In an afterword attached to the tail end of TPB collection of the Pigeons from Hell mini, script from Joe R. Lansdale and art by Nathan Fox and Dave Stewart, essayist and novelist Mark Finn quotes Robert E. Howard discussing his folkloric sources of inspiration:
But no Negro ghost-story ever gave me the horrors as did the tales told by my grandmother. All the gloominess and dark mysticism of the Gaelic nature was hers, and there was no light and mirth in her. Her tales showed what a strange legion of folk-lore grew up in the Scotch-Irish settlements of the Southwest, where transplanted Celtic myths and fairy-tales met and mingled with a sub-stratum of slave legends. My grandmother was but one generation removed from south Ireland and she knew by heart all the tales and superstitions of the folks, black and white, about her.
This bit comes from a letter addressed to H. P. Lovecraft. Howard and Lovecraft had a curious relationship, part mutual fan club and part professional rivalry. This particular missive was part of a multi-year long debate between the two titans of genre lit about the nature of barbarism and civilization. Howard, of course, made romanticizing the noble savage the cornerstone of his writing career. In contrast, Lovecraft viewed the barbaric impulse as atavistic in the worst possible way. For Howard, barbarism was the pulsing will to power that ran through the blood of all men in spite of the softening influences of modern culture; for Lovecraft, barbarism was the bloody nihilistic abyss that lurked underneath the fragile scaffolding of civilized progress. [For a more nuanced take on this debate, check out reader Taranaich's post in the comment section - CRwM]
One imagines that Lovecraft shuddered at Howard's breezy, energetic intellectual miscegenation; for Lovecraft, mixing is almost always equal to tainting. Howard, by contrast, happily suggest that the mutt is always the healthiest dog. Setting aside the unfortunate fact of Lovecraft's view on race, Howard's description of his inspirations points to another, more strictly aesthetic, contrast with Lovecraft. "Pigeons from Hell" actually incorporates the conditions of its own creation as a plot point: just as the story rose from a tangle of sources, the key developments in the story's narrative arise from the interplay of cultures and historical conditions. In Lovecraft, more often than not, humanity is attacked from the outside or brought down by an internal imperfection. Either some eldritch thing that shouldn't be phases into the dimension to melt your brain or you discover you've secretly been a fishman all this time. By contrast, in "Pigeons," we get a horror that is the product of a manmade disaster. The supernatural horror of "Pigeons" is the residue of normal human evil, specifically the evil of slavery. In Howard's work, you get the sense that human behavior can get so bad, it poisons the very earth, leaving behind a lethally toxic spiritual superfund site in need of karmic cleansing. The descendants of the sinners and their victims are doomed to fight the same struggles, paying the same steep costs, until the original conditions of the original violation are finally resolved.
Lansdale, Fox, and Stewart manage to capture the same feeling in their modernized adaptation. The plot, a few "why won't my cell work" moments aside, will be immediately recognizable to readers of the original. Two sisters find out they've inherited a decaying white elephant of a plantation way the hell out in bayou country in New Orleans. They visit it, with a small posse of their city-folk friends in tow, to see if they should tear down the joint and try to sell off the land or simply tear up the deed and forget the rotting pile even exists. What they find, of course, is that the primary crop of the old plantation is market-grade freaky shit. And this freaky shit comes in bulk. Zombies, ghosts, black magic, trees that turn into snakes, monsters - should anybody survive, I think we can all agree the answer is to just tear up the deed.
What's nice about Lansdale's plotting, which reflects a similar arc you'll find in the original, is the value it places on the characters as protagonists. What first appears as an riot of threats and uncanny assaults is, as the characters work through their experience, revealed to be a complex web of supernatural interactions, relationships, alliances, and antagonisms. The plantation isn't just haunted: it's got its own supernatural ecosystem. The benefit of this approach is the sense the reader gets that the agency of the protagonists' is not wasted or superficial. Occasionally Lansdale, either out of loyalty to the source story or unfortunate error, lapses in to overt string-pulling: the most notable instance being the appearance of an ancient African American hoodoo man whose chief power is the ability to conjure up massive amounts of exposition.
I'm on the fence about Fox and Stewart's art. At its best, it reminds me of non-Mignola B.P.R.D. stuff. It has the vibrant line work that seems not so much sketchy as literally shaking with life. In fact, there's often a solidity to the characters that gives them a realistic density on the page that I find lacking in the Hellboy spin-off. The downside is that there's a static, disjointed quality to the art - as if everybody has been posed for still shots and then moved to the next set-up without concern for continuity - that leads to busy, murky panels and action that doesn't flow. That said, I'm inclined toward a thumbs up as I think some of the problem with the art comes from constraints imposed by factors outside the artists control. The project's fair tight pacing requires an insane about of visual information be packed onto every page. This keeps the story moving at a brisk pace, but robs the artists of the room they'd need to really bring their all.