Terror of the Gut

Bantam paperback foldout cover. Artist unknown.

For a long time now I’ve held the view that between HP Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, it was Howard who was the consistently better writer.

The operative word being “consistently”.

At his very, very best, HPL probably outshines REH — but not by much. And it may be argued that the best works of the two writers, when put side by side, end up in a draw. Best coming down to a matter of taste.

I will say this, though, that as much as I like HPL, I probably prefer REH overall.

HPL clearly wrote some scary stuff. But REH’s “Pigeons from Hell” and “Black Canaan” are far more viscerally terrifying than anything in HPL’s canon.

And therein may be the deciding factor between the two writers: HPL’s terror is intellectual, of the the mind; and REH’s is visceral, emotional, of the gut.

Look at REH’s approach to the Cthulhu Mythos. His cosmic horror is much more personally emotional than HPL’s.

Or take REH’s story “The Man on the Ground”. It’s a story of hate. A story of avenging a perceived wrong. A feud that has boiled to the point where death is the only answer. It’s personal. Visceral.

I won’t tell you anymore in case you want to read the story, and it’s a winner. You can find it in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales, which is available for free online.

Howard dabbled with the intellectual approach. King Kull, the precursor to Conan, is an intelligent, thoughtful, and introspective king. He prefers his own company to that of women. He is very much the opposite of Conan. I’ll leave you to figure out which one was more popular with the readers.

Of all Howard’s creations, I like Solomon Kane the best. The stories are full of action, supernatural happenings and beings; they take place in exotic locales, and are scary as all get out.

One of the main differences between Howard and Lovecraft lies in how each handles the main character of the story.

Howard’s main characters are flesh-and-blood. They are manly men. They are often gutted by the terror they face — but they face it — and give it hell.

Lovecraft’s main characters are often nameless narrators. Their chief function is to tell us of horrible things happening around us. But we know next to nothing about them. They are merely mouthpieces. They are usually intellectuals or at least educated. But they aren’t overly manly.

Howard’s characters are who we relate to and with. Lovecraft’s are distant. In a Howard story we are there. In a Lovecraft story we are observers. Each writer gives us a different chill.

Readers, though, by and large, are an emotional lot. We want the story to hit us in the gut. A story of the mind is fine once in a while, but mostly we want a story that makes us laugh, or cry, or crap our pants in fear.

We want to feel the story in our guts. And in the case of horror, we want to feel it. Not think about it.

It is no surprise, therefore, that HPL was not Weird Tale’s most popular author. That honor goes to Seabury Quinn, whose Jules de Grandin provided the readers with exciting, visceral tales of supernatural terror.

I very much like the Jules de Grandin stories. They aren’t intellectual horror. They’re terror of the gut. Occult detective puzzlers that are plenty scary, but often with a dash or two of humor to soften the fear. Quinn was a master storyteller.

HPL, though, loathed the de Grandin stories. And there you have it. Lovecraft’s followers, especially Derleth and Wandrei, saw to it that Quinn was reduced to a footnote in history.

It’s too bad Quinn didn’t have a champion like Derleth. De Grandin Press versus Arkham House. Now that would’ve been interesting.

I very much like cosmic horror. It appeals to my world view. I find it terrifying. But when I was planning my own foray into the cosmic horror genre, I realized copying HPL probably wouldn’t sell.

So I took a page from REH’s cosmic horror play book and infused more action into my stories.

Pierce Mostyn, the team leader battling Cthulhu and his ilk, isn’t nameless, or simply a narrator. He is more of an amalgam of Kull, Conan, and Kane.

Mostyn isn’t flashy like Howard’s characters. He is introspective. Maintains a certain gravitas in the face of danger. But he is also a man. He likes good coffee and antique cars. He loves Dotty Kemper and Helene. He is fearless in the face of danger; all the while knowing the battle is ultimately futile.

A fusion of terror of the mind and terror of the gut. Check out the Pierce Mostyn Paranormal Investigations series at Amazon. When you do, let me know what you think.

Like beauty, terror is in the mind — or the gut — of the beholder.

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