The Lovecraft Reread

Please Do Not Climb the Cyclopean Artifact: Robert Howard’s “The Black Stone”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

Today we’re looking at Robert Howard’s “The Black Stone,” first published in the November 1931 issue of Weird Tales. Spoilers ahead.

“Look!” He drew me to a latticed window and pointed up at the fir-clad slopes of the brooding blue mountains. “There beyond where you see the bare face of that jutting cliff stands that accursed Stone. Would that it were ground to powder and the powder flung into the Danube to be carried to the deepest ocean! Once men tried to destroy the thing, but each man who laid hammer or maul against it came to an evil end. So now the people shun it.”

Summary

Unnamed narrator (our friend UN) first reads of the Black Stone in Von Junzt’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten (1839): he owns a fantastically rare copy of the unexpurgated German edition. The eldritch glamour of this “Black Book” was enhanced by the author’s mysterious death at “taloned” hands. His body was found amidst the shredded pages of his latest manuscript; after a friend pieced the pages together and read them, he burned the work and cut his own throat. So not the best of critical reactions.

Von Junzt described the Black Stone as a sinister monolith on a mountain in Hungary. He scoffed at the theory it was the product of the Hunnish invasion, implying it was far older. UN investigates further and learns the Stone’s near a remote village called Stregoicavar, which translates roughly as “Witchtown.” When UN connects the Stone with Justin Geoffrey’s “People of the Monolith,” written during the mad poet’s travels in Hungary, he decides to vacation in Stregoicavar.

On the way he passes the battlefield of Schomvaal, where Count Boris Vladinoff held off the Turkish army led by Selim Bahadur. While perusing—and freaking out over—a parchment captured from dead Selim, Vladinoff was crushed by falling castle walls, where he lies still.

Stregoicavar turns out to be a sleepy mountain-nestled town resettled by Magyar-Slavs after the Turks massacred the original inhabitants, whom they describe as a pagan bunch of dubious racial mixture rumored to steal babies and girls from the lowlanders. UN settles at an inn. The host remembers Geoffrey as a queer-acting mumbler who looked too long at the Black Stone, so he’s not surprised to hear Geoffrey died screaming in a madhouse—or that his verse is now famous. His own nephew had the misfortune to fall asleep near the stone and has been troubled by nightmares ever since. But worse than sleeping near the monolith would be to visit it on Midsummer’s Eve, when monstrous sights shatter the brains of the overcurious.

UN hikes up into the mountains to see the Stone: sixteen feet tall, of an unknown black mineral, carved with strange characters. UN is familiar with all known hieroglyphs but can’t decipher these; still, they remind him of characters on a certain huge rock he once examined in Yucatan. The innkeeper’s nephew describes the one clear image from his nightmares: the Stone not as an isolated monolith but as a spire on a colossal castle. The village schoolmaster supplies the original name of Stregoicavar: Xuthltan, a barbarous-sounding name that shouldn’t have belonged to any aboriginal language of the region.

Impulse drives UN to the Stone on Midsummer’s Eve. Moonlight gives the cliffs below it the look of cyclopean battlements. No wind stirs the forest through which he passes, but a rustling and whispering still pursues him. He settles on a rock at the edge of the Stone clearing; as midnight approaches, he hears eerie pipes, the monolith seems to sway, and he falls asleep.

Whether in dream or actuality, he opens his eyes to find the clearing packed with squat, low-browed people dressed in animal hides. They sway to a hag-beaten drum. A brazier before the monolith exhales yellow smoke. Next to it lie a bound and naked girl and a young baby. The swayers chant, but UN hears them only dimly, as if they’re far from him in space—or time.

A naked young woman dances wildly around the clearing. She’s pursued by a wolfhead-masked priest, who lashes her with fir switches until she crawls bleeding to the monolith, which she covers with fierce kisses. The worshippers attack each other with teeth and nails. The priest brains the stolen baby on the monolith, then tears open its body to feed the brazier with its blood. Triumph! A bloated toad-like being appears atop the Stone, its huge unblinking eyes mirroring “all the unholy things and vile secrets that sleep in cities under the sea and skulk from the light of day in the blackness of primordial caverns.” The priest offers this creature the bound girl, over whom it slobbers lustfully. At which penultimate horror, UN mercifully faints.

