Short Story Review: “The Black Stone” by Robert E. Howard

(Cover by C. C. Senf. Weird Tales, November 1931.)

Who Goes There?

I’ve covered Robert E. Howard on this site before not long ago; actually it was just last month with one of the longer Conan serials. Howard is one of the most important voices in the history of fantasy literature and he reached truly astonishing heights and put out an intimidatingly large body of work despite having committed suicide when he was only thirty. He began writing professionally as a teenager and never stopped until his death, and even then there was a healthy amount of work released posthumously. Given how well an “immature” Howard reads, it’s nothing short of tragic that we only barely got to see his writing reach a mature state by the end, but what we have is still one of the most impressive and versatile oeuvres to come out of pulp fiction. That for some reason Howard basically never got around to writing SF is in itself a bit tragic, and one has to wonder what would’ve happened had he lived to be direct contemporaries with his descendants.

While Howard is most known for Conan the Cimmerian, Kull the Conqueror, and other adventure characters, he also wrote a ton of horror, sometimes involving series regulars like Solomon Kane but more often venturing into different territory altogether. He even got a Retro Hugo nomination for his voodoo zombie story “Pigeons from Hell,” and indeed while his horror lacks the deliberate pacing of H. P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, he compensates with that usual Howard brand of energized plotting. Today’s story, “The Black Stone,” is very much Howard trying to write a Lovecraftian (as in it’s clearly a Lovecraft homage) tale, but for better or worse it’s better this is still Howard’s show.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the November 1931 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive; later reprinted as a “classic” in the November 1953 issue, which you can find here. The convenient thing about Howard is that he’s famous and has also been dead for a very long time. “The Black Stone” is easy to find online for free, even being included in the Library of America’s Story of the Week program, which you can find here. If you want printed copies then you can find it in LOA’s American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, although it looks like it might be out of print. More readily available is The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, a delightfully thick and heavy volume which, astonishingly, still contains only a small fraction of Howard’s output. Because “The Black Stone” is set in the Cthulhu Mythos (although it wasn’t called that when Lovecraft and Howard were alive), it’s been anthologized alongside other Lovecraftian tales, the most available of these probably being Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Enhancing Image

The unnamed narrator of “The Black Stone” is a bit unusual for a Howard protagonist in that he’s not a warrior or a tough guy at all, but a bookish dweeb who travels to Hungary basically for the lulz. Okay, there’s a bit more to it than that: the narrator is a linguist and archaeologist (or something like that), and like any good protagonist in a Lovecraftian narrative he also has a soft spot for the macabre. Here we start with Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, also known as the Black Book, with Von Junzt being a 19th century studier of the uncanny and unexplainable. “Reading what Von Junzt dared put in print arouses uneasy speculations as to what it was that he dared not tell.” During his reading of Von Junzt’s book, the narrator catches mention of a mysterious object which Von Junzt doesn’t spill much ink over but which the narrator finds himself immensely curious about: the Black Stone.

The narrator cross-references Von Junzt’s writing (however scant) about the Black Stone with a few other documents, incidentally all early-to-mid 19th century, and struggles to distinguish fact from legend—though the legend, if true, would make quite the story. The Black Stone is supposedly a black monolith standing alone in the mountains of Hungary, near a village called Stregoicavar, roughly translating to “Witch-Town.” Nobody knows who built the Black Stone, but it possesses such power that even to gaze upon it apparently causes it to haunt one’s dreams, and to watch it on Midsummer Night (early on we’re given the pagan connection) for reasons unknown have driven people to insanity, then death. The narrator, being a perfectly reasonable man (I’m kidding), decides to travel to Hungary and see for himself what the fuss is about.

Mind you that we’re only just getting started.

