"Here is the border-land — here reason lies
There, vision, gryphons — Nothing, and the Night.
Down, down, red specters! Down! And rack me not!"
— Robert E. Howard (from "Out of the Deep" aka "Voices Waken Memory")
A Member Journal
of Robert-E-Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association • Issue no. 1
• Autumnal Equinox 2001
Grinning, Unappeased Aboriginal Demons
Every Pict Sure Tells a Story-and
an American One at that
When you are actually in America, America hurts, because it has a powerful
aboriginal demons, too, ghosts, and it persecutes the white men, like some
Eumenides, until the white men give up their absolute whiteness. America is
tense with latent violence and resistance.
D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature
elevation of any kind in the wild, flat jungle of river bottom. Even to some of
us-children though we were, yet we were descended of literate, town-bred
people-it possessed inferences of secret violent blood, of savage and sudden
destruction, as though the yells and hatchets which we associated with Indians
through the dime novels which we passed among ourselves were but trivial and
momentary manifestations of what dark power still dwelled or lurked there,
sinister, a little sardonic, like a dark and nameless beast lightly and lazily slum-
bering with bloody jaws...
William Faulkner, "A Bear Hunt"
The wild Indians, flitting unseen, omnipresent, and threatening through the dark
wilderness, were visible emblems of of the dark motions of the human soul, trapped
Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American
Early in Robert E. Howard’s "Beyond the Black River" the Governor of the new Aquilonian province of Conajohara-young, sensitive for a soldier-administrator, and doomed-gazes out across the eponymous waterway:
"After all," said Valannus, as if speaking his thoughts aloud,"what do we know-
what does anyone know-of the things that jungle may hide? We have dim rumors
of great swamps and rivers, and a forest that stretches on and on over everlasting
plains and hills to end at last on the shores of the western ocean. But what things
lie between this river and that ocean we dare not even guess. No white man has ever
plunged deep into that fastness and returned alive to tell us what he found. We are
wise in our civilized knowledge, but our knowledge extends just so far-to the western
bank of that ancient river! Who knows what shapes earthly and unearthly may lurk
beyond the dim circle of light our knowledge has cast?
"Who knows what gods are worshipped under the shadows of that heathen forest,
or what devils crawl out of
the black ooze of the swamps?…"
Asking, and attempting to answer, similar questions has been the province, the Conajohara we might say, of much classic American literature. This fact adds considerably to the stark dark power of "Beyond the Black River," "The Black Stranger", and the "Wolves beyond the Border" fragment, even if the stories have sometimes been discussed by those who can’t see nearly as far as Valannus. Witness Darrell Schweitzer: his remarks in Conan’s World and Robert E. Howard on the most American sword-and-sorcery story ever written show that you can lead a horse’s ass to the Black River, but you can’t make him drink:
Howard’s imitations are frequently mawkish and sentimental (especially on
Them painted savages gets here) where Kenneth Roberts never was.
and Indians. Pretty poor.
Cowboys and Indians (or more accurately, settlers and Indians), yes, but not "pretty poor;" in fact, infinitely rich. The central tenet of Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence (Wesleyan University Press, 1973) is that "The story of the evolution of an American mythology is in large measure the story of our too-slow awakening to the significance of the American Indian." Schweitzer’s facetiousness is as perfect an illustration of Slotkin’s "too-slow awakening" as one could wish for, or rather not wish for.
Conan of Cimmeria is not a character much given to understatement, but he is guilty of same when he tells Balthus that "it’s as well on the border as any- where." It is actually far, far better on the border and "Beyond the Black River," as has been emphasized by the other two greatest American writers of heroic fantasy, Fritz Leiber ("the truest and most satisfying of the Conan stories") and Karl Edward Wagner ("a sense of conviction and mounting power that few of the other Conan stories can match") Whence came that conviction and mounting power?
Greil Marcus supplies an answer in his Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music:" History without myth is surely a wasteland, but myths are compelling only when they are at odds with history." "Black River" is extraordinarily compelling precisely because it is so at odds with American history. No shining city on a hill will be built in the primordial Pictish Wilderness. The Picts will not lie down in front of the bulldozer of Hyborian Manifest Destiny but instead hijack the vehicle and put it in reverse; as Leiber points out, "Black River" is based on the first stage of the only historical event which Howard described in considerable detail in his essay The Hyborian Age,,,the eventually triumphant eruption of the ferocious, primitive Picts into medievally civilzed Aquilonia." The Huron sachem in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans declares that "When the white man came, night entered our future;" in Howard’s pseudo-history, the Picts return as the night which falls on the Hyborian future.
