Robert E. Howard’s The Touch of Death Review


Active Member
Dec 26, 2020
Before the story begins there’s a poem. Considering that Robert E. Howard was a poet and that there’s no author credited, it might be his:

As long as midnight cloaks the earth

With shadows grim and dark

God save us from the Judas kiss

Of a dead man in the dark

This poem is an interesting preface to the story. The “Judas kiss” is referencing the Betrayal of Christ. This is where Judas identified Jesus to people who sought to arrest him. It also may refer to acts that appear to be one of friendship, but are actually harmful to the recipient. This has interesting connotations in the story.

It concerns Old Adam Farrel, who lays dead in the house where he lived alone for the last twenty years. He was a recluse, knowing no friends, and having only two men watching his passing. A man named Falred tells Dr. Stein that he’ll watch the body for the night. Dr. Stein asks him if he’s superstitious. Falred remarks that he isn’t and remarks:

“To tell the truth, from what I hear of Farrel’s disposition, I’d rather be watching his corpse than have been his guest in life.”

This sets a foreboding tone, and engages the reader by getting them to question why Falred has these feelings.

Dr. Stein leaves his cold rubber gloves on a shelf and forgets about them.

Dr. Stein leaves and Farrel is left alone. Something keeps unsettling him, but he’s not sure what. He keeps insisting to himself that the corpse isn’t going to move, and admits that he’s an imaginative person. This builds the tension as to if the corpse will rise. If it will, then when?

I particularly liked this line:

“He decided to leave the light burning, telling himself that it was in accordance with the usual custom of leaving lights burning for the dead; for he was not willing to admit to himself that already he was conscious of a dislike for lying in the darkness with a corpse.”

It’s a run-on sentence, and I think it could’ve been split into two at the semi colon. But it humanizes Falred. Naturally he dislikes the situation he’s found himself in. This ties into what makes horror and fantasy work. Having humans act like humans in an otherwise fantastical, or world with at least one fantastical element, provides a sense of grounding. It means that the fantastical can be more relatable. And thus, the fantastical can be more terrifying.

Falred eventually awakens suddenly and questions if the corpse has risen. Then the shadows seem to indicate such. He stumbles back and, in a panic, begins scrambling. He feels something cold and clammy, like the touch of death, then dies.

The story ends with the corpse found shrouded and motionless. Falred is dead, beneath the shelf with Dr. Stein’s rubber gloves. I like the twist that the corpse didn’t rise up. Rather, Falred’s paranoia and superstitions got to him, he felt the rubber gloves, and suffered a heart attack. Course, did the corpse actually rise up? Do people just think it was the rubber gloves? After all, something in the shadows terrified Falred. Was it truly just his imagination? Depending on how you interpret the story, it could be a horror story, or it could be a fantasy story. Because of this and the tension it builds, I consider this a good story.

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