Although he’s best known today as a sword and sorcery author, Howard excelled at a number of genres. One of those was horror. In fact, I would argue that part of what made his S&S so good was its infusion of horror.
Since Halloween is coming up, I thought I would look at some of his horror stories this year. (Last year I looked at some of the Halloween shorts from Cemetery Dance.) All of Howard’s horror tales, including those that feature some of his series characters such as Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn, are included in the Del Rey volume shown at the top of the post. I’m going to discuss them on an individual basis rather than try to review the whole book. Howard wrote quite a bit of horror, and I want to examine some of the details. While I doubt I’ll have a post every day until Halloween (I don’t have that kind of time), I intend to look at as many as possible. And just so you know, there will be spoilers.
The first horror story we’ll look at is “Old Garfield’s Heart”. In a way, it’s a weird western, even though most of the story actually takes place in what would have been considered contemporary times when it was written.
The story is told by an unnamed narrator, a young man who is waiting for Doc Blaine to take him out to Old Jim Garfield’s house. Garfield was thrown from a horse and isn’t expected to live. While waiting, the narrator’s grandfather tells how he knew Garfield back in the 1870s, when he and Garfield participated in an attack on some raiding Commanches. Garfield was seriously wounded, but an old Lipan Apache shaman appears, takes Garfield into a mesquite thicket and spends the night performing some ritual. The men could hear owls hooting all night. The next morning Garfield is alive and well. He hasn’t aged a day since.
Out at Garfield’s cabin, he confirms the story is true. He says he was given the heart of an Indian god and as long as the heart is in his chest, it will always beat. The only way he can die is by a head injury. Garfield makes Doc Blaine promise that if anything happens to him, he’ll remove the heart from his chest.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Garfield recovers. The action shifts to the narrator standing up to one of the town bullies, nearly killing him with a knife. The bully has the name of Jack KIrby. This is a typical Howardian name. The story was written before the real Jack Kirby began working in comics.
While awaiting trial, the narrator is picked up by Doc Blaine and taken out to Garfield’s place. Kirby is looking to kill the narrator, and Blaine wants to protect him. The narrator isn’t too happy. While they’re talking about the old shaman, who knew Coronado, the men hear a horse ride up. The narrator opens the door and is nearly killed by a rifle shot. The only thing that saves him is Doc Blaine pushing him out of the way. The narrator grabs Garfield’s shotgun from the wall and peppers the horse’s hindquarters as the rider tries to make his getaway. The spooked horse takes off through an orchard and a tree branch knocks the rider off. It’s Jack Kirby, his neck broken.
Garfield is also dead. The bullet meant for the narrator took off the top of his head. As Garfield’s body cools, the heart keeps beating. The narrator assists Doc Blaine in removing Garfield’s heart. They hear an owl while they work. The narrator is holding Garfield’s heart when the door opens and the Lipan shaman walks in, hand outstretched. He takes the heart and leaves without a word. When the men rush to the door, the yard is empty. The only living thing they see is an owl silhouetted against the Moon.
This story is one of the shorter horror tales Howard wrote, but in it he played to his strengths. He peppers the tale with references to Texas history and geography, two subjects with which he was quite familiar. The bully Jack Kirby is a type of character we see often in Howard’s fiction, and I’m sure he knew a number of people over the course of his life who could have served as models. Oilfield workers, ranch hands, and other men who followed the boom towns of the 10s and 20s of the previous century tended to be rough, swaggering fellows. Howard loved to talk to the older people in the community, listening to their tales of the pioneer days. The narrator’s grandfather fits their mold perfectly.
But the thing that catch my attention on this rereading was the character of Doc Blaine. I don’t know how much time Robert spent riding with his father when Doc Howard made his rounds. I’m sure he went along once or twice. He certainly had to be familiar with his father’s routine. The senior Howard’s habits of visiting his patients for social purposes as well as medical purposes are well documented. We’re not given a physical description of Doc Blaine, but I can’t help think Robert based the character on his father.
“Old Garfield’s Heart” isn’t a particularly scary horror story, at least not to me, but Howard’s use of detail bring the setting and period alive, giving it an atmosphere that adds to its creepiness. Check it out. I’ll have another look at one of Robert’s horror stories tomorrow or the next day.