Robert E. Howard’s The Man on the Ground Review


Active Member
Dec 26, 2020
“The Man on the Ground” just tips its toe into fantasy. I would label it low fantasy because it does have fantasy elements, they’re just minimal.

From a first impression, the opening sentence is okay:

“Cal Reynolds shifted his tobacco quid to the other side of his mouth as he squinted down the dull blue barrel of his Winchester.”

It’s a bit of a run-on, though it does ask some intriguing questions. Who is Cal Reynolds? What is he planning on shooting? Why? However, it looks emotion. This is contrasted with Robert’s other story, “Valley of the Lost” which has similar premise for the opening. But it’s opening sentence has more emotion packed into it:

“As a wolf spies on its hunters, John Reynolds watched his pursuers.”

For “The Man on the Ground” the ensuing paragraphs reveal that he’s engaged in a duel with Esau Brill. The two have a long-standing feud. Robert uses good story telling techniques to show that there’s something peculiar about this duel. For starters, he remarks on how most duels in the old west “generally concluded with appalling suddenness and finality.” They also took place at places such as a saloon, open range, etc. All the tropes you’d see in the old western stories and movies. Additionally, families took part in it. Yet John and Esau’s feud is entirely between themselves.

By using established tropes, Howard subverts them to engage the reader. They stay focused on the story by wondering exactly what’s going on between Cal and Esau. However, the exact motive is denied with the line:

“No one, including the participants knew just how it started.”

However, Howard uses the next sentence to reveal that it wasn’t just a cop out:

“Cal Reynolds merely knew that he hated Esau Brill most of his life, and that Brill reciprocated.”

It goes on to describe their previous violent struggles dating back to their youth. Cal got a knife scar across the edge of his ribs from one encounter. On that same duel, Esau got a permanently impaired eye. The duel decided nothing. It goes on with an interesting description that reveal the theme of the story. My favorite part is:

“After a man has felt his adversary’s knife grate across his bones, his adversary’s thumb gouging at his eyes, his adversary’s boot-heels stamped into his mouth, he is scarcely inclined to forgive and forget, regardless of the original merits of the arguments.”

Normally run-on sentences would be a problem. Yet here it emphasizes the single-minded hatred and brutality of their hostile relationship. This reveals the story’s central theme to be one of hate. Cal and Esau don’t even remember why they hated each other in the first place. Now they only have pure hate that keeps them going, and a desire for revenge.

This takes on them hustling each other’s ranches, shooting at each other in broad daylight in town, etc. Now their hate has presumably reached its climax. They are all alone in the middle of nowhere, having been dueling for an hour. It goes on to describe how Cal feels. His hatred is described as:

“It had become more than an emotion: it was an obsession, a monstrous incubus.”

Even though Cal’s eyes are burned by the sun’s glare, and his rifle barrel hot in his hand, he refuses to give up. The discomfort only fuels his desire. Howard describes his attitude nicely with:

“Without process of conscious reasoning, he attributed all his suffering to his enemy.”

There is also a line that foreshadows the ending:

“It was hotter than the hearthstone of hell among these bare rocks.”

Esau grows anger and fires frantically with Cal returning the favor. They engage in a brief duel. Then Esau fires back one last time. As Howard describes it:

“Cal Reynolds did not hear it, because simultaneously with the sound, something exploded in his skull, plunging him into utter blackness, shot briefly with red sparks.”

Cal awakens and figures the bullet must’ve ricocheted off a rock and scraped his scalp. He gets up and starts walking towards Esau. Except, Esau is grinning and doesn’t seen to notice that Cal is there. Then, Esau stumbles back, terrified, and Cal shoots him. Cal is jubilated, but then sees another body lying nearby. The story closes with these lines:

“In one brief destroying instant he knew he was looking down at his own lifeless body. And with that knowledge came true oblivion.”

This implies that Cal is a ghost, hence why I deemed this low fantasy. I think that was a good conclusion to this story as it tied into the theme of hate. Their pure hate is what got them both killed in the end. Yet what had they accomplished? They had nothing to gain except the delight of killing the other person. But now with both dead, true oblivion has come upon realizing that they wasted their life. Figuratively, and literally. It’s a good short story. It has a theme, hate, focuses on it, and maintains it throughout its entire course. So even if the opening line is somewhat clunky, the rest of the story holds up.

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