“Skull-Face” unfolds within the grim and shadowy realms of opium dreams and ancient secrets. Written by Robert E. Howard and published as a serial in the pages of Weird Tales, beginning in October 1929, and ending in December 1929. The story traverses the domains of horror, mystery, and adventure. Here Howard delves into the darker corridors of the human psyche and ancient lore, presenting a narrative rich with the themes of addiction, cosmic dread, and the eternal struggle against malevolent forces beyond human understanding.

It was submitted in late fall of 1928 and Weird Tales accepted it for $300.

In a letter (#107) from circa April, 1929 to Tevis Clyde Smith we learn:

Farnsworth said he intended publishing a sonnet in the next issue after that and then “The Shadow Kingdom” which is a $100 story, and after that a shorter story. I believe he’s paving the way to publish the serial I sold him, but of course I may be wrong. He may not publish that for years, if at all.

Howard was planning a sequel to the story but abandoned this in January 1931. We learn this from a letter (#152) he wrote to HPL:

Mr. Wright told me he was pretty well stocked up on Weird Tale stories, and that fact, together with the fact that no more serials will be used, caused me to abandon a sequel I was writing to “Skull-Face.”

Fantasy Magazine published an article ‘In Memoriam’ after Howard’s death and mention the story:

Other powerful fantasies lay outside the connected series—these included the memorable serial, “Skull-Face,” and a few distinctive tales with a modern setting such as “Black Canaan,” with its genuine regional background and its clutchingly compelling picture of the horror that stalks through the moss-hung, shadow-cursed, serpent-ridden swamps of the American far South.

We also learn from a letter from E. Hoffmann Price to August Derleth dated March 11, 1945:

Before returning the file to Barlow, I must read it.
Much of the material must be of general interest to fantasy followers; as much of it is of course repetitious in its recapitulations and rehashings toward an agreement or a sharp drawn issue. Some of it, I believe, on the basis of only a few hours skimming thru the entire lot, could have with interest and value been included in Skull-Face; but it is quite too late for that, since the 30 days which you said still remained before the deadline are now about passed.

And a week later, March 17th, 1945:

I shall, if you consider it no detriment to your book, Skull-Face, send carbons of the above statement to F. T. Laney whose phanmag has impressed me with its tone & content. You can hardly include the above, a/c your deadline, but there is a chance, so I must go on to say that I do not see that the publication of this (or any comparable factual statements as distinguished from “original” fictional compositions) could possibly be detrimental to your book.

Oscar J. Friend (took over from Otis Kline) wrote a letter to P.M. Kuykendall on March 14th, 1954 regarding royalties:

But I am a writer and a literary agent; I try not to be a horse trader in literary properties. And I want to be thoroughly honest and fair to both of us. 
Let me lay it on the line for you. Here’s what we now have:

1: Skull-Face and Others, published by Arkham House in 1946, and just about at the end of the row as to royalty revenue—between ten and twenty dollars per year.

The story stars a character called Stephen Costigan but this is not Howard’s recurring character, Sailor Steve Costigan. The story is clearly influenced by Sax Rohmer’s opus Fu Manchu but substitutes the main Asian villain with a resuscitated Atlantean necromancer (similar to Kull’s bit character Thulsa Doom) sitting at the center of a web of crime and intrigue meant to end White/Western world domination with the help of Asian/semite/African peoples and to re-instate surviving Atlanteans (said to lie dormant in submerged sarcophagi) as the new ruling elite.

Parts 1 and 3 were voted best story in their respective Weird Tales issues by the fans.


The story begins with Stephen Costigan, a hashish addict, ensnared in the depths of a drug-induced nightmare. Amidst his hallucinatory torments, he encounters an otherworldly being with a skull-like face, radiating malevolence and commanding unknown powers. This entity, later revealed to be Kathulos of Egypt, manipulates Costigan into a series of sinister deeds, exploiting his addiction to bend him to his will.

Costigan, once a man of esteem and vigor, finds himself reduced to a pawn in Kathulos’s dark designs. Kathulos, wielding knowledge and sorcery from the dawn of time, seeks to execute a grand scheme that spans continents and epochs, with the goal of achieving dominion over all. Amidst the bleakness of his enslaved condition, Costigan encounters Zuleika, a captive of Kathulos’s will, whose beauty and purity offer a glimmer of hope in the darkness that surrounds them.

As the narrative unfolds, Costigan grapples with his addiction, the machinations of Kathulos, and his burgeoning love for Zuleika. The story weaves through London’s opium dens, the shadowy realms of ancient gods, and confrontations with forces both human and unearthly. Howard masterfully blends action, horror, and the exploration of human frailty against the backdrop of cosmic horror and ancient mysteries.


  • Stephen Costigan: The protagonist, a man battling hashish addiction, ensnared by Kathulos to serve his nefarious purposes.
  • Kathulos of Egypt: The antagonist, a sorcerer with a skull-like face, possessing ancient knowledge and supernatural powers, seeking world domination.
  • Zuleika: A captive of Kathulos, symbolizing innocence and beauty, she forms a deep bond with Costigan, offering him hope and a reason to fight against Kathulos’s control.
  • Yun Shatu: The owner of the Temple of Dreams, an opium den, and a servant of Kathulos.
  • Hassim: A major enforcer for Kathulos, instrumental in executing his orders and controlling the drug supply.
  • John Gordon: An investigator tracking the activities of Kathulos, ultimately aligning with Costigan to confront the sorcerer’s threat.
  • Sir Haldred Frenton: A target of Kathulos’s scheme, representing the broader human world that remains unaware of the ancient evil in their midst.
Skull-Face by Ken Kelly

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Sources and links

Skull-Face by Virgil Finlay