Among 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.
#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.