Howard has a talent for compressing a novel’s worth of information into a much smaller space, and “The Black Stone” might be the most stark example of this I’ve seen yet; there’s enough backstory here for a narrative ten times the length. We haven’t even gotten to the thing with the Ottoman Turks yet. Okay, so we’re in Hungary, in an especially mountainous part of the country no less, and the narrator has come to Stregoicavar to inquire about the Black Stone; first he talks with the local tavern-keepr, then a schoolmaster about the village’s history. It’s—well, it’s a long story. You see, the Hungarians in the village are fairely recent settlers; they were not the first inhabitants of the village. Centuries prior there were people in the lowlands and people in the mountains, round Stegoicavar, and these latter peoples were of a different ethnic sort. The mountain people were half-castes: “the sturdy, original Magyar-Slavic stock had mixed and intermarried with a degraded aboriginal race until the breeds had blended, producing an unsavory amalgamation.” If this sounds problematic, boy do I have a tree to sell you.

Anyway, the original half-caste people of Stregoicavar, who were apparently pagans who kidnapped women and children from the lowland people, are not around anymore; they had been exterminated by the Turks, who had swept through Stregoicavar and had not left one person standing. Which even for warfare sounds a bit extreme; one would at least expect the Turks to have taken some as slaves, but for reasons unknown they gave no quarter, ridding the village and environs of the half-caste peoples and inadvertently making way for the lowland “pure” whites to settle.

Right, so there was an invasion…

The Hungarians, in 1526, entered Stregoicavar to push back the Turks, and by this point the mountain people had already been exterminated. Count Boris Vladinoff, in a nearby castle, had acquired a chest from a slain Turkish scribe, but nobody ever opened the chest or even discovered it, as the Count died suddenly in an artillery strike and, for some reason, the ruins of his castle have never been excavated. Keep this in mind for later. So the Turks had come into Stregoicavar and then were forced to retreat, and all seemed well for the lowland peoples, who then came in to occupy the village that had been made vacant before and which was now free once again. Only… they never could figure out what the deal with the black monolith in the woods was… only they figured out, the hard way, that this is not something to be touched or even seen for long.

We had a rough idea of what the Black Stone looked like before, but it’s only upon the narrator inspecting it first-hand that we get a detailed description. Mind you this is only part of a very long paragraph:

It was octagonal in shape, some sixteen feet in height and about a foot and a half thick. It had once evidently been highly polished, but now the surface was thickly dinted as if savage efforts had been made to demolish it; but the hammers had done little more than to flake off small bits of stone and mutilate the characters which once had evidently marched in a spiraling line round and round the shaft to the top. 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 they symbolized no language now remembered on the face of the earth.

The engravings on the monolith would have only made sense to the original worshippers, who, all being dead now, no longer have opportunity to explain it to our unusually curious narrator. Personally I would’ve just fucked right off if I found this thing in the woods, but then I also wouldn’t be caught dead going to some backwater corner of Hungary. And yet the mysteriousness of the Black Stone has its allure, no doubt, and because Our Hero™ is a dumbass he thinks it would be just swell if he were to camp out in the vicinity and catch the monolith do its supposed freaky thing on Midsummer Night. Now, if you know even a little bit about paganism (or Hollywood depictions of paganism—I’m glancing warily at Midsommar) then you can predict the pagan connection and what will come next. What intrigues me, and what held my attention so sternly when reading this story, was how Howard couched what should be a derivative (and somewhat offensive) devil-worshipper narrative in so much history and lore.

I won’t spend much time talking about the back end of the story, partly because it’s at this point that we’re funneled from a busy backstory to a relatively straightforward plot in the present, and partly because I’ll be brutally honest with you, my beloved reader, for a second here: I’m pressed for time and while I’d love to write more about what’s probably my favorite horror story of Howard’s so far (I’ve read several), I must surely be on my way and meet the deadline I’ve set for myself.

There Be Spoilers Here

On Midsummer Night the narrator sets up camp near (but not too close) the monolith, presumably with some popcorm that he had microwaved in advance. I don’t know what this dude is expecting. Regardless, something very strange happens: Our Hero™ gets a free show that he didn’t expect, and ultimately he very much will not want. People start gathering round the Black Stone and, in one of those things silly old-timey people think pagans do, they dance around it and make some real noise. There’s a masked man with a thing round his neck that looks like it’s meant to carry a jewel, or perhaps a small idol, which the narrator deduces is a priest or elder of the cult. We’re then presented with a young naked woman and infant—possibly hers, possibly not; I don’t know which possibility is worse.

