Editors’ Note: Matt Spencer is the author of numerous novellas and short-stories, as well as the novels The Night and the Land, The Trail of the Beast, and Summer Reaping on the Fields of Nowhere. His latest book is the short-fiction collection Story Time With Crazy Uncle Matt. He’s been a journalist, New Orleans restaurant cook, factory worker, radio DJ, and a no-good ramblin’ bum. He’s also a song lyricist, playwright, actor, and martial artist. As of this writing, he lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.
If you know me and/or the kind of stuff I write, you’re probably at least passingly familiar with the works of Robert E. Howard, even if only by reputation, as to the man’s profound influence on the evolution of heroic adventure lit, and fantasy/speculative-fiction in general. On those merits, whether you’ve read him or not, you probably already have an idea whether or not his stuff’s for you…and yet perhaps not. If you’ve dismissed Conan the Barbarian as simplistic, macho male wish-fulfillment fantasy…honestly, hey, fair enough, whatever. I make no apologies for art that resonates with me personally, for whatever reason, high and low and everything in between, though I’d also guess that you haven’t read the longer Conan tales such as Red Nails and Beyond the Black River. It’s when we get into Howard’s far larger, non-Conan body of work that things get a lot weirder, darker, stickier, and more complex.
Which brings me to Howard’s oft-collected/anthologized novella Worms of the Earth, one of his most famous and influential non-Conan tales. It’s a fan-favorite for good reason, though also a fascinating anomaly, specifically for how it subverts the very tropes of hard-edged sword-and-sorcery (more popularly called “Grimdark” these days) Howard himself unwittingly codified.
The premise will sound familiar enough: sometime in the third century, a corrupt Roman General unjustly executes one of the people of Pictish leader Bran Mak Morn, who vows revenge. To modern audiences accustomed to scrappy, rustic freedom-fighter hero-types in movies like BRAVEHEART, ROB ROY and GLADIATOR, Bran comes across as comfortably familiar enough, at a glance. He’s more complicated than that, though, and Howard’s not interested in anything so simplistically sentimental so far as bloody ancient history as seen through a fictional lens. Bran is caught up in a double uphill fight, struggling both against Roman occupation in ancient Britain and to raise his own people out of primitivism, with his own distant, hazy dreams of Empire-building. Howard wrote several lengthy stories featuring Bran as a prominent ensemble character, but WOTE is the only completed work with the character as the central point-of-view protagonist. The tale seamlessly weaves a blend of real history and ancient British/Celtic mythology/folklore, with a few not-so-subtle winking nods to the mythos of his pen-pal and literary contemporary H.P. Lovecraft.
Bran witnesses the execution while spying on the Romans disguised as an emissary. While he’s clearly a badass, he’s also smart enough to realize that trying to get to the General directly would be both personal and political suicide, and he has to think of his own people’s interests before his own. So he does what, y’know, any sensible person would do under such circumstances: vow in a fit of rage to enlist supernatural assistance, from some fabled subterranean abominations of the lore of his homeland. He does this against the advice of his own tribal elder who visits him in a dream to say basically, “Dude, I know what you’re thinking, and…No, trust me on this, man, don’t go there, just…NO!” Undeterred, Bran sets out on his quest to strike a Faustian bargain with the Worms of the Earth. His journey takes him to the gloomy, lonely moorlands, where he meets and enlists the aid of a reclusive witch Atla, who may well be herself something other than human. From there, without giving away the outcome, the tale becomes a surprisingly nuanced tragedy of how revenge, even when successful, can turn out to be a “Be careful what you wish for” affair.
The tale showcases Howard’s vivid, poetic prose at its best; while his dialogue is often embarrassingly melodramatic, the descriptions of both open natural landscape and shadowy, spooky locations are timeless, the very definition of “Puts you right there.” To a 21st century reader, the imagery feels uncannily like epic, fantastical cinematography worthy of Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS films captured in concise prose.
It’s in the details, however, that things get more subversive. Atla the wolf-witch of the moors is one of Howard’s more enigmatically intriguing female characters. She essentially acts here as a femme fatale, tauntingly warning Bran to be careful what he wishes for, while guiding him towards it anyway. Yet instead of being treated as the sultry sex-object one might expect, she’s described through Bran’s eyes as unsettlingly alien, to where he responds to her sexual advances with squirmy discomfort rather than titillation. Even her attraction to Bran has less to do with his mighty, kingly, heroic studliness, more to do with her natural sexual frustration as a social outcast. Re-reading the story recently, whatever Howard’s authorial intent, I found myself sympathizing more with Atla than with Bran on some levels. Also, while Howard’s knack for vivid, visceral violence is on full display in this yarn, it never takes the form of heroic swashbuckling combat one might expect, from Howard or in this kind of story in general. Rather, acts of violence are presented as stark, abrupt, ugly and cruel, when committed by sympathetic and unsympathetic characters alike. Such instances are few and far between, yet they serve to ratchet up the tension of the larger narrative, lending a pervasive sense that such volatile danger is the norm, ready to break through at any moment…and that no matter what creepy-crawly supernatural menace our hero encounters, at the end of the day, it’s us humans who are the real monsters.
So if you’re a fan of dark fantasy, historical fiction, or sword-and-sorcery, and you haven’t read this powerful little masterpiece…what are you waiting for?
Worms of the Earth can currently be found in print and e-book, in the collections BRAN MAK MORN: THE LAST KING, CRIMSON SHADOWS: THE BEST OF ROBERT E. HOWARD vol. 1, and THE HORROR STORIES OF ROBERT E. HOWARD.
 – The term honestly makes me cringe, but hey, it’s stuck as a marketing label within the industry, so whattayagonnado, right?
 – Howard’s depiction of the Picts, while largely debunked now, was meticulously accurate to historical scholarship available to an amateur history enthusiast in the 1920s.
 – Fans of the 1982 CONAN THE BARBARIAN movie will instantly recognize this lady as the source of an homage.
 – I don’t know what Bran’s problem is; Atla sure sounds hot to me. Hey, don’t kink-shame me, folks!