Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Remembering Wolfshead

[Originally published in The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, March 2010. Copyright 2010 by The Dark Man.]

Robert E. Howard has been a huge part of my life. Amazing to think that I have been reading, enjoying, studying, reflecting on, and commenting on writings by and about Howard for a little over four decades. Today I am recalling a major milestone in my development as a Howard enthusiast --the 1968 Lancer Books paperback Wolfshead (ISBN: 0-447-73721-060).

Like many Howard readers of my generation, my first exposure to the author's work was with my discovery of the Lancer Conan series. Marc Cerasini introduced me to the Lancer series when I was twelve. To this day, every time I hear The Doors' "Light My Fire" I flash back to when I was lying on my couch in my old house reading Conan the Warrior while the song was playing on the radio. I am not kidding when I say this happens every time I hear that song. That's the sort of impact the Conan books had on me --it was a formative, transcendental, life-altering experience. At the time I was introduced to them, four Conan volumes had already appeared: Adventurer, Warrior, Conqueror, and Usurper. These were soon followed by King Kull and the volume simply entitled Conan. I vividly recall my first sight of these on the book racks of various drug stores and 5&10 stores of that vanished era.

I was no less excited when I first beheld the cover of Wolfshead displayed on the book rack. My eyes were drawn right to it, for here was another glorious, eye-popping cover painting by Frank Frazetta. The cover depicts a barbarian swordsman, this one a Nordic blond, grappling with a monstrous green serpent in some ancient temple. In the background lurks a mysterious robed figure. Now please remember that I was only thirteen at the time, and Howard was being marketed as the master of "sword and sorcery" fiction. But my initial reaction was like, wow, here's another cool barbarian character --some guy named Wolfshead!

The other feature of that cover that immediately caught my eye was something that doesn't embarrass me now. That was the author line: Robert E. Howard. It just said "Robert E. Howard" --no "and L. Sprague de Camp," no "and Lin Carter," no "edited by L. Sprague de Camp." I grabbed the book like a junkie seizing a package of unadulterated heroin.

When I got home I was able to examine the book more closely. I soon realized that I had embarked on a voyage of discovery. As I looked over the back-cover copy, it began to dawn on me that this was not a collection of stories about a single character like the previous Howard volumes. Opening the cover to the teaser page, I found the opening of the story "Wolfshead" quoted. Okay: "Wolfshead" was the name of a story and not a character. Silly me. But what hit me was that, unlike the previous Howard stories I had read, this one was written in the first person. And it was a horror story, not a heroic fantasy. In his Conan introductions, de Camp had made passing mention of the fact that Howard had written in a variety of genres. At that time, for some reason, I hadn't expected to read any of these other works. But now, I was getting my first indication that Howard was also a noteworthy author of horror stories.

On to the introduction: The back-cover copy had promised "a special introduction by the author." I was looking forward to reading it. Finally, an introduction that did not consist of some editor's or "posthumous collaborator's" evaluation of Howard's fiction --just Howard's own take on his writing. I read what Howard had to say with interest, but in the back of my mind, I wondered when and why he had written these words. Then I reached the end of the piece, where I was startled to learn that it was an excerpt from a letter to H.P. Lovecraft. I had not read Lovecraft at this point, but was aware of him. I could not fail to recall the peculiar name I knew by reputation as that of a great horror writer. So, here was another major discovery: the Lovecraft-Howard correspondence.

In the days that followed, I devoured the collected stories and was not disappointed. First up, "The Black Stone." This was the first Howard story that I read in a genre other than heroic fantasy, and the genre was horror. The first-person narrative was different from the third-person action tales I had read previously, but no less compelling. I savored this eerie story of mystery and menace, and it remains a favorite to this day.

The second story in the collection was "The Valley of the Worm." I was pleased to find that heroic fantasy was by no means absent from Wolfshead. What do I need to say about "The Valley of the Worm"? It's a top-of-his-game Howard story, and a top-ten favorite on everybody's list. And I first read it in Wolfshead.

After "Valley," we come to the story that gives the collection its title. Here was Howard's non-traditional take on a traditional icon of Gothic horror, the werewolf. "Wolfshead" is more interesting to me now in retrospect than it was upon first reading. The story, with its colorful cast gathered at a remote outpost and stalked by a demonic figure, can be seen as a precursor to a much later tale, "The Black Stranger." I'm still not quite sure why "Wolfshead" was chosen to serve as the title story for the collection when there were more impressive stories to choose from. My guess is that the title is both brief and very distinctive. And if some kid was fooled into thinking this was a collection about a new series character, that probably didn't hurt either.

The following story, "The Fire of Asshurbanipal," contained some more notable firsts. Since I read Wolfshead long before any of Howard's westerns, I was thrilling to his depiction of gunfights for the first time. Until now it had all been swords, battle axes, and the like. And it would be years before a specialty publisher issued the tales of El Borak. "The Fire of Asshurpanipal" provided my first encounter with one of Howard's Middle Eastern adventurers.

"The House of Arabu" was the second story in the collection to feature a blond barbarian, so the Frazetta cover wasn't totally misleading. Although the cover does not depict an actual scene from either "The Valley of the Worm" or "The House of Arabu," it captures the mood of the latter quite nicely.

"The Horror from the Mound" was the first story I read in which the author utilized a regional Southwestern setting based on his first-hand knowledge. (Little did I then know that this story was actually Howard's first attempt to use the Southwest in his fiction.) In any case, Howard was on to something. The descriptions of the protagonist's hardscrabble existence lingered with me long after the story's vampire menace had faded.

Rounding out the collection was "The Cairn on the Headland." This remains one of my favorite Howard horror stories. In this tale, the narrator glimpses the horrific metaphysical reality underlying the myths of old. Here also was the first reference to the battle of Clontarf that I encountered in a Howard story --or anywhere else for that matter.

Such are my memores of Wolfshead, all those years ago. Hopefully, they might shed a little light on Howard's literary reemergence after decades of obscurity. Certainly that old paperback, now crumbling with age, holds a pivotal place in my own development as a Howard reader. "The Black Stone," "The Valley of the Worm," "Wolfshead," "The Fire of Asshurbanipal," "The House of Arabu," "The Horror from the Mound," and "The Cairn on the Headland" --all these are Robert E. Howard stories I read before I read Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane. The Dell paperback Bran Mak Morn was issued in 1969, and three paperbacks collecting the Solomon Kane stories appeared soon afterwards. I consider it fortuitous that publishers did not wait until all the fantasy series characters were in paperback before issuing Howard stories from other genres. Had this been so, Howard would have been pigeon-holed as a "sword and sorcery guy" that much longer.

That is why I consider the publication of Wolfshead something of a milestone. In the beginning there was just Conan, King Kull, and "sword and sorcery." Wolfshead took me to the next level.

No comments: