Pools of the Black Mass

Robert E, Howard’s “The Pool of the Black One” (Weird Tales, October 1933) features a magical pool that kills humans by transforming them into miniature statues.  There is firm evidence that the concept was borrowed from the works of Sax Rohmer and Robert W. Chambers, two authors whom Howard frequently listed among his favorite writers.

“Robert E. Howard’s Library” in Don Herron’s The Dark Barbarian (Greenwood Press, 1984) lists Sax Rohmer’s Tales of Chinatown (1922) among the books owned by Howard. One of the stories in this collection, “Tcheriapin,” is a mixture of science fiction and supernatural horror. The title character was a Eurasian violinist who wrote a controversial composition with Satanic themes, “The Black Mass.”  The musician seduced a young model loved by an artist, Colquhoun. Deserted by Tcheriapin, the woman eventually committed suicide. To avenge her death, Colquhoun strangled the violinist. One of the artist’s friends, Dr. Kreener, was a brilliant chemist who developed a scientific process that could transform a subject into a tiny statute. Kreener sought to cover up the murder by shrinking the corpse. In the conclusion, the tiny petrified cadaver returned to life in order to haunt Colquhoun by playing “The Black Mass” on a violin Although the resurrection wasn’t explicitly explained, the tale hinted that Tcheriapin’s reanimation was due to a cloaked figure who may have been Satan in disguise.

Rohmer’s “Tcheriapin” was possibly influenced by two stories in The King in Yellow (1895) by Robert W. Chambers, “The Mask” and “In The Court of the Dragon.” Both stories are connected to an artificial mythology revolving around the King in Yellow, a Satanic hooded figure dwelling among the black stars of outer space. “The Mask” featured Boris Yvrain, a sculptor who invented a liquid pool that could petrify human being into statutes. “In the Court of the Dragon” had an artist pursued by the spectre of a musician whom he killed in unrecorded circumstances. Playing organ music, the ghost transported his quarry to the cosmic realm of the King in Yellow.

Rohmer borrowed from Chambers the petrifying process, the artist and musician characters, and the shrouded Satanic entity. The surname Kreener may have been derived from Mr. Keene, the protagonist of Chambers’s The Tracer of Lost Persons (1906).  “Tcheriapin” never detailed the exact nature of the petrifying process invented by Kreener. The chemist merely took the corpse into his laboratory and returned with a small statue.  The concept of a liquid pool only exists in “The Mask.” That fact raises the question of whether Robert E. Howard read “The Mask.”

In his letters, Robert E. Howard described Robert W. Chambers as one of his favorite writers. “Robert E. Howard’s Library” lists five books by Chambers: The Maid-at-Arms (1902), Little Red Foot (1921). America or the Sacrifice (1924), The Drums of Aulone (1927), and The Slayer of Souls (1920)/ The first four novels are historical adventures involving either colonial or Revolutionary War America. The depiction of the Native Americans in those books influenced the portrayal of the Picts of the Hyborian Age in “Beyond the Black River,” “The Black Stranger” and the fragmentary “Wolves Beyond the Border.” The Slayer of Souls is a supernatural thriller which pitted the American Secret Service against the cult of Erlik, the Mongolian god of the underworld. Chambers altered Erlik, an actual figure from Asian mythology, into a variation on the King in Yellow. While the King in Yellow vaguely paralleled Satan, Erlik was explicitly identified with Satan. Rather than lurking in Hell, Erlik resided on a dark stat called Yrimid.  The Slayer of Souls was a sequel to Chambers’s The Dark Star (1917) in which Erlik’s extraterrestrial abode sent forth telepathic emanations to Earth that resulted in World War I.  While there is no evidence in either Howard’s library or letters that he read The Dark Star, a recently discovered poem indicates that he did. “Whence Cometh Erlik” from The Robert E. Howard Foundation Newsletter (Volume 6, #3, Fall 2012) contained these lines:

Erlik the Dark Star,
Forerunner of war

Howard would use the cult of Erlik in several stories such as “The Daughter of Erlik Khan,” “Black Hound of Death” and “The Purple Heart of Erlik.” Howard’s “Dig Me No Grave” (Weird Tales, February 1937) mentioned the “Eight Brazen Towers” from The Slayer of Souls.   The story featured the Peacock King, a version of the Devil utilized by Howard’s friend and correspondent, E. Hoffmann Price, in stories like “The Stranger from Kurdistan” (Weird Tales, July 1925) and “The Word of Santiago” (February, 1926).

