And so his boyhood wandered into youth,
And still the hazes thickened round his head,
And red, lascivious nightmares shared his bed
And fantasies with greedy claw and tooth
Burrowed into the secret parts of him –
Gigantic, bestial and misshapen paws
Gloatingly fumbled each white youthful limb,
And shadows lurked with scarlet gaping jaws.
Robert E. Howard, Fragment
Justin Geoffrey left the witch-haunted town of Arkham early in 1916, with heartfelt thanks to his friend and fellow poet Edward Derby. He returned to Greenwich Village resolved to gain some worldly advantages before he was done – if not a complete formal education, then at least sufficient money. He hungered to visit Europe. He had made casual acquaintances of French, Italian, German and Hungarian origin in the Village, and despite his generally antisocial nature, they liked the intent way he listened to their stories of their home countries.
In a former stable that was now an artist’s studio in MacDougal Alley, at a party to celebrate recent successful sales of several paintings, Justin Geoffrey met a fake medium by the name of Ethan O’Neill. O’Neill too was enjoying success, but he thought it might be greater. Genteel in appearance and manner, he was also blandly ordinary, and he thought an intense young poet with a disconcerting presence would make a useful partner. Justin didn’t care for O’Neill’s line of grifting – in fact, he despised it – but he saw his chance and deep-sixed his remaining scruples. Sourly quoting a line of Horace he had picked up from Derby in Arkham (“Si possis recte, si non, quocumque modo rem”)* Justin began helping O’Neill fleece his various well-breeched dupes. (*If possible make money honestly; if not, make it somehow.)
O’Neill had been right about the value of Justin Geoffrey’s presence. Business picked up remarkably. The United States had not yet entered the war in 1916, but there were many bereaved families in England that O’Neill reasoned would be in the market for messages from beyond. To England they went.
Again, he was right, and they did well, especially when the hellish carnage of the Somme began. There were over 57,000 British casualties on the first day (July 1st). O’Neill concentrated on noble and wealthy families, from which many British officers came, and he was a Protestant who decried the Easter Rising, so his Irish descent did not count against him. (To ingratiate himself with clients he would have said it even if he had been a red-hot rebel at heart.)
Justin detested the fraud even while money rolled in — the fraud and his partner. Neither offended him ethically very much, but the banal platitudes he uttered daily turned his stomach. He seethed at the thought that his darkly brilliant poetry made him almost nothing, while this rubbish gained the pair thousands of pounds.
O’Neill and Geoffrey were lucky enough to make the acquaintance of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while in England, and to gain his active support. Conan Doyle had become an ardent believer in spiritualism by this time, and he was impressed by the pair. He attended some of their séances and endorsed them as genuine. Their clients after that included some of the noblest – and richest – families in the land.
Justin was still subject to fearful nightmares. He did in fact possess psychic sensitivity, but not of a kind to comfort bereaved parents or wives, or – in the end – to have much commercial value. His talent and magnetic presence disturbed more than soothed when he sprang to his feet while feigning to commune with a soldier dead in an artillery barrage and screamed, “The face … the face … the face!” O’Neill carried such moments off by explaining that malign spirits were interfering with the séance, but he worried that this might not succeed forever, and even more that Justin would go insane, as the youth feared would happen.
Besides, Justin told him ever more frequently that he wanted to quit his imposture and travel on the continent once the war ended, regardless of who won. Their partnership was going to cease whether or not O’Neill desired it. The older man decided to end it unexpectedly and on his terms; to run out on Justin, taking their considerable profits with him.
O’Neill knew Justin was young, thought him naïve and foolish, possibly mad, but he made a fatal mistake in deeming him stupid. Justin knew things about O’Neill, too – that he lacked any trace of scruple and thought it clever, even admirable, to deceive. When O’Neill tried to decamp with their money in the spring of 1918, his actions did not take Justin by surprise. O’Neill fled from London to Southampton, planning to sail for the United States on a liner.
He never boarded the ship. He disappeared.
It is likely that Justin Geoffrey caught O’Neill as he fled with the cash in a carpetbag, and that a fatal confrontation ensued. Justin’s brother John, still wearing the scar of a far less serious clash when they were boys, would have believed it. Although Justin was neither physically robust nor – much of the time – adequately fed, in a rage he might have overcome a soft, middle-aged man like O’Neill, and even struck him dead without meaning to. No corpse was ever found, but the harbor of Southampton was spacious, boat anchors and baling wire cheap enough.
I believe that Justin Geoffrey went to Ireland for the remainder of 1918, and after that appeared in Europe with enough money to travel where he liked. Justin had produced poetry only in a desultory fashion while associated with O’Neill. In Ireland he began writing again, prodigious amounts, working twenty hours at a stretch sometimes and filling reams in a fortnight. To that period belong his bleak and morbid poems on the theme of murder – of which, perhaps, he was guilty. Since REH created Justin Geoffrey, and wrote a great deal of poetry himself, it is possible to consider some of it as being work Geoffrey might have written. “One Who Comes at Eventide”, for example, deals with the remorse and horror of a man who has committed a terrible slaying.
“My blood ran fire when the deed was done;
Now it runs colder than the moon that shone
On shattered fields where dead men lay in heaps
Who could not hear a ravished daughter’s moan.
“So now I fire my veins with stinging wine,
And hoard my youth as misers hug their gold,
Because I know what shape will come and sit
Beside my crumbling hearth – when I am old.”
There was also “Flight”, purporting to deal with Cain and his emotions as “… now he fled from the silent dead and the wrathful face of God.” It ends with the couplet,
“The stars were dim and the moon was red and leaves stirred on the bough.
Cain stood alone by the nameless sea and the mark was on his brow.”
Other poems from his hypothetical “Irish period” which Geoffrey might have written were “Recompense”, “The Singer in the Mist”, “Shadows of Dreams”, “The Madness of Cormac”, “Babel” and “Laughter in the Gulfs”.
O’Neill’s disappearance might have been investigated more closely, and Geoffrey arrested, if it had not occurred in the war’s final year. Germany unleashed the desperate “Spring Offensive” in an effort to win before the American forces could be fully deployed. Then the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 began. It killed more people world-wide than the Black Death of the 14th century had done. In Britain it appeared first in Glasgow, in May, and reached London by June. Almost 230,000 people died in that country alone. O’Neill, for all anybody knew, might have been one of them.
Justin Geoffrey contracted it himself, but survived with a mild case. As a young adult – he was then twenty – he belonged to the group most at risk in that pandemic. Children and the aged actually perished less often, statistically, for the precise reason that their immune systems were weaker. This special and uncommon strain of influenza ravaged the human body more fiercely as its immune system fought back. Justin had always been some-what sickly and had poor resistance to illness. In this instance it may actually have saved his life.
He wrote voluminously to Edward Derby while in Ireland, also. Residing in Dublin most of the time, he visited the sites of Tara, Emain Macha and Cashel, as well as spending some time in Cork, Limerick and – for a couple of months – Galway. The Irish War of Independence opened while Geoffrey was there, but as with the Great War, he took little interest in it. He departed in 1919, avoiding Britain, perhaps because he feared being questioned as to O’Neill’s fate. He travelled from Galway to Bilbao on a Spanish freighter.
In Bilbao, a thriving center of shipping and commerce, Geoffrey promptly deposited his money with the Banco de Vizcaya. Then, as far as his haunted mind would let him, he took his ease for a few weeks and planned his future. Another man might have taken the opportunity to cross the mountains and visit Burgos and Valladolid. Justin Geoffrey felt a keener interest in the macabre hints von Junzt had given in Nameless Cults. A hundred years before, von Junzt and his friend Ladeau had come to this very region, and the German had inveigled his way into certain cults of the Basques, a very ancient people he was convinced were related to the Etruscans and the prehistoric Picts described in the Nemedian Chronicles. He had been almost forthright concerning nests of the hideous Deep Ones beneath the stormy surface of the Bay of Biscay. In Bilbao, and then after he crossed the Pyrenees to Bayonne and Bordeaux, Geoffrey wrote several poems about the horrors of the unplumbed sea.
Passing through France, he paused longest in the region which in the Middle Ages was known as Averoigne. Geoffrey knew a good deal about its legends, the strange beings said to haunt it even in his day, and the medieval sorcerers such as Azedarac and Luc le Chaudronnier who had flourished there. From Nameless Cults he was fully aware that von Junzt and Ladeau had also been in the Averoigne district before him, and experienced one or two disturbing adventures in Vyones. In Germany he visited Schloss Kurenthal outside Dusseldorf, the ancestral castle of the von Junzt barons, and the ruins of the tenth-century monastery where the Nemedian Chronicles had been penned by an Irish monk.
His nightmares had plagued him endlessly during his time in Ireland, nor did they give him peace as he travelled in Europe. His poems dealt more and more with the theme of encroaching madness, the lack of hope or meaning in human existence, the conviction that the universe was ruled by malevolence and chaos. A number of his letters to Derby expressed his conviction that he would die in a madhouse.
Then, in 1921, while passing through Hungary, he stopped at the village of Stregoicavar, which in ancient times – a thousand years or more before Christ – had been known as Xuthltan, a word from a lost, unknown language. The strange monument known locally as the “Black Stone” had been described in von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, and naturally Justin Geoffrey paid it a visit, looking at it for a long time and running his hands over the curious mineral of which it was made. The local innkeeper remembered him as “… a young fellow and queer-acting – mumbled to himself – a poet, I think.” When he was in-formed, ten years later, that Justin had died screaming in a madhouse, he was not amazed. His only comment was, “Poor lad – he looked too long at the Black Stone.”
(The location of Stregoicavar would be worth another post.)
The narrator of the story, by its end, reaches the conclusion, “Well for Justin Geoffrey that he tarried there only in the sunlight and went his way, for had he gazed upon that ghastly conclave [of ghosts], his mad brain would have snapped before it did.” He also declares, “… but the seeds of madness had been sown in the poet’s brain long before he ever came to Stregoicavar.”
So they had. However, visiting the Black Stone did nothing to prolong Justin’s fragile sanity, and he must have received disturbing psychic impressions from it. In Hungary he wrote his longest, possibly his most fantastic and terrible poem, “People of the Monolith”. His perennial nightmares began to include, after that, visions of great toadlike horrors with squashy, malleable bodies. They possessed broad boneless wings they could retract within their bodies when not flying, and having that ability despite their bulk – rhinocerotic or greater – seemed to prove they could wholly or partly ignore gravity. They also possessed tentacles. In some cases they had taloned feet, in others misshapen hoofs. Their characteristic sound was a hideous tittering that seemed to express extremes of lust and demonic cruelty. At this time or shortly afterwards, Justin wrote the lines,
They say foul beings of Old Times still lurk
In dark forgotten corners of the world,
And Gates still gape to loose, on certain nights,
Shapes pent in Hell.
