Cimmerian Collection

Cover by SanjulianWorms of the Earth (Bran Mak Morn)
Copyright 1969, by Glenn Lord

Ace edition/ June 1979
Second printing/ September 1987

The Lost Race
Men of the Shadows
Kings of the Night
A Song of the Race (poem)
Worms of the Earth
The Dark Man

(out of 5)

This Ace book contains a collection of all the Bran Mak Morn stories written by Robert E. Howard, later reprinted by Baen Books in Bran Mak Morn, part of the Robert E. Howard Library.  Both collections include an interesting introduction written by Howard himself in which he describes his lifelong fascination with the race known as the Picts, and his concomitant animosity toward the Roman Empire.  The later anthology claims to be the "first complete" collection, since it throws in an extra tale, "The Gods of Bal-sagoth".  But, since "The Gods of Bal-sagoth" isn't actually about Bran Mak Morn, the present collection is just as complete.  In fact, the main difference between the two collections lies in the illustrations by David Ireland found in Worms of the Earth.  If you like illustrations, read this book.  I myself wasn't really impressed by Ireland's illustrations, and, in truth, felt they hurt some stories, such as "Worms of the Earth", where the whole thing plays better "in the theatre of the mind".

Little is known about the real "Picts", as Howard explains in his introduction, and so these tales are more fantasy than historical.  To Howard's mind, the Picts were the original inhabitants of the British Isles, who gradually degenerated -- physically, mentally, and culturally -- until they were finally supplanted by foreign invaders...Celts and then Romans.  At the time of these stories, the Picts had degenerated into a grotesque ape-like race, with long arms and stocky bodies and the IQ of a mushroom.  All of them, that is, except their king, Bran Mak Morn, who alone retains the pure blood of the original noble race. As a result, Bran Mak Morn is portrayed as a very lonely, tragic figure, aware that his people are doomed to extinction, but unable to save them.

The Bran Mak Morn stories are linked to Howard's King Kull mythos, but set something like 100,000 years after Atlantis, Valusia and Lemuria have been swallowed by the ocean.  King Kull had a Pictish friend named Brule, the Spear-slayer, who was a direct ancestor of Bran Mak Morn and Kull's wizard friend, Gonar, was an ancestor of Bran Mak Morn's wizard advisor, also named Gonar.  The Picts also show up in Conan's reality, notably in "Beyond the Black River", where they are portrayed as a jungle dwelling race of loin-cloth clad natives similar to North American Native peoples.  In Conan's reality, the Picts are little more than boogeymen...surprising given Howard's professed sympathies towards them.

"Kings of the Night" is unusual for a Robert E. Howard story, in that it teams-up two of his heroes in a single yarn -- Bran Mak Morn and King Kull.  Is it then a Bran Mak Morn story in which King Kull has a guest appearance...or a King Kull story in which Bran Mak Morn appears?  It might even be argued this story really belongs in a collection of King Kull tales.  Be that as it may, "Kings of the Night" is highly regarded by Howard fans and Richard L. Tierney, in his introduction to Tigers of the Sea (the Cormac Mac Art collection), called it "perhaps Howard's greatest tale of epic heroism".  Unfortunately, though, I can't really agree.  It certainly comes close to being a great story, but ultimately it remains more impressive in conception than in the execution.

In "Kings of the Night", Bran Mak Morn has managed to cobble together a shakey army comprising several races which would otherwise be at each other's throats; they have come together to fight a common enemy, the invading Romans.  Unfortunately, the Viking contingent lost its leader in a skirmish with the Romans and now refuses to fight unless Bran Mak Morn can find a replacement...a king who is neither Gael, nor Briton, nor Pict.  Bran Mak Morn's wizardly advisor, Gonar, uses magic to summon King Kull out of the past to lead the Vikings since Kull, an Atlantean who ruled ancient Valusia, not only fits the bill but was apparently the greatest ruler who ever lived.   Kull leads the Vikings in holding the pass, but the battle is brutal and bloody and a terrible price is paid...

For such a long story, there is very little actual plot to "Kings of the Night"; at least, too little for my taste.  Too much of the first half is taken up with endlessly describing the physical traits of the different races under Bran Mak Morn's command.  The battle itself is well done, made more interesting because it is told largely from the point-of-view of someone other than Bran Mak Morn which builds suspense when the Pict is late coming to the battle, thus causing heavy casualties among the Vikings.  In fact, the story is filled to the brim with "sturm und drang", presenting a grim, fatalistic view of warfare, in which Bran Mak Morn loses even when he wins...if you know what I mean.

Clever use is made of the whole time travel concept, with Kull thinking he is merely dreaming, so cheerfully taking everything in stride.  Howard was obviously intrigued by the notion of time travel.  For example, Gonar speaks with his own ancestor and thus wonders, did he travel back in time to speak with a man long dead, or did that man travel forward in time and talk to a man yet unborn?  Pretty freaky, eh?

