Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Long Looks at Short Fiction: Skull-Face by Robert E. Howard

Tales of Weird Menace
by Robert E. Howard
The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press
Ordering Information Not Yet Available

The Robert E. Howard Foundation has, in the few short years of its existence, done a number of good things.  Such things as helping maintain the Robert E. Howard House in Cross Plains, Texas, and providing an annual scholarship to a graduating senior from Cross Plains High School.  As part of the Foundation's mission, a number of works by Howard are being reprinted, including his collected letters (in 3 volumes) and a giant volume of Howard's collected poetry.  The latter title has gone through three printings and is currently sold out.  Sales of these and other books help fund the philanthropic activities of the Foundation.

Next up on the Foundation's schedule is the volume you see to the left.  This collection contains Howard's Weird Menace stories, as you can probably tell from the title.  We'll look at the best known of them, Skull-Face in this posting.

But first a word about the Weird Menace pulps on the off chance some of you aren't familiar with them.  These were a blend of horror and super science, with a dash of the hero pulps (think Doc Savage or The Spider) and a good deal of implied or explicit eroticism and gore thrown in.  Often the supernatural aspect of the villain was revealed to be mundane, although you can be sure that won't be the case with "Skull-Face."  The weird menace pulps were fairly popular, but censorship and the real horrors of World War II ultimately did them in.

Howard tried his hand at writing some of this type of tale, like he did with most of the pulp genres that weren't marketed to solely to women, such as romance pulps.  While this isn't the sort of thing Howard is best remembered for, which would be his fantasy and horror tales, Howard was a diverse writer who was successful in a number of pulp genres, such as serious and humorous westerns, as well as boxing stories, a genre that was prominent at the time but has pretty much disappeared from popular fiction.

What I don't understand is why "Skull-Face" seems to have fallen on, well, I guess you could call it a time of neglect.  I'm not sure the work has been out of print much since the Howard boom of the 70s when Berkley featured it as the lead in a collection of related tales.  But you don't hear it talked about much anymore.  At least I haven't.  It has all the ingredients of a classic pulp adventure:  danger, lots of action, a beautiful and imperiled woman, not one but two heroes, and of course, The Yellow Peril, Robert E. Howard style.

And it may well be that last ingredient which has made it less popular; I don't know.  There is certainly a great deal said about race in the story, from more than one point of view.  And Skull-Face, or The Master, or The Scorpion as he's also known, doesn't fit the traditional Yellow Peril mold completely.  For one thing, Skull-Face isn't actually an oriental, but beyond that I'm not going to spoil the fun.

To most modern readers, The Yellow Peril  might be unfamiliar, and to many would certainly be offensive.  In essence, it was a trope common to much popular fiction in the early 20th century.  Basically western (read white) civilization would be threatened in some way by an oriental menace, often in the form of an evil criminal genius who often had occult or scientific powers that were beyond anything the West was capable of.  The example the casual reader would most likely be familiar with is Sax Rhomer's Fu Manchu.

Regardless, the whole concept of the Yellow Peril would not be politically correct in this day and age.  Far from it.  As a result it would be offensive to many modern readers.  I, however, hold the opinion that when you're reading literature from a different historical period, you do yourself and the story a disservice if you try to evaluate aspects of it through contemporary lenses.  Instead, keep in mind the cultural context in which a particular story was written.

That's just as true in the case of "Skull-Face" as it is for any other work of literature.  However outdated some of Howard's views on race may seem to be to the reader of the 21st century, they weren't that far out of the mainstream in the 20s and 30s.  (A topic that won't be discussed in any detail here.)  And if the racial portrayals in "Skull-Face" are what have caused it to be eclipsed by some of Howard's other work, then it's a crying shame.