It was then too, or in Turkey, that Justin wrote Out of the Old Land, with the passage,
They lumber through the night
With their elephantine tread;
I shudder in affright
As I cower in my bed.
They lift colossal wings
On the high gable roofs
Which tremble to the trample
Of their mastodonic hoofs.
That outpouring of work continued after his return to the U.S.A. in 1923 – but only briefly. The nightmares which had long haunted his sleep entered his waking hours, afflicting him with hallucinations, making him see weird alien landscapes and bizarre monsters where other people saw parks and woodland. On several occasions he fled screaming in the street from demons no-one else could see, or believe in. Before the end of 1923 he was confined in an asylum.
He might have survived an indefinite time there, or even been released, though that seems unlikely – but he was to suffer the last shattering experience that made an end of Justin Geoffrey. H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Call of Cthulhu” records “outré mental illness and outbreaks of group folly or mania in the spring of 1925.” People around the world, especially those of poetic or artistic temperament, “dream of great Cyclopean cities of Titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror.” Arthur Wilcox, an eccentric young sculptor, was among them. On March 23rd, he lapsed into a semi-conscious feverish state and hallucinated – or received psychic visions of – a monstrous being miles high, with talons and a tentacled face. Many artists and poets had similar experiences between March 23rd and April 2nd. One “widely known architect with leanings toward theosophy and occultism, went violently insane on the date of young Wilcox’s seizure, and expired several months later after incessant screamings to be saved from some escaped denizen of hell.”
If that was the architect’s fate, Justin Geoffrey’s seems to have been inevitable. R’lyeh, the citadel of great Cthulhu – or part of it — briefly rose again from the abyss at the bottom of the Pacific in 1925, and Cthulhu was as briefly freed. As the narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu” says, “He must have been trapped by the sinking whilst within his black abyss, or else the world would by now be screaming with fright and frenzy.” That was precisely what happened to a number of artistic or psychically sensitive people around the world – and it was impossible that Justin Geoffrey of all men would have been oblivious to the resurgent horror.
Nor was he. “Screaming with fright and frenzy” was precisely how the unfortunate young man died, a year later, his nightmares even more intense and horrific. His shrieks and convulsions wore out his body, and no drug or medicine could alleviate the visions he suffered. As Conrad says, “Toward the last, they merged so terribly with his waking thoughts that they seemed grisly realities and his dying shrieks and blasphemies shocked even the hardened keepers of the madhouse.”
In pace requiescat – or so let’s hope.
Like many Howard fans, I was first introduced to his lusty characters through Marvel comics. Piggy-backing on the success of Lancer’s paperbacks, Marvel launched the four-color Conan in 1970. It ushered in a comics phenomenon that continues until today, almost half a century later. Let’s look at some of the highlights of Howard’s comics career, starting with Conan and Kull.
I think it is significant that Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian was released in 1970, a watershed year, heralding the end of the Sixties and the love and peace generation. The black-maned barbarian may have worn his hair long, but nobody would’ve mistaken him for a pacifistic flower child. Here was a red-blooded, assertive hero for a new era in which the disillusionment of Vietnam seeped into pop culture, spawning a generation of amoral anti-heroes. Eschewing garish, day-glo spandex and traditional heroic virtues, Conan anticipated the punk movement, which swept away the last vestiges of the love generation. He was a Hyborian Sid Vicious avant la lettre with a broadsword.
Naturally, I didn’t realize any of that when I first came across the character on the cover of CtB #4 on a newsstand in Melbourne in the early Seventies. I was about nine years old and a loyal Marvelite and superhero devotee. I recognized the Marvel logo, but who was this bare-chested, helmeted lout masquerading as a hero? I didn’t know and I wasn’t interested despite the pulp allure of the giant spider and the scantily-clad damsel in distress. It all seemed a bit seedy and steamy. Being a good little Catholic, I was more interested in wholesome Peter Parker and his virginal sweetheart Gwen Stacy. So, I passed on the classic “Tower of the Elephant,” a decision that was to haunt me for many a year. Ah, the sins of youth.
Green Empress of Melniboné
I wouldn’t become a full-blown Conan fan for another year or two with issues 14 and 15. At the time, I was really enjoying Barry Smith’s short run on the Avengers. Issues 98 and 99 had already come out and I was looking forward to issue 100 with all the anticipation a pre-pubescent boy can summon (and that’s plenty). One fateful afternoon, I found my big brother lounging on the living room couch reading his latest acquisitions. Even upside down, I recognized Smith’s distinctive style, but I mistakenly thought it was the eagerly-anticipated Avengers #100. Little did I realize it at the time that it was something even better. Due to the unpredictable vicissitudes of comic distribution in Australia in the early 70s, my brother had managed to snag issues 14 and 15 of Conan. It was a rip-roaring double-parter pitting Conan and Elric of Melniboné against the evil sorcerer Zukala and the Green Empress of Melniboné. I had never read anything quite as enthralling and exciting, nor seen art as mesmerising and visceral, marrying an ornate grace with an almost operatic sturm-und-drang. It made me a fan of Conan and Barry Smith for life.
My next introduction to the Howard’s creations and the sword and sorcery genre came shortly after. I’m not completely sure of the chronology, so forgive me if I play loose and fast with history. My brother had come home with another treasure; Monsters on the Prowl #16 featuring Kull the Conqueror. He looked vaguely like Conan, but the artwork was clearly not Smith, which was a bit of a let-down initially. This was actually Kull’s fourth Marvel appearance. He had debuted a bit earlier in Creatures on the Loose #10 in a story by none other than Berni Wrightson in a story called “The Skull of Silence.” It is a beautifully illustrated tale and the young Wrightson does himself proud. It was probably better than what Smith was doing on Conan at the same time. It would be years, however, before I would ever lay eyes on that masterpiece. Kull then premiered in his eponymous mag, illustrated by the unlikely and miss-matched team of Ross Andru and Wally Wood.
Issue 2 of Kull the Conqueror saw the debut of the mag’s regular artistic team consisting of the siblings Marie and John Severin. They would go onto craft a wonderful 10-issue run on the mag, which is among the highlights of sword & sorcery comics. It took me a little while to get used to the Severins’ artwork compared to Smith’s, but once I made the mindshift, I loved their work almost equally. John Severin’s meticulous inks lent the mag a classic look that owed more to Harold Foster’s Prince Valiant than to Smith, who was then writing the book on sword and sorcery comics. Severin’s take is more traditional and less visceral than Smith’s, but it has a timeless, illustrative quality that easily makes it stand the test of time. Monsters on the Prowl (MotP) #16 with its fetid swamps, leviathans and serpent men sent thrills and chills down my spine. Until this day I still remember with a shudder the scene in which a young guardsman begs Kull to kill him before he comes under the thrall of the loathsome serpent men. The noble Kull honors his request without hesitation. This was a different kind of hero than your average Marvel adventurer.
A Phantasmagorical Feast
My next big Howard thrill came with Kull #3, which takes place after right after Monsters on the Prowl #16. The story pits Kull and his faithful companion Brule the Spearslayer against the evil necromancer, Thulsa Doom.
An epic battle unfolds, in which the barbarian king confronts skeletal horses, demons, goblins and all kinds of other horrors conjured up by Doom. Kull eventually wins the mismatched battle through a combination of sheer grit, tenacity and valor. The Severins turned in a beautiful job and the issue is a phantasmagorical visual feast, the likes of which had never been witnessed in comics before. This was real sword and sorcery. Both issues were superbly scripted by Roy Thomas, but issue 3 was his last issue for the nonce. The Severins went on produce another seven issues of Kull with various writers. They were all beautiful to behold and provide good solid, sword and sorcery thrills, but they never again reached the pinnacle of MotP #16 and Kull #3 with Roy at the writing helm.
“The Black Hound of Vengeance”
My next encounter with Smith’s Conan came a few months later, when I stumbled across a copy of issue 20 while visiting my father’s work in the heart of Melbourne. It was another mind-blowing mag and until this day “The Black Hound of Vengeance” remains my second favorite issue of Smith’s color run on Conan and among my most cherished sword & sorcery comics ever. Within the span of mere two years, Smith had developed into a masterful storyteller, producing seamless visual narratives. The pacing and staging was incredible as Smith masterfully manipulated the reader, just as the evil sorcerer of besieged Makkelet, Kharim Azar, sends Conan scurrying like a scared rat through his labyrinth of mirrors, pulling his strings like a master puppeteer. This imagery is further enhanced by the image of a puppet with severed strings in the bottom panel of page 19.
These kinds of subtle visual cues showed Smith’s complete mastery of his craft, even at such a young age. Of course, I had no idea why Smith’s work had such a powerful impact on me. All I knew is I wanted more, which led me on a year’s long search for back issues.
The great joy of Barry Smith’s meteoric rise to fame on Conan is tracing his rapid evolution from a faux Kirby on Conan #1 to a consummate comics artist with a distinctive style all his own. Smith’s unique combination of cinematic story-telling with an unerring eye for decorative detail, presented comic readers with “an age undreamed of.” To be honest, you had to be a veritable Oracle of Delphi to predict his later greatness based on issue 1, but he progressed by leaps and bounds, producing a certifiable comics classic with the aforementioned “Tower of the Elephant.” Issue 4 is universally acclaimed as Smith’s first great work and it is a fine comic, but as far as I’m concerned Smith’s first real masterpiece is Conan #7; “The God in the Bowl.” This probably has something to do with Dan Adkins doing part of the inks.
Seeds of Greatness
Smith quickly went from strength to strength, developing at an amazing rate under the constant deadline pressures. You see his decorative style slowly emerge under Sal Buscema’s overpowering inks and his storytelling prowess improves with leaps and bounds. Smith reached his peak when he found an inker more sensitive to his pencils like Dan Adkins. Outside of his self-inked work, Smith produced his best material on Conan with the assistance of Adkins. Sadly they only did a handful of issues together.
During his short tenure on Conan, Smith actually produced his best work on the b&w mags, where free of tight deadlines, he was allowed more time to give free rein to his imagination and to ink his own work. His first b&w tale was The Frost Giant’s Daughter for Savage Tales (ST) #1, followed shortly after by the amazing Dweller in the Dark, which bears all the seeds of latter-day Smith’s greatness; ornateness, opulence, decadence, sensuality and hair-trigger violence.
