"Pigeons From Hell"

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black stranger.jpg"Griswell awoke suddenly, every nerve tingling with a premonition of imminent peril."  With that opening line, Robert E. Howard's  short story "Pigeons from Hell" (originally written before the author's death in 1936 and first published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1938) sets up the dark and moody atmosphere that permeates the tale throughout it's length.  Griswell and his friend John Branner, traveling through the South, make a big mistake when they decide to spend the night at a deserted and deteriorated old mansion, surrounded by ominous looking pigeons. 


Later that evening, Griswell wakes up to find Branner, his head split open and bleeding, come after him with an axe.  Griswell flees the house and runs into the local sheriff, Buckner (whose casual racism -the sheriff loves using the "N' word- has to be excused as representative of the period the story was written in), who goes back with Griswell to the house where they find Branner's body. 

Although the largely circumstantial evidence seems to indicate Griswell murdered Branner, Buckner finds enough signs to give the man the benefit of the doubt.  Together, Griswell and Buckner begin investigating the history of the mansion, once owned by the decadent West Indian family the Blassenvilles, who first moved in the place in the late 18th century.   The two men's investigation leads them to an old Voodoo shaman, who tells our protagonists about how the Blassenvilles loved whipping their slaves and practicing various Voodoo rituals, among other horrible things.  Celia Blassenville, in particular, loved torturing the Mulatto maid Joan. One night in 1890, the last surviving member of the family, Elizabeth, flees the house in panic, never to return.  The house itself remains uninhabited for decades until the arrival of Griswell and Branner. 

The shaman also tells Griswell and Buckner  about female zombies called Zuvembies, or female zombies, before suddenly dying from a snake wound.  Griswell and Buckner return to the Blassenville mansion to settle the mystery once and for all.  The pigeons meet them as they arrive...

To say more would spoil the story.  Howard maintains a tone of overheated luridness throughout the tale, particulary when describing what degenerate depths the Blassenvilles had sunk to.  The dialogue and omniscent voice is also somewhat overheated, but the purpleness of Howard's prose (hey, when you wrote for the pulps, you got paid by the word, not artistic quality) is offset by his vivid imagination and deft, almost frantic, storytelling skills. 

"Pigeons from Hell" can be found in the 2005 Howard collection The Black Stranger and Other American Tales, edited by Steven Tompkins, and can be reserved online here.

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This page contains a single entry by Ed published on June 11, 2010 9:17 AM.

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