Robert E. Howard’s Kelly the Conjure-Man


Active Member
Dec 26, 2020
Conjure-Man is interesting to critique due to the time it was written. Robert E. Howard was a pulp fiction writer during the 1920s-1930s. As such, racism and xenophobia amongst other forms of bigotry appear in his work. Because of this, I think I can safely say that the story’s depiction of what a conjure-man is, is inaccurate. However, even when our past has reprehensible elements, we can still learn some things from the writing techniques. For this review, I will be dissecting this piece on a technical level, and determining what works and what doesn’t.

The story begins with a poem written by Howard:

There are strange tales told when the full moon shines

Of voodoo nights when the ghost-things ran –

But the strangest figure among the pines

Was Kelly the conjure-man

However, the story abruptly cuts to this line:

“About seventy-five miles north-east of the great Smackover oil field of Arkansas lies a densely wooded country of pinelands and rivers, rich in folklore and tradition.”

That line relays mostly unnecessary information. All we need to know is that in Arkansas is a wooded country rich in folklore and tradition. Also, there’s no transition between the poem and the story. It’s like Howard wrote a poem, then decided to write a story based upon it. In my opinion the story should’ve begun with the poem, then transitioned by saying that was folklore in the area.

The poem has a nice rhythm to it, which makes it flow effortlessly. Additionally, by its genre it can get away with something regular language couldn’t, run-on-sentences. If this was grouped together as one sentence, it would sound weird. But presented in a poem format it flows well. This also could serve as an interesting hook. Most stories don’t begin with poems, so it catches the reader’s eye. And if it transitioned seamlessly in the manner I described; the story’s pacing would be good. It would also fit the style of the story.

There is no protagonist in the story, no dialogue. Its like a tale being told around a campfire by an unknown narrator. This ties into the idea of the area being rich in folklore. Having a poem included would further reinforce the idea of this being an old story. I should note that this premise does explain the opening line detailing where it takes place. However, two things. First, the sentence is run-on and cumbersome to read. Plus, it’s not particularly eye-catching. And second, the information provided should be relevant. Telling us that its north-east of a specific oil field is frivolous if said oil field isn’t relevant.

We then learn that Kelly the Conjure-Man wielded unfathomable power, or so legend goes. He was also so powerful that slaves came to him, he didn’t come to them. This is like how a successful drug lord has people come to them, rather then them searching for customers. This is a good example of show-don’t-tell. It demonstrates how powerful Kelly is, and makes the reader question what exactly they can do.

From there we get a description of Kelly’s appearance. Now in a standard story this would be bad writing. Heavy dumps of description often come across as annoying. But because of the premise of it being a ghost story told around a campfire, it makes sense. This demonstrates that sometimes you can break literary convention if you have a specific purpose in mind. For example, you can play around with point of view to reflect a character’s insanity. But you need to be careful since conventions are there for a reason. In the majority of stories, a heavy dump of information of a character’s information is poor writing. But with the right setup, you can get away with it.

The description serves to emphasize his brutish, yet majestic quality. This parallel creates an interesting image in the reader’s head. It also serves to depict Kelly as menacing. Despite his ugly appearance, he gives off the impression of being powerful. And, his eyes have a quality that causes people to think that quote, “something abysmal that lurked in the black waters of his soul.” This incongruity is emphasized with him being described as belonging in another age. It should be noted that this is partially rooted in racism and beliefs that Africans were savage and inferior. That of course is reprehensible. But the technique of juxtaposing something via putting it in an environment its incongruent with is a good one. It’s a standard technique in horror to unsettle the reader. It’s also part of what makes the uncanny valley effective, though that’s not related to this story.

The story goes on to describe how slaves came to him in search of cures. Tuberculosis was a disease in particular they sought cures from. The story remarks on how there is reason to believe that the cures didn’t actually help. It even remarks:

“There is reason to believe the results were appallingly the opposite.”

The story describes how he manipulated the slaves into believing that he was powerful. This is partially rooted in racism, with remarks of how “primitive peoples” are gullible. However, it also demonstrates taking a concept and building upon it. Kelly isn’t just wielding magic, but rather is a master manipulator. Or, like his victims, he genuinely believes in what he’s doing. The question of which is accurate keeps the reader engaged by having them participate in painting a portrait of Kelly. Getting the reader to question what is an accurate portrait of a character keeps them engage because they have to be accurate. That’s the best part of well written books. It’s not just listening per say to what you are being told. Rather it’s questioning, discussing, and theorizing about stories that makes them engaging. This is further demonstrated in the story with the next paragraph.

It states that slaves started to go “violently insane”. They begin believing that their stomachs were full of living snakes due to a spell by a master-conjurer. Suspicions fell on Kelly. The story questions if it was hypnosis, sheer fear, or some obscure disease that was the cause. It ties into the tradition of ghost stories around the campfire by it being ambiguous about what was going on.

And much like those stories there’s an ambiguous ending. Kelly suddenly disappears. The story concludes with rumors about what happened. Some say that Kelly’s victims turned on him. Others that he just left in the night for reasons unknown. It seems that the slaves, but none speak. But as the legend goes, they say that the spirit of the conjure-man is whispering to the dead in the pinelands. This puts a neat bow on the story that ties it together. There’s a clear narrative, with Kelly’s beginnings, his rise, and his potential fall. An ambiguous ending is tricky to do. If done without planning, it feels like a cop-out. But, because of the story’s inherent premise, it fits it, and thus works.

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