Smith Sees Red
Smith’s evolving style is often mistakenly described as art noveau, but it owes more to the romantic, illustrative style of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood than the more decorative work of Beardsley and Mucha. This style reached its peak in on Ctb #24; The Song of Red Sonja and his epic two-part adaptation of Red Nails in ST 2 & 3. Red Sonja was Smith’s swansong on CtB and a fine tune it was. He went all out on the issue, inking and coloring it himself. It’s an exquisitely rendered tale full of lusty, red-blooded action, as Conan allows the eponymous Red Sonja to let his loins do his thinking for him.
The story contains some of most subtly sensual imagery in comics up until then. Despite Smith’s delicate handling, Marvel still felt it necessary to move Conan’s hands from under the water’s surface, where they were having a party and place them demurely on the small of Sonja’s back. Smith certainly went out in style, but he would return for an encore and what an encore it was.
Farewell Fab Barry
With Red Nails, Smith’s comics career reached its absolute zenith. It’s his Abbey Road. Like the Fab Four, Smith’s talents developed at an unprecedented pace. Compare the bubblegum pop of Please, Please Me to the sublime song-smithing on Abbey Road. The difference is light years apart and not a mere 8 years. Now compare CtB #1 with Red Nails, a mere three years later. There is a quantum leap in quality. As if sensing it would be his final word on the character he helped catapult to iconic status, Smith pulled out all the stop, leisurely pacing the story and even adopting a new, lush inking style, perfectly utilizing the b&w medium. Rarely had the comics medium witnessed such finely-wrought, fully-conceived, evocative imagery. The result is a visual cornucopia of vivid images that etch themselves into the reader’s minds-eye like those catchy Beatles song, lingering long after the final page has been turned on. And thus the book closed on Smith’s Conan career, ending an era in the mag’s history.
The Common Denominator
The common denominator in most of these stories is writer Roy Thomas, who ensured Howard was first adapted into comics and who skilfully shepherded his various creations for more than a decade. Thomas deserves a great deal of credit for his masterful work on Howard’s properties, displaying a clear understanding of their characters and respect for them. He also did a fine job of translating Howard’s prose and ethos to comics, presenting a much more faithful version than most of Howard’s prose pastichers. Doug Moench wrote some decent material on Kull, as did Alan Zelenetz, but when it came to Marvel, nobody wrote better sword and sorcery than Roy.
End of part one. In part two; Barbarians in Full Color B&W, David takes a look at more Howardian highlights in comics, including the Thomas/Buscema era on Ctb and Savage Sword of Conan, Mike Ploog on Kull, Frank Brunner’s only Conan classic and Solomon Kane’s storied comics career.
In November 2011, along with many of his family members and other Robert E. Howard fans, I attended Glenn Lord’s 80th birthday party at the Monument Inn in La Porte, Texas. As usual, there was lots of good conversation with good friends. Besides a special birthday cake (baked by Glenn’s wife Lou Ann, if I remember correctly) the big highlight was the new book Anniversary: Glenn Lord and the Howard Collector that was distributed to all the guests by its editor, Dennis McHaney. It contained a series of Glenn Lord tributes by such Howardists as Fred Blosser, Rusty Burke, Bill Cavalier, Frank Coffman, Leo Grin, Paul Herman, Don Herron, Morgan Holmes, Patrice Louinet, Dennis McHaney, James Reasoner, Rob Roehm, Damon Sasser, Roy Thomas and me. In addition to these articles, this limited edition book included a history of the Howard Collector (the prozine founded by Glenn Lord) and five REH stories. I remember how pleased Glenn was as he paged through it.
It was a wonderful weekend for me. The day before I had lunched with Lou Ann and Glenn in Galveston. Glenn was pretty quiet at first but later we discussed a variety of subjects. The highlight for me that afternoon was listening to Glenn’s low voice as he quoted lines from several of his favorite REH poems. (For more details about the luncheon and the birthday party, see here.)
Like the Galveston lunch, the birthday party the next day was perhaps not as short as it seemed. But both were over all too soon. As I left, I kissed Glenn on the cheek and got a hug in return. I had also attended his 78th birthday celebration in 2009 and I planned to attend them every other year in the future. Sadly, there wouldn’t be any more. He died on December 31, 2011 – just six weeks later.
Glenn and I only met a few times. Yet anyone with a deep appreciation of Howard’s prose and poetry realizes the debt of gratitude we all owe Glenn. He began his search for more Robert E. Howard texts because he loved REH’s poetry. Lou Ann told me many stories about searches in dusty attics, garages, and storerooms. Over the years, this meant sifting through literally thousands of pieces of papers just to track down more original Robert E. Howard typescripts.
That Howard fans today can read REH’s words as he wrote them is due to Glenn Lord. He is the Father of Howard Fandom as well as the glue that bonded us together. I still miss him!
For further information and background about Glenn Lord, see:
“In Memoriam” by Damon Sasser, February 14, 2012, which provides links to the tributes and remembrances written by Howard fans, and includes a Glenn Lord biography, an audio interview with Glenn, information about the funeral arrangements and an obituary.
“The Legacy of Glenn Lord: REH’s Life’s Work Preserved for Posterity” by Damon Sasser, August 12, 2013.
Conceived and bred in blackened pits of hell,
The poems come that set the stars on fire;
Born of black maggots writhing in a shell
Men call a poet’s skull – an iron bell
Filled up with burning mist and golden mire.
Robert E. Howard, “Which Will Scarcely Be Understood”
Having finished my previous post here with some speculation as to who built the eerie house that had such a malign influence on the boy Justin Geoffrey, I think it’d be fitting to continue with a post about Howard’s mad poet. REH’s fragment “The House” is filled with information about Geoffrey’s background and early life that is priceless to any researcher. Lovecraft supplied some authoritative “facts” about Geoffrey too, as in “The Thing on the Doorstep.”
“The House” was never published in REH’s lifetime. If he’d revised it for printing, a couple of things might have been different. For instance, Conrad says that Justin Geoffrey met “his death at the age of twenty-one”. But we’re also told that Justin “finished high school” before he left the family home, and was down-and-out, starving, in Greenwich Village at the age of seventeen. That leaves a gap of four years. But he travelled to Hungary, which must have been after his time in Greenwich Village, and “looked too long at the Black Stone.” His death in a madhouse was five years after that. “The Black Stone” tells us so, and since that story was published while Howard lived (Weird Tales, November 1931), it has to be given more weight. Besides, in “The Thing on the Doorstep” (Weird Tales, January 1937) Lovecraft refers to “the notorious Baudelairean poet Justin Geoffrey, who wrote “The People of the Monolith” and died screaming in a madhouse in 1926 after a visit to a sinister, ill-regarded village in Hungary.”
For those reasons I tend to accept the usual dates for Justin Geoffrey’s life – 1898 to 1926 – and to think that he was twenty-eight when he died, not twenty-one.
Glitches in chronology aside, “The House” tells us much about Geoffrey’s ancestry and siblings. The Geoffrey family came to America in the late 17th century “to rebuild their fortunes.” It’s probable that, if they were West Country folk and Protestant, they were accused of treason after the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 and deprived of lands and wealth, a couple at least being sentenced to slavery in the West Indies, like Captain Blood in Sabatini’s novel. When James II was deposed in favor of William of Orange in 1688, the transported Geoffreys were pardoned, and their relatives came to the Indies to ensure their release according to the law. Afterwards – I assume – they all moved to New York. A stolid, middle class breed even then, for they seem to have been minor country gentry, not aristocrats, they became merchants and prospered in the new land.
At the 19th century’s end, when Justin was born, his parents evidently lived in Poughkeepsie. The fragment doesn’t mention that city, but it seems likely for several reasons. The experience which changed the ten-year-old Justin so markedly took place at “a small village in New York State – up close to the foot of the Catskills.” His family was visiting friends there. That area is close to Poughkeepsie. One of Justin’s sisters graduated from Vassar College, located in Poughkeepsie. The town is, and was then, a center of commerce and manufacturing, well suited to the kind of people Justin’s kin are described as being.
When my series on Helen Tavrel ended, I imagined she had married her companion, Stephen Harmer, and went with him to Massachusetts. They prospered in the shipping business. It’d be nicely ironic if a descendant of theirs with the maiden name of Harmer had been Justin Geoffrey’s mother – that conventional brood springing from a pirate hellcat! Maybe the Harmers covered up Helen’s past – in her own day, because it would have meant a noose for her, in later generations because they didn’t want the shame made public.
In passing, Conrad was too cocksure that his investigation of the Geoffrey line was complete. Unknown to their posterity, there could easily have been a bastard of some poet, gambler or madman in there some-where. It happens in the best families, more often than ever gets into the record. Conrad also seems to have investigated the Geoffrey family line more thoroughly than the mother’s side, which he hardly mentions except to say, “… sober, industrious merchants. Both of his parents are of this class, and likewise his brothers and sisters.”
The description of those siblings bears that out. “His brother John is a successful banker in Cincinnati. Eustace is the junior partner of a law firm in New York, and William, the younger brother, is in his junior year in Harvard, already showing the ear-marks of a successful bond salesman. Of the three sisters of Justin, one is married to the dullest business man imaginable, one is a teacher in a grade school and the other graduates from Vassar this year. Not one of them shows the slightest sign of the characteristics which marked Justin. He was like a stranger, an alien among them.”
After he was ten, maybe. Until then, “he was no whit different from his brothers.” He even changed physically. Before, “He had the same stubby build, the same round, dull, good-natured face. One would think a changeling had been substituted for Justin Geoffrey at the age of ten!” (Robert E. Howard, “The House”)
That’s pretty definite. Conrad was fascinated by Justin Geoffrey’s case. Kirowan credits Conrad with “deep knowledge of biology and psychology,” so he must have had a good education which includes those fields. He had certainly been in Vienna – Sigmund Freud’s town, of course – and may have studied there under Professor von Boehnk, whom he mentions in “Dig Me No Grave.”
When Justin was ten, he went fishing with a group of other boys near that small village near the foot of the Catskills, became separated and lost, and slept the night in a grove of oaks surrounding an abandoned old house. Kirowan recognizes “those tall sombre oaks, with the castle-like house half concealed among them” from a painting by the artist Humphrey Skuyler, a friend of his and Conrad’s. This blogger’s theories about “The House” and its builder can be found in the post “Who Are Those Guys?” Briefly, I think he was a misbegotten warlock, one of the evil, sorcerous van der Heyl family (HPL, “The Diary of Alonzo Typer”) on his mother’s side, and a xenophobic Martense (HPL, “The Lurking Fear”) on his sire’s. The faintly Oriental architecture of “The House” was due to the man’s having spent years in the Dutch East Indies, particularly the Aceh sultanate in Sumatra.