In the morning he revives, to find no sign of the night’s bloody orgy. Did he dream, or did he experience a vision of ghostly votaries and their ghost-god, the replay of past events? Desperate to find out, he goes back to the battlefield of Schomvaal and unearths Count Vladinoff. Among the old bones is that parchment Selim Bahadur wrote after his purge of Xuthltan. The Turkish scribe-warrior describes the foul sorceries of its inhabitants, the cleansing of their valley with clean steel, and the final slaughter of a monstrous toad-like being in a cavern near the Black Stone. Verifying this account is an amulet-effigy of the beast, which Selim tore from the dying high priest.

UN tosses parchment and effigy into the Danube. He remains haunted–not by fear of the ghost-god and its worshippers, for they’re long-gone. No, it’s the realization that such things once existed—that such things might still exist in dark corners of our world—that shakes him. The Black Stone is a key to truths too terrible to contemplate, and UN prays no one will ever try to uproot it and its mysteries.

What’s Cyclopean: For a prototypically pulp writer, Howard at first keeps his adjectives thoroughly under control. Probably not accidentally, the prose gets purpler in proximity to the monolith (“lurid tongues of flame,” etc.). And in the midsummer moonlight, the cliffs around it appear like “cyclopean and Titan-reared battlements jutting from the mountain-slope.” Then later, the stone is “like a spire on a cyclopean black castle.”

The Degenerate Dutch: The original “Magyar-Slavic” inhabitants of Stregoicavar intermingled with a “degraded aboriginal race” according to the current inhabitants. Plus they sacrificed other people’s babies to the Monolith. Good thing they got wiped out by bloodthirsty Turks, right? Right?

Mythos Making: Howard includes several Lovecraftian shout-outs, even aside from the signature cyclopeans. Here is the terrible sound of pipes, and mention of vile undersea cities. There’s a narrator motivated only by his own inarticulate motivation, regretting every step. And over this way… Tsathoggua, perhaps?

Libronomicon: First appearance of Von Junzt’s Unspeakable Cults. Poet Justin Geoffrey also makes a debut. Dostmann’s Remnants of Lost Empires appears to be another creation, although a book of the same name by one P.V.N. Meyers was published in 1875. Other inventions include Dornly’s Magyar Folklore, Larson’s Turkish Wars, and an extremely alarming parchment.

Madness Takes Its Toll: The mad poet Justin Goeffrey died screaming in a madhouse, and let’s all take a moment to be grateful for 21st century medicine with all its imperfections. In general, contact with the Black Stone requires a Sanity Check.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Unlike Klein’s disappointed acolyte, Robert Howard shows no shame in imitating (and perhaps ragging, just a little) his mentor. Or in building on the cyclopean foundation he’s created. There are dozens of little shout-outs, but it’s the geekily detailed imaginary library, and the pitch-perfect narrator, that clearly mark this as a Mythos piece.

The library is delightful, and Von Juntz a vivid enough creation that Lovecraft took him in with open arms. The history of Unspeakable Cults is laid out in staid academic natter. And, staidly, it gives all the details: no bibliographic history is complete, after all, without a few horrific deaths.

And the narrator. Oh, he’s so annoying! Make no mistake, I appreciate his obnoxious mixture of Indiana Jones, Captain Kirk, and hapless Mythosian professor. Yes, I will go visit the monolith that causes people to suffer from lifelong nightmares, because subconscious prompting compels me. Perfect plan for a summer vacation! Let me climb the thing and try to read it—I am familiar with all hieroglyphic traditions! Wait, I went somewhere on my summer vacation, and now it just happens to be Midsummer? You don’t say! I’ll just nip up and visit the Monolith again, and I’ll even bring my dice for a convenient sanity check. What a scary dream. Let me just follow this hunch that is utterly dependent on ten coincidences to work—yup, there’s the manuscript, and it contains everything I need to confirm my dream’s veracity. Damn, I wish I hadn’t read that. Now I have anxiety.

Love it.

In contrast to all the imaginary books, Margaret Murray’s The Witch Cult in Western Europe, published 10 years earlier, does not appear in this story. It sure lurks in the background, though. Murray’s treatise ‘documents’ an ancient fertility cult with a horned god, taught to Europeans by mysterious small aboriginal folk who form the basis of legends about “little people.” It’s pretty well dismantled by this point from an archaeological standpoint, although it contributes to the origin myths for any number of strains of Neopaganism. But Howard’s cult isn’t quite Murray’s: hers was foundational to civilization rather than destructive. And involved less sacrifice to inhuman toad gods.

Yeek. About that sacrifice. Howard’s depiction of the Monolithic ritual is vivid, and vividly horrible. His ancient witch cultists are literally baby-killers, and he doesn’t flinch in his descriptions, at least not until the violence is just about to shift to sex. And on one level, that works. There’s something to be said for overt and blatant horror, undeniable and directly witnessed. Not everything needs to be deniable, maybe you just hallucinated or made it up, or full of ambiguous hints.

