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?

18 comments:

David J. West said...

"Pigeons from Hell" was the last BIG/Famous Howard story I read. maybe I was saving it for last?

It's a great piece with a magnificent twist.

As for titles, I love the chapter titles within it as well.

Charles Gramlich said...

David, yes, indeed. I should have mentioned those.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Everything I know about it comes from the movie THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD, which I enjoyed.

Charles Gramlich said...

Patty, that was really a good movie, for sure. I have a DVD of it.

Ron Scheer said...

Watched WHOLE WIDE WORLD again recently after learning more about Howard and knowing folks like yourself. It's one of those films that gets better as it gets older...
On the subject of pigeons, I think the telling connotation is the element of "nuisance" they immediately suggest - plus how they tend to collect in large numbers. A flock of them becomes almost menacing...

KeVin K. said...

The story is no longer under copyright and is available from Amazon's Manybooks.net. I know this because I went looking for it after reading your column. The cover of the May, 1938, Weird Tales is classic Good Girl Art.

The racism of 1930's pulp fiction in combination with the repeatedly-tell-how-scared-everyone-is conventions of horror fiction of the period made moments awkward for the modern reader, but taken in the context of the culture in which it was written, an excellent yarn. The "twist" was pretty obvious from the set-up dream/vision of the protagonist, but timing on delivery was spot on.

Relevant to your essay: The unexpected linking of the neutral and usually innocuous with symbol of power makes for an evocative hook -- and an image that sticks with you.

We're trying to sell my mother-in-law's former house and I spent this morning mulching the flowerbeds in an effort to improve curb appeal. Inspired by your column I've combined my thoughts and experiences of the morning to create a title now in search of a story: The Gnats of Heaven.

Deka Black said...

Titles... First one i read from Robert E. Howard was Red Nails. Being honest... i was thinking at first it was about vampires!

In the end, my mistake was not mistake at all. because thanks to it, i ended loving Howard works. And i still love him.

And for menacing titles and hellish things... "Exorcist from Hell" i think is pretty menacing.i mean, a exorcist is supposed to fight hell, right? So, if he's from hell...

Charles Gramlich said...

Ron, hadn't thought of the flock, but that makes sense. And the sound a bunch of them make is kind of eerie

Kevin, "the Gnats of Heaven." I like that. I'm seeing a literary novel, sort of like "the World according to Garp," "See Rabbit Run," and that one with "bees" in the title.

Deka Black, red nails is a great one. Howard used colors to good effect. lol. I like Exorcist from Hell. It's campy but cool.

Deka Black said...

Thanks... iften i'm campy.. at least people have fun!

Charles Gramlich said...

Deka, and that's a good thing.

laughingwolf said...

i agree, and i don't...

think it was a spielberg flick, where this guy is out on a ledge of a highrise, in a high wind, trying to keep from falling... while a pigeon's pecking at his bare feet, bloodying them, causing many missteps!

i've always called pigeons 'rats with wings'... turns out they cause all kinds of illnesses, from the shit they leave behind, especially on windowsills...

had that problem in vancouver, where my kids got ill, when, unknowingly, we opened the window to air out their room and the wee tykes all became sick!

took antibiotics, and many weeks of closed windows, for them to recover... never opened the window again while the hell horrors were around!

neutral birds? far from it! GRRRRRR

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, I imagine city dwellers have a different reaction to pigeons too than rural dwellers do. City folks have to deal with them a lot more and the messes they make.

BernardL said...

Howard's story also made for one of the best TV horror episodes of all time by the same title on Boris Karloff's 'Thriller'. It's one of the few times the TV version of an original horror story captured so many of its frightening elements.

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernardl, Yes, I finally saw that Thriller episode a few years ago. I thought it translated very well.

X. Dell said...

If Hell has a lot of pigeons, then it probably has lots of statues too. After all, the real hell is cleaning up all that crap.

I'm sure you have seen this flick, and you might have posted a review of it before I started reading your page. But I was curious as to what you might have thought of it in terms of how accurately it reflects Howard's thoughts and life.

Liane Spicer said...

Never heard of him, but his creations must be familiar to almost everyone on the planet.

Pigeons from Hell works only too well as a creepy title to me. I've seen the creepy, pest-y side of pigeons so I'm biased. I never view them as innocuous.

Jodi MacArthur said...

Hi Charles,
On a friend's recommendation I read Pigeons From Hell this year. I was blown away. One of of the best horror tales I've ever read. I also agree with you about the bird being neutral. If he had even chosen the dove which is so similar to a pigeon, it would have been too peaceful of a creature. But a pigeon? Do you remember that show from SK's Cat's Eye. Where the guy made a bet to make it around the edging of the building. He slips. And a pigeon lands by him and starts pecking at his leg. It pecks until his legs bleeds. Just creepy.

Charles Gramlich said...

X-Dell, I have seen that one, and I actually know the guy who made it. The Howard heads, who generaly dislike anything that tries to interpret Howard, like this movie. And I do to. That tells you quite a bit.

Liane, city person perhaps? I didn't really think of that connection.

Jodi, I do remember that scene. Definitely freaky. The rats of the skies as somoene has said.