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‘About its Sullen Gables’
The Tavern by Robert E. Howard
Published posthumously in Singers in the Shadows, 1970
“There stands, close by a dim, wolf-hunted wood,
A tavern like a monster, brooding thing.
About its sullen gables no birds sing.
Oft a lone traveler, when the moon is blood,
Lights from his horse in quest of sleep and meal.
His footfalls fade within and sound no more;
He comes not forth; but from the secret door
Bearing a grisly burden, shadows steal.
“By day, ‘neath trees whose silent, green leaves glisten,
The tavern crouches, hating day and light.
A lurking vampire, terrible and lean;
Sometimes behind its windows may be seen
Vague leprous faces, haggard, fungus-white,
That peer and start and ever seem to listen.”
Throughout Howard’s work meanders a thread of dread where civilization is concerned, a sense that settling in a place made by Man carries a curse about it; the more imposing the structure the more it stands conducive to the seduction of men into degeneracy. Sorcerers and vampires usually appear as manipulative horrors twisted out of human form by the corrupting weight of civilization and its shadow-casting edifices.
Something feels different about The Tavern. The building itself is described as a vampire, implying that those trapped within feed the edifice. In light of Howard’s general treatment of civilized architecture as monolithic, this reader suspects that The Tavern might symbolize society in its civilized form, as it hates day and light [illumination] and its denizens “peer and start and ever seem to listen.” Perhaps the pale inmates of the tavern are muted seekers fated to fade away as are the mass of civilized humanity who buy into false promises as the traveler in the first verse did to his undoing.
Viewed more broadly this reader takes The Tavern as a simple study of the alienated perspective. A friend of mine has often described looking at society, at its workings, at his place of work, along such dark lines as those employed above, seeing himself cast in a mold that will not be admitted by the social construct, forever occupying a dark periphery as he gazes with disgust upon the human condition. Perhaps the writing of this poem came at such a time in the author’s inner life.
Perhaps, The Tavern was simply an exercise in evoking a sense of horror in the reader's mind. If so, it worked with sinister effect.
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