Archive for November, 2012

One of the items found in Glenn Lord’s collection was a postcard (seen above) from Robert E. Howard (who signed with his X-triple bar brand) to Harold Preece. In the picture, the last words above the doorway, partially obscured by the tree’s branches, are “Piedras Negras,” which is a Mexican town just across the river from Eagle Pass, Texas. This is a picture of the border customs house. The flip-side of the card is below.

With the stamp long gone, and with it some of the post mark, the date is not known. So, when was Robert E. Howard in Eagle Pass and/or Mexico? None of the standard biographical material mentions Mexico much. Howard’s 1934 trip with Truett Vinson—through New Mexico, El Paso, and over the river to Juarez—is about it. Howard’s July 5, 1934 letter to Robert Barlow explains that he has been on “a sojourn in the extreme western part of the State, and into New and Old Mexico.”

Howard also mentions Mexico in at least two letters from 1935: his March 6th letter to Emil Petaja (“As for Old Mexico, I’ve been across the Border a few times but haven’t spent enough time in the south to learn much of the language”); and a circa July letter to H. P. Lovecraft (Santa Fe, New Mexico, is “much like towns I have visited in Old Mexico, with the exception that it is much cleaner and neater”). The above quotes indicate that Howard had been to Mexico on more than one occasion. So what do his pre-1934 letters have to say?

One of the first references to his being in Mexico comes from a January 1932 letter to Lovecraft: “I’m no gambler. I don’t like to risk money I worked hard to get. I was never a very welcome guest in the gambling houses of Mexico, for I was merely a looker-on.” Later that year, circa July 13, 1932, he tells Lovecraft, “My entrails have been insulted with so many damnable concoctions for so many years, that I fear I may have lost the ability to appreciate good liquor—though on my pilgrimages to Mexico I find that knack unimpaired so far.” And on November 2, “I’m in favor of the open saloon; and legalized prize-fights and horse-races, licensed gambling halls and licensed bawdy-houses. I wish I was in Mexico right now.” Howard’s late-December 1933 letter to August Derleth has more:

I’ve drunk only Prima, Budweiser, Pearl, Old Heidelberg, Schlitz, Rheingold, Savoy, Sterling, Blue Ribbon, Fox, Country Club, Atlas Special, Jax, and Superior. None of it was as good as the Sabinas I used to drink in Old Mexico. I understand that company is going to move their brewery to San Antonio, and I hope they do. That was mighty good stuff.

Shortly after his trip with Vinson, circa July 1934, Howard tells Lovecraft that Juarez “was just as dirty and lousy as any border town I ever saw—more so than Piedras Negras, for instance, and swarming with the usual pimps and touts. We drove around awhile, made a brief exploration of what is politely known as ‘the red light district,’ and of course imbibed some.” Around the same time, Howard told Carl Jacobi: “I prefer Piedras Negras, which lies across the river from Eagle Pass, and is somewhat cleaner and more progressive. The main charm about those Mexican towns to most people is, of course, the liquor, and El Paso is now just as wide open as anything south of the Rio Grande.” These are not Howard’s first mentions of Piedras Negras.

His March 2, 1932 letter to Lovecraft has the following: “I don’t know whether they’ve run the Chinese out of Piedras Negras or not. When I was there a few years ago—it’s the town opposite Eagle Pass, Texas—it was largely dominated by Chinese. They owned small irrigated farms along the river, and ran most of the best cabarets and saloons in the town.” And there’s one more, but we’ll look at that one a bit later.

