Walpurgis Night, when, according to the belief of millions of people, the Devil was abroad-when the
graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When evil things of earth and air and water
Bram Stoker, “Dracula’s Guest”
This was a time-capsule world, a dim stage upon which people raged, spilled blood, experienced visions
Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold
That is the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation to name.
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
At a time when those active in Howard Studies are resolved to leave no stone unturned, one in particular deserves to be upended and inspected thoroughly. The stone in question is black, “octagonal in shape, some sixteen feet in height and about a foot and a half thick.” It can be found in a mountain glade above the valley of Stregoicavar in Hungary, or closer to hand in the storyHoward named after it, which was first published in the November 1931 Weird Tales.
You’re right about “The Black Stone” and other kindred yarns of mine. They were written
more as experiments than anything else, and I soon saw that they were not my natural style.
Derleth can’t have been in complete agreement, as he included “The Black Stone” in 1944’s Sleep No More: 20 Masterpieces of Horror for the Connoisseur and 1946’s Skull-Face and Others, insisting in his foreword to the latter that “in my considered judgment the stories here collected represent the best work [Howard] ever did.” In his article “Howard’s Cthulhoid Tales,” Ben Solon’s praise, while somewhat faint, is not damning: “a better-than-average Cthulhoid tale.” Darrell Schweitzer is unimpressed in Conan’s World and Robert E. Howard:
Most recently and most perceptively, as he introduces the story for Nameless Cults: The Cthulhu Mythos Fiction of Robert E. Howard Robert M. Price remarks that “There is as much of the atmosphere of Dracula about it as of Cthulhu.” The other most useful Stregoicavaran insight comes to us courtesy of Steven R. Trout in his “The Horror Fiction of Robert E. Howard” (The Dark Man #2): “Howard couldn’t write a Lovecraft story without it becoming a Howard story.” Steve was actually talking about “Usurp the Night”/“The Hoofed Thing,” but his concept of an irreducible, ineluctable core of Howardism is crucial to an accurate assessment of “The Black Stone.” Both Trout’s observation and Price’s point us toward what is most interesting about “The Black Stone”-setting and back story.
A sidelong glance at “The Hoofed Thing” might be in order here. Although it has Von Junzt, infanticide, and a creature from Outside in common with “The Black Stone,” the story’s locale can be established only vaguely and inferentially by way of references to the governor of an unnamed state, the police of an unnamed city, and the description of John Stark as “a lonely, retiring sort of a man from the East.” The specificity and rootedness of “The Black Stone” make for a very different reading experience; what falls across the pages of “The Black Stone” is as much the Shadow of the Vulture as that over Innsmouth or out of Time. It is easy to orient ourselves when the Orient, here represented by the world-devouring Ottomans, knocks so emphatically on the door:
A train of obsolete style carried me from Temesvar to within striking distance, at least, of my objective,
and a three day’s ride in a jouncing coach brought me to the little village which lay in a fertile valley
high up in the fir-clad mountains. The journey itself was uneventful, but during the first day we passed
the old battlefield of Schomvaal where the brave Polish-Hungarian knight, Count Boris Vladinoff, made
his gallant and futile stand against the victorious hosts of Suleiman the Magnificent, when the Grand
Turk swept over eastern Europe in 1526.
We know that in June of 1930, Howard vowed to make the new market afforded him by Oriental Stories something of a one-man crusade., and within months he had “Red Blades of Black Cathay,” “Hawks of Outremer,” and “The Blood of Belshazzar” to show for it. According to The Robert E. Howard Fiction and Verse Timeline, Farnsworth Wright accepted “The Black Stone” for Weird Tales in December of 1930, so the story was written to the accompaniment of scimitars singing. Usually regarded as an example of Howard’s trying to emulate someone else, “The Black Stone” is in fact an artifact of a period when he felt free to turn his truest self loose and was rewarded for wielding his characteristically tapered and honed sense of history on the printed page.
