Another post about an invisibility story, from my researching into my book on invisibility physics.
Sometimes a little bit of bad luck can turn into some good luck. To fill out my bibliography on invisibility fiction, I wanted to include The Shadow of the Beast, a thrilling little story by Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the barbarian and author who inspired the title of this blog. However, I realized that I had apparently given away my one REH book that includes The Shadow of the Beast (TSB), which turns out to be quite a rarity in the Howard oeuvre.
TSB was one of REH’s early stories, and was unpublished in his lifetime. In fact, it was first published in a chapbook that was published in 1977, and was copyrighted that same year, meaning that unlike other REH stories, it is not in the public domain, and hasn’t been reprinted often. I managed to read it in Cthulhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors, and apparently got rid of my copy because there was a lot of overlap with other REH books I owned.
But this bad luck led me to search online for the story, and to my delight I found that the original chapbook can be purchased quite inexpensively, for $35! Owning a first edition REH, even one published some 40 years after his death, was too good an opportunity to pass up.
So this post is a short spoilery summary of that story, followed with a little digression into the views of REH on race. That may seem like an odd transition, but bear with me…
In a typical REH style, “The madness began with the crack of a pistol.” The wicked brutish man Joe Cagle, lusting after Joan, tries to grab her one day. He is interrupted by Joan’s brother, but her brother receives a bullet for his trouble. Cagle flees into the wilderness, with a posse soon behind him.
The story’s protagonist, Steve, joins the hunt for the would-be murderer. He learns of an abandoned house nearby, reputedly haunted. The posse assumes that no man, even Cagle, would try to hide there, but Steve isn’t so sure. He arrives at the house, expecting a trap by Cagle, but instead finds the man dead, a look of horror on his face. But what caused him to die of fright?
The door then sagged open…
I saw nothing, but my soul froze as a hideous shadow fell across the floor and moved toward me!
Steve finds himself pursued by a monstrous spirit, demon, or beast, utterly invisible except that it still casts its misshapen shadow! He must act quickly, or suffer the same fate as Joe Cagle!
The Shadow of the Beast is one of Howard’s early stories, and is very simple and straightforward. But its description of the invisible monster, and the weirdness of the concept, gives it a special charm that has always made it one of my favorites of his tales. It really shows the style of story that he would eventually master — a rugged, traditional pulp hero, who encounters a supernatural force beyond the ken of mankind.
The book also includes another tale, Tomb of the Dragon, which really seems inspired by Sax Rohmer’s infamous Fu Manchu series of novels. Both Rohmer’s novels and REH’s story feature westerners having a run-in with a Chinese criminal mastermind.
Reading up on The Shadow of the Beast, I browsed the Goodreads reviews, and was rather surprised to see several reviews referring to the “overt racism” of the story. This baffled me a bit, because I remembered no such thing in the tale. There are a few brief references to “voo-doo rituals,” but nothing that is particularly shocking to my eye.
I assume that people are reacting to the description of Joe Cagle:
From all accounts, he was an unusual man, a complete savage, so bestial, so low on the scale of intelligence that even the superstitions of the local people left him untouched.
This could be a very racist description of a man… if race were ever mentioned? I scoured through the story to see if I could find any actual description of the man being of any particular race, and found none. In my reading of the story, it never occurred to me that he was anything other than another awful white man.
I have no idea what REH intended in this case, and the description of the character seems somewhat of a Rorschach test for the reader. REH was not above using racist tropes in his stories, and does use some quite overtly, so it is not impossible that he had a particular race for Cagle in mind.
On the other hand, Howard’s writing was driven by a great disillusionment with Western civilization. Part of the reason his stories of barbarians are so compelling is that he truly believed to some extent that civilization was a mistake. Growing up in Texas during the oil baron era of the early 1900s, he saw that “civilized” men could be even worse than “savages.” Sometimes this was made explicit; REH’s Conan story “Beyond the Black River,” ends with the statement:
“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”
REH was also, at least in his later writing, willing to elevate his African characters to a level of heroism that few of his contemporary writers were willing to do. My favorite Howard stories are his Solomon Kane stories, featuring a Puritan warrior of the late 16th century. In “Red Shadows,” which was published in 1928, Kane is so outraged that a group of French pirates have murdered a young girl that he pursues them into the darkest jungles of Africa. “Red Shadows” begins with one of my favorite scenes from Howard’s work:
The girl sought to prop herself up on her elbow, and instantly he knelt and raised her to a sitting position, her head resting against his shoulder. His hand touched her breast and came away red and wet.
