Robert E. Howard’s Casonetto’s Last Song Review

SonicSouls

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This is another short story by Robert E. Howard, a 1920s-30s pulp fiction author. The opening begins strong by enticing the reader with several questions. Additionally, it sets the plot in motion:

“I eyed the package curiously. It was thin and flat, and the address was written clearly in the curving elegant hand I had learned to hate – the hand I knew to now be cold in death.”

With this several mysteries are introduced. The package is presumably a record considering the time the story was written. But who sent it? Why had they died? Why had the protagonist, identified later as Gordon, come to hate them? The story quickly picks up with a friend named Costigan warning him about it being something malevolent. Gordon remarks that he thought of a bomb or something similar, but that it was too thin. This further develops the mystery by wondering what grievance the sender must’ve had for them to think it was a bomb. It also gets the reader questioning why they didn’t send a bomb. This implies something more insidious is at work.

The package is revealed as a record, which provides Gordon, the narrator, and Costigan to plausibly reveal the backstory. The record presumably has the voice of Giovanni Casonetto recorded on it. Giovanni’s operatic thrilled the world, and their crimes shocked the same world. Gordon was responsible for the testimony that got Giovanni the death penalty. Gordon inadvertently discovered a cave where Giovanni performed ritualistic human sacrifice to some devil his cult worshipped. This serves to make the package seem foreboding and more insidious. The information that Giovanni requested all his records be destroyed further heightens that and the mystery.

Believing that the record couldn’t harm them, Gordon choses to play the record. He learns from Giovanni that this record was to arrive the day after he would be hanged. Giovanni then sings an invocation from the Black Mass. Gordon begins having visions of a satanic church, and feels vague impressions of demons around him. I particularly like the line:

“Above me inhuman forces seemed to glide and I could almost sense the touch of bat-like wings brushing my face in their flight.”

Gordon describes the sound as:

“If ever hate and evil were incarnated in sound I heard and felt it then.”

This description is concrete enough that the reader has something to latch onto. Yet it also conveys a supernatural element that lets the reader’s imagination run wild. Using the reader’s own imagination is a classic technique of horror. And Robert E. Howard uses it well.

Gordon realizes that he is sacrificial victim and through some black magic he’s going to be sacrificed. He manages to scream, alerting Costigan that something is wrong. Costigan destroys the machine, with the story ending with Gordon snapping from his vision.

Much like most of Robert E. Howard’s short stories, it’s solid. It has a good premise, flows naturally, and has a natural ending. I particularly like this one from a technical standpoint. The relevant backstory is naturally introduced instead of just having an exposition dump. There’s a clear climax wherein Gordon realizes that he’s about to be sacrificed. The resolution is also natural, as it’s believable that destroying the phonograph machine would save Gordon. It also justifies Costigan’s presence besides relaying relevant information. It’s a good short story, even if predictable by today’s standards.
 

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