Pre-orders are now being accepted for issue number 18 of The Definitive Robert E. Howard Journal. This is an extremely limited edition of 150 copies, so don’t procrastinate if you want a copy.

The new issue will make its debut at Howard Days on June 12th. If you can’t make it to Cross Plains, you can pre-order it beginning today. Orders will ship in late June. Price per copy is $21.00, plus $4.00 for U.S. shipping and handling. Overseas orders require additional postage, so email inquiries here for the overseas shipping rates.

Contents include:

A full color cover by Bob Covington featuring Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, inside front and back covers featuring scenes from “The Black Stone” by Bryan “Zarono” Reagan and a back cover by Stephen Fabian.

“The Cobra in the Dream” by Robert E. Howard, illustrated by Charles Fetherolf

“Iron Man Roll Call” by Chris Gruber, illustrated by Clayton Hinkle

“A Farewell to the Old West – The End of the “Old Frontier”—Robert E. Howard’s ‘Old Garfield’s Heart’” by Dierk Guenther, illustrated by Richard Pace

“The Hyborian Sage: Real-World Parallels Between Howard’s Essay and Modern Discoveries” by Wm. Michael Mott, illustrated by Robert Sankner

“Worms of the Earth: A Bran Mak Morn Portfolio” by Michael L. Peters

“Not Your Ordinary Gun-Dummy: The Western Heroes of Robert E. Howard” by James Reasoner, illustrated by Terry Plavet

“The Poetry Contest” by Rob Roehm

“Conan der Ubermensch” by David Scherpenhuizen, illustrated by Bill Cavalier

As stated above the price is $25.00, which includes U.S. postage and handling.

To Order by Mail and Pay with Check or Money Order,
Send Your Order To:

Damon C. Sasser
6402 Gardenspring Brook Lane
Spring, TX 77379

(Please make checks or money orders payable to Damon C. Sasser.)

or Order and Pay Via PayPal:

When Isaac Howard decided to study medicine, he was following a family precedent. His uncle J. T. Henry, a great favorite of Isaac’s mother, Eliza Howard, was a distinguished physician who was graduated from the University of Nashville in Tennessee in 1883. In practice near the Arkansas-Missouri line, Dr. Henry became a role model for his nephew Isaac, who doubtless sought Dr. Henry’s advice and may have studied under him.

Physicians of that day often welcomed their kin as medical students. Such associations with older physicians afforded young would-be doctors opportunities for observation, access to medical books, and such didactic sessions as the preceptor thought necessary in exchange for the apprentice’s help in maintaining the dispensary, cleaning the office, and tending the horse and buggy if there was one. After a few years, when the older man deemed his candidate worthy, he would issue him a certificate to practice medicine. For an ethical man with strong family ties, the certification by a kinsman would be a real throwing of the torch.

Polk’s Medical and Surgical Register gives its first listing of “I. Howard” in 1896 as practicing in Forsyth, Missouri, in Taney County, just over the Missouri line, a short distance from his uncle’s home in Bentonville, Arkansas. It is unclear whether Isaac Howard apprenticed himself to his uncle or whether Dr. Henry had passed him on to another doctor in Forsyth. The dates suggest the former. If Isaac Howard had left Texas in the early nineties, when he turned twenty-one, he could have finished his training and been ready to set up his own practice by 1896.

The young physician did not long remain in Missouri. Perhaps he was homesick. Whatever his reasons, on April 19, 1899, Isaac M. Howard of Limestone County, Texas, was examined by the State Board of Medical Examiners in Texarkana, Texas, and awarded a certificate of qualification to practice medicine. Then he went home.

—L. Sprague de Camp, Dark Valley Destiny

Readers of the Two-Gun blog might remember my post from 2012, “Isaac M. Howard in the 1800s,” wherein I discovered that the “I. Howard” mentioned above couldn’t have been our Isaac Howard because that doctor also appeared in the 1886 edition of Polk’s, which is much too early for our Isaac to be practicing medicine. This removes the only piece of evidence that might place Isaac near his Uncle J. T. Henry at that time; though it’s still possible he received his training there.  This has pretty much become an accepted part of the biography. To wit:

By 1891, Isaac Howard had decided that he was not cut out to be a farmer. He left the family farm, sold his share in the property to his brother, and decided to practice frontier medicine.

Isaac’s medical education, a combination of on-the-job training, apprenticeship to his uncle, himself a doctor, and attendance at a variety of schools, lectures, and courses, would spread out over the next four decades. His initial training took four or five years, and allowed him to practice medicine as early as 1896. From that time on, Dr. Isaac Howard moved frequently from place to place, venturing as far out as Missouri and back to the family farm in Limestone County again.

—Mark Finn, Blood and Thunder

That J. T. Henry was a doctor is well established; that Isaac M. Howard apprenticed under him, not so much. While I am not a fan of speculation, I recently ran across not one but two doctors who, in my opinion, make more sense as possible trainers of Dr. Howard. So, as long as there’s no proof either way, I’ll throw my speculations out there too.


Robert E. Howard said that his family moved to Texas in 1885. The earliest I can place them there is 1889. According to a “Widow’s Application for Pension” filled out by Isaac’s mother in 1910, Isaac’s father, William B., died “near Mt. Calm, Texas, on 3rd day of August in year of 1889.” While William’s death in Texas contradicts de Camp’s version, it agrees with Robert E. Howard’s account in an October 1930 letter to Lovecraft:

My branch of the Howards came to America with Oglethorpe 1733 and lived in various parts of Georgia for over a hundred years. In ’49 three brothers started for California. On the Arkansas River they split up, one went on to California where he lived the rest of his life, one went back to Georgia and one, William Benjamin Howard, went to Mississippi where he became an overseer on the plantations of Squire James Harrison Henry, whose daughter he married. In 1858 he moved, with the Henry’s, to southwestern Arkansas where he lived until 1885, when he moved to Texas. He was my grandfather.

There is a document dated 1885, but it wasn’t recorded until 1898, so I’m a tad skeptical. The document is basically a contract between Isaac Howard and his brother David Terrell Howard of Prairie Hill, Texas, in Limestone County. Dave agrees to purchase Isaac’s land in the county and has ten years to pay for it, starting in 1885. How a 13-year-old Isaac managed to possess that land is a mystery. De Camp speculates that it was Grandpa James Henry’s originally, and James did die in 1884, a fairly prosperous guy, so that’s reasonable, but there’s no mention of Texas land in his Arkansas will.

On November 6, 1893, Isaac’s sister Willie married William Oscar McClung in Limestone County. They moved to Indian Territory shortly thereafter, but probably not before attending brother Dave’s wedding on November 12 (or possibly December 12). This is where things get interesting.


Dave’s bride was Fannie Elizabeth Wortham (seen above quite some time after her marriage). From 1894 to 1919, the couple would produce 12 children. This isn’t so unusual when you figure that Dave had eight siblings and Fannie had seven. We’ll get back to one of Fannie’s siblings in a minute, but first, let’s look at her dad, Mortier (or Mortimer) LaFayette Wortham.

Born in Tennessee in 1822, Wortham moved to Texas while in his early 20s. He shows up on an 1846 tax list in Harrison County, east Texas. He appears to have hooked up with an unknown lady and had at least one child, John, before she died or left. The 1850 Census has an “L. M. Wortham” who is farming with the Martin family in Harrison County. He has with him “J. Wortham,” who is 2 years old. No wife is mentioned.

The 1860 Census of Anderson County has the now 12-year-old John, with father “L. Wortham,” joined by wife “E. Wortham” (the former Elizabeth Chaffin). The senior Wortham’s profession is listed as “Doctor.” On a pension application, Elizabeth says that she married Mortier in 1855. Her family had been in Texas since at least 1843, in Anderson County, which is two counties east of Limestone, with Freestone County in-between.

On March 6, 1862, “M. L. Wortham,” of Palestine, Anderson County, reported for infantry duty in the Confederate Army, Company K, 22nd Regiment, under Colonel R. B. Hubbard. It looks like he served all over the place, doing some time in Louisiana and Arkansas, before returning to Anderson County. He shows up on an 1868 voter registration list there.

“M. L. Wortham” appears on the Anderson County tax rolls for 1861, 1865, 1867, 1869, and 1870. While there are several Worthams on the lists throughout the 1880s, our guy doesn’t appear; this is probably because he had moved to Limestone County, where he and the family appear on the 1880 Census. His profession there is listed as “Farming.” The 1890 Census was mostly destroyed by fire, but in 1891 Mortier is back on the tax lists in Anderson County, appearing as “Dr. M. L. Wortham.” So, Dave Howard’s soon-to-be father-in-law went back to medicine just before his daughter’s marriage. How convenient for Dave’s younger brother, who just happened to be interested in the medical profession.

[A quick, non-chronological note: On Fannie Wortham Howard’s 1960 death certificate, her father is identified as “Dr. W. M. Wortham”; on another daughter’s 1932 death certificate, he is identified simply as “Dr. Wortham.”]

And there’s more. When the Howards arrived in Texas they settled in around Mount Calm, which is in Hill County, but right on the line with Limestone County. They soon spread into Limestone, in the little community of Delia, which is close to Prairie Hill. The 1900 Census has Dave Howard’s growing clan listed with the Prairie Hill inhabitants. One of those was John C. Clark, who was married to another of Mortier Wortham’s daughters and happened to be, you guessed it, a doctor.


Born in 1847 in Jamaica to English parents, Clark was living in Texas by the end of the Civil War. He married Louisa E. Wortham in 1877 and was living in rural Limestone County at the time of the 1880 Census, where he is listed as a “Physician.” The 1890 edition of Polk’s Medical and Surgical Registry has him as the only doctor in Prairie Hill, with no report received in answer to their inquiry regarding his graduation from medical school. This probably means that he didn’t attend a school, but was trained by another doctor . . . perhaps his father-in-law?

So, in the early 1890s we’ve got a young Isaac Howard, purportedly not interested in the family business of farming. He’s got a doctor uncle in far-off Arkansas who seems to be doing pretty well for himself, and his older brother Dave marries into a family with at least two doctors, one of whom is practicing in the very town in which they live, the other in a nearby county. [I say “at least two” because one of Mortier’s sons, James Franklin Wortham, is identified as a doctor on an ancestry.com family tree, but there is no documentation provided to support that claim and I haven’t looked into it yet.] And right around this time, the mid-1890s, Dave is paying for Isaac’s land. Hmm, I wonder what Isaac was doing with the cash?

