A New Theory on Robert E. Howard’s Conrad and Kirowan Tales

Unearthing the UnearthlyAmong the selections in Giving Up the Ghosts: Short-Lived Occult Detective Series by Six Renowned Authors, I present Algernon Blackwood’s four Jim Shorthouse stories in what I assume is a brand new order. I had hoped to give this otherwise disjointed series character a bit more cohesion by showing that he develops in both facing fear and being an occult detective if the stores are arranged in a particular order.

Robert E. Howard’s Conrad and Kirowan tales present a far tougher challenge, but I’ve come up with a theory. A tentative theory. A theory I hope to revise with feedback from those interested enough to bother reading through it. I know it might seem to be a futile project. After all, if Howard had wanted this handful of stories to be read in a particular order, he would’ve have made his intentions much clearer. So maybe I’m being OCD here (but, hey, isn’t that an acronym for OCcult Detective?).

#1 – Perhaps the Conrad and Kirowan tales should be called the Conrad and Kirowan and O’Donnel tales, since the latter character acts as a narrator and important character in three of the stories I’ll explore. He narrates “The Dwellers Under the Tomb” while assisting in Conrad’s investigation. I place this story first because Conrad is very much a skeptic — but an open-minded one. He starts by accompanying his neighbor Job Kiles to the title tomb to disprove that neighbor’s claim about his dead brother returning as a vampire. By the end, though, Conrad is convinced they’ve discovered a race of humans who have reverted into underground monsters. As such, the story ends up being more “weird science” than supernatural.

Robert E. Howard (1906-1936)

#2 – My proposed second story already puts me in dangerous territory because its narrator’s name is never mentioned. Stay with me — I’m pretty sure it’s Conrad. The story is “The Thing on the Roof,” and we know that its narrator wrote a treatise titled Evidences of Nahua Culture in Yucatan. He adds that, “since my return from Yucatan I had devoted practically all my time to my avocation of book collecting. . . .” Following a pattern much like “Dwellers,” this Yucatan scholar/book-collector is called upon by a colleague and coaxed into an investigation. The case requires locating a rare book: the first edition of Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults. Sure enough, the narrator secures a copy of it and is told by his colleague that he can keep it. The case also leads to a decidedly supernatural end.

#3- Still on thin ice, I offer “The Black Stone” as the third story. Again, the narrator is anonymous, but the story opens with that narrator saying this: “It was my fortune to have access to [Von Junzt’s] Nameless Cults in the original edition.” The book mentions the title rock, “that curious, sinister monolith that broods among the mountains of Hungary.” (The narrator of “Roof” is offhandedly told about this monolith, a.k.a.the Black Stone, too.) An inquisitive man of leisure, our narrator decides to visit the big stone. Upon locating it, he spots hieroglyphics on it — and is reminded of his experiences in Yucatan. It seems reasonable to assume that this narrator is the same fellow in “The Thing on the Roof.”

#4 – But why should we assume the unnamed narrator is, in fact, Conrad? It’s because in “The Children of the Night,” my candidate for the fourth story, Conrad is described as having “queer relics from all over the world” and an impressive collection of books. Yucatan is not named specifically, but this book-collector’s library does include — you guessed it — Von Junzt’s very rare Nameless Cults. As it was in “Dwellers,” the narrator here is O’Donnel, which makes “Roof” and “Stone” an uncomfortable fit; however, we’ll see that Howard will continue to juggle narrators in this series. For now, it should be noted that “Children” isn’t really a tale of occult detection, but it introduces Kirowan into a world that includes Conrad and O’Donnel.

#5 – Though O’Donnel also acts as narrator in “The Haunter of the Ring,” he’s now a sort of a Watson to Kirowan. We are very much on occult detection turf here, and Howard has decided to give us a detective with more occult history than we saw with Conrad (whose introduction to weirdness, as I say, begins with “Dwellers”). In fact, “Haunter” delves comparatively deeply into Kirowan’s past. It is as if Howard wanted to explore the adventures of a more experienced supernatural sleuth.

#6 – The notion that Howard was panning his camera toward Kirowan is substantiated by the fact that my proposed sixth story is narrated by Kirowan himself. It’s “Dig Me No Grave,” a story that echoes “Haunter” in its reliance upon an occult master paying a hefty price for messing with the powers of darkness. This adventure isn’t really one of occult detection, though. Kirowan and Conrad (without O’Donnel) witness and are duly terrified by certain events.