The story is impeccable in its compliance with Maurice Levy’s list of what is needed to sell the reader on a fantastic tale:
…We must have old houses and medieval castles that materialize in space the hallucinatory
presence of the past, the houses we can find authentically only on the old continent. We need
an old legendary foundation, a national heritage of obscure beliefs and antiquated superstitions.
We need millennia of history, the progressive accumulation in the racial memory of prodigious
facts and innumerable crimes, so that the necessary sublimations and schematizations can take place.
Above all, we need a history that has become myth, so that the fantastic can be born through the
irruption of myth into history (Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic, translated by S.T. Joshi).
Levy’s requirements would seem to rule out Texas, not exactly fertile ground upon which an Arkham or Kingsport might spring up. But it is worth noting that “The Black Stone” contains a premonition of how its author would ultimately find his way home in terms of dark fantasy-the narrator mentions “a gigantic and strangely symmetrical rock in a lost valley of Yucatan.” Near the end of his life, after a false start with the incongruous Ymir, Ishtar, and Poseidon of “Marchers of Valhalla,” Howard would hit paydirt in what was comparatively his own backyard with the “obscure beliefs and antiquated supersitions,” the “prodigious facts and innumerable crimes,” of Mesoamerican civilization. The evidence is there in the nomenclature and ambience of “Red Nails,” the Lord of the Mist’s castle in “The Thunder-Rider,” and the Aztec-esque outpost of “Nekht Semerkeht.”
Stregoicavar is “an ominous name, meaning something like witch-town.” How did Howard get there? Perhaps by way of his storyteller’s gravitation to the perennially bloody border between Islam and Christendom, which in 1526 ran through Hungary. Suleiman’s European campaign that year culminated in the battle of Mohacs, “the tomb of the Hungarian nation.” King Louis, most of the fighting nobility, and no fewer than eight bishops were immured in that tomb, and their deaths lived on in a Hungarian expression used to belittle misfortune: ”No matter, more was lost on Mohacs field.” We might recall that in “The Shadow of the Vulture” the wound that sets in motion the personal vendetta to be played out against the backdrop of the 1529 siege of Vienna is inflicted on Suleiman by Gottfried von Kalmbach at Mohacs. So the local color in “The Black Stone” is arterial crimson:
I learned then that the present inhabitants of Stregoicavar are not descendants of the people who
dwelt there before the Turkish raid of 1526. The victorious Moslems left no living human in the
village or the vicinity thereabouts when they passed over. Men, women and children they wiped
out in one red holocaust of murder; leaving a vast stretch of country silent and utterly deserted. The
present people of Stregoicavar are descended from hardy settlers from the lower valleys who came
into the upper levels and rebuilt the ruined villages after the Turk was thrust back.
Within a paragraph the “red holocaust of murder” is revealed to have been something closer to capital punishment. It is here that Dracula comes in; in its own way “The Black Stone” is as haunted by the Bram Stoker novel as are Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and Robert McCammon’s They Thirst. That Magna Mater of information The Robert E. Howard Bookshelf tells us that Howard was hot on the trail when he wrote to Tevis Clyde Smith on October 5, 1923:
I’ve had two cousins visiting me, whom I hadn’t seen for fifteen years. They’d read the International
Adventure Library and from what they said, ‘Dracula’ is a humdinger.’ I’m going to order the set right
Said humdinger apparently stayed with him. Dracula’s description of his castle -“It is old, and has many memories, and there are bad dreams for those who sleep unwisely”-applies to the Black Stone as well, and babies are offered to things of darkness in both stories. Howard may also have recognized a kindred spirit in Chapter Three of the novel, where Harker says of the Count that “In his speaking of things and people, and especially of battles, he spoke as if he had been present at them all.” Stoker’s most Howardian passage is of course Dracula’s great monologue, in which history is both telescoped and essentialized as conflict and conquest:
Here, in the whirlpool of European races, the Ugric tribe bore down from Iceland the fighting
spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them, which their Berserkers displayed to such fell intent on
the seaboards of Europe, aye, and of Asia and Africa, too, till the peoples thought that the were-
wolves themselves had come. Here, too, when they came, they found the Huns, whose warlike fury
had swept the earth like a living flame, till the dying peoples held that in their veins ran the blood of
those old witches, who, expelled from Scythia had mated with the devils in the desert. Fools, fools!