Meanwhile, brother Dave purchased some more land in 1897 from Gussbaum and Morris, whoever they were. Then, the 1885 document was filed for record on January 15, 1898, and on February 12, 1898, Isaac Howard filed a quit claim, closing the land deal with his brother. The next time Isaac M. Howard appears on paper it is as a doctor. As de Camp said, a year later, “on April 19, 1899, Isaac M. Howard of Limestone County, Texas, was examined by the State Board of Medical Examiners in Texarkana, Texas, and awarded a certificate of qualification to practice medicine. Then he went home.”

The first place he appears is Freestone County, where he registered his new credentials on July 20, 1899. Right next door to Limestone, this makes sense, but, as long as I’m speculating, let me go a step further. On a recent trip to Groesbeck, the county seat of Limestone, I asked about their Medical Register—the book that lists the doctors who had registered their credentials in the county. Isaac M. Howard was not listed in that book, but the book only went back to 1907. Turns out the older records were destroyed by fire. So I’ll bet Isaac did indeed go home—right back to Limestone County, then to Freestone. But again, that’s just speculation.

Dr. Howard next appears up north near Indian Territory in Montague County, where his uncle, George Walser, was living. I have no idea if the two had any contact at this time, though I would think it odd if they didn’t. Dr. Howard registered in the county on May 30, 1901. This appears to be just before Isaac started practicing in Petersburg, just across the Red River in Indian Territory, and not far from where his sister Willie had moved after marrying Oscar McClung. The doctor couldn’t have spent too much time in Indian Territory, though, he had a date with destiny back in Texas, Palo Pinto County, where a certain lady named Hester was spending time with her siblings in Mineral Wells.


Vienna was the one Christian island in a sea of infidels. Night by night men watched the horizons burning where the Akinji yet scoured the agonized land. Occasionally word came from the outer world – slaves escaping from the camp and slipping into the city. Always their news was fresh horror. In Upper Austria less than a third of the inhabitants were left alive; Mikhal Oglu was outdoing himself. And the people said it was evident the vulture-winged one was looking for someone in particular. His slayers brought men’s heads and heaped them high before him; he avidly searched among the grisly relics, then, apparently in fiendish disappointment, drove his devils to new atrocities.

— Robert E. Howard, “The Shadow of the Vulture”

Suleyman the Magnificent, called by his own people Kanuni, the Lawgiver, King of Kings, the Possessor of Men’s Necks, Shadow of Allah Dispensing Quiet in the Earth, before the wretched and inadequate walls of Vienna in 1529, was fit to be given yet another title – the Apoplectic with Frustration. The garrison of Vienna, outnumbered four or five to one, had not broken before the onslaught of Suleyman’s army. The Turkish army!  The greatest on earth!  Without doubt the best organized, it also boasted the finest artillery and perhaps the finest engineers. Its skilled, mobile and daring light cavalry was feared by everybody except the Cossacks. Its main infantry corps – the janizaries, the Sultan’s fanatical slave-soldiers – was the toughest and most relentlessly disciplined since the Roman legions. The Turkish advantage was not one of mere numbers.

And yet Vienna held out, under the valiant command of Count Salm, a tried soldier seventy years old. Half the days of October had passed. Suleyman’s promise that he would eat his breakfast on the city’s walls by the end of September had been thrown back in his teeth, with a mocking joke by the defenders. Attacks from without and treachery from within had failed alike.

lal295662What was more, even the Janizaries, “the terror of their enemies, and not infrequently of their masters” had begun to break. An army, even of the Janizaries, marches on its stomach. Suleyman had expected Vienna to fall quickly. For that reason, and also because bringing provisions across the sodden morass that was Eastern Europe in 1529 had great difficulties, rations were low. Janizary troops on the verge of mutiny were prone to showing it by overturning the large food kettles in the midst of their camps. Nor could they obtain food from the devastated country of Austria. Mikhal Oglu and his Akinji had been a little too bloodily efficient. Other supplies, like warm clothing, were just as short, and the season was late, the weather murderously chill. Besides, the army had carried out three major assaults, and the Koran required no more of the Faithful, in defense or attack.

Robert E. Howard, as usual, gives a succinct and vivid verbal picture of the situation. “Suleyman drove his men as relentlessly as if he were their worst foe. Plague stalked among them, and the ravaged countryside yielded no food. The cold winds howled down from the Carpathians and the warriors shivered in their light Oriental garb. In the frosty nights the hands of the sentries froze to their matchlocks. The ground grew hard as flint and the sappers toiled feebly with blunted tools. Rain fell, mingled with sleet, extinguishing matches, wetting powder, turning the plain outside the city to a muddy wallow, where rotting corpses sickened the living.”

SuleymanThe command – and the Janizaries, on the promise of plunder and the immediate payment of a thousand aspers to each soldier – agreed to mount one more all-out onslaught on Vienna’s patched, repaired, staggering ramparts. If it failed, they would raise the siege. Suleyman promised, as Howard recounts, “Thirty thousand aspers to the first man on the walls!”

Gottfried von Kalmbach fought like a demon in the breach by the Karnthner Tower. He battled endlessly with his great two-handed sword as “maddened faces rose snarling before him” and “at his side a slim pantherish figure swayed and smote, at first with laughter, curses and snatches of song, later in grim silence”. One way or another it was the final fight, as Gottfried and Sonya both knew. In the end, exhausted and half conscious, dead on his feet, Gottfried was pulled from the breach by the hands of Nikolas Zrinyi, who told him to go and sleep, for the Turks had been beaten off. “For the time being, at least.”

Gottfried staggered through the streets of Vienna, mazed from a sword-stroke that had split his helmet in the fighting. Offered a cup of wine (his everlasting weakness) he was struck from behind by the traitors in the city and taken prisoner. An Armenian merchant and his son, the men who had blown a mine from inside beleaguered Vienna, they planned to hand him over to Mikhal Oglu. Fortunately for Gottfried, Red Sonya found him in time, “her face drawn and haggard … her boots slashed, her silken breeches splashed and spotted with blood.”  She struck down the father with her empty pistol and almost throttled the son. By this blogger’s count it made the third time she had saved von Kalmbach from certain death. In her merciless fury she was about to blow out the son’s brains before his father’s eyes, but while she primed her pistol they were interrupted by the bells of Saint Stephen’s cathedral. They had not sounded since the siege began.

“The bells of Saint Stephen!” cried Sonya. “They peal for victory!”

Vienna-Karnthner-gateIt was true. The final great attack of the 14th had failed like the others. The Turkish officers, including the Vizier Ibrahim in person, had driven the soldiers to the walls with scourges and scimitars. Not even a fresh breach opened at the Karnthner Gate by the explosion of two mines – the breach in which Gottfried and Sonya had been fighting — was enough to give the attackers the city. The heroism of the defenders had not broken. Two men, a Portuguese and a German, who had quarreled and been resolved to fight a duel in the morning, instead fought the Turks side by side until they were both wounded, one with a shattered left arm, one with his right disabled. They guarded each other’s sides and fought on until both were killed, their dispute forgotten. Count Salm, at about two in the afternoon, was hit by a falling stone brought down by Turkish cannon fire. It shattered his hip. At his age he failed to recover from the injury, which would have been severe even to a young man, and he died some months later. But he had won. “It was not written that the Turk should rule beyond the Danube.”

Gottfried and Sonya may be fictional. The courage and resolution of the real life defenders, Salm, Roggendorf, Philip the Palgrave, Bakics, Zrinyi and Hagen, was no less incredible than theirs. And Mikhal Oglu was not fictional either, let it be remembered. Neither are his atrocities.

The former knight of Saint John and the former Cossack girl (I’m certain she had been, though REH doesn’t spell it out for his readers) can stand as symbols of Vienna’s defense. From “a sagging shattered roof” they surveyed the frustrated Turks making ready to withdraw. One last horror was still to be perpetrated, though. Breaking camp, the Janizaries made huge fires out of their huts, their remaining forage and the supplies they could not carry with them, any and all unnecessary baggage, and then hurled their prisoners – those who could not march, the aged and the children – into the roaring flames. Those not burned were hewn apart or impaled. Even Gottfried, who had seen his complete share of terrible work, was appalled.

“Judgment Day in the morning,” he muttered, awed.

Sonya, seeing Mikhal Oglu among the Turkish host, spat blistering curses against “ … the bastard, that made Austria a desert! How easily the souls of the butchered folk ride on his cursed winged shoulders!”

Red Sonja of Rogatino by Abe PapakhianThen she conceived an idea, and rushed down with Gottfried to their two traitor prisoners. They missed seeing, as Howard writes, “Nikolas Zrinyi and Paul Bakics ride out of the gates with their tattered retainers, risking their lives in sorties to rescue prisoners.”  While this was occurring, Sonya offered the Armenians their lives if the father, with his son as a hostage, would take a message to Mikhal Oglu. The youth’s father, Tshoruk, did as he was bidden. He found the Vulture and told him that Gottfried “ … fell from his horse, riding to attack the rear-guard, and lies with a broken leg in a deserted peasant’s hut, some three miles back – alone except for his mistress Red Sonya, and three or four Lanzknechts, who are drunk … ”

The Vulture took the bait. Indeed, he leaped at the chance to regain the favor of Ibrahim, who had been more than displeased at Mikhal Oglu’s failure to bring him Gottfried’s head. “For a lesser man,” as REH tells us, “that might have meant a bowstring.”  It probably would have. Taking twenty men, Mikhal Oglu turned back, as “the wind sobbed drearily among the bare branches.”  And rode into the ambush Gottfried and Sonya had set, announced by the roar of fifty matchlocks firing as one.

That wasn’t the way Mikhal Oglu really died. However, he did not survive the siege of Vienna long. REH wrote in a letter to Lovecraft, on November 3rd, 1933:

Thank you very much for the kind things you said about the yarns in Magic Carpet. ‘Alleys of Darkness’ isn’t much of a yarn, but I do like ‘The Shadow of the Vulture.’ I tried to follow history as closely as possible, though I did shift the actual date of Mikhal Oglu’s death. He was not killed until a year or so later, on the occasion of a later invasion of Austria, in which the Akinji were trapped and destroyed by Paul Bakics.

Well, one of the heroes of Vienna’s defense did get him at last, which is justice. And compressing events into a shorter period to move the story faster, more dramatically, is a frequent device. Shakespeare did it all the time. Besides, and importantly to telling the story, it gives the final scene immeasurably greater impact, as Suleyman celebrates what he has proclaimed a “victory” in Istanbul. Those few who haven’t read “The Shadow of the Vulture”, and who don’t like spoilers, should quit the website at this point!

