Thursday, April 15, 2021

"Pigeons From Hell" (1934)

Robert E. Howard wrote this long story in 1934 but it was not published until 1938, two years after his suicide. It would be interesting to know why it wasn't published. Was it rejected? Was it in the pipeline awaiting publication? Was Howard sitting on it, and if so why? It is far and away the best story I have seen by him, a pure horror jam set in the Old South complete with overtones of Faulkner, yet strikingly modern in the brute force of its imagination. It may not necessarily have appealed to Howard's bread-and-butter fans pumping up his Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conqueror lines of sword and sorcery epics, which made his name in the pulps. Full disclosure, I don't care for any of Howard's stuff in that vein, and this story flat took me by surprise. I had about given up on him. Later I recalled that Stephen King talked up this story in his essential Danse Macabre as one of the best of the 20th century. "Pigeons From Hell" is a moody Southern gothic that turns into a haunted house story and transmutes from there to voodoo and an offshoot zombie monster Howard has invented called a "zuvembie"—cool new word but I don't believe anyone else has picked up on it. I'm actually a little surprised there haven't been more adaptations of this story beyond a 1961 TV show and a couple of comic books. I recently took another look at the 1996 movie with Vincent D'Onofrio as Howard, The Whole Wide World. It's kind of a sudsy bucolic affair, with Renee Zellweger as a somewhat unlikely love interest, but I was struck by the way Howard was shown writing. He has already explained that he reads everything he writes aloud, but when we see him actually at the typewriter he is declaiming even as he types—shouting, ranting, bellowing, and typing.

I liked imagining that with some of the passages in this story, as a couple of pals, on a road trip from New England and far from home, are forced to put up overnight in an ominous abandoned mansion. It's too late even for gathering firewood so they roll out their sleeping bags and go to bed directly for the night. The wild stuff starts around 4 a.m. when Griswell is awakened from what might have been a dream and sees his friend Branner rise and leave, lured away by a whistling sound. When Branner finally returns, I can hear Howard shouting: "... a shriek burst from Griswell's lips. Branner's face was bloodless, corpse-like; gouts of blood dripped darkly down it; his eyes were glassy and set, and blood oozed from the great gash which cleft the crown of his head!" He really lets loose on that last clause as his italics indicate. But this is what I mean about modern: it wasn't really until '80s horror movies churned up on high that something like a person walking around with a grievous axe wound and split skull would be seen. Maybe some of Washington Irving's ghosts (maybe) but they were always ghosts or explicitly figments of imagination. This is our friend Branner, in the violated flesh. Eventually he's dead for real, and eventually explanations come along for the reanimation too, but there's a lot to see and experience along the way: a noble sheriff, slave relations on the old plantation, the haughty survivors of the proud white family who owned it, the ruin of the Civil War, a wise old Black man, secret rooms, and certain mechanics of zuvembies. The zuvembie at hand may or may not be what is left of a proud "mulatto" housemaid whose mistress operated under the brutal "West Indies" persuasion of slave management. Lots of people here have reason to be mad in this story, though reason is generally not the strong suit of any of them. That's the beauty of this story. It's all explained, and it rocks right along, and it somehow makes sense in never making sense. When Howard took hold of a narrative he put everything into it and here he has his hands on a high-voltage current and he's not letting go until it's done. This long story is constantly surprising, with nothing really cheap about it.

Read story online.


  1. Good post! I really like Howard's horror stories. As a matter of fact, the first story of his that I ever read was The Cairn on the Headland, from The Macabre Reader. Give his Solomon Kane stories a try before you write him off. Pigeons is a great yarn, but far from his only great yarn.