Robert E. Howard’s Restless Waters Review


Active Member
Dec 26, 2020
Some may consider this story horror, but I think it can be classified as low fantasy. It’s set in the real world, but has unexpected magical elements that shock the characters. With that said, here’s the review:

The tale concerns the protagonist recounting a terrible night in the late fall of 1845. Howard’s poetry background shines through his setting description that sets the mood. Because of said background, he was particularly skilled at figurative language. He describes the wind and sleet as “rattled against the windows like the knucklebones of a skeleton.” This not only conveys its ferocity, but also hints at the story’s grimness and light supernatural elements. The story takes place in a tavern, where several characters are introduced.

It’s somewhat lazy writing that it’s just their name and occupation one after the other. I think this could have been worked better through dialogue or through some other means. But I also understand that Howard was primarily a pulp fiction writer. This story was originally published in 1974 in Witchcraft & Sorcery. However, considering that Howard took his life in 1936, the story must’ve been written long before that. During that time space was a premium in the pulp fiction magazines. As such, certain concessions had to be made. Sometimes that’s evident in ways such as this.

The story goes on to describe an argument that occurs between several members. The disagreement arises from Captain Starkey’s tale of Tom Siler, which many doubt. Tom Siler was described as a “law abiding lad”, yet Captain Starkey claims that he suddenly became malevolent. As such, he had to be hung at sea. The tension is heightened when John Gower accuses Captain Starkey of being suspicious with the arranged marriage of his daughter, Betty.

Captain Starkey insists that Betty should be happy. In his eyes, Betty is wasting her life mourning the death of a man named Dick Hansen. To him, Betty should get married to Joe Harmer. John Gower accuses him of accepting a bribe from Joe Harmer. It’s during this conversation that Howard demonstrates a writing standard of the time.

He frequently uses adverbs after “said” and variations of that. To a modern viewer, this typically comes across as condescending. For example, I have a quote below this paragraph. It has the adverb removed. For background, John Grower believes there’s something suspicious about Captain Starkey’s story. John is trying to pry the truth from Starkey:

“And how much if Joe Harmer paying you, Starkey?” asked John Grower.

Two things. First, a modern reader would say that “asked” wasn’t needed and is somewhat condescending. Today using anything but “said”, “whispered”, and “yelled” has associations with hack writers, in part because of the pulp fiction genre. The pulp fiction magazines did allow for skilled writers to find their niche that traditional publishing wouldn’t allow. However, for several of these writers it was evident why traditional publishing wasn’t an option. Although in my opinion Robert E. Howard is a better writer than most in the genre, this modern perspectives skews opinions on his writing. The second thing is that the adverb used as “bluntly.” In my opinion that wasn’t needed considering the preceding discussion. It’s evident that John Grower isn’t joking around, but genuinely thinks that something suspicious is going on. As such, he would be asking that question bluntly. As such, “bluntly” is redundant and unnecessary in this case.

Back to the story, Betty appears and insists that she would only marry Dick Hansen. She claims she hears him calling to her in the waves and wind. Captain Starkey yells at her and shoos her away. After this Captain Starkey gets accused of lying. Word has been going around that Tom Siler was hanged on trumped up charges on mutiny. The ship’s crew protested this, but Captain Starkey didn’t listen. And, they say that before Tom Siler was hanged, he said he knew what became of Dick Hansen. However, the noose was pulled before Tom could reveal.

An argument ensues where Captain Starkey is accused of sending Dick Hansen away on a voyage before trying to rush Betty into marriage. Starkey also spread the word that Dick had drowned. Starkey was also trying to rush Betty into marriage because he was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Joe Harmer was paying them a lot of money. Tom discovered this, and was hanged because of it.

Captain Starkey admits to all of this, but says that if they try revealing it or conspire against him, he’ll kill them all. He rules over his daughter like a slave, and will kill her if she refuses to marry. This is interesting considering Howard’s views on women. Because the man predominately wrote in the 1920s, he was sexist. Some accounts say that even by the time’s standards he was a misogynist. Yet here Starkey is portrayed in a negative light. There’s something morbidly interesting that even a man like Howard had a limit when it came to his beliefs about women.

Suddenly a coldness overtakes the room. Captain Starkey screams and then falls over dead. They say that “too much drink and the fire in his evil brain” killed him. However, the protagonist looks out the window and saw what killed Captain Starkey. I particularly like the metaphor used:

“…there what blasted Captain Starkey’s brain and blew out his life as a witch blows out a candle.”

The protagonist then sees the reflection of a hung man in the water, presumably Tom Siler’s ghost.

In conclusion, I think it’s a good short story, something to read before going to bed. It has enough forward plot momentum that even with its problems, it still manages to flow. And to be fair, some of my problems were deemed standard at the time. I got this story from “The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard”, a Del Rey Trade Paperback. There are several good stories in there. I should note that you’ll encounter mainly racism and xenophobia, but also sexism in the stories because of the time period. However, I think he has some good writing techniques that people can learn from. Still doesn’t make some of the stories any less queasy from a modern standpoint though.

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