In what genuinely reminds me of a scene out of Blood Meridian, the priest takes the infant and, swinging it around, slams it down AND BASHES ITS FUCKING SKULL IN. WHAT THE FUCK? I mean, the Conan stories I’ve read have been violent as shit, but this is the single most gut-churning bit of violence I’ve read from him yet. The woman herself is beaten pretty severely, to the point where when she crawls toward the monolith she leaves a trail of blood in the grass, which can’t be good.

But that’s not the worst part of; well actually it is the worst part, but it’s not the only thing that would make you run in the opposite direction really fast. In the climax of the blood sacrifice, the mad priest has seemingly conjured a thing which the bloodied woman is meant to satisfy. “I opened my mouth to scream my horror and loathing, but only a dry rattle sounded; a huge monstrous toad-like thing squatted on the top of the monolith!” The toad-like creature, certainly not human but perhaps eerily close enough to humanoid, accepts the woman, although we never find out exactly happens to her—though probably her fate is similar to the baby’s. To make things even stranger, when the narrator wakes up (after having passed out), there is not even one sign of what had happened the previous night—no blood, no footprints in the grass, nothing.

And yet it was certainly not something he had imagined!

The narrator, working tirelessly, finds the castle of the late Count (who, mind you, would’ve been dead about 400 years) and uncovers what the Count had taken from the Turkish scribe, who had been so spooked by what he’d found that he never told anyone about it. In the Count’s chest of things is a parchment with Turkish writing, which the narrator can only make out pieces of—but enough to get the picture. More importantly he finds an idol of the toad-like creature—an idol which the priest would have been wearing during the sacrifice. The bad news is that what narrator saw last night was not a dream or him tripping balls; the good news is that he was not seeing a blood sacrifice in real time, but the projection of one. The people who worshipped this abomination have been dead for centuries, and even the creature itself had been slain “with flame and ancient steel blessed in old times by Muhammad, and with incantations that were old when Arabia was young.” So yeah, the Turks were basically in the right to massacre the village, as they murdered the cultists and their god.

At the end the narrator gets rids of the parchment and idol, drowning them in a river where hopefully no one will find them. Unusually for a Lovecraftian protagonist there’s no implication that the narrator will go insane or kill himself at the end; he is able, somehow, to retain his sanity, if only by the skin of his teeth. (Howard’s characters generally have stronger willpowers than Lovecraft’s.) And yet the knowledge that there may be other such beasts which walk the earth and acquire human worshippers may prove too much in the long run, and because this story got incorporated into the Cthulhu Mythos we know this much to be true.

A Step Farther Out

Apparently Howard got hooked on “The Rats in the Walls,” which distinctly is not cosmic horror (even the supernatural aspect is debatable) but which carries the theme of ancestral memories. Not unlike “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Black Stone” is intriguing partly because of its problematic elements; there’s some language Howard uses that’s rather unfortunate, and the topic of genocide is handled crassly. There’s racism crammed in which sadly is inextricably linked with the horror element; the fear of race-mixing, of “pure” white blood being tainted with something else, seems a chestnut of classic cosmic horror. At the same time, Howard does things here that Lovecraft probably wouldn’t, including a gruesome climax that juxtaposes pagan sexuality with death. The setting is also pretty unique, taking us away from even the outskirts of urbanity and placing us somewhere very distant from America or even modern civilization. A lot of the story’s eeriness is accomplished simply through Howard’s use of the location, and in things that took place long before the narrator was even born. The backstory has more meat than the story proper, which in this case is not really a negative; the backstory is the pearl inside the mollusk.

Is it assbackwards that I’ve reviewed a Cthulhu Mythos tale written by someone who is not Lovecraft before I got to Lovecraft himself? Well yes—but don’t worry, we’ll be getting to Lovecraft, and one of his more famous short stories, soon… very soon…

See you next time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: