Archive for September, 2012

It’s common knowledge that Robert E. Howard used the same names over and over in many of his pulp stories. Amalric, for instance. In our history he was a ruler of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, between 1163 and 1174 CE.  He appears in REH’s historical adventure, “Gates of Empire.” (Another Amalric was the king of both Cyprus and Jerusalem between 1194 and 1205.)

REH recycled the name for his Conan yarn, “Black Colossus,” in which Amalric is the mercenary general Conan serves as a captain of spearmen. “The most turbulent of all my rogues,” Amalric gripes. “I’d have hanged him long ago, were he not the best swordsman who ever donned hauberk … ”  In “The Hour of the Dragon” a character named Amalric appears as one of the conspirators who raise an ancient wizard from the dead, to depose Conan from the throne of Aquilonia. This Amalric is a wealthy Nemedian baron. A further story, unpublished in REH’s lifetime, never got further at his typewriter than an outline and a rough draft of the first half. L. Sprague de Camp finished it and published it as “Drums of Tombalku.” A main character in that one is yet another Amalric. REH used the slight variation “Almuric” a couple of times, too. It was the name of the alien world in his one interplanetary novel.

“Valerius” became a staple name in Howard’s writing as well. He was one of the conspirators in “The Hour of the Dragon,” and a stalwart, loyal young soldier of Khauran in “A Witch Shall Be Born.” The feminine form Valeria was given to the she-pirate in “Red Nails.”

Then, in REH’s Oriental and desert adventure stories set in the modern world and in his poetry too, we have a Pathan warrior (perhaps more than one) by the name of Yar Ali.

The best known of them appears as an associate of El Borak. He has the honorific “Khan” attached to his name. In modern Afghanistan it meant something like “sir” or “chief.” For the most part REH’s Francis X. Gordon adventures are set in a milieu that predates World War One, often in Afghanistan near the North West frontier of British India. “Son of the White Wolf” is an exception. That is assigned specifically to the summer of 1917, with Gordon an associate of T.E. Lawrence. Spoiler follows: one of the characters is an English secret agent, Gloria Willoughby, posing as a German, Olga von Bruckmann.

I’m inclined to think she may be a niece or even daughter of Geoffrey Willoughby of Suffolk. This man appears as an important character in “Hawk of the Hills,” a story in which he seeks to use and is in turn used by El Borak, though both men wish to defuse a dangerous situation and El Borak, in the end, brings about the resolution which Willoughby desires. Both Willoughbys are resourceful agents of their country.

That’s by the way. Yar Ali Khan doesn’t appear in “Son of the White Wolf,” but he takes a part in “Hawk of the Hills.” He’s a distinct character in the adventure “Three-Bladed Doom,” which is clearly set before World War One. The cult of murderers featured in that story are said to have struck at “the Sultan of Turkey … the Shah of Persia … the Nizam of Hyderabad,” before they make an attempt on the Amir of Afghanistan. Now, in the story all these potentates are said to be allies or at least friendly towards the British.  The Amir in the story, supposing he’s meant to be a real person at all, could only have been Habibollah Khan, who ruled Afghanistan as its Amir from 1901 to 1919. He really was friendly to the British and cordially disposed toward British India – for a yearly subsidy of 160,000 quid sterling. He also tried to keep his country politically moderate and introduce reforms. That didn’t please some of his people, and in actual history he was assassinated in the end, while on a hunting trip. An unsuccessful attempt on his life could have been made earlier.

The other potentates the frightened Amir mentions are said in the story to have been successfully killed with a three-bladed dagger, and in the real world that didn’t happen. No Sultan of Turkey was assassinated in the early 20th century, though Sultan Abdul Hamid was deposed in 1909. The incompetent and corrupt Shah of Persia, Mozaffar od-Din, sick and ailing, was forced to grant a new model constitution in 1906 and died of a heart attack in 1907. (Maybe REH assumed for story purposes that the cause of his cardiac arrest was a three-bladed dagger.)  The second last Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahbub Ali Khan, who was believed by his people to possess mystical powers of healing, particularly against snakebite, died in 1911. The Nizam assassinated in REH’s story is not mentioned by name. Neither is the Sultan or the Shah. But where they are concerned, the story at least touches reality to the extent that the reigns of all three ended by death or overthrow within the same half-decade.

REH’s character, the redoubtable El Borak, steps in to finish the murderous cult. He’s aided by his big Afridi henchman, Yar Ali Khan. (The Afridis were a major Pathan tribe of the North West frontier district, around the Khyber Pass.)  This big truculent roughneck, in REH’s phrase, “Might have been a gaunt old wolfhound growling at his master for patting another dog.”  “Lean” and “gaunt” he’s also tall, with “gigantic shoulders.” He’s prone to “berserk fury” in a fight, and shows “wolfish wariness” at other times. “The berserk rage of Yar Ali Khan” is spoken of again, later in the story: “Chapter IX – The Red Orchard.” He’s also described as a “giant,” but in spite of his gruffness and berserk rages, when he believes Gordon to have been fatally wounded, he dissolves into a blubbering mass of sentiment.

Again, in “Hawk of the Hills” (Chapter V) Yar Ali Khan, when he gets the idea that others have abandoned Gordon to danger, lets out a “blood-curdling yell” and seems “transformed into a maniac.” “Dogs!” he raves. “You left him to die!  Accursed ones!  Forgotten of God!”  Despite his loyalty, not the most emotionally stable fellow. It’s a typical pulp fiction stereotype of an Oriental, of course. But here again, there is mention of “tales told of this gaunt giant and his berserk rages.”  He’s also compared to “a gaunt gray wolf.” Yar Ali Khan also appears at the end of “Sons of the Hawk” with last-minute reinforcements to save the day. There, he’s described as a “tall Afridi” and nothing else is added.

The comparison to an “old wolfhound” and the adjective “gray” at least suggests that Yar Ali Khan of the El Borak stories is quite a few years senior to Gordon. And he combines savagery with almost maudlin sentimentality as old men sometimes do. As for Gordon, in “Hawk of the Hills” Geoffrey Willoughby muses that from what he has heard, Gordon “grew up on the southwestern frontier of the United States” and had a “formidable reputation” as a fast man with a gun “before he ever drifted east.”  It’s probable from that hint that Gordon was born around 1875, and left home aged twenty because he saw the wild days of the west fading and possessed a nature that couldn’t make peace with the advance of civilization. After drifting to Arabia and Afghanistan, he plunges into “native feuds and brawls” which must have reminded him of the bloody feuds of his native Texas. Willoughby feels that this was “the response of a primitive nature seeking its most natural environment.” Gordon may be thirty or a little older in “Hawk of the Hills.” He’d necessarily have had to live in that part of the world long enough to be fluent in some of its languages, like Arabic and Pashto, and to know the ways of its people well enough to pass for one, as he frequently does. His comrade Yar Ali Khan may be fifteen or even twenty years his senior.

That would make him fully old enough to have fought against the British in the North West frontier rising of 1897. Being a member of the Afridi tribe, he probably did. Gordon, a U.S. citizen with no particular love for the British Empire, would hardly hold that against him. Yar Ali Khan may even – as a youngster — have been a combatant in the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-80, the conflict in which Sherlock Holmes’s pal Dr. Watson stopped the “jezail bullet” wound which still bothered him when he first met Holmes. (For all we know Yar Ali Khan may have been the one who fired the shot.)

There we have the first, but in all probability not the only, Yar Ali. Grey, grizzled, huge and gaunt, he’s characterized by ferocity, sentimentality, absolute loyalty to El Borak, and occasionally by what resembles a touch of hysteria. We may suppose that as a young man he was a real Khyber badmash (that is, bandit ruffian), a border robber, feudist, cattle-lifter, horse-thief, rebel, and generally a type who would have been congenial to John Wesley Hardin or Bad Bill Longley. This means he also had the qualities that would make him congenial to REH’s fictional Francis Xavier Gordon.

