Archive for April, 2015


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

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

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

Now … Vienna.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the redoubt a fair form towered,

That cheered up the brave and chid the coward;

Brandishing blade with a gallant air …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then they could only wait.

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

This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Updated 05/09/2015]



This entry filed under Howard's Texas.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Works Cited:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In early October of 1932 Howard sent a set of rattlesnake rattles to his friend and correspondent H.P. Lovecraft. Here HPL is thanking Howard for the gift in a letter dated October 15, 1932:

Thanks prodigiously for the splendid set of lethal reminders – which will go under glass in my cabinet of curiosities. It will form a splendid companion piece to the mottled and sinuous glider which Whitehead captured and bottled for me in Florida in 1931. Your prose-poem accompanying the set is one of the most vivid things I have read lately, and I wish it could be published somewhere. It has a magnificently weird, haunting cadence and imagery, and seems to call up a potent atmosphere of power, death, and silence.

Here is Howard’s response in a letter to HPL, ca. December 1932:

Glad you liked the rattles. The owner got his head shot off by an acquaintance of mine, one Tom Lee, on the upper reaches of the Jim Ned, the scene of several bloody Indian fights in the past. Knowing I was anxious to procure a good set of rattles to send to you, he saved them.

An even bigger snake was bagged by a friend of mine down in Brown County this fall, but the discharge of his shotgun blew the rattles all apart and destroyed some of them. They found fourteen, and there’s no telling how many were destroyed. The snake, according to what I heard, was as thick as a man’s arm. Talking of phobias — there was a fellow with my friends when they came onto the snake, and he was shaken so badly by the incident that he trembled like a leaf, and his teeth chattered for perhaps half an hour afterwards. I’ll admit there’s something unnerving about the slimy brutes. I’ll never forget the time that I came clambering up out of a creek bed, reached up to pull myself up on the bank by a tree limb, and took hold of the tail of a water-moccasin which was sunning itself on the branch. They say you can’t do but one thing at a time, but I did, or rather my various members acted simultaneously and independent of each other. My left hand released the snake, my right drew my knife, and my legs gave way and precipitated me down the bank.

cottonmouth-coiled-around-a-treeOdds are that was a Western Cottonmouth Howard had the close encounter with. Though it is rare event that a Cottonmouth is found on a tree branch, they do show up there from time to time. Howard writes in his correspondence of close encounters with poisonous snakes, notably rattlesnakes, when he was younger. They are one of the many denizens of the high plains of North Central Texas where Howard lived. Of course, he was always talking up the deadly critters that lurked in his environment and Texas in general. Howard clearly had a fascination with slithering serpents — they are a reoccurring theme in his’s stories.

It is too bad Howard did not live to see the Great Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup, which began as annual event in 1958 and has been held every year since then. Some of the events at this year’s event included: snake eating contest, beard contest, longest snake and most pounds of snakes.

Here is the text of that original letter enclosing the rattles Howard sent to Lovecraft, which first appeared in a 1937 fanzine called Leaves #1 published by R. H. Barlow, the literary executor of HPL’s estate. It is likely Barlow found the letter among HPL’s papers, gave it a title and used it in his publication.

“With a Set of Rattlesnake Rattles”

Here is the emblem of a lethal form of life for which I have no love, but a definite admiration. The wearer of this emblem is inflexibly individualistic. He mingles not with the herd, nor bows before the thrones of the mighty. Between him and the lords of the earth lies an everlasting feud that shall not be quenched until the last man lies dying and the Conqueror sways in shimmering coils above him.

Lapped in sombre mystery he goes his subtle way, touched by neither pity nor mercy. Realizations of ultimate certitudes are his, when the worm rises and die vulture sinks and the flesh shreds back to the earth that bore it. Other beings may make for Life, but he is consecrated to Death. Promise of ultimate dissolution shimmers in his visible being, and the cold soulless certainty of destruction is in his sibilances. The buzzards mark his path by the pregnant waving of the tall grasses, and the blind worms that gnaw in the dark are glad because of him. The foot of a king can not tread on him with impunity, nor the ignorant hand of innocence bruise him unscathed. The emperor who sits enthroned in gold and purple, with his diadem in the thunder-clouds and his sandals on the groaning backs of the nations, let him dare to walk where the rank grass quivers without a wind, and the lethal scent of decay is heavy in the air. Let him dare — and try if his pomp and glory and his lines of steel and gold will awe the coiling death or check the dart of the wedge-shaped head.

For when he sings in the dark it is the voice of Death crackling between fleshless jaw-bones. He reveres not, nor fears, nor sinks his crest for any scruple. He strikes, and the strongest man is carrion for flapping things and crawling things. He is a Lord of the Dark Places, and wise are they whose feet disturb not his meditations.


A tip of the Stetson to Patrice Louinet for the information on “With a Set of Rattlesnake Rattles.”
This entry filed under H. P. Lovecraft, Howard Biography, Howard's Texas.


