Sunday, 21 July 2013

Short Story Sunday - 'The Garden of Fear' (Robert E. Howard)

It really shouldn't do but it still always surprises me just how much Robert E. Howard wrote in his relatively short life. Everyone here should know by now that Howard was about far more than Conan, Solomon Kane and even Kull. I just didn't realise that there were a whole load of short stories completely unconnected to any of his main characters; at least until I was looking at the contents of 'Conan's Brethren' and got a little introduction. What made me choose 'The Garden of Fear' for todays short story post? No idea other than that the title suggested 'Sword & Sorcery' (which is a real staple of my reading diet right now) and sounded really cool all at the same time. It was also only ten pages long and that pretty much sold the deal for me. It almost felt like an afterthought but 'The Garden of Fear' was an exciting read as well...

James Allison can remember every life he has ever lived, right back into the dawn of pre-history and beyond... 'The Garden of Fear' recalls James' life as Hunwolf, a warrior of the Aesir, and his fight to recover his love from a demonic birdman and his garden of carnivorous plants...

I’m only a little way into what I suspect is an extensive back catalogue but I have yet to find a short story etc by Howard that isn’t well written and entertaining. ‘The Garden of Fear’ maintains this standard nicely although there is a little waffle here and there, not ideal for a story that is only ten pages long… Having said that, I guess this would depend on how interested you were in the migratory patterns of the Aesir tribes. I wasn’t particularly interested (reminded me of the more tedious parts of his essay about Conan’s world, didn’t get on with that particularly well either).

There’s enough of a hook to get you past these opening passages (i.e. the mystery of James Allison, was this where Michael Moorcock got his idea of the Eternal Champion?) and it gets a lot better after that. While I liked the concept of James Allison, I did question Howard’s use of his modern day knowledge to explain things that Hunwolf could not fathom. This took away some of the mystery for me although Howard more than makes up for this right at the end with questions left unanswered.

Overall though, ‘The Garden of Fear’ offers high adventure and chills in equal measure with a typical ‘Howardesque’ hero fearlessly going up against a monster beyond his comprehension. The carnivorous plants are really creepy and I had to admire Hunwolf’s nerve and ingenuity in getting rid of them as well as the ‘barbarian instinct’ that allows him and Gudrun to dispatch the winged man. All of this is set against a wide open landscape that reeks of pre-history and this helps the reader see just how old the winged man really is. It’s an atmosphere that weighs heavily on the reader and all credit to Howard for creating this atmosphere in such a short space of time.

Not a perfect read then but the good outweighs the bad to such an extent that it almost is. You can’t ask for much more than that can you?

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