by Sam Juliano
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.” -Robert E. Howard
Robert Ervin Howard (1906-1936) is one of literature’s pre-eminent authors of action and adventure stories. The creator of Conan the Cimmerian, Kull of Atlantis, Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, ‘El Borak,’ and many other notable characters, Howard, in an all-too-short 12 year career, wrote well over a hundred stories for the pulp magazines of his time. While he is widely regarded as the ‘father of Sword and Sorcery’ and the creator of Conan the Barbarian, this reputation, while helping to keep his work in the public eye for six decades since his death, has unfortunately overshadowed the wider scope of his imagination, his talent for mastering a variety of genres, and forms. (He excelled at poetry as well as prose) Howard contributed his most acclaimed work to the most celebrated fantasy pulp magazine of the era, Weird Tales. A good number of his stories also appeared in other publications of the day such as Action Stories, Argosy, Fight Stories, Oriental Stories, Spicy Adventure, Sport Story, and others. His vivid and animated writing was hugely popular with readers and his dynamic skills as a storyteller enabled him to achieve some success in other genres. Even after his death publishers continued for some time to publish his stories or reprint them under other by-lines. So enduring is the appeal of his work that over a half century later he continues to gain new fans, introduced to his tales through paperbacks, comics, and movies. His work has also inspired subsequent generations of fantasy writers and a loyal following that has taken to cyberspace to spread the word. Most literary critics and readers have maintained that Howard’s absolute masterpiece is “Pigeons From Hell,” a macabre story about voodoo, zombies, murder and malevolent birds set in a decaying mansion in the deep south. Published posthumously in 1938, two years after Howard’s death by his own hand, “Pigeons From Hell” has been called “one of the greatest horror stories written in the century” by Stephen King in Danse Macabre, and is one of several Howard stories set in the “piney woods,” located in three states in an area that includes sections of Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. “The Shadow of the Beast,” “Moon of Zambebwie” and “Black Canaan” are among some of the others. With it’s thinly disguised undercurrent of sexual sadism, the story is steeped in the Gothic tradition and features an evil, psychotic spinster and and a disintegrating southern family, suggestive of the writings of William Faulkner. Howard was not a specialist in horror, but most literary critics have favorably compared “Pigeons From Hell” to the works of Poe.
Driving through a remote, swampy backwoods in the deep south, two young men, brothers Tim and John Branner find themselves stranded after their car gets stuck in a furrow. (In Howard’s story the boys were not brothers and Tim was known as “Griswell”.) John ventures forth to find a pole to help pry them out and stumbles upon a pigeon infested plantation house that appears uninhabited and in serious disrepair. Before they open the front door, Karloff interrupts, setting the table for the unspeakable terror that balefully awaits the brothers:
The swamp is alive, crawling with creatures of death, creatures that lurk camouflaged in the undergrowth, waiting patiently for an unsuspecting victim; and our young friend was alarmed by a flight of pigeons. Harmless you say? Well, you’ll find he has good reason for alarm, for those were no ordinary pigeons–they were the pigeons from hell. That is both the title and the substance of our story. Spirits come back from the dead to guard their ancestral home against intruders, spirits that in life fed on evil, and now in death return to feed upon the living, return each night, driven by the spell of a terrible curse.
Upon entering the house the boys see dust and spider webs everywhere, pervasive evidence that people haven’t lived in the gloomy manor house for quite some time. Unpacking sleeping bags, the two young men resolve to spend the night, and proceed to ignite the fireplace. The cooing of the pigeons continues to wraggle John. In Howard’s story the psychology at play is described as such:
They were tired, sick of bumping and pounding all day over woodland roads. The old deserted house stimulated their imagination with its suggestion of antebellum splendor and ultimate decay. They left the automobile beside the rutty road, and as they went up the winding walk of crumbling bricks, almost lost in the tangle of rank growth, pigeons rose from the balustrades in a fluttering, feathery crowd and swept away with a low thunder of beating wings.
An unnerving whistling wail awakens John, and hypnotically draws him upstairs. Shortly thereafter Tim stirs, and after noticing John’s absence, responds to a terrifying scream, quickly ascending the stairs to come upon the ghastly visage of John, his face covered with blood, moving towards Tim with a bloodied hatchet. Tim tries to reason with his brother but is nearly killed when the blade lodges in the wall just inches from his head. Tim frantically exits through the front door, languidly pursued by the now zombified John, wielding the hatchet. Physically and emotionally drained, Tim falls and loses consciousness, but later awakens to behold Sheriff Buckner, who informs him an old man named Howard discovered him and alerted (Buckner). Tim then haltingly relates the hellish occurrences that began after their car got stuck in the ditch, concluding with: “I heard him scream. I ran to the stairs and saw him. His head…his head was smashed, but he was walking with a hatchet in his hand. He was walking down the stairs to me. His head was split, but he was walking. He was dead. I know he was dead!”
