Saturday, October 17, 2009

The House of Arabu

Continuing my reading of creepy stories for the Halloween season, last night I re-read Robert E. Howard's Story The House of Arabu. I have noted before that Howard basically invented the sword & sorcery genre by combining historical fiction with horror, and the House of Arabu is a fine example. The hero of the tale is one Pyrrhas the Argive (a citizen of Argos in Greece), a mercenary working for King Eannatum of Lagash. The story begins in the Sumerian city of Nippur where Pyrrhas is attending a lavish party thrown by the Semite noble Narim-Ninub. Despite the decadent goings on, Pyrrhas remains gloomy and remote. When pressed by Narim-Ninub, Pyrrhas admits that his dreams are cursed by a female demon. "One who haunts my dreams and floats like a shadow between me and the moon. In my dreams I feel her teeth at my throat, and I wake to hear the flutter of wings and the cry of an owl."
Things get creepier and it is soon revealed that Pyrrhas has been marked for death by the demoness Lilitu and her mate Ardat Lili who dwell in the House of Arabu, the house of the dead. Pyrrhas learns that his only hope may be the malignant sorcerer Gimil-ishbi. Gimil-ishbi's council leads Pyrrhas to a midnight confrontation with the two demons and a harrowing visit to the House of Arabu itself. (Not sure where REH gathered his background information for the story. He refers to Ardat Lili as a male, where my book of Mesopotamian myths calls Ardat Lili 'Lilitu's or Lilith's handmaiden'. I know Howard had a book or two in his library concerning the Assyrians, Sumerians, etc. He may have simply been using artistic license to make Ardat Lili a male for contrast.)
This is a very atmospheric little horror tale with just a smattering of action, and oddly enough it wasn't published until long after Robert E. Howard's death in 1936. It appeared in a revised form in 1952 in Avon Fantasy Reader #18 under the somewhat inexplicable title of The Witch From Hell's Kitchen. It was restored to a full Robert E. Howard version in the Wandering Star volume The Ultimate Triumph and was recently reprinted in Del Rey's The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard. I first encountered the story in prose form in a slim little paperback from 1979 called Wolfshead.
However, several years earlier I had read an adaptation of The House of Arabu in issue #38 of Marvel Comics' Conan the Barbarian. Writer Roy Thomas had taken House and changed Pyrrhas to Conan and changed other names of people and places to make the story fit into the Hyborian age. Thomas's story was titled The Warrior and the Were-Woman (Which is weird because were means man, as in were-wolf, but what the hey.) and is a pretty faithful adaptation, using large chunks of Howard's prose in both description and dialog. It does omit the trip to the House of Arabu, but the rest of the plot is pretty much intact. This was one of the first few issues of Conan that I ever read. I think it's also the first full art job by John Buscema that I saw. Buscema both penciled and inked the story and he did a great job, filling the story with dark shadows and lots of spooky atmosphere. I can remember being creeped out at age 12 when Lilitu threatened Conan, saying "Oh could I but reach you! How I would leave you a blind, mangled cripple!" And you knew she could do it too.
Anyway, House of Arabu translated pretty easily to a Conan story which isn't surprising since, like much of Howard's pre-Conan output, it is a story of a barbarian in civilization. Writer Karl Edward Wagner referred to Pyrrhas as a 'proto-Conan' in his forward to the Berkley edition of The Hour of the Dragon. Says Wagner, "Pyrrhas is another barbarian adventurer, wandering through the civilized Kingdom's of history's dawn."
House of Arabu functions well as sword & sorcery or simply as a horror tale. It is available online in a couple of places but that's probably the revised version so I'd advise seeking out The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard. Plenty of other Halloween reading in that volume as well.

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