VISIONS, GRYPHONS, NOTHING AND THE NIGHT
A Member Journal of
The Robert E. Howard Electronic Amateur Press Association
Issue No. 2, Winter Solstice 2001
NORTH BY SOUTHWEST;
OR, THE YELLOW ROSE OF VALHALLA
by Steve Tompkins
Europeans trace themselves back into layer after layer after layer of previous civilizations; Texans go back into a vast unforgiving land, a timeless sun, a silence.
Craig Edward Clifford, In the Deep Heart’s Core: Reflections on Life, Letters, and Texas
Streets, public squares, markets, temples, palaces, the city spread its dark life upon the earth of a new world, rooted there, sensitive to its richest beauty, but so completely removed from those foreign contacts which harden and protect, that at the very breath of conquest it vanished. The whole world of its unique associations sank back into the ground to be reenkindled, never.
William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain
He was neither mad nor crazy. But he was over the border. He was half a water animal, like those terrible yellow-bearded Vikings who broke out of the waves in beaked ships…Melville is like a Viking going home to the sea, encumbered with age and memories, and a sort of accomplished despair, almost madness. For he cannot accept humanity. Cannot belong to humanity. Cannot.
D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature
Despite its titular aspirations, “The Marchers of Valhalla “ is often evicted from the hero-hall of Robert E. Howard’s most interesting heroic fantasy. “The Valley of the Worm” has been championed as A “the one essential Howard tale” and “the quintessential Howard story”; “Marchers” arrived late at the party (the story did not see print until 1972) and like “The Garden of Fear” has had to endure the indignity of being regarded as a rough draft of, or more fittingly first stab at, “Valley.” Were Hialmar in “Marchers” and “Hunwulf” in “Garden” just approximations of Niord in “Valley” rather than separate and distinct Allison-selves? It should at least be noted in this context that “Marchers” contains a reference to “the slaying-song of Niord”, but the Niord in question is remembered for having eaten “the red smoking heart of Heimdul,” so he may not be “our” Niord and the Heimdul may not be the Heimdul who falls victim to Hunwulf in “Garden.”
Recently, in THE DARK MAN #5 Howard students had the pleasure of reading an attempt to give Hunwulf at least his due: Charles Hoffman’s “Escape from Eden: Genesis Subverted in ‘The Garden of Fear”. Hoffman is upfront about the stature gap between “Valley” and the other Allison stories, likening the arrival of “Garden”to that of a “stillborn twin. ” If “Garden” was stillborn,” there have been those who wish that “Marchers” had been aborted. It is often derided as the Kensington Stone of heroic fantasy; as by Ben Indick in his Dark Barbarian essay “The Western Fiction of Robert E. Howard” “The quasi-Viking story which resulted bore no relation to Texas or anywhere else.” Marc A. Cerasini and Charles Hoffman do not discuss “Marchers” in their Robert E. Howard: Starmont Reader’s Guide 35; Hoffman makes up for the omission in the aforementioned “Escape from Eden,” but prefers “the more ambiguous portrayal of Allison and his racial memory” to be found in “Valley.” For S.M. Stirling in the Baen Books collection Eons of the Night, the Allison-front-and-center introduction to “Marchers” is “rather awkward.”
Robert Weinberg is of the opinion in The Annotated Guide to Robert E. Howard’s Sword & Sorcery that Allison’s relative reticence during the middle section of “Marchers” and the possibility thereby opened up for dialogue make it at least to that extent “a stronger story than the other Allison adventures.” But he also assesses the plot as “adequate but not very detailed or well thought out.” It was left to James Van Hise in “Valley of the Worm: Origins and Interpretations” (The Fantastic Worlds of Robert E. Howard) to proclaim Hialmar’s saga “one of [Howard’s] most powerful, dynamic and imaginative stories.”
How do I, like Van Hise, love “Marchers”? Let me count the ways:
All roads lead to Khemu: “Marchers” is urban if not urbane, and there is no more straightforward dramatization of what Howard wrote to H.P. Lovecraft in June of 1931 “My sense of placement, as I’ve mentioned, is always with the barbarians outside the walls”, or of this:
Well, Aryans were not made to coop themselves in walls. This fact is brought strongly to my mind each time I go to Fort Worth. There, of all Southwesterncities, is the last full stronghold of the Anglo-Saxon.
