Leo Grin, over at The Cimmerian, has been running a regular feature which I heartily applaud, the “REH Word of the Week,” featuring a word that may be unfamiliar to many modern readers. (Those of us who have spent the better part of our lives enrapt in the sort of 19th and early 20th century adventure fiction that fired the imagination of Bob Howard are perhaps likelier to know these words, though I confess that the sea-faring terms and “patter o’ the flash coves” that Jeffery Farnol is throwing at me in Black Bartlemy’s Treasure [etext] are taxing not only my vocabulary, but my extensive reference shelf.)
Last week’ s entry was “gibbet,” a type of gallows with a projecting arm from which executed prisoners were hung suspended, usually by chains and often in a type of cage, and left exposed, presumably as a warning to those who might be considering emulating their nefarious activities. The example Leo used was from “Black Vulmea’s Vengeance.”
Steve Tompkins, in a follow-up piece, opines that “the most unforgettable modern appearance of the word ‘gibbet'” is in the tenth chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers, the second volume in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Unforgettability, though, lies in the memory of the unforgetter, and not all of us are as Tolkien-struck as Steve. In the days of my wayward youth, before ever I discovered the joys of REH and the shorter, faster-paced form of story-telling, I must have burned through Tolkien’s trilogy at least a dozen times, and more recently re-read it as a refresher prior to seeing the cinematic versions, and I confess that his use of the word “gibbet” failed to make any impression on me whatsoever.
To my memory, though, instantly sprang other memorable uses of the word by REH, besides the one in “Vulmea.” First to mind, I think, was the poem “Song at Midnight” (alternately titled “Man, the Master”), with its opening stanza:
I heard an old gibbet that crowned a bare hill
Creaking a song in the midnight chill;
And I shivered to hear that grisly refrain
That moaned in the night through the fog and the rain.
The poem is a marvelous, if grisly, enunciation of a central theme in Howard’s work, as the worm at the foot of the gallows declares:
“The winds and the rain they worked their will,
“The kites and the ravens have had their fill,
“But last of all when the chains broke free,
“The fruit of the gallows came to me.
“Men and their works, so swiftly past,
“Come to a feast for the worms at last.
“Here I have gnawed on this marrow good,
“Where now I gnaw on this crumbling wood.
“For men and their works are a feast for meâ€”
“The bones, and the noose, and the gallows tree.”
Solomon Kane fans will, of course, recall the first lines of “The One Black Stain”:
They carried him out on the barren sand where the rebel captains died;
Where the grim grey rotting gibbets stand as Magellan reared them on the strand,
And the gulls that haunt the lonesome land wail to the lonely tide.
And who, having read it, can forget “Dead Man’s Hate,” in which Adam Brand spits in the face of his hanged enemy, John Farrell, believing that “a hempen noose is stronger than man’s hate”:
Yet never a word the people spake, in fear and wild surprise â€”
For the grisly corpse raised up its head and stared with sightless eyes,
And with strange motions, slow and stiff, pointed at Adam Brand
And clambered down the gibbet tree, the noose within its hand.
Thus demonstrating that “stronger than death or hempen noose are the fires of a dead manâ€™s hate.”
A search of Howard’s poetry finds several others in which the word “gibbet” is used, including “Ambition,” “The Moor Ghost,” and “The Song of the Gallows Tree.” (I believe surely some of these poems must have been written at about the time of the Solomon Kane stories: “The Moor Ghost” strikes me as similar to “Skulls in the Stars,” while “Dead Man’s Hate” is very reminiscent of “The Right Hand of Doom.”)
For a memorable use of the term in his fiction, again Solomon Kane came to mind, this time the story fragment, “The Castle of the Devil”: when Kane informs his newly met companion, John Silent, that he “came upon a wretch who hung on a gallows and cut him down ere his breath had passed from him,” Silent, aghast, exclaims, “What! You cut down a man from Baron von Staler’s gibbet? Name of the Devil, you will have both of our necks in a noose!” The word is used again just four paragraphs on: “That is the keep of Baron von Staler, whose gibbet you robbed….”
[And while we’re on the subject of memorable words, this fragment has a couple of my favorite lines from the Kane series: “It has fallen upon me, now and again in my sojourns through the world, to ease various evil men of their lives.” And: “Your speech is wild and Godless… but I begin to like you.”]
Black Bartlemy’s Treasure offers a description of an encounter with a gibbet that would, I think, have struck a responsive chord in the breast of the young Bob Howard. Here Martin Conisby, having escaped the slavery on a Spanish galleass to which an enemy had sent him, has returned to seek vengeance:
And now, as I stood amid that howling darkness, my back propped by the bank, my face lifted to the tempest, I was aware of a strange sound, very shrill and fitful, that reached me ‘twixt the booming wind-gusts, a sound that came and went, now loud and clear, anon faint and remote, and I wondered what it might be. Then the rushing dark was split asunder by a jagged lightning-flash, and I saw. Stark against the glare rose black shaft and crossbeam, wherefrom swung a creaking shape of rusty chains and iron bands that held together something shrivelled and black and wet with rain, a grisly thing that leapt on the buffeting wind, that strove and jerked as it would fain break free and hurl itself down upon me.
Now hearkening to the dismal creak of this chained thing, I fell to meditation. This awful shape (thought I) had been a man once, hale and strong,–even as I, but this man had contravened the law (even as I purposed to do) and he had died a rogue’s death and so hung, rotting, in his chains, even as this my own body might do some day. And, hearkening to the shrill wail of his fetters, my flesh crept with loathing and I shivered. But the fit passed, and in my vain pride I smote my staff into the mud at my feet and vowed within myself that nought should baulk me of my just vengeance, come what might; as my father had suffered death untimely and hard, so should die the enemy of my race; for the anguish he had made me endure so should he know anguish. I bethought me how long and deadly had been this feud of ours, handed down from one generation to another, a dark, blood-smirched record of bitter wrongs bitterly avenged. ‘To hate like a Brandon and revenge like a Conisby!’ This had been a saying in our south country upon a time; and now–he was the last of his race as I was the last of mine, and I had come back out of hell that this saying might be fulfilled. Soon–ha, yes, in a few short hours the feud should be ended once and for all and the house of Conisby avenged to the uttermost. Thinking thus, I heeded no more the raving tempest around me until, roused by the plunge and rattle of the gibbet-chains, I raised my head and shaking my staff up at that black and shrivelled thing, I laughed loud and fierce, and, even as I did so, there leapt a great blaze of crackling flame and thereafter a thunder-clap that seemed to shake the very earth and smite the roaring wind to awed silence….