Howard gave the Peacock King an Asian appearance (like an idol of Erlik from The Dark Star) and dressed him in a yellow robe. This choice of wardrobe for the Peacock King was probably a subtle tribute to Chambers. Price’s avatar of the Devil was now a Peacock King in Yellow.

Even if Howard had never read Chambers’s The King in Yellow in its entirety, he could still have read “The Mask.” That short story was reprinted in the February 1930 issue of Ghost Stories. Howard was familiar with the magazine. It had published his story, “The Apparition in the Prize Ring,” in the April 1929 issue.

Howard probably read “The Mask” and recognized it as the inspiration for “Tcheriapin.” Combining the petrifying pool from “The Mask” and the shrinking process from “Tcheriapin,” Howard fashioned “The Pool of the Black One.” This wasn’t the only story by Howard that grew out of a conflation of elements from Rohmer and Chambers,

Published decades after Howard’s death, “Casonetto’s Last Song” (Etchings and Odysseys #1, 1973) featured Stephen Gordon and his friend, Costigan. The names are similar to John Gordon and Stephen Costigan from Howard’s “Skull-Face.”  One wonders if Howard simply confused the first name of the earlier John Gordon with his associate.

Giovanni Casonetto was an operatic singer who led a cult of Satanists. Witnessing Casonetto performing a human sacrifice in an underground chamber, Gordon eluded the pursuit of the singer’s underlings. Contacted by Gordon, the police arrested Casonetto. Gordon’s testimony at the trial resulted in the singer being sentenced to the gallows. After Casonetto’s execution, Gordon received a record in the mail. This was a recording of Casonetto singing the invocation of the Black Mass.  Foolishly playing the record, Gordon found himself in a trance in which he imagined himself as a sacrificial victim on Casonetto’s underground altar to Satan. Before the knife descended to dispatch Gordon in this nightmarish realm, Costigan rescued his friend by breaking the record with a sledgehammer.

Casonetto is Howard’s version of the violinist Tcheriapin. Sax Rohmer based his musician on Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840), a great violinist rumored to be both a Satanist and a womanizer. Seeing the historical connection, Howard made his diabolical singer an Italian like Paganini.

While “Casonetto’s Last Song” was primarily inspired by Rohmer’s “Tcheriapin,” clear echoes of Robert W. Chambers’s fiction can be found in Howard’s story. Casonetto talks of “the red-stained altar where many a virgin soul has gone winging up to the dark stars.” The passage suggests that the devil made his abode among the dark stars like Erlik and the King of Yellow. There are also elements that suggest Howard was familiar with other stories collected in The King in Yellow besides “The Mask.” Stephen Gordon described his emotional state upon hearing the invocation of the Black Mass in the following manner: “In the darksome caverns of by soul, some blind and monstrous thing moved and stirred like a dragon waking from slumber.” Is the reference to a “dragon’ paying homage to “In the Court of the Dragon?” The title of Howard’s story, “Casonetto’s Last Song,” is also reminiscent of “Cassilda’s Song,” the poem that Chambers included as a preface to “The Repairer of Reputations,” the first story in The King in Yellow.

At the very least, Howard was aware of the existence of The King in Yellow by 1930.  In that year, H. P.  Lovecraft mailed a copy of his essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” to Howard. The essay prominently mentioned The King in Yellow, but only summarized “The Yellow Sign” from that collection. The surviving Lovecraft-Howard correspondence was collected in A Means to Freedom (Hippocampus Press, 2009) edited by S. T. Joshi, David E. Schultz and Rusty Burke. In a letter to Lovecraft written around August 10, 1931, Howard made this remark: “Your splendid article — which I have re-read repeatedly — whets my appetite for the bizarre. Someday I must read ‘Melmoth” and the tales you mentioned by Blackwood, Chambers, Machen etc.”  Howard’s Melmoth reference is to Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), and need not concern us. The significance or the letter is that Howard hasn’t read at least one Chambers’s story discussed by Lovecraft prior to August 1931. Most likely this is “The Yellow Sign,” although Lovecraft’s essay briefly noted two other collections by Chambers, The Maker of Moons and In Search of the Unknown. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Howard read The King in Yellow collection prior to August 1931. However, he still could have read “The Mask” in Ghost Stories during 1930, and possibly read The King in Yellow after August 1931.

Rick Lai is accomplished essayist and author in the field of pulp studies. You can find his books on Amazon.com.

“The Pool of the Black One” painting by Mark Schultz
“Casonetto’s Last Song” illustration by Marcus Boas