“Marchers” is in part a study of what befalls Aryans within walls. There is a love/hate, attraction/repulsion relationship between the barbarians of heroic fantasy and the cities that entice and entrap them-“centers of enclosed, rigid, restricting, old, and impacted power,” is how Dean A. Miller characterizes the basalt jungle in The Epic Hero (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). Miller informs us that “This attitude is naively but precisely stated in the Byzantine Digenid; having stolen away his chosen girl from her father’s house in the city, Digenes as hero-raptor warns her that brave men are killed by lanes and byways, and immediately urges her out into the safer open country. Late in “Marchers” Hialmar senses that Khemu has become a liminal zone for the brave men from Nordheim:
The doors were shut, the windows shuttered. Hardly a light shone, and I did not even see a watchman. It was all strange and unreal; the silent, ghostly city, where the only sound was the strident, unnatural revelry rising from the great feast hall. I could see the glow of torches in the market place where our wounded lay.
The story also furnishes a readymade allegory for the barbarian newly come to civilization: he climbs in search of a celestial realm, reaching for the stars themselves, and finds only confinement:
The priests had told me that Ishtar dwelt above and the steps led to her abode. Vaguely I supposed it mounted through misty realms of stars and shadows. But up I went, to a dizzy height, until below me the shrine was but a vague play of dim lights and shadows, and darkness was all around me. Then I came suddenly, not into a broad starry expanse of the deities, but to a grill of golden bars, and beyond them I heard a woman sobbing.
“Marchers” is also the only Howard story to offer us front row seats as the oceans drink a gleaming city: “There was a long, rumbling, cataclysmic crash, like the shattering of a world.”
“The wild exultation of coming strife”:”Marchers” has no Worm, but wormfood galore. The most memorable works in the subgenre Howard founding-fathered feature an at least implicitly three-cornered or tripartite conflict: human versus human versus the transhuman, the demonic or sorcerous. L. Sprague de Camp is on the right, the paved path for once when he comments in Dark Valley Destiny that “When the hero has slain one prehistoric monster he has slain them all,” and that “a civilized-if violent-society provides many more colorful threads to be woven into the tapestry of the story.” The inter-human hostilities in “The Garden of Fear” cease with Hunwulf’s slaying of Heimdul the Strong. In “The Valley of the Worm” they could out-splatter an abattoir, but in a sense the clash between the Aesir and the Picts is a mere preliminary, Niord and Grom’s equivalent of “meeting cute” in a romantic comedy. Listing the Howardian building blocks assembled in “The Valley of the Worm,” Rick McCollum includes “Lost Civilizations” (‘The Valley of the Worm: A Gathering of Howard’s Essential Creative Themes” in The Fantastic Worlds of Robert E. Howard, edited by James Van Hise), but the only civilization in the story is well and truly lost. Only the Valley of Broken Stones, left behind by “an ancient, ancient race of semi-human beings,” remains. “The Garden of Fear” tantalizes with its chamber-shelved scrolls-“Surely the tale was stranger than an opium dream, and marvelous as the story of lost Atlantis”-but the rolls of parchment are a closed book Hunwulf has no desire to open.
In “Marchers of Valhalla” civilization-“but a shadow of its former greatness”, ergo classically Howardian -takes the field against the “big men, with yellow hair and cold blue eyes, clad in scale-mail corselets and horned helmets.” Howard takes the opportunity for a rejoinder-in-advance to observations like the following:
Before gunpowder, large men (like Nordics and Forest Negroes) had an advantage in war, because they could run faster, reach farther, hit harder, and wear heavier armor than smaller men. This advantage, however, could readily be nullified by superior arms, drill, and discipline. (L. Sprague de Camp, Blond Barbarians and Noble Savages)Incomparably drilled and disciplined, the Roman legionary almost always made hash of his foes, until the society which had produced him rotted away…Half-trained barbarians may win a fluke victory over civilized troops once in a while, but that won’t count for much.
(Poul Anderson, “On Thud and Blunder” in Swords Against Darkness III).
Au contraire, Allison insists in “Marchers”:
Who said the ordered discipline of a degenerate civilization can match the sheer ferocity of the barbarism? They strove to fight as a unit; we fought as individuals, rushing headlong against their spears, hacking like madmen. Their entire first rank went down beneath our whistling swords, and the ranks behind crushed back and wavered as the warriors felt the brute impact of our incredible strength.