Suleyman has announced that “the Austrians having made submission and sued for pardon on their knees” he will leave them in possession of their fortress. All the splendor and magnificence of the Sublime Porte is on display. Largesse is scattered. Foreign envoys marvel. Suleyman recalls his many victories and reflects that “men would forget that a handful of desperate Caphars behind rotting walls had closed his road to empire.”

jeffrey-jones_the-sowers_ny-zebra-books-1975_01-600x851Then comes the gift brought by “a rider of the Adrianople post.”  Opened before the Sultan, it holds a note, “To the Soldan Suleyman and the Wezir Ibrahim and the hussy Roxelana, we who sign our names below send a gift in token of our immeasurable fondness and kind affection,” with the signatures “Sonya of Rogatino and Gottfried von Kalmbach.” And when he sees what the package contains, Suleyman feels “his shimmering pretense of triumph” slip away. “His glory turned to tinsel and dust.”

I wondered in a previous post whether Roxelana ever knew that the red-haired fighting woman Red Sonya was her sister. She must have done. Roxelana was so deep in intrigue, which centered on the harem anyway, that she always knew everything that went on. She would have known what Gottfried and Sonya’s insolent missive said, word for word, and “Sonya of Rogatino”, not to mention the insult “hussy”, could have left her in no doubt.

Roxelana would not have been likely to tell her husband the Sultan that the woman who delivered such an affront, now a companion of the German who had wounded him at Mohacs, was her sister!  She might well have wished Sonya, and Sonya’s identity, buried in a swift anonymous grave. And Sultan Suleyman must have vowed Gottfried’s death again, more forcefully than ever.

Gottfried and Sonya, fully aware of it, decided to leave Austria for the western kingdoms of Europe and leave no forwarding address. What their relationship had become by then is a little ambiguous. A German lanzknecht had told Gottfried, early in the siege of Vienna, “She’s no man’s light o’ love.”  That was probably true. Then. The traitorous Tshoruk had referred to Gottfried “and his mistress, Red Sonya,” but that could have reflected his own belief, not the fact. However, we can take it that Robert E. Howard, who created the pair, knew the exact situation. One of his letters to H.P. Lovecraft, dated March 6th, 1933, included the sentence, “They may not seem real to the readers; but Gottfried and his mistress Red Sonya seem more real to me than any other character I’ve ever drawn.”

Sonya doubtless liked his prowess and fighting spirit. But part of the attraction seems to have been a half-exasperated, half-protective feeling that the big drunken lug needed looking after. She told him as much after hauling him out of the Viennese moat when a dozen Turks were chasing him, edged steel ready. “I see you need a wiser person to keep life in that hulking frame.”  When Gottfried, baffled, cried “But I thought you despised me!” Sonya snapped back, “Well, a woman can change her mind, can’t she?”

I believe that makes things pretty clear.

Artwork by Jeffrey Jones, Abe Papakhian and Others.

Read Part One, Part TwoPart Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

This entry filed under H. P. Lovecraft, Howard's Fiction.


I know, I know. Howard Days is still coming up and here is a post about PulpFest 2015. This year the convention takes note of the 125th anniversary of HPL’s birth. It is always a good idea to plan ahead, so if you are thinking about attending this major Summer pulp convention, here are the particulars from the PulpFest website:

PulpFest, also known as “Summer’s Great Pulp Con,” returns to the beautiful Hyatt Regency in downtown Columbus, Ohio for its 44th edition. It will begin on Thursday, August 13th at 6 PM with four hours of early-bird shopping in the dealers’ room, located on the hotel’s third floor. You can learn how to become an early-bird or a dealer by visiting our registration page. To reserve a room at the Hyatt Regency, click “book a room.” PulpFest 2015 will run until 2 PM on Sunday, August 16th, when our dealers’ room will shut its doors.

Beginning with its first convention in 2009, PulpFest has annually drawn hundreds of fans and collectors of vintage popular fiction and related materials to Columbus, Ohio where it is currently based. Planned as a successor to Pulpcon, the new convention took on the name PulpFest and sought to widen the focus of the annual confab. Although centered around pulp fiction and pulp magazines, PulpFest was founded on the premise that the pulps had a profound effect on American popular culture, reverberating through a wide variety of mediums—comic books, movies, paperbacks and genre fiction, television, men’s adventure magazines, radio drama, and even video and role-playing games. The summertime destination for fans and collectors of vintage popular fiction and related materials, PulpFest seeks to honor pulp fiction by drawing attention to the many ways it had inspired writers, artists, film directors, software developers, and other creators over the decades. Click on the PulpFest history button at the bottom of the home page to learn more about the convention’s development.

As 2015 marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of author H. P. Lovecraft – the “Edgar Allan Poe of the 20th Century” and “The Copernicus of the horror story” – PulpFest will be celebrating his life and his work. In addition to programming on the author’s celebrated Cthulhu Mythos, we’ll also examining his relationship with Weird Tales, the pulp magazine where the bulk of his fiction was published.

PulpFest 2015 will also be paying tribute to Ned Pines’ Standard Magazines, better known as “The Thrilling Group.” Along with Street & Smith, Popular Publications, and the Frank A. Munsey Company, Pines’ line was one of the leading publishers of pulp magazines during the early twentieth century. We’ll be spotlighting a wide array of the company’s magazines, examining the Standard hero, detective, western, adventure, and sports pulps as well as their line of comic books. Click on our schedule and programming buttons for additional details.

Although the focus of PulpFest 2015 will be pulp magazines and related materials, visitors will also find vintage paperbacks, digests, men’s adventure and true crime magazines, first edition hardcovers, series books, dime novels, original art, Big Little Books, B-movies and serials and related collectibles, old-time-radio shows, and Golden and Silver Age comic books for sale in its 15,800 square-foot dealers’ room, located in the Regency Ballroom. In addition to attracting some of the leading collectibles dealers from across the United States and Canada, PulpFest also plays host to a wide array of contemporary publishers including those who reprint material from the old pulps as well as publishing houses dealing in contemporary genre fiction.

At PulpFest, you’ll find science-fiction books and magazines, detective and adventure pulps, westerns, original cover art and interior illustrations, stacks of digest magazines, vintage paperbacks and comic books, unique films, and much, much more! You’ll be entertained and informed by countless presentations and panels featuring leading pop-culture experts. You’ll see old pals and meet new friends. You can even join FarmerCon, the convention dedicated to Grand Master of Science Fiction Philip José Farmer. You’ll find all this and more at PulpFest, “Summer’s Great Pulp Con!”

You’ll find additional details about PulpFest by exploring our website. To be added to our mailing list for our annual newsletter, please send your name and address to David J. Cullers or to 1272 Cheatham Way, Bellbrook, OH 45305. Please let him know whether you want our member or dealer newsletter. You can also reach PulpFest by dialing 863-606-8878 and leaving your name and a phone number where you can be reached.

So what are you waiting for? Start planning now to attend PulpFest 2015 and join hundreds of pulp fiction fans at the pop-culture center of the universe!

And as the case every year, there will be a good sized contingent of Howard Heads on hand to hang out with.


This entry filed under H. P. Lovecraft, Howard Fandom, News, Weird Tales.

TheKid1Few American lives have elicited more tales, rumors, and folklores than that of Henry McCarty. I would go so far as to say that of all the famous Americans who have lived such a short life span—two meager decades—McCarty has the most amount of words written about him. He perhaps has also influenced more authors than any other old west figure. And despite all this, he remains one of the most elusive figures of the old west. So who is Henry McCarty? History knows him as one Billy the Kid. The foremost scholar of Billy the Kid, Frederick Nolan, claims that “Few American lives have more successfully resisted research than that of Billy the Kid.” (Nolan 3). Evidence for this lies in the fact that The Kid did not receive serious scholarly attention until nearly 100 years after his death.

Why is that? What makes Billy the Kid so fascinating that for the better part of the 20th century his life has resisted serious research and remained in the mainstream arena of folklore and myth? No scholar of the Kid seems to have a definitive answer to that question. It might simply be that facts are not as exciting as the mysterious. Regardless, from the late 1950s to the present day reliable research, scholarly articles, books, and historical documents have been written and uncovered. Granted, the myths are still there and they make for wonderful movies and exciting novels but we now live in what should be considered a more enlightened era with regard to our understanding of The Kid.

There was a long period of time where scarcely a word was written or spoken about Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County Wars. This span occurred between the death of the infamous sheriff (Pat Garrett) who killed Billy the Kid in 1908 until 1925 when Harvey Fergusson raised the question in an American Mercury article, “Who remembers Billy the Kid?” Apparently, the Kid’s reputation had faded and Fergusson wondered why (Nolan 295). All this would soon change in 1926 when Walter Noble Burns published The Saga of Billy the Kid, and the Kid would once again be thrust into the limelight of folklore and myth. This was the very book that sparked interest in the mind of a young boy who would later become the premier scholar of Billy the Kid studies, Frederick Nolan. However, Walter Noble Burns, with his flamboyant style and highly exaggerated account of Billy the Kid, would also influence a series of western writers of the early to mid twentieth century. One in particular was a popular pulp fiction writer from Cross Plains, Texas named Robert E. Howard. Although the focus of Howard’s writing had pretty much been the fantasy and action adventure genres, Burn’s book would ultimately set Howard in a new direction.

It is no secret to Robert E. Howard aficionados that Howard had a serious interest in the Old West. This interest became so predominant toward the latter years of his life he shifted his writing career in the direction of publishing western stories and even proclaimed in correspondence to August Derleth:

I’m seriously contemplating devoting all my time and efforts to western writing, abandoning all other forms of work entirely; the older I get the more my thoughts and interests are drawn back over the trails of the past; so much has been written, but there is so much that should be written. (Howard Letters 2:  372)

In studies regarding Robert E. Howard’s western writing career there is no definitive timeframe or specific cause that pushed Howard in the direction of western tales. Howard had written Westerns in his earlier years and sporadically throughout his fantasy and action adventure years, but what made him tell Derleth that he wanted to devote all his time to western writing? Chances are there is no single factor or date but rather a series of events that hinged upon at least one thing—Walter Noble Burn’s book The Saga of Billy the Kid.

americanmythmaker012315-199x300Walter Noble Burns was born October 24th, 1872. As a teenager he became a junior reporter for the Louisville, KY Evening Post. (Nolan 295). This led Burns into a fairly long career as a writer and reporter which eventually led him to Chicago where he would work for both the Chicago Examiner and Chicago Tribune. It was his work with the Tribune that would launch him into his most famous research and work. In 1923 Burns would visit New Mexico to interview  various people who were still alive during the Lincoln County Wars and the days of Billy the Kid. This research would ultimately end up in Burns’ book The Saga of Billy the Kid (from here on known as SBK).

