Worms of the Earth by Robert E. Howard. Originally published in Weird Tales Magazine, November 1932. Approx. 42 pages (with pictures), DelRey edition.
Worms of the Earth has been regarded as one of Robert E. Howard's greatest stories for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is probably his most successful venture dabbling within the Lovecraftian mythos. Second, although it features one of Howard's more hotheaded and bombastic protagonists, Howard infuses some real gravitas into the proceedings. Part parable and part creepfest, Worms is one of the more enjoyable yarns you can spend an hour reading.
Worms begins quite memorably as we witness the crucifixion of a Pictish criminal undertaken at the command of Titus Sulla, Roman governor of Eboracum. In attendance to the act is a Pictish emissary. Sulla makes sure to turn the execution into a spectacle, further rubbing salt into the moral wounds of the conquered populace.
What Sulla fails to realize is that the emissary is none other than Bran Mak Morn, the last king of the Picts. And on this day, he has decided that his people have suffered their final indignity at the hands of the Roman interlopers. He sets some plans into motion, including tasking the Gaels with some harrying skirmishes. But, for the purpose of tendering justice unto Sulla, he decides to go with an unconventional method.
Riding westwards towards the gloomy fens of Wales, Bran seeks the assistance of the half-human witch Atla in contracting the services of some true nightmare creatures: the legendary (and titular) Worms of the Earth. These fabled Worms are subterranean denizens, the descendants of a people driven from the landscape by Morn's Pictish ancestors. Any retained humanity in them is dubiously questionable at best. And, of course, as in any bargain there is a price. Not surprisingly, one may expect a terrible price for a terrible service.
It is well known that Howard was a friendly correspondent of Lovecraft; and he has dabbled in Lovecraftian tales. Although I like most of Howard's horror offerings, I always thought that the horrifying, disconcerting, and cerebral nuances of the Lovecraftian mythos were out of his comfort zone. But he really delivers in Worms. He makes the wise choice to stress atmosphere over cheap shocks. The scenery is what gets you here; the claustrophobia of descending the tunnels under the barrows; the pervading, lonely desolation of the fens. Also, the true horrors of the Worms, including their sickening physical appearance, is mostly kept just out of view, so as to maximize the horror factor.
Howard's dialogue is superb here, although a lot of the bombast has been curbed. The back and forth verbal sparring between Morn and Atla is enjoyable, but best of all are two scenes; one where Bran Mak Morn issues both a decree and a challenge to the Worms, and later when he hears the last words of a dying legionary.
Sadly, it seems that any discussion of Howard's work needs to be prefaced with some apology of sorts for the racial views the he and many of his contemporaries seemed to have. I am personally not much of an apologist. This generation needs to accept that people close to a century ago had very different mindsets. Or did they? While it is seemingly passé to stereotype based on race these days, it is more than commonplace to judge and perform character assassinations based on political affiliation, geography of birth, social class, or religion. Point being, bigotry in all its ugly forms is supposed to be wrong, no? But I digress. I will just say this to anyone willing to put down Howard due to his perceived views; this masterful story was published when he was just 26 years old. (Some of) The youth of today need health care laws rewritten to keep them tethered to their parents' insurance until they are that same age. Enough said.
The reason I mention the racial aspect is because some readers/reviewers take umbrage with Bran Mak Morn's racial pride. He looks down upon the Gaels and other Caledonians for their mixed bloodlines. Now, is this a racial superiority complex? I think not. It seems fairly common that conquered people hold tightly to cultural pride; on the simple basis that they believe everything else is being torn away from them and diluted into a larger, communal, collective pot. Bran Mak Morn can expound until he is blue in the face on the purity of the Picts; in the end it is simply the injured pride talking.
And we all know that pride comes before the fall.
In essence, that is the pervading message of Worms of the Earth. To salve his impotence as his people's savior, Bran Mak Morn makes a deal with a Lovecraftian Devil. Regardless of the theological construct, the Devil must still have His due. And this is something that Bran Mak Morn realizes too late in Worms of the Earth. You will get what you bargained for, even if you do not get what you wish for.
Well, as they say.....
Here's what it is:
Legendary pulp writer Robert E. Howard crafts a creepy tale of the tragic decision of a desperate king, and the creatures and horrors that are unleashed as a result.
One last thing:
As mentioned, this is one of Howard's more popular works. I own the DelRey Bran Mak Morn edition, but there are plenty of other compilations out there that you can find Worms of the Earth in. One I found is this: The Cthulu Mythos Megapack. There's no illustrations in it, but you get 40 old time tales for 99 cents. You really can't beat that.
I really like Gary Gianni's work in this volume, from the cover to the interior illustrations. They are one of the reasons that I am glad to have the DelRey compilation. This is exactly how I pictured that squat, powerful, swarthy Bran Mak Morn looking. My only complaint on the cover is that a little more contrast in the color scheme would have helped make the figure stand out. The closer you look at the figure, the more you realize that it looks like something that would have worked better as a pencil or pen sketch, but ended up being painted after being selected as the cover piece.
Cover Final Score: