The strange paralysis that had held him was broken. He took a step toward the door, then checked himself. The footfalls were resumed. Branner was coming back. He was not running. The tread was even more deliberate and measured than before. Now the stairs began to creak again. A groping hand, moving along the balustrade, came into the bar of moonlight; then another, and a ghastly thrill went through Griswell as he saw that the other hand gripped a hatchet -- a hatchet which dripped blackly. Was that Branner who was coming down that stair?

Yes! The figure had moved into the bar of moonlight now, and Griswell recognized it. Then he saw Branner's face, and a shriek burst from Griswell's lips. Branner's face was bloodless, corpse-like; gouts of blood dripped darkly down it; his eyes were glassy and set, and blood oozed from the great gash which cleft the crown of his head!

Classic horror short story, written by Robert E. Howard in 1934 and published posthumously in Weird Tales in 1938.

The tale involves two men from New England, John Branner and his friend Griswell, who are traveling in the South and, stuck out in the wilderness with nowhere else to stay, decide to spend the night in a deserted plantation mansion they run across in the Louisiana forest. Griswell awakens in the night to find Branner walking up the stairs in an apparent trance. And in a few minutes, Branner comes back downstairs -- dead but still walking, carrying the same bloody hatchet that has been used to split his head open. Griswell flees into the night.

He's fortunate to run into the local sheriff, Buckner, who takes Griswell back into the mansion, where they find Branner lying dead and holding the hatchet, which is now buried in the floorboards where Griswell had been lying. Buckner tells Griswell that the house is called Blassenville Manor after the cruel family that used to live there until the last of the family fled the mansion. Since then, it's gained an unsavory reputation, and it's whispered that the pigeons that infest the mansion are actually the evil souls of the Blassenvilles. After questioning and investigation, Buckner concludes that Griswell is innocent of the murder, and they decide to spend another night in the mansion.

The next night, Griswell and Buckner start out visiting an elderly black man named Jacob who has a reputation as a voodoo priest. They get him to tell them about the Blassenvilles and about the creatures called zuvembies -- even though speaking of them brings a terrible death curse. Will Griswell and Buckner be able to uncover the terrible secret of Blassenville Manor? Or will they too join the flocks of pigeons from hell?

So that's the plot. What makes it all so special?

Well, here's the main thing. It's a damn scary story. I don't mean "scary for its time," the way a lot of old ghost stories lose modern audiences in archaic language. I mean it's damn scary. Descriptions are direct but moody -- you can feel what it's like inside the old mansion or outside in the Lousiana forest.

And you can feel the fear when the reanimated Branner comes stomping down that staircase, when Griswell is under the monster's control, when Jacob puts his hand down on that fateful stick. It's not esoteric or theoretical -- it's grim and visceral and bloody and fearful.

This was actually the first of Robert E. Howard's stories that I ever read. The Conan movies with Arnold Schwarzeneggar had basically convinced me that Howard wasn't a smart writer, that he was just good for sword-swinging brutality. Someone recommended I read this, and I didn't expect much. "Pigeons? From Hell? That's the dumbest title for a horror story ever."

Cue: me, after reading the story. Slack-jawed in amazement, wonder, and admiration. One of the scariest stories I'd ever read, and it was three-quarters of a century old. I've read other Howard books since then, and it's been wonderful to discover how mistaken my original assumptions were. He's an outstanding writer, even if he's often shockingly racist and politically incorrect for modern audiences.

"Pigeons from Hell" has been adapted several times -- it was the basis for an episode of Boris Karloff's "Thriller" series in June 1961, and it's been adapted for comics twice. Scott Hampton wrote a graphic novel of the story for Eclipse Comics in 1988, and there was a four-issue miniseries by Joe R. Lansdale and Nathan Fox that was published by Dark Horse Comics in 2008.

Favorite trivia: While Howard defined a "zuvembie" as basically a female zombie, the term was used by Marvel Comics in the 1970s to get around the Comics Code Authority's ban on the depiction of zombies.


"The Whistler in the Dark"

Robert E. Howard wrote "Pigeons from Hell" in the early 1930s; Weird Tales published it posthumously in 1938. He divided it into three short chapters: "The Whistler in the Dark," "The Snake's Brother," and "The Call of Zuvembie." Stephen King has called it "one of the finest horror stories of our century" (Danse Macabre). Jet-Poop calls it "one of the scariest stories" he's "ever read" (Everything2), and you should read his review, above, if you want to know more about the short story. I'm mainly examining its television adaptation. However, a brief overview of the source follows:

A pair of traveling New England buddies find themselves off the beaten track and decide to spend the night in a deserted, crumbling Louisiana mansion. Naturally, one of them, Branner dies horribly and the other, Griswell, becomes the chief suspect.