SBK was the definitive book about Billy the Kid’s life until the late 1950s and early 1960s when scholars took pen in hand and began seriously researching the Lincoln County Wars. Today SBK is considered nothing but a novel work on the Lincoln County Wars. It has all but been dismissed as exaggerations, myths, and fun folklore. Regardless, from 1926, the year SBK was published, to the early 1960s, Burns’ work set the tone for movies, western pulp stories, dime novels, and even magazine articles about Billy the Kid.

When SBK was published it quickly became a national best seller, rivaling the sales of other popular books of its day. In just a few short months Nolan explains, “[Burns’] book topped the bestseller list on the newly formed Book of the Month Club, whose judges—among them Dorothy Canfield, Heywood Broun, and William Allen White—proclaimed it to be full of ‘the vivid reality of the moving pictures without the infusion of false sentiment and . . .melodrama. It was, they felt, ‘a chronicle such as the Elizabethans wrote and read.” (Nolan 296).

coef75529299c776fdf87bb3907c5dd55d3Regarding the book’s accuracy nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, those whom Burns had interviewed (all close friends of Billy the Kid or spouses of those who rode with him) declared the book to be nothing but exaggerated stories and false facts. George Coe who was so disturbed by the contents of Burns’ book wrote a more accurate account of his time spent with The Kid. But, unlike Burn’s book, Coe’s work drifted into obscurity.

Despite the protests of the Lincoln County War witnesses whom Burns interviewed, and despite their own written accounts attempting to counter Burns’ book, SBK continued to sell widely. Then the film rights for Burns’ book were bought by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and would soon be made into a major motion picture, setting those exaggerations, myths, and folklores into motion for several decades to follow. But as important, Burns’ book would soon be absorbed into the western pulps and dime novels from the 1920s to the late 1950s. Writers such as Max Brand, Luke Short, Zane Grey, Edwin Corle, and Robert E. Howard, would all be influenced by Walter Noble Burns’ book.

TheKid2Robert E. Howard certainly owned a copy of The Saga of Billy the Kid. Howard mentions the book in a July 1935 letter to H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, Howard quotes from the book in that letter using details about the Lincoln County Wars that correspond with details from SBK. And, even though Burns’ book is not mentioned by Howard until that July 1935 letter to H.P. Lovecraft, there is enough evidence to demonstrate that Howard owned and used Burns’ book quite a few years prior to it being mentioned in that letter. But when, approximately, did Howard purchase Burns’ book and why is it  important to know that approximate time frame?

I think there were three factors in Howard’s life that caused him to slowly gain a serious interest in frontier and old west history. First, the purchase of Burns’ book was one of, if not the strongest factor to shift Howard’s interest toward the old west. Two, around this same time Tevis Clyde Smith, one of Howard’s close friends, began research on local western frontier history. And three, changes in pulp markets and writing trends were occurring. Because of all these factors Howard began an ongoing effort from this approximate timeframe to the end of his life to break into the western pulp fiction market.

Two-Gun Howard and the Western Tale

Robert E. Howard always had a healthy interest in gunfighters and the Old West. At age 15 Howard created a western gunfighter by the name of Steve Allison (Glenn Lord 72). This character would later be revived in 1933, in the middle of Howard’s shifting interests toward western stories and western history. But the fact that Howard had created such a character at such a young age is quite telling. It at least demonstrates his interest in western motif’s and characters all the way back to his teenage years. The first story Robert E. Howard ever submitted for professional publishing was to a magazine called Western Story. The story was titled “Bill Smalley and the Power of the Human Eye” and as Howard scholar Rusty Burke points out:

Although the story is a tale of the North Woods, it is nevertheless interesting that his first professional submission was to a magazine of western fiction.  (Burke introduction xi)

TheKid3This story was submitted for publication in 1921 and although it was rejected, for a few years afterward Howard spent time not only writing more western style tales but also submitting them to various places for publication. In 1922 “‘Golden Hope’ Christmas” and “West is West” were both submitted to and published by the Brownwood High School newspaper called The Tattler. With these Howard saw moderate success and pay. Then, in 1924 Howard submitted another western story titled “44-40 or Fight” to Western Story magazine. Again, they rejected his story. However, that same year the newly established pulp fiction magazine Weird Tales accepted the work that would essentially launch Howard’s career—“Spear and Fang.” With the promise of publication to his first real national magazine, and Howard’s stories “The Hyena” and “The Lost Race” accepted by that same magazine in December 1924, Howard’s attention fell almost solely on the fantasy and action/adventure market. The market that Howard would use to launch his writing career.

From 1924 to 1928 there is no record in correspondence or otherwise of Howard writing a western story. The closest thing to a western or pioneer/historical work Howard would attempt to write and actually publish during this “quiet” period is his short essay titled “What the Nation Owes the South,” picked up by the Brownwood Bulletin in 1926. And that essay is not actually a western even though it deals with frontier/Civil War type issues.

TXbrowncocshe-lg_previewThen, in 1928 two western stories surfaced: “Spanish Gold on a Devil Horse” submitted to Argosy and Adventure (both rejected the story) and “Drums of Sunset” submitted to The Cross Plains Review (which accepted the story), the local newspaper in Howard’s hometown of Cross Plains, Texas. The former story is interesting because it is actually set in a fictional version of Cross Plains called “Lost Plains,” and deals with actual regional places and issues.  I draw attention to these details because around this time one of Howard’s close friends, Tevis Clyde Smith, began to interview locals, visit Courthouses, and dig up historical documents on local frontier life. By autumn of 1930 Smith began to submit articles to local newspapers (Roehm introduction xxii). On several occasions Howard would join his friend on these outings.

In mid 1929 Howard wrote a story titled “The Extermination of Yellow Donory.” It is the first record we have where Howard mentions Billy the Kid. Howard seems to have used Burns’ description of The Kid to describe his own character, Joey Donory. Even though Billy the Kid is small, Burns’ paints him in such a light that he ends up being larger than life despite his actual stature. In that same vein Howard writes:

Born and bred in an environment where men were large and imposing, his [Joey Donory] lack of size was bad enough, but his handicaps were more than physical.

“An’ it ain’t so much me bein’ thataway. Most of the real bad hombres wasn’t so big. Lookit Billy the Kid; no bigger’n what I be.” (Burke, 38)

In his description of Billy the Kid and other gunfighters Burns’ writes:

He [Billy the Kid] was five feet eight inches tall, slender, and well proportioned. He was unusually strong for his inches, having for a small man quite powerful arms and shoulders.

. . . It may be remarked further, as a matter of incidental interest, that the West’s bad men were never heavy, stolid, lowering brutes. (Burns 59 & 60, emphasis mine)

It’s interesting how Howard compares the size of his main character, Joey Donory, to that of Billy the Kid using similar phrasing as Burns did in his work. Burns goes on to detail how other men, such as Pat Garrett, were tall, large, etc. but Billy due to his size, speed and accuracy with a gun, equaled himself among these larger men. This is just a small example of how Howard used Burns’ book. I will also demonstrate that Howard took details directly out of Burns’ book when he discussed the life of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County Wars in several of his letters to H.P. Lovecraft.

The Purchase of Burns Book and How Howard Used It

There is no definitive date for when Robert E. Howard purchased SBK. In fact, there is no definite place either. The only two bookstores Howard mentions in his letters are Argosy, located in New York City, and Von Blon’s Bookstore in Waco, Texas. It is well known that Howard ordered many of his books through the mail. I think if he bought SBK from Argosy it would have been between late 1928 and early to mid 1929. Howard was certainly ordering books from Argosy at that time because, in a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith from early April 1930 Howard declares,

The Argosy pipple [sic, intentional due to the joking nature of the letter] enrage me highly by their damned discriminating attitude. I haven’t gotten their latest catalogue no more as nothing, They always send their other customers theirs before they send me one. (Howard Letters 1: 30)

The language in this letter, their latest and always, clearly seem to indicate that Howard had been ordering from Argosy for some time.

TheKid4If Howard bought Burns’ book from Von Blon’s then it is likely that he purchased the book before writing “The Extermination of Yellow “in 1929. As I have demonstrated above, the mention of Billy the Kid and the similar phrasing with SKB would place a date prior to mid-1929.  But it should also be noted that Howard was buying books from Von Blon’s much earlier than 1929. In as letter to Harold Preece dated August 1928, Howard mentions Von Blon’s Bookstore. “Waco’s a Hell of a town, isn’t it? Likely you’ve discovered Von Blon’s bookstore already. The Prussian has some good books sometimes.” Once again the language indicates that Howard had shopped there before.

With the dates of these letters and the clear indication that Howard was shopping from both bookstores for some time, either location is a strong candidate. Even so, the date of “The Extermination of Yellow Donory” and it’s mention of Billy the Kid certainly help provide an approximate time frame of when SKB was purchased, between early 1928 to mid 1929, two to three years after its initial publication. By September 1930 Howard declares to his friend, Tevis Clyde Smith, that he is going to write “a history of the early Texan days sometime, entitled: An Unborn Empire or something like that.” (Howard Letters 2: 68). In that same letter Howard asks Smith if he can use some of his articles for research and reference. This is crucial because just a few months later, January 1931, in a letter to H.P. Lovecraft, Howard writes about the Lincoln County Wars using the same writing style as Burns in SKB, and providing details that he could have only known through Burns’ book. What this indicates is that Smith’s research on the western frontier coupled with SKB are already setting in motion the change that will take place in Howard’s interest and writing direction. And this is all occurring between 1928 and 1931.

In between the two letters mentioned above (one to Smith, the other to HPL) Howard mentions Billy the Kid in another letter to Lovecraft dated October 1930. Howard is discussing James Franklin Norfleet. He details their meeting each other, describes Norfleet’s physical features, and then compares him as a gunman to Billy the Kid, along with other gunmen such as John Wesley Hardin, Sam Bass, and Al Jennings. He then waxes eloquently about gunfighters and their mannerisms and characteristics. And even though the topics during this period of correspondence between Howard and Lovecraft predominantly circle around the Celts, or Romans, or medieval and ancient civilizations, Howard always manages to turn the conversations back to Texas, frontier life, cattlemen, gunfighters, or the old west.

There is no question that from this point, October 1930, Howard is demonstrating a dominant interest in Billy the Kid, the Lincoln County Wars, and the Old West. And by January 1931, Howard is actually using the details from Burns’ book in that particular letter to H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, the names, events, details, and descriptions are used in such a manner that it makes me think that Howard actually had the book in front of him as he wrote the letter. Below is a chart that compares Howard’s letter to Lovecraft and certain details from the burning of McSween’s home during the Lincoln County Wars.

