But hear me Satan, no man ever made me admit defeat — I’ve reeled beneath a bloody moon, on buckling legs, with blood pouring from my battered mouth and mingling with the sweat on my chest and a scarlet haze shimmering before my eyes — and I’ve been smashed from gong to gong, but I never admitted defeat even when I could scarcely stand. Anybody and any condition can batter me to pieces, but I’ll never admit I’m defeated.
– Robert E. Howard to Harold Preece, Aug 1928 (CL1.220-221)
Robert E. Howard’s “Satanic” output—those stories and poems which have Satan, the devil, or devil-worship as a major element or theme—are comparatively few. However, if taken as a whole with his letters and other materials, readers can get a sense of the development of Howard’s ideas of Satan and devil-worship in his creative output over the last decade or so of his life.
References to the devil, under varied names and forms, punctuate the letters of Robert E. Howard since at least 1926, when in a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith he wrote “By Baal I am joyed that you wrote.” (CL1.75) Very likely, there were earlier usages in letters now lost to us; Smith’s own contributions to The Tattler from 1923 on contain exclamations like “Diavolo” (SFTP 15) and “Diable” (SFTP 17) and Herbert C. Klatt liked to use “Shades of Hades!” (LSOS 101, 110), so it seems probable on the face of it that such mild infernal oaths formed a not-too-uncommon part of the discourse in Howard’s circle.
In Howard’s letters and poetry, his approach to Satan and Christian religion in general is often ambivalent (“My ancestors were all Catholic and not very far back. And I have reason to hate the church.” CL1.237), and while he never quite transitioned to the purely secular materialism of H. P. Lovecraft, his views were in part informed by the anthropological views of the day, which cast a different light on the development of the Devil in Christian theology and folklore:
I feel a curious kinship, though, with the Middle Ages. I have been more successful in selling tales laid in that period of time, than in any other. Truth; it was an epoch for strange writers. Witches and werewolves, alchemists and necromancers, haunted the brains of those strange savage people, barbaric children that they were, and the only thing which was never believed was the truth. Those sons of the old pagan tribes were wrought upon by priest and monk, and they brought all their demons from their mythology and accepted all the demons of the new creed also, turning their old gods into devils. The slight knowledge which filtered through the monasteries from the ancient sources of decayed Greece and fallen Rome, was so distorted and perverted that by the time it reached the people, it resembled some monstrous legend. And these vague minded savages further garbed it in heathen garments. Oh, a brave time, by Satan! (CL1.238)
The ambivalence regarding the Biblical figure of Satan is evident in Howard’s early poetry, where we first find Satan (or the devil, Lucifer, etc.) named in several of his verses, particularly “Lilith” (1927, CL1.145), “The Chant Demoniac” (1928, CL1.161), “To an Earthbound Soul” (CL4.16-17), and the untitled verse “The iron harp that Adam christened Life” (1929, CL1.357) and “The men that walk with Satan” (CL4.9-10); Barbara Barrett in The Wordbook: An Index Guide to the Poetry of Robert E. Howard lists a couple dozen other poems that use some variation of the name (WB 146-147), though these usages are often incidental. The use of Satan in these poems is typically in the popular Christian context, as lord of Hell and understood to be a veritable personification of evil, although in “The Chant Demoniac” he is portrayed more as John Milton did in Paradise Lost:
I am Satan; I am weary,
For my road is long and hard
And it lies through regions dreary
Since the Golden Gates were barred.
Just as Milton famously included old gods such as Mammon and Moloch as demons in his epic, so too did Howard in his verse, though Howard skews closer to the image of fallen idols cast as devils than fallen angels masquerading as idols. Baal (or Baal-peor), for example, appears in Howard’s poems “Astarte’s Idol Stands Alone,” “Baal,” “Baal-Pteor,” “The Mysteries” (1929, CL1.145-146), “The Riders of Babylon”, “Serpent” (1926, CL1.99-100), “The Worshippers,” “The Gods Remember” (1927, CL1.145-146), and “Swings and Swings.” The idea of Satan as synonymous with these old gods appears most prominent in “Black Dawn” (1929), where Satan is listed among non-Christian figures of worship (“Mohammed, Buddha, Moses, Satan, Thor! I lifted fanes to each of you betimes,” CL1.323)
Satan and related matters in Howard’s fiction is a bit more complicated matter. The bulk of stories that feature “devil-worship” or demons do not involve the Christian concept of Satan as such; rather Howard followed the tendency of many other pulp writers in casting foreign, pagan, or exotic worship as “devil-worship,” such as the synopsis “The House of Om” which features a Mongolian “devil-worshipping” cult perhaps loosely based on Robert W. Chambers’ The Slayer of Souls; or various supernatural entities or objects of worship as “devils”—a good example might be the Conan story “The Devil in Iron” (1934), whose Khosatral Khel was an alien being who set itself up as a living god, with dark rites of worship. Other uses of Satan are only incidental, such as in the Solomon Kane story “Skulls in the Stars” (1929), (as “Ahriman”) “Sons of the Hawk” (1936), and (as “Shaitan”) “Black Wind Blowing” (1936) and “The Brand of Satan.” Once those usages are weeded out, the remainder comprises a handful stories, the bulk of which never saw print until after Howard’s death.
Of these, “Casonetto’s Last Song” (1973) is the only Howard story to focus on the Black Mass, a practice of a Satanic cult which meets either in a cavern or “sombre chapel” and involves human sacrifice and a sung invocation. (HSREH 73) The details are perhaps intentionally vague in this short piece, and the typical details supplied by Joris-Karl Huysmans in La-Bas (1891) or Montague Summers in The History of Witchcraft and Demonology (1926) on the desecration of the host or the specificity of infant sacrifice are omitted. The Texan was at least aware of Huysmans and his reputation, as he was named in “The Children of the Night” (1931).
“Dig Me No Grave” (1937) is essentially a Faustian tale of a sorcerer “had ignored the white side of the occult and delved into the darker, grimmer phases of it – into devil-worship, and voodoo and Shintoism.” (HSREH 132-133) Part of the interest of the tale lies in how Howard crams so many different references and mythologies into it, as if trying to capture in one story all the names of the Devil—“There is but one Black Master though men calle hym Sathanas & Beelzebub & Apolleon & Ahriman & Malik Tous.” (HSREH 140) “Sathanas” being a medieval Latin construction of “Satan,” “Beelzebub” (Ba’al Zebub) and “Apolleon” (Apollyon, Abbadon) corruptions or translations of Biblical names typically taken for demons or fallen angels, “Ahriman” the dark spirit of Zoroastrianism, and “Malik Tous” (Melek Taus) the principle figure in the Yazidi religion.
The Yazidis and the myths surrounding their “devil-worship” form the basis of the bulk of Robert E. Howard’s remaining “Satanic” material.
CL Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index & Addenda, REH Foundation, 2007 – 2015)
DB The Dark Barbarian (Greenwood Press, 1984)
HSREH The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard (Del Rey, 2008)
SFTP So Far The Poet & Other Writings (REH Foundation, 2010)
WB The Wordbook: AN Index Guide to the Poetry of Robert E. Howard (REH Foundation, 2009)
“The Devil in Iron” illustration by Boris
Read Part 1, Part 3