All of the above indicates that Robert E. Howard was in Piedras Negras at least, as he told Lovecraft, “a few years” before 1932. We need a little more help to pin this down. Luckily, Harold Preece moved around quite a bit in the late 1920s due to his work on the city directory crew. In January 1928, Howard told Tevis Clyde Smith to write to Preece at “905 Main Street, Dallas.” In February, we learn that Preece is “now in Wichita Falls.” A postcard (see below) postmarked June 4, 1928 is addressed to Preece at the same Fort Worth address as the Piedras Negras postcard that heads this post. Preece’s July 26, 1928 letter to Clyde Smith is addressed from “202 Provident Bldg. / Waco, Texas,” and mentions a prize fight Preece and Howard “attended together in Ft. Worth.” In October, Preece was back home in Austin. All of this suggests that Preece was living in Fort Worth for a relatively short time in June and possibly July 1928. None of his other surviving letters, nor those of his sister Lenore, nor the surviving envelopes (the ones I’ve seen, anyway) or letters from Robert Howard—none of these suggest another time that Preece was in Fort Worth “a few years” before 1932; however, 1929 is pretty sketchy, with big holes in all of the correspondence, but the Junto mailing list for July and August don’t have him anywhere near Fort Worth, either. So, with 1929 a remote possibility, given all of the above, I date the Piedras Negras postcard to circa June 1928. And that unlocks another little mystery.

In volume 3 of The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard is an undated letter to Tevis Clyde Smith that begins, “Not even a movie in this god forsaken town.” That letter has the final reference to Piedras Negras that I mentioned above:

I didn’t see such a hell of a lot of Eagle Pass but I saw Piedras Negras—and the hottest girl I’ve seen in many a day—a skirt in a Mexican whore house away out of the polite section. Also I learned several new vulgarities in Spanish. Some nice looking strumpets in what they name The Reservation across the border and most of them brazen as hell—five dollars [which is 67.64 in 2012 dollars].

Looks like circa June 1928 will work for this one, too. I love it when things come together.

After a five month delay due to my accident, issue number 16 of The Definitive Robert E. Howard Journal is now ready and available to order. As most folks know, the new issue always appears at Howard Days each June, but that was not possible this year due to my injury.

However, I believe you will find it was well worth the wait as the issue is chock full of rare Howard fiction, a little poetry, articles and essays by the top Howard scholars and some fantastic artwork by a who’s who of artistic Howard fans. In addition to Howard, contributors include: Barbara Barrett; David Burton; Bill Cavalier; Bob Covington; Stephen Fabian; Nathan Furman; David A. Hardy; Clayton Hinkle; Morgan Holmes; David Houston; Brian Leno; Patrice Louinet; Jim Ordolis; Richard Pace; Michael L. Peters; Terry Pavlet; Rob Roehm; Jeffrey Shanks and Joe Wehrle.

For a full list of contents, price and ordering information, please visit the order the issue webpage.


“For I rode the moon-mare’s horses in the glory of my youth,
“Wrestled with the hills at sunset – till I met brass-tinctured Truth.
“Till I saw the temples topple, till I saw the idols reel,
“Till my brain had turned to iron, and my heart had turned to steel.”

Robert E. Howard, “Always Comes Evening”

We’ve now arrived at the historical period REH seemed to love best. He admitted it himself, in the letter to Harold Preece quoted last post. “Oh, a brave time, by Satan! Any smooth rogue could swindle his way through life, as he can today, but then there was pageantry and high illusion and vanity, and the beloved tinsel of glory without which life is not worth living.”

Some of his best stories are set during the three centuries this post will leapfrog through. Earliest of those is “The Road of Azrael”. That story takes place shortly after the First Crusade. The narrator, Kosru Malik, a Chagatai Turk, owes his life to a Crusader, Eric de Cogan, who saved him during the slaughter at Jerusalem. They were both youths at the time.

There is much hard riding, beginning in the first scene, when Kosru Malik escapes the sultan’s camp on a “tall bay” he has taken from a sentry after slaying an old enemy. He meets Eric de Cogan on “a long limbed roan that reeled from fatigue”. De Cogan is seeking his beloved, in the hands of Muhammad Khan. There are bands of Seljuk Turks, Persians, and Arabs. When he encounters the latter, Kosru sees “five hundred splendid Arab steeds … My very mouth watered. By Allah, these Bedoui be dogs and sons of dogs, but they breed good horse flesh!”

