"We found ourselves instinctively suspicious of anything out of the ordinary." —Robert E. Howard, from "Skull-Face," Tales of Weird Menace (58)
In the story “Skull-Face” (originally published in 1929), Robert E. Howard spends some time making sure we know that its narrator, Steve Costigan, is an exile from society, set apart from decent or normal people. He is "a dirty, ragged renegade" (5), "a wounded soul" (37), addicted to hashish, who has "crossed an ocean over which I could never return," and whose “moral sense had been blunted" (6, 20).
Significantly, he is also a shell-shocked veteran of World War I, where he had been "shot and bayoneted to shreds of gory flesh" (7). In the opium den, we overhear a sailor cry out "Muster all hands on deck" (8), reminding us that Costigan isn't the only traumatized veteran to have found refuge in this Temple of Dreams. They fought for a cause, for their country, and they have been tossed aside, the same way "the men who died beside me in No Man's Land" were (33).
Unknown to the everyday opium-eaters, however, this particular den is the headquarters of a global conspiracy to "drive the white men into the sea" (48). Led by Kathulos, a mysterious skull-faced survivor of Atlantis, the political situation is described as one of "widespread unrest" among different groups, mostly in countries that were at the time under British rule or influence; one passing example given is that "the African cauldron began to seethe" (64).
When Costigan encounters the conspiracy, he is tempted into cooperating with it, not by the promise of riches or power, but with the question "Would you like to be a man again? … I am a friend to all broken men" (9). The larger world didn't have any patience for the brokenness of men like Costigan. Seeing him as a useless addict, rather than someone who lost everything in the war, "normal" society hasn't cut him any slack. Offered the chance to make something of himself again, the protagonist turns against "normal" society, and aligns himself with the masses against it, at least temporarily.
In a 1923 letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, Howard asked, "Who will our invaders be? From whence will they come? Where but from Asia? Can a nation ally the Tartars, the Mongols, the Indians; the tribes of Asia? Buddhist, Bonist, Bramin, Erlikist, Mohammedan? Unite them and hurl their united strength against the rest of the world? Such a nation would rule the world" (Collected Letters 14).
In another letter a few weeks later, Howard says "a color-war I would enter gladly with no scruples or any thought except to get as many as possible" (15). This sounds wildly racist, but it's followed up with a whole list of reasons why Asia has the advantage over the West, with many of the examples -- such as "Before the time of Alexander the Great, China had a civilization nearly equalling any today" (16) -- painting it as a superior culture. And the original musing on these hypothetical future invaders followed a list of who'd conquered whom throughout history: "England had her Norsemen, her Scots, her Normans…" (14).
|Norman assault on the army of King Harold in 1066|
If Kathulos, for example, had been successful in his worldwide revolution, it wouldn't bode well for the white population. Where the conflict specifically involves the choice between a white Empire and a black Empire, then the main basis most people would use to support one side or another is whether they are white or black. Self-interest is an understandable, instinctive reaction, albeit one that doesn't showcase humanity at its best.
Kathulos is, in a sense, doing what's natural, working for the survival of his own people. His ultimate goal is to preserve his own race. "I must work and labor for the good of the race at large. Aye, I must toil and sow the seed of glory against the full coming of the imperial days" (84). The villain’s race loyalty makes him an enemy to the whole of humanity.
Many people wouldn't want to live in an empire whose rulers and privileged classes are all of a single racial group that they don't belong to. That recognition may provide an uncanny, if not consciously recognized, twinge of empathy for how it feels for the people who are already in that situation: in this case, the natives whose uprising the story’s British agent John Gordon is trying to thwart. The fear of being white in a black-ruled world may suggest that, deep down, people realize there's something wrong with a system that ascribes merit to race, applicable to the already existing situation of those who are black in a white-ruled world. After all, one's race is arbitrary, a fluke of fate.
Too often, unfortunately, when the interests of different groups are in conflict, individuals align on the basis of biased self-interest, and what will benefit them most. In cases where one race is in power over another, as in the British Empire of "Skull-Face," one of the justifications frequently invoked is the idea that one group is intrinsically superior to the other. Often, that superiority is morally defined: thus, the Empire justifies subjugating native people in their own countries because the British deserve to rule them -- they're bringing civilization to the savages.
|The ruling class of African natives|
This notion, however, puts a burden on the group in power to actually be morally superior. The cornerstone of Kathulos' plot is "dope! … with this he ensnares and enslaves men and women” (Tales 49) The ruling class, the superior people who deserve to rule the world, are easily lured into drug addiction, while at the same time, the different minority groups under their rule are able to put aside their conflicts with each other and rally for their own liberation.
When Gordon recruits Costigan to become a double agent, it’s because the addict's alienation from society has accidentally put him in a position to infiltrate that society’s enemies. Costigan doesn’t hesitate when offered the chance to redeem himself by working again on behalf of the mainstream. This is depicted pretty unambiguously as in aid of "civilization" against native unrest and a conspiracy to overthrow the rule of white men: "Here, in the very heart of civilization's metropolis, the direct enemy of that civilization commits crimes of the most outrageous nature…" (56)
Eventually, however, the definitions change. Kathulos says that Costigan is "always the barbarian" (81), and refers to the dangers of "lift(ing) the savage from his savagery." The shift becomes more explicit when Kathulos refers to "you white barbarians, whose ape-ancestors forever defied my race and me" (83). In relation to the Atlanteans, all the other races are barbarians, and the ones who rebel against the rule of a self-defined superior race are the ones the story positions as heroic.
