Where’s the gore? Where’s the grisly fright? My Halloween series has been featuring atmospheric fantasy poems so far, a mode I personally like, but I suspect there are some in my audience that want things more corpse than incorporeal ghosts.
Well, I’ve been saving this one up for you, wanting to work out a full folk-rock arrangement. Given that I play all the parts, it’s taken awhile to complete, but the stars aligned and it’s ready for you to hear. Who’s the poet and word-supplier this time? Robert E. Howard.
“That Robert E. Howard?” a few of you may be asking. Yup. Conan etc. No, not the red-haired antic Harvard-educated TV comic. The other one. The character who helped put the sword to sword and sorcery. And today’s poem didn’t appear in The Dial, Poetry, Others, The Criterion, or other early 20th century magazine of emergent literary art. “Dead Man’s Hate” first saw print in the pulp Weird Tales.
No, not the charmingly mysterious Bob Dylan short musical film, this is Howard’s own 1929 sword and sorcery story as illustrated in Weird Tales. Besides the putative Dylan connection, note that freshly severed head. Our hero’s kingdom is beset by many evil things that aren’t what they seem, including the now familiar shape-shifting snake-headed lizard people trope.
To the small degree I know Howard’s work, it is through a late friend of mine who appreciated the literature of H. P. Lovecraft and his circle which included Howard. That friend was always careful to frame Lovecraft, Howard, et al by noting their racist and racialist elements. He could have gone on to note that they weren’t consistent literary craftsmen either. Given their needs to sell by the word to late-paying pulps, they perhaps couldn’t afford literary polish — but that their stories can still have power for some readers, despite all that, says something too. Howard’s “Dead Man’s Hate” has no problematic racialist elements* and I think it has the on-rushing narrative power of a Child or broadside ballad in telling its gruesome story of a hanging.
As I said in opening, the music took a bit of work, and perhaps in coincidental honor to Howard’s pre-WWII Texas upbringing, I used twin violins as the lead instruments — but this unconventional folk-rock style song isn’t really Texas Swing. Besides a twanging Telecaster, electric bass, and drums, there’s a pump organ and some vox-humana-like notes in there too. You can hear my performance of “Dead Man’s Hate” with the player gadget below. No player visible? This highlighted link is an alternative way to open an audio player to hear it. Looking for those less gritty Halloween pieces? Check out our last six Parlando Project posts for a range of other ghosts and gothics.
*Well, there is this: the man being hanged has a distinguishable Irish surname, and the one celebrating this event has the WASPey name of Adam Brand. Hangings in American westerns often read to me as conscious or unconscious wrangling with the history of American lynchings of Afro-Americans and other outsider groups. As to racism in Howard’s pre-WWII Texas, my father spent part of his childhood there, and it was pretty much baked-in according to his recollections. Poor Howard, dead and gone, left me here to sing his song — and Howard might not have lived long enough to see what he was indurated with. I’ve come to believe the Muses, a useful name for the unlimited forces that inspire art, are capable of bringing in viewpoints and power that their human receivers would have difficulty expressing.