Now, about those horned helmets and cold blue eyes: Premature gringos, the AEsir undeniably exist in a Mythozoic Era, the fossil record of which is populated only by Piltdown Men flaunting their own hoaxishness. They come out of the blue, and D.H. Lawrence tells us which blue in Studies in Classic American Literature:
About a real blue-eyed person there is usually something abstract, elemental...In blue eyes there is sun and rain and abstract, uncreate element, water, ice, air, space, but not humanity. Brown-eyed people are people of the old, old world: allzu menschlich. Blue-eyed people tend to be keen and abstract.
“Marchers” is a meditation on blue-eyed soul, the oldest blue-eyed soul:
We went to slaughter as to a feast, and as we strode we clashed sword and shield in a crude thundering rhythm, and sang the slaying-song of Niord who ate the red smoking heart of Heimdul.
Note to the new academic “discipline” of Whiteness Studies: eat your heart, so to speak, out. The AEsir brazenly appropriate the trans-Beringian epic of the New World’s peopling from its protagonists as later whites would steal everything else:
...up again into the ice and snow and across a frozen arm of the sea-then
down through the snow-clad wastes, where squat blubber-eating men fled
squalling from our swords; southward and eastward through gigantic mountains
and titanic forest, lonely and gigantic and desolate as Eden, after man was
cast forth-over searing desert sands and boundless plains until at last, beyond
the silent black city, we saw the sea once more.
Of course any Inuit reader might pause after that crack about squat, squalling blubber-eaters and reflect that just such blubber-eaters assisted Hialmar’s descendants on their march to Valhalla by destroying the Norse colonies in Greenland. But the offhandedly mythopoeic grandeur of Howard’s words-“lonely and gigantic and desolate as Eden, after man was cast forth”-are ineffably idiosyncratic: who else would describe the lost garden as “gigantic” and “desolate” ? This is an Eden prowled by Wendigos.
“Marchers” is strewn with such dark gems of vitrified meaning:
The kisses and love-cries of women fade and pall, but the sword sings a fresh song with each stroke. For the roots of love are set in hate and fury. The men of Khemu blenched, but old Asgrimm laughed as we had not heard him laugh for many a moon, and his age fell from him like a cast-off mantle. The thunderings of the breaking world were in my ear, the swirling green waters at my feet, but, as the whole earth seemed to crumble and break, and the roaring green tides surged over me, drowning me in untold shimmering fathoms, my last thought was that Akkheba had died by my hand, before a wave touched him.
At the start of the story Allison paints a picture for us, one gloomy enough to be the founding work of a new school, that of Depressionism. His palette is “the blue of tarnished steel” and the “muddled red smear” of “dully crimson banners”; the bright swords and brave oriflammes of heroic fantasy have been dragged down into the slough of despond. The sentences exemplify the pathetic fallacy at its most pathetic:
I had limped to a ridge which rose above the others, flanked on either hand by the dry post-oak thickets. The terrible dreariness and the grim desolation of the vistasspread before me turned my soul to dust and ashes. I sat down upon a half-rotted log, and the agonizing melancholy of that drab land lay hard upon me. The red sun, half veiled in blowing dust and filmy cloud, sank low; it hung a hand’s breadth above the western rim. But its setting lent no glory to the sand drifts and shinnery. Its somber glow but accentuated the grisly desolation of the land.
There are cheerier sites where nuclear weapons have been tested. It is next to impossible to write anything at all about Howard without quoting H.P. Lovecraft’s verdict on the stories:”The real secret is that he himself is in every one of them.” He was so deeply inside “Marchers of Valhalla” that he hauled his own surroundings at their most subjectively bleak, his own isolation both temporal and spatial at its most intolerable, in after him. The narration veers from sob to snarl and back again:
I sank down upon my knees beside the altar and, groping hesitantly about her slender form with my arms, I kissed her dying lips, clumsily, falteringly, as a callow stripling might have done. That one act-that one faltering kiss-was the one touch of tenderness in the whole, hard life of Hialmar of the Aesir.