Dogs or not, they did. A matter referred to last post. The day, and the lovers, are saved at the end by the deus ex machina appearance – in a Viking longship, in the Persian Gulf – of King Harald Godwinson. It appears he wasn’t really killed at Hastings, but smuggled away while the Normans were shown someone else’s corpse. He’s described by Kosru Malik as “greatly aged”, which he’d have to be by then, but it doesn’t stop him from fighting to good effect.

Harald’s appearance provides a link, in the story, between Hastings and the dawn of the twelfth century which is interesting for the purposes of this post. William the Bastard’s knights at Hastings rode fairly small, slender steeds, compared with the English war-horses of later times. The seals of William the Conqueror, his brother Odo, and his son William II, all depict horses like that – and they are not armored. With time and careful breeding, they grew larger. That process went on throughout the twelfth century and the thirteenth. The Normans took pride in their horses, and worked at breeding better ones. In their early days as lords of England they seem to have let foals and their dams run wild until the breeding season, when they would gather them into herds. Domesday Book has many references to “forest” or “untamed” mares.

Another thing that changed considerably from its rough early days was the tournament. Its main purpose was training for war, and in the eleventh century the word “lists” described, not an enclosed field with a safety barrier down the middle where splendid knights in surcoats and crests could joust, but an area of country that might cover a few hundred acres, where two groups of mounted knights fought what amounted to war games, with almost the only rule being that any limbs hacked off had to be handed back when the brawl finished. I’m only half joking.

During the tournament, if he was hurt or had strategic reason, a knight could retire outside the lists. There, he couldn’t be touched. He could return to the fray when he felt ready. If he was defeated or taken prisoner, then just as in real warfare, he had to ransom himself or forfeit his horse and armor. Knights were very often maimed or killed in these affairs. The Church condemned tournaments for that reason, and because they encouraged sinful, violent pride, but the ban never had any effect, not even with excommunication as a deterrent. Richard the Lionheart, despite his romantic image, was a practical monarch in some ways. He couldn’t stop tournaments, so he licensed them instead. And charged a fee.

REH set other fine stories in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries — “The Lion of Tiberias” (1144), “Gates of Empire” (the 1160s) his Cormac Fitzgeoffrey yarns, “Hawks of Outremer” and “The Blood of Belshazzar” in the aftermath of the Third Crusade (1190s), and “Red Blades of Black Cathay” in the early thirteenth century, the time of the Fifth Crusade and Genghis Khan. Later in the thirteenth century, “The Sowers of the Thunder” touches on the early career of Baibars al-Bunduqari, before he became Sultan of Egypt, and describes the hellish sack of Jerusalem by the Khawarezmians, driven west by the Mongols, in 1243.

Howard never makes a point of it – it would have held up the pace of the stories anyhow – but there was quite a difference due to breeding in the horses his heroes rode over that time span. To oversimplify, in early medieval times the most urgent need of knights in western Christendom was for breeding large numbers of horses suitable for mounted warfare. Throughout the thirteenth century, as a knight’s armor came to weigh more and his horse itself began to be burdened by armor, it became more important to breed bigger, stronger steeds. This was achieved over the century and a half from 1100 to 1250.

The famous medieval “great horse” or destrier came into its own in this era. There’s much dispute as to how big it actually was. Best estimate available – it was definitely NOT the size of a huge modern cart-horse or plow-horse like the Percheron or Clydesdale, seventeen hands or so with massive bones. Fifteen hands average is likely. Rather bigger than the horses the Normans rode at Hastings, but not gigantic. Experts like Anne Hyland (whose knowledge is not just theoretical) concur.

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This entry filed under Harold Preece, Howard's Fiction, Howard's Poetry.

I remember the peach-cream I used to eat at my grandmother’s home, up in Missouri.  She had a big orchard, including many fine trees of Elbertas, which, when allowed to ripe properly, are hard to beat. At night, when everything was still, I’d wake up occasionally and hear, in the quiet, the luscious squishy impact of the ripe peaches falling from the laden branches. These peaches, mushy-ripe, and cut up in rich creamy milk, made a frozen delicacy the like of which is not often equaled.

