by Fletcher Vredenburgh
That Robert E. Howard’s first professionally published story, “Spear and Fang,” was a caveman story should mean something to the history of heroic fiction and sword & sorcery itself. Perhaps, because it’s not a very good story, it never had the effect a better one might have. But I’m not totally sure; teenage Robert E. Howard already had a sure grasp of the elements that hook a reader craving action and adventure in their stories.
There’s not very much to “Spear and Fang” (1925). Pretty Cro-Magnon girl A-aea is forcefully accompanied into the woods by the haughty and threatening warrior Ka-nanu. Very quickly, they’re set upon by a ferocious, animalistic Neandertal who proceeds to dismantle Ka-nanu. Later, A-aea is saved by the object of her affections, the brave (and artistically inclined) Ga-nor. All ends well and love will bloom in the savage dawn of mankind.
The Neandertal man plunged forward on short, gnarled legs. He was covered with hair and his features were more hideous than an ape’s because of the grotesque quality of the man in them. Flat, flaring nostrils, retreating chin, fangs, no forehead whatever, great, immensely long arms dangling from sloping, incredible shoulders, the monster seemed like the devil himself to the terrified girl. His apelike head came scarcely to Ka-nanu’s shoulders, yet he must have outweighed the warrior by nearly a hundred pounds.
On he came like a charging buffalo, and Ka-nanu met him squarely and boldly. With flint ax and obsidian dagger he thrust and smote, but the ax was brushed aside like a toy and the arm that held the knife snapped like a stick in the misshapen hand of the Neandertaler. The girl saw the councilor’s son wrenched from the ground and swung into the air, saw him hurled clear across the glade, saw the monster leap after him and rend him limb from limb.
The story is packed with all sorts of gratuitous gore and creepiness; cloven skulls, a gnawed-on baby arm, titillation with both Ka-nanu and the Neandertal clearly having carnal designs on poor A-aea. The characters are barely stereotypes – the demure girl, the unwelcome suitor, the monster, the hero – but Howard knew how to create atmosphere and setting that can lend even his weakest stories depth and impact.
Aside from the stone-axe swinging battles and sabre-tooth tiger killing in caveman adventures, one of the things I find most appealing about this tale is the implication that some of its elements are what lie underneath the stories of assorted cultures. The technical term for this is euhemerism. It’s the idea that original events taking on more and more exaggerated traits as they’re retold over the ages and eventually mutate in the myths and legends we still tell. Perhaps inspired by Arthur Machen’s spellbinding horror story, “The Black Seal,” Howard spells out the source of some of our nightmares:
“Gur-na” was a word of hatred and horror to the people of the caves, for creatures whom the tribesmen called “gur-na,” or man-apes, were the hairy monsters of another age, the brutish men of the Neandertal. More feared than mammoth or tiger, they had ruled the forests until the Cro-Magnon men had come and waged savage warfare against them. Of mighty power and little mind, savage, bestial and cannibalistic, they inspired the tribesmen with loathing and horror–a horror transmitted through the ages in tales of ogres and goblins, of werewolves and beast-men.
Manly Wade Wellman, best known for his spooky Appalachia tales, wrote a series of great tales featuring the Cro-Magnon warrior and adventure, Hok the Mighty. Collected only recently in Battle in the Dawn (2010), the stories begin fairly prosaically, but are still full of Neanderthal-smashing action, and quickly become more and more fantastic. The two standouts are “Hok Goes to Atlantis” (1939) and “Hok Visits the Land of Legends” (1942). In the latter, throwing all scientific accuracy to the wind, Wellman sent Hok to a hidden valley where all manner of mysteries exist, including survivors of the Age of Reptiles. Wellman writes with a pulpy brio that overwhelms any qualms I might have about Pteranodons still flying around in the Paleolithic age.
Hok let it come so close that his flaring nostrils caught the reptilian odor; then, drawing his shaft to its barbed head of sandstone, he loosed full at the scaly beast. Hok’s bow was the strongest among all men of his time, and a point tore through the body, flesh, scales and bone, and protruded behind. The swoop of the Stymph was arrested as though it had blundered against a rock in midair. It whirled head over tail, then fell flooping and screeching toward the great mass of foliage.
“Ahai!” Hok voiced his war-shout, and thundered mocking laughter at other Stymphs. “Thus Hok serves those who face him. Send me another of your champions!”
Howard and Wellman weren’t alone in looking to the Stone Age. There’s a fairly respectable literary tradition of novels set in the era, including The Quest for Fire by J.H. Rosny, The Inheritors by William Golding, and The Kin by Peter Dickinson, but their authors were less concerned with spinning adventure yarns and more with speculating on the birth of civilization. DMR Books just released a collection of some caveman classics, Prehistoric Adventures, so I guess I need to pick that up, but I really wish more writers would explore the roots of real-life heroic adventure. From the birth of homo sapiens around 300 to 200 thousand years ago until the rise of civilization in the Fertile Crescent, humanity’s lot was more like that depicted in “Spear and Fang” than most anything else imaginable. Surely, the period should serve as a greater inspiration than it has.