Pigeons from Hell

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BEFORE: Former banner image – Artist’s depiction of the Death Pit from the Royal Tombs of Ur, Illustrated London News, 1937

Hey, I’ve never said so but the banner image is an artist’s conception of the Death Pit at the Royal Tombs of Ur, excavated by Sir Leonard Wooley in the 1920s and featured in a newspaper story of the time. The Death Pit was the site of human sacrifice on a massive scale, with before and after images of the ceremony – the banner showing before when the “celebrants,” human and animal, were arranged in the tomb, and after, sprawled out on the ground in the position they were found by archaeologists. So, it may be obnoxious in a way to use it to illustrate the blog, but accurate in another sense given much of the content.


Robert E. Howard’s story  “Pigeons from Hell” (Weird Tales, May 1938) is fascinating for many reasons. Stephen King has called it one of the best horror stories of all time, interesting given how S. T. Joshi, the go-to authority on weird pulp fiction, pans Howard’s writing. I’m going to go with the author here as the better class of critic. Generally praise like that doesn’t get heaped on work unless it touches a fundamental nerve. From reading the story and what I’ve read about zombies in anthropology it does just that, as I’ll take up in a future post.

In the tale Howard coins the term zuvembie for female zombie. And despite the racist dialogue you’d expect in depression era pulp fiction, the villain, the monster herself, is a very sympathetic character. It was Guillermo del Toro who said the best monsters are sympathetic and elicit empathy rather than only fear. For me the story does that as well.

Long before the present notoriety of Conan the Cimmerian, “Pigeons from Hell” was adapted into other media including the following 1961 episode of Boris Karloff’s Thriller. If you’re not familiar with that TV series, this will give you a sense of it as a reference behind Michael Jackson’s song and album of the same name. This episode is not without it’s own racist overtones, which are things I’ll be covering as well (I just wrote about 2000 words on this for REHupa, the journal of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association – I rework and improve stuff I test there in my blog). (Spoiler: IMO the TV version not surprisingly is scrubbed of the most interesting and sympathetic aspects of the story – it was America in the early ’60s, after all.)

If you’re interested in these subjects or follow this blog, put on your thinking cap and grab some popcorn and check this out. (And if you can, go to Cross Plains, Texas, for 2018 Robert E. Howard Days on June 8-9!)

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