Pigeons from Hell
|"Pigeons from Hell"|
|Author||Robert E. Howard, adapted by Joe R. Lansdale|
|Genre(s)||Horror, short story, Southern Gothic|
|Published in||Weird Tales|
|Publication type||Pulp magazine|
|Publication date||May 1938|
"Pigeons from Hell" is a short story by Robert E. Howard written in late 1934 and published posthumously by Weird Tales in 1938. The story title derives from an image present in many of Howard's grandmother's ghost stories, that of an old deserted plantation mansion haunted by ghostly pigeons. Recently it was re-written and adapted by Joe R. Lansdale with art by Nathan Fox and published in four issues by Dark Horse Comics, starting in April 2008.
The story opens as two New Englanders, John Branner and his brother Griswell, are travelling in the South and spend the night in a deserted plantation manor. Griswell awakens from a troubled sleep to see Branner walking up the stairs in a trance. He is horrified when Branner returns, no longer alive but an animated corpse gripping the bloody axe that had split his skull. Griswell flees the house in a blind panic and runs aimlessly into the woods.
In his headlong flight he meets the county's sheriff, Buckner, who investigates the house and finds Branner cold and motionless on the floor. Griswell is implicated in his friend's murder, but the sheriff gives him the benefit of the doubt and doggedly attempts to clear him. Buckner is inclined to give some credence to Griswell's bizarre tale due to the ominous reputation of the manor. It was once the residence of a family from the West Indies, the Blassenvilles, who were known for their cruelty. One night in 1890 the last of the Blassenvilles, Elizabeth, fled from the house and never returned. The manor has lain deserted ever since and is shunned by the local black folk. The pigeons of the story's title are ghostly birds that sometimes flock mysteriously about the decaying manor. Legend has it that they are the souls of the Blassenvilles let out of Hell.
The following evening Buckner and Griswell go to the hut of an ancient voodoo man, Jacob, seeking information about the house and the Blassenvilles. Jacob tells of the extinct family and of Celia Blassenville, who mistreated her mulatto maid Joan. He then begins to ramble incoherently about voodoo, the god Damballah, and about zombies and their female counterparts, zuvembies. Finally he tells how "she" participated in voodoo rites. While reaching for firewood, Jacob is bitten by a poisonous snake, meeting the very fate he feared it would overtake him for revealing the secrets of Damballah. Buckner and Griswell conclude that Joan transformed herself into a zuvembie to exact vengeance on Celia Blassenville and her nieces. They resolve to spend the night in Blassenville Manor to learn the truth.
"Pigeons from Hell" is one of several regional horror stories by Howard set in the piney woods in or near the ArkLaTex region of the Deep South. Other stories include "The Shadow of the Beast", "Moon of Zambebwie", "Black Hound of Death" and "Black Canaan".
In 1983, Stephen King, writing in Danse Macabre, considered "Pigeons from Hell" to be "one of the finest horror stories of our century". The horror historian R. S. Hadji included "Pigeons from Hell" on his list of the most frightening horror stories. With its decaying Southern family, sexual sadism, gruesome murder, and evil psychotic spinster, it is reminiscent of the works of William Faulkner and other writers in the Southern Gothic tradition.
The story was the basis for an eponymous episode of Boris Karloff's Thriller television series, airing in June 1961. In 1988, the story was adapted into a graphic novel by Scott Hampton for Eclipse (ISBN 0913035688). More recently, it has been turned into a four-issue comic book mini-series and trade paperback.