He had thought of the South as a sunny, lazy land washed by soft breezes laden with spice and warm blossoms, where life ran tranquilly to the rhythm of black folk singing in sun-bathed cottonfields. But now he had discovered another, unsuspected side – a dark, brooding, fear-haunted side…
— “Pigeons from Hell,” The Horror Stories of Robert E Howard, p. 430
In his writing, Robert E. Howard made frequent use of subjects from history and folklore, especially — in keeping with his Southern heritage and Texas upbringing — that of both the American Southwest, and the Deep South. This includes elements from the African-American folk magic practices popularly known as conjure (or hoodoo) and voodoo, which turn up to create fear and atmosphere in various tales of horror and “weird mystery,” most famously in “Black Canaan” and “Pigeons from Hell.”
Where “voodoo,” a ceremonial religion involving a group of people with a defined hierarchy, has a place in the popular imagination, many people tend to be less familiar with “hoodoo.” Even the name isn’t agreed upon: the most famous collection of folklore on the subject is called Hoodoo – Conjuration – Rootwork – Magic, and those are all equivalent synonyms. Someone who practices “hoodoo” can be called a root doctor, a root worker, a trick doctor, a spiritual worker, a two-headed doctor, or a conjure-man or -woman. We’ll primarily be using “conjure,” in honor of Howard’s atmospheric essay “Kelly the Conjure-Man.”
Unlike voodoo, traditional conjure is not organized in any way, but is a loose collection of magico-spiritual practices used by individuals as they see fit. Familiar props include candles, herbs, graveyard dirt, and the “mojo bag,” which is usually made of red flannel, and contains various objects, from coins to literal roots. Conjure can be practiced as part of everyday life, but often workers are professionals, who charge for their services, and who sometimes – like Howard’s conjure men — generate actual supernatural awe.
While voodoo and conjure have many differences, there have always been practitioners who mix up elements from both types of magical practice. New Orleans, in particular, is known for a spiritual heritage that partakes of both, with practical conjure techniques (such as spells including red pepper, red brick dust, salt, and honey, which are all conjure-derived) that are dressed up with voodoo theatricality. Even in groups that perform communal drumming, and/or veneration of snakes (traditions associated with formal voodoo), a lot of their actual magic activities, especially if done privately, without a direct ritual element, can still be more accurately described as conjure.
Some contemporary practitioners display frustration with the common confusion of terminology, viewing the different practices as substantially different, but the labels have always been used loosely by people in the community. When African-American writer Rudolph Fisher wrote The Conjure-Man Dies, frequently cited as the first black detective novel, in 1932, the “Conjure-Man” was an African who performed spiritualist seances for mostly white clients. So in a story like “Black Canaan” (1933), where Howard depicts voodoo-like ceremonies led by a character referred to as a “conjer man,” his usage of the term seems entirely in line with his contemporaries.
Historically, most conjure folk were either knowledgeable about traditional herbal medicines, or were perpetuating folk traditions based on remembered African spiritual lore, or both, and much of what they practiced was benign. There is evidence, though, from slave narratives and other historical sources, that some conjure men and women, reputed or real, did indeed use their magical reputations to gain power and intimidate others — both fellow slaves and white authority figures. For example, in his authoritative book Conjure in African-American Society, scholar Jeffrey Anderson states that “The power of hoodoo translated into enormous influence within black society for successful conjurers … fear of conjure had a profound effect on individual blacks,” and “the fear of hoodoo was present in a significant portion of white southerners.” (p. 79, 86, 78)
To some extent, therefore, the “sinister figure” of folklore described in Howard’s brief “Kelly the Conjure-Man” essay doesn’t seem particularly exaggerated, although Conan fans will note that he’s is both “a fine figure of barbaric manhood” and “supple like a great black panther,” (p. 377) physical descriptions which echo those of his more famous specimen of barbaric manhood.
Kelly, “son of a Congo ju-ju man” and “born a slave” (p. 376), develops a reputation as a healer, and gains power over others by frightening them with his reputed abilities, ultimately becoming more feared than respected. All of which sounds like a perfectly plausible career for a local conjure practitioner of his age. Howard steeps the tale in mysterious atmosphere and speculation, but much of the material in the essay — such as how “the black folk came to him to have spells lifted from their souls where enemies had placed them by curses and incantations” (Horror Stories, p. 377) — would be right at home in any collection of folklore on African-American conjure.
