Sunday, October 09, 2011

Conan The Gothic


I have seen the theory put forward that Robert E. Howard read at least a couple of the Gothic novels of the 1700s-1800s, but I haven't seen any hard evidence of this. He doesn't mention them in his letters, except in passing, and none were found among the books in his library after his death. The main reason I think it highly unlikely is that books such as the Castle of Otranto and the Mysteries of Udolpho were rather difficult to come by in the 1930s, and especially out in the middle of Texas. Not impossible, mind you. Howard Often sent away for books, and someone like H.P. Lovecraft could have loaned him something, but even had he gotten his hands on them, he might have found the Gothic classics deathly dull. (I found Otranto a real slog. )The only mention (that I can recall) Howard makes of one of the 'standard four' as Karl Edward Wagner termed The Monk, Melmoth The Wanderer, and the two books mentioned above, is noting a copy of Otranto in the library of the character Conrad in the horror story The Children of the Night. There's little doubt REH was familiar with the Gothics since he had read H.P. Lovecraft's essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, but as I said, no hard evidence exists that he ever read any of the novels.
Which brings me to the Conan tale, The Black Stranger, a story with an oddly Gothic structure. I'll be using a list of Gothic tropes included with Lilia Melani's 'The Gothic Experience" a course related website from Brooklyn College, to show what I mean. I used the same list when I looked at Karl Edward Wagner's The Gothic Touch a few years back.

* a castle, ruined or intact, haunted or not,
* ruined buildings which are sinister or which arouse a pleasing melancholy,
* dungeons, underground passages, crypts, and catacombs which, in modern houses, become spooky basements or attics,
* labyrinths, dark corridors, and winding stairs,
* shadows, a beam of moonlight in the blackness, a flickering candle, or the only source of light failing (a candle blown out or an electric failure),
* extreme landscapes, like rugged mountains, thick forests, or icy wastes, and extreme weather,
* omens and ancestral curses,
* magic, supernatural manifestations, or the suggestion of the supernatural,
* a passion-driven, willful villain-hero or villain,
* a curious heroine with a tendency to faint and a need to be rescued–frequently,
* a hero whose true identity is revealed by the end of the novel,
* horrifying (or terrifying) events or the threat of such happenings.

In the third part of his essay, Hyborian Genesis, Patrice Louinet points out that little is known about the composition of The Black Stranger, though it was apparently meant as a follow up to Beyond the Black River, and was another tale of frontier dwellers versus savages. He goes on to mention certain similarities of names and themes to Hawthorne's Scarlett Letter, though he feels this was probably unintentional. Howard probably read Hawthorne in school.
However on one of my re-reads of The Black Stranger, which is one of my favorite Conan yarns, I began to notice some things that reminded me of Radcliffe's Udolpho and of some lesser known Gothics such as Catherine Smith's Barozzi; Or the Venetian Sorceress.
Anyway back to the list.

* a castle, ruined or intact, haunted or not.

Yes, the events take place in a large fortress and it's surroundings. Not a ruin, but a rambling structure, described in the story as a manor with a great hall, stairs, corridors, etc. (Though how the heck the owners built the thing after apparently being shipwrecked I don't know.)

* ruined buildings which are sinister or which arouse a pleasing melancholy.

No.

* dungeons, underground passages, crypts, and catacombs which, in modern houses, become spooky basements or attics.

No.

* labyrinths, dark corridors, and winding stairs.

Yes. Conan finds himself in a huge cave with some sinister properties and the hallways of the manor are dark in a scene I'm going to describe in the next part of the list.

* shadows, a beam of moonlight in the blackness, a flickering candle, or the only source of light failing (a candle blown out or an electric failure),

Yes, there's a scene where the Lady Belesa and her ward, Tina, hear someone or something moving about in the hall and when they go to check on it they find all the usually lit candles out and the only light coming from the floor below.

* extreme landscapes, like rugged mountains, thick forests, or icy wastes, and extreme weather.

Yep, plenty of that. The fortress stands on the edge of a wilderness on a rocky coast and there are a couple of violent storms during the story, one possibly of supernatural origin.

* omens and ancestral curses.

Oh yeah. Count Valenso says of the titular Black Stranger. "Accursed indeed. A shadow of mine own red-stained past risen up to hound me to hell."

* magic, supernatural manifestations, or the suggestion of the supernatural.

Yep, the Black Stranger is a demon of some sort. He's got horns and everything. Also the child Tina seems to have some 'second sight' abilities.

* a passion-driven, willful villain-hero or villain.

That would be the aforementioned Count Valenso, who uprooted his entire household to escape the curse that haunts him. He seems an okay guy at first but by the end of the story he's whipping children and he's willing to marry his poor niece off to a bloodthirsty pirate to save his own skin. Udolpho's Count Montoni would love him.

* a curious heroine with a tendency to faint and a need to be rescued–frequently,

The very curious Lady Belesa faints in horror at the end of chapter three and almost again when she sees the Black Stranger, and of course Conan rescues her a couple of times.

* a hero whose true identity is revealed by the end of the novel.

Oddly enough, Conan himself, who isn't named until way into the story.

* horrifying (or terrifying) events or the threat of such happenings.

Yes. Lots. Blood and gore and supernatural menace abound.

I think what caught my attention Gothic-wise initially was the character of Belesa. Like many Gothic heroines before and since, she's at the mercy of the hero-villain, her uncle the Count. She's also the primary viewpoint character for the first part of the story, following a brief vignette with an unnamed Conan. And in many ways, it's her story. Conan's bloody battles with Picts and pirates are almost a separate thread. Tina's fey qualities add a little more of the Gothic touch, as does the classic Gothic device of the sins of the past catching up with the hero-villain. REH was once again experimenting and refusing to stick to the formula that the uninformed often claim he worked by.
Now does all this change my mind about REH reading the Gothics? Nah. He read enough horror by Lovecraft, Machen, and such that he probably picked up things second hand from the influences of those writers. Still, there's a lot of Gothic to The Black Stranger.

4 comments:

Paul said...

If Walpole hasn't turned you off completely, I'd recommend Beckford's Vathek as the best of the original gothics.

In other news: Canadian Paypal hard .

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Doh, I haven't tried the Canadian Paypal yet. Difficult eh?

I did read Vathek and liked it. I liked Udolpho best of the standard group. Otranto just didn't work for me, somehow and I found most of Melmoth slow as well. Barozzi is amazingly readable though.

Anonymous said...

Might want to try The Monk by Lewis.
Actually still kinda shocking today. Really blew readers out of their shoes back in 1796.

John

Charles R. Rutledge said...

I have read The Monk, John, and you're right, it is STILL strong stuff.