talons. The chest was curiously misshapen, the breast-bone jutting out like the keel of a ship, the ribs curving back from it. The legs were long and wiry with huge, hand-like, prehensile feet, the great toe set opposite the rest like a man’s thumb. The claws on the toes were merely long nails.
But the most curious feature of this curious creature was on its back. A pair of great wings, shaped much like the wings of a moth but with a bony frame and of leathery substance, grew from its shoulders, beginning at a point just back and above where the arms joined the shoulders, and extending half way to the narrow hips. These wings, Kane reckoned, would measure some eighteen feet from tip to tip.
“Wings in the Night” A Solomon Kane story (artist unknown)
The description blends elements of human, near-human, and inhuman, but Howard sets these winged men—the akaanas—apart as distinct from humanity, and diminishing:
Who were these creatures? Kane asked. Goru shrugged his shoulders. They were there when his ancestors came, who had never heard of them before they saw them. There was no intercourse with the cannibals, so they could learn nothing from them. The akaanas lived in caves, naked like beasts; they knew nothing of fire and ate only fresh, raw meat. But they, had a language of a sort and acknowledged a king among them. Many died in the great famine when the stronger ate the weaker. They were vanishing swiftly; of late years no females or young had been observed among them.
Later in the story, Kane meditates that these akaana may be the relicts of the harpies slain and driven south by Jason and his Argonauts—such strange survivals are not uncommon in Howard’s fiction, bt this idea of a dying, primitive race contrasts strongly Howard’s winged Yaga of his science-fantasy novel Almuric (WT May-Jun-Aug 1939):
I saw that they were tall and rangy in build, sinewy and powerful, with ebon skins. They seemed made like ordinary men, except for the great leathery batlike wings which grew from their shoulders. They were naked except for loincloths, and were armed with short curved blades.
The Yaga are unlike the other ape-men and winged-men in Howard’s tales so far in that they are civilized—with their own sadistic culture, city, weapons, clothing, slaves, and hierarchy. This idea of an advanced winged race, or at least a solitary descendent of such, forms the main antagonist of “The Garden of Fear” (Marvel Tales Jul 1934):
He was tall, powerful, black with the hue of polished ebony; but the feature which made a human nightmare of him was the batlike wings which folded on his shoulders. I knew they were wings: the fact was obvious and indisputable. […] Was that winged man merely a freak, an isolated example of distorted nature, dwelling in solitude and immemorial desolation? Or was he a survival of a forgotten race, which had risen, reigned and vanished before the coming of man as we know him? The little brown people of the hills might have told me, but we had no speech in common. Yet I am inclined to the latter theory. Winged men are not uncommon in mythology; they are met with in the folklore of many nations and many races. As far back as man may go in myth, chronicle and legend, he finds tales of harpies and winged gods, angels and demons. Legends are distorted shadows of pre-existent realities, I believe that once a race of winged black men ruled a pre-Adamite world, and that I, Hunwulf, met the last survivor of that race in the valley of the red blossoms.
The horror of winged, man-like creatures is somewhat akin to the horror of the intelligent ape: in both cases you combine human-like intelligence with a non-human capability—the vast strength of the ape, or flight for the Yagas and Akaanas and other harpies. It is the hybrid nature of the creatures, much as with werewolves and serpent-men, which provide some of the horror of their appearance and capabilities—yet Howard always marries this to another aspect: history. The origins of these creatures may be lost to time, they may be the last of their races, but there is always a strange and terrible backstory that goes into their creation, which Howard’s heroes can often only guess at—it is the fear of past ages and uncharted tracks of history, which is part of what binds the works of Howard with that of H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.
There are distinct parallels between the work of Lovecraft and Howard in this context; in his novel At the Mountains of Madness (Astounding Stories Feb-Apr 1936), which Howard read in manuscript in late 1931 (MF1.231), Lovecraft describes how:
During the Jurassic age the Old Ones met fresh adversity in the form of a new invasion from outer space—this time by half-fungous, half-crustacean creatures from a planet identifiable as the remote and recently discovered Pluto; creatures undoubtedly the same as those figuring in certain whispered hill legends of the north, and remembered in the Himalayas as the Mi-Go, or Abominable Snow-Men. To fight these beings the Old Ones attempted, for the first time since their terrene advent, to sally forth again into the planetary ether; but despite all traditional preparations found it no longer possible to leave the earth’s atmosphere. Whatever the old secret of interstellar travel had been, it was now definitely lost to the race.
This is a degeneration or devolution of an existing race, for though they retained the wing structures, the Old Ones now lack a capability that their ancestors once possessed, marking a point in the decline of their species and society. Compare that with the tale of Yag-Kotha in Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant” (WT Mar 1933):
I am very old, oh man of the waste countries; long and long ago I came to this planet with others of my world, from the green planet Yag, which circles for ever in the outer fringe of this universe. We swept through space on mighty wings that drove us through the cosmos quicker than light, because we had warred with the kings of Yag and were defeated and outcast. But we could never return, for on earth our wings withered from our shoulders.
Yag-Kosha still retained his old sensibilities and intelligence, even if he lost the power of interstellar flight—yet what if he had retained his wings, but had devolved in another way? Then we have the origin of Bêlit’s bane in “Queen of the Black Coast”:
Cast in the mold of humanity, they were distinctly not men. They were winged and of heroic proportions; not a branch on the mysterious stalk of evolution that culminated in man, but the ripe blossom on an alien tree, separate and apart from that stalk. Aside from their wings, in physical appearance they resembled man only as man in his highest form resembles the great apes. In spiritual, esthetic and intellectual development they were superior to man as man is superior to the gorilla. But when they reared their colossal city, man’s primal ancestors had not yet risen from the slime of the primordial seas. […] In adapting themselves to the changing conditions, they had sunk far below their original level. But the lethal waters altered them even more horribly, from generation to more bestial generation. They who had been winged gods became pinioned demons, with all that remained of their ancestors’ vast knowledge distorted and perverted and twisted into ghastly paths. As they had risen higher than mankind might dream, so they sank lower than man’s maddest nightmares reach. They died fast, by cannibalism, and horrible feuds fought out in the murk of the midnight jungle. And at last among the lichen-grown ruins of their city only a single shape lurked, a stunted abhorrent perversion of nature.
“Queen of the Black Coast” illustration by Mark Schultz
There are manifold horrors in this creature, which combines the brute strength and savagery of an ape, the ability of flight, and the primal intelligence and remaining necromancies of what was an advanced race. Yet as with Yag-Kosha, there is an element of tragedy to the winged ape in “Queen of the Black Coast”: the last, devolved remnant of what was once a great race—and in its example, Howard shows that not even the god-like entities in his world are immune to the cycle of evolution, and that species which ascends from bestial beginnings can in turn return there, when civilization has run its course.
EB El Borak and Other Desert Adventures
MF A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard
This is usually the spot where I like to put a bio and links for the author of the guest blog. When I asked Today’s guest for a bio and links he said “No need to muck with bios or links to my blogs. Those who know me already know it, those who don’t won’t care.”
Well I do care so I dug up some info because I think people will want to know.
I was able to find:
BOBBY DERIE: Pulp scholar. Sex & the Cthulhu Mythos dude. Reader of dead men’s letters.
Or how about:
BOBBY DERIE is a weird fiction scholar and the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014, Hippocampus Press). According to family lore, his father wanted to name him Conan, but his mother vetoed it.
And as for social media links I won’t post those but he is on Twitter and Facebook if you so choose to look for him.
And now some book links:
The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard – Index and Addenda