Of Serpents & Worms
By G. W. Thomas
Robert E. Howard’s Serpent Men first appeared in his Sword & Sorcery tale “The Shadow Kingdom” (Weird Tales, August 1929). As a piece of fantasy, it is a great tale, but it took H. P. Lovecraft mentioning the serpent race in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (Weird Tales, August 1931) to bring them into the Mythos fold. These ancient creatures lived during the Age of the Dinosaurs and have slowly lost their hold on the Earth over the aeons. By the time King Kull shows up at the end of the Atlantian era, they have become sneaks who lurk in the background, manipulating human politics. The Serpent Men do this by assuming the guise of certain important figures, having the ability to make themselves look like anyone they wish. Kull defeats them with the help of the Picts, an older race that hasn’t forgotten the evil of the Serpent. The Serpent Men would inspire Lin Carter’s Dragon Kings in Thongor of Lemuria (1965).
Howard never wrote another tale about the snakes that can assume the image of men, but he did pen several other tales about the descendants of these monsters in tales like “Children of the Night” (Weird Tales, April/May 1931), “People of the Dark” (Strange Tales, June 1932) and “Worms of the Earth”(Weird Tales, November 1932). Bran Mak Morn’s journey in the dark tunnels makes me believe Howard’s troglodytic worms must have been inspired by H. G. Wells’ Morlocks. These tales feature heroes fighting a war of extinction against the degenerate serpent folk who dwell underground and worship the black stone of Howard’s Mythos tale “The Black Stone” (Weird Tales, November 1931).
It’s never exactly explained how the serpent taint got into the human race (and perhaps it’s better if we don’t know), but certain folks have this genetic time bomb lurking in them. C. J. Henderson, working from a Robert E. Howard fragment, “Taverel Manor”, created a modern showdown between the serpent-tainted and human heroes in “Dagon Manor” (Different Worlds, May-June 1986). Ketric, our serpent-tainted fellow, is of course, an evil cultist worshipping the Great Old One Gol-goroth (from Howard’s “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” in Weird Tales, October 1931).
With the exception of Mr. Henderson, not many serpent-folk tales have been written. This may be because Howard used up all the potential for these guys in his initial tale, or because it’s not easy to use them. Still, there is much that hasn’t been done. A more science-fictional tale could show the Serpent technology of 60 million years ago that used dinosaurs as draught animals, much as Harry Harrison did in West of Eden (1984). The degenerate race of worms has had more stories, but these haven’t been used by other writers except Karl Edward Wagner in the Bran Mak Morn pastiche, The Legion from the Shadows (1976). Unlike so many other Mythos creatures, the field is clear for a new writer to play in.