Tuesday, September 28, 2010

NOT The Hand of Nergal

The late crime writer John. D. MacDonald used to tell a story that every summer he would get his grill out and burn all his unfinished manuscripts. I don't know if that's true or not, but then again I haven't seen any "new" John D. MacDonald stories since his death. If Robert E. Howard had had any idea what sort of fuss his unfinished and unpublished manuscripts would cause, he might have followed MacDonald's lead.
Anyway, like most REH fans, I'm glad Howard didn't visit the grill because I find his fragments fascinating. Two in particular. One is the Solomon Kane fragment 'Death's Black Riders' and the other is the Conan fragment that has come to be known as 'The Hand of Nergal." The Conan fragment contains no mention of Nergal, a Mesopotamian deity, and as near as I can figure, the only reason anyone calls this fragment by that title is that Lin Carter "finished" the fragment and gave his story the title The Hand of Nergal. In the current Del Rey Conan collections, the fragment is simply called untitled fragment.
The story begins on a battlefield where a wounded Conan (We assume it's Conan, though his name isn't actually used. The character is called 'the Cimmerian' through the short first chapter but the physical description is certainly Conan.) is wandering around among the corpses, checking for any that haven't been looted. Always the opportunist, our Conan. His attention is drawn by a moaning voice coming from some high reeds near a river. Investigating he finds a young girl who appears to be seriously wounded. The Cimmerian considers killing her to put her out of her misery but decides to try and help her instead. End chapter one.
In chapter two we get to the part that I find most interesting. The city of Yaralet is being haunted by some unseen terrors that stalk the night streets. Howard describes them thus:

"In the City of Yaralet, when night came on, the people barred windows and bolted doors, and sat behind their barriers shuddering, with candles burning before their household gods until dawn etched the minarets. No watchmen walked the streets, no painted wenches beckoned from the shadows, no thieves stole nimbly through the winding alleys. Rogues, like honest people, shunned the shadowed ways, gathering in foul-smelling dens, or candle-lighted taverns. From dusk to dawn Yaralet was a city of silence, her streets empty and desolate.
Exactly what they feared, the people did not know. But they had ample evidence that it was no empty dream they bolted their doors against. Men whispered of slinking shadows, glimpsed from barred windows - of hurrying shapes alien to humanity and sanity. They told of doorways splintering in the night, and the cries and shrieks of humans followed by significant silence; and they told of the rising sun etching broken doors that swung in empty houses, whose occupants were seen no more.
Even stranger, they told of the swift rumble of phantom chariot-wheels along the empty streets in the darkness before dawn, when those who heard dared not look forth. one child looked forth, once, but he was instantly stricken mad and died screaming and frothing, without telling what he saw when he peered from his darkened window."

Darn spooky, eh? Artist/Writer Timothy Truman, in his afterward to the collected Dark Horse adaptation/expansion of The Hand of Nergal, speculated that perhaps REH was considering writing a true horror yarn with Conan. Not that many of the Conan stories aren't horror stories to some extent, but yeah, this one sounded particularly creepy.
Truman did a nice job of turning the fragment into a story arc for the Darkhorse Conan comic, pulling in more elements of Mesopotamian mythology as well as some Lovecraftian touches. His solution to what was creeping around the dark streets of Yaralet could certainly have sent a child into a seizure.
Lin Carter, on the other hand, dropped the ball pretty badly when he took a swing at the fragment, ignoring almost all of the hints contained in Howard's fragment and substituting his own ideas. Now keep in mind, I'm a fan of Lin Carter, not one of his detractors, but even I can't really defend Lin on this one. He apparently had his own story to tell and just shoehorned the fragment into it instead of extrapolating from what Howard provided. As a side note, this is, I think, the only story from the Lancer/Ace pastiches that is credited to Carter and Howard with no involvement from L. Sprague de Camp.
It's still fun to wonder what Howard had in mind for the night horrors of Yaralet. Truman combined the 'hurrying shapes alien to humanity' with the splintering doors and the phantom chariot-wheels in his adaptation, but I always thought it interesting that Howard had separated the two. The shapes slithered through the streets at night but only shortly before dawn was the rumble of phantom chariot-wheels heard. And the term "phantom chariot-wheels' makes me wonder if perhaps REH was considering something more ghostly than his adapters came up with. Still, I suppose that is the fun of fragments, speculating and wondering what might have been.


Taranaich said...

After reading Smith's "The Charnel God," I can't help but think of the haunters of Yaralet being servitors of some hideous cult like Mordiggian's ghouls. That said, there's a lot of room for interpretation on all counts (though I still hate that Truman kept the "original" title).

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Indeed, Al. Thanks for reminding me of the Charnal God, by the way. I just sat down and read it again and boy, that's a great story.
And yeah, I wish Truman had left out any reference to Nergal and just adapted the fragment. Might have been an editorial decision.