Monday, October 24, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Hoofed Thing

This being the week before Halloween, I felt an obligation to write a post about a "horror" tale by a pulp writer of note. Since the entire oeuvres of both H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith could by most definitions called such, I settled instead on the remaining member of the Weird Tales trinity, Robert E. Howard. 

Over the course of his career, REH wrote a number of extraordinary horror yarns, the most celebrated of which is no doubt "Pigeons from Hell." He also wrote a number that are not as well-known but that I nevertheless think worthy of attention. One of these is "The Hoofed Thing," a story that did not see print during Howard's lifetime. Under the title "Usurp the Night," it first appeared in the third issue of Weirdbook (1970), one of many fanzines from the late 1960s and early '70s that took it upon themselves to re-introduce the world to the work of Robert E. Howard freed from the editorial vandalism of Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp.

Unlike many of Howard's other horror tales, which belong to the Southern Gothic tradition, "The Hoofed Thing" is written in obvious imitation of H.P. Lovecraft. Indeed, some critics have gone so far as to suggest that "The Hoofed Thing" is REH's version of "The Dunwich Horror." Although I can see certain superficial similarities between the two stories, they're actually quite different from one another and it's precisely for this reason that I decided to make this post. No one reading "The Hoofed Thing" could mistake it for one of Lovecraft's efforts; it is a thoroughly Howardian take on horror.

The story is told from the perspective of a young man named Michael Strang. His fiancée, Majory Ash, owns a "fat Maltese" with the unfortunate name of Bozo. At the start of the tale Bozo, "had failed to appear after his usual nightly prowl." Since a number of other pets had already disappeared in the neighborhood, Marjory is "disconsolate." Michael suspects that "some human pervert" with a "sadistic mania for poisoning animals" had killed the cat, but he still agrees to "sall[y] forth in search of the missing pet, though [he] had little hope of finding him."

In the course of his search, Michael comes to "a run-down, rambling estate which had recently been occupied – though not rejuvenated – by a Mr. Stark, a lonely, retiring sort of a man from the East." Stark reveals himself to be "an eccentric scholar of taciturn nature and with money to indulge his whims." He walks with a limp, as Michael discovers when he first sees him. The two men converse briefly about Bozo, about whose whereabouts Stark knows nothing, though he expresses sorrow at the cat's loss. He then asks the younger man inside.

Michael finds Stark to possess "evident erudition" and the pair spend nearly an hour discussing various academic topics. 
I took my departure, promising to return soon, and as I went out the door, it occurred to me that, after all, I had learned nothing of my host. He had carefully kept the conversation in impersonal channels. I also decided that though he knew nothing of Bozo, the presence of a cat in the house might be advantageous. Several times as we talked, I had heard the scampering of something overhead, though on second thought the noise had not particularly resembled the movement of rodents. It had sounded more like a tiny kid or lamb, or some other small hoofed animal, walking across the floor. 

Unable to locate Bozo, Michael buys Marjory "a waddling, bench-legged bulldog with a face like a gargoyle and as loyal a heart as ever beat in a canine breast." She is immediately taken with the animal, who then becomes her constant companion. The following week, Michael makes a point of calling on Stark again, whom he discovers to be well versed in all manner of subjects, whether they be "science, the arts, economics, philosophy."  

Charmed as I was by his flow of conversation, I nevertheless found myself listening to the curious noise I had heard before, and I was not disappointed. Only this time the tapping sound was louder than before and I decided that his unknown pet was growing. Perhaps, I thought, he kept it in the house fearing it would meet the same fate as the banished cats, and as I knew the house had no basement or cellar, it was natural that he would keep it in some attic room. A lonely and friendless man, it was probable that he felt a great deal of affection for it, whatever it might be.

Michael promises to visit Stark as often as he is able, since the two men enjoyed each other's company. Business prevents him for doing for several weeks, during which time dogs begin to go missing in the neighborhood. Marjory claims that someone had attempted to kidnap her bulldog – whom she dubbed Bozo in memory of her lost cat – and "the incident must have made Bozo suspicious toward strangers, for it was only the next morning that [he] was called on to rescue Mr. Stark from him." According to Stark, he was taking a walk around his estate when Bozo suddenly appeared and attacked him. Michael apologized for the incident and promised it would never happen again. While talking to Stark about this, he "again heard the tap-tap of hoofs upstairs." The sound was now so loud that he almost asked the older man about its nature but "refrained from such presumption ... feeling that Mr. Stark needed rest and quiet."