This mystery is unfinished, however. What do we do with “Dermod’s Bane”, for instance? While it includes a narrator named Kirowan, it seems a stretch to say that this is the same character as in the last three. Instead of a disciplined occult detective, he’s an emotionally distraught guy who stumbles upon a ghost (or two). Howard also left an unfinished fragment of a story called “The House” that is clearly related to the Conrad and Kirowan series, but it’s hard to say where it might go in that series. (It was completed by August Derleth and published as “The House in the Oaks” in Dark Things [Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1971]. C.J. Henderson completed another of Howard’s fragments, turning it into a Conrad and Kirowan story titled “Dagon Manor.” It was published in Shudder Stories #4 [March, 1986]. Those are tough to find, and I haven’t read either. However, the uncompleted “The House” can be found along with “Dermod’s Bane” and the six stories I discuss above in The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard [New York: Del Ray, 2008].)

And another thing! What’s the deal with the fact that Kirowan, Conrad, and O’Donnel all share the first name John? Clearly, the ghost of Robert E. Howard is having himself a supernatural chuckle. Nonetheless, I encourage feedback on the theory I present above.

A Ghost Report from the Mexico Weekly Ledger on September 18, 1884

Spectral Edition

There’s road on a hill in Mexico, Missouri. Accidents happen there remarkably often. Sometimes, they’re fatal accidents.

Various ghost stories are told about why horses become spooked there, but one stands out. It involves a ghost that resides in a nearby cave. An investigation proved fruitless, though, leaving the town to wonder: what causes all of those accidents on Haunted Hill?

1884-09-18 p1 Mexico Weekly Ledger [Missouri]Each Wednesday, I post an actual ghost report from a U.S. newspaper published between 1865 and 1918. You can also hear me read the articles The Big Séance and the History Goes Bump podcasts — or listen to previously released recordings here.

Profile: Harry Houdini

V-Files scary

After I inherited the chronicles of Vera Van Slyke’s ghost hunts from my great-grandaunt — the tales now published in Help for the Haunted — I researched some of the names found there. Cook County Coroner Peter Hoffman, sea captain Henry Thorn Lord, cryptozoologist Geoffrey Wallace Livingstone Adams have all proven to be real people.

Needless to say, I didn’t have to research the client spotlighted in the chronicle “Houdini Slept Here.”

Harry Houdini as he appeared in 1905, the year the events chronicled in “Houdini Slept Here” occurred.

Still, it is interesting how this case, set in 1905, accords with facts of Houdini’s life at that time. He had recently returned from a European tour that had made him a celebrity — check! He owned a mansion in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City and a retreat in Connecticut — check! He indulged in extramarital affairs — well, that’s speculation, but there is reason to believe he did.

An especially intriguing tidbit found in “Houdini Slept Here” is my great-grandaunt’s suggestion that the escape artist’s famous campaign against Spiritualist mediums was sparked by his encounter with Vera Van Slyke!

You can find links to .pdf, .epub. and .mobi (Kindle) copies of “Houdini Slept Here” on the Complimentary Haunting page.

By the way, I’m still editing my great-grandaunt’s record of a case she shared with Vera that’s long enough to fill a book. It’s tentatively titled Guilt Is a Ghost. Until that is available, I encourage readers to visit my introduction to the great, if quirky, ghost hunter: The Life and Ghosts of Vera Van Slyke.


“Strange and Inexplicable Facts Should Not Be Buried”: Agatha Christie’s Dr. Edward Carstairs

“I have come across phenomena that is absolutely unexplainable from the ordinary materialistic standpoint. I am a believer in the occult.”

The statement above comes from a character created by none other than the great Agatha Chrisite. Introduced as “the late Dr. Edward Carstairs, M.D., the eminent psychologist,” this occult detective is firmly in the doctor-detective tradition that can be traced as far back as 1817 on my Chronological Bibliography of Early Occult Detectives. Christie joins other well-recognized authors there: Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Willa Cather (yes, that Willa Cather!), and others.

Agatha Christie (1890-1976)

“The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael,” presumably Dr. Carstairs’ only case, was published in a 1933 collection titled The Hound of Death and Other Stories. The book spotlights Christie’s tales of the supernatural. I’ve only dipped into some of the other stories, but it’s an intriguing collection, given that it’s something very different from an author renowned for murder mysteries written “from the ordinary materialistic standpoint.” For an excellent summary of the publication history of the book and its contents, visit Pretty Sinister Book’s review. I share the reviewer’s opinion that the tales were probably written early in Christie’s career. They sometimes call to mind other authors’ work, as if Christie were in the learn-through-imitation phase through which many creative writers pass.

“The Strange Case” certainly reveals the strengths and weaknesses of a writer new at her craft. The setting is the charming country estate that figures predominantly in English “cozy” mysteries, and Sir Arthur Carmichael’s dialogue has that “I say, old mater!” slang that places us in the delightfully posh — and fantasy — world of 1920s England. Such fiction, I’m sure, helped in erasing the gloom of the previous decade’s Great War and even deadlier flu epidemic.

