Friday, January 28, 2011

Skull-Face, by Robert E. Howard

(pb; 1978: fantasy/horror novella-story anthology. Introduction by Richard A. Lupoff.)

From the back cover:

"A strange coffin is found floating in the mid-Atlantic - and in it, a withered reptilian creature judged to have been dead not thousands but millions of years! Thus begins the chilling story of Kathulos of the yellow eyes the Ages could not close. . .




Okay, over-the-top, xenophobic action tales from Howard, who specialized in this kind of overwrought, mood-effective and adrenalin-rush work that featured hot-tempered, punching and slashing heroes, hideous exotic (read: foreign) villains, and emotional, sexy (and sometimes treacherous) women.

It's not Howard's best writing, but it's enjoyable, if you're a Howard fan. The structures and plots of the stories are pretty much the same, and there are times where Howard throws too much action into the tales, drawing them beyond what would be their natural lengths -- this is particularly true in "Lord of the Dead" and "Taverel Manor" (though anthology editor Lupoff may share blame for this last extended story).

Richard A. Lupoff's introduction is engaging, analytical and fact-filled, an exemplary filter through which to view these occasionally flawed but otherwise good hero tales.


1.) "Skull-Face" (novella): A junkie (Stephen Costigan) in London falls under the power of an ancient sorcerer (Kathulos), and tries to break free of both Kathulous, while stopping the sorcerer from taking over the world with his dark-ish hoards.

Despite its obvious lifting from H.P. Lovecraft's "Cthulhu Mythos" and its inherent - occasionally stated - racism, this is a fun, solid work. (While reading this, one should remember that Howard's stories were written and published in the 1920s and 1930s, when American/blue collar racism was deemed socially acceptable; one should also remember that Lovecraft and Howard were fervid pen pals, who shared writing genres and similar ideas.)

Fast-paced and exciting, like a serial tale.

2.) "Lord of the Dead": Steve Harrison, a cop, is attacked by a strange, superhuman foe (Ali ibn Suleyman, the Druse), leading Harrison into further violence with Suleyman's Mongolian -- and even more powerful -- boss (Erlik Kahn, aka the "Lord of the Dead").

3.) "Names in the Black Book": Erlik Kahn, thought dead at the end of "Lord of the Dead", heals and begins killing those who betrayed and thrwarted him in that earlier tale -- a list that includes Steve Harrison and his girlfriend, Joan La Tour (also from "Lord of the Dead").

4.) "Taverel Manor": British Secret Service agents Steve Costigan and John Gordon, previously read about in "Skull-Face", battle their returned arch-foe (Kathulos, the titular character in "Skull-Face").

Joan La Tour, also seen in "Lord of the Dead" and "Names in the Black Book", is a minor character in this story, sans Steve Harrison (she's engaged to someone else - Harrison is never mentioned).

This last tale is co-authored by anthology editor Richard A. Lupoff, who finished this incomplete story left behind by Howard. (Howard committed suicide in 1936.)

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