The Shadow out of Spain — Part 4

Maybe, in the heat of evening, comes a wind from Mexico,
Laden with the heat of seven Hells,
And the rattler in the yucca and the buzzard dark and slow
Hear and understand the grisly tales it tells.

– Robert E. Howard, “The Grim Land” (AMTF1.178; CL2.218-219)

From 1930 until his death, H. P. Lovecraft fiction bears no mention of Spain or Hispanic peoples, aside from a very brief note on the pre-Columbian cultures of Central and South America in “Out of the Aeons,” which Lovecraft had ghostwritten for Hazel Heald:

Von Junzt implied its presence in the fabled subterrene kingdom of K’n-yan, and gave clear evidence that it had penetrated Egypt, Chaldaea, Persia, China, the forgotten Semite empires of Africa, and Mexico and Peru in the New World.

The mention to K’n-yan is reference to the Spanish narrative in Lovecraft’s “The Mound,” ghostwritten for Zealia Brown Reed Bishop in 1930, but which failed to find a publisher in the pulps. It is unclear if Lovecraft ever sent Robert E. Howard a copy of the manuscript for that story; though Lovecraft hinted at it. (AMTF1.41) Certainly it would not have been unusual for Lovecraft to have passed around the manuscript to his friends, or even the typescript that R. H. Barlow prepared in 1934—but if that is the case, there is no record of it.

The interest in Lovecraft’s “The Mound,” and whether or not Howard read it, is in part due to parallels with two of Robert E. Howard’s own stories written after they began corresponding, “The Horror from the Mound” (1932) and the unfinished “The Valley of the Lost” (“Secret of Lost Valley”). The Texan’s output after his correspondence with the Gent from Providence is notable for taking a Lovecraftian turn, whence came the prototypical Cthulhu Mythos stories including “The Black Stone” (1931) and “The Thing on the Roof” (1932); a story or two generally inspired by one of Lovecraft’s yarns would not have been out of the question.

“The Valley of the Lost” (“Secret of Lost Valley”) lacks the form of “The Mound”—lacks even a mound, as the entrance to a subterranean world is a cave in the eponymous valley. Yet it does have an intrepid explorer, descending into a netherworld where a strange, sorcerous race yet dwells, reanimating the bodies of the dead to serve them, just as the people of K’n-yan did. The Old Ones of Howard’s tale bare a close similarity to those in “Worms of the Earth” (1932) and Howard’s other “Little People” tales, which suggests that the story was written around the same time.

For all that, besides the name “The Horror from the Mound” bears little obvious influence. The mound in question is obviously much smaller than the one in Lovecraft’s Oklahoma, and holds a very different and almost prosaic kind of horror: a Spanish vampire. There is a narrative similarity in that protagonists in both Howard and Lovecraft’s tale uncover a narrative, written in Howard’s case by the poor Mexican farmer Juan Lopez, providing a history for the secret of the mound that dates back to the days of the Conquistadors—indeed, both going back to Coronado’s fruitless march north looking for the golden city of Cibola. There, the similarities end.

Coronado is mentioned in two more of Howard’s unfinished tales, “Nekht Semerkhet” and “The Thunder-Rider.” Both feature ancient wizards and strange people with terrible powers that lived north of the Aztec empire at the time of the European conquest, with reference to both Aztecs and Spanish. In outline, they bear a gross similarity to some of Howard’s Conan tales, notably “Red Nails” (1936). “Nekht Semerkhet” indeed features one of Coronado’s hidalgos, Hernando de Guzman, who is decidedly more worldly and sanguine than Lovecraft’s polyglot Panfilo de Zamacona:

Spanish blood was no more sacred than the blood of other races; blood was only blood, and he had seen oceans of it spilled: Spanish blood, English blood, Huguenot blood, Inca blood, Aztec blood – the royal blood of Montezuma ripping from the parapets of Tenochtitlan – blood running ankle-deep in the plaza of Cajamarca, about the frantic feet of doomed Atahualpa.

The idea of an ancient precursors to contemporary peoples, even or particularly alien populations with strange powers and degenerate descendants surviving in out-of-the-way places was not uncommon in Howard’s weird fiction, and it formed an alliance of theme with some of Lovecraft’s stories. So in “The Black Stone” (1931) there is a reference to a monument in the Yucatan, and especially in “The Thing on the Roof” (1932):

It is a very curious temple, no more like the ruins of the prehistoric Indians than it is like the buildings of the modern Latin-Americans. The Indians in the vicinity disclaim any former connections with the place; they say that the people who built that temple were a different race from themselves, and were there when their own ancestors came into the country. I believe it to be a remnant of some long-vanished civilization which began to decay thousands of years before the Spaniards came.

Other half-forgotten temples and civilizations would be encountered in Howard’s fiction. In “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” (1931), the Irish adventurer Turlogh Dubh O’Brien would be saved from one by a Spanish captain, Don Roderigo del Cortez of Castile, sailing against Moorish corsairs. Yet another occurred in “The Isle of Pirate’s Doom,” and a third in “Black Vulmea’s Vengeance,” the pirate Black Vulmea, scourge of Spaniards in the era of buccaneers, comes across a forgotten temple where it is claimed a great treasure is hidden—and in the sequel, “Swords of the Red Brotherhood” (originally a Conan tale, “The Black Stranger”), Vulmea searches for the lost jewels of Montezuma, which Cortez supposedly failed to loot.