"Beyond the Black River" and "Wolves Beyond the Border" fragment also reverse Darrell Schweitzer’s sneer about "gettin the wimmen an’ children to safety before them painted savages gets here;" the stories parallel classic American literature in their overriding concern with getting the heroes to safety from the wimmen and children, among them painted savages. Better to be tied to a Pictish torture stake than tied down; many if not most of "Black River"s "new breed of men growing up on the raw edge of the world" would recognize in old Joshua Braxton of "Sharp’s Gun Serenade" a kindred spirit. Braxton allows as how he longs for Chawed Ear, "But whilst that old mudhen of a Miss Stark is there I haunts the wilderness if it takes the rest of my life."
But before Americans haunted the wilderness they were haunted by it, which brings us to Schweitzer’s complaint that the Picts "have all the humanity of a Hollywood Indian from a 1940s B-movie, and in fact resemble real Indians only superficially." Actually they have all the inhumanity of the demonic Indians in our first, and worst, nightmares on these shores. Schweitzer has missed the boat. Which boat? The very first boat, or boats, whose Puritan passengers have never been better described than in D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature:
What did the Pilgrim Fathers come for, then, when they came so gruesomely
over the black sea? Oh, it was in a black spirit. A black revulsion from Europe,
from the old authority of Europe, from kings and bishops and popes. And more.
When you look into it, more. They were black, masterful men, they wanted
Lawrence busies himself blackening the reputation, as well as everything else, of the Pilgrim Fathers, but in the process detects that same "something else" which leads Howard’s own black, masterful Puritan Solomon Kane on a longer chase than could any Le Loup or Jonas Hardraker. Black sea, black spirit, black revulsion, black mastery; that’s a powerful lot of blackness for such painfully white people. And a blackness, crucially, to which the waiting, autochthonous blackness calls; "a low, rhythmic pulsing, sinister as the pad of a leopard’s foot" is the soundtrack for Valannus’ riparian reverie:
When you are actually in America, America hurts, because it has a powerful
disintegrative effect on the white psyche. It is full of grinning, unappeased
aboriginal demons, too, ghosts, and it persecutes the white men, like some
Eumenides, until the white men give up their absolute whiteness. America is
tense with latent violence and resistance.
Such grinning aboriginal demons can as be uninspired as they are unappeased when invoked by our culture’s more mediocre summoners; horror aficionados will recall that Dell launched its Abyss line in the late Eighties with a guarantee that there would be no more "ancient Indian burial grounds." They can also be as complicated and conflicted as those which drove Forrest (Asa) Carter, a nightrider but also a daydreamer, the man who put the words "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" into George Wallace’s mouth, but also the author of Gone to Texas (the source material for The Outlaw Josey Wales) and The Education of Little Tree, both of which express a yearning to exchange Klan sheet for full Cherokee regalia. And in rare instances Lawrence’s demons can be met on their own ground and at their most grinning, unappeased and aboriginal, as in "Beyond the Black River," "Wolves Beyond the Border, and "The Black Stranger." No other American fantasy, and precious little twentieth century American literature, is as "tense with latent violence and resistance" as Robert E. Howard’s two-and-a-half Hyborian Age Pict stories.
The reader might be moved to protest at this point: Puritans? Who let them into Conajohara? Is this yet another attempt to take Howard’s own stories away from him? Hasn’t there been enough of that, in our lifetimes and after his? Of his Texacentric intentions when he wrote "Beyond the Black River" there is no doubt, thanks to Novalyne Price:
...I had a hard time getting him back on the story he’d sold to Wright-the one
which, he said, was not the usual Conan story. He was excited about it because
it was about this country and it sold!
And yet...it is possible to begin with the specific, and end with the general; Howard’s work speaks to us with a Texas accent, but in American English. We know from Homer that the dead will come running, or flitting, when the blood of a black lamb and a black ewe is poured into a trench dug at the confluence of the Hadean rivers; as Tiresias tells Odysseus, Any shade whom you allow to come at the blood of the sacrifice will then be able to speak with you. Similarly, ghosts and demons older and other than those born between the Trinity and Brazos rivers flock to Howard’s artistic offering. Whose frontier is this in "Wolves Beyond the Border?
But the throb of the war-drum had a significance no forest-runner could ignore.
It was a warning and a threat, a promise of doom for those invaders whose lonely
cabins and ax-marked clearings menaced the immemorial solitude of the wilderness.
It meant fire and torture, flaming arrows dropping like falling stars through the
darkness, and the red axes crunching through skulls of men and women and children.
The American frontier was a moveable feast, at least in the sardonic sense of Josey Wales’ dictum that "Buzzards gotta eat same as worms." But the feast began in the forest just inland from the first Puritan footholds, the American Mythago Wood, and nothing else in modern American literature vertically inserts us in that forest to the extent that Howard’s Pictish Wilderness stories do.
