Reading Group #20 ('Pigeons from Hell')

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Reading Group #20 ('Pigeons from Hell')

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oct. 29, 2011, 8:29am

Here's a link. Click 'impatient' at the bottom to make it work (it's a little weird otherwise).

Happy soon-to-be Halloween, everyone! :)

oct. 30, 2011, 1:06pm

Great story, very creepy. I really like some of the Southern Gothic stuff.

oct. 30, 2011, 1:58pm

Wow. Cracker of a story. Should've kept it for tomorrowe'en.

oct. 30, 2011, 2:31pm

**lurkin' like a snake in a ruin**

oct. 30, 2011, 5:11pm


If you still need one for 'tomorrowe'en,' one of my favorite Blackwood yarns is a really famous piece of his called 'The Wendigo.' It's a little shorter than your standard novella, but it's well-paced and really, really, really creepy. You've probably already ready it, but...

Anyway. I'll put in my two cents on 'Pigeons from Hell' sometime soon. I still have Rocky Horror beating me to a pulp until 4 AM Halloween night. Oy.

oct. 30, 2011, 8:53pm

I remember doing the time warp,
Drinking those moments ...

Editat: oct. 31, 2011, 8:13am


A few random thoughts on this:-

First of all, from all the Gothic lit-crit reading I've been doing lately, this ticks all the boxes: ancient and ruined mansion; dark family secrets; older, 'feudal' attitudes of the baddies (with a vengeance in the case of the aunt!); and pulls in elements of ghost and vampire stories - a 'textbook' Gothic tale.

To my memory, this is my first reading of Robert E. Howard; however, it's starting to play on me that the style seems so familiar but I just can't pin it down to anyone. Definitely American (I think), but I'm not thinking Lovecraft or Poe.

I thought there were a couple of weaknesses.

First, the flow of the story got slightly interrupted for me a few times by inconsistencies in the style of Buckner's speech. Every now and again his speech seemed to stray from hard-boiled, southern sheriff into something rather more polished and articulate. Perhaps a minor thing, but it was just noticeable enough to attract my attention and jar a bit.

The other jarring note for me was the presence of the eponymous pigeons. Now, I know from personal experience that when you're exploring an old ruin or sea-cave or something and you get the cr*p scared out of you by a sudden explosion of startled birds, it's almost always unsuspected pigeons that are the culprits - they seem to like such places. But the key word here is 'unsuspected'. When you can see them before-hand, sitting round the place as in this story, well - I'm sorry - but they are just not capable of being sinister. They just don't have the 'street-cred' of crows, for example, or jackdaws looking at you with those weird blue eyes, let alone stalwarts of the genre like ravens or owls. Look at their beaks - they have about the least serious weaponry of anything out there. And they coo, for gods' sakes! Sorry, but pigeons just ain't scary - not even en masse.

SPOILER - I did guess during the interview with old Jacob that Aunt Celia was the thing doing the killing, but I'm not sure that at all detracted or that we weren't meant to guess.

Having said these things, they're minor quibbles, I think, and I thought the story pretty effective overall. 'Enjoyed it' never seems quite the right phrase for the kind of stuff we read but ...

Edited to add an extra spoiler alert.

oct. 31, 2011, 8:41am

This was filmed as an episode of Boris karloffs thiller. It is a pretty cool episode. I actually have bit to say about this tale but we had a stow storm and the power is still out and I hate touch typing on my phone. Anyhow..

oct. 31, 2011, 11:29am

#8 - Just been seeing that on the news. Hope things are back to normal for you soon.

Editat: oct. 31, 2011, 4:30pm

Thanks. We froze our butts off last night. The night before wasn't too bad. My pet, Hoffmann, almost froze to death though. We finally found an open room at a hotel so at least we are warm now.

Short for now but in his correspondence with Lovecraft Howard mentions how this tale was inspired by stories he was told by an older black woman who did work around their place when he lived near the piney woods as a boy. It is a creepy region.

Editat: nov. 1, 2011, 7:46am

We got power back. I love being warm.