What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?” He held up
his arms. “Is it a wonder that we were a conquering race, that we were proud, that when the Magyar,
the Lombard, the Avar, the Bulgar, or the Turk poured his thousands on our frontiers, we drove
them back? Is it strange that when Arpad and his legions swept through the Hungarian fatherlands
he found us here when he reached the frontier, that the Honfoglalas was completed there? And
when the Hungarian flood swept eastward, the Szekelys were claimed as kindred by the victorious
Magyars, and to us for centuries was trusted the guarding of the frontier of Turkeyland. Aye, and
more than that, endless duty of the frontier guard, for as the Turks say, ‘water sleeps, and the
enemy is sleepless.’ Who more gladly than we received the ‘bloody sword,’ or at its warlike call
flocked quicker to the standard of the King? When was redeemed that great shame of my nation,
the shame of Cassova, when the flags of the Wallach and the Magyar went down beneath the
Crescent? Who was it but one of my own race who as Voivoda crossed the Danube and beat the
Turk on his own ground?
In her 1998 book Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination, Vesna Goldsworthy approaches this “long speech” as “a pastiche of familiarly ‘complex’ Balkan historiography,” and “The Black Stone” is an audacious attempt at something similar. The speech’s influence is perhaps detectable when Howard plunges into the local historiography with Otto Dostmann’s theory that the stone is “a remnant of the Hunnish invasion” that was “erected to commemorate a victory of Attila over the Goths.” He then clears imaginative space for himself with Von Junzt’s rejoinder that “to attribute the origins of the Black Stone to the Huns was as logical as assuming that William the Conqueror reared Stonehenge.”
The entire Howard story is an elaboration of Jonathan Harker’s realization in his journal that “the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere “modernity” cannot kill.”
Stoker acquired much of his information on those powers from “Transylvanian Superstitions,” an 1885 article by Emily Gerard, whose husband had commanded a brigade of hussars in “the land beyond the forest”:
It would almost seem as though the whole species of demons, pixies, witches, and hobgoblins,
driven from the rest of Europe by the wand of science, had taken refuge within this mountain
rampart, well aware that there they would find secure lurking places, whence they might defy
their persecutors yet awhile.
Jonathan Harker echoes this supposition: ”I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool.” Thinking of Dracula’s two metaphorical maelstroms, the “imaginative whirlpool” and the “whirlpool of the European races,” Howard may have been tempted to add some flotsam of his own in the form of Xuthltan’s aborigines (the name “Xuthltan” would reappear in his fiction as that of the Assyrian necromancer who flees with the Fire of Asshurbanipal to Kara-Shehr).
Stoker’s book is a notorious example of how, in the words of Vesna Goldsworthy, the Balkans furnish “the industries of the imagination with easy, unchallenged access to raw material.” The process, also apparent in the creation of Agatha Christie’s Herzoslovakia and Stan Lee’s Latveria, is the subject of Inventing Ruritania and Maria Todorova’s 1997 Imagining the Balkans. Goldsworthy conceptualizes “literary colonisation” as the equivalent of literal colonisation, only the former is carried out in the new-found-lands of popular culture:
It begins with travel writers, explorers and adventurers undertaking reconnaisance missions
into an unknown area. They are gradually followed by novelists, playwrights and poets who,
in their quest for new plots and settings, rely just as frequently on research through atlases and
timetables as on direct experience. By this stage the capacity of the new land to feed the ever hungry
mother country-and to make nabobs of those with the wits and ruthlessness to exploit it-is well
established. Once ‘mapped,’ new countries are further appropriated by the writers of popular fiction,
who delineate the final shape of the imaginary map and secure their stakes as surely as European
colonists secured newly surveyed parcels of land in America, Australia, or New Zealand. Their
need to visit or know the area they describe is, at this stage, relatively remote, and the ‘authenticity’
they aim to achieve is one which fulfills the desires and fantasies of the reader.