Conrad shook his head. “Have you ever thought that perhaps it is his very sanity that causes him to write in that fashion? What if he dares not put on paper all he knows? … Men may stumble upon secret things, but von Junzt dipped deep into forbidden mysteries. He was one of the few men, for instance, who could read the Necronomicon in the original Greek translation.”

— Robert E. Howard, “The Children of the Night

VonJunzt1Friedrich, Baron von Junzt, had met with difficulties when it came to having his life’s work, Von Unaussprechlichen Kulten, published. No orthodox press in Europe would touch it. Even commissioning the task privately led to one printer destroying a manuscript, and to a second committing suicide. Junzt had a second manuscript in reserve against such eventualities, and he entrusted that to his friend Alexis Ladeau, who copied out another for complete security, placing it in the vault of a Paris bank. Friedrich then left for Riga on the Baltic, hoping the furore and scandal would have died before he returned.

Being a Prussian nobleman and a scholar, he knew much about the Teutonic Knights and the Brotherhood of the Sword, those medieval orders which had conquered the original Baltic Prussians and Lithuanians. Von Junzt had studied their history, and the life of the Scandinavian scholar who had translated the Necronomicon from Greek into Latin in 1228. That twisted savant was a Swede named Olav Veramius, though some scholars had confused him with the Danish antiquarian and physician, Olaus Wormius, who lived later, between 1588 and 1624.

kozik-teutonic1Wormius had indeed read the Necronomicon, and been repulsed. He threw his copy, which had come into his hands by chance, into the Kattegat. Veramius, on the other hand, had been a person as malignant as he was formidable. The antediluvian cult of Cthulhu had existed in Lithuania in his day; the Teutonic Knights had striven to eradicate it. That they failed was largely the warlock Veramius’s doing.

The cult still existed when von Junzt arrived in Riga in 1836. He considered that, and other shocking facts he learned in Lithuania, serious enough to report in a lengthy letter to Ladeau. He instructed his friend to add his findings to the final chapter of Von Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Ladeau complied.

Von Junzt went to Moscow and organised an expedition to Mongolia as planned. The March of Muscovy was expanding into central and north-east Asia in those days, against the resistance of the Tajiks, Uzbeks and other tribes. The Kremlin was taking land almost as fast as the Yankees in North America.

kalmyks-torghutsWith a hard-bitten Kalmyk named Toghrul as his guide (vouched for by several high-born Germans in Moscow), Friedrich set out to explore the shadow-cloaked mysteries of Inner Asia. Toghrul would provide von Junzt with an introduction to the Torghuts of Mongolia and the time-lost cult of Erlik which had gripped that ancient land since Hyrkanian times.

Toghrul was an indifferent Erlikite, at best. However, he was not indifferent to the sackful of silver rubles bonded back in Moscow, contingent upon the safe return of Freiherr von Junzt. The stalwart Kalmyk led Friedrich to the Altai Mountains, where the German scholar penetrated many of the mysteries of the Erlik cult. From there, they journeyed south toward the Plateau of Leng. As advised by Herrmann Mülder, the two carefully skirted the citadel of Yahlgan in the Khingan Mountains.

All of Friedrich Wilhelm von Junzt’s travels during this period are shrouded in mystery. The only resources we have (all second-hand data) are the diaries of Alexis Ladeau, which were published a century later by Etienne-Laurent de Marigny, along with the not-entirely credible comments of Gottfried Mülder in his Die geheimen Mysterien Asiens – mit einer Anmerkung zum Ghorl Nigral (1847), also known as Secret Mysteries of Asia.

While in the Altai Mountains, Junzt first encountered the Tcho-Tcho people or, at least, an offshoot called the “Tchortchas“. Friedrich later conjectured that they were a Manchu tribe which had interbred with the not-quite-human Tcho-Tchos. He soon encountered far worse.

gutalin-leng1Upon reaching the dread Plateau of Leng, Toghrul disappears from the record (i.e., The Ladeau Bequest). For reasons von Junzt does not specify, the repulsive Tcho-Tchos of the region allowed the German savant to live and depart, unharmed, months later. The “corpse-eating cult of Leng” had been abominated for untold ages throughout Asia. During his time on the plateau, von Junzt glimpsed the Elder Pharos, his being the first account brought back to the modern West. He also heard rumours of cults dedicated to Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth in the Chinese mountains further east.

“Leng” is hard to identify or locate. Some scholars assert it is the name given to Tibet by devotees of Erlik, others that it is a small, arid, demon-haunted highland somewhere between Tibet and Mongolia (which seemed to be von Junzt’s definition) and others think it mythical. It is hinted in the Necronomicon that Leng exists beyond the natural boundaries of Earth, only to be reached through the “keys” and “gates” of which von Junzt wrote so often.