Alfred Kazin discerned in Puritanism "America’s Middle Ages," and acase can be made that the Puritans were the only Americans who actually dwelt in a sword-and-sorcery universe (so that when an American writer eventually created a Puritan sword-and-sorcery hero, we came full circle). For later Americans Indians were savages, primitives, or even vermin, but only the Puritans were in a position (embattled) to employ the terminology of the Pictish Wilderness stories-devils, demons, fiends-and believe every word. Here is Malcolm Cowley, in his essay "Cycles of Myth in American Writing":
To the first settlers everything beyond the narrow clearings was not only
strange but hostile and satanic. The New Englanders in particular regarded
themselves "as a people of God settled in those which were once the devil’s
territories; and it may easily be supposed," said the pious Cotton Mather,"that
the Devil was exceeding disturbed when he perceived such a people here
accomplishing the purpose made of old unto our Blessed Jesus, that he should
have the utmost parts of the earth for his possession." Cotton Mather and his
friends believed that the forest, which they hated and feared...was Satan’s
Richard Slotkin preserved this mindset, bedevilled and be-wildernessed, in his anthology So Dreadfull a Judgement: Puritan Responses to King Phillip’s War 1676-1677 (Wesleyan University Press, 1978) after first stressing its attendant stresses in Regeneration Through Violence:
The eternal presence of the native people of the woods, dark of skin and seemingly
dark of mind, mysterious, bloody, cruel,"devil-worshipping:" to these must be added
roots for wide wandering outward in space and, apparently, backward in time.
Anyway, you couldn’t use standard methods to date the doom; might as well
say that Vietnam was where the Trail of Tears was headed all along, the
turnaround point where it would touch and come back to form a containing
perimeter; might as well just lay it on the proto-Gringos who found the New
England woods too raw and empty for their peace and filled them up with
their own imported devils.
And here is Howard himself in a September 1930 bit of speculation about those "proto-Gringos" that may have cut a little too close to the bone for H.P. Lovecraft, in so many ways the skeleton in his own closet:
Can it not be that the cold, overcast skies, the brooding hills and dark
mysterious woods brought forth a latent insanity lurking in these
persecuted and creed-ridden people?
Howard was if anything too polite; the persecuted had scarcely finished unpacking before they reinvented themselves as persecutors. Enter the Mathers, Increase and Cotton. Increase contributed a preface to Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God :
I may say, that as none knows what it is to fight and pursue such an enemy as
this, but they that have fought and pursued them: so none can imagine what it
is to be captivated and enslaved to such atheisticall proud, wild, cruel, barbarous,
bruitish (in one word) diabolical creatures as these, the worst of the heathen;
nor that difficulties, hardships, hazards, sorrows, anxieties and perplexities do unavoidably wait upon such a condition...
And for Cotton Mather Indian "sagamores" were invariably "horrid sorcerers and hellish conjurors and such as conversed with demons." Zogar Sag, child of Jhebbal, with his oblique eyes, sharp ears, and wolfishly thin lips, and old Teyanoga of the South Hawks, with his "grinning scarlet mask that looked like a forest- devil’s face," are straight from the Mathers’ repertory company. Michael Herr’s proto-Gringos stock the woods with "their own imported devils," but there are native devils aplenty in the Pictish woods:
And those savages, smeared with war-paint, howling and posturing and
triumphing over the ghastly doom of a foe, seemed not human beings at all
to me, but foul fiends of the black night whom it were a duty and an obligation
Soon the narrator, Gault Hagar’s son, is hotfooting it "like a damned soul pursued by demons." Gault’s "duty and an obligation to slay" are exactly those in- stilled by Herman Melville’s "old chroniclers of the forest" in "The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating,": "histories of Indian lying, Indian theft, Indian fraud and perfidy, Indian want of conscience, Indian blood-thirstiness, Indian diabolism-histories which, though of wild woods, are almost as full of things unangelic as the Newgate Calendar or the annals of Europe." Melville scorpion-stings his readers with the tail of his sentence, and one of the ways in which "Beyond the Black River" excels "Wolves Beyond the Border" is by making it clear that the Picts are devils, but devils from whom the Aquilonians have stolen part of Hell.
Yes, in "Black River" swamp demons teem "thick as bats in the swamps beyond Black River" and can be heard "howling like damned souls when the wind blows strong from the south on hot nights." Conan himself is adamant that "We can’t have Pictish devils making so cursed free with white men’s heads." To which D.H. Lawrence would retort, but that’s what grinning, unappeased aboriginal demons do: make cursed free with white men’s heads-often while they’re still on their original owners’ shoulders.
The fires themselves glowed lurid as the fires of hell. He felt the eyes of the
Picts upon him-hundreds of hungry, cruel eyes that reflected the lust of souls
utterly without humanity as he knew it. They no longer seemed men; they were
devils of this black jungle, as inhuman as the creatures to which the fiend in
the nodding plumes screamed through the darkness.