Unfortunately, like a lot of fiction from the era, this tale uses racism to identify the culprit early on. When Carstairs meets Sir Arthur’s evil step-mater, he recoils. “I cannot explain,” he says, “the instinctive wave of repulsion that swept over me as I took the proffered hand of this charming and stately woman who moved with the dark and languorous grace that recalled Settle’s surmise of Oriental blood.” (This moment reinforces the doctor’s fine psychic ability, which elsewhere lets him see a phantom that his medical colleague, Dr. Settle, only hears.)

Another wince-prompting moment occurs when Sir Arthur falls victim to a drowning that is pivotal yet painfully contrived. He’s said to have been “a magnificent swimmer” — but, of course, Sir Arthur hasn’t quite been himself of late. Even so, the scene reads as if Christie had to stretch and squirm to imagine a resolution to the otherwise interesting dilemma that drives the story. All it needs is a clue that the drowning might not have been accidental, but there isn’t one.

Regardless of these negatives, hunting down “The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael” is well worth the effort — if only to witness a future master of mystery-writing wetting her toes in occult detection.

A Ghost Report from the New York Tribune on May 21, 1904

Spectral EditionCertainly not everybody in the late 1800s and early 1900s believed in ghosts. In fact, this group of young men formed an organization to disprove hauntings.

But you had to be fearless to join The Brooklyn Society for the Extermination of Ghosts and Dispelling of Haunted House Illusions.

1904-05-21 p2 New-York Tribune [New York]Each Wednesday, I post an actual ghost report from a U.S. newspaper published between 1865 and 1918. You can also hear me read the articles on recent episodes of The Big Séance podcast or listen to previously released recordings here.

An Investigator in Psychic Forms: Marie Corelli’s Dr. Maxwell Dean

Unearthing the UnearthlyDr. Watson convinces Sherlock Holmes to take a relaxing trip to Surrey in “The Reigate Squires” (1894) and another one to Cornwall in “The Devil’s Foot” (1910). Ellery Queen planned to take a break on the coast in The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935). Hercule Poirot is on holiday in Devon in Evil Under the Sun (1941). Miss Marple’s sunny get-away is interrupted in The Caribbean Mystery (1964) as is her quite likely foggy get-away to London in At Bertran’s Hotel (1965). Needless to say, even on vacation, a detective can’t say no to investigating a good mystery.

Continue reading “An Investigator in Psychic Forms: Marie Corelli’s Dr. Maxwell Dean”

A Ghost Report from the St. Paul Globe on May 16, 1900

Spectral Edition

Theaters seem to be especially ripe for ghostly activity. However, the house owned by married Broadway actors Rose Coghlan and John T. Sullivan became haunted, enough so to drive away several servants.

Were the rappings, slamming doors, and other manifestations related to four recent deaths in family?

1900-05-06 p18 Saint Paul Globe [Minneapolis]Each Wednesday, I post an actual ghost report from a U.S. newspaper published between 1865 and 1918. You can also hear me read the articles on recent episodes of The Big Séance podcast or listen to previously released recordings here.

A Ghost Report from the Copper County Evening News on February 19, 1898

Spectral EditionA ghost hunter witnesses a “canine specter,” eerie sounds — and the phantom of a tragic woman with dark and disheveled hair.

Did that same ghost also appear in another house in Easton, Maine?

1898-02-19 p7 Copper Country Evening News [Calumet, Michigan]Each Wednesday, I post an actual ghost report from a U.S. newspaper published between 1865 and 1918. You can also hear me read the articles on recent episodes of The Big Séance podcast.

A Completist’s Guide to Occult Detective Books

Unearthing the UnearthlyI put together Giving Up the Ghosts: Short-Lived Occult Detective Series by Six Renowned Authors as either an introduction to occult detective fiction — or an addition to a seasoned completist’s library. After all, regarding the latter, Giving Up the Ghosts features six complete series that weren’t long enough to fill a book by themselves. It’s part of Coachwhip Publication’s impressive series of supernatural detective reprints. These reprints are especially valuable in that a reader can have the complete stories of Carnaki in the same volume as the complete stories of John Bell.  All of Aylmer Vance’s cases are coupled with all of Moris Klaw’s.  There are three more selections that similarly combine two occult detectives in one book — all reasonably priced.

Continue reading “A Completist’s Guide to Occult Detective Books”

A Ghost Report from the Tacoma Times on Novmber 3, 1910

Spectral Edition

Can horses sense the ghost of another horse, one who was killed at street car crossing in Welborn, Kansas?

Or is there a less supernatural explanation for why horses rear back from that spot?

1910-11-03 p5 Tacoma Times [Washington]

Each Wednesday, I post an actual ghost report from a U.S. newspaper published between 1865 and 1918. You can also hear me read the articles on recent episodes of The Big Séance podcast.