Monday, November 19, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Black Stone

Robert E. Howard is most well known for his swords-and-sorcery yarns, particularly those in which Conan the Cimmerian is the protagonist, but the truth is that REH was a multi-talented writer, who penned tales in a variety of genres, including horror. Among his horror tales, several stand out as worthy of attention, "The Black Stone" being one of them.

First published in the November 1931 issue of Weird Tales (the same issue also contains Clark Ashton Smith's The Tale of Satampra Zeiros), "The Black Stone" is nowadays considered a Cthulhu Mythos story, since it's quite clearly an homage to and inspired by the writings of Howard's friend and colleague, H.P. Lovecraft. Both its structure and content clearly owe a great deal to Lovecraft, right down to its being the first-person account of a nameless narrator relating his brush with eldritch horrors man was not meant to know.

The story begins, as so many Mythos tales do, with a book, in this case Nameless Cults of Von Junzt:
I read of it first in the strange book of Von Junzt, the German eccentric who lived so curiously and died in such grisly and mysterious fashion. It was my fortune to have access to his Nameless Cults in the original edition, the so-called Black Book, published in Dusseldorf in 1839, shortly before a hounding doom overtook the author. Collectors of rare literature were familiar with Nameless Cults mainly through the cheap and faulty translation which was pirated in London by Bridewall in 1845, and the carefully expurgated edition put out by the Golden Goblin Press of New York, 1909. But the volume I stumbled upon was one of the unexpurgated German copies, with heavy black leather covers and rusty iron hasps. I doubt if there are more than half a dozen such volumes in the entire world today, for the quantity issued was not great, and when the manner of the author's demise was bruited about, many possessors of the book burned their volumes in panic.
What is the "it" of which the narrator read in Nameless Cults? The eponymous Black Stone of course.
There among many strange things I found mention of the Black Stone, that curious, sinister monolith that broods among the mountains of Hungary, and about which so many dark legends cluster. Von Junzt did not devote much space to it -- the bulk of his grim work concerns cults and objects of dark worship which he maintained existed in his day, and it would seem that the Black Stone represents some order or being lost and forgotten centuries ago. But he spoke of it as one of the keys -- a phrase used many times by him, in various relations, and constituting one of the obscurities of his work. And he hinted briefly at curious sights to be seen about the monolith on Midsummer's Night. He mentioned Otto Dostmann's theory that this monolith was a remnant of the Hunnish invasion and had been erected to commemorate a victory of Attila over the Goths. Von Junzt contradicted this assertion without giving any refutory facts, merely remarking that to attribute the origin of the Black Stone to the Huns was as logical as assuming that William the Conqueror reared Stonehenge.
Naturally, the narrator decides to investigate the Black Stone for himself and so travels to Hungary to do so firsthand. In the process, he learns a great deal about the history of the region, including the following:
I did find subject for thought in Dornly's Magyar Folklore. In his chapter on "Dream Myths" he mentions the Black Stone and tells of some curious superstitions regarding it -- especially the belief that if anyone sleeps in the vicinity of the monolith, that person will be haunted by monstrous nightmares forever after; and he cited tales of the peasants regarding too-curious people who ventured to visit the Stone on Midsummer Night and who died raving mad because of something they saw there.
It should come as no surprise to long-time that, once he learns this, the intrepid narrator decides to visit the Black Stone on Midsummer Night to observe what truth, if any, lies behind these legends; his efforts are not in vain.

"The Black Stone" is a short, enjoyable read and, while one schooled in the history and culture of the region in which it is ostensibly set would no doubt quibble with Howard's scholarship, it's nevertheless quite effective. It was also surprisingly influential on later Mythos writers, as the story not only introduced Nameless Cults (whose erroneous German title, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, was provided by August Derleth) but also the "mad poet" Justin Geoffrey, whose insanity was the result of his own visit to the Black Stone in advance of the narrator. I think why I'm so fond of this story is that, while it clearly looks to Lovecraft as a model, it's told in a distinctive voice. Howard did not ape HPL as so many other writers of Mythos stories have. Instead, he uses Lovecraft for inspiration and makes "The Black Stone" his own.

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