— Robert E. Howard to H.P. Lovecraft, ca. December 1932 —

While I’m waiting for the turkey to turn brown, I thought I’d post a little nugget about one of Robert E. Howard’s favorite foods. The grandmother mentioned above is Alice Wynne, the second wife of George W. Ervin, and Hester Howard’s step-mother. Following the death of his first wife, Sarah Jane Martin, G. W. Ervin moved to Dallas and married Alice Wynne. They moved around a bit, but in 1890 the family had settled in Barry County, Missouri. The next year, they entered some produce in a contest.

The November 25, 1891, Cassville Republican, under the headline “The Barry County Institute,” reported on the Barry County Horticultural Association, saying that, at a fruit and vegetable display, one “Col. G. W. Ervin” of Exeter entered the following: Irish Potatoes, Dried Apples, Dried Peaches (4 samples). His wife entered some canned peaches (Heath Cling and White varieties). They won second place—a year’s subscription to the Purdy Transcript—for the potatoes and first place—$2 cash—for “nicest can of peaches.”

I guess REH knew what he was talking about.

In my previous posts (here and here), there were several unanswered questions. Now, thanks to a few city directories, I can fill in some of the blanks regarding Robert E. Howard’s cousin, Earl Lee Comer.

As we have seen, Comer received training as a draftsman for part of his World War I enlistment. Following his discharge at the beginning of 1921, he went to live with his mom’s sister, Hester Howard, in Cross Plains. In my previous post, the best I could do as far as when Comer left was to say it was before Christmas 1923; it was earlier than that. A 1922 Dallas city directory has “Earle L” Comer listed as “draftsman W U Tel Co” and living on McKinney Avenue. There is no listing for him in the 1921 directory, so Earl must have left Cross Plains late in 1921 or early in 1922. One mystery solved.

The 1923 Dallas city directory again has “Earle L drftsman,” but now he’s at “Texas P & L Co” with rooms on Worth Street. He is not listed in the 1924 edition. So, where did he go?

As Howard suggests, in Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, and the letter from “Earl C. Comer” to Weird Tales seems to verify, our man had relocated to Los Angeles, California. The move appears to have occurred in 1924, as Earl L. Comer, “drftsmn” is living on S. Union Avenue in LA in time to be listed in that city’s 1925 directory.

I haven’t found him in 1927, but he’s back in Dallas in 1928 and listed as “drftsmn Texas P & L Co” living on Annex Ave. The same information is repeated in the 1929, 1930, and 1931 directories. In 1933, he’s listed as “sta mgr Humble Oil & Refg Co” now living on Travis Street. This may be a different Earl as the 1937 and 1939 directories have him back at the P&L Co., though now living on Richard Ave. in ’37 and Marquita Street in ’38. No Mrs. Comer is listed.

The 1948 Dallas directory has Earl L. Comer as “drftsmn US Bur of Mines Pet Div” now living on Newton. In 1953, he’s living on Purdue. In 1960, there’s an Earl L. Comer working for the US Geological Survey and living in an apartment on Rawlins Street. And I haven’t found any directories after 1960, but we know that Earl died in Gelveston in 1970.

This entry filed under Hester Jane Ervin Howard, Howard Biography.

They spur, they meet with a thunder shake;
The horses rear and the lances break.
Now front to front they shower blows
While the squadrons reel and the tumult grows.

Robert E. Howard, “The Ballad of King Geraint”

To continue these posts and give some (very sketchy, space not permitting more) info on horses in the Middle Ages, it seems useful to divide that period into stages. That can’t be done (by anybody, really) except in an arbitrary way. The Dark Ages and the Early Middle Ages overlapped to a considerable extent, but just as a chronological workbench I’ll reckon the Early Middle Ages as beginning around 750.

I’ve a few reasons for choosing this date. A Frank by the name of Carl was born only eight years earlier. He came to the Frankish throne as sole king in 768 and became known as Charlemagne. He founded an empire.