Next post we’ll take a look at the other possible Yar Alis, including the ones who appear in REH’s poetry.

Read Part Two

Sonora to Del Rio is a hundred barren miles
Where the sotol weave and shimmer in the sun—
Like a host of swaying serpents straying down the bare defiles
When the silver, scarlet webs of dawn are spun.

There are little ’dobe ranchoes, brooding far along the sky
On the sullen, dreary bosoms of the hills.
Not a wolf to break the quiet, not a single bird to fly;
Where the silence is so utter that it thrills.

Maybe, in the heat of evening, comes a wind from Mexico
Laden with the heat of seven Hells,
And the rattler in the yucca and the buzzard dark and slow
Hear and understand the grisly tales it tells.

Gaunt and stark and bare and mocking rise the everlasting cliffs
Like a row of sullen giants carved of stone,
Till the traveler, mazed with silence, thinks to look at hieroglyphs,
Thinks to see a carven pharaoh on his throne.

And the road goes on forever, o’er the barren hills forever,
And there’s little to hint of flowing wine—
But beyond the hills and sotol there’s a mellow curving river
And a land of sun and mellow wine.

by Robert E. Howard

At least as early as the mid-1920s, a Pennsylvania chemist named Merlin Wand had started a list of “intellectually marooned” pen-pals. By 1927, he had acquired enough names to start a “one-man operation called ‘Contacts’ [which] was a clearinghouse for isolated book-lovers and neophyte writers.” (*) He began placing ads in various publications—The Survey, Haldeman-Julius Weekly, etc.—where, for the cost of a stamp, interested individuals would receive the “Contacts Listing Form.” Once the form was completed, applicants sent it and one dollar back to Wand to be listed in Contacts, “the only correspondence club for the mentally marooned.” (**) A typical ad appears below:

Contact Without Friction!

Are you mentally isolated? “Contacts,” literary correspondence club, introduces you to versatile, unconventional minds. No Formalities. Books loaned free to members. Registration fee $1.00. Particulars, stamp: Merlin Wand, Manorville, Pa.

Thanks to Glenn Lord’s collection, we now know that in the spring of 1928, Robert E. Howard mailed in a stamp and was sent the “Contacts Listing Form” on May 26.

Based on how Howard filled out his Contacts Listing Form, it appears that he was more interested in gathering information than in obtaining pen-pals. Under a list of 28 subjects including Mysticism, Sexology, Art, Literature, etc., Howard chose only three: Poetry, Anthropology, and Psychology (he typed “Abnormal” after the last). Then, in the “subjects not mentioned” area, he added Criminology and “Obsessional dementia.” In the additional information slot, Howard wrote the following:

Especially would like to hear from anyone having had experiences with cases of compulsory and criminal insanity; information will be treated as confidential. Also interested in devil worship, human sacrifice, anything unusual, grisly or strange.

The fact that this form remained with Howard’s papers shows that he didn’t send it in with the dollar membership fee. One wonders what type of pen-pal he’d have met if he had sent it in.

*Wixson, Douglas. Worker-Writer in America: Jack Conroy and the Tradition of Midwestern Literary Radicalism, 1898-1990. University of Illinois Press: 1998.
**Sears, James Thomas. Behind the Mask of the Mattachine. Psychology Press: 2006.
This entry filed under Glenn Lord, Howard Biography.

I have not seen the horsemen fall before the hurtling host
But I have paced a silent hall where each step waked a ghost.

— Robert E. Howard

Last post brought us to the early Middle Ages and the rise of the armored knight. Early knights, of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Norman Conquest and the Crusades, wore mail, not plate. Even partial plate armor only came in with the fourteenth century.

From the cataphracts (heavy cavalrymen) of Persia and East Rome onward, the bigger, more massive horses they rode had the main purpose of giving more weight and impetus to the charge. As the British cavalry leader Artos says in Rosemary Surtcliff’s splendid Sword at Sunset, “It is the weight that does it. The difference between a bare fist and once wearing the cestus.” First they impaled you on their lances and then crushed what was left before an avalanche of bone, muscle and hoof. There was the additional factor of bigger horses having greater endurance, being able to carry a knight in mail – and later, in a suit of plate – for a whole day if necessary. Not at high speed, of course. No horse can gallop for hours even with a small, unarmored man in the saddle.

