Shadow Kingdoms by Robert E. Howard (1927-29; collected 2005): This collection reprints many of Howard’s pre-Conan stories and poems for Weird Tales. Boy, did he publish a lot of poetry! And the poetry isn’t bad, all things considered, and it’s certainly of a piece with Howard’s prose work: lots of lost kingdoms and ghosts and monsters. This is not Emily Dickinson.
On the prose end of things, Howard arrived on the scene surprisingly close to fully formed. He’d become a better prose stylist over the next ten years of his tragically short writing career and life, but his interests are all pretty much here. Ancient kingdoms, solitary heroes, the general depravity of all races other than Caucasians, the primacy of violent action over thought…yep, it’s all here. Two of Howard’s pre-Conan heroes, Puritan monster-fighter Solomon Kane and Atlantean-born King Kull of time-lost Valusia, make their first appearances here. Several horror stories also appear, one of which features Howard at his worst, trying to write British dialogue. It’s bally ridiculous, blighty!
The short novel “Skull-face” dominates the collection in terms of length. The eponymous villain, an odd mix of Fu Manchu and Howardesque/Lovecraftian elder race (he’s even called Kathulus!), seeks to unite all the non-white races to destroy the white race. Everyone, regardless of religion or culture, is pretty much immediately on-board with this because non-whites are a treacherous lot. Racially speaking, the story is godawful, so godawful that it becomes funny by the end. Vaguely Oriental women (Howard’s definition of the Orient pretty much stretches across the entire non-white globe) are occasionally OK, just so long as they’re not black.
Howard’s gift for narrative drive overcomes the loathsomeness of his subject matter, but only barely. I really felt like I needed a shower after “Skull-face.” It’s about as guilty a pleasure as one can get unless you’re a member of the Aryan Nation, in which case I guess it would be a documentary. But within this volume, Howard also would give Solomon Kane a super-powerful, super-helpful African medicine man as what would be Kane’s only recurring ally in the war against supernatural evil. Howard definitely did contain contradictions. This isn’t, for the most part, great Howard, but most of the works reprinted here are compelling. Recommended.