Without having much say in the matter, the Balkans lend themselves particularly well to this kind of exploitation because of what Goldsworthy acerbically describes as “the perception of the peninsula’s ambiguous, ‘not-yet’ or ‘never-quite’ Europeanness.”’ Jonathan Harker bids farewell to Europe as he knows it at the Szechenyi Bridge in Budapest:
The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East; the most Western
of splendid bridges over the Danube, which is here of noble width and depth, took us among the
traditions of Turkish rule.
The sentiment is venerable-St. Sava Nemanjic, the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church, lamented in the 13th Century that ‘We are doomed by fate to be the East in the West, and the West in the East”-and durable; here is the Hungarian novelist Gyorgy Konrad:
One of my heads is Eastern, the other Western. We live on the Western edges of the East and we
are forced always to compare things and appearances.
In a casus belli speech to the British people Tony Blair once situated Kosovo “on the doorstep of Europe”; in a similar address Bill Clinton spoke of fault lines and fracture zones. Unable to escape definition by the West, some residents of the Balkans have sought at least to nudge themselves to the periphery of that definition; as Goldsworthy puts it, “Various Balkan nations symbolically define themselves as being at a gate, on a bridge, or at a cross roads between different worlds” Robert E. Howard, steeped in Dracula and the Ottomam invasions of southeastern Europe, would have been well aware of Balkan liminality. In “The Black Stone” as in “The Shadow of the Vulture,” the region gave him an Old World frontier.
Returning to the theme of Inventing Ruritania in her pendant essay “The Last Stop on the Orient Express, “ Goldsworthy sees the Balkans on the brink of the 21st century continuing “to
play out European fears and taboos on the continent’s edge” as a “site for the irrational and the obscene.” The irrational and the obscene; historically and hysterically, the peninsula has been made out to be Europe’s reptilian underbrain, a danse macabre rather than the Strauss waltz of the Great Powers. In what was once a well-known passage in in his 1940 bestseller Inside Europe, John Gunther shuddered at “loathsome and almost obscene snarls in Balkan politics, hardly intelligible to a Western reader.”
All of this could hardly be improved upon were one searching for a non-Lovecraftian
location for a Mythos story, but does Hungary, even the remote up-country Hungary of Stregoicavar, necessarily mean Balkan? Doesn’t Hungary belong to Central Europe?
Not always. The Balkans used to be called Ottoman Europe or Turkey-in-Europe, an entity that threaten to absorb Hungary for hundreds of years. In his classic A Long Row of Candles, C,L. Sulzberger states that “The Balkans, which in Turkish means “mountains,” run roughly from the Danube to the Dardanelles, from Istria to Istanbul, and is a term for the little lands of Hungary, Rumania, Jugoslavia, Albania, Greece and part of Turkey, although neither Hungarian nor Greek welcomes inclusion in the label.” Most of Hungary became an outlying Ottoman province in 1543 and was controlled by the sultans for a century and a half, so the nation was part of what would be labeled “the Balkans” for at least that long. As Vesna Goldsworthy observes in Inventing Ruritania, ”The Turkish sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683-with camels grazing in the Vienna Woods-delineate the symbolic northern boundary of the Balkans.”
Howard’s Stregoicavar is on the disreputable, hag-ridden side of that symbolic boundary. In Balkan Ghosts, a book that in its reinforcement of the Clinton Administration’s early non-interventionist tendencies now seems as ill-omened as Nameless Cults, Robert D. Kaplan asks
“What does the earth look like in the places where people commit atrocities? Is there a bad
smell, a genius loci, something about the landscape that might incriminate?” The narrator of “The Black Stone” dispels any such expectations:
I found the village of Stregoicavar a dreamy, drowsy little village that apparently belied its sinister
cognomen-a forgotten back-eddy that Progress had passed by. The quaint houses and the quainter
dress and manners of the people were those of an earlier century.
