Category Archives: Skull-Face

The Noseless Horror

Tales of Weird Menace
Robert E. Howard
The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press
473 p., $45 REHF members, $50 nonmembers

Tales of Weird Menace collects the, what else, weird menace stories of Robert E. Howard.  The centerpiece of the volume is Skull-Face.  Since I’ve written at length about that tale,we’ll go on to the second.

This is “The Noseless Horror”.  It’s a brief tale, and in the interest of fair warning, I should tell you I’m going to include spoilers in this discussion.  The plot is pretty simple.  The narrator, called only Slade, and John Gordon are spending the night at the isolated country manor of Sir Thomas Cameron, noted Egyptotologist.  Whether this is the same John Gordon who has such a prominent role in Skull-Face isn’t clear, but it’s highly  unlikely.  This Gordon is described as a wealthy sportsman, whereas the Gordon of Skull-Face is a government agent. The only other person at the house is the Sikh servant Ganra Singh, who lost his nose to an Afghan sword.  There’s also a Ganra Singh in Skull-Face, but he’s not the one here.  The descriptions and backgrounds are too different, plus the Ganra Singh in Skull-Face still has his nose intact.

Much of the conversation revolves around Sir Thomas tricking a rival, Gustavve von Honmann, with a phony map.  As a result of following the map, Von Honmann was killed by a tribe in central Africa.  According to the one porter who managed to escape, he vowed he would have revenge on Sir Thomas, from this side of the grave or the other.  Sir Thomas isn’t frightened, and moves the conversation to the real reason he had asked the men to his home.


Sir Thomas tells Gordon and Slade that he is about to announce a major find and wants their input on some details first.  The find concerns a mummy found in the hinterlands of Upper Egypt that was embalmed in an unusual way.  None of the internal organs were removed.  As Slade and Gordon are preparing for bed, they hear a scream from Sir Thomas’ study. 

They arrive in time to hear Sir Thomas’ final words, “Noseless–the noseless one”, before he falls over dead with a dagger in his heart.  Ganra Singh joins them minutes later.  Of course, Gordon immediately accuses Ganra Singh of the murder despite the fact that Ganra Singh’s clothes are not disheveled nor is there any blood on them.  Slade is not so sure of Ganra Singh’s guilt, and Gordon, after locking Ganra Singh in another room, agrees to consider other possibilities.

Slade searches the house while Gordon stays in the study to look for clues.  He actually says that.  Up until this point, the story reads like a combination gothic/English country house mystery.  It’s not until Slade is returning to the study after finding an empty mummy case in Sir Thomas’ private museum that he spies the shadow of Ganra Singh on the wall.  Slade is terrified and understands something of what could have driven Sir Thomas mad just before he died.  At this point, we’re back in familiar Howard territory, more of a horror story than a weird menace in my opinion. 

While Slade was searching the building, both men heard a crash and assumed it was caused by the other.  They investigate to find that Ganra Singh has escaped.  After searching the building, they see a light coming from under Ganra Singh’s room.  How they know this to be his room is not explained.  The light is caused by roaring fire in the fireplace.  Inside Gordon and Slade discover not Ganra Singh but the missing mummy, which, like Ganra Singh, has no nose.  The mummy attacks, shattering Slade’s shoulder, and is in the process of breaking Gordon’s back across a heave table when Ganra Singh shows up.  By his own brute force Ganra Singh is able to shove the mummy into the fire, destroying. Gordon responds by fainting.

While Ganra Singh is binding Slade’s wounds, we learn that Ganra Singh escaped in order to prove his innocence and find the true killer.  Gordon apologizes for doubting him and gives him one of the highest compliments possible in Howard’s fiction, calling him “a real man.”  Gordon tells the other two men that the mummy wasn’t found in the hinterlands of Egypt, but instead Sir Thomas brought it back from much closer to the center of the continent, on the edge of the territory where Von Honmann was killed.  As the mummy burned in the flames, Gordon saw its face change to Von Homann’s.

This story works, although it’s not one of Howard’s best, and it works primarily because of Howard’s ability to tell a tale.  It begins as an apparent attempt to be either a detective story or a traditional country house mystery.  The “mystery” is entirely too predictable.  About halfway through the tone changes and becomes one of creeping horror and then action, things Howard excelled at.  It’s at the end, when Gordon is explaining things, that Howard returns to the form of a traditional mystery, in which the detective explains to the remaining suspects how he deduced who dunnit.  Howard attempted some detective and mystery stories, but he never really felt comfortable with them.  Often he would introduce elements of the genre he was trying to write into a genre story he was comfortable with.  As an example, one of the early Conan stories, “The God in the Bowl” is a police procedural in a fantasy setting.  This looks like an attempt on his part to mix horror with mystery/detection.

A popular pastime, usually among the uninformed but occasionally among people who should know better, is to criticize Howard for his approach to race.  This story is a perfect example that such individuals don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.  The narrator refuses to accept  that the nonwhite character is automatically the killer, instead wanting to see proof, and tries to find evidence to clear him.  Furthermore, Howard makes him the real hero of the story, saving the lives of the white guys.  What’s racist about that?  Nothing; in fact it’s remarkably progressive for its time.  Gordon displays the typical racial attitudes for a man of his day.  He not only gets shown up for it, he’s also the only one who faints, and then later apologizes for his attitudes. 