In his remarks leading into “Marchers” in Eons of the Night, S. M. Stirling writes
Perhaps some of Howard’s own frustration at being penned in the narrow lane of small-town ways shines through this story, and there is projection of himself in the crippled narrator who dreams of striding boldly, sword in hand, as the giant Hialmar,
We can do more than that with the Allisonian prologue. “Marchers” contains one of the earliest and most forthright statements of the theme of belatedness, an undercurrent throughout American literature that, in keeping with the received wisdom that Texans are hyperbolically heightened or intensified Americans, becomes a raging torrent in Lone Star letters. For Allison there are no bugles or trumpets, just decrescendo and diminuendo:
“…I could have loved life and lived deeply as a cowboy, even here, before the squatters turned the country from an open range to a drift of open farms. I could have lived deep as a buffalo hunter, an Indian fighter, or an explorer, even here. But I was born out of my time, and even the exploits of this weary age were denied me.“It’s bitter beyond human telling to sit chained and helpless, and feel the hot blood drying in my veins, and the glittering dreams fading in my dream. I come of a restless, roving, fighting race. My great-grandfather died at the Alamo, shoulder to shoulder with David Crockett. My grandfather rode with Jack Hayes and Bigfoot Wallace, and fell with three-quarters of Hood’s brigade. My oldest brother fell at Vimy Ridge, fighting with the Canadians, and the other died at the Argonne. My father is a cripple, too; he sits drowsing in his chair all day, but his dreams are full of brave memories, for the bullet that broke his leg struck him as he charged up San Juan Hill. “But what have I to feel or dream or think?”
We might think with regrettable flippancy that the Allison family really needs to learn how to duck and cover, but the question of what remains to be felt and dreamed has echoed down through the decades in Texas fiction.
James Allison can only find his answers to that question in a past beyond the past, in a time before the times for which he was born too late. In this context the apparent weakness of “Marchers” is its strength; there is more to the story than meets the eye antagonized by its anarchic anachronisms, and there is more to it than quasi-biographical insight into Howard’s predicament as he perceived it. Allison himself tells us: “Without this understanding the saga of Hialmar is howling chaos, without rhyme or meaning.”
“Marchers” is not howling chaos but rather a foray into the “new mythic space”which functioned, as Richard Slotkin puts it in Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, as “an imaginative equivalent to the old mythic space called “the Frontier.” Slotkin’s take on the modus operandi of Edgar Rice Burroughs is even more true of Howard:
Burroughs abstracts the essential structures and symbols of the Myth from
their original “historical” context. This allows him to project an almost limitless
range of possible resolutions to the historical scenarios envisioned by the Myth-
to adapt the myth to shifts of political concern and mood-while retaining enough
of the ideas and images made familiar in the original to lend credibility and
resonance to the most fantastic variations.
Within Howard’s range of possible resolutions to Myth-envisioned historical scenarios are such fantastic variations as Khemu, last survivor-city of Lemuria in “The Marchers of Valhalla,” the Lord of the Mist’s Darkening Land in “The Thunder-Rider,” Tlasceltec in “Nekht Semerkeht,” and the city of the Old People in Lost Valley-Coronado didn’t know the half of it. In terms of retaining ideas and images, “Marchers” is crowded with ghosts, not of those who have died but of those who have not yet been born. If Allison cannot figure in the events of Southwestern history, he can prefigure them, and phantasmal foreshadowings stalk the streets of Khemu. No sooner have we have exchanged post-heroic Texas for prehistoric Texas than we are confronted by a specter that will mock the region’s more annalistically verifiable explorers and invaders:
A man could see far across those level, grassy plains; at first sight we had thought that city near, but we had trudged all day, and still we were miles away.Lurking in our minds had been the thought that it was a ghost city-one of the phantoms which had haunted us on our long march across the bitter dusty deserts to the west, where, in the burning skies we had seen mirrored, still lakes, bordered by palms, and winding rivers, and spacious cities, all which vanished as we approached. But this was no mirage, born of sun and dust and silence. Etched in the clear evening sky we saw plainly the giant details of massive turret and grim abutment; of serrated tower and titanic wall.
So before Khemu has even been identified as Khemu, it is already overlaid with the heat-shimmery, chimerical aura of Cibola.
In 1995 Robert L. O’Connell wrote a book called Ride of the Second Horseman: The Birth and Death of War:
In the first half of the sixteenth century A.D., Mexica and the other great Amerindian empire, the giant Peruvian ‘land of the four quarters,’ Tawantinsuyu, were confronted by what amounted to an ecomilitary onslaught, an alliance of humans, domesticated animals, infectious disease, and even weeds-all representing a separate and entirely more competitive environment-which would sweep over the Americas with a suddenness that was practically without historical precedent. Although the religious and political significance of this epic conquest has long been appreciated, it is only within the last several decades that anthropologicaland biological authorities have decisively broadened the context, showing this to be a true “war of the worlds”-a clash between two hitherto segregated environments with implications at practically every level of life.