That some people “obsessed by the horrible belief that their stomachs were full of living snakes” (p. 378) is also a well-known phenomenon in the history of conjure. In Yvonne Chireau’s overview Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition, referring to interviews with former slaves and other first-person accounts, she says that “African Americans described Conjure sickness as an intrusion of entities within the body…physical affliction is portrayed as a state in which the body becomes a living menagerie” (p. 104). She quotes a source as saying “My wife Hattie had a spell put on her for three long years with a nest of rattlesnakes inside her.” (p. 104)
Kelly, the non-fiction character, fairly obviously inspired the fictional Saul Stark of “Black Canaan,” another “giant,” intimidating magical practitioner. In this story, interconnected rural communities of former slaves and slave owners are threatened by the activities of a Conjure Man who performs voodoo-type ceremonies in the swamp. His goal is an uprising that would kill all the white people, although he’s equally willing to kill (or perform horrible magic on) any of the black members of the community who don’t bow down to his power. And his greatest weapon is the threat to “put (them) in de swamp,” (Horror Stories, p. 386) an act which transforms them into “mindless, soulless semi-human dweller(s) in the water” with elongated legs, webbed hands, and expressions “no more human than that of a great fish.” (p. 408)
More famous than “Black Canaan” is “Pigeons from Hell,” another of Howard’s stories that makes use of elements and ambience from African-American folk magic. After a bizarre murder, the investigators research the crumbling old Southern mansion where the crime took place, and end up at the hut of Jacob, a now-elderly one-time “voodoo man.”
Here, the threat is a zuvembie – a magical figure which can astral-travel, live forever, and wield power over “the natural demons – owls, bats, snakes and werewolves” (Horror Stories, p. 440). While this is an entity unique to Howard’s imagination, the name for it is clearly meant to evoke the well-known zombie, linking it to actual folklore.
Neither the zuvembies of “Pigeons from Hell,” nor the whole “He puts them in the swamp” business from “Black Canaan,” come from any recorded conjure practices. But then, neither is the body-snatching magic from the conjure-themed film The Skeleton Key representative of any existing folklore. That was all made up by a Hollywood screenwriter, even though the filmmakers enlisted cat yronwode (sic), probably the most well-known contemporary expert on African-American conjure practices, as a consultant. In fictional weird tales and horror films alike, the job of writers is to use their imaginations, as Howard did here, while still borrowing from real life traditions to enrich the atmosphere, and create verisimilitude.
Some of Howard’s weird mystery tales focus on threats that involve voodoo, and likewise combine his own creative ideas with echoes of real-life practices. For example, in “Moon of Zambebwei,” the voodoo-flavored menace is based on magical practices which are overtly linked to African ones.
The extent to which African-American magico-religious traditions are “survivals” of actual African practices, as opposed to adaptations of European and Native American folk traditions (which nobody denies have combined with African elements), is a matter of much debate among academics. There is clearly a substantial gulf between the spiritual practices commonly referred to as “ATR” (African Traditional Religions) – such as Haitian voodoo — and religious ceremonies as they actually existed in Africa.
Howard makes use of that distinction in “Zambebwei,” although in doing so, he pushes the worship of Zemba (a fictional African god, as far as my research can tell) even further back, to “that brutish and horror-shadowed past out of which mankind crawled so painfully, eons ago.” (Weird Menace, p. 263)
As in “Black Canaan,” the African-American population of this story is being stirred up by a new spiritual leader who came from outside their own community. Here it’s John De Albor, who was “born in East Africa and grew up a slave in the house of an Arab” (Weird Menace, p. 252), who starts up the worship of Zemba in a rural area where the evil descendant of slave-owners lords over the descendants of slaves. De Albor had been brought there by the villain as a friend and criminal conspirator, but quickly began to take over.
The ceremony we see in “Zambebwei” is specifically described as being unlike a voodoo ceremony. “He had vaguely expected blazing fires, a blood-stained altar, drums and the chant of maddened worshippers … The measured, rhythmical movements had no connection at all with the Voodoo dances McGrath had witnessed.” (Weird Menace, p. 261, 263) It can’t be proven, but it’s possible that Howard wanted his ceremony to contrast with the sinister orgy in “The Call of Cthulhu,” which H.P. Lovecraft specifically compared to a voodoo ritual.
The story “The People of the Serpent,” featuring Howard’s recurring detective Steve Harrison, finds the hero tracking down an escaped Chinese murderer. Along the way, he ends up rescuing an imprisoned backwoods voodoo priestess named Celia. Her followers have been swayed away by John Bartholomew, a De Albor-like charlatan whose real intent is to steal a gemstone that’s among their sacred relics.
