Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Howard's Horrors: The Black Stone!

Hey all, Luke here! Just finished another REH story last night, The Black Stone.
Here's the Roquefort Raider's interpretation of that strange obelisk...


Pretty ominous, huh? This widely-lauded "Cthulhu mythos" story was first published in Weird Tales in November of '31... Right out of the gate I noticed that REH set a very different tone from both Haunter of the Ring and Pigeons from Hell (the other straight horror stories from REH that I've read)... REH "grounds" this story with a backdrop of mythical books and poetry that surround an unnatural, perhaps mystical, obelisk in the rural landscape of Hungary. 

Needless to say, the nameless narrator of the story can't be happy with just reading about such weird landmarks, he is compelled to take a little holiday to investigate this obelisk... And did I mention it happens to be around the time of the summer solstice?

Once darkness falls, the story takes on a dream-like quality. And as the events of that night build to a fever-pitch, the story turns into a blood-curdling nightmare! This tale has by far the most striking and horrific act(s) of violence that I've read by REH, though I would say not gratuitous in the least.

I think this is a tremendous story! While there are arguments to be made about its derivative qualities (see this well-written essay by Price), I am of the mind that this is as much a tale that exhibits "Howardian" themes as those typically associated with Lovecraft.... Without spoiling too much, there is a heavy reliance on civilization and race, which I think is a nice contrast with the theme of doomed familial relations and heritage that are more commonly acknowledged Lovecraftian tropes. 

If you've read this story, what do you think? Sound off in the comments section below!

I give this story a hearty recommendation. It's free on Project Gutenburg or, if you're on the hunt for an audio retelling of the story, check out an older post by SFF Audio. They give some great shout-outs to podcasts that narrated the The Black Stone. Their post also presents some additional art inspired by the story! 

And on that note, I'll leave you with the cover art for Bantam's 1979 edition of the "Wolfshead" collection... Who knows what that being that lurks on the top of the dread black stone?

And from when?!?!?!

3 comments:

  1. I had some time to kill this morning and decided to give this story a shot. I ended up liking it. It reminds me a lot of the few HPL stories I've read, which makes sense given it's in the Cthulhu mythos. I think that points to REHs skills as a writer, that he can write in a shared universe with a similar style, but manage not to ape HPL so much that it's bad writing.

    ****SPOILER ALERT****

    A couple things I don't like. I'm finding I also don't like similar things in HPLs writing, so some of it may be that I just disagree with the underlying themes they're supporting.

    First, I know why he makes the main character know obscure languages and have access to rare books, but at some point it's a bit much. The following sentence, which is about the authors knowledge of Turkish and his decoding of an ancient letter, is what got me: "It was difficult work, for I am not deeply versed in the language and the archaic style of the narrative baffled me"
    Seriously? What does he know ancient Turkish? I get that he's a well-rounded scholar, and I can accept that his chosen field is occur-related topics, so he has knowledge that most men don't possess. But there's no reason for him to have even dabbled in Turkish at any point, let alone be able to translate Turkish that is 400 years old. I'd have trouble reading 400 year old English, and that's my native tongue.

    Second, it always bothers me in the Cthulhu mythos stories when the protagonist destroys some book or piece of writing because they can't handle the truth it reveals. I think the current underlying most of HPLs writing is that we should remain ignorant of the truth - of the randomness of the universe, of our ununique position in it, and that there are forces we can't control that greatly affect us - because we can't handle it. He pretty much says as much in the opening paragraph of "The Call of Cthulhu":
    "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

    Perhaps it's the scientist in me, but I can't agree with that. I feel that without the knowledge Suleiman wrote down there is no way humanity could confront or understand the other unknown terrors that lurk in the dark.

    But, then again, I'm sitting here having never set my eyes on the unspeakable, unconceivable thing that an Old God is.

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  2. The more I think about it the more I do like the story though.

    I like the description of the obelisk. It's actually quite small and that's neat - kind of like the tiny figurines in "Call of Cthulhu", it's not the size of the thing that makes it have power.
    I also really liked the description of the obelisk: " It had once evidently been highly polished, but now the surface was thickly dinted as if savage efforts had been made to demolish it; but the hammers had done little more than to flake off small bits of stone and mutilate the characters which once had evidently marched up in a spiraling line round and round the shaft to the top. Up to ten feet from the base these characters were almost completely blotted out, so that it was very difficult to trace their direction."
    I love the image that conjures when combined with the previous knowledge that the villagers tried to hammer the obelisk down. I picture these burly guys with giant hammers swinging the hammers as high over their heads as they can, scuffing the stone up to ten feet because that's as high as their outstretched arms will allow.

    Xuthltan, the original name of the town, reminds me of Xuthal. Perhaps the same people or language was associated with both names? They're both definitely ancient in origin.

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  3. In Conan stories there are the cities of Xuthal and Xucthol (and maybe Xapur) that have a common origin. I'm not sure if Xuthltan has anything in common with them, but REH certainly loved the sound of "Xu". For example in "Iron Shadows in the Moon" there appears word "Xuthalla", no idea what it means. However, in "Fire of Asshurbanipal" there is a sorcerer named Xuthltan and one story fragment (several drafts exist) has a mention of Xuthltan as well, that time it is either a location or a god. I don't remember the details. I have read some debate about if and how these similar words are connected.

    About your earlier post, I like many of those tropes you mentioned. I like it when characters know obscure languages or destroy writings. Often the mere reading of something might bring you doom, so being ignorant might be safer. And a touch of irrationality adds to the atmosphere as well.

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