Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Best Robert E. Howard Christmas Ghost Story by Bobby Derie

Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales,
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night
- Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta (1589)

A Christmas Carol original
illustration by John Leech
The Christmas ghost story was more of a British than an American tradition, but one that is still remembered in the lyrics of "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (1963) when Andy Williams sang "There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of the Christmases long, long ago." The most famous Christmas ghost-story is Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas" (1843), which has been adapted innumerable times for the stage, radio, television, film, etc., but the tradition was alive in well into the 20th century with the likes of M. R. James, whose volumes Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), A Thin Ghost and Others (1919), and A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories (1925) all follow the same pattern of Christmas Eve entertainments.  James himself wrote in the introduction of the first volume that most of the stories "[...] were read to friends at Christmas-time at King's College, Cambridge[.]"

In the United States in the 20th century, readers might well trace the tradition in the pages of Weird Tales, with entries such as H. P. Lovecraft's "The Festival" (Jan 1925) and Seabury Quinn's novel Roads (Jan 1938)—it being remembered that the January issues actually hit the stands in mid-December. Not all every "Christmas ghost story" had to be set at Christmas, nor involve an actual ghost. The point was not any specific formula, but as James put it in his essay "On Ghost Stories": "...written with the sole object of inspiring a pleasing terror in the reader[.]" To recall the thrill of a weird tale told on a cold winter night, perhaps facing a fire, the wind howling out of doors; yes, pulp writers fall well into that category.

It might well be asked then...what would be the best Robert E. Howard ghost story to read at Christmas-time?

Weird Tales and Strange Tales were two of the Texas pulpster's steadier markets, so there is no shortage of raw material to choose from. Even as Ebenezer Scrooge received a ghostly visitation, so too did Conan of Cimmeria in "The Phoenix on the Sword" and "Queen of the Black Coast"; ghostly aid supports the black boxer Ace Jessel in "The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux"; Solomon Kane faces eerie spirits in stories such as "Skulls in the Stars," "The Right Hand of Doom," and "The Footfalls Within." All of these contain passages and scenes that can raise a shudder, though far from the rather sedate horrors of M. R. James.

The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux
Illustration by Greg Staples
Tales closer to that older tradition but with a Southwestern setting include some of Howard's best work; classic stories such as "Old Garfield's Heart," "The Dead Remember," and "Pigeons from Hell." Those stories written in the style of the Cthulhu Mythos such as "The Black Stone," "The Hoofed Thing," "The Thing on the Roof," and especially "Dig Me No Grave" definitely echo at least a touch of Jamesian horror, with their scholarly protagonists and more subtle horrors (by Howardian standards, at least), and might well fit a Yuletide mood.

What most of Howard's ghost stories lack is that particular aspect of reticence so characteristic of James' stories—yet neither does Howard ever attempt anything quite so staid as a traditional haunting, even in "The Haunter of the Ring" or “The Cairn on the Headland” which are perhaps as close as Howard gets. There is one story though, oft-neglected among Howard's weirder and more graphically fantastic stories, which nevertheless has my vote for the most fitting to read on a Christmas holiday, either aloud to listeners or alone to oneself.

"For the Love of Barbara Allen" was never published during Howard's lifetime, and more rarely anthologized than many of his better-known stories, though it can still be found in Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard Vol. 1 (2007, Del Rey), and in Pictures In The Fire (2018, The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press). It is not quite a haunting, at least not in the traditional sense, though it deals with life and death, love and loss. Nor is it as supremely weird as "Worms of the Earth" or "The Shadow Kingdom," or as epic as "The Grey God Passes."

It is a small, intensely personal story set in the world of only a few generations ago, and in the Texas that Robert E. Howard knew and loved so well. There is something inexpressible in the pages of "For the Love of Barbara Allen," a process to experience, an ending as inevitable as it is fitting. While it may not deliver much of creep, if the story does not shift your heart as the nights stretch longer and the dawn is far away...well, it is a story of giving that final gift that may be given, when and where it is needed most.

If that isn't appropriate for the holiday, I don't know what may be.