“Tell me.” His voice was soft, soothing, as one speaks to a babe.
“Le Loup,” she gasped, her voice swiftly growing weaker. “He and his men—descended upon our village—a mile up the valley. They robbed—slew—burned—”
“That, then, was the smoke I scented,” muttered the man. “Go on, child.”
“I ran. He, the Wolf, pursued me—and—caught me—” The words died away in a shuddering silence.
“I understand, child. Then—?”
“Then—he—he—stabbed me—with his dagger—oh, blessed saints!—mercy—”
Suddenly the slim form went limp. The man eased her to the earth, and touched her brow lightly.
“Dead!” he muttered.
Slowly he rose, mechanically wiping his hands upon his cloak. A dark scowl had settled on his somber brow. Yet he made no wild, reckless vow, swore no oath by saints or devils.
“Men shall die for this,” he said coldly.
Kane pursues Le Loup to Africa, but finds himself outnumbered by Le Loup and his local accomplices. But he finds an unlikely ally in an imprisoned witch doctor, N’Longa, who uses witchcraft to turn the tide in their favor. Kane finds his Puritan faith shaken by seeing the power of sorcery, and also finds himself drawn by the allure of the untamed jungle (again: barbarism winning over civilization). He decides to roam the continent to seek answers and peace.
In “Hills of the Dead,” Kane finds himself again in Africa, and N’Longa gives him a magic staff. Kane wanders further, and finds himself up against an entire city of vampires. Kane follows N’Longa’s instructions and uses the staff to summon his spirit, which possesses the body of a local youth. Together, Kane and N’Longa find a way to destroy the inhabitants of the accursed city.
Thinking about it more, it is quite amazing that N’Longa is really the protagonist of the story, not Kane. Kane is merely the “muscle” to N’Longa’s “brains,” and it is N’Longa who destroys the vampires. Even more striking to me is the final speech that N’Longa gives to Kane before letting his spirit return home:
“My blood-brother,” said N’Longa, discarding his pride in his pidgin English, to drop into the river language understood by Kane, “I am so old that you would call me a liar if I told you my age. All my life I have worked magic, sitting first at the feet of mighty ju-ju men of the south and the east; then I was a slave to the Buckra and learned more. My brother, shall I span all these years in a moment and make you understand with a word, what has taken me so long to learn? I could not even make you understand how these vampires have kept their bodies from decay by drinking the lives of men.
“I sleep and my spirit goes out over the jungle and the rivers to talk with the sleeping spirits of my friends. There is a mighty magic on the voodoo staff I gave you—a magic out of the Old Land which draws my ghost to it as a white man’s magnet draws metal.”
Kane listened unspeaking, seeing for the first time in N’Longa’s glittering eyes something stronger and deeper than the avid gleam of the worker in black magic. To Kane it seemed almost as if he looked into the far-seeing and mystic eyes of a prophet of old.
“I spoke to you in dreams,” N’Longa went on, “and I made a deep sleep come over the souls of Kran and of Zunna, and removed them to a far dim land, whence they shall soon return, unremembering. All things bow to magic, blood-brother, and beasts and birds obey the master words. I worked strong voodoo, vulture-magic, and flying people of the air gathered at my call.
“These things I know and am a part of, but how shall I tell you of them? Blood-brother, you are a mighty warrior, but in the ways of magic you are as a little child lost. And what has taken me long dark years to know, I may not divulge to you so you would understand. My friend, you think only of bad spirits, but were my magic always bad, should I not take this fine young body in place of my old wrinkled one and keep it? But Kran shall have his body back safely.
“Keep the voodoo staff, blood-brother. It has mighty power against all sorcerers and serpents and evil things. Now I return to the village on the Coast where my true body sleeps. And what of you, my blood-brother?”
Kane pointed silently eastward.
“The call grows no weaker. I go.”
N’Longa nodded, held out his hand. Kane grasped it. The mystical expression had gone from the fetish-man’s face and the eyes twinkled snakily with a sort of reptilian mirth.
In his own language, N’Longa is eloquent and wise. He shows that there is more to him than what a Westerner sees with their eyes. He challenges Kane’s Western views on the African people and and their spiritual beliefs.
In the Solomon Kane stories, I see REH representing his own struggles with ideas of race and religion, and finding more depth to both than he had ever imagined. I can’t and won’t say that REH didn’t have racist views, but his views on race had more complexity than a lot of his contemporaries. (Gives side-eye to H.P. Lovecraft.)
As for The Shadow of the Beast, it is a simple but fun and riveting tale!