We’re working on a story that’s set in the mountains. For research I’m rereading Trespassers on the Roof of the World, which deals with the earlier European attempts to reach Lhasa. These early travellers were sometimes foolhardy and unwise, sometimes overly optimistic and underprepared, but one thing that comes across in the narratives is a sense of Adventure, this kismet-like drive to reach that remote city that stood symbol for everything forbidden and mysterious.
It also brought the story “Dig Me No Grave” by Robert E. Howard to mind, which appeared in Weird Tales of October 1936, less than half a year after the author’s death. It’s contains more than a share of pulpy ‘Eastern mysticism’.
This illustration by Virgil Finlay, one of the mainstays of pulp illustrators, shows why he was so well liked; he had a knack of getting to the heart of the matter, and distilling a representative image from a story that would be alluring and intriguing. Sometimes the allure lay in a carefully rendered buxom woman, sometimes in a dynamic layout. This image has no spaceway pinup, nor a dynamic layout. In fact, it’s the way in which Finlay so very carefully controls the elements that makes the image work.
We see two men, standing around the (death)bed of a third, surrounded by black candles, symbols of sinister rituals. That we’re dealing with “Oriental Mysticism” will be clear from the man behind the altar, who is Asian, wearing something like a Tibetan monk’s habit, a circle painted on his forehead. All Orientalist tropes of the time, conveying the clichéd inscrutability. This contrasts with the man on the left, who we can take for a Westerner; and an educated one at that – noble forehead, aquiline nose, you get the idea, and clothing just short of elbow patches. He seems to have dressed hastily, as his tie is at an angle.
So, there’s an atmosphere of terror on one side, but also of the calm before a storm. This is done by using the trappings of black magic, but keeping the composition very quiet and organised. The illustration is built up from evenly spaced verticals, formed by the men and the candles, and a few horizontals, being the altar and the corpse. There are a few sets of diagonals. First, that of the shrouded body, which is parallel to the top of the illustration, binding the corpse to the space, and the Westerner’s tie is parallel to the papers he’s holding; we can assume that whatever he has read is the cause of his haste and unrest.
That these papers contain a formula to awaken the man’s dead friend would be a fair guess, and that the other man is to preside over the ceremony is also clear. I can’t really remember how the story exactly goes; it’s been decades since I read it. The illustration is enticing, though, and gives a lot of direction of what the reader can expect. It certainly makes me want to pick up the story and read it again. Luckily, I can just reach out to my bookcase for the excellent collection of horror stories by Robert E. Howard.