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If I was asked which Robert E. Howard creation was my favorite, hands down I would say the Pictish King Bran Mak Morn. Mighty Thor JRS covered him in the Definitive Swords and Sorcery series here. I always refer to him as the ‘Hamlet of Howard’. He’s the rightful heir of his people and likely their last hope. He is what separates the people from future glory and slipping further into barbarism. To me, Bran Mak Morn always seemed doomed, he seemed to know he was struggling in an uphill battle, each victory only serving to keep his people’s heads above water. Mak Morn’s failure is confirmed in Howard’s story “The Dark Man”, Brogar tells the Gael Turlogh
“Bran Mak Morn fell in battle; the nation fell apart. Civil Wars rocked it. The Gaels came and reared the kingdom of Dalriadia above the ruins of the Cruithni.” (Howard 162)
In Howard’s story “The Little People” we see the Picts themselves have become monsters. A truly tragic character, we understand the whole time Bran Mak Morn is struggling, he is doomed to fail.
When Karl Edward Wagner took on the mantle and wrote his Mak Morn pastiche Legion from the Shadows he took the cues Howard had given him and added even more of his own gothic touch. We can see this gothic influence through a number of themes: a castle of Abbey with hidden secrets, night journeys, virginal maidens, villains, heroes, the presence of the past (ghosts, secrets), the supernatural, and nature as a wild influence.
“Seek not for him,” said Bran. “out of the sunrise he came – into the sunset he has gone. Out of the mists of the ages he came to us and out of the mists of the eons has he returned-”(Howard 74)
Previously mentioned above, “The Little People” has several gothic elements in place. Wanting to prove her bravery to her brother a young woman goes out on the moors alone at night. Her destination is the lonely stone ruins from years past. The moon and the moors are given a wild foreboding nature in the various descriptions.
“The moon was just rising and the land glimmered grisly and stark beneath it cold beams. It was late summer and the air was warm, yet the whole landscape looked cold, bleak and forbidding.” (Howard 201-202)
“The aura of the fen was like a tangible something, pressing upon me, weighting my limbs-and always that presentiment of evil grew and grew.” (Howard 203)
Towards the end of the story, we see the young women in peril of being kidnapped and another example of the past and present blending when a ghost arrives to save the day. Clearly, some of these gothic elements are already at play in Howard’s work.
In 1976, Zebra Books published Legion from the Shadows a continuation of the Bran Mak Morn saga written by Karl Edward Wagner. Wagner, who is known for the gothic influences of his own fantasy character Kane, made sure to bring those influence to the forefront.
One couldn’t ask for a more gothic home base than the castle Mak Morn resides in.
“This much was certain: that the massive stones that bore up the rising walls of Baal-dor were of extreme antiquity, and that the fortress has been occupied and again abandoned at several points in the long centuries of Pictish dominion…”(Wagner 55)
“The ancient foundations were of cyclopean construction, in places incorporating stone slabs as large as menhirs.” (Wagner 56)
The castle Baal-dor is further described to rest on a promontory overlooking cliffs and two streams crashing together. This castle resting in the heath is just begging to have a lightning bolt crackle behind it during a storm.
When Mak Morn’s castle Baal-dor is breached and his sister Morgain is kidnapped, Morn descends into the dark tunnels of the Worms of the Earth to save her. The tunnels first introduced in Howard’s “Worms of the Earth” are expanded by Wagner into a whole series of tunnels honeycombing the earth and connecting various barrows. The tunnels take on the character of hidden castle passages that Mak Morn must traverse. My favorite moment is when Mak Morn’s rising dread of running into a patrol in the pitch dark is realized. His location feels both claustrophobic and untethered as he flails in the dark fighting for his life.
The arrogant Roman archetype has already appeared in the Howard Mak Morn stories. We see Wagner amplify and go full gothic in his character Claudius Nero. Nero, the party behind Morgains abduction, meets the gothic villain expectation by looming over Morgain with sexual threat and having a hidden family history that is revealed. He is a great foil for Mak Morn in that both men are conflicted about where they come from.
I loved reading Mak Morn as a gothic hero in Wagner’s rendition of the character. One of the strengths of the horror in the original series by Howard was the unknowable horror of the Worms of the Earth, in Wagner’s take, that unknowable horror is undercut by explanation and exposure. If I can make the comparison it’s like the difference between the films Alien and Aliens. Though I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone, I think if you are a Bran Mak Morn fan or a Wagner fan you should give it a try!
Howard, Robert E. Bran Mak Morn: The Last King. Del Rey, 2005
Wagner, Karl Edward. Legion From the Shadows. Zebra, 1976
Jordan Douglas Smith is a writer and podcaster. You can check out his podcast The Dark Crusade dedicated to the work of Karl Edward Wagner here. If something is related to a Souls game, an rpg, horror, or fantasy he’s probably interested.