>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<
Marchers of Valhalla from The Black Stranger and Other American Tales (Bison Books)
"Once these sullen hills were beaches and they saw the ocean flee
In the misty ages never known of men,
And they wait in brooding silence till the everlasting sea
Comes foaming forth to claim her own again."
-- from "The Grim Land", by Robert E. Howard
In April of 1932, Robert E. Howard wrote to HP Lovecraft that, "now I'm working on a mythical period of prehistory when what is now the state of Texas was a great plateau, stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the sea -- before the country south of the Cap-rock broke down to form the sloping steppes which now constitute the region." The yarn Howard was working on was Marchers of Valhalla. In late May, 1932, REH wrote to HPL and informed him that "(Farnsworth) Wright [editor of Weird Tales] rejected the antediluvian Texas story, not enough weirdness about it." My mind boggles. Nordics assaulting/defending a time-lost city in "antediluvian Texas", a "living goddess" in chains and the entire Lone Star State getting dumped into the drink wasn't "enough weirdness" for Wright!?!
Be that as it may (and I have my own unproveable theories as to why ol' Pharnabazus didn't jump at it), Howard didn't sell it and he moved on to writing other "James Allison" yarns. Since "Marchers" didn't sell, Howard used the name "Niord" again for the hero of The Valley of the Worm. When Glenn Lord readied the manuscript of "MoV" for its initial publication in 1972, he took the name "Hialmar" from Allison's list of former incarnations and redubbed the protagonist of "Marchers". On the whole, a good call on Glenn's part, IMO. Still, despite the fact that both Niords DIE at the end of their respective tales, there are some who believe that they are one and the same. The Tompkins-edited version from Bison Books retains "Hialmar" and it's the name I'm gonna use, at any rate.
One could simply dismiss "Marchers" as over-the-top, blood-soaked "pulp" fantasy. Can't you just see the headline in The Post-Hyborian Post:"AEsir 'Biker Gang' Destroys Ancient Civilization" (story on page 2)? Marchers of Valhalla is much more than that. In his excellent introduction to the "Black Stranger" collection, Steve Tompkins writes:
"If we read the AEsir as sword-and-sorcery simplifications of Texans at their deadliest and most driven, and the treacherous Khemuri as a combination of Aztec trappings and Mexican failings as seen unfairly through Texan eyes, we begin to realize that "Marchers of Valhalla" is a creation myth fit for a state that has spawned more mythology than some entire continents, a creation myth that, as is only to be expected with Howard, culminates in cataclysmic destruction."
In his essay, "North by Southwest: Or, the Yellow Rose of Valhalla", Tompkins compares Hialmar's AEsir in "Marchers" to Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and Cormac MacCarthy's Glanton gang (Blood Meridian). They're definitely on the same continuum: "Gringos" cuttin' loose down in Ol' Me-hi-koh. Ironhand once mentioned that tribal societies tend to count any outside their group ("The People") as "non-people". All human societies operate this way, to a certain extent. When the Hutu brought a deathly silence to Butare, when Chivington's militia rode down the women and children of Sand Creek, when Cromwell's "Roundheads" did their "duty" at Drogheda, when Police Battalion 101 did the same at Josefow; the same principle was in action. All were operating in an "amoral space" where the "normal" rules/customs/laws of their "tribes" didn't apply. The amoral space that Hialmar's horde chose for itself was the entire world. Hialmar was a "child soldier", originally. He grew up amongst the blood and plunder. Allison says that "in those savage times" (...) "wolf pack tore wolf pack". One has to wonder whether the women and children of the cities Hialmar's AEsir overran considered themselves part of a "wolf pack".
I think that "Marchers" is one of Howard's great fantasy yarns for many reasons, but one special reason it stands out to me is how (IMO) Bob lays bare his soul in the introduction to the yarn. In his guise as "James Allison" (probably of "Lost Knob/Plains"), REH pours out his feelings in this tale. Allison speaks of how "the agonizing melancholy of that drab land lay hard upon me," and of the "dreary expanse of sand drifts and post-oak thickets". Allison says that he wishes he were dead, "not so much as a bid for sympathy, but the despairing cry of a soul tortured beyond endurance." Allison cries savagely, "Don't give me a speech about resignation and cheerfulness! If I had the power I'd strangle every damned blatant optimist in the world! (...) "There has not even been any beauty in my life, lying as it has in this forsaken and desolate wilderness." (...) "I could have loved life and lived deeply as a cowboy, even here, before the squatters turned the country from an open range to a drift of straggling farms. I could have lived deep as a buffalo hunter, an Indian fighter, or an explorer, even here. But I was born out of my time, and even the exploits of this weary age were denied me. It's bitter beyond human telling to sit chained and helpless, and feel the hot blood drying in my veins, and the glittering dreams fading in my brain. I come of a restless, roving, fighting race."
The reader can just feel REH speaking through James Allison. Howard often stated as how he felt that he was "born too late". He definitely wasn't one for "blatant optimists". Despite him having two good legs, I'd say that Bob felt "chained and helpless" from time to time. Allison escaped his bondage by reliving past lives. REH broke his chains with the power of his imagination.
Here's the link to Tompkins' essay:
Here's the link for an insightful (yet irreverent) review from Dr. Hermes (which includes all three "James Allison" yarns):
Y'all feel free to comment on the story.