Howard intuited all this in his ”Nekht Semerkeht” fragment. Hernando de Guzman and the Chiricahua are “separated by more than the fifty foot stretch of tawny sand-the New World and the Old personified in the two men.” And the brave perishes as much from onto- logical shock as from the conquistador’s pistol ball:
The white man had always something in reserve, something unknown and unguessed. The warrior saw the armored man looming above him like a grim god of steel, implacable and unconquerable, with bleak and pitiless eyes. In that gleaming figure the brave read the ultimate doom of his entire race.
“Marchers” is O’Connell’s “war of the worlds” reimagined as a level slaying field. Compare Richard Slotkin’s synopsis of the fall of the Aztec empire with Howard’s story:
At the end of the unslaked and savage desert, so like the wasteland of the Grail legends, they behold Mexico-great, white, castellated cities, heaped with greenery, floating in the midst of vast blue lakes. Within the enclosed luxuriant gardens of these enchanted cities live an exotic people, dressed in a fantastic garb of woven and many-colored feathers, intricately wrought gold, turquoise ornaments, and printed cotton. Yet these fair islands are rotten at the heart: within each towering white temple are chambers reeking of human blood from human sacrifice and human filth. So reality blends with romance, blood myth with art myth, as obscenity is discovered at the heart of an otherwise perfect reproduction of an enchanted kingdom. (Regeneration Through Violence)
Asgrimm, the leader of “a hard-bitten horde” whose “tracks had been laid in blood and smouldering embers in many lands,” is Cortez with no unfair advantages, no steel, guns, pandemics, warhounds, horses, or fears of Quetzalcoatlan audits:
I had seen old Asgrimm sitting at the head of the board, with his hands stained with dried blood, and his hacked and dusty mail showing under the silken cloak he wore; his gaunt features shadowed by the great black plumes that waved above him.
And Hialmar, a wanderer born, wanders into Castilian Gothicism when he apprehends the celebration of victory to “vampires and skeletons, laughing over a feast of blood and ashes.”
The indios-bearing-gifts iconography of the meet-and-greet between Cortez and Montezuma is quite obviously reprised in “Marchers”:
Soon then the gates swung open again, and out filed a procession of naked slaves, laden with golden vessels containing foods and wines such as we had not known existed. They were directed by a hawk-faced man in a mantle of feathers, bearing an ivory wand in his hand, and wearing on his temples a circlet of copper like a coiling serpent, the head reared up in front.
Asgrimm makes out like a bandit: “amber jars filled with gold dust, a cloak of flaming crimson silk, a shagreen belt with a jeweled golden buckle, and a burnished copper head-dress adorned with great plumes.” But conquistadorial acquisitiveness is alien to him: ”Gauds and bright trappings are dust of vanity and fade before the march of the years, but the edge of slaughter is not dulled, and the scent of fresh-spilled blood is good to an old man’s nostrils.” (With which aesthetic he should have set up shop as a war god in the Valley of Mexico).
The story rushes toward a premonition of the noche triste of July 1, 1520, when the nation-in-arms of Tenochtitlan decided that they had had enough just as the loot-laden Spaniards decided that they had enough:
Ahead of me the streets seethed with battling humanity, no longer silent and deserted. From the doors of shops, hovels and palaces alike swarmed screeching city folk, weapons in hand, to aid their soldiers who were locked in mad battle with yellow-haired aliens. Flames from a score of fires lighted the frenzied scene like day.