It isn’t a pleasant structure. “It made me shudder,” says Kirowan. “It fairly exudes an aura of abnormality,” says Skuyler. “A ring of tall, gnarled oaks entirely surrounded the house, which glimmered through their branches like a bare and time-battered skull,” adds Kirowan for good measure.
Something evidently haunted the place. Perhaps the ghost of its former inhabitant, perhaps some waif of the outer dark he had conjured while working his magic, perhaps just the baleful influences of the demons with whom he trafficked in his life and the enchantments he had carried out. But the circumstantial evidence was strong that whatever it was entered the mind of the boy who slept among the oaks and worked in him like yeast afterward.
When found among the oaks next morning, Justin was seemingly unharmed, and there were no signs of trauma. He only said he had vivid and extraordinary dreams “which he could not describe”. He continued to have “wild and fearful dreams which occurred almost nightly” as Conrad says. He also remarks in a disparaging way, “This alone was unusual – the Geoffreys were no more troubled with nightmares than a hog is.” He’s clearly out of sympathy with the prosaic Geoffreys, and refers to their home as a “stifling environment”. It’s easy to perceive REH’s own attitude to the environment of small town Texas, in which he felt trapped and from which he sought escape in his writing, in this fragment.
And his fictional mad poet began to write. Aged eleven, in fact, he penned a poem which included the stanza:
“Beyond the Veil, what gulfs of Time and Space?
What blinking, mowing things to blast the sight?
I shrink before a vague, colossal Face
Born in the mad immensities of Night.”
His family didn’t approve, and tried to stop him writing. Conrad is scathing about their response, but I can’t see that they were wrong to suspect lines like that, especially after his big brother John thumped on him for neglecting his chores to write, and Justin turned on the bigger boy ferociously and struck him – perhaps with something hard and sharp, although we aren’t told – and left John with a scar he still carried as an adult. Even Conrad admits that “Justin’s temper was sudden and terrible.” All since that night in the oaks outside the deserted house. “His eyes blazed with an inner passion and his tousled black hair fell over a brow strangely narrow. That forehead of his was one of his unpleasant features. I cannot say why, but I never glanced at that pale, high, narrow fore-head that I did not … suppress a shudder!”
Puberty and adolescence can certainly account for changes in temperament and physique. Adolescence can be hell, and a lot of us were nothing but prickly, edgy nerve endings, resenting any restraint or intrusion, while we went through it. But none of Justin Geoffrey’s siblings were misfits as extreme as he, just as none showed his precocious talent. The others went through high school, worked diligently if unimaginatively, and went on to college. Justin finished high school unwillingly and refused even to consider college. He rejected mathematics, ignored science, and paid no attention to modern history. But he avidly read everything he could find on the subjects of myth, magic and – I shouldn’t be surprised – ancient and medieval history. Doubtless he shone without effort at English.
Soon after completing high school, he seems to have left Poughkeepsie, and gone to Greenwich Village – a Mecca for unconventional artists and bohemians in general, though there was considerably more to the area – in New York. That would have been in 1914, as the Great War began in Europe, though Justin Geoffrey paid little attention to it. 1914 was also the year Isadora Duncan, dancer and social rebel, came to the United States, and Justin admired her. He possibly knew Duncan had met the occultist Aleister Crowley a few years before, and that Crowley even had an affair with Duncan’s close companion Mary d’Este. It isn’t recorded, though, that Geoffrey ever encountered them.
It is recorded that Geoffrey corresponded with Edward Pickman Derby of Arkham, who at twenty-five was “a prodigiously learned man and a fairly well known poet and fantaisiste though his lack of contacts and responsibilities had slowed down his literary growth by making his products derivative and over-bookish.” (Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”) The critics never viewed Derby’s work as equal in genius or power to Justin Geoffrey’s. But unlike Geoffrey, Derby had parents who indulged him and even took him to Europe on annual journeys. Derby was eight years Geoffrey’s senior, and Derby’s friend and confidante Daniel Upton was eight years older again.
The Village abounded in artists, poets and playwrights. They should have been more congenial to Justin’s temperament than the people he had known in Poughkeepsie, but even in Greenwich Village he found none of the sympathetic affiliations he might have expected. Some “bohemians” he met were as mediocre as anybody in the Poughkeepsie he loathed, pretentious, without a quarter of his talent. Some recognized this and were jealous. Nor was Justin, an intense misfit, a loner whose “temper was sudden and terrible”, haunted by awful dreams and visions from “the mad immensities of Night”, easy to like. In Greenwich Village he was first on record as saying that he was likely to die in a madhouse.
While in Greenwich Village, too, he discovered the poetry of Edward Pickman Derby. The coddled Arkham recluse had published, at eighteen, a collection of poems under the title Azathoth and Other Horrors. That, curiously, had been the same year Justin Geoffrey slept among the oaks outside the old house near the Catskills. Justin read Derby’s poems, wrote to him, and so their correspondence began.
The Golden Goblin Press of New York had brought out an edition of von Junzt’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten (under its English title of Nameless Cults) in 1909. It was lavishly illustrated by Diego Vasquez, and splendidly bound, but fully a quarter of the original material had been excised, as REH informs his readers in “The Thing on the Roof.” Besides, the artistic standards of the publishers had run away with them, and their edition cost too much to sell widely. Justin Geoffrey was not only penniless at the time; he was starving. He perused the edition at the lodgings of one of his Village acquaintances who, flush at the time, had bought the book, chiefly for the Vasquez illustrations. It filled his mind with a craving to study the original of which Derby had told him.
Edward Derby may have saved Justin’s life at that time, indirectly at least. Reading between the lines of Justin’s letters, he realized the boy’s distress. While too impractical and reclusive to take action himself, Derby asked his friend Daniel Upton to visit the youth on his next trip to New York City. Upton complied, and found Justin Geoffrey in a bad way, not only malnourished but haunted by the grotesque nightmares which had begun that night in the Catskills six years earlier.
Geoffrey went to Arkham with Upton and lodged with Edward Derby during 1915. This was years before Derby’s ill-fated attraction to Asenath Waite, which eventually led to Upton’s sending six bullets through Derby’s brain, though he swore Derby had been possessed by another, malign spirit. (Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”)
Daniel Upton’s account does not mention his having met Geoffrey, or the boy’s stay in Arkham. He was more deeply concerned with Derby and the ghastly course of events which led to his destruction. Geoffrey was much taken with “witch-cursed, legend-haunted Arkham”, and as a graduate of Miskatonic University, Derby arranged for him to peruse the unique collection of occult books in Miskatonic’s library. These included the original Dusseldorf edition of Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and the German translation of the Ghorl Nigral by Hermann Mülder. Geoffrey could not read German, but Derby did, and translated aloud for hours. He also wrote down certain passages in English for his youthful guest. Whether this was well-advised, or did Geoffrey any good, is dubious. However, his diet improved in Arkham and he had nightmares less often. He wrote copiously during those months, and produced the first work of his own that he considered excellent. Derby agreed enthusiastically, and helped him publish the work in the collection Towers in the Sky – mentioned in REH’s fragment “The Door to the Garden,” aka “The Door to the World.”
Towers in the Sky caused a sensation in artistic circles from New York to San Francisco, and something of a scandal in Poughkeepsie, but made little money – though if it had, the other Geoffreys might have forgiven Justin its grisly content. He remained poor. As the narrator of “The Black Stone” commented later, “… most of his recognition has come since his death.”
Justin Geoffrey now began to resent that circumstance. He envied his sole friend the ability to travel that his parents’ money gave him. He yearned to do the same. He had never given much thought to acquiring cash before, but he returned to Greenwich Village in 1916 bent on doing just that.
The resolution began a new phase in his life.
Writers such as Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner, and even J.R.R. Tolkien laid the groundwork for a modern literary genre that is often called Sword and Sorcery, but which might better be called “Heroic Fantasy.” These authors established the broad tropes of the genre for today’s times, but we must recognize that this type of heroic storytelling dates far back in history, to the time of Homer and, even earlier, to the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Heroic fantasy is, and always has been, a literature of myth making and myth exploration. As such, it may well be the most important type of literature ever attempted. The tales in this genre are not about telling things the way they are, or even how they were. They’re about telling, or at least hinting at, the deepest mysteries and truths of human existence.
At their core, the themes of heroic fantasy arise out of ancient days, out of a time thousands and even hundreds of thousands of years ago when human consciousness was first struggling into existence, and when we as a race were becoming something more, and less, than animal. In those days the gods and demons and all manner of supernatural beings were real–at least to the people of those times–more real than they can ever be to modern “sophisticated” humans.
Despite what Robert E. Howard once wrote in The Nemedian Chronicles, heroic fantasy is not about “an age undreamed of.” In symbols, at least, we have all dreamt of such an age. Although most elements from the personality theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung have not held up well under the microscope of modern psychological analysis, these authors’ concepts about symbolism and the origins of human thought bear considering for anyone who is interested in literary traditions. (Today, Freud and Jung are actually more influential in the study of literature than in psychology.)
For both Freud and Jung, human prehistory was a time when the seeds of later myths, and of many later truths, were being planted. I believe they are right, though not always for the reasons they suggested. Biologically, modern humans are not very different from the first fully modern Homo sapiens of 200,000 years ago. Brain size and overall brain architecture appear to have remained largely unchanged from then until today, although small scale changes in brain structure are likely to have occurred throughout that time. We know that cultural complexity began to grow rapidly after about 50,000 years ago and subtle reorganizations of the brain might account for that.
But whether we speak of 200,000 year old sapiens or 50,000 year old ones, the fact remains that our mind is their mind, with a lot of culture and a little bit of rational science as icing on the cake. Both the roots and the trunks of our myths, and our realities, arise from the ways that early Homo sapiens tried to understand their mysterious and dangerous world. They told stories to explain their experiences. And those stories have passed down to us as myths. Heroic fantasy is the closest thing we have to modern mythmaking in the great human tradition.
Storytelling is how we all make sense of our world. And despite Heroic Fantasy’s critics, who sometimes refer to it as “juvenile” literature, no other form of modern storytelling does so much to explore the way that humans became human.
That’s the question Butch repeatedly asks Sundance in the movie while the super-posse is hounding them. I felt like asking it myself as I perused some of REH’s horror stories, specifically “The Black Stone,” “The Thing on the Roof” and his Conrad-Kirowan fragment “The House,” in which his two occult investigators probe the early life of the mad poet Justin Geoffrey. Bits of Geoffrey’s verse serve as the epigraphs to both stories. There are mysteries here. Chiefly they concern the identity of the narrators of the stories, neither of whom are named. Can they be the same man? Are they the same as characters in other REH yarns, or are both “TBS” and “TTotR” one-offs?
