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The very same day that my lovely wife picked up a copy of ‘Z for Zachariah’ at the free bookshelves of our local train station, I picked up this. Robert E. Howard is of course a writer I knew of, but one I’d never actually read. Obviously I’d seen the complete ‘Conan’ in the bookshops, but at 850+ pages, the whole thing just looked far too daunting. ‘Worms of the Earth’ is similarly fantasy, but it’s much shorter, looks more manageable and of course was mine for nothing. Therefore it seemed a wonderful place to start.As usual I’ve reviewed each story as I’ve come to it:The Lost RaceAre there mountains in Cornwall?Were there ever panthers in Cornwall?The details are a bit jarring, but they don’t really matter as this isn’t a story striving for accuracy, it’s going more for atmosphere. And as an atmospheric work it definitely delivers. It’s not the best written tale I’ve ever read – the prose is a bit clunky and the plot is somewhat simplistic, but in conjuring a world of fog, magic and mysticism it definitely succeeds. I guess its position in this collection makes this the prologue, and it does a good job of opening up this fantasy version of Britain, but it would also be quite missable if you’re reading whilst pressed for time.Men of the ShadowsDefinitely weird fiction, just not in the way that phrase is normally meant. The first half is fantastic. A Roman soldier finds himself out in the wilds of Britain, cut off and facing enemy after enemy. It’s taut, atmospheric and damned scary. A story for anyone interested in horror or fantasy. However the second half is a long, tedious and frankly incredibly dubious history of mankind. It tries to swap the scary and intimate for the vast an epic, but manages to disappoint at every level.King of the NightThe best story thus far in the collection. Perfectly brilliant as a stand-alone piece, but also a continuation of the previous two tales in terms of character, setting and theme. But Howard now has the fantasy prose style nailed down and he can do what he likes with it; and he also understands that epic is not achieved by flights of fantasy alone. This is the story of war – the build up to a battle, problems within camp, magic from a warrior magician, and then the vicious battle itself. The tale does its best to balance the bloody with the gory, and that’s even before the battle starts. We open with a Roman soldier (presumably the same one from ‘Men of Shadows’) having his heart cut out, and we end with literally thousands slaughtered. Yes, it’s not for the faint hearted, but in the sweep of its narrative and the ferociousness of its ending, this is a story that aims for and achieves epic status.Worms of the EarthSo we have here the star attraction. The story which gives its name to the whole collection; the one which the back-cover blurb tells me is ‘regarded by many as Howard’s finest weird tale’. The hype is justified.I’m not in a position to say whether this is actually Howard’s finest weird tale, but without a doubt it’s brilliant. ‘Worms of the Earth’ is an innovative piece of sword and sorcery – atmospheric, mysterious, strangely sexy and damned scary. Our warrior king hero makes a deal with an ancient race – let’s call them ‘the old ones’, for sake of argument – to take revenge on a Roman who has earned his wrath. Obviously this decision is not going to end well for anyone. We’ve all read enough of these type of stories to know that. But what impressed me most about ‘Worms of the Earth’ is that even though it’s coming from the same direction as a H.P. Lovecraft story, this is no mere Lovecraftian-pastiche. There are similar themes and ideas, but Howard uses them in a way which is very much his own. This very much stands alongside the best of Lovecraft’s work, never in its shadow. A fantastic piece of fantasy which is blowing open its own path.FragmentMuch like the title suggests, this is merely a sketch, an idea. Maybe if Howard had lived he would have fitted it in to a grander piece. As it is, it won’t live long in the memory.The Dark ManIt makes sense that this is the last story, as rather than following our warrior king, Bran Mak Morn, and the world of the Picts, here they are the stuff of legend and myth. Although really it’s not that simple. Yes, the story follows a lone warrior, and he is helped by Bran Mak Morn and those warriors who went before, but this man is an outcast of a dying race and he’s taking on another dying race. So, the power of the warrior remains, but those who care are dwindling in number (or simply being brutally slain) every day.It’s an elegiac tale then. The world of these stories is coming to end, and soon there will be no warriors to carry on their traditions, and the only people who will remotely care are people who pick up strange and battered paperbacks at train stations.The warriors are gone, and the stories only survive on yellowed and cheap paper.

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