Saturday, June 11, 2011
What's in a Title
Robert E. Howard died on this day in 1936, and is still one of my favorite writers. Howard was born and raised and lived in Texas, spending most of his time in the small community of Cross Plains. I’ve been to Cross Plains many times on his anniversary. I might have gone this year if I’d not just gotten back from a long trip out that way with Lana. The thought of another long journey, 22 hours round trip by car, just seemed too much. But wherever I am on June 11th, I like to think about Howard and give him his props.
Some of you may never have heard of Howard, but you’ve heard of Conan the Barbarian. Howard created Conan, and he wasn’t much like the “barbarian” played by Arnold in the movies. Howard’s Conan was smart, deadly dangerous and strong, but not muscle-bound. He was only one of Howard’s characters. Solomon Kane was another. And Kull. And Bran Mak Morn.
Howard also wrote horror fiction. One of his best stories, and it’s not just me saying it but people like Stephen King, was entitled “Pigeons from Hell.” I reread this story for Howard’s anniversary and I got to thinking about the title, wondering why it works for me. And wondering if it works for others.
Say you had “Hawks from Hell,” or “Bat out of Hell.” Isn’t there a sense of threat in those titles? Isn’t there some power? Those titles work for me too. But “Chickens from Hell” and “Turkeys from Hell” don’t, except to evoke laughter. I wonder why I think this way.
It occurs to me immediately that “Hell” is a powerful concept. The very word carries with it the resonance of danger, of evil. Hawks are also powerful and can present a threat, from their talons up to the wicked curve of their beaks. Bats, with their long association with night and evil, also imply danger. No one is scared of chickens or turkeys. We eat them.
Pigeons aren’t dangerous, though. And some people eat them, although they usually call them “squab” when they do. Why doesn’t “Pigeons from Hell” also evoke laughter. One reason may be that pigeons, unlike chickens, actually carry a little ‘heroic’ resonance. They’ve been used often in times of war, for example, to carry messages. I think a bigger reason, though, is that pigeons generally carry neutral associations for most people. Creatures that are associated with danger and death, such as vultures, can be linked the easiest to Hell. Creatures that are associated with weakness or with food cannot without sounding silly. Creatures that have neutral associations are in the middle. Howard’s story is so good, though, and his use of the pigeons so eerie and salient, that the pigeons take on some creepy resonance just within the span of the story. I think that’s why “Pigeons from Hell” works.
What do you think?