Unlike the manipulative characters of Bartholomew, De Albor, Saul Stark, or – potentially — Kelly the Conjure Man, Celia is treated as a legitimate spiritual leader, “the proper priestess of the serpent,” (Casebook, p. 54) with a real congregation. In fact, Celia is, overall, a character that Harrison treats with respect, and he’s relieved with the way the case ends. “If this business had come to trial,” he muses, “I’d have had to tell about Celia shoving a knife into that devil Bartholomew, and I’d hate to see her on trial for killing that rat.” (p. 63)
Until the interloper came along, it doesn’t appear that the group was hurting anyone; they were just practicing their “weird cult” (p. 54) the way their Haitian forefathers did. For example, the human sacrifice which Harrison eventually has to thwart was instigated by the fake priest, not by a proper, believing member of the group, and Celia says that otherwise, “there has not been one for thirty years” (p. 55). The religion is acknowledged here to have a dark history, in this case including human sacrifice, but neither Harrison nor Howard appear to be judging the more benign contemporary version for that.
Similarly, in his 1929 travelogue The Magic Island, William Seabrook describes witnessing an intense Haitian ceremony that climaxes in a mock human sacrifice, with a goat substituted for the willing victim at what seems like the last minute. His information leads him to believe that human sacrifice has been practiced in times of great extremity, but that, for the most part, this is an unusual development, and adds that “Blood sacrifice, which includes that of even human beings … is and has always been an integral part of nearly all strong primitive religions, of no matter what race or color.” (p. 319)
Where “Zambebwei” included a quasi-African ceremony purposely depicted as unlike the conventions of real-life voodoo rituals, “People of the Serpent” clearly strives to be more accurate. In this tale, the cult brought their god and their lore with them from Haiti, rather than having it transplanted by an outsider, and as such it appears as more of an organic practice.
That detail, that these voodooists are the descendants of slaves brought to the United States after the Haitian Revolution, shows that Howard had some legitimate knowledge of voodoo history. Much of what has been labeled “voodoo” in the United States is actually the use of folk conjure traditions, without any formal ceremonies or reference to the pantheon of gods or spirits, of whom Damballah (mentioned in “Black Canaan,” and almost certainly the “Great Serpent” of “People of the Serpent”) is one of the most significant.
The exceptions are generally in areas populated and/or influenced by slaves who had come from the West Indies. For example: “In the case of New Orleans, an influx of several thousand Haitian slaves from 1806 to 1810, following a successful slave-led revolution in the French colony, certainly spurred the growth of Voodoo in the area.” (Anderson, p. 34)
Certainly, in Howard’s day, before mass-marketed books on voodoo lore were available, a group of slave-descendants practicing actual rituals evoking Damballah or other similar beings, as part of a more or less indigenous tradition, would almost certainly have a connection with Haiti.
As for Damballah, this major snake god from Haitian voodoo is thought of as an extremely powerful and, significantly, ancient force, full of “some original and primal vigor … seem(ing) to belong to another period of history,” as researcher Maya Deren described him (Divine Horsemen, p. 115, 116). So although he’s generally thought of as a benevolent figure, his power does make him a deity that people seeking power for themselves would be inclined to ally themselves with.
In many of his tales, Howard’s interest in the world expresses itself in often accurate knowledge about what would now be called “alternative spirituality” – Erlik Khan, the Yezidis’ (Melek Taus), and lesser-known Hyborian Age gods such as Derketo and Bel, God of Thieves, are deities actual revered in different parts of the world. With his stories of conjure and voodoo, that tendency revolves around lore he was able to find closer to home, and still use as cornerstones for mystery and horror.
As his one-time girlfriend Novalyne Price quotes him saying, when she left for school in Louisiana: “In case you run into any voodoo stuff, you get some of the Catholics to hold a cross and say a prayer for you. Then you write me quick. I’d sure like to go down there and run into some old voodoo magic.” (One Who Walked Alone, p. 295)
Anderson, Jeffrey E. Conjure in African-American Society. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
Chireau, Yvonne. Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition. Berkley: University of California Press, 2003.
Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Kingston, New York: McPherson & Company, 1984.
Ellis, Novalyne Price. One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard, the Final Years. Hampton Falls, NH: Donald M. Grant, 1986.
Howard, Robert E. The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard. New York: Del Rey, 2008.
Howard, Robert E. Steve Harrison’s Casebook. The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2010.
Howard, Robert E. Tales of Weird Menace. Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2010.
Seabrook, William. The Magic Island. New York: Paragon House, 1929.