(I confess this post is largely a shameless, self-serving plug for Nameless Cults, by Deuce Richardson and myself, now finished, and for the novel on which I’m still working, Damned From Birth, a direct sequel to “TTotR.” The readers have been warned. Let’s go.)
In both stories we learn only a few things about the narrators. Both are studious types who like their rare books, and are fascinated by odd events that took place in largely unexplored alleys of history. Both seem to travel quite a bit. Both are acquainted with von Junzt’s magnum opus, Nameless Cults (ah-haaa!) and seem to know the work of the mad poet Justin Geoffrey. Both place an epigraph of Geoffrey’s verse at the head of their accounts. The narrator of “The Black Stone” discusses Geoffrey and his final fate with the village innkeeper of Stregoicavar in Hungary.
We could infer that the two narrators are the same person. They might even be John Kirowan, Conrad’s friend, who accompanies him into the Catskills to check out a sinister old house that affected the boy Justin Geoffrey’s mind. After all, “The Black Stone” takes place in Hungary, and John Kirowan lost the love of his life in Hungary as a young man (“The Haunter of the Ring”). He could have returned there years later to pay his respects at her grave.
The chronology would fit. “Dig Me No Grave” is a definite Conrad and Kirowan yarn, and it just as definitely takes place in 1930. That was the year John Grimlan’s bargain with “the one black master” ran out. It’s equally certain that “The Black Stone” takes place in 1931. The narrator tells the innkeeper that Justin Geoffrey “died screaming in a madhouse five years ago.” Justin Geoffrey died in 1926. If “Dig Me No Grave” takes place in England, on wild, desolate Exmoor – and Deuce Richardson and I both think it does – Kirowan could have travelled from there to the continent.
I can’t quite buy it, though. The person narrating “The Black Stone” doesn’t seem like John Kirowan, the disinherited black sheep of a noble Irish family who travelled the world (Zimbabwe, Mongolia, the South Seas) investigating the black occult arts, or a man with a tragic past. He comes across as a bookish academic, pedantically citing various sources like Dostmann’s Remnants of Lost Empires and Dornly’s Magyar Folklore – all as fictional as Nameless Cults. And he doesn’t seem to know enough about the bizarre and supernatural to be Kirowan.
(For similar reasons, I doubt the Professor Kirowan who is one of the group in Conrad’s study in “The Children of the Night,” is the same person as occult investigator John Kirowan. The latter was never called “Professor” in any of the stories in which he definitely appears, and Professor Kirowan also seems like a waspish academic who doesn’t know nearly enough about dark occult matters. Probably an English relative. The Kirowans, or Kirwans, of Galway were an extensive race.)
To distinguish the two narrators without making a tedious reference in full each time, I’ll call them N1(TBS) and N2(TTotR) from now on.
References to Nameless Cults in the two stories add to the doubt. N1(TBS) says that he “stumbled upon … one of the unexpurgated German copies, with heavy leather covers and rusty iron hasps.” He also thinks “no more than half a dozen such volumes in the entire world today” are left. Contrarily, N2(TTotR) did not “stumble upon” the copy he found. He obtained it for someone else after diligently searching for three months. He too comments on the German edition’s rarity. “He might almost as well have asked me for the original Greek translation of the Necronomicon.”
This being so, it hardly makes sense to have copies of the original Dusseldorf edition of Nameless Cults showing up here, there and everywhere. N1(TBS) obtained one; N2(TTotR) got hold of one; Conrad in “The Children of the Night” has a copy on the shelves of his “bizarrely furnished study”, and I’ll bet that was one of the originals. John Kirowan’s buddy would be satisfied with nothing less. Miskatonic University is sure to have one, or even two. Michael Strang in “The Hoofed Thing” has one in his library – a strong indication that both Conrad and Strang, and also N2(TTotR) have plenty of cash. They couldn’t afford such rare items otherwise. They must be the independently wealthy types who appear so often in pulp fiction of the 1930s and earlier.
It’s fair to suppose that a couple of the above copies, at least, were the same volume. If N1(TBS) and N2(TTotR) were different men, then one of them might have obtained Nameless Cults after the other disposed of it. Michael Strang might have done so too (obtained it or disposed of it). Any assumption that keeps the number of those “extremely rare” Dusseldorf editions to a minimum is a reasonable one to make.
Now there is a link between the stories “The Black Stone” and “The Thing on the Roof”, or what seems like a connection. (Deuce Richardson pointed this out. I completely missed it. Another one I owe him.) N1(TBS) sees a similarity between the strange characters on the Hungarian “Black Stone” and those on “a gigantic and strangely symmetrical rock in a lost valley of Yucatan.” He opined to “the archaeologist who was my companion” that the marks were sophisticated writing and the rock was the “base of a long-vanished column”. The archaeologist “merely laughed” and said the massive base would suggest “a column a thousand feet high.”
Hmm. Deuce is right. N2(TTotR) is an archaeologist, and he has done field work in Yucatan. One of the first things he mentions in “The Thing on the Roof” is his paper, “Evidences of Nahua Culture in Yucatan,” and his academic quarrel with the bull-headed Tussmann over it. He also refers to a “Professor James Clement of Richmond, Virginia” who located his copy of the vanishingly rare Nameless Cults.
A professor. An academic. A man to whom you turn to find a rare book for you. A man who knows all about the history of von Junzt’s “Black Book”. He automatically mentions the publication date and the printing house even of a book he’s only giving a passing mention (Dostmann’s Remnants of Lost Empires, Berlin, 1809, “Der Drachenhaus Press”). He seems a lot like N1(TBS). Seems fair to suppose at this point that the two narrators really are two different men, neither one John Kirowan, but that they are acquainted at least, and that N1(TBS) is Professor James Clement. N2(TTotR) is the still unnamed archaeologist who was his companion in Yucatan, and who laughed at Clement’s speculation about the huge rock they saw in the “lost valley” together. He probably should not have laughed. I infer he was young at the time. And came to take Clement’s view more seriously later.
This blogger is working on a novel that serves as a direct sequel to “The Thing on the Roof” and gives the narrator a name, Boston background, family, fiancée – fleshes him out quite a bit. But none of that is from canonical REH or Lovecraft sources. It doesn’t apply in this context. And nothing in REH, so far as I know, sheds any more light on the background, career, or even name, of N2(TTotR).
He wouldn’t be Costigan in “The Little People.” Nothing in that story suggests he’s an archaeologist, and nothing in “TTotR” suggests that its narrator is an amateur boxer “with a terrific punch in either hand”, as Costigan is. John O’Brien in “People of the Dark” doesn’t seem like a candidate either. He too is no academic, no archaeologist. “I was born and raised in a hard country,” he says, “and have lived most of my life on the raw edges of the world, where a man took what he wanted, if he could, and mercy was a virtue little known.” Hardly the type an archaeologist like Tussmann would approach to procure for him a rare book like Nameless Cults.
He could possibly be James O’Brien of “The Cairn on the Headland”, as O’Brien is an accomplished and successful scholar. “TTotR” might have happened after eerie circumstance (and the god Odin) rid O’Brien of the blackmailer Ortali. But O’Brien’s line appears to be Gaelic language and history, not Central American ancient cultures. A man established and highly regarded in one field of scholarship wouldn’t shift to another, especially once he was rid of the blood-sucking extortionist who had made his life miserable for ages, and was free to enjoy the rewards of his regular work – in which he “commanded an enormous salary”.
I reckon the verdict there has to be “not proven” – but not too likely.
REH’s mad poet, Justin Geoffrey, has a connection with both “TTotR” and “TBS”. A few lines of his verse form the epigraph or motto to both stories. He is the subject of a conversation in “TBS”, which attests that he too visited that “sinister, ill-regarded village in Hungary”. Justin Geoffrey is without doubt a part of the shared Howard-Lovecraft universe. “TTotR” mentions “the original Greek translation of the Necronomicon.” “The Thing on the Doorstep” names Lovecraft’s character Edward Pickman Derby of Arkham as “a close correspondent of the notorious Baudelairean poet Justin Geoffrey, who died screaming in a madhouse in 1926 …” The same story mentions “the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt.”
REH’s “The House” has Conrad expounding to his friend Kirowan his certainty that Justin Geoffrey’s extraordinary differences to the other members of his – very mundane – family were due to an experience when he was ten. He was lost overnight near a village (called Old Dutchtown) at the foot of the Catskills in New York State. He slept in a grove of trees near a curious old house, long abandoned, that no-one evidently wanted to own. The artist Humphrey Skuyler says, “It fairly exudes an aura of abnormality … that is, to a man sensitive to such impressions … There’s something almost Oriental about the thing, and yet it’s not that either … At any rate, it’s old – that cannot be denied.”
Young Justin didn’t enter the house, merely slept near it. Yet apparently it caused him to become such an off-the-wall person and eventually go mad. Why did the house exert such a baleful influence, and who (a horrid character, we can assume) built it where he did? To paraphrase this post’s title … who was that guy?
No-one in the fragment knows. Conrad and Kirowan can’t find out. The owners of both adjoining properties deny it belongs to them. Their friend Skuyler the artist, who was impressed enough by the ominous place to paint a canvas of it, has no idea. Even the mayor of the nearby burg, Old Dutchtown, cannot tell them.
There are three signposts that might point the way for a start. Justin Geoffrey is a character in the Howard-Lovecraft universe. The house stands at the foot of the Catskills. It was built long ago, near “Old Dutchtown.”
Lovecraft had at least two old Dutch families with ghastly histories in his canon, and they both lived in grim, ill-starred big houses. The Martenses of Tempest Mountain (in the Catskills!) in “The Lurking Fear” were one. They were inbred, numerous (a bit too numerous) and characterised by mismatched eyes, one brown, one blue. They also reacted to thunderstorms with horror and intense, violent nervous excitement.
The other Dutch clan, which flourished in the days when New York was still New Amsterdam and one-legged Peter Stuyvesant its governor, was van der Heyl. The Martenses were only degenerate. The van der Heyls (“The Diary of Alonzo Typer”) were vile and diabolic warlocks from far back. They moved from Albany to Attica in 1746 “under a curious cloud of witchcraft suspicion” and built a “large country house” there. The van der Heyls and their servants all “suddenly and simultaneously disappeared” in 1872.
It’s this blogger’s hypothesis that a Martense man left home, went to work for the van der Heyls in the early 17th century, and married a van der Heyl woman. They were prosperous fur traders then, and had shipping interests in the Dutch East Indies, along with their secret diabolism. “The Lurking Fear” records one instance of a Martense man who did go into the outer world later, in the 1750s, and when he returned after years, his own kindred murdered him and buried him in an unmarked grave. I’m supposing the earlier one prospered and stayed away, sagacious fellow.