A week later, there was another unexplained disappearance: "a three-year-old tot who was seeing playing in a lot near its own yard just before sun-down." Despite the best efforts by the police, no trace of the missing child was found. Another two weeks later, four more children had vanished without explanation. "An aura of fear hung like a pall over the city, and through this pall shot an icy wave of shuddering horror." After the disappearance of a local vagabond, "grim-faced men patrolled the streets heavily armed, and as night fell, a suffocating tension settled over the whole city."

Not long thereafter, Stark calls Michael on the phone and asks him to come to his home. He explains that his cabinet door is jammed and the cabinet contains the drugs he needs to overcome insomnia. The young man dutifully comes over; he finds the house nearly dark, lit only by dim candlelight. This discomfits Michael somewhat, who comes to worry that perhaps Stark is behind the rash of disappearances. He even thinks he sees the old man stealthily approaching him with a mallet, his face "unfamiliar and hideously distorted." Instead, Stark offers him the mallet to aid in his efforts to open the jammed cabinet, which he does quickly before rushing out of the house.

Michael returns home and falls asleep while reading, only to be awakened by a phone call from Mrs Ash, Marjory's mother. 

"Why, Michael, Marjory has been gone for more than an hour! I heard her talking over the phone, and then she told me you wanted her to meet you by the grove on the corner of the Stark place, to take a ride. I thought it was funny that you didn't drive by the house like you always do, and I didn't like the idea of her going out alone, but I supposed you knew best – you know we always put so much faith in you, Michael – so I let her go. You don't think – you don't think – anything – anything –"

It's at this point that Michael Strang does accept the possibility that Stark might have a hand in what's been happening in the city and that the peculiar, hoofed steps he'd been hearing have some connection to it all. He then vows to get to the bottom of the mystery and, he hopes, to extricate his fiancée from any danger.

"The Hoofed Thing" is no great work of fiction, even by the standard of the pulps, but it is fun. It's especially so as Michael transforms himself, in the final third of the story, from an affable, thoughtful, and eminently reasonable man to a – literally – sword-swinging hero, thanks to an heirloom his family has kept for centuries. Of course, it's absolutely ridiculous if you value verisimilitude or expect the protagonist in an eldritch horror tale to faint away upon the revelation of what is transpiring. Before I'd read the story for the first time, I'd been told by others that it was awful and not worthy of my time. I would strongly disagree with that assessment. As I already said, it's far from great, but I couldn't help but find it enjoyable in spite of that fact. Perhaps you will too.


  1. "Editorial vandalism" is a nice turn of phrase, and wholly appropriate in the case of Carter and de Camp.

    Mind you, I don't find the modern trend of letting many authors go completely unrestrained any better. Seen too many promising writers ruined when they were allowed to take the bit between their teeth by lazy or cowardly editors.

  2. Funny enough, I've been reading the Horror Stories of REH at work and am in the middle of this story. Not the best so far but good enough fun for me to enjoy it.

  3. One of the things I like about Howard's take on Lovecraftian horror is that his protagonists are usually ready to hit back at the monster instead of swooning. I like Lovecraft's style, too, but there's no rule that everyone in such a story needs to respond the same way.

  4. This comes a bit off the intersection of REH or CAS et al but I have a good number of Weirdbook(s). Found amongst a few bookshops here in Chicago and otherwise in the abandoned piles erstwhere. I guess I am remarking on the poetry found in this issue ~ Wellman's 'Cryptic Summons' [pg 26] being among them. Onwards. In decades later issues Fabian's quixotic art, more poetry..haiku’s even [WB 27 pg 47] then more art, more Lumley, Campbell..but I digress..REH enshrined in issue 1 with 'The Cobra in the Dream' yeah. Maybe you've posted about WB before but I never really see much on it. 'Amra' ('70-71?) is another early publication with breathtaking art, Roy G Krenkel in particular, that should be spoke of more.