Robert E. Howard’s Valley of the Worm, first published in February of 1934, is strong in all the hallmarks of the author’s oeuvre: we have florid descriptions rendered in lusty prose, there is a pervasive critique & condemnation of civilization, & always the inevitable realization of truth through barbaric action. Poisoning the tale though is Howard’s use of racial denominations, especially to the modern reader. A bit more on that as we go.
Valley of the Worm is a straight forward enough tale couched in a kind of racial-memory, Eternal Champion style set up. Our “disease-racked” narrator James Allison (a civilized man, note), awaiting his imminent demise, tells us of all the glorious past lives he has lived through all the ages of the world, each one a red-handed slayer, fighter, or beserker, but settling down to centering on the proto-warrior Niord. Niord, he continues, is the seed-story that Perseus, Beowulf, & St. George all stem from. So ancient & time-lost is the age that Niord stalked – “lived and loved and fought” – that our narrating, infirmed Mr. Allison dare not say in fear of refuting accepted science of the modern world. Niord & his clan, The Aesir, all “blue-eyed, yellow-haired, wanderers, slayers, lovers, mighty in rapine and wayfaring” flow from the North out to spread across the ancient world.
The Aesir soon run afoul of Picts, a squat, darker race “drifting into head-hunting and cannibalism” & savage battle between the two ensues. During this, we are treated to extensive descriptions of the prowess of the Aesir: the meekest of their warriors shoot arrows farther than any modern record, the children never cry except to scream pure rage, the women, when pressed, fight like tigresses. Howard lays it on pretty thick. His prose has a swagger to it & it never lacks conviction, but we’re beat about the head with how excellent the Aesir are in all things, all the time, without fail. & they are excellent because they are Aesir. Then, mercifully, comes a moment of mercy. Niord spares Grom, a Pict who fought well & earned his respect. The Aesir do not take slaves, but a comradery develops between the two & Grom convinces his people of the Aesirs’ better qualities. The two clans settle into a more-or-less peaceful coexistence.
From here the story starts to earn it’s title. A section of the Aesir separate from the main clan & found their own encampment in a valley long avoided by the Picts due to a previous, horrific slaughter the Aesir remain ignorant of. Niord decides after some time to visit the new encampment & finds the same fate has met his clansmen. Vengeance ensues. Grom relates to Niord the tale of his people’s slaughter at the hands of a titanic abomination “which arrows pierced but could not check, which swords carved but could not slay”. In order to combat the titular horror, Niord hunts down & slays an entirely separate titanic foe, Satha, the great serpent. Snakes, in all of Howard’s work, are short hand for evil, & Howard used a lot of snakes in his stories. But Satha is so magnificently malevolent we’re told, it is the original mold that cast lesser versions known more widely by names like Set, Leviathan & Satan. Niord, with a bit of strategy, has little trouble slaying Satan. It says a bit about the story, about Howard & the era that he was writing in that the origin for Satan is a stepping stone to a greater, nameless fiend. Niord soaks eleven arrows in the acidic poison of Satha & moves out to seek the abomination in the valley.
As Niord comes to the valley to confront the Worm, Gorm will not proceed & instead “He lay on his belly in the dust and howled like a dying dog”. It’s not that here, so near the end of the tale, we doubt that Niord will accomplish his task (he does), but that Gorm, a Pict, still has to be a debased thing & cannot be allowed to aid in the coming battle. The racism is so utterly apart of how the story is told – not the story itself, mind you, the way it’s being told – that it genuinely damages any response we have as readers to the goings-on. No one could manage anything but for Niord getting it done.
Though we know the Worm is doomed going into the battle, this portion of the story is strongest. The atmosphere surrounding the ruined temple housing the Worm is palpable. The herald of the worm, a fungus-encrusted figure piping on flutes is a sign of real Outside weirdness. When the worm itself emerges, it is a Lovecraftian titan eschewing any tellurian anatomy or reasoning. The battle is hard fought & seems lost, segueing to an ending with surprising resonance supported by the fatalism inherent to so many Howard’s stories.
The flaws of the story are not to slander Howard, though they are his fault. He was not the xenophobic that his contemporary Lovecraft was. He had a strong tendency to exoticize & it was a tendency that swung in all directions. The Valley of the Worm carries the core, central theme of all his writing: that civilization is a farce & will fail. It has a melancholic truth that rings true & for moments, rings beautiful, as in the best of his work.
In comparison, Bloodstar (1979), adapted by John Jakes & John Pocsik & drawn vividly by legendary Richard Corben, takes a different telling of that core story.
Bloodstar immediately forgoes the racial memory aspect of Robert E. Howard’s original. Instead we are offered a panoramic prose-view of the modern Earth, emphasis is laid on the fragile & seemingly senseless operations all people take to get through their days to the next. Interjected against this is the arrival of a new, onrushing star. It’s a scenario very similar to that of the opening of Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia. As this new star moves closer & closer to the Earth, all manner of catastrophes occur: people panic, oceans boil away, mountains erupt, millions & millions die. (In addition to Melancholia, I was immediately reminded of the opening to Thundarr the Barbarian, an animated show that premiered a year after Bloodstar was published.) As the planetary upheavals subside, a new barbaric world emerges.
Jakes & Pocsik work a lot of changes on the story here. We’re introduced to Boodstar, so named from his birthmark on his forehead, & an elder Grom. Grom regales young Bloodstar about the exploits of his father, Bloodstar the elder, the Niord of Howard’s original tale. Dimension is added from hearing the tale from Grom’s point of view. The innate racial superiority of Niord’s telling is refreshingly swept aside. A rival is added in Loknar, a blood brother to Bloodstar, & a love interest in Helva, daughter to Aesir chieftain. These things in & of themselves are fairly pedestrian, & I personally usually prefer a leaner, less sympathetic style of story, but the expanded narrative coupled with Corben’s extraordinary art really do make for a better tale.
The art here has a lot of room to breath. Panels work around more robust passages of prose than many current comics, each adding weight to the other. Come action scenes the prose steps aside to let Corben’s work really pace out the happenings. This from the initial battle with the Picts:
& here Bloodstar tries to survive a trial, The Teeth of Ymir.
Narratively Bloodstar is less concerned with the hero’s omnipotence. He ruins his friend Loknar’s claim on becoming chieftain & is outcast, absconding with Helva who gives birth to their son in private. Grom is a significantly more balanced character, no longer just a racially inferior toady, he becomes a trusted friend of the family to the outcast Bloodstar & Helva. It’s only when Bloodstar returns to try & reconcile Helva, their son & the chieftain, her father does the specter of the Worm arrive. By then we are with him in his quest for vengeance.
If there is a fault to Bloodstar, it’s really that it lacks that essential melancholy that is inherent to Howard’s work. Corben’s art goes a long way & conveys a great deal. But though more well rounded, the newer narrative ends up feeling too polished. Bloodstar leaves us with a conciliatory ending, not warm & fuzzy, but nor holding fast to the fatalism that signs Robert E. Howard’s work.