Further speculation. He and his van der Heyl wife had a son. The boy had the mismatched Martense eyes, and of course the Martense surname. As an adult, he went out to the East Indies as a van der Heyl agent, and did a fine job trading for them there – in nutmeg, sandalwood, and other commodities. He spent a few years in Aceh, Sumatra. He also learned a good deal about the local varieties of black magic, true to his inheritance on the mother’s side. Back in America, though, he grew sick of having his relatives regard him as less than a true van der Heyl, and broke with them at last. Going back to the Catskills (though not to Tempest Mountain) he built his own “castle-like house” close to the foot of those mountains. Settling there, he practiced the fiendish magic of his mother’s kin and the malignant isolationism of the Martense breed. At last he died.
It would account for the atypical architecture of the house. “Almost Oriental … and yet it’s not that either.” If the builder had spent years in Java, Aceh and Makassar, that would explain it. If his ghost haunted the place, or it remained imbued with his dark sorceries, that could also explain its effect on young Justin Geoffrey. And maybe the above gives a partial answer to the question of who “those guys” were …
“ … the Druses who worship the Gold Calf … ”
Robert E. Howard, “Three-Bladed Doom”
It must have been nice, in some ways, to write for the pulps in the old days. You certainly didn’t have to worry about being tactful to minorities or foreigners. Or primitive people. If you wanted horrible villains with sinister, incomprehensible, fanatical motives, hey, you could start with Chinese, go on to voodoo cultists from Haiti or New Orleans, and then proceed to the Middle East for a revived Assassin sect … or Yezidee devil-worshippers (Islamic State these days fully agrees with that one) … or Ahriman cultists from Persia … or Druzes. That last wasn’t used as frequently, but it was used. Any religion that wasn’t western, Christian, and White Anglo-Saxon Protestant at that, could be presented as devil-worship. You could also give your imagination free rein in the happy confidence that your audience didn’t know beans about the tribes or cults concerned.
Or as Robert E. Howard said – to E. Hoffman Price, I think – about Baibars’ speech at the end of “Sowers of the Thunder,” with a grin, “Sure, it was crap. But sometimes you have to do it that way.” To which Price responded, “Damned right you do!”
The earliest bit of gaudy fiction – that I know of – to depict Druzes as devil-worshippers is “The Fire-King” by old Sir Walter Scott. Yes, the author of Ivanhoe, The Talisman, and Quentin Durward, all of which I reckon excellent, if you can get past the rich, old-fashioned language and even more old-fashioned attitudes. “The Fire-King” is a ballad of the Crusades done in pseudo-medieval style, not a prose story. It doesn’t mention the Gold Calf; Scott credits his Druzes with a different sort of demonic idolatry, but demon-worship just the same. Their deity is a terrible djinn of flame, the titular Fire-King.
Briefly, Count Albert goes on crusade, and leaves his faithful “fair Rosalie” at home, waiting. A pilgrim from the Holy Land brings the news that the Christians are winning, but “Count Albert is prisoner on Mount Lebanon.” Rosalie is aghast, but decisive. She takes a horse and a sword and sets out to find him.
That’s the first clue that the heroic count’s captors are Druzes. The Mount Lebanon Range was their original home. Rosalie arrives in Palestine disguised as a knight, like Eleanor de Courcey in REH’s “The Sowers of the Thunder.” But she’s too late. Count Albert has fallen for “the Soldan’s fair daughter,” changed sides and abandoned his faith. And Rosalie withal.
He has thrown by his helmet, and cross-handled sword,
Renouncing his knighthood, denying his Lord;
He has ta’en the green caftan, and turban put on,
For the love of the maiden of fair Lebanon.
The “heathenish damsel” asks him to keep a night-long vigil “ … in the cavern, where burns evermore/the mystical flame which the Curdmans adore.” Second clue that these are Druzes. “Curdmans” is a nineteenth-century term for Kurds, and while Druzes don’t worship fire, the Persian Zoroastrians did. Druzes are clannish, secretive (especially about their religious beliefs) and don’t marry outside the group, but they descend from Kurds and/or Persians. At least, I can quote one famous, high-powered Oriental scholar to that effect.
The leading families among the Druzes have been throughout their history either of full Kurdish and Persian origin or of Persianized and ‘Irāqized Arab origin. That is, they have been either Kurdish and Persian families or tribes from the Arabian peninsula who, before their advent into the Lebanon, sojourned for many generations in Mesopotamia where they became fully indoctrinated with the ‘Alid ideas and subjected to Gnostic and Manichaean influences.
Origins of the Druze People and Religion, by Philip K. Hitti (1924)
Once Count Albert removes his rosary and cross, the evil djinn of flame appears to him and gives him a charmed sword with which he’ll conquer invincibly, until and unless he shall once again “ … bend to the Cross, and the Virgin adore.” No problem, thinks Albert, now a renegade. I’ll never do that. I’m protected to the max.
As always, of course, there’s a loophole and a fatal catch he doesn’t foresee. He inadvertently breaks the Fire-King’s condition at the worst moment, right in the middle of a roaring melee against King Baldwin of Jerusalem and the Templars. Read the ballad for the details; it’s a good yarn and it’s online.
Harking forward to pulp of the early 20th century again, and Howard in particular, he listed the Druzes (in the shorter version of “Three-Bladed Doom” among the other cults that derived from his Zurim or Hidden Ones, “a pre-Canaanitish race who lived in Syria before the coming of the Semitic tribes.” Erlikites, Assassins and Yezidees all derived from the ancient Zurim. The Persian lord of Shalizahr, the Shaykh az Zurim, tells Howard’s hero El Borak that there were also splinters of the cult in Egypt, Persia and India. That sounds rather as though the Brothers of Ahriman (REH, “Black Wind Blowing”) and the Thugs were affiliated with the Zurim also.
Maybe coincidentally – although REH probably read “The Fire-King” – in the yarn “Black Wind Blowing,” Ahriman is described as the “Lord of Fire,” and his evil devotees want a western damsel for sacrifice. Actually Ahriman is the lord of darkness, lies, death and evil, while his opposite, Ormazd, represents sunlight, fire, goodness and life. But the Moslem Arabs who conquered Persia loathed the Zoroastrian fire-worship and represented it as devilish, which may be the source of the idea. (Whenever an evil wizard appears in the Arabian Nights, he’s usually a Persian or posing as one.)
In “Three-Bladed Doom,” REH specifically refers to the Druzes “who worship the Gold Calf.” That wasn’t Howard’s invention. It was widely believed among folk who are not Druzes. It could even have been true so far as ordinary Druzes knew, since the rank and file of the faith aren’t privy to its inner secrets, only the initiates. A circumstance that always encourages everybody to believe the worst.
Hitti considers this aspect of Druze faith in the chapter of his book titled “The Cult of the Calf.” He gives pro and con. The Golden Calf, of course, was the figure of a bull which the Children of Israel worshipped below Mount Sinai when they lapsed from belief in Jehovah. It is a perfect symbol of paganism, and the Druze faith is strictly monotheistic. Philip Hitti writes:
Persistent local rumor continues to associate ‘calf worship’ with the Druze religion, but the Druzes them-selves have with equal persistence and vehemence denied it. No worse curse could even today be levelled against a Druze in the Lebanon than to call him ‘calf worshiper.’ Certain travelers like Pococke gave credence to the report; others including Volney rejected it. That there is jealously guarded and hidden from the uninitiate eye, in one of their leading places of seclusion (khalwah), of which there are about forty in the Lebanon, some gold figure of a calf or bull inside of a silver box has been almost ascertained beyond doubt. A high Druze sheikh has practically admitted in a recent interview the existence of such a box.
The purpose of such an image is a different matter. If it exists. Hitti again, on the question of how it may be interpreted, elucidates.
The question, in view of the secrecy that surrounds the cult and the ambiguity of some of the references, is one of interpretation. De Sacy explains the calf as the emblem of Iblīs (devil), the enemy and rival of al-Ḥākim. Colonel Churchill states that Ḥamzah, indignant at the treachery of his emissary, Darazi, denounced him as the ‘calf whom a deluded people had set up as their idol.’ [Lieutenant Colonel] Conder considers it ‘a relic of older paganism’ which they keep in their solitary meeting places ‘only to treat with insult and contempt.’
If and when the calf cult is proved in the case of the Druze religion, some connection will then be sought with earlier cognate Israelitish and Egyptian cults. Animal worship has greatly figured in Oriental religions, and Christianity bears traces of its survival.
Pulp writers, as I’ve observed, were not scholars. They didn’t have the same purposes as scholars, with one or two exceptions like Harold Lamb, who combined great action writing with a desire to inform as well as entertain. REH admired his work greatly. A desire to be authentic and a capacity for good research imbues a lot of Howard’s stories set in the Orient and the Middle Ages, but he was sometimes rushed and couldn’t take meticulous pains. He also knew perfectly well that a pulp writer could always get mileage out of fiendish Oriental cults with nasty practices.
In at least one of his stories, he represents Druzes as being almost inhuman. This is “Lord of the Dead,” one of his tales of hard-boiled gumshoe Steve Harrison, often confronted by cases in the Oriental district of the un-named town where he operates. It begins with Harrison attacked in an alley by “a snarling, mouthing fury that had fallen on him, talon and tooth. The thing was obviously a man, though in the first few dazed seconds Harrison doubted even this fact … This denizen of the dark not only was as strong as he, but was lither and quicker and tougher than a civilized man ought to be.”
His assailant follows Harrison, tells him, “You shall not escape again,” and swears “By the Golden Calf!” In the subsequent fight the would-be killer loses his knife, gets gashed along the ribs and almost blasted with a shotgun before he decides to run for it and vanishes among the trees. An Oriental scholar named Brent, on the basis of the fanatic’s “hawk-like appearance” and “mention of the Golden Calf”, tells Harrison, “I am sure he is a Druse.” Harrison, slashed, bashed, half-strangled and decidedly irked, roars, “What the hell is a Druse?”
“They live in a mountain district in Syria,” answers Brent. “A tribe of fierce fighters — ”
“I can tell that,” Harrison snarls. “I never ex-pected to meet anybody that could lick me in a stand-up fight, but this devil’s got me buffaloed. Anyway, it’s a relief to know he’s a living human being.”
Harrison goes to a Chinese named Woon Sun for fur-ther information. He asks if these “Druses” are “Moham-medans … Arabs?” Woon Sun replies, “No, they are, as it were, a race apart. They worship a calf cast of gold, believe in reincarnation, and practice heathen rituals abhorred by the Moslems. First the Turks and now the French have tried to govern them, but they have never really been conquered.”
Harrison answers feelingly, “I can believe it, alright.”
