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‘That Misshapen Mask of Broken Flesh’
Marchers of Valhalla by Robert E. Howard
Reading from pages 79-126 of Marchers of Valhalla.
First published in 1972, in this edition
Like much of the rest of this paperback collection of Robert E. Howard’s more intense works, Marchers of Valhalla deals with blood memory, exposing the trap that is the human body and was also unsold. It is quite fascinating that the bulk of the material in which Howard discusses suicide and mercy killing did not sell during his life, remaining now as a lyric signpost to its end.
“The thunderings of the breaking world where in my ear…”
-Hialmar of the AEsir
James Allison is an aging, one-legged Texan, cursed since age 14 with the inability to live the life of adventure that typified the men of his family, many killed in wars.
“The sky was lurid, gloomy and repellent, of the blue of tarnished steel, streaked with dully crimson banners. Against the muddled red smear lowered the low hills that are the peaks of this barren upland which is a dreary expanse of sand drifts and post-oak thickets, checkered with sterile fields where tenant farmers toil out hideously barren lives in fruitless labor and bitter want…the terrible dreariness and grim desolation of the vistas spread before me turned my soul to dust and ashes.”
This is Robert E. Howard’s darkest tale, harboring elements of other unpublished yarns such as Almuric and The Frost Giant’s Daughter. Two scenes very similar to scenes in The Frost Giant’s Daughter, as well as a different and much more human twist on that story’s goddess theme, leapt out at me as I read. The dark tone and grinding barbarity of the heroes juxtaposed against the duplicity and decadence of civilization brings to mind Lord of Samarkand.
A beautiful woman appears to Allison on that dreary hillside as he sits on a rotten log. She reminds him that he was once Hialmar of the AEsir, greatest warrior of his mighty, blonde race, the only one of his brutal kind to look upon her womanly kind with mercy. This waking visitation leads him into a dreamy narrative of his former life.
1,000 men set off from the north in a mad trek to journey the world. The setting could be the Hyborean world of Conan, Kull’s pre-Atlantean world, or some period along Howard’s fanciful chronology of prehistoric Earth. By way of many long and improbable wonderings these heroes find steel weapons in a proto-India, make their way to the gulf coast of what is now Texas and play out the final act of their brutal lives. Howard usually kills off most of the cast, but outdoes himself here, with a perfect fatality rate.
The theme of the less civilized sidekick found in Lord of Samarcand, Kull, Bran Mak Morn and Kane stories is present here, with a Pictish savage, Kelka making the perfect unapologetic primitive. The barbarians are rude and bloodthirsty, the city dwellers diabolically duplicitous and the gods even more human than Homer’s Olympian deities. Reading Marchers of Valhalla is not about plot discovery but about the spiritual lives and dynamic deeds of the protagonist and those who touched him along the way—including his sacred enemy. Howard weaves cruelty and tragedy with mercy and despair into a fantasy every bit as brutal as human history. The tale is undeniably cataclysmic in scope.
Marchers of Valhalla is Robert E. Howards Iliad, and for evidence, I include below a passage that might have been composed by The Poet or by the anonymous author of Gilgamesh. Howard broke old ground in new ways through most of his work. But here, he lets the old poets speak through him:
“We were all mighty men—giants beyond the comprehension of moderns. There is not on earth today a man as strong as the weakest of our band…Our might was more than physical; born of a wolfish race…the spirit of the wild—the intangible power that quivers in the howl of the grey wolf…Oh, we were a hard-bitten horde, and our tracks had been laid in blood and smoldering embers in many lands.”
If you like your stories steeped in dark hates and redemptive secrets and you are not a suicide risk, I highly recommend reading Robert E. Howard’s brutal tale of a mythic age that manages somehow to live on inside the reader despite being twice destroyed.
He: Gilgamesh: Into the Face of Time
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