Robert E. Howard & the “Worms of the Earth”

Thou shalt know the name of he who came before fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkein and The Lord of the Rings. Pulp author of dark fantasy and sword & sorcery short stories for the magazine Weird Tales, Robert E. Howard was an eccentric genius burdened with an over-active child’s imagination that he never managed to grow beyond. Deceased by the age of 30 and leaving behind a prolific handful of detective, western, and weird fiction tales that he wrote in a small 1930’s boomtown in Texas, thou shall know his name, both readers of fiction and fantasy alike, for Robert E. Howard is the creator of one of the most memorable and well-known characters in literary history; “black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the earth under his sandaled feet, hither came Conan the Cimmerian”.

WoE Paperback Ace
Worms of the Earth published by Ace 1979

In his formative years as a writer, the teenage Howard studied his Gaelic and Cetlic heritage in libraries near to his home in Cross Plains, Texas and learned of the ancient race known as the Picts. His interest in the Picts, existing between the late Iron Age until the early Medieval age, and described as “small dark aborigines of Britain”, grew into a fervor of consuming information that was later to be used in his short stories. The Lost Race (published 1927) was the first story of Howard’s starring the Picts. It provided readers with a history lesson on how the ancient race came to inhabit the northern land of Europe (now known as Scotland) told by a wizard to a lost wandering Briton. But it was the Pictish chieftain, Bran Mak Morn, that became the central figure in Howard’s storytelling of the Picts. Bran Mak Morn was described as a “pantherish man of medium height, with inscrutable black eyes, black hair, and dark skin”. Self described as a “Mediterranean of the world”, Bran Mak Morn did not originally appear as the main character whose perspective the story was told, but rather portrayed as a mysterious man, known by reputation to his enemies as a fierce and savage warrior, through the perspective of Roman soldiers and northern invaders. It was not until Kings of the Night (published 1930) and Worms of the Earth (published 1932) that Howard wrote with Bran Mak Morn as a central character in stories of Pictish vengeance and victory over the Romans.

Following the stories of Solomon Kane and King Kull, Bran Mak Morn was a predecessor to Conan the Barbarian who first appeared in Weird Tales in 1932. Both stories of Conan and Bran Mak Morn resemble one another, as often times an earlier unpublished story of Howard’s would later become a Conan story to be sold and published in other pulp magazines. Whereas the stories of Bran Mak Morn could be cited as historical fiction, the mystical and supernatural stories of Conan take place in a fictionalized Hyborian Age “between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars…”

WoE Dell & Zebra Banner
Bran Mak Morn published by Dell & Worms of the Earth published by Zebra

Worms of the Earth is not only a tale starring Bran Mak Morn, but is the title of a compilation of Robert E. Howard’s tales starring the Picts. It includes five short stories as well as a poem written by Howard, and a fragment of an uncompleted story. The compilation was first published as a paperback by Dell in 1969 with a front cover painted by Frank Frazetta. Worms of the Earth has subsequently been published by Donald M. Grant, Zebra Books, and Orbit, but it is the 1979 paperback version, with a painted cover by Sanjulian, published by Ace that I’ve added to my personal collection and which has provided me with the inspiration for a fantasy webseries that I am currently writing titled Tales of Synthina.

REH Studio Portrait
Studio portrait of Robert E. Howard c.1934

It is not only Howard’s characters and plots that inspire me, but his form of crafting passages. His writing style is practical, capable of being read and enjoyed by both rudimentary and elite readers alike, yet elegant and smart. It is simple and easy to follow with a sparseness of words, yet his descriptions illustrate images in the mind as if appearing through a surreal haze while also appearing very three-dimensional and real. His stories were sophisticated, yet published in pulp magazines where bloodthirsty, savage action roused readers and rewarded its authors.

It is hard to believe that a self-taught man who received no formal training in writing was able to craft such memorable and long-lasting stories and characters. His personal life was miscast and left unfulfilled after the 30 short years that he lived, but Robert E. Howard’s career as a writer will always be an inspiration to me and his stories starring the archaic race of the Picts and their chieftain, Bran Mak Morn, will resonate inside of me for years to come.

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