Howard was often very good at painting grand, almost cinematic images -- the stuff of legends -- and here are two of his best...first when Kull materializes out of the rising sun; and then again when he melts back into the setting sun.  You can practically hear the lush soaring violins of the John Williams score (in a film by Steven Spielberg?).

"Worms of the Earth" was Howard's final Bran Mak Morn story and I think he went out on a high note.  I care for none of the stories about the gloomy Pict except this one, but this one works very well indeed.  Part of the difference may lie in the fact that all the other stories were told from non-Pictish points-of-view.  "Worms of the Earth" was the first and only time Howard actually presented a story from Bran Mak Morn's perspective, and it is quite an improvement.  Finally we are allowed inside his head, permitting us to identify with the hero and rendering the whole thing more personal and emotional.

"Worms of the Earth" is a grim tale of supernatural revenge set against the grey gloom of the heather.  In disguise amongst the invading Romans, Bran Mak Morn witnesses the mock trial and summary execution of one of his Picts, but is helpless to prevent it.  Seething within, he sets out on a quest to steal the "Black Stone" from a mysterious ancient underground-dwelling race known only as the "Worms of the Earth", planning to use this stone to force the Worms to capture Titus Sulla, the Roman responsible for the execution, and deliver him into his (Bran Mak Morn's) hands.  Bran Mak Morn then plans to slay Titus Sulla but -- noble guy that he is -- he will still allow the Roman a fair chance to defend himself.  Unfortunately, though, once the deal is made with the Worms, Bran Mak Morn finds he has unleashed more terrible forces than he imagined and his plan for revenge turns sour indeed...

"Worms of the Earth" doesn't have the swashbuckling excitement of a Conan yarn, but it replaces that with a sense of epic grandeur, of earthshaking events and destinies in the making.  What should be a simple story of personal revenge takes on a grander significance, linked as it is to the decay of the Pictish race and Bran Mak Morn's helplessness before the inexorable tide of destiny.  Then too, Howard does a nice job of capturing the immensity of Time in the Worms themselves, who have -- like the Picts -- gradually retreated into the shadows where they have slowly degenerated into something other and grotesque.  Nor does REH make the mistake of being too explicit in his descriptions of the Worms.  They are seen merely as glimpses in the dark, as glittering eyes, as shapes half caught but never fully revealed.  For that reason, the illustrations by David Ireland actually lessen the ick-factor considerably.

"The Dark Man" was the second Bran Mak Morn story published in Weird Tales, but chronologically it was the last, set long, long after the Pict king's death.  In fact, Bran Mak Morn himself doesn't show up (since he is, after all, dead), except in spirit in the form of a black statue which reputedly contains his soul.  It is an interesting trick REH attempts here, somewhat similar to "Kings of the Night", where King Kull, also long dead, was drawn out of the past to save the present -- here the statue of Bran Mak Morn apparently serves a similar function, but much more subtly aiding the hero, Turlogh Dubh O'Brien, an Irish warrior banished from his own clan.  How it does so is purposely left vague, adding to the sense of wonder and magic.

When a band of Vikings kidnap an Irish maiden, Turlogh sets out in a boat to rescue her, even though he has been "outlawed" by her clan and owes them nothing.  Along the way, he comes upon the scene of a recent battle between Vikings and a dark race unknown to him, a battle from which no one walked away.  Apparently they were fighting over the dark statue of a man.  Turlogh takes the statue with him and, reaching the Viking settlement, he finds the Irish maiden is to be forced into wedlock.  But the girl has plans of her own.  She stabs herself fatally, and, seeing this, Turlogh goes berserk.  Then several boatloads of Picts arrive (who were the dark race seen at the battle), and proceed to make short work of the Vikings...all this, we are made to understand, being orchestrated by the statue of...Bran Mak Morn.

Next to "Worms of the Earth", this is the best Bran Mak Morn story, but I still don't care for it very much.  I certainly admire what Howard does with the statue.  It is a fairly subtle thing, and he wasn't usually a very subtle writer.  He succeeds in making the statue a character within the narrative, and a vital character at that.  (I am reminded of Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo.  He spends most of that movie just sitting there, and yet he somehow remains the most important character.)  And, unlike some of the other Bran Mak Morn stories, REH avoids endlessly detailing the history of the Picts and their conquerors.  Just the same, I find the writing style a little stiff and uninvolving, and it takes too long to get to the interesting parts.

At the end of "The Dark Man", only one Viking survives, Athelstane.  In "The Gods of Bal-sagoth", Turlogh teams up with Athelstane for another adventure.  That story is found in the collection Bran Mak Morn, from Baen.  Also, Turlogh crops up in a fragment published in Sword Woman, published by Berkley.

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