He was clad in ragged trousers, but on his head was a band of beaten gold set with a huge red jewel, and on his feet were barbaric sandals. His features reflected titanic vitality no less than his huge body. But he was all Negro — flaring nostrils, thick lips, ebony skin. I knew I looked upon Saul Stark, the conjer man.
— “Black Canaan,” by Robert E. Howard
A poor man, a black man, but still a king. A king with a realm he carved out himself.
In my first story collection, The Jack Daniels Sessions EP, there is a novella about a young boy who sees dead people. Very original, I know. The gist is that he has shamanist powers that have lain dormant in his genes. At one point, he is told a story about a plantation shaman who empowered the slaves with his magic, enabling them to sabotage the farm. There is also a legend about runaways joining up with Indians in the swamp, my own riff on the Black Seminoles. The boy’s exposure to his African roots is an uncomfortable one for him, sometimes physically so, as it is a part of his lineage he had no awareness of.
The episodes of slave revolt are based on history. It was also history I had to seek out myself. The teaching of black history in schools is such an insidious con job, it angers me to write about it. Fifty years ago, there were downtrodden blacks, then good white people passed laws and they could sit at a lunch counter. One hundred and forty-six years ago, there were slaves, then good white people passed a law and they were free. (Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot that slavery ended 500 years ago, or 600, or whatever it is now.)
The most we learned about slavery in elementary school was the cakewalk, and that as a form of cornpone entertainment, not the satire on whites that it was. American history classes largely leave out the stories of blacks’ role in their own liberation. They also leave out any information on Africa, continuing the stereotype of the continent as a savage place, not the fertile land of kingdoms it was prior to colonization.
Ironically, one of my earliest introductions to black liberation was a story by someone decried as a racist, Robert E. Howard’s “Black Canaan.”
Whether Howard was racist is besides any point I’m making. And it only comes up when fans of his want to defend his legacy by claiming he wasn’t. His personal politics neither add nor detract from the quality of his writing. One only need read “Vale of Lost Women” to see he was a product of his time. Yet his approach to race was always a bit more nuanced than, say, that of his BFF H.P. Lovecraft. I always loved that Solomon Kane had a compatriot in the African shaman N’Longa. And part of what makes “Pigeons from Hell” so horrifying is that the monster is a remnant of the slave aristocracy.
It is a shame Howard did not write more works based in the South, as he had an understanding of the culture that was unique among pulp writers. “Black Canaan” was probably the first piece I ever read in which characters embrace the African as a source of power and African culture is used as a weapon against oppression. It had a strong effect on me as a writer, and spurred me to seek out real stories of black revolt.
I remember a Black Gate article from John O’Neill about how, in his younger days, he avoided anything with barbarians on the cover. I was different. The easiest way to sell something to me was to slap a half-naked bodybuilder on it, preferably with a weird-looking sword, some jewelry, maybe a big red-bearded Viking or two. That’s how I was grabbed, at the age of nine, by Savage Sword of Conan #197, “A Night in Messantia.” (It was about Conan’s time with the Barachan pirates. Great story arc.) From there, I ran the steppes with Conan and Subotai. I flew on pterodactyls with Taarna. I even hunted the future with Yor. All these adaptations and knockoffs eventually brought me to the original Conan, or as close as you could get with the Lancer editions. After his sword and sorcery, I discovered Howard’s horror work, “Black Canaan” being among the best.
Published in 1936, “Black Canaan” is about the colonist’s fear of those he oppresses. It is also intensely well-made story, tightly plotted, fast-moving, atmospheric, and features the intoxicating lyricism that marked Howard’s best work The story deals with the same anxieties as “Beyond the Black River,” but gets rid of the fantasy world artifice and places it in the Deep South. Standard-issue Howardian hero Kirby Buckner is called from New Orleans to his home of Canaan, somewhere on the Texas/Arkansas/Louisiana border, to help suppress a black uprising. The leader of this uprising is Saul Stark, a ju-ju man from South Carolina. There is much talk of the “town” blacks, who are easygoing folk, but Saul is organizing the “swamp” blacks, who are not so cowed.
I’ll pause there. One thing I find interesting about the piece is how drenched it is in Jim Crow mindset. Kirby Buckner is filled with almost paternalist affection for the “town” blacks, a.k.a. the ones who won’t complain or give whites a bit of sass. The unspoken truth is that they’re “good” out of fear of being lynched. The local whites fear that Saul Stark has been corrupting the more mysterious swamp-dwellers; the unspoken fear is that the town-dwellers might also adopt this uppity attitude. Plenty of Howard’s stories feature racist protagonists, and child-like blacks under the sway of charismatic leaders. But here it is not in a pseudo-historical world, but America itself, and there is a palpable fear of black agency embedded even in the language.
At one point, Buckner recalls “a ghastly tale told us by our grandfathers of how a punitive expedition from Grimesville was once ambushed and butchered among the dense thickets that masked Goshen.” Whites run the whole state, but fear the swamps at the edge of their towns. Their actions are spurred by fear of an age-old slave uprising from their grandfathers’ time, never mind that the blacks they rule are no longer slaves. “The blacks had risen in 1845, and the red terror of that revolt was not forgotten, nor the three lesser rebellions before it, when the slaves rose and spread fire and slaughter from Tularoosa to the shores of Black River. The fear of a black uprising lurked forever in the depths of that forgotten back-country; the very children absorbed it in their cradles.” It is to this hotbed of racism that Buckner comes, and in spite of his well-traveled lifestyle falls right in line with Southern racism, deciding to hunt Saul Stark. To this day, “Black Canaan” is one of the few (fictional) stories I’ve read where the hero leads a lynch mob.
This was fascinating to me as a child. I can think of no other pulp writer who pointedly captured the horrors of Southern culture. “Black Canaan” was a window to the minds of those who burnt down Greenville in Tulsa, and Rosewood, and East St. Louis.
That is what makes “Black Canaan” such an interesting story: Howard is aware of the hysteria that blackness causes to white supremacists. Buckner is one of his more pathetic heroes, constantly afraid of the shadows around him, and spends the last half of the story helpless at black femininity, as represented by the Bride of Damballah. Or, as Howard puts it, weakened by “the mesmerism in a brown woman’s eyes.” Running all through the narrative is the white man’s fear of black reprisal; for me, the most terrifying moment of this horror story is when the whites decide to whip a black prisoner. Their reversion to the slavemaster mentality is as perfunctory as it is brutal. This is a story about Jim Crow, from the height of Jim Crow.
Saul Stark and the Bride of Damballah were characters who I, as a child, had never encountered before. The Bride is a quadroon priestess who fits squarely into the Jezebel stereotype. She is “barbaric, in the open lure of her smile, in the gleam of her eyes, in the shameless posturing of her voluptuous body.” She comes from a long line of Howardian femme fatales, such as Tescala in “Red Nails.” The descriptions of her mirror Howard’s descriptions of the black female who mocks Livia in “Vale of Lost Women.” Her black femininity is both alluring and repulsive to Buckner. This goes hand in hand with the Jim Crow ideology, in which white men raped black women en masse, yet still justified oppressing them as a “separate species.”
But what truly makes her interesting is the power she holds. She is the source of Saul Stark’s magic, and easily gains some of Buckner’s blood in order to manipulate him. She is the mastermind who drew him to Canaan. Unlike Nakari in “The Moon of Skulls,” this African queen is not interested in making the white conqueror her king. She wants to make Buckner her slave. Being descended from a tribal king, she represents the African, wearing “sea-shells that were never gathered on this continent” and African gold on her limbs. The Bride of Damballah, in her mocking and dancing, her control of men and spirits, is pretty cool.
In “Black Canaan,” Africa finds its way to America, in order to reestablish the glory that was lost. This notion of American blacks being able to reclaim the past, by creating a black kingdom, resonated with me. I still root for Saul Stark, even knowing he will die in the end. He is a powerful leader, a powerfully built man, and on top of it is intelligent. As one white man states, he is “a great big black devil that talks better English than I like to hear a nigger talk.” The savage black and the educated black, both white supremacist boogeymen, rolled into one. A more dimensional character than the child-like blacks in most colonial narratives. He is from the Carolinas, an area where many African traditions were maintained. On top of it, he practices voudoun, a religion maligned in America specifically because it is the most concrete example of African theology brought to this country.
Naturally, Buckner kills him and the racial order is restored. The charismatic, intelligent black man pays for trying to rise too high. But the fear of blackness remains. And I feel Howard was aware he was writing a story about hysterical racists. There is evidence of progressive thought in his writing. I think of the Picts, who are the quintessential oppressed minority in his stories, yet outlast all their oppressors. In “Black Canaan,” Howard mentions Atlantis having black kings. White supremacy is reasserted in the end, but it is on shaky ground. In the free-for-all of racism that the pulps allowed, Howard showed himself to be as contemplative as one of his heroes.
Revolution. Power. Reclaiming the past. From there, I sought to learn more about Denmark Vessey and Nat Turner. I read about the Haitian Revolution. I learned more on Harriett Tubman, who, in leading thirteen successful expeditions in and out the South, was as ninja as American historical figures get. And I asked myself, “What if oppressed blacks in Jim Crow did have powers? What would they do?” I thought about orisha worship as a space for liberation. Then I wrote my own story addressing these ideas. The storytelling I learned from Howard.
“Black Canaan” is one of the great Southern Gothics, and easy to find nowadays. Not an easy read, but an essential one.