But then, one of my favorite things about Lovecraft is the places where he does make his narrators unreliable, where their accusations against the monsters fall just short of definitive witness or evidence. At some level, deeply repressed, he harbors sympathy for the alien and monstrous—he’ll flail and scream about repulsive abominations, but oh-so-frequently there’s room for doubt. At some level, in a surprisingly large number of stories, he writes a world in which it’s pretty darn easy to track how the worm mage or the giant fish monster or the alien might see things differently.

But then, finally, Robert Howard comes back to the horror that really underlies all of Lovecraft: “Man was not always master of the earth—and is he now?” No. No he isn’t. Sweet dreams.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Herr Doktor Wolfie Freud’s more famous relation Sigmund probably never said that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” The idea that one can take objects fraught with symbolic meaning at face value was actually given a vivid if less pithy statement by Wolfie himself. After Lovecraft had his analyst friend read this story, Wolfie wrote in his journal: “Sometimes a monolith is just a monolith even if a naked woman is covering its base with hot, fierce kisses. Because, meh, sometimes it’s just too obvious, especially in the context of blood-soaked orgies depicted in high pulp style. Although that obliteration of the Child-Infant against the Father-Organ is provocative, as is the puffy toad thing on top. Also firry switches.”

Thank you, Herr Doktor, for giving me a mental image of “Firries,” perfectly normal people who like to dress up as evergreen trees and drop their needles in supermarket aisles. Ahem. So here we have the introduction and backstory for PMT (Primary Mythos Tome) Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Has anyone ever written a story in which it’s discovered that Von Junzt’s friend Alexis Ladeau didn’t really burn the great man’s final manuscript? If not, I call dibs. We’re also gifted with mad poet Justin Geoffrey, of whom poor Edward Derby was so fond. Oh, and wait, there’s the Xuthltan manuscript of Selim Bahadur! I bet it was written on water-proof parchment with indelible ink, and we all know how durable gold is. Someday a hapless fisherman on the Danube will hook that lacquered case and bring these treasures back to the light of modern day. More dibs.

Howard packs a lot of fond little Lovecraftian tropes and mannerisms into “Black Stone.” We have the unnamed narrator. Who’s a profound scholar of mythology, languages, hieroglyphics, et cetera, and who seems to be independently wealthy and free of familial obligations. Who, in spite of a scholarly lifestyle, is athletic enough to scale mountains and dig through stony ruins for artifacts long-undisturbed because no one else felt like shifting all those damn rocks. Oh, and who has a supersensitive nose for rare volumes and a nice penchant for giving their publication histories. And who faints conveniently, here just before things got too pornographic for the censors. And who wakes with a new and shivering apprehension of the insignificance of man in a vast cosmos of which he’s neither the only nor the greatest master.

There’s the presence of “cyclopean” and “Titan-reared” in a single sentence!

There’s a squishy primordial toad-beast, and what is that, anyhow? Maybe a spawn of Tsathoggua? Certainly not Tsathoggua itself, since mere humans can kill it.

There are aboriginal people of cryptic race and squat stature, whose loathsomely alien miens suggest an ancestry not entirely human.

However Howard’s tongue may be in his cheek, he keeps a straight enough face to chill. His witches’ sabbath is worthy of a Pickman’s brush, blatantly and nastily sado-erotic. Although he allows his central monstrosity to be destroyed, its destruction and that of its worshippers don’t truly cleanse the world of evil—UN realizes that the sheer scale of the Black Stone’s underpinnings implies plenty more eldritch evil where that toad came from.

Interesting that here the Muslims are the “heroes,” while the Christians cower in their lowlands even when their own children are abducted. The Stregoicavar innkeeper mentions that once men tried to destroy the Black Stone, but those who took hammer and maul to it met evil ends. I’m guessing the would-be destroyers were Selim Bahadur’s men?

Last note: The Stone is said to give an illusion of semi-transparency. That makes me think of the red meteorite of Preston and Child’s Ice Limit. This meteorite could also defend itself, reacting to any moisture, even the touch of a sweaty palm, with an energetic outburst. Maybe the application of metal to the Black Stone caused electric arcing or some such, which would have fried the would-be wreckers and given Selim plenty to write about!

 

Next week, we return to Innsmouth for August Derleth’s “The Shuttered Room.” (In what is clearly a nefarious plot, it doesn’t appear to be available online—sorry.)

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint in Spring 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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