Besides, the Moslems of the Umayyad Caliphate had taken Persia, North Africa and Spain, and were threatening the Frankish Kingdom in a serious way, by 750 CE. Frankish cavalry led by Charles Martel had defeated Moslem invaders from Spain at a battle near Tours (the fashion now is to call it the first Battle of Poitiers) in 732. While other tribes of Germanic barbarians, like the Goths and Vandals, had become effective cavalry by the fifth century, the Franks had remained fighters on foot for generations. However, that had definitely changed by 750.

The Avars, horse warriors from the steppes, were a distinct force at the time, also. They had established an empire centered on the Hungarian plain. They had fought the Byzantines and almost taken Constantinople in 626. They had fought the Merovingian Franks and driven the Serbs and Croats southward. The Danube Bulgars, a similar breed, would displace the Avars later, and after them the Magyars. Attila’s Huns had preceded them all; others would follow. As REH wrote in “The Shadow of the Vulture,” “ … the Destroyer was riding out of the blue mysterious East as his brothers had ridden before him.”

Charlemagne was keenly aware of the importance of cavalry. He promoted the breeding of fine war-horses and ruled firmly in his Capitulare de Villis that the stewards of his royal estates had to take meticulous care of his stud stallions and vary their pasture. The best breeding mares had to be segregated and covered only by the chosen stallions. Charlemagne declared himself Emperor around 800 CE, and a quarter-century later, when we may take it that the results of this breeding program had become evident, a writer named Ernoul le Noir commented on the size and excellence of Frankish horses. He observed that they “carry their necks proudly, and on their backs one can hardly mount,” so they must have been a decent size, even allowing for exaggeration.

The Moslems from Arabia were a byword for their horse-fighting tactics. They were excellent breeders of horses, also. They had to be. North Africa had been noted for its fine horses in Roman times, and as the Arabs swept across it in conquest they would have found remounts there, but they also brought their own horses with them from their desert homeland. Precisely because Arabia is arid, with grass and water at a premium, the Arabs could keep only a limited number of horses there and had to select the best. As one stallion can impregnate many mares, the poorer ones were eliminated and only the finest sires kept.

Because of that the Arabian cavalry horse was nearly always a mare. In western Christian kingdoms, on the other hand, where there was more grass and water available, more stallions could be maintained. Since Christians and Moslems were on opposite sides and frequent wars ensued, the essentially practical nature of that difference was overlooked and prejudice was freely deployed. The Moslems maintained that mares were more sensitive, quicker, and more responsive, which the thick-headed Franks (their general term for any western Christian, the Franks being the first of that kind they had encountered) were too stupid to appreciate. The Franks responded with the contention that stallions were stronger and more aggressive, which effete over-civilized Moslems hadn’t the macho qualities to control. Moslems in those days were in fact more civilized than the barbaric western Christians. Baghdad was the greatest, most cultured city on earth.

From around 800 CE the Vikings became a major menace to Christendom. They so devastated the West Frankish coasts that Charles the Bald issued an edict in 864, ruling that any subject of his who gave weapons, armor or a horse to the Northmen, for any reason including to ransom a kinsman, should suffer death “as a traitor to his country, exposing Christianity to the heathen and perdition.” That pretty much makes clear how important horses were to fighting men. Horse breeding was a skill of huge importance, but we have very few records from the times giving details of the art. Most horse breeders would have been illiterate anyhow. Monks and clerks had other interests.

Thus we haven’t any precise descriptions of the Danube Bulgars’ horses, or their methods of breeding. It’s likely their horses were tough, half-wild Central Asian stock, hardly aristocrats of their species. Just the same, when the Magyars arrived in the Danube basin they soon turned to raiding on horseback as swift, widespread and savage as that of the Vikings on the water. A short-sighted and selfish German king gave them welcome and support to destroy his rival state, the Empire of great Moravia. They did – and then they turned on the Germans.

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