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‘On the Auction Block’
An Untitled Fragment by Robert E. Howard
First published in Amra, November, 1959, reading from the 2011 Del Rey collection, Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures.
In the fragment below, this reader suspects that something of Howard’s view on the human condition in its civilized form shows through. This is not just a critique of cosmopolitan Araby in the Middle Ages, for Howard’s assessment of the people on the auction block is repeated often in his fiction and various genres.
“The wind from the Mediterranean wafted a thousand scents across the packed bazaar. The surging, disputatious throng that milled there was clamorous and bizarre with the sounds and colors of the East. Lean, hawk-like desert riders, fierce and suspicious as wild dogs in a strange territory, shouldered fat, oily Algerian merchants. Beggars whined for alms, thieves plied their trade, shopmen quarreled with customers and with each other, and every now and then the crowd broke precipitately to right and left as an arrogant-eyed sheikh came galloping through disdainfully careless of the lives and limbs of others – while his turbaned retinue laid lustily right and left with their riding whips. Or a hugs Negro, naked except for a loin cloth, would stalk through, or a group of saber girt soldiers would swagger by. And all the while went on the business of barter – buying and selling – Persian sashes, Bokhariot wood, Turkish rugs, weapons from Egypt and Damascus, brass buckles from Afghanistan, spice and monkeys from India, ivory from Nubia.
And there were those who delt in human flesh. On the auction block in the center of the crowded market place stood a little clump of figures, chained and nearly naked, who looked out at the milling buyers with the patience and lethargy of oxen.”
The title for this review was extracted from Howard’s last and darkest portion of this fragment. When this was first released in 1959, that editor chose “The Wind from the Mediterranean” as their title, evoking a much less horrific feeling in the mind of the reader than “On the Auction Block,” chosen for this discussion, which I believe is more appropriate, being the scene that the larger, brighter day at the market was meant to frame in the mind’s eye. If this seems overblown, in light of the fact that this reviewer is a horror writer, I would refer to Howard’s tale, The Black Stranger, in which the female protagonist was stricken with horror over the cattle-like complacence of her tyrant uncle’s servants.
Consider the quote below from a woman I interviewed, just after having her read after reading the above fragment, who was, moreover, frustrated and angry about her experience working in your average pink collar work environment.
“That’s it – I’ve got it – the problem with today’s workplace, same as then, is a that there’s a bunch of freakin’, bovine biddies who have been able to shut themselves down in order to tolerate today’s factory farm society at work and at home. At home, it’s seen in zoning out in front of the television and pretending that their house and all of their belongings are worth their lives passed as slave wage earners. It’s a passing life, because it’s not really a life of their choice.”
Today’s horror is written according to three fairy tale archetypes that essentially conform to Howard’s view of civilization as a horrific story setting. These archetypes are vampires, zombies and werewolves, listed here roughly in the order of popularity over the past thirty years. Consider Howard’s view of this Mediterranean city above with a clear hierarchy with those at its top – the disdainful sheikh, represented by the vampire that walks through a sea of his food without a care for those that may look like him but are just his feeding vessels. The second most common modern horror archetype is the zombie, obviously represented by the willful, complacent, very cattle-like servants of Howard’s mythology. The third, and less common today, horror archetype is the werewolf. Howard wrote at least three werewolf stories. He wrote these early in his career and they shared many of the psychological and even physical characteristics of his later barbarian characters. I submit to you that if Howard were writing horror today, his heroes would be werewolves, striving against the vampires, amongst a sea of zombies.
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deuceMay 5, 2016 3:15 AM UTC

"if Howard were writing horror today, his heroes would be werewolves, striving against the vampires, amongst a sea of zombies."

Mebbe so, but REH "then", considered werewolves as Lovecraftian demons who had infiltrated terrestrial life, corrupting proto-wolves. You can only take these metaphors so far.