Much is at stake in this scene, including Balthus himself. But there is more to it than that, as the most authoritative of sources makes clear to Balthus and ourselves from the start of the story:
"If the Aquilonians would cut up some of the big estates of their barons, and plant
wheat where now only deer are hunted, they wouldn’t have to cross the border
and take the land of the Picts away from them."
The recommendation here is not Go West, young man, but Go East, young agrarian reformer. Those hungry, cruel eyes reflecting "the lust of souls utterly without humanity," earlier those same Pictish eyes have reflected souls abidingly human in their preoccupation with the abodes wrested from them:
Beyond the river the primitive still reigned in shadowy forests, brush-thatched
huts where hung the grinning skulls of men, and mud-walled enclosures where
fires flickered and drums rumbled, and spears were whetted in the hands of dark,
silent men with tangled black hair and the eyes of serpents. Those eyes often
glared through the bushes at the fort across the river. Once dark-skinned men
had built their huts where that fort stood; yes, and their huts had risen where
now stood the fields and log cabins of fair-haired settlers, back beyond Velitrium,
that raw, turbulent frontier town on the banks of Thunder River, to the shores of
that other river that bounds the Bossonian Marches. Traders had come, and priests
of Mitra who walked with bare feet and empty hands, and died horribly, most of them;
but soldiers had followed, and men with axes in their hands and women and children in ox-drawn wains. Back to Thunder River and still back, beyond Black River the
aborigines had been pushed, with slaughter and massacre. But the dark-skinned
people did not forget that once Conajohara had been theirs.
Nor do we; Howard doesn’t let us.In "Black River" the Picts are demonized but then humanized again, as in Zogar Sag’s back-story, the presiding element of which is not hellfire but firewater:
"...Three months ago he hid beside this road and stole a string of pack-mules
from a pack-train bound for the fort-drugged their drivers, somehow. The mules
belonged to this man"-Conan casually indicated the corpse with his foot-"Tiberias,
a merchant of Velitrium. They were loaded with ale-kegs, and old Zogar stopped to
guzzle before he got across the river. A woodsman named Soractus trailed him, and
led Valannus and three soldiers to where he lay dead drunk in a thicket...."
(As enchanting as is this image of the likkered-up Gwaweli enchanter, if given their druthers most Howard readers would probably prefer a much earlier Pict, Ka-nu, as a drinking companion). The Picts are also rehumanized by one of the all-time great Conanisms:"When they smoke my head the whole river will know it. They’ll hear Pictish women wailing their dead as far as Velitrium..." They may have faces only mothers could love, but they do have mothers. If you prick us-and Conan does rather more than that-do we not bleed?
Like the Picts, their Wilderness exists half-in, half-out of the waking world. In his "Exploring "Beyond the Black River" (SEANCHAI #45, Mailing #93 of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association) Rusty Burke wrote that "I have taken careful note of every word which could be even remotely said to contribute to describing the surroundings, and it sounds like any part of the immense forest that covered the entire eastern third of North America before we white folks came with our axes." And, in more recent comments via Email to the REH-fans list:
Larry Richter has done some marvelous work to show that what Bob Howard did, descriptively, was to use words that evoked what he was thinking about but were
general enough to let you supply the visuals from your own supply. That Forest
Primeval he described is indeed in Upstate New York-and in East Tennessee,
and in Indiana, and in Maryland, Michigan, Kentucky, Missouri, Massachusetts-
and in Texas.
Also in nightmares; as Richard Slotkin points out, the Puritans really were incapable of seeing the trees for the forest:"Natural terrain is suggested in horrific abstractions; the landscape of the mind replaces the real wilderness." Leslie Fiedler similarly remarks upon the arboreal nonspecificity of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels:
...the oddly abstract existence of the forest in his work-as if he had never
walked through it (or on the other hand, certainly not studied it) but only
dreamed it. Cooper can, when he wants to, reel off lists of native American
trees; but ordinarily his characters flee or pursue through woods which contain
not oaks or beeches or maples, only unnamed archetypal trees, the tree-ish,
conceptual trees children draw.
The trees children draw, the trees Puritans dreaded. Roderick Nash points out in Wilderness and the American Mind (Yale University Press, 1982) that Americans apply the term "wilderness" to any feared terrain, even cityscapes, but the mean streets were mean long before they were streets, and the Ur-wilderness was "a cleere resemblance of the world, where greedie and furious men persecute and devoure the harmlesse and innocent as the wildebeasts pursue and devoure the Hinds and Roes," as defined by Roger Williams in his dictionary of the Narragansett language, and as demonstrated to Balthus:
across the bend, through the thickets. A few moments later they were looking
on a hideous sight. an ox-wain stood in the road piled with meager household
furnishings; it was burning; the oxen lay near with their throats cut. A man
and a woman lay in the road, stripped and mutilated. Five Picts were dancing
about them with fantastic leaps and bounds, waving bloody axes; one of them
brandished the woman’s red-smeared gown.
Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny; as a departure for the Conan series, "Beyond the Black River" recapitulates the departure achieved by American fiction when it first saw a small blaze through the trees and heard ferocious chanting. Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly is not much read by Howard devotees, but in the preface to his 1799 novel Brown understandably patted himself on the back, having just turned said back on the Euro-Gothic:
One merit the writer may at least claim, that of calling forth the passions and
engaging the sympathy of the reader, by means hitherto unemployed by preceding
authors. Puerile superstition, and exploded manners; Gothic castles and chimeras,
are the materials usually employed for this end. The incidents of Indian hostility.
and the perils of the western wilderness are far more suitable; and, for a native
of America to overlook these, would admit of no apology.
Leslie Fiedler elaborates on this naturalization process:
For the corrupt Inquisitor and the lustful nobleman, he has substituted the
Indian, who broods over the perils of Brown’s fictional world in an absolute
dumbness that intensifies his terror. Brown’s aboriginal shadows do not
even speak. They merely threaten by their very presence...
As do the Hyborian Age Picts. In "A Song of the Race" the Picts are promised the last word, but in "Beyond the Black River," "The Black Stranger," and "Wolves Beyond the Border" they don’t utter so much as word one. Brule and Ka-nu, Bran and Gonar, Brulla and Brogar, all have plenty to say for themselves, but the Wilderness Picts let their axes do the talking during the two-and-a-half stories in which they appear. Fiedler comments that
It is not the Indian as social victim that appeals to Brown’s imagination, but
the Indian as projection of natural evil and the id; his red men are therefore
treated essentially as animals, living extensions of the threat of the wilderness,
like the panthers with whom they are associated.
(A panther stalks the escapees from Gwawela until warned off, and the Pictish chief who is Conan’s third victim at the outset of "The Black Stranger" lets rip even as he is ripped open with "a cry not of fear or of pain, but of baffled, bestial fury, the death-screech of a panther")
For the haunted castle and the dungeon, Brown substitutes the haunted forest in
which nothing is as it seems) and the cave, the natural pit or abyss from which
man struggles against great odds to emerge. These are ancient, almost instinctive
symbols, the selva oscura going back to Dante and beyond, while the cave as a
metaphor for the mysteries of the human heart is perhaps as old as literature
itself...(Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel)
There comes to mind "the wide cavern, lit by a strange blue glow that glimmered through a smoky mist-like haze" in which Conan nearly dies before his rebirth as a pirate captain in "The Black Stranger," or, on the big screen in 1992, the cave which serves as tomb-in-advance for some characters and birth canal for others in Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans.
For Fiedler, this Brownian motion "involves not just a shift in the manner of saying what the author is after. The change in myth involves a profound change of meaning." Robert E. Howard’s most striking change of scenery involves a profound increase in meaningfulness:
I’ve attempted a new style and setting entirely-abandoned the exotic settings of
lost cities, decaying civilizations, golden domes, marble palaces, silk-clad dancing
girls, etc., and thrown my story against a background of forests and rivers, log
cabins, frontier outposts, buckskin-clad settlers, and painted tribesmen.
Fiedler, still in a Brown study:
In the American gothic, that is to say, the heathen, unredeemed wilderness and
not the decaying monuments of a dying class, nature and not society becomes the
symbol of evil. Similarly, not the aristocrat but the Indian, not the dandified
courtier but the savage colored man is postulated as the embodiment of villainy.
Our novel of terror...is well on its way to becoming a Calvinist expose of natural
human corruption rather than an enlightened attack on a debased ruling class or entrenched superstition.
Not so fast, though: "the decaying monuments of a dying class," "the aristocrat" and the "dandified courtier" are sometimes held over into this new venue, by Cooper, by Robert W. Chambers, and by Howard himself with Lord Valerian in "Wolves Beyond the Border" and Sir Wilmot Pembroke, King George’s "Agent of Indian Affairs" in that "Wolves"-burlesque "While Smoke Rolled:"
Jest then a man in a gilded cock hat and a red coat come through the crowd,
with a couple of French Canadian trappers and a pack of Soc Indians from the
upper Mississippi. He had a sword on him and he stepped as proud as a turkey
gobbler in the fall.