Comparison Chart

Not only does Howard keep the sequence used by Burns, but the details are, for the most part, the same. And, in subsequent letters to Lovecraft when the Lincoln County Wars are brought up, Howard uses Burns’ book to tell the story. In these same letters more frequent discussions about the west, Texas history, and gunfighters ensue. Examples of this can be seen in his letters dated February 1931 in which Howard discusses John Chisum, the Lincoln County Wars, and The Kid; June 1931 Howard discusses the types of guns that won the old west; August of 1931 Howard discusses Texas frontier history at great length; December 9, 1931 Howard discusses Kit Carson and Bigfoot Wallace; May 24, 1932 Howard discusses Bill Hickok and Billy the Kid; August 9, 1932 Howard discusses Pat Garrett, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, etc. This trend continues in his letters until it culminates in a trip Howard took with his friend Truett Vinson to New Mexico, in the summer of 1935. By then Howard is all but completely focused on writing western stories.

TheKid5Even though Robert E. Howard had sporadically written and published western stories from his first submission in 1921 to the end of his life, several prominent Howard scholars place Howard’s transitional interest of the old west and western stories at the same time as Tevis Clyde Smith’s publication Frontier’s Generation in March of 1931. Based on the evidence above, I propose a revised transitional date: in the late 20s, around late 1928 to early to mid-1929. And while Smith’s research and publication played an important role in Howard’s transition, I think Burns’ book, The Saga of Billy the Kid is the key factor that caused Howard’s transition. In fact, I think the influence Burns’ book had on Howard cannot be overstated. Especially since Howard seems to adopt Burns’ writing style in several of his western stories. Research and proof of which I’ll reserve for another time and another paper.

Based on the above dates, correspondence, and the progressive build up of western stories written and published from 1928 to Howard’s death in 1936, and a few years beyond, there is a clear trend of Howard shifting his interest toward the Old West and western stories. It’s just a matter of time before Howard will take this interest and apply it to his storytelling, breaking full swing into the western markets.

 Historical Corrections and Burns’ Book

While Walter Noble Burns’ account of Billy the Kid certainly had a interesting impact on writers of the mid-20th Century, it left a false historical wake that would not be corrected until over 30 years after its initial publication. With renewed interest from scholars about Billy the Kid in the late 50s and early 60s, various facts, myths, and folklores would soon be corrected. From the 21st century, we certainly have the advantage of looking back over history and seeing where errors were made, watching how they were corrected, and moving forward with better information.

Of course, Robert E. Howard did not have that luxury. He was informed about Billy the Kid from the various circulated myths, exaggerated tales, and erroneous facts that were merely highlighted by Burns’ book. On the one hand, this had a positive effect on his writing. Howard wrote with this exaggerated tone, used exaggerated facts, and painted his western stories in such a way as to make them far more interesting than merely dry facts and events. On the other hand, a lot of what Howard wrote about Billy the Kid was just erroneous. This being the case, anyone who reads Howard’s letters where he discusses Billy the Kid, should take those letters with several grains of salt. While they are quite interesting to read, and read like a good story, they are wrought with erroneous details that Howard borrowed from Burns.

Even so, were it not for Walter Noble Burn’s book The Saga of Billy the Kid, I do not think Howard would have developed the way he did when it came time for him to settle into regularly writing his western stories. Not that Burns was the sole influence on how and why Howard wrote westerns, but the impact Burns’ book had on Howard’s western writing can certainly be seen. I also think that Burns’ book played the key role in Howard’s interest of the old west and western tales. An interest that ultimately led him to declare to his longtime correspondent, H.P. Lovecraft, in a letter dated May 13, 1936, about a month before Howard’s death, “I find it more and more difficult to write anything but western yarns.” (Howard  Letters 3:  446)


Burke, Rusty. Introduction. The End of the Trail: Western Stories. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 2005. Ix-Xviii. Print.

Burns, Walter Noble. The Saga of Billy the Kid. Garden City, NY: Garden City, 1926. Print.

Coe, George W. Frontier Fighter: The Autobiography of George W. Coe Who Fought and Rode with Billy the Kid. Ed. Doyce B. Nunis. Chicago: Lakeside, 1984. Print.

Derie, Bobby, comp. The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard: Index and Addenda. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2015. Print.

Herron, Don, ed. The Dark Barbarian: The Writings of Robert E. Howard: A Critical Anthology. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1984. Print.

Howard, Robert E. The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard. Ed. Rob Roehm. Vol. 1-3. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2007. Print.

Howard, Robert E. Sentiment: An Olio of Rarer Works. Ed. Rob Roehm. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2009. Print.

Howard, Robert E. Western Tales. Ed. Rob Roehm. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2013. Print.

Lord, Glenn, ed. The Last Celt: A Bio-Bibliography of Robert E. Howard. West Kingston, Rhode Island: Donald M. Grant, 1976. Print.

Nolan, Frederick W. The West of Billy the Kid. Norman: U of Oklahoma, 1998. Print.

Smith, Tevis C. So Far the Poet & Other Writings. Ed. Rob Roehm and Rusty Burke. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2010. Print.

Smith, Tevis Clyde. Frontier’s Generation: The Pioneer History of Brown County, with Sidelights on the Surrounding Territory. New and Enlarged ed. Brownwood, TX: Moore Printing, 1980. Print.

Wallis, Michael. Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. Print.

Be sure and visit Todd’s On an Underwood No. 5 blog. He has recently updated the blog’s look and will be adding a lot of first-rate Howard content there in the coming weeks and months.


Gottfried was already on his way to the embrasures. He too had heard before the terrible soul-shaking shout of the charging Janizaries. Suleyman meant to waste no time on the city that barred him from helpless Europe. He meant to crush its frail walls in one storm. The bashi-bazouki, the irregulars, died like flies to screen the main advance, and over heaps of dead, the Janizaries thundered against Vienna. In the teeth of cannonade and musket volley they surged on, crossing the moats on scaling ladders laid across, bridge-like. Whole ranks went down as the Austrian guns roared …

— Robert E. Howard, “The Shadow of the Vulture”

Calling the situation of Vienna in September 1529, desperate, would be a grotesque understatement. Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent had sworn to reduce it and march over its wreckage into Europe. Its walls were weak, and its garrison was outnumbered about five to one by the soldiers and artillery of the greatest, most relentless military force in the world. Those last words are no exaggeration. Since the young Sultan Suleyman had come to the Turkish throne, he had taken Belgrade as a curtain-raiser to his reign, subdued Transylvania to his will, crushed Hungary, and hurled the formidable order of the Knights of St. John from their stronghold of Rhodes.

Now … Vienna.

Nominally, Philip the Palgrave held the highest rank, but he was only twenty-six despite his warlike courage and high heart. The real leadership lay with the tough seventy-year-old Count Nicholas Salm, seasoned, competent, and brave, with many military feats to his credit. Philip, despite his by-name of “the Contentious”, deferred to the respected old soldier without resentment.

vienna1529Salm, says Howard, drove his men and the citizens with “lashing energy”. He had the city’s houses which stood too near the wall, levelled to the ground, and the wooden shingles of the roofs taken off as a precaution against fire – as dreaded in most sixteenth-century towns as it was aboard ship. He had paving stones ripped from the streets to deaden the effect of Turkish cannon-shot. Knowing the weakness of the existing city wall, he had an earthen one twenty feet high thrown up within it. The side of the city by the Danube’s bank was entrenched and palisaded. From the drawbridge to the Salz gate he built a rampart able to resist the Turkish cannon fire. The suburbs of Vienna, now deserted, were set afire to deny cover to the besiegers.

The passage in REH’s story describing this is so similar to an account by the Earl of Ellesmere (translating the German of Carl August Schimmer and others) in The Sieges of Vienna by the Turks, London 1879, that I wonder if REH had a copy. This blogger was put on the scent of that book by Jeffrey Shanks, who offered the text of his e-mail exchanges with the Ambros Castle curator on the REH Forum. REH did certainly get a lot of the historical background from The Grande Turke by Fairfax Downey (which I discovered courtesy of Patrice Louinet). Indebted to both these REH scholars.

Full details of how the troops were posted would take more space than this article allows, but in Vienna’s four main squares cavalry were stationed under Wilhelm von Roggendorf’s command, ready to move at once in any direction required. Philip the Palgrave held the Stuben quarter with a hundred cuirassiers and fourteen companies of Imperial troops. The Elend Tower had been strengthened with a rampart and mounted with the heaviest guns the defenders had, to give the Turkish flotilla on the river as much hell as possible. Elsewhere along the line of defense were von Reischach with three thousand infantry, von Vels with another three thousand and – from the Scottish Gate to the Werder Gate – two thousand Austrians and seven hundred Spaniards under von Ebersdorf.

“It was all hell and bedlam turned loose,” writes Howard, “and in the midst of it, five thousand wretched noncombatants, old men and women and children, were ruthlessly driven from the gates to shift for themselves, and their screams, as the Akinjis swooped down, maddened the people within the walls … Men on the towers recognized the dread Mikhal Oglu by the wings on his cuirass, and noted that he rode from one heap of dead to another, avidly scanning each corpse in turn, pausing to glare questioningly at the battlements.”

vonkalmbach6unGottfried von Kalmbach at that point was less worried about Mikhal Oglu than about being called upon to dig earthworks. He lumbered into a tavern and soon made himself so drunk that, as REH tells us, “ … no-one would have considered asking him to do work of any kind.”  The siege of Rhodes and the disciplines of the Order of St. John were both years behind him now. He didn’t mind fighting or risking his neck, but he objected, clearly, to the activity known in REH’s Texas as working on the blister end of a shovel.

That aspect of the Viennese siege – the digging and mining – is not treated in the greatest detail by Howard. But he mentions it during the wild drive of his narrative, in a way that does not slight its importance. He says of Sultan Suleyman:

“ … he saw his sappers burrowing like moles, driving mines and counter-mines nearer and nearer the bastions.

“Within the city there was little ease. Night and day the walls were manned. In their cellars the Viennese watched the faint vibrations of peas on drumheads that betrayed the sounds of digging in the earth that told of Turkish mines burrowing under the walls. They sank their counter-mines accordingly, and men fought no less fiercely under the earth than above.”

Undermining the walls of besieged citadels and towns, then setting off gunpowder blasts to collapse them, was standard practice. It had been attempted often at the siege of Rhodes, as Gottfried would have remembered well, but there the knights had the invaluable services of the brilliant siege engineer Gabriele Tadini. Among other devices, he had dug deep cylindrical vents at the most vulnerable points of Rhodes’ fortifications, so that the gunpowder blasts could escape upwards, doing minimal damage. And the defenses of Rhodes had been the strongest in the Mediterranean, anyway. Those of Vienna were pitiful by comparison.

Nevertheless, Suleyman did not make good his boast that he would eat his breakfast on Vienna’s ramparts on the Feast of St. Michael. The appointed day, the 29th of September, came and went. The city remained untaken. The Viennese released some prisoners and sent them to the Turkish camp, with the mocking message that they asked the Sultan’s pardon for allowing his breakfast to get cold, but to atone for it, they would continue to entertain him as best they could, with their artillery and swords! This although Suleyman had threatened to leave no Christian alive in the city, not even a child or pregnant woman, if it defied him.

RS1Gottfried first met Red Sonya while she was providing some of that very entertainment. A Transylvanian gunner had just had hid brains blown out by a Turkish matchlock, and Sonya, heedless of risk as usual, had taken his place, in her Cordovan boots, Cossack breeches, and shirt of Turkish mail. She expressed the wish that her target could only be “Roxelana’s — ” before she blew herself flat on her own backside by firing the overcharged cannon, but she destroyed a Turkish gun-crew below the walls. Gottfried clearly fancied her from the beginning, and when he asked out of curiosity why she wished the Sultan’s favorite for her target, she answered hotly, “Because she’s my sister, the slut!”

I suspect that the bad blood between Sonya and her sister went back to their girlhood. But nobody had any time to inquire on that occasion. The Janizaries charged the wall, the most dreaded soldiers in Asia. They were European in blood, taken as tribute from conquered Christian lands while they were children, raised to serve the Sultan only, some of them clerks and administrators but most of them soldiers, forbidden to marry and dedicated to war, certain that if they died in the Sultan’s battles they would spend eternity in the Seventh Heaven of Light. Why should they not be certain?  They had been taught it from infancy. In the frenzied fighting on the wall, Gottfried and Red Sonya found themselves battling side by side, the huge German with a great two-handed sword, Sonya with a saber that flashed like lightning in her hands. For the first time, then, but not the last, she saved the big man’s life. However, when he tried to thank her, she curtly rejected his thanks and called him “dog-brother!” for good measure.

The Janizaries had been driven back. September gave way to October and the days of October went by. The Sultan still had not eaten his breakfast on the ramparts of Vienna. In each new attack Red Sonya was conspicuous as ever among the defenders, and if she fought like three men she was worth a hundred at keeping up morale. Every man who saw her, fighting on the walls with saber and spear, careless of sword-thrusts and hackbut fire alike, must have said to himself, “If a woman can bear herself like that, ‘fore God, so can I!”  As Alfred Austin wrote in his poem “The Last Redoubt”:

In the redoubt a fair form towered,

That cheered up the brave and chid the coward;

Brandishing blade with a gallant air …

According to REH, the Vizier Ibrahim called off the Janizaries at last “and bade them retire into the ruined suburbs and rest”. Then he had a message attached to an arrow shot into the city, at a spot where traitors were waiting to receive it. The Turkish cannon kept up steady fire hour after hour, but they did not stop for a renewed onslaught, and when a great store of hidden wine was discovered inside Vienna (the merchant had hoped to make a profit) the soldiers got colossally drunk. Gottfried, of course, was among the guzzlers. So was Red Sonya, crying derisively, “Nose deep in the keg!  Devil bite all topers!” before she tossed down a goblet at one gulp herself.

Gottfried, goaded by her insults and drunk as a fiddler’s bitch, roared that he would go from the city and engage the Turks “ – if never a man follow me!”  And eight thousand did, though Wulf Hagen tried to stop them by talking sense in a desperate bellow. They brushed him aside. By sheer luck they made their sortie at just the time a mine was detonated by the vital Karnthner Gate. In Howard’s words, “ … a terrific explosion rent the din, and a portion of the wall … seemed to detach itself and rise into the air.”

otomanosalasaltodefortaThe besieged, under Roggendorf, had taken all the advance precautions they could against that sort of occurrence. They worked constantly to detect Turkish mines and counter them; they also braced their walls with posts and beams so that even if charges were successfully set off, the wreckage would topple outwards and block any breaches. Despite all this the Karthner explosion might have been a disaster, for the Turkish infantry were ready to charge on the instant. By blessed luck eight thousand drunken madmen, led by the drunkest and maddest of all, burst out of the city and met the Turkish onslaught at the right moment. They caught the Janizaries with their ranks still half-formed, and though much outnumbered, they hacked their way through the fanatical slave-soldiers. “The suburbs became a shambles,” Howard writes, “where battling men, slashing and hewing at one another, stumbled on mangled bodies and severed limbs.”  He adds that “Salm gave thanks for that drunken sortie. But for it, the Janizaries would have been pouring through the breach before the dust settled.”

germany2Although the Viennese madmen had driven back the Janizaries – a thing seldom known – Suleyman’s light horsemen rode to cut them off and slaughter them. Blind recklessness turned to fear, and they ran for the drawbridge to enter the city again. Captain Wulf Hagen and his retainers, cold sober, stood at the head of the drawbridge and held it while the drunkards streamed back into Vienna. Gottfried von Kalmbach, weary, weighed down by his mail, was floundering in the moat with Turks close behind him when Red Sonya rescued him for a second time, blowing the brains out of the foremost Turk with her pistol and urging Gottfried up the muddy bank. By the skin of their teeth they made it through the gate. Gottfried, dazed and still drunk, thought to ask breathlessly where Wulf Hagen was, and Sonya answered tersely, “Lying dead among twenty dead Turks.”

Lord Ellesmere’s translation of Schimmer confirms this as having happened about the 8th of October. Although he does not describe events exactly as Howard does, he reports, “ … the encouragement from the garrison on the walls, and the example of a brave commander, Wulf Hagen, were unavailing to check the torrent. Hagen himself, with a few brave men who remained about him, was surrounded and beheaded.”

Gottfried asks Sonya why she pulled him out of the moat. She describes him as a great oaf and tells him she can see he needs a wise person “to keep life in that hulking frame.”  Gottfried, shaking with reaction, says, “But I thought you despised me!” to which she replies in exasperation, “Well, a woman can change her mind, can’t she?”

But greater matters than this reckless by-play and notable instance of fool’s luck needed looking into. That too-timely blast that wrecked part of the wall by the vital gate had been suspicious from the first; later investigation showed that particular mine had been tunneled from inside the city, from a secret cellar, and a heavy load of powder placed in it, perhaps by as few as two men. There were traitors within Vienna – and traitors with resources. An intense, furious search began. God help the bastards if we find them, was the general chorus of the seekers.

grand-vizier-damat-ibrahim1-pasa-nevsehirliThe scheme had been Grand Vizier Ibrahim’s. His master the Sultan was as displeased by its failure as the garrison of Vienna with the attempt. “Have done with thine intrigues,” he barked, on one of the few occasions he was short with his boyhood friend and, now they were both adults, his chief administrator. “Where craft has failed, sheer force shall prevail.”

The defenders expected nothing else. “While the soldiers stood to their arms,” writes Schimmer, as translated by Ellesmere, “the citizens of both sexes, and of all classes, ages, and professions, spiritual as well as lay, were at work without cessation, removing rubbish, digging new entrenchments, throwing up works, strengthening the ramparts, and filling up the breaches. Many so engaged were wounded by the enemy’s various missiles.”

Then they could only wait.

Read Part One, Part TwoPart Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part SixPart Seven, Part Eight, Part Ten

This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.

Black Stone SacrificeIssue number 18 of The Definitive Robert E. Howard Journal is in the works and will be published this Summer. As with past issues, REH: Two-Gun Raconteur #18 will feature a stellar line-up of contributors, pulling out all the stops to provide outstanding content for your reading pleasure.

In addition to a hard-to-find Howard story, other contents include essays and articles by Chris Gruber, Dierk Guenther, Wm. Michael Mott, James Reasoner, and David Scherpenhuizen.

Plus artwork by Bill Cavalier, Bob Covington, Stephen Fabian, Charles Fetherolf, Clayton Hinkle, Richard Pace, Michael L. Peters, Terry Plavet, Bryan “Zarono” Reagan and Robert Sankner.

Stay tuned for more details, including contents, price and pre-order information.


Last month I posted a piece about the Von Blon Bookstore where REH shopped that dealt primarily with the elder von Blon and his wife. But I did find a few nuggets related to one of his sons owning a bookstore in Waco years after his father passed away.

According to his high school yearbook, John von Blon’s ambition was to be a book dealer. I can’t say for sure if he ever fulfilled that dream, but his older brother Avery F. von Blon, Jr. did.

While working for Hammond Laundry Equipment Company in the 1950’s, von Blon, Jr. thought about opening up a little bookshop in the Baylor area, on Dutton Street, in the evenings to supplement his income. But the idea didn’t come to fruition until the next decade.

In 1961 von Blon, Jr. started a small bookstore, initially stocked primarily with books his mother had brought from her shop in San Antonio to Waco around 1957. They were stored in his garage, along with some shelving and other fixtures from her bookshop. Avery, Jr. and his wife Helen opened their first bookstore on Eighth Street. He still worked off and on for the railroad, leaving his wife to run the bookstore. Their primary clientele were Baylor students.

Advertising was expensive, so a lot of small businesses like the von Blons’ bookstore depended on word of mouth. There was very little rivalry between the various bookshops in Waco because the proprietors passed word to an individual where they could find the books they were looking for. Von Blon, Jr. also would ask his customers to bring books to him that they did not want (particularly hardback books);  and once in a while he would find one to three books or more in a single lot of books that he knew other clients would want to read and purchased them for resale.

I am not sure how long von Blon, Jr. was in the book business, but he was still in business in 1986 when the store was located at 1111 Colcord. It seemed to be a secondary source of income for him. His real passion was for working on the railroad and in manufacturing.

John, the youngest son of Avery, Sr. and his wife Lena, passed away on January 17, 1999. Of course, as related in my previous blog post, their middle son died while still a toddler. However, based on my research, Avery, Jr. seems to have inherited his mother’s longevity gene and is living a long life. The photo of his and his wife’s grave marker (shown at the very bottom of page) was taken in October of 2012 and I recently heard from his son he is still alive, despite a recent post online that referred to his demise. That report was greatly exaggerated.

[Updated 05/09/2015]



This entry filed under Howard's Texas.


The Turk was indeed upon Vienna. The plain was covered with his tents, thirty thousand, some said, and swore that from the lofty spire of Saint Stephen’s cathedral a man could not see their limits … partly to awe the Caphar dogs, the Grand Turk’s array was moving in orderly procession before the ancient walls before settling down to the business of the siege. The sight was enough to awe the stoutest. The low-swinging sun struck fire from polished helmet, jeweled saber-hilt and lance-point. It was as if a river of shining steel flowed leisurely and terribly past the walls of Vienna.