Woon Sun is Chinese, and as much as Harrison and Brent, he is looking at the Druzes from the outside. He may not be wholly correct. The Druzes do appear to believe in reincarnation, but as Hitti points out, it can be doubted that they actually worship the Golden Calf. It’s even possible that they keep the image as a symbol of the ancient idolatries of Baal, which they despise, in order to revile it, as Lieutenant Colonel Conder thought.
The Online website, Brotherhoods and Secret Societies, in the section “Hermetecists and Druzes” has this to say about the Druzes:
They covet no proselytes, shun notoriety, keep friendly — as far as possible — with both Christians and Mahometans, respect the religion of every other sect or people, but will never disclose their own secrets.
Vainly do the missionaries stigmatize them as in-fidels, idolaters, brigands, and thieves. Neither threat, bribe, nor any other consideration will induce a Druze to become a convert to dogmatic Christianity. We have heard of two in fifty years, and both have finished their careers in prison, for drunkenness and theft … There never was a case of an initiated Druze becoming a Christ-an. As to the uninitiated, they are never allowed to even see the sacred writings, and none of them have the remotest idea where these are kept.
That their religion exhibits traces of Magianism and Gnosticism is natural, as the whole of the Ophite esoteric philosophy is at the bottom of it. But the characteristic dogma of the Druzes is the absolute unity of God. He is the essence of life, and although incomprehensible and invisible, is to be known through occasional manifestations in human form. Like the Hindus they hold that he was incarnated more than once on earth.
Since the website also has sections on “Ancient Secret Societies, UFOs, and the New World Order” and “Occult Symbols Found on the Bank of America Murals”, I’m not absolutely convinced by the “Ophite Esoteric Philosophy” bit, although it’s a fact that the Druzes were, as Hitti says, “subjected to Gnostic and Manichaean influences”, and the claim about their intractable resistance to con-version is right on target.
REH wrote his Steve Harrison stories in the 1930s, which is to say, after the Druze Revolt of 1925-27. It wasn’t solely a Druze Revolt, and is more often and more accurately called the Great Syrian Revolt today, as it involved Sunni, Alawite, Christian and Shi’a rebels as well as Druzes, all of them eager to end French control of the region. But it certainly gave substance to Brent’s description of Druzes as “a tribe of fierce fighters.” The rebels won early victories, but after that the French sent in thousands of troops, including the Foreign Legion, and shelled and bombed Damascus, destroying much of the city. The revolt was crushed by 1927, and the Druze leader, Sultan al-Atrash, sentenced to death by the French authorities. He fled into exile to avoid the sentence being carried out.
Neither then nor later was the Golden Calf of the Druzes found. Robert Benton Betts gives his views in his book, The Druze (Yale University press, 1990). Betts was a professor at the University of Balamand in Lebanon. He is now retired and living in South Carolina.
Only one person to my knowledge has claimed to have seen the legendary golden calf in this century and that was Francis A. Waterhouse, a former French Legionnaire who wrote about his experiences in Syria during the Druze Rebellion of 1925-27 in a highly sensational and suspect narrative entitled ‘Twixt Hell and Allah. According to Waterhouse, he and a comrade were led by an old Druze man and a naked lad through a hole in the ground (“near the humble Druse village of Tell —– ”) in the Jabal al-Druze to a subterranean cavern where they were allowed to view “the most monstrous effigy that ever beggared imagination.
A Foreign Legionnaire telling war stories wouldn’t necessarily be truthful. Betts calls his account “sen-sational and suspect”. The most suspect thing about it, to me, is the idea that a Druze ancient and a boy of the sect would lead an enemy soldier to the most secret shrine of a secretive religion in the middle of a vicious war. As Eliza Doolittle said, “Not bloody likely.”
Waterhouse served in the 1st Foreign Legion Cavalry Regiment. Besides ‘Twixt Hell and Allah, he wrote another book about his experiences in the Legion, Five Sous a Day. He was wounded in the savage fighting of the Druse Revolt, and honorably released as unfit for com-bat. In 1926 he was hired to wear Legion uniform outside movie theaters to promote Beau Geste. In Five Sous a Day, he insists vehemently that all the incidents he describes in ‘Twixt Hell and Allah did really happen. Decide that for yourself, gentle reader, as you scan this description, in his own words, of the Golden Calf that Waterhouse says he saw “in the dread cavern, deep deep under ground” (Scott).
Towering above our heads on a rough stone dais stood this beast, two long forelegs supporting a grotesque body surmounted by a hideous head in which scintillated two large green stones for the eyes. The beast was graven in solid gold and we stood dumb in wonder, wet with the sweat of fright, gazing … gazing at the Golden Calf of Baal.
Francis A. Waterhouse, ’Twixt Hell and Allah
I’d have to say I prefer REH’s Steve Harrison stories. They’re just as entertaining and no more lurid. Besides, REH didn’t try to tell us they’re strictly true.
Ebony and Crystal: Poems in Verse and Prose (1922, The Auburn Journal) was Clark Ashton Smith’s third volume of poetry, following The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912, Robertson) and Odes and Sonnets (1918, The Book Club of California). Smith had conceived the volume as early as 1916, and by late 1920 had a manuscript which he shopped around to Alfred A. Knopf, Boni & Liveright, and Houghton Mifflin, all of whom turned it down. (SU 148, 167, 186-189) Finally, in 1922 the Auburn Journal was willing to publish the book—“aside from half-a-dozen of the more ‘daring’ erotics”—on credit. (SU 209)
George Sterling helped, providing a preface for the book, going over the proofs, soliciting reviews in newspapers, as well as writing a review of the book which appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin. (SU 11) Problems with the binders delayed the timely publication of the book, which was published in December 1922 in an edition of 500 numbered copies, not counting unbound copies, etc.; Smith says in a letter to Sterling that 550 copies were printed in total, which probably includes unbound copies for review, at a cost to Smith of “about a dollar per copy.” Smith sought to retail them for $2 a copy, from which booksellers would take a commission. (SU 217-218) By May 1923, Smith wrote to Sterling that “The entire bill was $556, of which I still owe $180.”; this suggests that at least 200 copies must have sold, possibly more depending on the bookseller’s commision. To pay off the remainder of the debt, Smith began writing a column for the Auburn Journal. (SU 231) By 1926, Smith still had a hundred copies of Ebony & Crystal in stock; in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft in 1936, Smith admitted that the stock was “not yet exhausted.” (SU 272, SLCAS 278)
In August 1922, several months before Ebony and Crystal was published, Smith gained a new correspondent. H. P. Lovecraft and Smith shared a mutual friend in Samuel Loveman, to whom E&C is dedicated, and at Loveman’s suggestion Lovecraft began writing to Smith. (LNY 19) Through Lovecraft, Smith and his work began to be exposed to a wider circle—Lovecraft published a review of E&C in the amateur periodical L’Alouette (Jan 1924), and promoted the book to friends and correspondents—including Robert E. Howard, who Lovecraft had starting exchanging letters with in 1930. In a letter dated 24 July 1933, Lovecraft wrote to Robert E. Howard:
By the way—I enclose a circular of Clark Ashton Smith’s new brochure of weird stories, all of which are splendid. I advise you to pick up this item—and also the book of poems at its reduced price. (MF 2.619)
The “brochure” was The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies (June 1933), a collection of weird fiction privately printed for Smith by the Auburn Journal. Smith advertised the sale of of The Double Shadow for 25¢ a piece, and the remainder of the copies of Ebony and Crystal marked down to $1 each; besides the announcements circulated by Lovecraft, the advertisements ran in The Auburn Journal, The Fantasy Fan, Science Fiction Digest, Fantasy Magazine, and (for The Double Shadow only) Weird Tales. (ED 205)
As it happened, Lovecraft was slightly behind on events. In the first surviving letter from Robert E. Howard to Clark Ashton Smith, postmarked 15 March 1933, Howard thanks Smith for a copy of The Double Shadow, and adds:
I am enclosing a check for Ebony and Crystal and would feel most honored if you would write your autograph on the fly page. (CL 3.42)
Smith obliged, on the title page of Howard’s copy of the book, which was printed without fly-leaves, Smith inscribed the date, 4 July 1933, and the simple message:
For Robert E. Howard,
These litanies to Astarte and Hecate and Dagon and Demogorgon.
With fraternal good wishes,
Clark Ashton Smith
There is a slight discrepancy between the publishing date of The Double Shadow (June 1933), the date of Smith’s inscription (4 July), and Howard’s reception of it and order for Ebony & Crystal (postmarked 15 March); on the face of it, the likelihood is that the envelope’s postmark doesn’t correspond with the letter. Howard for his part was enthusiastic, as recorded in his reply to Smith, dated 22 July 1933:
I can hardly find words to express the pleasure — I might even say ecstasy — with which I have read, and re-read your magnificent Ebony and Crystal. Every line in it is a gem. I could dip into the pages and pick at random, anywhere in the book, images of clarity and depth unsurpassed. I haven’t the words to express what I feel, my vocabulary being disgustingly small. But so many of your images stir feeling of such unusual depth and intensity, and bring back half forgotten instincts and emotions with such crystal clearness. (CL 3.96)
The 152 page book contains 94 poems and 20 prose-pastels; despite the efforts to proof the book before publication, several of the extant books contain corrections in Smith’s own hand. Howard went on to expound on several of the contents:
For instance, the stanza containing the line: “The pines are ebony”. A memory springs up with startling clearness of a starlit glade wherein I stood, years ago and hundreds of miles distant, a glade bordered with pine trees that rose like a solid wall of blackness. “Ebony”. I have never encountered a darkness like that of a pine-forest at midnight. And again, “Winter Moonlight” and the line: “Carven of steel or fretted stone.” It limns a picture of last winter when I was struck with the weird and somber imagery of a tall mesquite tree etched against a snowy land and the dimly gleaming steel of a cloudy winter sky. (CL 3.96-97)
Refers to Impression (“The silver silence of the moon,” E&C 10); and Winter Moonlight (“The silence of the silver night,” E&C 71) respectively. Howard’s final praise was reserved for the centerpiece of the volume: The Hashish-Eater; or, the Apocalypse of Evil (“Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams,” E&C 49-64), a 582-line epic which would provide one of Smith’s most enduring epithets:
But I could go on indefinitely. I will not seek to express my appreciation of “The Hashish-Eater”. I lack the words. I have read it many times already; I hope to read it many more times. (CL 3.97)
The Texan closed out the letter with:
And in the meantime, my sincerest congratulations on Ebony and Crystal, and thanks for the intriguing inscription on the leaf. (CL 3.97)
Smith appreciated Howard’s comments, and his estimation of Howard’s own poetry seems to have raised his opinion of the Texan, as he wrote to August Derleth in a letter dated 29 August 1933:
H. seemed very appreciative of my book of poems, Ebony and Crystal, and evidently understood it as few people have done. (SLCAS 219)
Howard for his part confirmed in a letter to Lovecraft c. September 1933, writing that “Yes, I got both Smith’s brochure and his book of poems, as I told him.” (MF 2.634, CL 3.108)
Ebony and Crystal remained in Robert E. Howard’s library at the time of his death on 11 June 1936. Dr. Isaac M. Howard decided to donate the books in his son’s library, including E&C, to his son’s alma mater, Howard Payne College, as recounted in an article in the Brownwood Bulletin 29 June 1936, which reads in part:
The library consists of some 300 books, the great majority of which deal with history and biography. More than 50 volumes of current drama and current poetry are included in the collection.