Valerian’s pride goeth before a turkey gobbler’s fall as well, but he is more than just a redcoat instigating among the redskins. He is Lord Valerian of Valerian Hall, "the richest landowner in western Schohira," an Aquilonian grandee giving orders to his inferiors, one of Nature’s noblemen in an altogether sinister sense. He commands an audience when with the Hawks, Wildcats and Turtles, "and he has even visited the towns of the Wolf Picts and come away alive." Valerian is both titled and entitled, entitled to pluck forbidden fruit like Kwarada, the Witch of Skandaga, his mixed-blood mistress, half Hawk Pict and half Ligurean, "a dark, wildly beautiful girl in doeskin loinclout and beaded moccasins," with "blackly burnished hair bound back by a gold band, curiously wrought." With Kwarada’s "wildly beautiful" appearance we can feel "Wolves Beyond the Border" tugging in the direction it wants to go, needs to go, toward the Dark Lady, Leslie Fiedler’s "surrogate for all the Otherness against which an Anglo-Saxon world attempts to define itself and a Protestant one to justify its existence," toward "Black Canaan" and the Bride of Damballah. But of course L. Sprague de Camp, in his "completion" of the fragment, is faithful if not to Howard than to the scriptural stricture "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live:" the relief of his Gault Hagar’s son at being able to report "Kwarada we did not see" is unmistakable.
Fiedler quickly identifies an equal and opposite reaction, a Rousseauistic counter-tradition in which forest and cave, Indians and wilderness are positive signifiers, translated into "an American language of myth and symbol" by James Fenimore Cooper just as Charles Brockden Brown Americanized the gothic: a happy hunting ground, antidote to civilization,and pantheistic tabernacle in which the sermons are all unspoken and the backwoodsman can do his worst in terms of Sunday best. Long before Cooper crowned his King of the Woods and even more longer before Twain coined the phrase "light out for the territories," Benjamin Franklin was already lamenting the practice:
...They become disgusted with with our manner of life, and the care and pains
that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of
escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.
Balthus is from the Tauran, from which province Conan has "seen good woodsmen;" "I haven’t decided whether I’ll take up a hide of land, or enter fort-service," he informs the Cimmerian, but has anyone, inside "Beyond the Black River" or out, ever doubted what his decision would have been? Howard’s forest is "a blue haunt of mystery sheltering unguessed things," and, more guessably, sheltering not only the baleful old-growth dreadwood of the Puritans, but also the midsummery night’s dream of a forest through which Cooper’s mythago traipses on Leatherstockinged feet. We might say that the Pictish Wilderness splits the difference between Cooper’s Wood and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s (It is amusing to note that in Michael Mann’s Mohicans, relief from the comic relief of "Natty Bumppo" is attained by having the character addressed as Hawkeye, Long Rifle, or...Nathaniel). Hawthorne’s Wood is a fictification (almost a Pictification?) from a semi-safe distance of his ancestor’s worst nightmares (It is interesting to compare the different, but equally fraught, ways in which Hawthorne and Howard related to their relatedness to their forbears; in the New Englander’s case, a strained conversation with somewhat sphinctermouthed relatives during a ghastly com- bination of Thanksgiving dinner and seance).
Despite Demi Moore’s asseveration to the contrary when she was hot-wiring The Scarlet Letter as a vehicle for herself, Hawthorne is still read, in no small part because he "cast upon the beginnings of life in America a Gothic gloom that not even Longfellow’s middlebrow idylls coul relieve" (Fiedler) and reflected "a Puritan image of the wilderness as the land of the terrible unconscious, in which the dark dreams of man impress themselves upon reality with tragic consequences" (Richard Slotkin). The treasure hunters of "The Great Carbuncle" seek a fabled jewel and find their doom in the black heart of the forest, like less piratical Stroms and Zaronos denied Conan’s woodcraft. And the experiences of Lord Valerian, as participant, and Gault Hagar’s son and Balthus, as onlookers, resemble Richard Slotkin’s generalization about Hawthorne’s Wood:
The man who enters the wilderness hunting for something he regards as truth
or power is always lead to a place where devils dance in a ring, inviting him to
a black Eucharist.
Roger Chillingworth returns from, or is returned by, the wilderness in The Scarlet Letter, flanked by his Indian familiars, "perfected by them," in Slotkin’s words, "in malice and black science, to wreak vengeance." Hester asks Chillingworth "Art thou like the Black Man that haunts the forest round about us?" This diabolus is nothing like the later New England Old Scratch outlawyered by Daniel Webster; Pearl, the novel’s strange child, requests the story of he who:
haunts this forest, and carries a book with him-a big, heavy book, with
iron clasps , and how this Black Man offers his book and an iron pen to
everybody that meets him here among the trees, and they are to write their
names with their own blood.
That other strange child, Tina in the "The Black Stranger," recounts the eponymous landfall:
There was a strange moaning in the wind, and the sea shuddered like a
thing in fear, and then he came...He came from the sea, in a strange black
boat with blue fire playing all about it, but there was no torch.
Howard wrongfoots and wrongcoasts, the reader in this story; the hell- hounded Valenso is between the devil and the deep blue sea, but only after the devil arrives from that deep blue sea; the story’s white (anti)hero emerges from the dreadful depths of the forest. Only then does the Black Man take his rightful place:"Belesa did not ask the girl how she knew the black man would be in the forest; it was the logical hiding place for any evil thing, man or devil." Valenso’s niece has apparently been whiling away the hours reading Hawthorne; she goes on to imagine a "black hideous figure squatting under black branches and enacting a nameless incantation on something that sounded like a drum."
