The Haunter of the Ring and Other Tales by Robert E. Howard (1925-36)
Robert E. Howard’s collective literary work is often overshadowed by his most famous character, Conan the Cimmerian. As with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the success of a single creation can lead to subsequent material being overlooked or discounted. This can be a dilemma for many a popular author. Fortunately we live in an age where the back catalogue of many a writer is now freely available and lesser known work is re-evaluated. The publisher Wordsworth has recently compiled a collection of Howard’s short stories that squarely fall in to this category. Like his more popular work, the anthology The Haunter of the Ring and Other Tales focuses on the supernatural, the fantastic and baroque.
Howard’s literary style is accessible and very much in the idiom of the time. The men are virile and the women of exquisite beauty. This sets him aside from his contemporary, H.P. Lovecraft who shied away from such physical elements in his writing. However Howard shares that sense of the unearthly and the utterly alien, lurking beneath the everyday and the mundane. Like a good many of the great genre authors of the time, Howard conveys the sense that despite the modern world with its scientific and technological trappings, the ancient, arcane and inhuman is never far away. He also writes convincingly of the clash of cultures, as the colonial powers encroach into esoteric world of primeval Africa. There is a broad range of short stories in this collection.
“Wolfshead” tells of an 18th century soldier of fortune, haunted by the spirit of the werewolf he killed. Set in Eastern Africa in a private fiefdom, run on behalf of the Portuguese by a privateer, the story is interesting from both the fantastic and historical angles. “Sea Curse” tells of a more traditional tale of revenge and retribution. Again the nautical setting mixed with witchcraft, is very well researched and makes the story seem like a genuine sailor’s yarn; the sort told over a pint of ale in a lonely inn. In “The Hyena” we are confronted with a tale of New World meets old, as a young African rancher falls foul of a locally revered Witch Doctor or Fetish Man. It is a subtle story with a building sense of tension. You get a vivid mental picture of the enmity between the two central characters. Then for a change of direction, we have “The Skull” a thriller with a touch of the supernatural. This features East End opium dens, sinister crime lords with their fiendish knowledge of the occult, a flawed hero who fights for personal redemption and the love of an exotic, wronged woman. It is all very “traditional” yet the inclusion of the arcane plot elements makes it all the more enthralling.
It is essential that the reader be aware of the time period in which these stories were written. The prevailing social and political attitudes reflect the thinking of the time and should not be taken out of context. Anyone who has read the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs (whom Howard bears similarities) will understand this point. Men were men, woman were placed on pedestals and venerated. Love is prosaic and very verbose. Foreigners are sinister and their culture ancient and abstract. Yet there is a sense of innocence in Howard’s work. Morality and grim determination often triumph over outlandish odds and plot devices. The tradition of the classic high adventure in literature is an obvious influence on the author. His writing is also not as bleak as his rivals, Lovecraft and Ashton Clarke. The Haunter of the Ring and Other Tales is recommended to genre fans and readers of classic pre-war American literature.