— Robert E. Howard, “The Shadow of the Vulture”

Gottfried von Kalmbach thanked his stars to be safely away from the Sublime Porte. Suleiman the Magnificent had almost recognized him as the knight who wounded him at Mohacs. After parting ways with the embassy that had brought him nothing but nine months in a Turkish prison and a bad moment face to face with the Sultan, he probably did not intend a return to Vienna. He thought little of Archduke Ferdinand, and knew that the city’s defenses were in sorry condition. A Turkish army was marching against it. Gottfried had seen Turkish onslaughts before.

He believed it would be more use to carry a warning to his native Bavaria, out of favor though he was with his kindred – his father especially. If Suleiman took Austria, he would be likely to attack the German Empire next. But Gottfried never carried out his intent, because the Sultan remembered where he had seen him before and gave orders concerning him. Ibrahim, the Grand Vizier, took the matter in hand and set Mikhal Oglu on Gottfried’s trail.

390px-Sueleymanname_Akinci-BeysThe details of that pursuit through a rain-drenched landscape can be found in “The Shadow of the Vulture.” Gottfried barely escaped Mikhal Oglu’s Akinji corps in the village where he had been drinking, wenching and spending the Sultan’s gift-money. He rode through the gates of Vienna with his stallion foundering beneath him and the Akinji (otherwise the “Sackmen” or “Flayers”) close on his trail. After that, he was trapped in the besieged city. Mikhal Oglu’s orders to take Gottfried’s head to the Sultan still applied. His Akinji rode all over the country around Vienna, mercilessly doing their usual job, which was to burn, slaughter, terrorize and enslave until the land was empty. In an age inured to brutality, they were the most methodical exponents of massacre and depopulation. And there were thirty or forty thousand of them. As Howard expresses it, “Before the waving vulture wings the road thronged with wailing fugitives; behind them it ran red and silent, strewn with mangled shapes that cried no more.”

If Gottfried had tried to escape from Vienna – he might as well have cut off his own head and handed it to the Sultan himself.

The huge German had last been in Vienna three years before, after the Battle of Mohacs. His mistress of those days, Aranka, was not there now; she and her fourth husband had escaped to Prague, with their wealth. He preferred not to die fighting the Turks as her three previous husbands had.

Gottfried damned the man’s cowardice, but owned that Aranka was better out of the threatened city. Then he settled down to business. Drunken reprobate that he was, the former Knight of St. John knew siege work backwards. The news was bad. Vienna’s outer ramparts lay in crumbling disrepair, “nowhere more than six feet thick,” as REH tells his readers, “so frail it bore the name of Stadtzaun – city hedge.”  Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, the Emperor Charles’s brother, justified Gottfried’s low opinion of him by hair-splitting dispute at the Diet of Spires while the Ottoman host advanced. That gathering of bishops and princes was held for the purpose of crushing the Lutheran heresy – in other words, persecuting dissident Christians, even as the Grand Turk invaded Austria. One man thundered at the Diet, “The Turks are better than the Lutherans, for the Turks observe fast days, and the Lutherans violate them!”  He wouldn’t have said that if he’d been in the path of Mikhal Oglu’s Akinji; he’d have been too busy screaming.

salmThe Vienna garrison numbered 23,000 men, and the grand Turk set out from Istanbul with about a quarter of a million. The Archduke at least sent some reinforcements, and a good man to take command of the defense – Nicholas, Count Salm. He was seventy, and had soldiered since he was seventeen, when he fought at Morat against Duke Charles the Bold. He became a colonel in 1491 and had since fought in Italy under Georg von Frundsberg – in fact been instrumental with Frundsberg in the capture of the King of France at Pavia.

Salm’s chief aide was his brother-in-law, Wilhelm, Freiherr von Roggendorf, like Salm a seasoned captain. He held the rank of Hofmeister (Court Master) in the German Empire. At Vienna he commanded the heavy cavalry under Salm, and being still on the right side of fifty, he was a good deal younger. Other commanders and aides mentioned by REH in the story are Count Nicholas Zrinyi and Paul Bakics. (They are more easily located on the Web as Nikola Šubić Zrinski and Pavle Bakić.)

Bakics was a Serb, and Serbia was subject to the Turks in his day; he had been a lord of great estates under the Sultan. However, he left them behind to go with his family and brothers, and a great following of Serbs, to become a liegeman of young King Louis of Hungary and fight at Mohacs. He knew Gottfried from that fight. After the Hungarian defeat, he briefly sided with the traitorous John Zapolya, but soon soured on the man and went over to Archduke Ferdinand in 1527. He remained loyal to Ferdinand for the rest of his life. As captain of the Serbian infantry, cavalry and river forces, Bakics played an important part in the defense of Vienna.

Szigetvár_a_16__századbanAs for Zrinyi, he was a Croatian noble who served the Habsburg house for decades. He distinguished himself at Vienna, when he was only 21, and after a lifetime fighting Turks, died with his entire garrison at Szigetvar Castle, standing off a Turkish host of more than 100,000. Anybody who chose to fight the Turks in those days was likely to find himself facing huge odds. Without much help from fellow Christians, likely as not.

Philip the Palgrave is another real historical character who appears in “The Shadow of the Vulture.” He too was no greybeard at the siege – twenty-six. (Von Kalmbach was only five years older.)  The youngest son of Rupert, Count Palatine of the Rhine, and Elizabeth of Bavaria-Landshut, he marched to reinforce Vienna with a regiment of Spaniards and one of German landsknechte. His cousin Duke Frederick, with a few thousand men, sought to beat the Turks into Vienna, but they had already taken the bridges across the Danube and Frederick had to halt. Philip, though, had moved more quickly, and entered Vienna three days before the Turks surrounded it.

(Two other bold young nobles, Rupert of Manderscheid and Wolf of Oettingen, were so determined to get into Vienna and strike blows against the Turk that they swam the Danube – a swollen torrent – and were hauled up the wall by ropes at the Werder Gate.)

Philip was known to Germans, and thus to von Kalmbach, as Philipp der Streitbare, or Philip the Contentious. There was a connection by marriage and blood. Von Kalmbach women had more than once wed members of Philip’s ducal family, the Wittelsbachs. In “SotV” it is Philip who calls out sternly to his distant cousin that he ought to be ashamed of soaking in an ale-pot with the Turks upon them. Gottfried, indignant that a pup five years his junior, who no matter how brave had not charged at Mohacs, should take him to task, blusters while weaving in sozzled circles, “What ale-pot?  Devil bite you, Philip, I’ll rap your pate for that — ”

17_sowers_redsonjaThen, of course, there is REH’s creation, Red Sonya of Rogatino, a worthy addition to the list of defenders. I believe she had been scouting and skirmishing with a mixed band of about five hundred dog-brothers she had gathered before coming to Austria – Poles, Bohemians, Magyars, Moravians and Styrians – criminals, outcasts, runaways and the dispossessed, much like the first Cossacks. Sonya knew such men and how to lead them. As the dreaded Akinji advanced through Austria, she and her band met these hard-riding irregulars on occasion. Once they caught and destroyed a detachment of eight hundred, taking advantage of the rotten visibility imposed by the constant rain. After questioning the survivors about the advance of the main Turkish army, they trussed them in pairs and heaved them into the Danube. Since Mikhal Oglu’s Sackmen numbered about thirty thousand, it made little difference to Austria’s situation all told, and Sonya returned to Vienna before the Sultan arrived.

The weather, at least, was on the defenders’ side. It had rained solidly for weeks while the immense Turkish host advanced by river and land. As REH expresses it, “Rain fell in torrents, and through the floods that changed plains and forest-bed to dank morasses, the Turks struggled grimly. They drowned in raging rivers, and lost great stores of ammunition, ordnance and supplies, when boats capsized, bridges gave way and wagons mired. But on they came, driven by the implacable will of Suleyman, and now in September 1529, over the ruins of Hungary, the Turks swept on Europe … ”

aaaaaaaortaboytop01ic5The massive cannons of Suleyman’s heavy artillery – the best in the known world – were especially apt to bog down because of their weight. Piece by piece they had to be abandoned. Some were brought up the Danube in transport barges, but again, their weight made the boats ride dangerously low in the surging flood-water. Seeing the light field pieces being set before the walls, Gottfried asks where the heavy cannon are “that Suleyman’s so proud of,” and a Hungarian pikeman answers with pleasure, “At the bottom of the Danube!  Wulf Hagen sank that part of the Soldan’s flotilla.”

I haven’t been able to learn much about Hagen. He was evidently one of the captains of Vienna’s defense. But if the Turks had come against the city in dry weather, they could have brought their cannon royal and breached its inadequate walls in a week. Vienna was not Rhodes, which had been the best fortified stronghold in the eastern Mediterranean, yet still fell to Suleyman the Magnificent at last.

And Suleyman promised the people of Vienna that he would eat his breakfast on their ramparts on the Feast of St. Michael — the 29th.

Read Keith’s REHF Award nominated three-part series “Here was Ragnarok, The Fall of the Gods!” here.

Read Part One, Part TwoPart Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Nine, Part Ten

This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.


Two of Robert E. Howard’s tales, “Dig Me No Grave” and “The Brazen Peacock,” feature the worship of a devilish peacock deity, alternately called Malik Tous and Melek Taus.

As recently as 1996, T.K.F. Weisskopf could say in the introduction to a Howard collection that “the cult of Malik Tous, mentioned in several stories, is – so far as my research can tell me – one that only existed in the pages of Weird Tales.” (Beyond the Borders, p. viii) – which is fair, given the relative obscurity of the subject.

While Howard had an excellent imagination, Malik Tous, the Peacock Angel (whose name is variously transliterated as Melek Taos, Taw’us Melké, Malka Tausa, and Melek Taus), was not one of his creations. Reverence for this figure is a feature in the life of the real-life Yazidis, or Yezidis, a group of Kurdish-speaking peoples from what is now Northern Iraq. As in the fiction, Mailk Tous is often identified with Satan, and the devotees have often been depicted as devil-worshipers by outsiders. Today, a Yezidi Human Rights Organization is working to raise awareness and support for the contemporary people, who are still often thought of as Satan-worshipping cultists.

William B. Seabrook, the same author who brought attention to Haitian vodou with his book The Magic Island, discusses the Peacock Angel in his 1927 work Adventures in Arabia.