Many of these tales were at least quasi-historical yarns with a weird element; the rich tapestry of the Southwest formed in large part the backdrop for the story, and the names and exploits of Cortez and Coronado made it easy to fit in other historical details for a story. One of Howard’s best weird tales, “Old Garfield’s Heart” (1933), used this history to terrific effect in one simple line:

“Well,” said old Jim, “I’ll tell you this much?Ghost Man knew Coronado.”

Spaniards and Mexicans were not restricted to fantastic fiction, but featured in nearly every genre of Howard’s fiction from 1930 until he died. In his boxing stories, for instance, Pedro Lopez, the Mexican Man-Eater, featured in the unfinished “Fighting Nerves,” and Jose Gonzalez, the Spanish Tiger in the fragmentary “Blue River Blues.” “Texas Fists” (1931), nominally a boxing tale, features the Mexican bandit Lopez the Terrible.

Mexican bandits were a stereotype that Howard was not averse to using in his fiction, appearing in stories such as the “A Man of Peace,” “The Ghost of Bald Rock Ranch,” “High Horse Rampage,” “Pilgrims of the Pecos” (all undated), “Riot at Bucksnort” (1936) and “Vultures of Whapeton” (1936). Not all Hispanics in Howard’s fiction were cheap villains, however. Juan Lopez of “The Horror from the Mound” was well-meaning and honest, despite the prejudices of Steve Brill. The faithful unnamed Mexican boy in “A Man-Eating Jeopard” (1936) and Juan Sanchez of “Black Wind Blowing” (1936) died trying to protect their employers, as did the Spanish matchlocks in “Shadow of the Vulture” (1934). Lopez de Vasca was a mulatto grandee of Portugal and a great detective in “The Hand of Obeah”?though still a villain, at least not a cheap one. “Hawks Over Egypt” featured as the protagonist Diego de Guzman of Castile, come to Egypt from Moorish Spain to obtain his vengeance for the slaughter of Spanish knights, though this Spaniard is of a different breed from the others in Howard’s fiction:

Spaniards had not yet acquired the polished formality men later came to consider their dominant characteristic. The Castilian was still more Nordic than Latin. Diego de Guzman possessed the open bluntness of the Goths who were his ancestors.

Heroes or villains, Howard’s Hispanic characters?particularly the Mexicans?display his prejudices as often as his racial theories. Mexicans are often displayed as criminals, dirty, lazy, and ignorant, which is sometimes played for laughs, such as in “No Cowherders Wanted” (1936):

“And they ain’t even first-class beans, neither,” he said bitterly, when he could talk again. “They’re full of grit and wormholes, and I think the Mex cook washes his feet in the pot he cooks ’em in.”

“Well,” I says, “sech cleanliness is to be encouraged, because I never heard of one before which washed his feet in anything. Don’t worry. I’ll git in a poker game and win enough to pay yore fine and plenty over.”

More often, however, the derogatory depiction of Mexicans is played straight, and in “The Stones of Destiny” is even wrapped up in unapologetically moral terms that carry the shadow of Howard’s letters with Lovecraft:

Ignorance, poverty, serfdom, that is the curse of Mexico today, as it has been for ages. […] barbarians. For that is all that the majority of the inhabitants of Mexico are, regardless of their claim to the best blood of Spain.

The most roguish and sadistic of Howard’s Mexican villains?and arguably the most interesting?featured in his unpublished confessional “The Stones of Destiny,” where the suave Juan le Ferez sweet-talks a young white woman over the Border to be sold into slavery to the sadistic Gonzalez. His description of the Mexican town of Matamoros was probably drawn from his own visits:

The town of Matamoros lies back from the river, a bare squalid place. Since then I have seen other Mexican towns along the border, and some of them equal American cities of the same size. But Matamoros more resembles the strong hold of bandits than anything else. Every where I saw dirty, ragged peons, mostly bare-footed; many carried rifles or pistols and many wore cartridge belts strapped about their waists. Before a drab barrack a few languid soldiers pretended to mount guard, and here and there among the many saloons rurales with gaudy costumes drank mescal and boasted. The town is roughly built about a large square, on one side of which is a cathedral, while the rest of the square is taken up largely by saloon and gambling halls.

Then there were the women. Robert E. Howard’s views of Hispanic women may have owed something to the visit to the Boy’s Towns across the Border in Mexico, and certainly the gender of female characters in Howard’s work tended to color their characterization as much as their ethnicity. The dark-haired pirate Raquel O’Shane, half-Irish and half-Spanish, played as the romantic interest of Wild Bill Clanton in Howard’s spicy stories “She-Devil” (1936) and its sequel “Ship in Mutiny” (1936), Carmenacita was the innocent virgin in “The Grove of Lovers,” while the vicious prostitute Conchita was definitely the bad girl of “Vultures of Whapeton” (1936). The Spanish rose in “Through the Ages” goes unnamed, but another Conchita appeared in “The Thunder-Rider”:

And she was a full-blooded Spanish woman, daughter of a captain of Cortez, stolen from below the Rio Grande by the Apaches when a baby and from them stolen in turn by the southern Pawnees, to be raised as an Indian.

The two Conchitas brings up another point: many of the same names recur throughout Howard’s fiction, and the same or similar Hispanic names in particular occur with a regularity that may seem somewhat unusual given the number of different characters, stories, and genres involved. Besides the two Raquels and Conchitas, there at least six Juans and six Lopezes, two Diegos, four Joses, and two Guzmans. This is not atypical of the Texan’s style; stories were often written quickly, even when working through multiple drafts, and recycled when they failed to sell.

Artwork Credit: “The Valley of the Lost” by Greg Staples

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5