Anyhow, I know that Howard wrote a few "Southern Gothic" yarns. With this one he was inspired by tales an old black woman would tell him when he was younger. What I wonder is if this story comes from a local folklore tradition. If so perhaps the others he wrote also came from a similar source.

nov. 1, 2011, 8:21am

After reading everyone's comments (save the spoilers), I'm really excited to pick this one up! It's 5:17 AM and I just got back from my final performance, so tomorrow is an all-day read-a-thon, eat-Chinese-food-a-thon, bask-in-the-quiet-of-an-empty-house-a-thon. Very excited about it, too. :)

I'll be back soon. Glad everyone's liking this one. I like when we do stories from this period (1900-1930s-ish): Blackwood, Lovecraft, Machen, Howard, etc.

Editat: nov. 1, 2011, 11:03am

Thinking over this story has got me pondering on staircases. Howard's use of the stairs brought 'The Listener' back to mind.

Why are staircases creepy?

It seems to me that a character creeping up or down a flight of stairs is intrinsically more creepy than one creeping along a corridor - even one with corners; but why?

I've been pondering all sorts of things: like subconscious memories from childhood forging a link between being made to go up the stairs to bed and vaguely-remembered nightmares. Writing that sentence, it occurred to me that there's a sort of tradition of the staircase as a threshold between worlds: following from that, this could be between the waking world and an 'otherworld' glimpsed in dreams and nightmares; or, there's the quite stereotypical image of the child looking between the banisters to get glimpses of the mysterious adult world of evening entertaining.

Or is it simply down to the fact that staircases are more subject to 'unexplained' creaks in the night; or to do with the notorious difficulty of tip-toeing up or down them quietly without creaks giving you away?

I can't pin it down, but I'm sure flights of stairs come with a built-in creep factor.

ETA - Or is it because stairs are pretty lethal in real life: people are always falling down them and breaking their necks, and suicide by hanging oneself from the banisters was popular when I was young, though it seems to have gone out of fashion in recent years (possibly since the UK judicial system has given up hangings hanging has faded somewhat from the public consciousness).

nov. 1, 2011, 11:15am

They shift perspective, change visual frame and are rife with unseen corners. Depending on how long and steep is the staircase, you may not be able to see the landings, let alone guess what may be coming around the corner there. And what is at their ends? ATTICS & CELLARS!1!

And they are unstable. They are not flat firm ground. Walk on a staircase and you're walking in mid-air.

Staircases: fearrr themmmm

nov. 2, 2011, 5:25am

And what is at their ends? ATTICS & CELLARS!1!


I don't know why, but that made me spit out my tea with laughter...

nov. 2, 2011, 9:35am

And me.

I mean the laughter, not the tea-spitting - but good points, too.

nov. 2, 2011, 4:13pm

I have a theory about those non-scary pigeons.

I know a surprising number of people who can get quite freaked-out by my bird flying round the room. I reckon Howard must have been one of these.

Apart from household pets, about the only experience you're likely to have of birds flying close round your head is with the feral pigeons in our towns and cities - nothing else seems quite as unconcerned about coming near us. I imagine that, if you're one of those who get freaked-out, the pigeons must be a constant bugbear to you - and I imagine that this is what lies behind Howard's use of them.

Having said that, I still think that, for the sake of the rest of us, he should have substituted something else for them - owls, for instance.

nov. 2, 2011, 4:17pm

#7 - "... and pulls in elements of ghost and vampire stories ..."

And a generous chunk of 'whodunnit'.

nov. 2, 2011, 4:36pm

I could be scared by pigeons. For one thing, they tend to exist in masses. They are carnivores (or, more exact, omnivores). They are prone to horrible deforming viral diseases, especially their feet--look at any biggish crowd of pigeons for a while and note how many are limping, how many have clubby feet, fingerless feet etc. It's like pigeon lepra. Furthermore, they are one and all rife with parasites. I got the horrorshock of my life when I once approached a pigeon sunning on the terrace, aiming to look at it close-up, and saw that, although the bird was perfectly still, its whole body surface was in motion!--I looked closer, and... ugh, I can't.

I jumped several paces backward with both feet.

Editat: nov. 2, 2011, 4:48pm

I've been re-reading this this evening and I was intending to list the strong points to balance up #7. I find I can't, really - it's a pretty evenly strong story.

