Worms of the Earth by Robert E. Howard (Ace Books, 1979). Cover by Sanjulian
“Worms of the Earth” was published in Weird Tales in November of 1932, and was thus described in the table of contents as “a grim shuddery tale of the days when Roman legions ruled in Britain–a powerful story of a gruesome horror from the bowels of the earth.” It features Bran Mak Morn, the King of the Picts, one of Howard’s barbarian characters. A quasi-Faustian tale, the story dramatizes Bran Mak Morn’s greatest transgression, a dark pact the king makes with diabolic force to avenge his dying and brutalized race: the Picts.
Many consider “Worms of the Earth” one of Howard’s masterpieces, truly haunting and enigmatic, its impact lingering long after a reading, like a stagnant tobacco smell or a leathery flapping of shadowy wings. The story is also notable for its inclusion of allusions to H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos, specifically the ancient Mesopotamian god “Dagon” and the sunken city of “R’lyeh,” home to dreaming Cthulhu. Undoubtedly, the story’s themes of racial degeneracy and the violent power of geologic time are steeped in Howard’s legendary 1930s correspondence with Lovecraft.
[Click the images for weirder versions.]
Weird Tales, November 1933, containing “Worms of the Earth”
by Robert E. Howard. Cover by J. Allen St. John
Despite Howard’s pulpster credentials, the young writer demonstrates intellectual ambition in this story. Readers are introduced to a historical framework philosophically anchored in the ideas of “Rome” and “Pictdom,” i.e. “civilization” and “barbarism.” Make no mistake: philosophy aside, this is a fantasy story, a sword and sorcery tale delicately painted with a gossamer-thin layer of history. Howard’s Picts are not the historical Picts, and Howard’s Romans are not the historical Romans. Without question, both tribes are unreal, fictionalized in this story, and fictionalized tendentiously: the Romans are rendered as irredeemable oppressors and the Picts are rendered as the brutally oppressed victims. Artful and strategic distortions allow Howard to bring into focus his troubling theme: the hatred of an oppressed race for their brutal oppressors and the evil consequences of that hatred.
Despite the story’s fantastic nature, it nevertheless engages with the actual, with real oppression, oppressors, and oppressed. Real racism was prevalent in the early 1930s in Howard’s rural Texas, a racially-mixed frontier where the elderly and the descendants of settlers and displaced first tribes remembered (and witnessed) the bloody battle, civil war, banditry, and rapine that characterized what has been mythologized as “the wild west.” Indeed, this earnest engagement with actual racism can be gleaned by contextualizing the “Worms of the Earth” with Howard’s correspondence. In a December 1930 letter to Lovecraft, Howard associates the United States with Rome:
The case of Rome and America are curiously paralleled […]. When the barbarians finally broke into the empire, they found an unwieldy, cumbrous hulk, without identity or union, ready to topple at the first vigorous shove.
In this letter, Howard interprets the destruction of Rome as an accidental boon that reinvigorated Europe. He continues,
Fortunately the tribes who finally trampled the crumblings lines were of a young, vigorous race, capable of rebuilding what they had torn down.
Here is where Howard’s American and Roman analogy becomes nuanced: unlike Rome, which Howard argues was energized by the influx of a “vigorous race,” the United States, he asserts, is doomed in the long run:
“Where in all the world is there an unspoiled, hardy race of clean-blooded barbarians to take the reins of the world when the older peoples decay?”
Put another way, Howard asks who will conquer decadent America and reinvigorate the world? For an answer, Howard casts an unlikely tribe: the Soviet Russians, he speculates, will be the conquering “Aryan tribe” of the United States. But he adds this caveat: “There is too much Mongol blood in the veins of Russia for me to regard that nation as anything but Alien.”
“Race.” “Tribe.” “Clean-blooded.” “Aryan.” These terms indicate that Howard’s historical theory of oppressor and oppressed is bound up with the disturbing, pseudo-scientific racialism prevalent in the interwar period, and which permeates his famous essay of imaginary racial conflict, “The Hyborian Age.” Today, for the most part, such racist pseudo-science has retreated into the lightless grotto of the White Supremacist dark web, a place where intellectually-compromised cowards mutter about “race realism,” power levels, fantasize about their superiority, and cede reason to conspiracy theories.
Unlike today, such eugenic theories were mainstream in the interwar period, disseminated to the public by favorably-reviewed works like The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy by Lothrop Stollard, a book that influenced policies such as the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924. In the same December 1930 letter to Lovecraft, Howard draws upon racialism to saturate his theory of history, of oppressor and oppressed, in a skewed realpolitik based on race. Economics and culture aside, the engine of historical change described in this letter is violent conflict between biological races seeking dominance. These disturbing ideas are further rendered in “Worms of the Earth.”
Worms of the Earth by Robert E. Howard (Zebra, 1975). Cover by Jeff Jones
“Worms of the Earth” explores the vengeful plottings of Bran Mak Morn, the king of the Picts. The Picts are a race brutalized and dehumanized by the Romans (i.e., allegorized as Americans). The story begins with the Roman governor, Titus Sulla, stating, “Strike the nails, soldiers, and let our guests see the reality of our good Roman justice.” A Pict is publicly crucified before an audience to demonstrate Rome’s power and superiority. Bran Mak Morn seethes in silence as his fellow Pict is unjustly murdered in grisly spectacle. He fumes quietly in anger, but eventually his rage erupts in this monologue:
Black Gods of R’lyeh, even you would I invoke to the ruin and destruction of those butchers! I swear by the Nameless Ones, men shall die howling for that deed, and Rome shall cry out as a woman in the dark who treads upon an adder!