As Kathulos tells Costigan, "I have created a Frankenstein monster. I made of you a superhuman creature to serve my wishes and you broke from me" (8). This cry could just as easily come from a Bearer of the old-fashioned White Man's Burden. Colonizers have long justified their actions by stressing what they gave to the colonized, making them what they are, and long believed the native peoples should be grateful for what they’ve done, instead of rebelling.
In fact, Kathulos could easily have referred to those humans who resist Atlantean slavery as a seething cauldron of unrest, the way Gordon refers to other nations’ resistance to British rule. The return of the "ancient masters" would mean the enslavement of the rest of humanity, and those slaves probably aren't going to appreciate that "civilization," which raises the question of whether the British Empire presented civilization in its best possible light to the native populations of the countries that were in on Kathulos' conspiracy, and how wrong they really were to lack appreciation, instead choosing to rebel.
An important part of the story is that Kathulos has united different groups against a common enemy, an act which Gordon calls a "monstrous conspiracy" (49). They come from Afghanistan, China, Senegal, Haiti, Morocco, India, and "secret native societies of West Africa" (51). There's no corner of the globe where the British haven't made deep-seated enemies. Unfortunately for all sides, Kathulos, the being who is uniting these disparate peoples, is a killer who seeks to enslave all of humanity. Liberation is a dream, promoted by exploiters who dupe the exploited for their own ends.
In the case of Kathulos, he openly says: "These brown and yellow people, what care I for them?" (83) His black followers, who think they're rallying to gain the power they've been denied, are really just pawns, trading in one kind of oppression for a more blatant kind of slavery.
As for the race which had previously enslaved the black one, Kathulos crows that "when I mount my universal throne, the only whites shall be white slaves!" (83) Since he's a megalomaniacal pulp villain, and not a real-life politician, he doesn't feel the need to justify his enslavement of other races in any way, but he clearly believes that the people he's enslaving are inferiors, those "barbaric races" whose history is made up of "long years of savagery" (83). He believes his civilized Atlantis is superior to barbaric human culture. All of this echoes the sort of rhetoric historically used by the white races to justify slavery and colonization.
In other words, Western Civilization is in the same relationship to the Atlanteans as the seething cauldron of native populations are to the British Empire. So while the story started out with the British Empire defending white civilization from barbaric hordes, made up of people from races that are perceived as more primitive, it ends up as a contest between the "barbarism" of those same white men versus the civilized, but blatantly evil, Kathulos. With "barbarism" being the preferred state.
The parallel works both ways, so the story also links the heroic "barbarism" of white men fighting ancient evil with the uprisings against that same white civilization. In contemporary sociology and literary theory, there is a popular notion of “the Other.” J.-F. Staszak has succinctly described this as “applying a principle that allows individuals to be classified into two hierarchical groups: them and us.” In this framework, “the out-group is only coherent as a group as a result of its opposition to the in-group,” and “the in-group constructs one or more others, setting itself apart and giving itself an identity.” He adds, “Dominated out-groups are Others precisely because they are subject … to the dominant in-group” (43).
So on the surface, the plot of "Skull-Face" can easily be seen as an example of white society's fear of the Other, as represented by those diverse races dominated by the British Empire. But once it introduces Kathulos’ assumption of racial superiority, his ascending to power would equally position white society as the Other, and the whole interpretive framework turns topsy-turvy.
This illustrates that there is no intrinsic or immutable superiority in one group or the other, but merely historic forces and generations of time in which positions may switch, so that one generation’s primitive savages could, in the far future, complacently believe themselves the epitome of civilization.
The central situation of the story reveals both barbarism and civilization to be a matter of perspective. If that's true, and the perspective depends on which group you happened to be born into, what does it even mean? A few years after writing this story, Howard would ask Lovecraft that very question: "Just what is civilization? Where does barbarism leave off and civilization begin?" (A Means to Freedom 547).
In the example of "Skull-Face," if someone new can come to power and re-define the race-based class structure, what validity does that structure even have? Especially when the race that was presumed to be "superior" has become decadent, losing itself in drug addiction? Howard could have written a more simplistic tale of "yellow peril," with noble white men fighting dehumanized hordes of rebellious savages, but instead he depicts a much more multilayered of racial tensions. With its mixing up the categories of civilized and barbaric, the story can be seen as identifying in some way with the rebels, and displaying a subtle distaste for the civilization the hero is defending.
In some respects, then, Costigan and the rebels have more in common than he'd ever realize, and one thinks they could have, in some sense, been on the same side. The Kathulos hasn't come along yet who can make the white man of "Skull-Face," who has been cast out of society, see his common cause with the Africans and Asians who share his powerlessness.
Howard, Robert E. Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, Volume One. The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press.
Tales of Weird Menace. The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2010.
Tales of Weird Menace. The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2010.
A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Two Volumes. Edited by S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz, and Rusty Burke.
Staszak, J.-F. Other/Otherness. International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography. Vol. 8, pp. 43 - 47. Oxford: Elsevier, 2009.