After reading ‘Conan the Buccaneer’ the other day, and being pretty disappointed to say the least, I knew that the only way forward was to go ‘back to the source’ and read some Conan that had been written by the man himself. I’m doing just that and it has quickly become very clear that there’s no substitute for the real thing in terms of high adventure and storytelling. If I could make it happen I’d get everyone to take an hour out of today and read a Robert E. Howard ‘Conan’ story, especially now it’s December and the sky has suddenly gone a seemingly permanent shade of grey.
Having said all that, this isn’t actually a ‘Conan’ post at all (that one is a little way off right now, give me a couple of weeks). I was mooching through my bookshelves and realised that I hadn’t got round to reading anything from ‘The Gods of Bal-Sagoth’ (one of the books that I picked up at Nine Worlds). Howard’s writing output always astounds me (not just quantity but the range of genres he covered as well) so I thought I’d pick a couple of short stories for the commute and see where they took me. I deliberately picked two of the shortest tales, ‘Casonetto’s Last Song’ and ‘The Curse of the Golden Skull’, to read as I’m never really a hundred percent awake for the morning commute (despite the Lucozade) and needed a short, sharp burst of storytelling to get me going. And that’s what I got…
‘I eyed the package curiously. It was thin and flat and the address was written clearly in the curving hand I had learned to hate – the hand I knew to now be cold in death’
‘Casonetto’s Last Song’ starts in that deliberately innocuous way that always suggests something really bad is going to happen over the next page or two. Having set things up in such a way, Howard doesn’t disappoint with a satanic recording that takes our narrator back to a moment of sheer terror… and then refuses to let him leave. I think the danger with opening a story like this is that the reader knows what is coming and things lose a little punch as a result. Howard sidesteps this pitfall by ramping up the effects of the recording to new and unprecedented levels. The end result is that while you may have known what was coming, there was no way you could ever know that it would be this bad. ‘Casonetto’s Last Song’ looks like it might just be another ‘by the numbers’ horror story and then swiftly becomes anything but. The ending is also abrupt enough to throw you back into yourself just when you least expect it, the reading equivalent of having a glass of ice cold water thrown in your face when you’re asleep. A fitting way to end quite a shocking tale.
‘Rotath of Lemuria lay dying. Blood had ceased to flow from the deep sword gash under his heart, but the pulse in his temple hammered like kettledrums.’
When I first started reading ‘The Curse of the Golden Skull’ I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure if even Robert E. Howard could make something interesting out of the drawn out death of a pre-historic sorcerer. I mean… Sorcerer takes a mortal wound, Sorcerer dies. Job done, surely?
There’s a little more to it than that though with a link to Kull proving to be intriguing (I really need to read some more ‘Kull’, does this story lead on from a ‘Kull’ tale?) while the sheer anger of Rotath, at his impending demise, powers the story along nicely to the point where Rotath basically turns his body into gold so his cursed skeleton will survive the passage of ages. And that’s where ‘The Curse of the Golden Skull’ really delivered for me. Is the skeleton really cursed or was what happened to the jungle explorer just sheer ill luck? Howard phrases it so it could be either and the ending becomes one that will really make you think about what just happened. It is still making me think (although I’m now veering towards the ‘proper curse’ ending).
A couple of really good stories here then and further confirmation of the fact that I can always rely on Robert E. Howard to deliver short stories (as well as slightly longer ones) that I will always enjoy. I’ll be coming back to ‘The Gods of Bal-Sagoth’ sooner rather than later I think.