Saturday, July 24, 2010


By Robert E. Howard

This is Wandering Star's comprehensive collection of Bran Mak Morn tales and it’s a stunner [Note: While WS has moved on, Del Rey still publishes this book as a trade paperback]. It is very thorough and includes all the Bran Mak Morn tales (“Men of the Shadows”, “Kings of the Night”, and “Worms of the Earth”) and the Turlough Dubh yarn, “The Dark Man”. It also has another Pictish tale, “The Lost Race” as well as poetry, fragments, an early draft of “Worms” and a whole chronology (including excerpts from REH letters) of REH and the Picts. Even so it is still not a complete Pictology when you consider the import of Pictish supporting characters and foes in the James Allison stories, the Conan series and the Cormac MacArt tales. To get all that in there you’d need another volume.

For those readers unfamiliar with Bran Mak Morn and the Picts these were some of Robert E. Howard’s favorite themes. The historic Picts were the inhabitants of Northern Britain outside of Roman control. Historians and archaeologists believe their culture was a mix of Celtic and indigenous, pre-Indo-European peoples. For Howard they represented the old-people, the precursors of his beloved Celts. They were his Big Other, playing Indians to the Celtic cowboys. Bran Mak Morn is their last hope as Rome’s power grows. He knows his people’s time on the stage of history is just about up, but they ain’t going quietly.

The stories range from the ok (“The Lost Race”) to the outstanding (“Worms of the Earth”). Quite frankly, “Worms of the Earth” is one of REH’s best yarns. Don’t expect tons of blazing action, this is the story where REH displayed his talent as a creator of mood and atmosphere. The feel is closer to Lovecraftian horror than Conan-style sword-and-sorcery. It is also a good example of REH at his most thoughtful as Bran must repeatedly confront the question: how far would you go to strike at a foe?

The illustrations by Gary Gianni are magnificent. Gianni depicts bloody hand-to-hand struggle as deftly as he captures the moody, fog-bound feel of the Celtic twilight.  True some have criticized the cover art as making the Picts look too much like dwarves. Well, how the hell do you depict people regularly described as stunted giants?

As for the historical Picts, their kingdom survived into the Dark Ages. Finally, racked by internal wars and Viking invasions, the Picts succumbed to a take-over by the Scots of Dal Riada. The kingdom of the Picts became the home of the Gaelic Highlanders.

-Dave Hardy

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