One thing bears considering here, and that’s the similarities between “The Noseless Horror” and Skull-Face.  Both have strong heroic characters named John Gordon.  Both involved evil beings with grotesque appearances found in mummy cases.   Both have Sikh characters named Ganra Singh, although the two Sikhs are clearly not the same person.  I don’t know when “The Noseless Horror” was written nor have I had any luck in finding a probable composition date, but my guess, and this is only a guess, is that it precedes Skull-Face in composition.  It wasn’t unusual for Howard to play around with variations on different characters names.  He may have tried out the names in “The Noseless Horror” before going on to write Skull-Face. Certainly the latter is a more polished and ambitious work.  And it would make no sense to give characters in a later story the same names as characters in a published story when those characters aren’t the same individuals.

I don’t know if Howard submitted “The Noseless Horror” anywhere or not.  In a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith written sometime in February 1929, Howard provides a list of most of the stories he had submitted up to that time [Collected Letters, vol.1, 1923-1929, REH Foundation Press, pp. 306-312].  “The Noseless Horror” isn’t listed, although Skull-Face is.  In the letter Howard mentions that he left out “four or five stories” plus a number he didn’t finish or submit.  I suspect “The Noseless Horror” was among these.  That would certainly be consistent with the suggestion Howard wrote “The Noseless Horror” for prior to Skull-Face and never submitted it anywhere.  It wasn’t published until 1970 in the February issue of the Magazine of Horror.  If anyone does know when this story was written, I’d appreciate your letting me know.

“The Noseless Horror”, like I said, isn’t one of Howard’s best and may very well have been an unsuccessful experiment in writing in the vein of an English mystery.  Unsuccessful in terms of its being that type of mystery.  Still, it’s worth a read and no matter what it attempts to be, it succeeds as an entertaining yarn. 

Long Looks at Short Fiction: Skull-Face by Robert E. Howard

Tales of Weird Menace
by Robert E. Howard
The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press
Ordering Information Not Yet Available

The Robert E. Howard Foundation has, in the few short years of its existence, done a number of good things.  Such things as helping maintain the Robert E. Howard House in Cross Plains, Texas, and providing an annual scholarship to a graduating senior from Cross Plains High School.  As part of the Foundation’s mission, a number of works by Howard are being reprinted, including his collected letters (in 3 volumes) and a giant volume of Howard’s collected poetry.  The latter title has gone through three printings and is currently sold out.  Sales of these and other books help fund the philanthropic activities of the Foundation.

Next up on the Foundation’s schedule is the volume you see to the left.  This collection contains Howard’s Weird Menace stories, as you can probably tell from the title.  We’ll look at the best known of them, Skull-Face in this posting.

But first a word about the Weird Menace pulps on the off chance some of you aren’t familiar with them.  These were a blend of horror and super science, with a dash of the hero pulps (think Doc Savage or The Spider) and a good deal of implied or explicit eroticism and gore thrown in.  Often the supernatural aspect of the villain was revealed to be mundane, although you can be sure that won’t be the case with “Skull-Face.”  The weird menace pulps were fairly popular, but censorship and the real horrors of World War II ultimately did them in.

Howard tried his hand at writing some of this type of tale, like he did with most of the pulp genres that weren’t marketed to solely to women, such as romance pulps.  While this isn’t the sort of thing Howard is best remembered for, which would be his fantasy and horror tales, Howard was a diverse writer who was successful in a number of pulp genres, such as serious and humorous westerns, as well as boxing stories, a genre that was prominent at the time but has pretty much disappeared from popular fiction.

What I don’t understand is why “Skull-Face” seems to have fallen on, well, I guess you could call it a time of neglect.  I’m not sure the work has been out of print much since the Howard boom of the 70s when Berkley featured it as the lead in a collection of related tales.  But you don’t hear it talked about much anymore.  At least I haven’t.  It has all the ingredients of a classic pulp adventure:  danger, lots of action, a beautiful and imperiled woman, not one but two heroes, and of course, The Yellow Peril, Robert E. Howard style.

And it may well be that last ingredient which has made it less popular; I don’t know.  There is certainly a great deal said about race in the story, from more than one point of view.  And Skull-Face, or The Master, or The Scorpion as he’s also known, doesn’t fit the traditional Yellow Peril mold completely.  For one thing, Skull-Face isn’t actually an oriental, but beyond that I’m not going to spoil the fun.

To most modern readers, The Yellow Peril  might be unfamiliar, and to many would certainly be offensive.  In essence, it was a trope common to much popular fiction in the early 20th century.  Basically western (read white) civilization would be threatened in some way by an oriental menace, often in the form of an evil criminal genius who often had occult or scientific powers that were beyond anything the West was capable of.  The example the casual reader would most likely be familiar with is Sax Rhomer’s Fu Manchu.

