Sunday, October 4, 2015

Swift Prose, Stunning Narrative, and A Twist Ending: A Clever Weird Western from Robert E. Howard by Todd Vick

Illustration by Greg Staples from The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard

 All three of the most prominent Weird Tales authors appeared in the July 1933 Weird Tales, cover art by Margaret Brundage. That particular issue contained two H.P. Lovecraft stories: The Horror in the Museum (with Hazel Heald) and The Dreams in the Witch-House (cover story), along with Clark Ashton Smith’s Ubbo-Sathla. Needless to say, Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch-House garnered all the attention from this issue. In The Eyrie (the reader's discussion forum at the back of each issue) of subsequent issues this particular Lovecraft story was the most discussed and complimented from that July issue. However, sitting indiscriminately and internally unillustrated was a short story by Robert E. Howard titled The Man on the Ground.

Even though Robert E. Howard is most widely known for his action packed heroic adventure stories, he wrote some extremely interesting weird westerns and horror stories. Some of these weird westerns and horror stories are, in my estimation, the best stories Howard ever wrote. The Man on the Ground (MotG) is one such story.

MotG is a brief short story set in Texas about two men (Cal Reynolds & Esau Brill) who have been feuding so long no one really knows how their feud began. At just under 2200 words the story is one of Howard’s shortest, but also one of his best narratives. It contains precise descriptive detail, wastes no words, and flows smoothly with a powerful prose. The reader, during the first paragraph, is immediately drawn into the action. This is how the story begins:
Cal Reynolds shifted his tobacco quid to the other side of his mouth as he squinted down the dull blue barrel of his Winchester. His jaws worked methodically, their movement ceasing as he found his bead. He froze into rigid immobility; then his finger hooked on the trigger. The crack of the shot sent the echoes rattling among the hills, and like a louder echo came an answering shot. Reynolds flinched down, flattening his rangy body against the earth, swearing softly. A gray flake jumped from one of the rocks near his head, the ricocheting bullet whining off into space. Reynolds involuntarily shivered. The sound was as deadly as the singing of an unseen rattler. (Howard, The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard  360)
July 1933
One of the key ingredients of the first paragraph is that even though it’s highly descriptive, it raises a number of questions in the mind of its reader. Who or what is Reynolds shooting at? Who is shooting back? Why is Reynolds shooting? Is this a battle? Did Reynolds hit his target and there are others surrounding him? All these questions and the descriptive way in which Howard paints the beginning scene clearly indicates that Howard has deeply hooked his reader. 

The story contains much of the things Howard loves from the old west. There are also actual elements from historical feuds, like the Lincoln County War. In fact, in this story Howard mentions that both his two main characters rustled cattle from the other’s boss, all part of the ongoing feud. This was one of the very things that started the Lincoln County Wars and Howard incorporates that into this story. In addition, Howard seems to mimic a style of writing he had been recently reading from Walter Noble Burns’ book titled The Saga of Billy the Kid (SBK). The narrative in MotG is similar to SBK in that the sentences are shorter and direct, much akin to Burns’ style. A style that Howard had not typically used in his other stories until reading Burns. The story also contains gunfighters who were always of strong interest to Howard. And, interestingly enough, Howard inserts a jab against civilization, something he was often prone to do in his Conan yarns. That jab can be seen here:
“They had fought to a bloody gasping deadlock, and neither had felt any desire to 'shake hands and make up.' That is a hypocrisy developed in civilization, where men have no stomach for fighting to the death.”
Robert E. Howard
It should also be pointed out that during the writing and publication of MotG, Howard was knee deep in a debate with Lovecraft regarding the issue of Barbarism versus Civilization. A discussion which frequently made its way into Howard’s stories. Add all these elements together and you get a fast paced, direct and stunningly narrated short story that pulls no punches. Additionally, due to this recently attempted swifter prose, Howard was able to tell a brief story in a strongly captivating way. 

Howard, in a letter to August Derleth, before the story was published, declares that he likes the story because of its strong elements of realism (The Collected Letters Vols. 1-3, 3.93). Apparently, Howard had sent the story to Derleth in order to get his opinion about it. Derleth loved the story and complimented it, perhaps compelling Howard to submit it to Weird Tales.

 At first, the narrative seems like a standard western story, but as the story develops, and the action strengthens, Howard uses a clever twist ending quickly turning this otherwise standard western into a weird western. This story would certainly work well in a high school literature class due to its style, historical setting/elements, sharp narrative, driving prose, and literary devices. If you have not read the story, then I highly recommend it as one of Howard’s best short stories.

1 comment:

Buntybarbarian said...

I agree wholeheartedly, Th Man on the Ground is an amazing tale. When I finished the story, it didn't hit me at first, but I re-read the last paragraphs and left with my mouth hanging. I am still going through the Del Rey collection, but this story is definitely a highlight.

However I prefer Horror from the Mound as a weird western compared to MotG, even though the latter is a better written piece.