As the local sheriff, Buckner, probes further, he decides that Griswell may be innocent, and the supernatural may be at work. The pair calls on Jacob, an ancient former slave with knowledge of voodoo and the occult.

From Buckner and Jacob, we learn the history of the now-defunct Blassenville Family, who came from the West Indies. They established the plantation and a reputation for cruelty. After the Civil War, the line deteriorated. The last surviving Blassenvilles, a group of eccentric sisters, disappeared or died under mysterious circumstances. Joan, a servant of mixed race, also fled the property.

Griswell and Buckner piece together an explanation. Buckner insists they confront the problem alone—he doesn't want the locals to know the terrifying truth. But, as Jet-Poop asks, "will they too join the flocks of pigeons from hell?"

"The Snake's Brother"

The TV anthology series Thriller (1960-1962), hosted by Boris Karloff, adapted the story at the end of its first season. Fans usually rank "Pigeons from Hell" among its finest episodes.

John Kneubuhl's teleplay tightens the connections among various characters. Branner and Griswell become brothers, Timothy and Johnny Branner. Old Jacob becomes the Blassenvilles' former servant. The script also alters certain relationships among the past inhabitants of the mansion. Consequently the twist ending, though still chilling, changes.1

Although the screenplay softens the more overt racism of the source, it also removes some of the most interesting racial subtext. The Blassenvilles' mulatto maid Joan becomes a white woman, Eula Lee, with slightly different motives for her part in the story. The script also softens the perverse sadism of the Blassenville Sisters, but we're on television, and in a different era. Slavery remained something of a living memory in Howard's America. The foundational events of his story occurred in a nineteenth century still feeling the effects of the Civil War. The torrid drama of the television Blassenvilles unfolded in the twentieth century, and references and details have been adjusted accordingly.

In the tradition of scary movies, the travelers experience car trouble, and must spend the night in the old dark house. From there, events resemble those of the source. The supernatural elements have been muted. Whereas Howard's sheriff quickly accepted the presence of the forces of Hell, his TV incarnation offers rational explanations for events. The script and staging suggest the presence of mysterious forces, but with enough ambiguity that the sheriff's explanations could hold.

"Pigeons from Hell" features strong, if somewhat overdone, performances, typical of the era's drama. The director, John Newland, makes excellent use of light and shadow, especially in the outsized rooms of the mansion. The creators and actors make much of a limited budget, and the mise en scene clearly reflects the influence of live theater. The episode does not eliminate grotesque and disturbing imagery-- some of it quite strong for period television-- but most of the terror lies in suggestion.

"The Call of Zuvembie"

Old Jacob's tale, and the more supernatural explanation for the story's events, center on the "zuvembie," a voodoo-based creature invented by Howard. He clearly wanted something akin to a zombie—as they were understood to be, in those pre-Romero, pre-Zombie Apocalypse days-- but with certain elements not found in traditional zombie lore. His "zuvembie" have a broader range of supernatural powers, including hypnotic spells that affect humans and a Draculaesque control over certain creatures of the night. While people fear becoming zombies, a person might choose to become zuvembie. One would just need suitably dark and foul motives, and access to a special voodoo brew. Zuvembie live forever, unless someone kills them. Lead bullets do fine.

The old Comics Code Authority put several restrictions on horror in the four-color realm. For years, Marvel Comics simply used the term "zuvembie" to mean "zombie," a once-forbidden word.

With the old code no longer in effect, most comic-book zombies reclaimed their name. Zuvembie had established itself, however, and the name now designates its own class of undead in certain dark corners of pop culture. Zuvembies have turned up in Marvel and DC Comics, and in certain horror and comic-themed games (Zuvembie Heroclix exist, for example).

The story itself has been adapted into comic book form, by Eclipse in 1988 and Dark Horse in 2008. Despite some dated and racist references, "Pigeons from Hell" succeeds in all its forms, a terrifying tale that straddles both the pulp-horror and Southern Gothic traditions in literature.


With Spoilers

For both the short story and the TV adaptation.

So if you read, you'll encounter information "Pigeons from Hell" withholds 'til the end.

1. In the original short story, we suspect Joan of becoming a zuvembie and offing the sisters, save for one who fled, and then holing up in the old house, drawing down pigeons and killing the occasionally trespasser. We learn, in fact, that clever Joan zuvembified one of the sisters, and.... You get the general idea.

In the film, Eula Lee, assumed by outsiders to be a white servant, is actually a mistreated half-sister. She zuvembifies herself and kills the sisters. Local people assume they fled, but we see their decayed bodies in the final scene. I suspect the writer intended Eula Lee to be a biracial half-sister, but that never would have flown with network executives in the early 1960s. Pity, since it makes a terrific ending.

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