Saturday, 20 August 2011

‘Pigeons from Hell’ – Robert E. Howard (Taken from 'The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard)

I’ve got to admit that the first time I saw this title (on a comic in Forbidden Planet, years ago) I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. Pigeons have to be the dumbest birds I’ve ever come across so to be asked to imagine that there’s anything even slightly demonic about these dopey birds... well, I just couldn’t. I didn’t pick it up but, funnily enough, I’ll be reviewing the trade paperback (Joe Lansdale’s sequel to Howard’s original) early next week and more than likely revising my opinion of it.
I didn’t realise that ‘Pigeons from Hell’ was a Robert E. Howard short story until I came across it again in the ‘Mammoth Book of Zombie Comics’. I wasn’t able to get the most out of it there though as I found myself saying, ‘Pigeons from Hell’ is a classic Robert E. Howard horror story and the artwork here is brooding and chilling at the same time. It’s a shame then that the publisher forgot to include the words…’ Life took over (as it does) after that and I never got round to reading ‘Pigeons’, until now.

My ‘Robert E. Howard’ month’ seemed like the ideal time to dig out my copy of ‘The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard’ and finally get to grips with ‘Pigeons from Hell’. It’s a tale of horror that has all the right ingredients in abundance, all cooked to near perfection...

Two New Englanders (the main character Griswell and his friend John Branner) are travelling in the Deep South and decide to spend the night in a deserted plantation. Only one of them makes it out alive though, Griswell being chased by the axe bearing and bloody corpse of his friend...
What killed John Branner? The Sheriff that Griswell runs into wonders if it was Griswell himself but the truth is far more horrifying. To uncover this truth, the two men must return to the manor that has seen more than its fair share of sadistic cruelty and revenge...

‘Pigeons from Hell’ is a gloomily atmospheric piece that cunningly conceals its moments of horror until they’re right up in your face and you can’t get away from them. You know that they’re coming though and I for one had to keep reading and find them. There’s a tantalising mystery lurking within the old Blassenville Manor, a place that the locals won’t go near after dark and where the sight of pigeons around the rooftop is an omen of the grimmest sort.

If you ever thought that Howard was just all about mighty heroes doing mighty deeds then read ‘Pigeons from Hell’ and have your mind changed. This slice of ‘Southern Horror’ will quite happily lead you down all manner of blind alleys and leave you expecting and ending that you won’t get. You may think that the ending doesn’t offer much that is new but I guarantee that you won’t see it coming until its right there in front of you. Talk about ‘out of the blue’!

Howard approaches his horror with the same energy that he would a battle scene in a Conan story; the result being moments in the story that are genuinely terrifying. Howard lets the reader right into Griswell’s head and you get a ringside seat for everything that happens to him. There are chilling moments of suspense and there are moments that are just nasty; Howard doesn’t pull any punches at all and ‘Pigeons’ flows all the more smoothly for it, each scene pushing things forward at just the right speed.

All of these moments are set against a stark backdrop of ‘Deep Southern Decay’ where the grim and foreboding backdrop either hides a secret or just looks like it does. Either way, the background combines perfectly with the plot to form a story that does exactly what it sets out to do and in some style.

‘Pigeons from Hell’ is a gloriously unsettling slice of horror that showcases Howard’s talent for writing stories that you can’t help but read until the bitter end. Those final scenes will remain in my head for a long time to come.

Ten out of Ten


Taranaich said...

I still haven't tracked down a copy of that Mammoth Book of Zombie Comics that has the words restored, even though I maintain the artwork is so good, I thought it was completely intentional!

Glad you liked the story, of course. I'm ambivalent when it comes to Lansdale's Howard work (mostly Songs of the Dead, which I... didn't like), and his "Pigeons" is no different. I get the distinct impression he'd do great "influenced by Howard" stories, just not Howard stories in themselves.

Graeme Flory said...

You know what? That was exactly what I thought when I first read it :o) I'd go so far as to say that it was the best artwork in the book.
I haven't really read anything else from Lansdale, ended up with mixed feelings about his version of 'Pigeons'...