Robert E. Howard had his doubts about “Progress,” and he is kind to the residents of Stregoicavar. The tavern owner likes to generalize about great poets, and the schoolmaster is “a man of surprising education.” It is only on “the most weird night of the year” that the narrator enters what Don Herron has taught us to recognize as Howardian fairyland:
I saw no one as I passed rapidly out of the village and up into the firs which masked the mountain
slopes with whispering darkness. A broad silver moon hung above the valley, flooding the crags
and slopes in a weird light and etching the shadows blackly. No wind blew through the firs, but
a mysterious, intangible rustling and whispering was abroad.
In the sort of ingenious touch for which Howard receives too little credit, the monolith itself appears to “sway and dance” as the American nods off. The essayistic first of the story, deplored by Darrell Schweitzer, gives way to an orgiastic interlude, and seldom have the worst been so full of passionate intensity. In Act 1, Scene 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the setting of which, outside Athens, could also be considered Balkan), Bottom the amateur thespian says “We will meet, and there we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously.” Howard’s nocturnal revels are both obscene and, in a way, courageous-would the story have been accepted for Weird Tales were it not for the cordon sanitaire created by the centuries that have passed since the men and women of Xuthltan whipped themselves only too literally into a frenzy? The distancing effect-“I believed that I had looked on the mirrored shadow of a deed perpetrated in ghastly actuality in bygone days”-allows Howard to get away with ritual murder.
After the story appeared, Howard disparaged its “feeble and blunderingly crude” effort “to copy [Lovecraft’s] style.” But crudity has its uses. For the other man’s frequently static tableaux, Howard substitutes darkly ecstatic hyperactivity. In Lovecraft’s showstoppers, the adjectives threaten to stop the show; more is not always more. Howard lets his verbs do much of the heavy lifting; the narrator refers to “further enormities of outrageous motion,” and that is exactly what is conveyed by flinging, swaying, blazing, flying, spinning, loped, leaped, raining, capering, whirling, bounding, quivering, panting, lashing, gasping, panting, foaming, rending, writhing, with abetted by tossed, loped, leaped, howled, battered, cracked, flogged, shot , swept up, dashed, leered, and groveled bringing up the rear.
As the bleeding votaress gets down to worshipping the ”cold stone with fierce hot kisses, as if in frenzied and unholy adoration, ” it is hard not to wonder whether Farnsworth Wright found it necessary to loosen his collar. The toad-thing that suddenly squats atop the monolith is merely rancid icing on a nastily throbbing cake, but a paragraph after a baby’s brains adorn the stone while its “red and torn shape” feeds the fire, Howard plants a reference to the ancestors of the sons of men moving “blind and hairless in the treetops.” Blindness and baldness in this context suggest the extreme helplessness of the very young.
And the white hats in all of this? Actually they’re turbans. The Ottomans, Andrew Wheatcroft’s 1993 study of the Terrible Turk as European bogeyman, is based on the premise that “in the West [Turkey] still carries an additional burden of terror and loathing whose origins vanish into the far distant past.” But Robert E. Howard was something of a Turcophile, or at least he thought he discerned similarities between the Turks and the clansmen of his heart’s desire and head’s exasperation:
I find tales of the East extremely fascinating, and am beginning to believe that the old, old theory
of Turkish-Gaelic affinity is well borne out. The races have much in common-cruelty, treachery,
loyalty, fatalism, spendthriftiness, berserk fighting rage, a love of music and poetry (From an
October 1930 letter to Harold Preece, Selected Letters 1923-1930, page 65)
The Turkish conqueror Zenghi, ostensibly the villain of “The Lion of Tiberias,” is described as being gripped by a not-un-Celtic “mocking devil that lurks at the heart of all the sons of high Asia,” and explains himself in words that anticipate the famous credo of Conan the Cimmerian in “Queen of the Black Coast”:
Let me live deep, let me know the sting of wine on my palate, the wind in my face, the glitter of
royal pageantry, the bright madness of slaughter-let me burn and sting and tingle with the madness
of life and living, and I quest not whether Muhammed’s paradise, or Erlik’s frozen hell, or the
blackness of empty oblivion lies beyond.
