The Fearsome Touch of Death by Robert E. Howard

Robert_E_Howard_suitRobert E. Howard  (1906 – 1936) is perhaps best known for his Conan the Barbarian Stories. Unfortunately he didn’t become successful or attain any real recognition for his writing until his death. None of his Conan stories were published until after his suicide.

He is generally regarded as one of the fathers of the sword and sorcery sub-genre of fantasy.

His writing has the macabre vibe of Poe and he has the same streak of creative darkness that Lovecraft had. I think he is perhaps a wee bit under-rated because of his pulp fiction and the slightly airy shallowness of the Conan tales.

As long as midnight cloaks the earth
 With shadows grim and stark,
 God save us from the Judas kiss
 Of a dead man in the dark.

The scene is set with two men sat in the house of a third. They are sat with his dead body, which in itself is kind of dark.

Old Adam Farrel lay dead in the house wherein he had lived alone for the last twenty years. A silent, churlish recluse, in his life he had known no friends, and only two men had watched his passing.

Dr Stein were discussing Falred fulfilling the custom and the rather morbid obligation of sitting with Adam Farrel, the dead man, all night.

“Rather a useless and primitive custom, sitting up with the dead, Farrel wasn’t liked—wasn’t known by many people. I scarcely knew him myself, but I don’t mind sitting up with the corpse.”

Stein wasn’t convinced that Falred was so immune to the creepy aspect of sitting all night in the dark with a corpse.

“Not superstitious, are you?”

Falred commented that he would rather sit beside Farrel than suffer being a previous guest of his.

He looked again at the shape which had, in life, been the form of Adam Farrel, wondering what quirk in the human nature made the sight of a corpse not so unpleasant, but such an object of fear to man.

There were the usual tales of treasures hidden by the lonely miser, but Falred wasn’t even tempted enough to pry or search the house. He returned to his reading, whilst pondering on the boring task at hand.

He realized, for the first time, the utter and deadening silence which enwrapped the house—a silence apparently shared by the night, for no sound came through the window.

It was as if he forgot, when immersed in his reading, that he was sat in front of a corpse. So when he looked up occasionally he was a little startled and creeped out by old man Farrel.

A sudden vagrant gust of wind whipped through the window, in which the light in the lamp flickered and went out suddenly.

Falred burnt his fingers trying to light the matches. When he finally managed to relight the lantern he was shocked to find the sheet covering the corpse had been moved to reveal the body.

Adam Farrel’s face stared blindly at him, the dead eyes wide and blank, framed in the gnarled gray features.

Falred put it down to his over-active imagination or perhaps just a strong gust of wind.

he re-covered the gray face, shrinking as his hand chanced to touch the cold flesh—slick and clammy, the touch of death. He shuddered with the natural revulsion of the living for the dead

He decided to get some sleep. He left the light on and told himself that it was only because it was custom to leave the light on for the dead.

A fantastic idea gave birth in his mind, and grew, that beneath the sheet, the mere lifeless body had become a strange, monstrous thing, a hideous, conscious being, that watched him with eyes which burned through the fabric of the cloth.

As more time passed his imagination was given free rein to wander into unimaginable dark spaces.

He thought of uncovering the face, on the principle that familiarity breeds contempt. The sight of the features, calm and still in death, would banish, he thought, all such wild conjectures as were haunting him in spite of himself.

He finally fell asleep, smiling to himself at the thought of how scared he was making himself.

This fear had been stealing upon him so insidiously and gradually that he had not been aware of its growth.

He was awakened suddenly by a strange dream. In his dream the dead man rose from his deathbed. He was too frightened to reach across to the lamp. To shed light on the possible horrors that may be hiding in the darkness.

he dared not light the lamp, for fear that his reason would be snuffed out like a candle at what he might see. Horror, stark and unreasoning, had full possession of his soul; he no longer questioned the instinctive fears that rose in him.

What is better, having your fears confirmed or just assuming you know what may be out there?

A terrible horror grew up in him and reared its grisly shape, that the dead man was behind him, was stealing upon him from the rear. He no longer thought of lighting the lamp; he no longer thought of anything. Fear filled his whole being; there was room for nothing else.

He no longer thought about lighting the lamp. His every sense was filled with the complete horror of facing his fear.

his back-flung hands encountered something—something slick, cold and clammy—like the touch of death. A scream shook the echoes, followed by the crash of a falling body.

The next morning they found two lifeless bodies. The body of Adam Farrell was still covered with a sheet and on the other side of the room lay the dead body of Falred beneath a shelf where Dr Stein had left his rubber gloves.

rubber gloves, slick and clammy to the touch of a hand groping in the dark—a hand of one fleeing his own fear—rubber gloves, slick and clammy and cold, like the touch of death.

Killed by his own fear. Driven to desperation by the imaginary situations and demons in his head. I think this probably the core of all fear. We are more scared of what could be than what actually is.

Read The Fearsome Touch of Death, The Hour of the Dragon, People of the Dark at Feedbooks or The Conan Stories or Red Shadows at the Internet Archive or listen to Beyond the Black River, Gods of the North, Jewels of Gwahlur or Red Nails at Librivox.

Read and download The Vampire MaidAnything for a LaughThe Sorrows of SatanThe DualitistsKama SutraI Werks Long HoursSpring Has BegunNon Stop New YorkDriving with a Dead Guy in the BackseatThe Life of Christ, Blast Off, Boop Boop a DoopQueen of the SerialsThe HandsHere Comes TroubleHeidiService with a SmileCorruption, Just a wee bit of Arthur Conan DoyleIn the Year 2889ThemSouth Sea TalesLove InsuranceHorror and Spice, and all things niceWonders of the Invisible World, Prelinger Part 2: Healthy Habits, Prelinger Archives Pt.1 Teen Feelings, Wuthering HeightsClassical Music and the Public Domain.

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