And what of Conan? This is an essay about classically American motifs in Howard’s Pictish Wilderness tales, not Conan, but it is difficult to keep him out when he wants in. Is he a Cooper hero, albeit one who has undergone a Howardian toughening-up, in Hawthorne’s Wood? Although Br’er Swamp devil reminds us in "Black River" that Conan has "come from the far gray hills of Cimmeria," he "seems to have been born under a hemlock tree out of a pine-cone," as D.H. Lawrence said of Deerslayer. Solomon Kane "fought Indians in Darien and learned much of their woodcraft," but it is impossible to believe that Conan ever needed to learn.
He lets his consciousness penetrate in loneliness into the new continent. His
contacts are not human. He wrestles with the spirits of the forest and the
American wilderness, as a hermit wrestles with God and Satan. (Lawrence, Studies in
Classic American Literature)
At the climax of "Beyond the Black River," Conan’s contacts are emphatically not human, as Howard plays with Biblically allusive fire:
The quivering flame had a solid core; the flame was but a green garment that
masked some animate and evil entity; but the Cimmerian was unable to make out
its shape or likeness. Then, shockingly, a voice spoke to him from amidst the
"Why do you stand like a sheep waiting for the butcher, Conan?"
The voice was human but carried strange vibrations that were not human.
And so Conan wrestles with this one spirit of the forest and the Pictish Wilderness in a rather more literal sense than Lawrence’s. His question, just before they come to grips, is, when less polytheistically phrased, that posed again and again by classic American literature:"Why have the gods of darkness doomed me to death?"
But Robert Weinberg is right to insist in The Annotated Guide to Robert E. Howard’s Sword & Sorcery (Starmont House, 1976) that "Conan is a much different character than a Chambers hero or the Deerslayer." He is no mere Boone companion to Balthus when things go Bumppo in the night, not just Richard Slotkin’s Man Who Knows Indians, but a Man Who Knows Himself. He is an unsettler, in more ways than one. Balthus suddenly becomes aware that he is "lonely, in spite of his companion"; he is the odd man out in that nothing comes between Conan and the forest:
Conan was as much a part of this wilderness as Balthus was alien to it. The
Cimmerian might have spent years among the great cities of the world; he might
have walked with the rulers of civilization; he might even achieve his wild whim
some day and rule as king of a civilized nation; stranger things had happened.
But he was no less a barbarian...A wolf was no less a wolf because a whim of
chance caused him to run with the watch-dogs.
By way of contrast, Natty is a watch-dog running wild but ascairt of being mistaken for a wolf, one who lives in fear, not of what he might meet in the woods, but of what he might meet with from the pedigreed and pampered lapdogs he pro- tects. Leslie Fiedler:
Magua may speak of him (he intends a grudging compliment) as "one whose skin
is neither red nor pale," but Natty insists with almost maddening repetitiousness throughout Mohicans that he is"a white man without a cross," that he has "no
taint of Indian blood."
Cooper’s hero drones on about his white "gifts" until one wants to time-toss him into a late twentieth-century Indian casino like Connecticut’s Foxwoods; Howard’s Pictish Wilderness stories are in this sense colorblind, even as their territorial and cultural conflict expresses itself in color-full language:
The Picts were a white race, though swarthy, but the border men never spoke
of them as such.
The Picts are a white race, too, in that they are not black or brown or yellow,
but they are black-eyed and black-haired and dark of skin. Neither they nor
the Ligureans are spoken of as ‘white’ by the people of Westermarck, who
only designate thus a man of Hyborian blood.
Race war is but a single lurid strain in this black-and-scarlet tapestry; it rears its ugly, and uglifying, head only in connection with the feud "older than the word" between the white Picts and the white Cimmerians:
Conan was animated merely by his fighting spirit and an old, old racial hate...
Is that why "it’s as well on the border as anywhere" for the Cimmerian? From an American studies perspective, the evil twin to Richard Slotkin’s The Man Who Knows Indians is The Man Who Kills Indians, one apprehended with subversive apprehension by Melville in "Containing the Metaphysics of Indian-Hating":
Last, he commits himself to the forest primeval; there, so long as life shall be
his, to act upon a calm, cloistered scheme of strategical, implacable, and
lonesome vengeance. Ever on the noiseless trail; cool, collected, patient;
less seen than felt; snuffling, smelling-a Leatherstocking Nemesis.
