Bran Mak Morn
The Robert E. Howard Library, Vol. IV
Baen Books edition published January 1996
The Lost Race
Men of the Shadows
Kings of the Night
Song of the Race (poem)
Worms of the Earth
The Gods of Bal-sagoth
(out of 5)
Though this claims to be the "First Complete Edition" of Bran Mak Morn stories, that's not really true. All but one of these stories (including the fragment) were previously published in Worms of the Earth. The only new one here is "The Gods of Bal-sagoth", which isn't even a Bran Mak Morn story, but concerns the Gaelic pirate Turlogh Dubh O'Brien, who lived several centuries after the Pictish king. If the editors thought there was sufficient reason to group them together, the collection still isn't complete because it should have included the Turlogh O'Brien fragment previously published in Sword Woman. Anyway, I will break up the reviews, placing some on the Worms of the Earth page.
Along with Conan, Kull and Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn is Robert E. Howard's most recognized character. For myself, though, I don't much care for the Pictish king, with the exception of "Worms of the Earth". In the introduction, David Weber acknowledges weaknesses in both "The Lost Race" and "Men of the Shadows", commenting: "I suspect ["Men of the Shadows"] is very early Howard, and part of his learning process..." Maybe, but REH wrote many other stories which have the same problem: a tendency to go on and on with endless details about the history of a race. This collection (like Worms of the Earth) includes an interesting foreword written by Howard -- (I don't know where this foreword comes from...a letter to Lovecraft, maybe?) -- and it sheds some light on both the strengths and weaknesses of these stories. Obviously, Howard felt considerable affection for the Picts, but, as a result, he spends too much time revelling in anything and everything pictish, and too little time telling a good yarn. In this foreword, he expressed a desire to someday write a novel about the Picts which would "be of nations and kings rather than individuals" -- and therein lies the problem. These stories are less about people than they are about events.
In "The Lost Race" the story is told from the point-of-view of a Briton, Cororuc, who is captured by the Picts, listens to a history of the race told by an old man, and is nearly executed until rescued at the last minute by the intervention of a Pict he had inadvertently saved earlier. Told like that, it sounds better than it is. And Bran Mak Morn doesn't even appear.
"Men of the Shadows" is told from the viewpoint of a Norse mercenary working for the Romans. The story starts out strong, with the mercenary finding himself the last of a doomed Roman expedition, the purpose of which has been lost with the death of their leader. But then the mercenary is captured by Picts, and taken before Bran Mak Morn, and things start to bog down. The Pictish King wants to set him free, but a wizard insists the mercenary must be killed. Bran Mak Morn and the wizard settle the question with a sort of psychic one-on-one in which the King wins. Then the whole story grinds to a halt as the wizard gives us a history of the Picts -- a part which Weber calls "a somewhat indigestible lump of explanation".
"The Gods of Bal-sagoth" features Turlough Dubh O'Brien, who first appeared in "The Dark Man". In that story, he wiped out a Norse "skalli", leaving only one Viking alive. That Viking, Athelstane, now teams up with Turlough in a curiously bad-tempoed (ha, ha!) adventure. Turlough and Athelstane find themselves shipwrecked on an island where they encounter the deposed former-goddess of Bal-sagoth, Brunhild. Always on the look-out for a good "sword-quenching", they agree to help her win back her goddess status and kill the evil priest, Gothan, who deposed her -- and who has dark forces at his command.
The story should have worked, but somehow it falls flat. For some reason, REH takes too long to get to the interesting part (that is, the evil priest and his dark forces) and then is too quick in disposing of those same dark forces. Nor is there much action -- or threat. In the main fight scene, Athelstane is fully armoured, while his opponent is not. As the Norseman himself concedes: "It is no great feat I have done..." Finally, when the requisite dark demon does show up, a single stab finishes the thing, leaving the reader feeling distinctly cheated.
What surprises me is that all these stories, except "Men of the Shadows", were published in Weird Tales -- unlike, for example, the Kull stories which were mainly published long after Howard's death, when he had become famous. Only "Worms of the Earth" strikes me as a good tale. I will review it, along with "Kings of the Night" and "The Dark Man" under the Worms of the Earth collection from Ace.
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