The only genuine Indians in “Marchers” are the proto-Caribs in their skull-bedecked war-canoes “on the sea to the south, out of sight over the horizon.” The Khemuri for their part are pretenders to the Lemurian throne as were the Aztecs to that of the Toltecs, “a subject race, speaking a mongrel tongue.” Howard does not seem to think of them as Indians, but he is thinking of at least one theory of “Indian-ness”:
And only a handful of nuts have been willing to identify the Indians as survivors of quite another world, another creation-refugees from Atlantis or Mu. Lawrence was tempted to the latter alternative, hinting somewhat mysteriously of an affinity between the western Indians, at least, and the priesthood of the lost Pacific civilization, “the world once splendid in the fullness of the other way of knowledge.” (Leslie Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American)
And what of the story’s lone Pict? Marc A. Cerasini and Charles Hoffman observe that “The Pict who appears in all of Howard’s story-cycles virtually unchanged from epoch to epoch is a constant symbol for man as a part of nature.” Kelka, Hialmar’s blood-brother, is introduced in a passage the final imagery of which is identical to that used for the paradigm-shifting Gorm in “The Hyborian Age”
He had joined us among the jungle-clad hills of a far land that marked the eastern-most drift of his race, where the tom-toms of his people pulsed incessantly through the hot star-flecked night. He was short, thick-limbed, deadly as a jungle cat. We of the Aesir were barbarians, but Kelka was a savage. Behind him lay the abysmal chaos of the squalling black jungle. The pad of the tiger was in his stealthy tread, the grip of the gorilla in his black-nailed hands; the fire that burns in a leopard’s eyes burned in his.
If Hialmar is the knight in armor stripped of his parfit gentil pretensions if not his scale-mail , Kelka is a reductionist/Hobbesian version of the faithful Indian companion, Tonto or Chingachgook gone nasty, brutish, and short. The story’s unnamed Van Who Would Be King is a barbarian among savages, Kelka is a savage among barbarians. It is not quite accurate to say that Howard intended us to think of barbarism as a halfway house between savagery and civilization, but where Hialmar might just conceivably clean up well, Kelka is incorrigible, feral where the AEsir are merely ferocious. His black-nailed grip upon a lower rung of cultural evolution’s ladder serves to position the Northrons partway up same:
We faced each other tensely, our hands on our hilts, and Kelka grinned wolfishly and began to edge toward Asgrimm’s back, stealthily drawing his long knife…
Then as I reeled upright, half-blind and shaking from the desperate strife, Kelka would have hewed off the king’s head, but I prevented it.
Near the foot of the board, Kelka was tearing at a great beef-bone like a famished wolf. Some laughing girls were teasing him, coaxing him to give them his sword, until suddemly, infuriated by their sport and importunities, he dealt his foremost tormentor such a blow with the bone he was gnawing that she fell, dead or senseless, to the floor.
In “Robert E. Howard, Bran Mak Morn and the Picts,” their pendant essay to the Wandering Star volume Bran Mak Morn: The Last King,” Rusty Burke and Patrice Louinet trace the persistence of Pict-memory in Howard’s creativity. If we conduct our own survey of the stories in which Picts appear, we discover that much blood but very little wine is spilled; alcohol is not to be wasted. As “The Shadow Kingdom” gets underway, Ka-nu is correct in his assumption that Kull deems him a “useless old reprobate, fit for nothing except to guzzle wine and kiss wenches. ” At the end of “Delcardes’ Cat” he confides that “Brule and I were drunk in Zarfhaana, and I fell down a flight of stairs, most damnably bruising my shins.” After stealing and sampling the ale-kegs of an Aquilonian merchant; the fearsome Zogar Sag reposes “dead drunk in a thicket” and is promptly jailed. Even the iron-willed, short-leashed Bran comes away from Eboracum with considerable experience of “wild feasts where wine flowed in fountains.” Within the Allison series, peace between Niord’s folk and Grom’s is the occasion for a powerful potable:
Then we all sat around the fires and gnawed meat bones, and drank a fiery concoction they brewed from wild grain, and the wonder is that the feast did not end in a general massacre; for that liquor had devils in it and made maggots writhe in our brains.
Kelka is no exception to the Pictish rule:
Kelka guzzled each day in the wine shops until he fell senseless in the streets.
Kelka, maddened by the wine they gave him, killed three Khemurians in the market-place.
I had drunk with Kelka the night before and lain with him in the streets until the breeze of morn had blown the fumes of the wine from my brain.
The fighting scattered out over the court, and I saw Kelka. He was drunk, but this did not alter his deadliness.
Almost the Pict’s last words to his blood-brother are “There was the devil in the wine, Hialmar!”
Such susceptibility to firewater betrays Howard’s inclination to assign “Indian” attributes to his Picts outside the Bran Mak Morn stories.