Fortuitously for his mythopoeic standing, we are not privy to any "snuffling" by Conan in "Beyond the Black River," but is he enacting a "calm, cloistered scheme of strategical, implacable, and lonesome vengeance"? At the story’s fade to black, yes. But we should not forget that he could have been killing Picts more cost- effectively all along from within his own culture and across the border it shares with Pictland-indeed, it can be argued that Pict-killing prowess is what makes Cim- merians Cimmerians (after having unmade them as Atlanteans). But when Valenso accuses him of having lived with the Picts, there is a distancing on display in Conan’s reply:"If you’d said that to one of my wilder brothers, you’d have found yourself with a split head."
"I don’t know how long I’ll stay on the frontier; a week, a month, a year. I have a roving foot"-no, that is not Melville’s "Leatherstocking Nemesis" speaking. Conan’s attitude has more in common with that of Burt Lancaster’s scout, the designated survivor in the 1972 film Ulzana’s Raid, a sort of "Beyond the Dried Up River." He observes that hating Apaches for what they do to settlers is "like hatin’ the desert because there weren’t no water on it. For now, you can get by on just bein’ plenty scared of ‘em." Venarium presages Velitrium, and Conan is positively, or negatively, un-American in his awareness that time, or timelessness, is on the side of the Picts.
Although peopled by pirates as well as Picts, "The Black Stranger" can be read as a transcription of the nightmares of an earlier pack of sea-wolves, the Vikings of Vinland: the very first manifestation of Lawrence’s "powerful disintegrative effect on the white psyche." The pertinent section of Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence gives the impression that a copy of Echoes of Valor has been propped open:
The dark spell of the land atomizes and ruins the colony. Although the settlers
find the land fruitful, the natives are brutish Skrelings, hostile and bloody-
minded, and in that far place, assailed by the fears natural to isolated men
in a hostile world, the Norsemen turn on one another in murder and fratricide,
breaking the order of the colony in fragments, leaving only a dark saga of
jealousy and slaughter.
Should the story have been called "The White Strangers" ? Valenso and his uninvited guests behave in accordance with our darkest (palest?) surmises about Europeans, or their Hyborian anterior/alter egos, in a New World. But "The Black Stranger" also appeals to the renegade, the Lord Valerian or Simon Girty, in most of us-suppose Squanto and Tonto had never been; suppose the incipient America had been stopped on the beaches and thrown back into the sea, the concept of e pluribus unum translated into Algonquin and turned against the newcomers:
Night had fallen, but torches streamed across the strand, casting the mad
scene into lurid revelment. Naked men in paint swarmed the beach; like
waves they came against the palisade, bared teeth and blazing eyes gleaming
in the glare of the torches thrust over the wall. Toucan feathers waved in
black manes, and the feathers of the cormorant and the sea-falcon. A few
warriors, the wildest and most barbaric of them all, wore shark’s teeth woven
in their tangled locks. The sea-land tribes had gathered from up and down the
coast in all directions to rid their country of the white-skinned invaders.
The Pictish Wilderness-a wilderness of mirrors? In their examination of ‘Beyond the Black River" Marc A. Cerasini and Charles Hoffman remind us that "The brooding everlasting forest,the dark river running through it, the beasts that haunt it, the Picts that inhabit it-all are archetypes too ancient for so young a genre as the western." But several paragraphs later in their Starmont Reader’s Guide, they allude to an even younger novel:"Howard’s nature imagery is captivating, comparable to that in James Dickey’s Deliverance." Deliverance could be described as a "Beyond the Black River" in which the Conan figure is incapacitated after the first skirmish, leaving the Balthus figure to fend for them both.
In his essay "The Frontier Archetype and the Myth of America: Patterns That Shape the American Dream", David Mogen stresses "the conflict between an Old World and a New World, the ironic drama of the frontier figure negotiating between them, the theme of wilderness metamorphosis (emergence of the American Adam/Eve") and the triumph of ‘progress.’" All of these elements are present in the Pictish Wilderness stories, although some of them come to a bad end; the Aquilonian Adam and Eve are burned out and sent running for their lives, and Howard does a hatchet job on progress. Ancient archetypes and an extremely modern approach, one that anticipates the adversarial attitude of the late Sixties and Seventies, hold a powwow.
Nothing else in modern heroic fantasy borders so closely upon classic American literature, and if the Black River of genre classification can be crossed, if bias and snobbery fall like Fort Tuscelan and Valenso’s stockade, these stories will take their rightful place. Perhaps we might presume to borrow the imagery of Hawthorne’s "Young Goodman Brown," written 100 years before "Beyond the Black River:
It was all as lonely as could be; and there is the peculiarity in such a solitude,
that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks
and the thick boughs overhead; so that with lonely footsteps he may yet be
passing through an unseen multitude.
"There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree,’ said Goodman Brown to
himself; and he glanced fearfully behind him as he added,"What if the devil
himself should be at my very elbow!"
Much is concealed yet revealed by the innumerable
trunks and thick boughs of the Pictish Wilderness, and Howard’s lonely
footsteps pass through an unseen multitude of antecedents.