Black Canaan (Robert E. Howard,1936)

Perhaps it's fair, that I begin this post with a warning, that this post uses language that is offensive towards a certain group of people in this modern day and age. But as the story in question uses these words excessively, I can't help but use them as well in order to better underline the vocabulary Howard used in it. You are now free to get as offended as you want.

On a surface level, Howard's horror-themed western story is probably the most blatantly racist story he has ever written. Not only are terms like "nigger", "darkie" and "swamp nigger" thrown in on many occasions, it is a story where easily manipulated former slaves, who are described in the jovial good-natured stereotype manner,  are lured to begin a revolt against their former masters. But then again, most of the characters, black and white, are portrayed as uneducated, superstitious and tempered rednecks, whereas the antagonists, whom both are black, of the tale, a voodoo conjurer Saul Stark and his right-hand woman, a witch who's only called as the Daughter of Damballah, are both smart and enigmatic people. The Daughter of Damballah manages to even seduce and mesmerize the narrator of the story, Kirby Buckner and who is saved only because of one stray bullet from his friend's pistol.

The story begins when Kirby Buckner is on his way home as he has been given a message, that states that there will be trouble in Tularoosa Creek. On his way there, a quadroon girl halts him, mocking him. While he doesn't know her, she knows his name and soon Kirby finds himself enticed by the beautiful woman, only to end up jumped by three burly black men, whom he manages to defeat. The girl, however, manages to escape, leaving him dazzled and even after Kirby encounters a guard posse, he finds himself being unable to reveal the girl or her part in the ambush.

The posse tells Kirby, that there's indeed trouble brewing about. All the black farmers and dwellers of Tularoosa have either escaped out of town or gone deep to the swamps. They suspect, that those who have left town have done so as they don't want to take a part in an upcoming upraising of those former slaves who have gone to the swamps. Later he learns, that all the trouble is caused by one new arrival, one Saul Stark, a conjurer and a voodoo priest.

Kirby decides to go to Stark alone, as he wants to avoid any unnecessary bloodshed. He doesn't want either population, black or white, of Tularoosa to be massacred in a mindless confrontation, so he believes himself to be the best one to confront Stark and maybe talk him out of any possible upheaval.

After some galloping around, the quadroon girl confronts Kirby once more. This time around she bounds her spell around her even tighter, making him unable to raise his gun against her and with that, she beckons her to follow her deep to the swamps, where he is to be sacrificed in the ritual of the Dance of the Skulls. Dazed Kirby tries to ride back to the town, but as the night grows closer, he feels the tug of her call. The Daughter of Damballah has mesmerized him and while he knows there's only death for him, he still can't resist. Not even his friend Jim Braxton, who rode after him, can stop him, so together they head to the swamp.

In the swamps, Kirby witnesses the lascivious Dance of the Skulls of the Damballah Bride, just as she predicted. From his hiding place, he sees, how the beautiful woman swirls and dances like possessed, but something is not right with her. Earlier during a quick battle where Braxton died, one shot struck the woman, but not even death, as she said earlier, could stop her performing her dance. That one shot ended up saving Kirby, who finally is freed of the spell and can confront the voodoo priest, whose death breaks the final spell he had placed over the blacks of Tularoosa.

As I stated, on the surface Black Canaan is blatantly racistic. Racial slurs are thrown around almost excessively during the narrative, but there's one interesting aspect on that: Buckner, who is the narrator uses it mostly when he is talking to other people. When he is talking to the other white people of Tularoosa, he talks to them the same way they talk to him and that includes the use derogatory words and belittling of the blacks. But when he is narrating, he actually uses terms that are softer and more respectful towards blacks in the contrast of the time period the story takes place. in contrast to the other white folks, he shows far more care and understanding towards the people on the other side of the quarrel and even leaves the voodoo horrors of the events unmentioned after all is said and done. In his mind, it is better to leave the white folk unaware of some things.

Howard himself wasn't pleased with the version of the story that was published in the end. In his letters, he has said, that the changes made because of editorial requirements gutted the story and made it something else than what he had originally intended as its theme. If he would have explored the racial and sexual themes of the story further than he did is anyone's guess, both of those are very pivotal elements none the less in it: the Daughter of Damballah uses her sexuality against Kirby and Kirby himself prevents the good white folk from mindlessly massacring every black person they see.

The best parts of the story revolve around the Daughter of Damaballah and Kirby. The way Howard describes the seduction of Kirby, as well as his feverish run towards his own demise, might be among the best material Howard wrote during his career. The atmosphere of the story is gripping and the monstrous, supernatural horrors created by the conjurer are truly terrifying. While the story is at times a hard read, especially modern sensibilities in mind, it still is a story worth a read. It might not be what Howard envisioned it to be, but it isn't without merit either.

Howard explored similar racial tensions at more length in a story Skull-Face, in which an ancient Atlantean sorcerer is aiming to instigate a race war between the white and coloured people. The story protagonists, drug-addicted sailor Costigan is at first an employee of Skull-Face, whom he believes has saved his life by detoxing him, but as he falls in love with a stunning oriental girl, enslaved to Skull-Face, he later turns on his former saviour and begins to plan her rescue.  Costigan himself is fairly indifferent to the notion of a race war, as he himself is only interested in saving the woman whereas the people yammering about it have a paranoid flare about them.

But, I digress. Black Canaan is a story Howard himself wasn't terribly pleased with and as such, it might not fully reflect his full vision. In parts of it, Howard is clearly more than sympathetic towards the black people and their blight, but at times he describes them in broad stereotypes customarily to the times he lived in. In part, it's good to keep in mind, that the story itself is set in a time where racial slurs were more than commonly used and people, in general, didn't really stop and think about if using them would be offensive. Howard also tried to use more lenient terminology on the narrative of the story and kept a good deal of the slurs in the spoken dialogue. This latter aspect is a notable one, as when the story was originally published in 1936, I doubt that many people would have batted an eye because of racially insensitive wording.

Black Canaan is an uneven piece. Some parts of it are very well written and some parts of it just don't work that well, no matter what kind of language Howard uses in it. This might be more due to the fact it was heavily edited and altered before its publication, so whatever original intentions Howard had with it, were probably lost long before it finally came out. I wouldn't call it essential reading as far Howard's works go, but still, despite its flaws, it is an interesting read, none the less.




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