Steve Tompkins has an unusual way of looking at Robert E. Howard’s tales of horror and adventure. Tompkins makes grand leaps that pull in unexpected connections, his appraisal of REH is as likely to include critical tools taken from D.H. Lawrence and Leslie Fiedler as from H.P. Lovecraft.
In this collection Tompkins looks for the essential American soul in REH. It makes for an eclectic collection. The work has about as much Gothic horror (“The Horror from the Mound”, “Pigeons from Hell”) as pure Sword & Sorcery fantasy (“Marchers of Vallhalla”, “The Thunder-Rider”). The settings are eclectic as well. This collection sometimes seems like a core sample of a hidden history of Texas: pre-historic (“Marchers”), pre-Spanish (“Nekht Sermerkeht”, high-Comanche (“Thunder-Rider), Reconstruction (“Black Canaan”), frontier-cowboy era (“The Valley of the Lost”), to Howard’s own day (“Pigeons”). The center-piece is a tale of pirates, curses, Indians, and treasure set on the California coast in the 1600s (why not Texas one wonders, given La Salle’s interest in this land at the same time as the setting of “Stranger”).
REH collectors may well have all these tales in other volumes, but Tompkins’ unique observations of REH and what it means to be an American writer are to found nowhere else. If I have a criticism of this set, it is that Tompkins did not at least make a nod to the corpus of REH’s tall-tale westerns. While they are ably represented in such volumes as The Riot at Bucksnort and A Gent from Bear Creek, a taste of the rip-snortin’, half-horse-half-alligator craziness of REH’s gigantic hillbillies coupled with Tompkins’ consciousness-expanding lit-crit would have made a fascinating combination. That aside, I’m very proud to have this volume in my collection.