Because "Skull-Face" is fine story.  It was serialized in three parts in the October, November, and December 1929 issues of Weird Tales.  The first Solomon Kane stories were beginning to see print at this time, and Kull would had made his debut earlier that same year, with Bran Mak Morn appearing the next year.  The coming of Conan was still a few years in the future.  While Robert E. Howard had not yet reached the peak of his output, in both quality and quantity, he was no slouch either.  The prose was much more crisp and less purple than I was expecting.  The pace is the headlong rush with plenty of action we've come to expect in a Howard yarn.  Howard doesn't shy away from violence or the seedy underside of the Chinese ghetto in London where much of the story takes place.  He shows us, through the eyes of Stephen Costigan (not to be confused by the boxing sailor of that name in other Howard stories) what life is like for the addict in an opium den.

And that may be another reason the story isn't as popular as it once was.  Drugs are a constant fixation of the story (pardon the pun).  Costigan is an opium addict when we first meet him, and the cure of his addiction comes at the price of addiction to a more potent drug.  The fact that drug use plays a prominent role in the tale will make some of today's readers immediately reject for that reason.  Which is another shame.  Because drug use is in no way gloried or romanticized at any point in the story.  Instead, Costigan at one point curses the weakness in himself that drove him to become addicted in the first place.  And the noble and wealthy patrons who visit Yun Shatu's Dream Temple are not portrayed positively.  Anyone who gives the story more than a casual reading can't help but come away with the distinct impression that Howard probably didn't think much of drug usage.

Costigan is a wounded veteran of the Great War, who has fallen into his addiction in an attempt to ease his pain.  Noticed by the girl Zulieka, herself a slave of The Master as she refers to him, Costigan is given the chance to break free of opium and perform certain tasks for the Master, who at this point remains hidden behind a screen.  Trying to stop Skull-Face is British agent at large John Gordon.  Ultimately, Skull-Face's demands are more than Costigan is willing to commit to.  He and Gordon join forces.

If you want any more information, you'll have to read the story yourself.  There are indications that Howard may have been planning to create a series character with Skull-Face.  The Berkley edition has two associated stories plus "Taverel Manor", an unfinished sequel.  Richard A Lupoff finished "Taverel Manor" for Berkley.  While he's a good writer, Lupoff is not Howard.  The REH Foundation volume will contain "Taverel Manor", presumably in its unfinished form, just the way Howard left it.

And Lupoff is probably right.  Howard may very well have been trying to develop a series character.  Weird Tales published at least two that I know of, Dr. Satan (whose adventures as far as I know have never been reprinted) and Jules deGrandin, whose adventures have.   Lupoff holds the opinion that editor Farnsworth Wright didn't think much of "Skull-Face" and gave it only one cover.  He may well be correct in this as well.  Howard knew from experience that series characters were what sold, especially if they were popular.  His attempts to find a sustainable series character can be seen in Kane, Kull, and Morn, as well as his sailor Steve Costigan series, not to be confused with the Costigan who is the protagonist of "Skull-Face."  And these aren't the only series characters Howard created.  Why Howard didn't develop this series further is a matter of speculation.  Howard's most successful character would be, of course, Conan the Cimmerian.  It's fun to speculate on what a "Skull-Face" series would have been like.  Too bad we'll never know.

One of the names of Skull-Face is Kathulos.  Astute readers will immediately wonder about a connection to H. P. Lovecraft's C'thulhu.  Considering how Howard and Lovecraft corresponded with each other to the point that their correspondence fills two volumes, it wouldn't surprise me if there was a deliberate reference here.  However, I haven't had the time to do the research, so I won't speculate further.

I'm just glad "Skull-Face" is getting some attention again.  Wildside Press has collected the fantasy/weird stories of Howard in a 10 volume set, and "Skull-Face" was the lead story in volume 2.  The first time "Skull-Face" made hardcovers was in 1946, a decade after Howard's death, in Skull-Face and Others.  This was the first volume of Howard's works published by Arkham House and the first published by an American publisher after his death.  Previously, only A Gent From Bear Creek had seen hardcover, and from a British publisher if memory serves.   Conan wasn't collected until years later.  It's good to see "Skull-Face" collected again.

This is one worth reading folks, especially if you like adventure, peril, and fast paced action.  Check it out.


  1. Actually Dr. Satan has been reprinted a couple of times, most recently through Girasol.

  2. Thanks, Charles. I didn't realize that. I'll have to look them up.