Bran Mak Morn follows through with his threat, and the sword and sorcery takes off: he makes a dark pact with a witch for the secret location of an artifact of evil, interred in a dark grotto. He plumbs the grotto’s darkness, steals the evil artifact, and then uses the artifact as a hostage to force the alliance of a dehumanized race of pseudo-reptilian monsters who dwell underground. Bran Mak Morn’s plan works: the monstrous race destroys the Romans, captures their leader, Titus Sulla, and delivers the Roman to the eager Bran Mak Morn. Here is where the story takes an enigmatic turn: Titus Sulla’s mind has been blasted by his encounter with the dehumanized race, and in pity — not vengeance — Bran Mak Morn beheads Sulla. By and by, Bran Mak Morn is overwhelmed by a sense of contamination. “There are shapes too foul to use,” he states, before he rides off, with this curse ringing in his ears: “You are stained with the taint […].”
“Worms of the Earth” is an enigma. As Howard is considered more and more by commentators, this tale will be a lightning rod for its enthralling contradictions, its allegorization of interwar pseudo-scientific theories, its overtly racist content, and its relevance to social tensions in the United States today. Scholar Mark Finn makes this insightful observation, explaining the story’s unique potential for interpretation: “Bran offers no comment on his irrational solution.” Thus, critics are compelled to respond. The story ends in “aporia,” in irresolvable tension, and its pregnant undecidedness has enthralled Howard fans over the years.
In commenting on this tale, Patrice Louinet suggests that Bran is a kind of Howardian stand in. In Louinet’s The Robert E. Howard Guide, he writes, “If one had to decide which character was closest to Howard among his many creations, it wouldn’t be Conan or Solomon Kane, but Bran Mak Morn, whose eventual defeat is a certainty, even to himself.” Louinet cites a January 1932 letter to Lovecraft where Howard expresses his affinity for the Picts:
“My interest in these strange Neolithic people was so keen that I was not content with my Nordic appearance, and had I grown into the sort of man, which in childhood I wished to become, I would have been short, stock, with thick, gnarled limbs, beady black eyes, a low retreating forehead, heavy jaw, and straight, coarse black hair.”
Put another way, Louinet’s commentary argues that Howard artistically identified as a racial other, a subaltern “non-Nordic” marked by racial difference. In the American context within which Howard situates his fictional Romans, Howard repudiates his “American/Roman identity” and identifies with the underdogs, the non-Roman “barbarians” brutalized by America/Rome (i.e., indigenous Americans and former African slaves rendered as Picts). If the Picts allegorize indigenous Americans and former African slaves, then is it fair to say that Bran Mak Morn allegorizes what alt-right commentators dismissively refer to as a “Social Justice Warrior,” a person concerned with the systemic oppression of the subaltern?
Worms of the Earth (Orbit, 1976), Cover by Chris Achilleos
Mark Finn, in his biography, Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, views “Worms of the Earth” as the story where Howard was able “to delineate the exact shift in the fate of his Picts,” specifically elucidating the nature of their defeat. One might speculate that for Finn, the crux of “Worms of the Earth” is racial decline and dissolution: viewed from the broad angle of Howard’s oeuvre, this story is notable for how it concludes the story of the Picts in defeat, even as they consummate their vengeance against oppressors.
Even so, some commentators eschew the racial content of “Worms of the Earth” altogether. For example, in their Robert E. Howard: A Closer Look, writers Charles Hoffman and Marc Cerasini interpret the story as an allegory of racially-neutral terrorism:
“From a modern perspective, it illustrates the evils of terrorism. Bran wishes to effect social change and avenge social injustice, but steps beyond all boundaries of acceptable human behavior in these pursuits.”
Other commentators, such as Don Herron, ignore the racial content: in his essay, “The Dark Barbarian,” Herron emphasizes the fantastical elements of this tale, stating,
“In ‘Worms of the Earth’ [Bran Mak Morn] destroys a Roman garrison, but only with the aid of the loathsome worms of the earth — a victory that rings quite hollow in the face the inhuman horrors Mak Morn has loosed upon the world.”
In 2020, in the aftermath of widespread racial protest, populist insurrection, and dehumanizing demagoguery, this story’s relevance endures and is heightened for thoughtful readers. Why? The young Howard knew, perhaps intuitively, that the trauma of American racial conflict is a contaminated wellspring of ever-regenerating violence, hate, and insanity, an unhealed wound that continues to fester and dehumanize all of us. It is surprising that Howard, in his fiction, apparently identifies with the subaltern causes of indigenous tribes, Black Americans, women, and sexual and gender minorities even as he deploys White Supremacist theories of racialism in his correspondence.
Viewed from our contemporary moment, do the Picts lives matter? Do the Romans become the police? And who, and what, are these dehumanized “Worms of the Earth” — these hatesick monstrosities seething in the shadows? If the crucified Pict can be contemporized as George Floyd, a real man, then Bran Mak Morn becomes a warrior for social justice; the worms, the riotous mob assaulting the citadel of democracy.
Jason Ray Carney is a Lecturer in Popular Literature at Christopher Newport University. He is the author of the academic book, Weird Tales of Modernity(McFarland), and the fantasy anthology, Rakefire and Other Stories(Pulp Hero Press). He recently edited Savage Scrolls: Thrilling Tales of Sword and Sorceryfor Pulp Hero Press and is an editor at The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies and Whetstone: Amateur Magazine of Sword and Sorcery.