I'm very impressed. I've never read any Howard previously and I have a sneaky suspicion that's because I've been unconsciously confusing him with the bloke who churned out the 'Gor' books (I tried to read one of those, years ago - it gave adolescent fantasy a bad name). I'll definitely hunt up some more of Howard's stuff at some point - particularly the yarns Thulean mentions up above.

ETA - Talking about 'balance', I particularly liked the way he came full circle by bringing back that 'nightmare' element of the original murder for the climax of the story - actually, it seemed to be quite formally structured - like a piece of music.

nov. 2, 2011, 4:43pm

I think you were spot-on right about the uneveness of speech, rankamateur! It could've been polished a bit.

But the idea I too thought was good.

nov. 2, 2011, 4:46pm

Isis will know this--doesn't Bierce have a story with a similar beginning, two blokes entering a deserted creepy house, and there are "entities" in it, and one is dead by the morning? When I started reading I thought it was the same story.

nov. 2, 2011, 4:54pm

>20 alaudacorax:

His other stories which are supposed to be in the Southern Gothic tradition, or at least regional horror stories that take place in the piney woods area, are Black Canaan, The Shadow of the Beast, Black Hound of Death and Moon of Zambebwei. Don't be surprised if some of them, I guess. Howard was a small town Texas writer from the 20's and 30's.

He also wrote some good Mythos tales if you are into that. Namely The Black Stone.

Del Rey released a Best Horror Stories of REH not long ago.

nov. 2, 2011, 10:13pm

#23 - Thanks for that, Thulean.

nov. 2, 2011, 10:26pm

This one's cheap and easy with some Lovecraftian stuff and some surprisingly good fantasy: The Haunter of the Ring and Other Tales.

nov. 3, 2011, 7:06am

#25 - Thanks for that, veil.

nov. 3, 2011, 6:53pm

I’ve been aware of Robert E. Howard since some time in 1975, when Marvel made yet another attempt to break into the then-lucrative British comic (-book) market, this time with b/w weekly reprints of their Conan adaptions (with King Kull and occasional appearances from Solomon Kane as back-up strips, I recall). However I have read very few of the original Conan stories (perhaps none, thinking about it. Some Ace paperbacks turned up, cut price, in local newsagents in the early Eighties, with a notch sawn into top or bottom. I suspect they were among the last consignments of such material to make their way across the Atlantic as ballast. Anyway, the books I picked up, The Howard Collector and The Gods of Bal-Sagoth contained more obscure Howard material. I lost both books long ago, but recently found a copy of the latter title. End of wool-gathering digression).

I was therefore aware of Howard’s non-Sword-and-Sorcery (is it still called that?) stories, but hadn’t read many of them, and hadn’t read this one until 2008.

I had, though, heard the title, or something like it. Isn’t there a line about a “pigeon from Hell” in an old Pretenders song? I thought then, and agree with Rankamateur now, that “pigeon” strikes a bathetic note. Just yesterday, I heard an old Half Man Half Biscuit song where they were lampooning Nick Cave by combining Birthday-Party era Nick with George Formby: lyrics include the phrase not “release the pigeons!” (rather than "...bats!").

However, as an image, a flock of pigeons is powerful, gothic-y, moody: think of films, for instance Tony Scott’s “The Hunger” or Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal”. I think when the screen can do less, the reader’s mind’s eye has to do more (Varney, the Vampire includes some scenes of broad slapstick that no-one would put in a book today).

I don’t actually have much to say about the actual story that hasn’t already been said. The prose style was very familiar to me, too. I think it’s the type of English I grew up with. I read (for pleasure) almost nothing but paperback science fiction throughout the Eighties. That meant an awful lot of reprints from the pulps, which of course was mostly mid-20th Century American English.

The plotting creaks a bit in places, but at this distance this adds to the story’s antique, pulp charm, like a moment of clumsiness in a Universal horror film (Transylvanian Armadillos, perhaps?). Knowing a little about the lives of the pulp writers, I suspect that the story as we read it today was the first draft. This would also explain the inconsistencies in Buckner’s speech.

A lot of this is two-fisted thriller as much as horror, but there are genuinely eerie moments. For me,, the most effective {SPOILER ALERT} is where Griswell thinks he’s running away from the house, but slowly realises he’s climbing the staircase instead...

The twist at the end was not such a big deal for me - not because I spotted it, but because the Aunt was already established as a monster from the moment we were introduced to her.