To appreciate fully the difference having a horse makes, we might examine the disadvantages of not having them. Central Asia – China – the Middle East – Europe – all these regions had domesticated horses from an early time. Mesopotamia and China are generally thought to have been the cradles of the earliest civilizations. Egypt lacked horses in its first dynasties – and camels — though it possessed donkeys, but it was blessed with the Nile. Besides making the land fertile and productive, the great river served as a highway for water-borne traffic more efficient than carts or donkey caravans. When the Egyptians adopted the horse and the two-wheeled war chariot later, they also became masters of an empire for the first time.

Consider the Americas. The native North American horse became extinct along with many other large mammals, like the giant buffalo, at about the time men were crossing the Bering Straits (then dry land) from Siberia for the first time. Therefore, they were horseless in North and South America until the Spanish explorers introduced equines again. Stallions and mares lost from the early expeditions went wild on the plains, breeding into large feral herds. The Native Americans took to riding with enthusiasm. The horse changed their way of life, most of all on the prairies, between about 1600 and 1750. The result was the dramatic, warlike culture of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Comanche. It lasted only a hundred and fifty years before they were conquered – by Europeans who had forged their own bickering tribes into large, disciplined nations, which the Native Americans weren’t granted time to do. Had they lived in proximity to horses for ten thousand years, they might have been the ones to come calling on Europe while my ancestors were still painting themselves blue and hunting heads over there.

We all know it didn’t work out that way. The Aztec Empire was able to rise – and to possess a capital city, Tenochtitlan, greater and better organized than any in Spain at the time – because they built it on a series of lakes from which they could obtain enough water to sustain the city, as well as creating floating produce gardens to provide food. They also proved tyrants to the tribes around them, making regular war to get sacrificial victims and exacting ruinous tribute. But they couldn’t extend their empire outside the Valley of Mexico without the horse to provide, among other things, swifter communication that runners on foot were capable of. When the Spaniards arrived, the subject tribes could be pardoned for taking their side in the belief that no masters could be worse than the Aztecs. It was a reasonable belief, but it turned out to be wrong, nevertheless.

A significant factor in the astounding Spanish conquest led by Cortez was that they possessed horses while the Aztecs didn’t – only a few dozen, but they still made a vast difference. The moral and superstitious effect was as great as the practical ability to cover ground with messages. Seeing horses for the first time, the Aztecs thought they were divine, and at first even believed the horse and rider were all one creature.

(That was probably the origin of the centaur legends in ancient Greece, too. “Centaur” derives from the Greek “Hoi Khentauroi” – “those who round up bulls”. Cowboys, in other words. They may have been Thracian cattle-herders of whom the Greeks further south heard only vaguely during the Early Bronze Age.)

Horse lovers may be outraged, but the truth is that the horse isn’t really the brightest of mammals. Dogs, pigs, and quite likely dolphins, are all more intelligent. At least they know when to stop eating. Leave a horse alone with a supply of grain and hay sufficient for weeks, and you’ll find on your return that you’ve made a mistake. Your equine genius will gorge, and gorge, until the food is gone and it founders with a distended belly. Then when it recovers from its binge, it will begin starving.

Australian bush poet “Banjo” Patterson, who knew his horses and loved them, was aware of it. In “Pardon the Son of Reprieve” he describes an effort by crooks to nobble the racehorse of the title. The owners, naïve lads that they are, leave the stall unguarded.

You see, we were green, and we never
had even a thought of foul play –
No, never did dream that the clever
division might “put us away.

They got to his stall – it is sinful –
To think what such villains will do –
They gave him a regular skinful
Of barley, green barley, to chew.

He munched it all night, and we found him
Next morning as full as a hog.
The girths wouldn’t hardly meet round him;
He looked like an overfed frog.

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