Regardless, the whole concept of the Yellow Peril would not be politically correct in this day and age.  Far from it.  As a result it would be offensive to many modern readers.  I, however, hold the opinion that when you’re reading literature from a different historical period, you do yourself and the story a disservice if you try to evaluate aspects of it through contemporary lenses.  Instead, keep in mind the cultural context in which a particular story was written.

That’s just as true in the case of “Skull-Face” as it is for any other work of literature.  However outdated some of Howard’s views on race may seem to be to the reader of the 21st century, they weren’t that far out of the mainstream in the 20s and 30s.  (A topic that won’t be discussed in any detail here.)  And if the racial portrayals in “Skull-Face” are what have caused it to be eclipsed by some of Howard’s other work, then it’s a crying shame.

Because “Skull-Face” is fine story.  It was serialized in three parts in the October, November, and December 1929 issues of Weird Tales.  The first Solomon Kane stories were beginning to see print at this time, and Kull would had made his debut earlier that same year, with Bran Mak Morn appearing the next year.  The coming of Conan was still a few years in the future.  While Robert E. Howard had not yet reached the peak of his output, in both quality and quantity, he was no slouch either.  The prose was much more crisp and less purple than I was expecting.  The pace is the headlong rush with plenty of action we’ve come to expect in a Howard yarn.  Howard doesn’t shy away from violence or the seedy underside of the Chinese ghetto in London where much of the story takes place.  He shows us, through the eyes of Stephen Costigan (not to be confused by the boxing sailor of that name in other Howard stories) what life is like for the addict in an opium den.

And that may be another reason the story isn’t as popular as it once was.  Drugs are a constant fixation of the story (pardon the pun).  Costigan is an opium addict when we first meet him, and the cure of his addiction comes at the price of addiction to a more potent drug.  The fact that drug use plays a prominent role in the tale will make some of today’s readers immediately reject for that reason.  Which is another shame.  Because drug use is in no way gloried or romanticized at any point in the story.  Instead, Costigan at one point curses the weakness in himself that drove him to become addicted in the first place.  And the noble and wealthy patrons who visit Yun Shatu’s Dream Temple are not portrayed positively.  Anyone who gives the story more than a casual reading can’t help but come away with the distinct impression that Howard probably didn’t think much of drug usage.

Costigan is a wounded veteran of the Great War, who has fallen into his addiction in an attempt to ease his pain.  Noticed by the girl Zulieka, herself a slave of The Master as she refers to him, Costigan is given the chance to break free of opium and perform certain tasks for the Master, who at this point remains hidden behind a screen.  Trying to stop Skull-Face is British agent at large John Gordon.  Ultimately, Skull-Face’s demands are more than Costigan is willing to commit to.  He and Gordon join forces.

If you want any more information, you’ll have to read the story yourself.  There are indications that Howard may have been planning to create a series character with Skull-Face.  The Berkley edition has two associated stories plus “Taverel Manor”, an unfinished sequel.  Richard A Lupoff finished “Taverel Manor” for Berkley.  While he’s a good writer, Lupoff is not Howard.  The REH Foundation volume will contain “Taverel Manor”, presumably in its unfinished form, just the way Howard left it.

And Lupoff is probably right.  Howard may very well have been trying to develop a series character.  Weird Tales published at least two that I know of, Dr. Satan (whose adventures as far as I know have never been reprinted) and Jules deGrandin, whose adventures have.   Lupoff holds the opinion that editor Farnsworth Wright didn’t think much of “Skull-Face” and gave it only one cover.  He may well be correct in this as well.  Howard knew from experience that series characters were what sold, especially if they were popular.  His attempts to find a sustainable series character can be seen in Kane, Kull, and Morn, as well as his sailor Steve Costigan series, not to be confused with the Costigan who is the protagonist of “Skull-Face.”  And these aren’t the only series characters Howard created.  Why Howard didn’t develop this series further is a matter of speculation.  Howard’s most successful character would be, of course, Conan the Cimmerian.  It’s fun to speculate on what a “Skull-Face” series would have been like.  Too bad we’ll never know.

One of the names of Skull-Face is Kathulos.  Astute readers will immediately wonder about a connection to H. P. Lovecraft’s C’thulhu.  Considering how Howard and Lovecraft corresponded with each other to the point that their correspondence fills two volumes, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a deliberate reference here.  However, I haven’t had the time to do the research, so I won’t speculate further.

I’m just glad “Skull-Face” is getting some attention again.  Wildside Press has collected the fantasy/weird stories of Howard in a 10 volume set, and “Skull-Face” was the lead story in volume 2.  The first time “Skull-Face” made hardcovers was in 1946, a decade after Howard’s death, in Skull-Face and Others.  This was the first volume of Howard’s works published by Arkham House and the first published by an American publisher after his death.  Previously, only A Gent From Bear Creek had seen hardcover, and from a British publisher if memory serves.   Conan wasn’t collected until years later.  It’s good to see “Skull-Face” collected again.

This is one worth reading folks, especially if you like adventure, peril, and fast paced action.  Check it out.