Finally, where exactly does this story take place? I understand that Piney Woods covers a large area and spreads over several state boundaries.

nov. 3, 2011, 7:34pm

> 27 Although I shouldn't mention Half Man Half Biscuit here, bearing in mind how they've been mocking goths since the mid-eighties. The track was "Mr Cave's a Window Cleaner Now", incidentally.

Editat: nov. 4, 2011, 2:23am

>27 housefulofpaper:

As a Texan, and Howard being one too, I always just place the story on the Texas side of the Piney Woods. Could be Louisiana I suppose but I really doubt it is in Arkansas or Oklahoma.

Editat: nov. 4, 2011, 6:24am

Are there any well-known films or TV programmes that give a real 'feel' of the Piney Woods (or books, for that matter) - to really let me know what kind of atmosphere Howard is invoking?

ETA the 'books' bit.

nov. 4, 2011, 3:36pm

> 29

Many thanks.

nov. 9, 2011, 5:09am

I think it's time for some Arthur Machen. New thread is up! :)

oct. 20, 2016, 5:51am

One of my nieces 'tweeted' a quote from Samuel Pepys: It seems the Queen was so ill as to be shaved and pidgeons put to her feet, and to have the extreme unction given her by the priests.

So I was looking online for info on this and came upon this - - and I quote a portion of it:

In addition to the ritual of the night-cap, which was supposed to bear powers of miraculous healing, was the seemingly odd ritual of slaughtering pigeons and placing their reeking carcasses at her feet.

There are curious folk-tales about the connection of the pigeon with death, based on the old belief that the dove was a messenger from the spirit world. Thus when a ship foundered in the olden times the spectators on shore used to see the souls of the newly drowned ascending to heaven in the shape of doves. An associated belief was that dying people cannot take leave of life if they are lying on a bed of pigeons’ feathers.

I wonder if Howard was aware of these old beliefs ... I must re-read the story in the light of them.

nov. 20, 2016, 8:18pm

Reread this an hour ago. Goddamn, those first few pages stick with you... Wow.

Doesn't help that my hermit-like neighbor downstairs has a habit of whistling apropos nothing and that it carries far too easily through my floor: nearly had to change my underwear when he started up towards the end of the story... Ugh.

Editat: feb. 22, 2020, 7:20pm

Ah ha, found it! Brought back to life for my bird quotient of a literary version of last weekend's Great Backyard Bird Count. It's waiting in the wings now, ha! GBBC results feature ravens and vultures and scary pigeons in abundant numbers, I hope?

feb. 23, 2020, 4:20am

Jesus, Mary and Joseph! I just finished this at 4am and if there is a whistle outside or a slither under my bed, I might pass out. =(

There is nothing like Southern Gothic for creep factor. Bats, owls, snakes, werewolves.

Don't get me started on birds in the house. As Margaret Laurence indicates in her book of short stories by that name, a bird in the house means death. A flock on the porch has got to be a warning, no matter the variety. Less likely to be flamingos I suppose. Pigeons representing the souls of the dead family members who are released from hell during sunset to sunrise, especially if it's red, is just unsettling in every way.

I've had wild birds enter accidentally three times in my life, and all were memorable and terrifying. I've never had pets due to allergies, so anything moving inside any home startles me, even now. Kids are one thing, you can hear them approaching a mile away, but pets are stealth and I could never get used to them, not even a bird. My sister had one in a cage for awhile when her kids were younger, and I couldn't be in the same room with it.

Now, outdoor wild things, no problem. That's where they're supposed to be.

feb. 23, 2020, 4:49am

>30 alaudacorax: I pictured the main house in Pinky (1949) which was a black/white film starring Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore, Ethel Waters. At the beginning, it's run-down, but transforms at the end into a functioning nursing school. I love the plot, the characters, the racial undertone by the main character herself, the family lineage and community bias, etc. There's no voodoo but you get a real sense of claustrophobic collapse in the South, from even the first 30min. I've watched it several times online. Any time you combine Ethel Barrymore and staircases, it's a gothic feast!

feb. 23, 2020, 4:59am

>22 LolaWalser: The Spook House by Bierce. Available online as a quick audiobook, as was Pigeons From Hell, which was just over an hour.