[by Rob Roehm. Originally posted March 4, 2007, at thecimmerian.com; this version lightly edited.]
I have definitely abandoned the detective field, where I never had any success anyway, and which represents a type of story I actively detest. I can scarcely endure to read one, much less write one.
— Robert E. Howard to H.P. Lovecraft: May 13, 1936
Many fans of Robert E. Howard’s work who wish to follow in his literary footsteps have taken to acquiring and reading the books that Howard once read. One of Howard’s favorite authors was Sax Rohmer. This master of the “Oriental Menace” story is best-known for his many tales of Fu-Manchu, the Asian mastermind bent on world domination. Howard had several of the Fu-Manchu books on his shelf; their influence is most clearly seen in Howard’s novella “Skull-Face.”
Besides the Fu-Manchu books, Howard also owned several other titles by Rohmer, including Bat Wing. This novel was first published in 1921 by Doubleday and was reprinted in 1925 and again in 1930. A Victorian murder-mystery, it tips its hat several times to the genre’s creator, Edgar Allan Poe, with the main character’s repeated references to Poe’s pioneering sleuth Auguste Dupin, as well as a character in the novel who resembles Poe himself. Despite Howard’s claim that “I actively detest” this type of story, there were plenty of works belonging to the genre on his shelf, including works by Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle. Indeed, despite its numerous Poe references, Bat Wing seems more derivative of Conan Doyle than Poe.
The story centers on Paul Harley, a connected Londoner with ties to Scotland Yard. With his faithful companion Mr. Knox, Harley travels to Cray’s Folly, a country estate, at the request of Colonel Menendez, who has spent considerable time in Voodoo-haunted Cuba. Harley has been summoned to prevent the murder of Menendez himself, which will, of course, take place on the night of the next full moon. Menendez tells Harley of the Obeah curse laid upon him, in the form of a bat wing nailed to his door. I don’t want to ruin it for future readers, but rest assured, the novel is full of dead-end leads, false assumptions, and characters which have become stereotypical of the genre: a bumbling police detective, a pipe-smoking amateur, and the clueless side-kick.
The most striking similarities between Bat Wing and Howard’s work come with the short story “The Hand of Obeah.” According to Rusty Burke’s Robert E. Howard Fiction and Verse Timeline, “The Hand of Obeah” was submitted to Adventure in 1925; upon reading the tale, it’s easy to see why it was not accepted: while entertaining, it is clearly not Howard’s best.
The story centers around a teenager (I assume) named Steve and his young friends Skinny and Chub. After some tom-foolery with a black worker, Steve and Skinny follow him and observe a Voodoo ritual. This is followed with murder, intrigue, and mistaken identities. The story itself is quite different than Rohmer’s Bat Wing, but there are many similarities:
Both have a Chinese servant: Rohmer’s “Ah Tsong” and Howard’s “Tong.”
Both have Spanish mulattoes: Rohmer’s “Ysola de Valera” and Howard’s villain whose real name is not revealed, but who is disguised as “Lopez da Vasca.”
While the Voodoo meeting and location are background material in Rohmer’s novel, they take center stage in Howard’s story. Both, however, are described similarly:
Rohmer: In the neighborhood of the hacienda [. . .] there was a belt of low-lying pest country [. . .] which was a hot-bed of poisonous diseases. It followed the winding course of a nearly stagnant creek. From the earliest times the Black Belt—it was so called—had been avoided by European inhabitants, and indeed by the colored population as well. Apart from the malaria of the swampy ground it was infested with reptiles and with poisonous insects of a greater variety and of a more venomous character than I have ever known in any part of the world. [. . .]
On the following evening, suitably equipped, [we] set out, leaving by a side door and striking into the woods at a point east of the hacienda, where, according to his information, a footpath existed, which would lead us to the clearing we desired to visit.
Howard: The Haunted Brakes are kind of freakish, in a way. They’re about a half square mile of cane brakes, surrounded on all sides except one by a narrow strip of swamp. The swamp just swarms with snakes and that’s where it gets its name [Moccasin Swamp]. A long time ago they found a strange Negro there with no head onto him. And no Negro would go near that swamp afterwards [. . .] nobody cared to be around there after dark.
The swamp and the brakes lie about five miles south and a little east of the town, with about a quarter-mile of marshy swamp-ground between the brakes and the river. But on that side a strip of solid high ground runs from the brakes clear to the river bank. Some say there was an old road there once.
The narrators of both stories reach similar clearings in the Black Belt/Haunted Brakes where they observe similar Voodoo rituals:
Rohmer: [W]e saw the light of many torches amid the trees ahead of us [. . .] in which naked figures danced wildly, uttering animal cries. [. . .] This was a meeting-place of Devil-worshippers, or devotees of the cult of Voodoo! One man only could I see clearly so as to remember him [. . .] He seemed to be a sort of high priest or president of the orgies.
Howard: [T]he cane had been cleared away for a large space and at the center a large fire was blazing. All around the fire were seated Negroes [. . .]. Most of all the ones we knew and about a hundred we’d never heard of.
And standing by the fire, waving his arms and talking, was ‘Lisha!
The stories diverge significantly after these Voodoo rituals take place. Rohmer’s evolves into a finely crafted murder-mystery with a decent, though fairly obvious, twist at the end. Howard’s, well, he was trying hard.
Bat Wing is available here, or the other usual places.
“The Hand of Obeah” can be found in Sentiment: An Olio of Rarer Works, put out by the Robert E. Howard Foundation, or one of the publications mentioned here.