After identifying the scene of these seemingly far-fetched happenings as “the old Blassenville place,” Buckner informs Tim that they must return to investigate. After hearing that the Blessenville House is the location of these gruesome assertions, Howard flees in mortal terror. John’s now lifeless body is found in the large drawing room where the boys had set up camp, and the hatchet was still embedded in the hallway at the top of the stairs. Buckner, understandably in disbelief, informs Tim he has no choice but to arrest him for murder, speculating that it was committed after a heated argument between the two brothers. He adds incredulously that he has never seen any pigeons near the house in all the years he has lived nearby. Tim vehemently denies the charges telling Buckner “If I had, don’t you think I could make up a better story than the one I told you?” Buckner hesitates, and leads further exploration that yields more blood upstairs, and the unexplained, seemingly flickering of Buckner’s lantern. Bruckner is eventually convinced Tim is innocent of the murder charges, and after removing John’s body to his vehicle, remains in the house to conduct a further search. They find Elizabeth Blassenville’s diary, which reveals that at the time of her last writing she was completely alone in the plantation house. The lantern again flickers on and off as they approached a hidden room, and Buckner then announces they will speaking with a former servant of the household named Jacob Blount. Appearing to be former native of the West Indies the aging and very frightened man, upon relentless pressure tells them that the last of the brood is actually a servant (and half-sister) to the Blassenvilles – a woman named Eula Lee. Howard’s story reveals that the house is the former home of a French/English family ruined in the Civil War. When Buckner asks if Eula Lee is still alive, Jacob -paralyzed with fear- reveals that if he answered the question he would be killed. He does, however, admit that he was a maker of “zuvembies,” and that Eula Lee drank something in his hut. The “zuvembies” are imbued with certain powers, he continues that allows them to control the dead and living things. Suddenly Jacob is bitten by a snake and dies before Buckner can administer a procedure to expel the poison. Tim and Buckner then find that another flock of pigeons have descended on the house, at which point they both gain enter the house. (In the story, the author relates that local legends hold that the pigeons said to flock on the balustrades are the souls of the dead Blassenvilles.) Brucker, anticipating the worst loads his gun while Tim tries to sleep.
The same horrifying wail that previously summoned John to his doom is now heard again as Tim follows suit and climbs the stairs in a trance, and in a scene reminiscent of the one in Hitchcock’s Psycho when Norman’s “mother” attacks detective Arbogast at the top of the stairs, a shriveled old biddy appears aiming to bury a hatchet in his head, but is foiled by Buckner who blows her away in a hail of bullets. The sheriff then revitalizes Tim and leads him to a hidden room and the horrifying skeletons of the three Blassenville sisters and the body of Eula Lee.
“Pigeons from Hell” is swimming in atmosphere from it’s opening shots of the brooding backwoods through the shadowy indoor cinematography of black and white wizard Lionel Linden, who studied the playbook of Val Lewton alumni Jacques Tourneur and J. Roy Hunt to inject further life into the old adage that what scares the most is what is imagined. The Lewton team, which included art directors Albert D’Agostino and Walter E. Keller collaborated on an early interpretation of West Indies voodoo on the eloquent and elegant I Walked With a Zombie, which is probably the greatest Lewton film in that remarkable series from the 1940’s. Interesting enough, “Pigeons From Hell” (actually written by Howard eight years before Zombie opened (though Zombie was loosely based on Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre) shares some thematic kinship to the Lewton film in the way the zombie gait is orchestrated and the incessant evil that emanates from a voodoo curse. The role of the pigeons in the story is far more demonic, if symbolic, than Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which shows it’s title creatures engaging in far more ambiguous actions. If anything, the Southern Gothic elements of a decaying mansion with some terrible secrets bring to mind two films by Robert Aldrich that came after “Pigeons” – Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. The former film, by far the more successful, but perhaps less steeped in the Gothic tradition than it’s follow-up released only months after “Pigeons”, and is rumored to have been seriously considered as a Thriller episode until producer Bill Frye decided it was much too good not to be a theatrical film.
