Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Valley Of The Lost

The Valley of the Lost by Robert E. Howard. As appearing in The Black Stranger and Other American Tales anthology. Approx. 19 pages.

Although I was raised on Robert E. Howard's sword & sorcery epics, the older I get, the more and more I can appreciate his Western tales. Especially his weird Westerns. The Valley of the Lost is a horror Western, taking cues in its basic framework from another Howard masterpiece, the Bran Mak Morn epic "Worms of the Earth". But don't get me wrong; this story is much, much more than a literary palette swap. The Valley of the Lost is one of Howard's strongest yarns, in terms of tone, terror, and ferocity.

In Worms of the Earth, we had the tension stemming from the Roman occupation of Pictish lands. In Valley, what we get is a good, old-fashioned early Texas family blood feud. This one involves two clans; the Reynolds and the McCrills (plus a slew of cousins, friends, and hired guns). As the story opens, John Reynolds, one of the last of the fighting Reynolds, is on the run from a mob on the McCrill team following an intense shootout in town. His egress leads him into hiding in an area that the Natives term "The Valley of the Lost", which the white man had truncated to "The Lost Valley" (it's amazing how a small alteration changes the meaning entirely). As he waits for the McCrill clan to regroup and resume their pursuit of him, Reynolds ventures into a mysterious cave where his enemies have left one of their fallen members, in an attempt to retrieve the dead man's ammunition. What he discovers in the cave is a horror beyond his imagination.

This point is where the similarities between and differences in execution arise between Worms of the Earth and Valley of the Lost. In Worms, there were subterranean creatures which Morn sought to contract to enact his revenge. These were abominable creatures, who had degenerated badly from their once human stock.

In Valley of the Lost, there is no employment being pursued. Reynolds stumbles upon the lair of the remaining threads of a serpentine race, whose once thriving civilization had fallen victim to tide after tide of marauding hordes. This last vestige of that once proud, magical race has also suffered genetic blows due to the many years in exile below ground. In essence, they are shorter, beady-eyed versions of Sleestaks...

One of the many things that terrified 5 year old me.

They also still retain some of their magical prowess, including a terrifying ability to control the dead, giving us a taste of remote control zombies (there are two scenes with these; one an action sequence, and one a flashback, which are done very well). 

Also, in one vivid scene with a nice Lovecraftian touch, Reynolds is treated to visions of these creatures' history across the panoramic eons of time; their rise, their fall, and their degradation. Of course, the instant accumulation of such base knowledge is beyond maddening, and for the second time in this story, Reynolds has to mount a ferocious escape. Will he succeed?

I will say that The Valley of the Lost has some of Howard's strongest writing. Note: I don't know when this story was first published, but the editor's note in this anthology states that the text was taken from REH's typescript. Reynolds is a fierce character; here is a man driven solely on rage and anger. Howard's Western tales always have this strong vibe to them - it might be argued that his Western yarns are of an actual stronger quality than his sword & sorcery ones (quite a statement given the immense impact of his fantasy work). Perhaps it is also the benefit of writing what is near and dear to you. Whatever the reason, native Texan Howard makes this Wild West Texas come alive. 

The creature effects are fairly well done here. The darkness, permeated with an eerie green glow sets an effective mood. The action scenes are fast and furious. Best of all, these culminate with a very strong ending. 

With a few genuinely chilling moments thrown in to boot, The Valley of the Lost is a superb Weird Western that is perfect for Halloween Season reading!

Score: 9/10

P.S.: You can enjoy an audio reading of this story here. Personally, I'm not too crazy on the voice acting, but it still makes for a good hour of background noise.

No comments:

Post a Comment