And in “The Black Stone” the Ottomans are a terrible swift sword and a cleansing fire:
…for the manuscript written in the careful hand of Selim Bahadur narrated at length what he and
his raiders found in the valley of Stregoicavar; and I read, set down in detail, the blasphemous
obscenities that torture wrung from the lips of screaming worshippers; and I read, too, of the lost,
grim black cavern high in the hills where the horrified Turks hemmed a monstrous, bloated,
wallowing toad-like being and slew it with flame and ancient steel blessed in old times by
Muhammed, and with incantations that were old when Arabia was young. And even staunch
old Selim’s hand shook as he recorded the cataclysmic, earth-shaking death-howls of the monstrosity,
which died not alone; for a half-score of his slayers perished with him, in ways that Selim would not
or could not describe.
Howard’s approval extends to Selim’s penmanship; his part of the story is told in “neat
Turkish characters” produced by “a careful hand.” The Turkish blades are “blessed in old times by Muhammed,” and what we might ordinarily regard as ethnic cleansing is blessed by the narrator: “Well that the Turks swept that foul valley with torch and cleanly steel!” Here the Mahometan invaders are not defilers but the eradicators of defilement. Andrew Wheatcroft divides “the atavistic preoccupation of the West with the Ottomans” into “3 broad headings: lust, cruelty, and filth,” tropes that attained a denunciatory paroxysm in William Gladstone’s 1876 polemic The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East. For Gladstone, the Turks were, “from the first black day they entered Europe, the one great anti-human specimen of humanity. Wherever they went, a broad band of blood marked the trail behind them, and as far as their dominion reached, civilization vanished from view.”
Rebecca West also picks up on, or after, Ottoman depredations in her 1941 masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon:
The Turks ruined the Balkans, with a ruin so great that it has not yet been repaired…There is a lot of
emotion loose about the Balkans which has lost its legitimate employment now that the Turks have
Howard, who devised his own doom for Mikhal Oglu death and humbled Suleiman the Magnificent in “The Shadow of the Vulture,” certainly knew how to tap the emotion West found lingering in the Balkans, but in “The Black Stone” he is after something else.
…and I read, set down in detail, the blasphemous obscenities that torture wrung from the lips of
Confronted by such blasphemies and such worshippers, what can monotheists do but stick together? Selim Bahadur and Boris Vladinoff never meet, except as foes on the field of Schomvaal, but they are brought together by their shared reaction to the rampant inhumanity that held sway in Xuthltan:
…an aide brought to him a small lacquered case which had been taken from the body of the
famous Turkish scribe and historian, Selim Bahadur, who had fallen in the fight. The count took
therefrom a roll of parchment and began to read, but he had not read far before he turned very pale
and without saying a word, replaced the parchment in the case and thrust the case into his cloak.
There is a hint here of the understanding between Solomon Kane and Yussef the Hadji in “The Footfalls Within,” or even of Bran Mak Morn, surprising himself as he re-humanizes the Roman victims of the Worms he has unleashed. The only thing that can make peace between enemies in Howard’s work is a renewal of far more ancient hostilities, and his interest in extremity-forged détente is another manifestation of the grimly defiant anthropocentrism that separates him from Lovecraft.
What Price calls “the pseudo-bibliographical sophistication” of the publication history of Nameless Cults was de rigueur for a Myhos story as early as 1930, but the notion of the mad poets antedates Howard’s acquaintance with Lovecraft. Before there was Justin Geoffrey, there was Ridondo, the “mad poet” of “By This Ax I Rule!”, whose “flaming blue eyes flared with a light not wholly sane.” Ridondo became Rinaldo when the Kull story became “The Phoenix on the Sword,” and where Geoffrey has his The People of the Monolith, Rinaldo has his The Song of the Pit :
Rumor said that the mad poet Rinaldo had visited these pits, and been shown horrors by the wizard,
and that the nameless monstrosities of which he hinted in his awful poem, The Song of the Pit,
were no mere fantasies of a disordered brain. (“The Scarlet Citadel”)
For students of the give-and-take between the two weird fictioneers, it is amusing to come across the following passage:
I attached little importance to this tale; seeing in it merely a parallel to the amalgamation of
Celtic tribes with Mediterranean aborigines in the Galloway hills, with the resultant mixed
race which, as Picts, has such an extensive part in Scotch legendry. Time has a curiously
foreshortening effect on folklore; and just as tales of the Picts became intertwined with legends
of an older Mongoloid race, so that eventually the Picts were ascribed the repulsive appearance
of the squat primitives, whose individuality merged, in the telling, into Pictish tales, and was
forgotten; so, I felt, the supposed inhuman attributes of the first villagers of Stregoicavar could
be traced to older, outworn myths with invading Huns and Magyars.
The faux pas of “Scotch” legendry is as discordant as a fat man sitting on a bagpipe, and the omission of the glory that was the Isles of Sunset or the grandeur that was Valusia from this version of Pictish origins is unusual. More importantly, here we have Howard attributing to folklore the “error” Lovecraft brought to his attention in a letter dated July 20, 1930, the “error” (conflating the Picts and earlier Mongoloid autochthons as Little People) he also took care to correct in “The Children of the Night” (See the discussion in Wandering Star’s Bran Mak Morn: The Last King.
Howard went his own way, even within the context, or confines, of what is regarded as a Mythos story. Identifying the toad-thing would have been for almost anyone else an irresistible opportunity for "“Yog-Sothothery,” but with its monster as with its narrator, “The Black Stone” refuses to name names. The voices of the celebrants are but “a faint indistinguishable murmur,” and a gradual increase in volume yields no greater comprehensibility:
I could see the working of their lips, and now the far-off murmur of their voices merged and blended
into one distant shout, repeated over and over with slobbering ecstasy. But what that one word was,
I could not make out.
It is at the very least interesting that both the narrator and the toad-thing are unnamed or nameless. Even though the American does little, he sees much; is there an avidity to his seeing?
For Vesna Goldsworthy, “Western “horror” at what is going on in the Balkans contains, like Gothic horror, a frisson of pleasure that is difficult to own up to” The narrator of “The Bloack Stone” does not own up to much, but at one point he lets something slip:
The sensation of dark antiquity, the recurrent hint of unnatural events on Midsummer Night,
touched some slumbering instinct in my being, as one senses, rather than hears, the flowing of
some dark subterranean river in the night.
Even if we are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, there is little with which to work. Face to face with the monolith, the narrator reports that “The stone of which it was composed was a dully gleaming black, whose surface, where it was not dinted and roughened, created a curious illusion of semi-transparency. “ The semi-transparency is more than a curious illusion in his own case; nowhere else in Howard’s work do we find such abdication or abnegation, the first person as nonperson.
Were we of a mind to, we might argue that the narrator does not even narrate because there is little or no he to do so; the tale is instead told through him, reducing him to a windowpane, a glass through which we see very darkly indeed. Contributing to this effect is a narrative voice that is not so much authorial as lectorial; the very first words of “The Black Stone” are “I read of it first in the strange book of Von Junzt.” The story is not related but relayed as the narrator cites or summarizes a variety of texts:
1. Nameless Cults, the so-called Black Book, in the original 1839 Duesseldorf edition
2. Remnants of Lost Empires, Otto Dostmann’s 1809 opus
3. Magyar Folklore, by one Dornly; the narrator consults the chapter on dream myths
4. The People of the Monolith, Justin Geoffrey’s “weird and fantastic” poem
5. Turkish Wars, by Larson, which reveals the fates of Selim Bahadur and Count Boris Vladinoff
6. The yellowed pages of Selim Bahadur’s manuscript, through which the Ottoman connects with both Vladinoff and the narrator
Two other texts are withheld. The first is Von Junzt’s aborted follow-up to Nameless Cults, the thought of which instills a kind of wistful unease in the narrator:
What dark matters, for instance, were contained in those closely written pages that formed the
unpublished manuscript on which he worked unceasingly for months before his death, and which
lay torn and scattered all over the floor of the locked and bolted chamber in which von Junzt was
found with the marks of taloned fingers on his throat? It will never be known, for the author’s
closest friend, the Frenchman Alexis Ladeau, after having spent a whole night piercing the
fragments together and reading what was written, burnt them to ashes and cut his own throat
with a razor.