His informant, an old Yezidi priest, says that “Moslems and Christians are wrongly taught that he whom we call Melek Taos is the spirit of evil. We know that this is not true. He is the spirit of power and the ruler of this world.” (p. 326)

black_massIn her book Peacock Angel (1941), Lady E. S. Drower sums up the religion: “The Yazidis are spoken of as Devil-Worshippers … I cannot believe that they worship the Devil or even propitiate the Spirit of Evil. Although the chief of the Seven Angels, who according to their nebulous doctrines are charged with the rule of the universe, is one whom they name Taw’us Melké, the PEACOCK ANGEL, he is a Spirit of Light rather than a Spirit of Darkness.”

“‘They say of us wrongly,” said a qawwâl to me one evening, “that we worship one who is evil.’

“Indeed, it is possibly the Yazidis themselves, by tabooing all mention of the name Shaitan, or Satan, as a libel upon this angel, who have fostered the idea that the Peacock Angel is identical with the dark fallen angel whom men call the Tempter. In one of the holy books of the Mandaeans the Peacock Angel, called by them Malka Tausa, is portrayed as a spirit concerned with the destinies of this world, a prince of the world of light who, because of a divinely appointed destiny, plunged into the darkness of matter … It seemed probable to me … that the Peacock Angel is, in a manner, a symbol of Man himself, a divine principle of light experiencing an avatar of darkness, which is matter and the material world. The evil comes from man himself, or rather from his errors, stumblings and obstinate turnings down blind alleys upon the steep path of being.”

In Howard’s story “Dig Me No Grave,” the peacock is known as “Malik Tous,” and is an embodied, gigantic, bat-like bird figure, apparently synonymous with all the devils in history: “There is but one Black Master though men calle hym Sathanas & Beelzebub & Apolleon & Ahriman & Malik Tous.” (p. 140) In “The Brazen Peacock,” the more localized version is called Melek Taus, and here the peacock is a carved bronze figure, like that described by Seabrook.

peac42aIt is impossible to know at this point whether Seabrook was a direct source for Howard’s research on the Yezidi, but Howard’s descriptions in “The Brazen Peacock” do seem to have been informed by Seabrook’s first-person account of visiting “the temple of Satan and the sacred shrine at Sheik-Adi” (p. 314) Both of them refer to the same geography: Mount Lalesh, the Mosul region, and the town of Baadri, (Howard, p. 114) and include many common details.

Seabrook: “We had our first view of the castle of Said Beg, ruler and ‘Black Pope’ of the Yezidees … it stood isolated on a slope, and the little village of Baadri with clustering low stone houses lay several yards below it.” (p. 311)

Howard: “A few Americans, Englishmen and Frenchmen have been to Baadri and seen the castle of Mir Beg, the Black Pope of all the Yezidees, scowling down on the village a hundred yards below.” (p. 114)

Unlike Howard’s character, Seabrook met Mir Said Beg, and says “It was hard to convince myself that I was actually in the presence of the ruler of the Devil-Worshipers … for he seemed no different from any other grave and courteous Oriental host, and in the most matter-of-fact way set about making us feel at home and comfortable.” (p. 312) The American visitor is welcomed as if he’s an Englishman, whose “countrymen had stopped the murder and persecution of his people” at the hands of both Moslems and Christians.

Seabrook: “I … wondered as we rode how many of the other wild tales would turn out to be untrue … the temple hewn from solid rock, leading down to vast subterranean caverns stained with the blood of human sacrifice.” (p. 315)

Howard: “I have heard that their stronghold is in the hill-town of Sheikh-Adi, beyond Mosul, and that they worship this brazen image as the symbol of Shaitan, and to it they offer up human sacrifices in great caverns below the temple.” (p. 114)

Seabrook: “The entire hillside was dotted with hundreds of uninhabited stone huts – shelters, the Mir told us, for Yezidee pilgrims who visited the shrine.” (p. 316)

Howard: “In one of the hundreds of empty stone huts, erected for the shelter of pilgrims, I took up my abode.” (p. 114 – 115)

Seabrook: “I followed our new guide down a flight of stone steps, through a gateway … into a little rectangular walled yard whose northern wall was the face of the actual temple, built against and into the living rock of the mountainside. This was the ‘Courtyard of the Serpent.’ And the serpent’s actual dominating presence was there – though it was not alive. It was a stone serpent standing on its tail, carved in high relief, and glistening black in the sunlight on the gray wall, at the right of the temple door.” (p. 317)

Howard: “I fled screaming at the sight of the great black stone serpent which stands on its tail in the inner courtyard near the doorway.” (p. 115)

Seabrook: “The first thing I noticed was dozens of little flickering points of light at irregular spots in the wall. These came from small iron dishes, set in niches, in which lighted wicks floated in olive oil.”

Howard: “Lighted wicks, floating in oil, illuminated the place.” (p. 116)

Seabrook: “The arrangement of the temple was curious and difficult to describe. Down its middle, from end to end, ran a row of stone pillars …” (p. 318)

Howard: “A row of stone columns divided the great hall into two equal parts.” (p. 116)

Seabrook: “There was no altar of any sort …” (p. 318)

Howard: “There was no altar, no shrine. The room was bare.”

Seabrook: He is told about a ceremony “which … was repeated every spring.” In it, a white bull “was decorated with garlands of red flowers, a vein in its throat was opened, and it was led or dragged in procession round and round the tower … until the tower’s white base was bathed in the crimson circle of its spurting blood.” (p. 323 – 324)

Howard: In his story, the hoopla surrounding this festival allows his narrator entrance to the shrine.  “A white bull, bedecked with flowers, is brought to the Tower of Evil and there a vein is opened in his throat and he is led around and around the Tower until he drops and dies from weakness, and the blood spurting from his throat has dyed the base of the Tower crimson all about.” (p. 116)

Seabrook: “One must neither wear nor exhibit any article of clothing that was blue … for blue is taboo and anathema among the Yezidees, because it is supposed to have magical properties inimical to Satan.” (p. 309)

Howard: “You must not wear a blue garment or ornament, since blue is a color inimical to Shaitan.” (p. 115)

Seabrook: “While it was forbidden, at least theoretically, on pain of death to pronounce the name of Shaitan, we might freely mention their Satanic god by his other name, Melek Taos (Angel Peacock).” (p. 325) “While the name of Shaitain was forbidden, he said – so much so that if a Yezidee hears it spoken, their law commands him either to kill the man who uttered it or kill himself – yet we could talk as freely with them about Melek Taos ‘as we could to a Christian about Jesus.’” (p. 310)

Howard: “If you speak the name of Shaitan before a Yezidee, he is bound to kill you, or failing that, to kill himself.” (p. 115) “You may speak freely of Melek Taus … since this is the name by which Shaitan permits himself to be discussed by his worshippers.” (p. 115)

Seabrook: “One must take care never to spit in a fire or to put out a dropped match by stepping on it with the foot, for to them all fire is sacred.” (p. 309)

Howard: “I lit a cigarette, then thoughtlessly cast down the burning match and trod on it to extinguish it … I cursed myself. Fire is sacred to Melek Taus and it is forbidden to spit in a flame or to tread on a flame. No Oriental would have made that mistake in Sheik-Adi …” (p. 118). Here, the sociological detail about Yezidi beliefs is used as a dramatic means to give away the disguise of the narrator.

96660b7eb2e063826a57554c0fb7c2a0At least one major difference between the weird tale and the nonfiction account has to do with the peacock itself. In Howard’s story, the carved peacock is “worked with exquisite skill.” (p. 113) In Seabrook, the bird, which “no man … had ever seen” is “supposed to be rudely carved, more like a rooster than a peacock.” (p. 310)

Also, in the thriller, the cavern under the chamber is kept guarded, and is an active site of weird rituals. Seabrook merely had to get permission from the Mir in order to be allowed entrance, although he was told “it was just a cave.” (p. 319)

Inside, Seabrook finds fascinating “subterranean caverns and streams and springs” (p. 320), but no sign of any rites or worship taking place there. His guide does eventually tell him that “kolchaks, who I learned later were the fakirs of miracle workers of the Yezidess,” still came there to perform magical workings (p. 322). He’d been disappointed to find so little evidence of the weird or mysterious, and at this information, he candidly admits “I was thrilled.” (ibid)

(Curiously, those of us of a certain age will recognize the word Kolchak as the name of “the Night Stalker,” the 1970’s TV character who investigated the strange and unusual).

Howard’s tale would have been anticlimactic if it took its cues from Seabrook at this point, so in his version, there is “a crimson and horrific altar … a grisly, horrible thing, of some sort of red stone, stained darkly and flanked with rows of grinning skulls laid out in curious designs.” (p. 117)

71152950In the 1919 work Devil Worship, an early book about the Yezidis, Isya Joseph says, “It is interesting to note that, in the history of religion, the god of one people is the devil of another. In the Avesta, the evil spirits are called daeva (Persian Div); the Aryans of India, in common with the Romans, Celts, and Slavs gave the name of dev … to their good or god-like spirits. Asura is a deity in the Rig Veda, and an evil spirit only in later Brahman theology. Zoroaster thought that the beings whom his opponents worshipped as gods, under the name of daeva, were in reality powers by whom mankind are unwittingly led to their destruction.” (p. 155)

Melek Taus, whose identity as an evil being is a matter of perspective, is very much a god in the eye of the beholder. That’s a theme found in other of Howard’s works, especially in the approach to world religions in the Conan stories, where some of these ambiguous deities, like the historical Asura, appear by name.


Works Cited:

Drower, E. S. (Ethel Stefana). Peacock Angel: Being Some Account of Votaries of a Secret Cult and Their Sanctuaries. London: J. Murray, 1941. Available online at www.avesta.org/yezidi/peacock.htm

Howard, Robert E. Beyond the Borders. New York: Baen, 1996. Introduction by T.K.F. Weisskopf.

Howard, Robert E. “The Brazen Peacock.” Tales of Weird Menace. The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2010. Pages 111 – 130.

Howard, Robert E. “Dig Me No Grave.” The Complete Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard. New York: Ballantine, 2008. Pages 131 – 141.

Joseph, Isya. Devil Worship: The Sacred Books and Traditions of the Yezidiz. Boston: R. G. Badger, 1919. Available online at www.sacred-texts.com.

Seabrook, William B. Adventures in Arabia: Among the Bedouins, Druse, Whirling Dervishes & Yezidee Devil Worshipers. New York: Paragon House, 1991. Originally published 1927.

Read Karen’s REHF Award nominated “I Put a Spell on You: Robert E. Howard’s Conjure and Voodoo Stories” here.
This entry filed under Howard's Fiction, Weird Tales.