Friday, February 4, 2011

Forgotten Books: Skull-Face (without the Others) by Robert E Howard


Robert E. Howard produced very few works lengthy enough to be considered novels. And the sole book published during his lifetime as a novel (A Gent from Bear Creek) was actually a thinly-disguised collection of short stories. So it seems strange that the first of those novels has never, until quite recently, been published as a stand-alone work.

Skull-Face originally ran as a three-part serial in Weird Tales in 1929. Howard was not yet one of the magazine's stars. He had contributed only a few stories, including a couple each in the Solomon Kane and Kull of Atlantis series. Editor Farnsworth Wright apparently didn't think much of it, and hyped it not at all. But readers at the time liked it just fine. And when I read it again last week, so did I.

Howard clearly took his inspiration from the Fu Manchu books, but went far beyond that model to create a villain that could eat old Fu for breakfast. The guy with the skull-like face is first believed to be some sort of Chinese crime lord, then an ancient Egyptian, and finally a master sorcerer who should have gone down with Atlantis. He's a guy who would have made a fine nemesis for Conan.


When we meet the male lead, Stephen Costigan (no relation to the boxing character) is a helpless drug addict, a far cry from the normal two-fisted Howard hero. It's only as the story develops that his true character emerges. The bad guy helps him kick the hashish habit, but does so by making him the slave of a far worse drug - one he now needs to survive. When Costigan turns against his master, he does so knowing it will mean his death.

The co-star of this tale is a Denis Nayland Smith clone, a British Secret Service agent named John Gordon. Together, Costigan and Gordon devote themselves to the destruction of the skull-faced gent, Kathulos. This gives Howard a broad canvas to delve into the horrors of the unknown, engage in a lot of slam-bang action, and leave us with the stench of sorcery in our nostrils. So in the end, Skull-Face delivers everything you expect in a Howard yarn, with one unusual ingredient: character development.

Howard apparently planned to turn this into a series, but abandoned the second story when Weird Tales announced they wanted no more serials. Based on that story fragment, it would appear he was giving the lead to Secret Service agent John Gordon, with Costigan relegated to second banana. The tale was completed by Richard Lupoff and published as both The Return of Skull-Face and "Taverel Manor."

The three best cover treatments for the story (so far) appear here.

This week's Guest Host for Forgotten Books is Mr. Todd Mason. He'll be corralling the links HERE.


 (click to SUPERSIZE)


Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the Berkeley edition since I was a kid in the 70s. I don't suppose you have a scan of that fold out cover. Loved the Berkeley fold out covers.

Dan Luft

J F Norris said...

The Rohmer influence sounds less like Fu Manchu and more like that weird occult villain from Brood of the Witch Queen - Antony Ferrera, I think was the name. Of all of Howard's books I've always wanted to find a copy of this and devour it. It's the kind of pulpy weird mess of black magic and brawn I crave.

Deka Black said...

As a Howard reader, i'm ashamed to say i never read this work of him :( Now i NEED to do it!

George said...

I love the covers on all these books. I have the Zebra Books edition. But that top one certainly is an eye-catcher!

Evan Lewis said...

There was a Zebra edition? I don't remember that.

I've added a scan of 3/4 of the fold-out, Dan. Can't get at the other 1/4 because it's still bound into the book, but you're not missing much. All that's over there are a couple of very faint villain heads and and iron box with a chain attached to it.

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing this that Pyramid edition, but don't have it and am pretty sure I never read it.

Charles Gramlich said...

I have the Berkeley edition. Not Howard's best work but it does have his narrative drive.

Scott Cupp said...

I have the Neville Spearman reprint edition of the Arkham House which had a pretty crappy skull on a green background cover. But the story was wonderful, as you said, full of Howard's driving prose. I am surpriused SKULLFACE is not better known

Elina said...

I just recently read this - it came out in Finnish as a translation! But I have to say I didn't much care for it, I thought Howard was lacking his usual narrative drive in the story, everything went by all too quickly. Hastily told, I should say.

Juri said...

Sorry, that was me commenting, not my wife! (But, please, take a look at Elina's own style blog in vintage style. The texts are in Finnish, though.)