Other ghosts, those of Simon Girty, Conrad’s Kurtz, and even Milus’ Farewell to the King, stir with the advent of the Vanir warrior king, “with mad blue eyes and hair crimson as blood,” and his “bloody vow to return with a fleet of war-canoes that should blacken the sea, and to raze the towers of Khemu to the red-stained dust.” Here, as with Lord Valerian, Le Loup in “Red Shadows,” and (briefly) Conan in “The Vale of Lost Women,” we are shown the career opportunities for turncoats-become-turnskins:
The morning sun caught his hair in a crimson blaze, and his laughter was like a gust of sea wind. Alone of that horde he wore mail and helmet, and in his hand his great sword shone like a sheen of silver. Aye, he was one of the wandering Vanir, our red-haired kin in Nordheim. Of his long trek, his wanderings, and his wild saga, I know not, but that saga must have been wilder and stranger than that of Aluna or our own. By what madness in his soul he came to be king of these fierce savages, I can not even offer a guess.
Classic American literature offers many guesses about that particular soul-madness, a fact not lost upon D. H. Lawrence in his chapters on Herman Melville:
The Vikings are wandering again. Homes are broken up. Cross the seas, cross the seas, urges the heart. Leave love and home. Leave love and home. Love and home are a deadly illusion.
We can amend that to leave home, find love, lose life for “Marchers.” Robert Weinberg warns that “the story is one of Howard’s bloodiest, with a great deal of killing,” and it really does deserve some kind of Deathtime Achievement Award. Early on Allison tries to prepare the reader for what is to come:
Oh, we were a hard-bitten horde, and our tracks had been laid in blood and smoldering embers in many lands. I dare not repeat, what slaughters, rapine and massacres lay behind us, for you would recoil in horror. You are of a softer, milder age, and you can not understand those savage times when wolf pack tore wolf pack, and the morals and standards of life differed from those of this age as the thoughts of a grey killer wolf differ from those of a fat lap-dog dozing before the hearth.
The sanguinary spirit of “Marchers” lives on in “Dinosaur Destroyer”, a 1949 AMAZING STORIES novella by one Arthur Petticolas that relates the epic of Daarmajd the Strong, “a great, hairy, tawny giant” who pursues the survivors of imperial Atlantis (destroyed during the cataclysmic changeover from the Mesozoic to the Cenozoic, a matter of a few efficient paragraphs) to the New World in an extended homage to Howard:
Like a pack of grim old war wolves were we, brought to bay by Time the grim hunter, and meaning to redden our fangs with the blood of our foes ere we died.
“Dinosaur Destroyer ”, like Karl Edward Wagner’s Legion from the Shadows and Doug Moench’s “The Blood of Kings”, reminds us that pastiche need not mean burlesque.
We might also consider Hialmar’s Aesir the behavioral if not genetic forbears of a later band of murderous marauders, the scalp-hunting Glanton gang which terrorizes the borderlands in Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 Blood Meridian; Or the Evening Redness in the West. The book should require no introduction for anyone with a scintilla of interest in American studies; Shelby Foote has called it a ‘blood-drenched anabasis,” and by Harold Bloom’s reckoning it is “the authentic American apocalyptic novel”. For A.O. Scott in The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors,” McCarthy’s doom-black-and-ghastly-red masterpiece “lays bare the core of absolute violence that lies beneath the mythology of the West”:
They rode like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote. For although each man among them was discrete unto himself, conjoined they made a thing that had not been before and in that communal soul were wastes hardly reckonable more than those whited regions on old maps where monsters do live and where there is nothing other of the known world save conjectural winds.
Spectre horsemen, pale with dust, anonymous in the crenellated heat. Above all else they appeared wholly at venture, primal, provisional, devoid of order. Like beings provoked out of the absolute rock and set nameless and at no remove from their own loomings to wander ravenous and doomed and mute as gorgons shambling the brutal wastes of Gondwanaland in a time before nomenclature was and each was all.
A nineteenth-century Allison incarnation would have fit right in with John Joel Glanton, Judge Holden, and their mostly white barbarians in 1849. Blood Meridian and its (comparatively constrained) cinematic cousin The Wild Bunch can both be summed up in Sam Peckinpah’s concise description of the latter: “what happens when killers go to Mexico.” “Marchers of Valhalla” is what happens when Robert E. Howard’s imagination transports killers to Texas before there was a Texas. Ishtar stresses to James Allison that the country has memories, and the memories of “Marchers” are true in their falseness and real in their fantastication.