This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed at LibraryThing.
Review: “The Children of the Night”, Robert E. Howard, 1931.
The story starts with our narrator, John O’Donnel, hanging out with six other men. They discuss various historical, anthropological, and literary matters. They are all
of the same breed — that is to say, a Briton or an American of British descent. By British, I include all natural inhabitants of the British Isles.
Well, maybe not all of them. There’s that Ketrick fellow. He says he comes from the “Welsh branch of the Cetrics of Sussex”. But his eyes are “sort of amber, almost yellow, and slightly oblique”. Why, if you look at him just right, he almost looks Chinese.
Talk turns to an artifact one of them has reconstructed, a strange stone axe. Ketrick picks it up, experimentally swings it about.
And smacks O’Donnel in the head.
And the next thing you know O’Donnel is a pre-historic Britain named Aryara, five of his dead tribesmen mutilated at his feet and the dwarfish, yellowed skin snake-worshipping Children of the Night after him. But he is “a tiger among reptiles”.
Ultimately, though, numbers tell even against an Aryan. He’s still splintering skulls with his axe as he falls into darkness and death.
To reawaken as O’Donnel again.
And now he knows the truth about Ketrick. At the end of the story, we have an eternal reoccurrence. The Children of the Night still exist in the world, the natural enemies of modern Aryans.
And as my ancestors — as I, Aryara, destroyed the scum that writhed beneath our heels, so shall I, John O’Donnel, exterminate the reptilian thing, the monster bred of the snaky taint that slumbered so long unguessed in clean Saxon veins, the vestigial serpent-things left to taunt the Sons of Aryan. They say the blow I received affected my mind; I know it but opened my eyes. Mine ancient enemy walks often on the moors alone, attracted, though he may not know it, by ancestral urgings. And on one of these lonely walks I shall meet him, and when I meet him, I will break his foul neck with my hands, as I, Aryara, broke the necks of foul night-things in the long, long ago.
The transition back and forth in time, the seeming recovery of racial memories, is handled too abruptly to make this an effective story. There are better uses of the concept of prehistoric tribes surviving into modern England such as Arthur Machen’s “The White People” and “The Shining Pyramid” and John Buchan’s “No-Man’s Land” (a story I’ll be looking at in the near future).
There are other points of interest though.
Before O’Donnel gets whacked by the axe, there is a discussion of weird fiction. Among authors and titles mentioned are Machen’s “The Novel of the Black Seal”, Edgar Allan Poe, and Howard’s friend H. P. Lovecraft and his “The Call of Cthulhu”.
There is a discussion about whether one of the cults mentioned in von Junzt’s Unausssprechlichen Kulten (Howard’s own contribution to the blasphemous tomes of the Cthulhu Mythos) still exists.
This is tied into a general anthropological discussion of the groups that settled Europe, and we get old physical anthropology terms like “brachycephalicism” and “dolichocephalic”. Franz Boas even gets a mention. (Howard calls him “Boaz”, but the details, including a study of the skulls of immigrants to America, match Boas’ career.)
Those familiar with Boas and his disciples Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict may be surprised to have him involved with “genetic determinism” and not the nonsensical blank slate perspective of his followers. However, as anthropologist Peter Frost has noted, Boas was not interested in “environmental determinism” but in striking a balance between nature and nurture. So Howard’s depiction of Boas work is not an incongruous as it might seem.
Of course, science has overturned the idea of a distinct Pict people in Britian. Brian Sykes’ genetic survey of the British Isles shows no such genetically distinct group existed.
But, as geneticist Greg Cochran has pointed out, Howard’s version of prehistory turned out to be a lot more realistic than the “pots-not-people” scholarly fantasies of most of this century’s anthropologists and historians.
And the story also gives Howard another chance to extol the barbarian virtues over civilization.