Brandon de Wilde’s anguished soliloquy filmed in harrowing close-up, when he haltingly relates the unspeakable happenings that ended with murder highlights the exceptional performance by the child actor who broke many hearts in the western classic Shane, and and was most memorable in the later Hud opposite Paul Newman. De Wilde, who tragically died in a motorcycle accident in 1972 at age 30 in Denver, was exceedingly well cast as Tim Branner in the show’s central role, as the living specter of consternation incarnate. As Sheriff Buckner, Crahan Denton is sturdy as a seasoned veteran who has a grip but is slowly unnerved by the incredulous nature of the events at the Blassenville house. David Whorf as John is dispatched early on, but is merely serviceable. Ken Reynard in true Val Lewton mode is eerie and chilling as the fatally snake-bitten dark islander Jacob Blount, and Ottola Nesmith is properly grotesque as Eula Lee, known as “Celia” is Howard’s story. The show’s director, John Newland, helmed every last episode of the paranormal series One Step Beyond that preceded Thriller, and he injects his special gifts in maintaining the menace throughout, and supervising Lionel Linden’s evocative photography, laden as it is with the interior shadows and misty exteriors, in richly defined black and white, particularly the ornate Blassenville skeletons seen near the end. Newland’s building focus in the final scenes and the terrifying visages of the Blassenvilles skeletons and the ghastly face of Eula Lee are masterfully inter cut, and expertly lit. On top of all this Morton Stevens adds one of Thriller’s most memorable scores, one that includes an early melancholy orchestral passage that quite beautiful and the wailing song that is telling in its eerie mood and sense of place.
“Pigeons From Hell” is almost always mentioned as the series’ best remembered single episode, and the ultimate favorite among the show’s fans. Alan Warren enthusiastically proclaims in This is a Thriller:
‘Pigeons From Hell’ is probably the most recognized episode of Thriller. Its impact was so strong that many who saw it when it was initially telecast more than 30 years ago remember it with an uncomfortable vividness to this day. It is a tour de force of horror, with an intensity and singleness of purpose that make it a standout even among such memorable episodes as ‘The Purple Room,’ ‘The Hungry Glass’ and ‘The Grim Reaper.’ In sum it’s the single greatest Thriller of all.
On the Top 25 list of most requested titles sent to the Thriller fan club “Pigeons” holds down poll position. Stephen King too chimed in to acknowledge the show’s unmatched reverence among Thriller’s fans, and the highly-esteemed author Gary Gerani (who included the series prominently in his seminal volume Fantastic Television, and delivered the excellent running commentary on the Image DVD set) sized up Thriller with brilliant insight and scholarly heft on the popular ‘A Thriller A Day’ blog in response to a less enthused co-proctor Peter Enfantino, who still did opine: “I think “Pigeons” is a slightly above average episode, certainly not the most terrifying television show of all time and certainly not the creepiest Thriller. ” His colleague John Scoleri was pretty much in agreement. In any case both Peter and John did a fabulous job with the still traveled and commented upon blog, a real oasis for Thriller fans. Said Gerani:
To those of us who “get it” its pretty obvious why ‘Pigeons’ enjoys its legendary status. This little film is simply in a class by itself, far more challenging, sophisticated and subtle than any of the other Thrillers, even the great ones, which rely on more-or-less conventional plot structuring and devices to engage their audience. ‘Pigeons’ is unique. It’s a fever dream more than a story, replicating the anxious, uncertain feelings we all experience when sleep enables our generally contained personal demons and abstract fears to run rampant. This notion is actually dramatized throughout the story, with characters falling asleep, only to ‘awaken’ in a reality that approximates a nightmare state.
It is also worth noting that ace commentator Larry Rapchak (the esteemed professional conductor of Chicago’s Northbrook Symphony and a lifelong Thriller aficionado seconded Gerani’s extraordinary defense and offered up some splendid observations of his own. In any case, Gerani’s final point (above) would appear to encapsulate the episode’s unique appeal and explain it’s psychological power. It’s execution and resolution firmly plant it as one of Thriller’s darkest and most uncompromising entries, one suffused with unease, consternation and the sustained sense of dread that fuels the most disturbing of nightmares. Reality and plausibility have been suspended, and a perfectly naturalistic setting has been transformed into a hellish enclave, a place where it’s protagonists are imprisoned, and are beckoned to engage in fearful events, indeed to supply the very definition of fear. On that count alone “Pigeons of Hell” is Thriller’s greatest hour. That it was based on an extraordinary volume in the annals of the horror literature, one profound in psychological insight and nightmarish state of mind, pretty much seals the deal. At the end of the day it’s not at all a stretch to suggest it’s one of the scariest episodes ever shown on network television.