Monday, November 5, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: Pigeons from Hell

For his creation of Conan the Cimmerian alone -- never mind Kull of Atlantis, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, and many others -- Robert E. Howard enjoys a pride of place in the realm of pulp fantasy with which few can compare. Of course, there's an unfortunate flip side to the popularity of Conan and his brethren, namely, Howard's many one-off stories don't get nearly as much attention by contemporary readers. While that's understandable, it's also a pity, since REH wrote a number of excellent short stories that don't belong to any "series,"chief among them "Pigeons from Hell."

"Pigeons from Hell" was published posthumously, in the May 1938 issue of Weird Tales. Unlike so many of Howard's stories, this one is not set in the past, whether real or mythical, but in the present day. It's a horror tale that might well be called a "Southern Gothic" by some, a term that's not inappropriate in most respects. According to Howard, "Pigeons from Hell" had its genesis in a ghost story his grandmother used to tell him, suggesting that it had some basis in genuine folklore. Even if it didn't, it's a remarkably effective short story, one that many fans of REH consider among his finest.

The story begins with two travelers, Griswell and Branner, who, tired of having driven so long across country, decide to do what no one ought to do in a horror story -- spend the night in an abandoned house.
They were tired, sick of bumping and pounding all day over woodland roads. The old deserted house stimulated their imagination with its suggestion of antebellum splendor and ultimate decay. They left the automobile beside the rutty road, and as they went up the winding walk of crumbling bricks, almost lost in the tangle of rank growth, pigeons rose from the balustrades in a fluttering, feathery crowd and swept away with a low thunder of beating wings.
Some time after the pair settle down to sleep, Branner hears a strange, whistling noise coming from upstairs and decides to investigate. Worried, Griswell listens intently as his companion walks slowly up the stairs:
Griswell heard the stairs creaking under Branner's measured tread. Now he had reached the hallway
above, for Griswell heard the clump of his feet moving along it. Suddenly the footfalls halted, and the whole night seemed to hold its breath. Then an awful scream split the stillness, and Griswell started up, echoing the cry.

The strange paralysis that had held him was broken. He took a step toward the door, then checked himself. The footfalls were resumed. Branner was coming back. He was not running. The tread was even more deliberate and measured than before. Now the stairs began to creak again. A groping hand, moving along the balustrade, came into the bar of moonlight; then another, and a ghastly thrill went through Griswell as he saw that the other hand gripped a hatchet—a hatchet which dripped blackly. Was that Branner who was coming down that stair?

Yes! The figure had moved into the bar of moonlight now, and Griswell recognized it. Then he saw Branner's face, and a shriek burst from Griswell's lips. Branner's face was bloodless, corpse-like; gouts of blood dripped darkly down it; his eyes were glassy and set, and blood oozed from the great gash which cleft the crown of his head!
Unsurprisingly, Griswell flees the house in fear and fortunately comes across Buckner, the sheriff, who was riding home late after delivering a prisoner to a neighboring county. In a panic, Griswell explains what happened and, while somewhat skeptical, Buckner is willing to consider the possibility that there is some truth in what he saw, since the house Griswell and Branner visited was Blassenville Manor. As a traveler, Griswell has never heard of the Blassenvilles.
"Who were the Blassenvilles?" asked Griswell, shivering.

"They owned all this land here. French-English family. Came here from the West Indies before the Louisiana Purchase. The Civil War ruined them, like it did so many. Some were killed in the War; most of the others died out. Nobody's lived in the Manor since 1890 when Miss Elizabeth Blassenville, the last of the line, fled from the old house one night like it was a plague spot, and never came back to it ..."
From there, the story turns toward investigation, as the sheriff follows up Griswell's claims and, in the process, reveals to the reader a great deal more about the terrible history of the Blassenvilles. I won't say any more about the plot or the central mystery of "Pigeons from Hell," since I don't want to spoil it for those who've never read it before. However, I will offer up another quote from the story that provides some insights into the nature of the story.
He had thought of the South as a sunny, lazy land washed by soft breezes laden with spice and warm blossoms, where life ran tranquilly to the rhythm of black folk singing in sunbathed cottonfields. But now he had discovered another, unsuspected side—a dark, brooding, fear-haunted side, and the discovery repelled him.
The story is well-done and genuinely scary at times. It was dramatized in 1961 as an episode of the anthology series, Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff. You can see the whole episode below. It's rather well done and, sadly, is one of the most faithful adaptations of Robert E. Howard's works into a TV show or movie.


  1. I read PFH the first time while alone in the house. Every time there was a noise from the house settling or the wind I just about jumped out of my skin!

    Inspired me to stat-up a zuvembi and more horror posts on my blog in general.

  2. Great story! Glad to see there are others who appreciate Howard's writing beyond his S&S tales, because the man could write. His Steve Costigan boxing stories are some of my favorites.

  3. It is a pretty good adaption (it's amazing the stuff Youtube has), but I don't like how they changed the ending.

    It's sad that there are so many great (or really good) short stories and novels that have never been brought to film or TV, yet every week, Sci-Fi has a new ridiculous movie.

  4. Sadly hell! As a roleplayer, fan of Thrller and everything Karloff I love that adaption (it's also considered, among fans and Steven King alike, to be Thriller's best episode). I got the DVD set a while back and it was the first one I watched. Great DM fodder, especially for horror games.


  5. I love this story, though the title never fails to make me laugh a bit; to (my) modern ears "Pigeons from Hell" just sounds silly. Thankfully, the story behind it is a great one.

    I have the Del Rey collected horror stories of REH, and the volume is one of the most enjoyable for me in the series. Howard had a great sense of place and mood, one that very easily drew the reader into the setting. But he also knew how to convey action in a way that gets the blood racing. REH is easily my favorite of the Pulp era writers

  6. I first read this story as a teenager while on a family vacation. Howard built such great atmosphere that even in a car, in broad daylight, surrounded by people, I had to look around me to make sure everything was all right....