Howard’s narrator follows in Ladeau’s impulsive/compulsive footsteps-what amounts to an effortful parody of the research process followed by regret and suppression-with Selim Bahadur’s manuscript, which is first unearthed and then consigned in a weighted case-casket to the Danube. Mythos characters have to know, and then they have to live, if they live, with the fact that they cannot ever un-know.
The second denied text is the Black Stone itself:
Up to ten feet from the base these characters were almost completely blotted out, so that it was very
difficult to trace their direction. Higher up they were plainer, and I managed to squirm part of the way
up the shaft and scan them at close range. All were more or less defaced, but I was positive that that
they symbolized no language now remembered on thr earth. I am fairly familiar with all hieroglyphics
known to researchers and philologists and I can say, with certainty, that those characters were like
nothing of which I have ever read or heard.
The narrator is well-traveled and better read, but he cannot read the monolith. It is possible, however, that it reads him-there is something ominous in Howard’s use of the verb “squirm” in his account of this first encounter. Here we might recall Mircea Eliade’s not particularly comforting words in Aspects du Mythe: “The function of myth is not to conserve the remembrances of the primordial event, but to project the sick man to where that event is in the process of occurring, i.e. o the Dawn of Time.”
If the narrator is projected, he is also returned, and in the ‘still white dawn” both sward and stone are pristine:
I looked, shudderingly, at the side of the monolith against which the bestial priest had drained
the stolen baby-but no dark stain nor grisly clot showed there.
Shades of Puck at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear
Waking up is scant solace in “The Black Stone”; soon the narrator begins to wake from the larger dream of human hegemony. The ending sets the cat, or perhaps even a shoggoth, among the pigeons of paleontology and theology in the best Mythos style. Maurice Levy’s observation with regard to Lovecraft that “Horror is housed in the utter depths of the past just as it is in the utter depths of the earth” will do just as well here. The suggestion that outside Stregoicavar long ages ago horror was not just housed but castellated becomes certainty as the story progresses-or is that retrogresses?
I came to the cliffs and was somewhat disquieted to note that the illusive moonlight lent them a
subtle appearance I had not noticed before-in the weird light they appeared less like natural cliffs
and more like the ruins of cyclopean and Titan-reared battlements jutting from the mountain-slope.
And I understand why the cliffs look like battlements in the moonlight and why the tavern-
keeper’s nightmare-haunted nephew saw in his dream, the Black Stone like a spire on a
cyclopean black castle.
Howard may have been inspired by something Dracula says to Jonathan Harker-“The walls of my castle are broken. The shadows are many, and the wind breathes cold through the broken battlements and casements.”-but he imagined on a more stupendous scale than Stoker’s. And as a familiarity with J.R.R. Tolkien and Karl Edward Wagner reminds us, mountains are often tombstones for things that don’t rest peacefully in their graves.
“The Black Stone” is its own epilogue. Everything has already happened before the story begins. Transgressive enormities cycle round again in something disturbingly close to Mircea Eliade’s illud tempus, non-historical, sacred time, and there is no possibility of intervention or interruption. An effect unique in Howard’s work is created by the tension between spatial proximity and temporal distance, between immediacy and intangibility.
The story functions as a pre-cyberspace hyperlink to other Mythos stories, but its own open-endedness faces backward. With no Howard hero, and with nothing for a Howard hero to do, the “Black Stone” leads us nowhere, except deeper and deeper into the past,.never-banished and never-vanished.