Along with the books, the college acquired a complete file of all the magazines which carry the literary contributions of Robert E. Howard. Included in this file are short stories, novelettes, and book length novels and many poems.
The library is being prepared for cataloguing and circulation and is to be known as “The Robert E. Howard Memorial Collection.” (CLIMH 62)
The collection was also augmented by donations from Howard’s friends, including H. P. Lovecraft and R. H. Barlow. The college affixed the new acquisitions with a special bookplate, and then appears to have sent them into general circulation—as Steve Eng noted, “Such is standard library practice with any donation made in someone’s memory.” (TDB 183-184) The indifferent treatment upset Dr. Howard, who wrote to Farnsworth Wright on 19 December 1936 regarding the collection of his son’s pulp magazines:
These magazines were installed and I was particular enough to have Howard Payne College place his Library in a room part from all the rest of the Library in the College. I took the utmost pains to have this collection placed in such manner as to preserve it entirely.
I was in the Library one day this week. I find that they are wearing the backs off of his magazines. The net thing the leaves will be falling apart, and all that Robert Howard ever wrote will be lost to me if they remain there.
I have got to do one of two things if I preserve his magazines. (The books will stand rough usage.) The magazines will not. (CLIMH 143)
Dr. Howard removed the magazines from the library collection. In Dr. Charlotte Laughlin’s 1978 index what remained of the collection, she noted that one Cross Plains resident claimed “some articles had even been cut out of the magazines” (PQ 1.24), as well as providing another possible reason for the removal of the pulps:
The woman who was the librarian at Howard Payne in 1936, told the English teacher that she did not think that the pulp magazines had any place in the library of a Christian college. She was offended, like many people before or after her, by the scenes of violence and scantily clad women depicted on the covers. She said that she placed these magazines in the basement of the administration building, now known as Old Main. When Dr. Howard learned that they were in a damp basement, he boxed them up and took them home with him. (PQ 1.25)
The vicissitudes of library use led to attrition, so that the majority of the Howard donations lost their bookplate; some appear to never have had them. The original holograph accessions ledger which records Dr. Howard’s donation contains many errors, and over the decades many titles simply disappeared: lost, stolen, or discarded, so the full list of the original Howard Memorial collection will probably never be known. However, in the late 1970s the Howard Payne librarian Corrine Shields attempted to pull together what remained of the original collection, from which Dr. Charlotte Laughlin compiled “Robert E. Howard’s Library: An Annotated Checklist,” the first effort to catalogue both the original extent of the collection and what was left of it, published over the first four issues of the Paperback Quarterly. (PQ 1-4). This initial effort was followed by subsequent efforts by Glenn Lord, Steve Eng, Rusty Burke, Rob Roehm, and others to identify unknown works and locate lost volumes. The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, for example, does not appear on Dr. Howard’s holograph accession list; perhaps he included it among the pulp magazines.
When Steve Eng collated the lists for the appendix on Howard’s library in The Dark Barbarian (1984), he noted that Ebony and Crystal was not a part of the College’s collection. Charlotte Laughlin in “Robert E. Howard’s Library: An Annotated Checklist” in Paperback Quarterly vol. 1 no. 4 (Winter 1978) notes that Howard’s inscribed copy of Ebony and Crystal was given to Glenn Lord, representative of the Howard Estate, by a former Howard Payne librarian.
Of the approx. 300 titles from Dr. Howard’s initial donation, 68 titles remain in the Robert E. Howard Memorial Collection. These were separated from the circulating collection in the Howard Payne University Library Treasure Room; they are now stored at the Robert E. Howard House and Museum in Cross Plains.
CL The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index and Addenda)
CLIMH The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard
E&C Ebony & Crystal
ED Emperor of Dreams: A Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography
LNY Letters from New York
MF A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (2. vols)
PQ Paperback Quarterly: A Journal for Paperback Collectors (vol. 1, no. 1-4)
SLCAS The Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith
SU The Shadow of the Unattained: The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith
TDB The Dark Barbarian
Read Ebony and Crystal here
Photo courtesy of Paul Herman
“Spear and Fang” is certainly not one of Howard’s best tales, but it is with this story that the young Texan became professionally published, in the July 1925 issue of a then fairly recent pulp magazine, Weird Tales.
Weird Tales, which had begun publication in March 1923, claimed to be the first magazine entirely devoted to tales of the weird and the fantastic. However, its first year of existence had been quite chaotic and it was on the verge of cancellation. Lacking direction, suffering from a series of changes in format and frequency of publication, the magazine was failing to build a solid base of readers. All that would change in late 1924 when Farnsworth Wright was hired as the new editor. Wright had an eye for literary quality, knew what the readers liked (and he also realized that the latter was not necessarily linked to the former). His years at the helm of Weird Tales would later become legendary, but in his first few weeks at the job, Wright’s main task was to search for new talent and new direction. It was obvious that the magazine couldn’t survive any longer on a steady diet of (hackneyed) ghost stories.
Robert E. Howard had been writing stories since 1921, aged 15. The young man had begun, and sometimes completed, dozens of tales, the immense majority of which were adventure yarns, aimed at – or written after he had read the latest issue of – his favorite pulp magazine: Adventure. We don’t know when exactly he discovered Weird Tales, but it was very early on, as he submitted two now-lost stories to the new publication: “The Mystery of Summerton Castle” and “The Phantom of Old Egypt.” Weird Tales was hunting talent while Adventure was a highly respected magazine, way above the literary abilities of the young Howard. It was only logical that Howard would try to sell a story to Weird Tales, and this is exactly what happened in November 1924.
On November 27, Howard announced the sale to his friend Tevis Clyde Smith in the following manner, if we are to believe Howard’s account in Post Oaks and Sand Roughs (1928), his slightly fictionalized autobiographical novel:
– I sold a story to Bizarre Story Magazine.
– That’s great, said Clive [Clyde Smith]. You sure deserve it – you’ve been working long enough. How much did they pay you?
– Fifteen dollars – I’ll get paid when they publish it.
– When will that be?
– I don’t know; pretty soon, though, I guess.
Lindsey Tyson, one of Howard’s best friends, would later explain that: “Bob and me were rooming together at 417 Austin Avenue in Brownwood when Bob got notice that Weird Tales magazine had accepted his story and enclosed a check for about $20.00. He was about the happiest man that I have ever seen.”
“Spear and Fang,” the tale Wright had just accepted for Weird Tales, would launch Howard’s career – even if the initial going would be quite rougher than what he anticipated – and initiate his special relationship with Farnsworth Wright. Years later, at the time of Howard’s death, Wright wrote: “I feel a great sense of personal loss in Howard’s death, for he was one of my literary discoveries, and although I had never met him, we have corresponded for twelve years, during which time I had come to know him and admire him both as a friend and as a writer of genius.”
For all these years, we had simply assumed that Howard wrote “Spear and Fang,” submitted it to Wright, who liked the subject and treatment well enough to publish it, because it was obvious he couldn’t have been that impressed by Howard’s literary style at this point in his career. It turns out that things were a little more complex than that.
In “The Eyrie” (the readers’ column) of the second issue of Weird Tales he edited (December 1924 issue, published November 1st), Wright wrote:
The inclusion in this issue of the first of two cavemen stories by C. M. Eddy, Jr. [“With Weapons of Stone”], gives rise to reflections regarding a type of caveman story which we have never seen in print, but which ought to afford opportunity for plenty of thrills. Why has not someone written of a fight between a Cro-Magnon caveman and a Neandertal man?
We get plenty of manuscripts dealing with fights between dinosaurs and pterodactyls on the one hand and cavemen on the other, but we send them all back because these strange creatures had disappeared from the earth before the first great anthropoid apes rose to the stature of manhood, according to the records of the rocks as read by the geologists. But Neandertalers and Cro-Magnons existed side by side, and waged relentless and savage warfare against each other. (“The Eyrie,” in Weird Tales, December 1924, pgs. 176-177)
These first two paragraphs certainly read as the spur that led Howard to write “Spear and Fang,” but as it turns out, Wright provided much more than a spur. Here is the third paragraph, followed by a short extract from Howard’s tale:
Our learned friends among the anthropologists tell us that the legend of ogres dates from cavemen tribes. The Neandertalers were so terrible and primitive and brutish, they tell us, that the Cro-Magnon cavemen never interbred with them, but killed them without mercy. And when a Cro-Magnon child strayed alone from its cave, and a cannibalistic Neandertaler stalked it, that was the end of the child; but the memory of those brutish and half-human people remains in our legends of ogres; for the Cro-Magnons were not exterminated by the nomadic tribes that afterwards entered Europe and peopled it, but intermarried with them, and retained some of their legends. (pg. 177)
More feared than mammoth or tiger, they had ruled the forests until the Cro-Magnon men had come and waged savage warfare against them. Of mighty power and little mind, savage, bestial and cannibalistic, they inspired the tribesmen with loathing and horror – a horror transmitted through the ages in tales of ogres and goblins, of werewolves and beast-men. […] Sometimes children went, and sometimes they returned not; and searchers found but signs of a ghastly feast, with tracks that were not the tracks of beasts, nor yet the tracks of men. (Robert E. Howard: “Spear and Fang”)
How would you like a tale of the warfare between a Cro-Magnon (say one of the artists who painted the pictures of reindeer and mammoths which still amaze the tourist) and one of those brutish ogres, perhaps over a girl who has taken the fancy of the Neandertaler; and the Cro-Magnon artist follows the Neandertal man to his den, and… But we have no room to tell the story in “The Eyrie”. We wish one of our author friends would write it for us.
And this is exactly what Howard did in early November 1924, probably the very day he bought the latest issue of the magazine, faithfully following Wright’s suggestion. Wright accepted the tale because he had, in a way, specifically requested it. At $16 (or $15, depending on the source), payable on publication, it was probably the best investment Wright ever made.
The rest, of course, is history.