It was during this segment of his journey that Friedrich seems to have “visited” both Shamballah and Yian-Ho. It would appear from Ladeau’s diaries that von Junzt did not do so physically, rather that he journeyed to them in an astral or dream state of some sort. Leng, as with other Tcho-Tcho enclaves, was a source for the black lotus.

Friedrich told Ladeau that neither place existed here on our Earth, instead confirming the testimony of Herrmann Mülder that they resided in the “lands of dream” and that both locations were extra-dimensional redoubts of the priests of Erlik. He described the “thousand bridges” of Yian-Ho and the Naacal priests, the Kuen-Yuin, that rule it. Apparently, the German savant also told Ladeau that anyone expecting a “messianic figure” to emerge from Shamballah would be gravely disappointed.

leng-2Traveling south from Leng to Kyrgyzstan, von Junzt rode into the temple-city of Yolgan, founded by a splinter-sect who fled Yahlgan in Mongolia centuries earlier. His earlier induction into the Erlik cult (and his stay in Leng) allowed this. There he learned of the schism which had resulted in the foundation of Yolgan. Twin sisters were born with the sign of the “Daughter of Erlik Khan”. The sect supporting the junior “Daughter” attempted a coup d’etat. Though defeated, their faction was still strong enough to avoid annihilation. Instead, they chose exile.

Von Junzt learned a great deal in Yolgan. While degraded in contrast to their northern cousins in regard to religious zeal and scholarship, the monks of Mount Erlik Khan still possessed many “forbidden volumes” unknown to the West. Some tomes were brought with them and some were later donated by pious lay Erlikites. One of many was The Testament of Carnamagos. Another was the (apparently) nameless treatise by Ibn Schacabac which Alhazred used as a primary reference for his own Necronomicon.

Friedrich sailed from British India and disembarked in Marseilles by way of Alexandria in early 1839. He was ready to write his second warning to the world concerning the dark forces facing humanity. His knowledge was hard-won, to say the least.

Von Junzt found that Ladeau had not succeeded in having the manuscript of Von Unaussprechlichen Kulten printed. Alexis had, in fact, been arrested, and confined in prison for months without trial. Conservative political and religious forces had engineered his imprisonment. Von Junzt, being both wealthy and a nobleman, was able to pull strings and effect his friend’s release. The two men were closely watched and emphatically warned to publish nothing.

zarono-gottfried1Von Junzt ignored the ban. He paid a large sum to have a mere one hundred copies of his book printed in secret. This was the famous “Dusseldorf Edition”, published in late 1839. The printer, who defiantly placed his name on the book, was one Gottfried Fvindvuf Mülder.

Gottfried had been an apprentice book-binder when he approached his illustrious relative, Herrmann Mülder. Gottfried was a distant cousin of Herrmann (though of common birth), and had always idolized his dashing, erudite Prussian kinsman. When he learned that Herrmann had returned to Heidelberg, Gottfried journeyed there and ingratiated himself. Herrmann endured Gottfried’s presence for his own, inscrutable reasons. The junior Mülder’s skills in printing (and his interest in the occult) led to his crucial role in the publication of Von Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Gottfried was found dead in Prague, apparently of a laudanum overdose, in 1851.

A10UKWhile this blogger has never seen any of the Dusseldorf copies, they are said to be bound in black calf-skin leather over thick boards, and to be fastened with three iron hasps. Robert E. Howard assured his public that it did not become known as the “Black Book” from the colour of its binding, but “because of its dark contents”. (“The Thing on the Roof“)

The ill-famed Church of Starry Wisdom possessed at least one copy before its members were forced to disband and flee Providence in Rhode Island. An auction of its many occult volumes was planned, and a catalogue prepared, but the auction never took place. The catalogue describes a copy of Von Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Besides confirming the above details, it specifies the book contained 192 pages 12 by 16 inches, was printed in Gothic black-letter, and had seventeen full page illustrations.

Von Junzt distributed the books to a number of correspondents and interested people, from Germany to England to the U.S.A. Miskatonic University is believed to have been presented with three first edition copies. Von Junzt then settled down to hard, unceasing work on a new book based upon his travels in Asia. He was visited occasionally by Gottfried Mülder.

Alexis Ladeau was understandably worried concerning the mental state of Junzt. The Parisienne did what he could to bring his old friend back to a frame of mind more congruent with modern, “enlightened” European society. All the while, he kept up his diaries, which are, on the whole, the only extant records we have of Friedrich’s last expedition.

Von Junzt finished the manuscript at last, on a spring night in 1840, in the locked and bolted chamber where he habitually worked. He had prepared an ingenious and fireproof hidden safe in which the manuscript could be sealed at short notice, in case of a raid by the authorities. Friedrich seems to have aroused opposition that may not have been human.

Ladeau, as is well known, found von Junzt dead after breaking into the still-locked room the next day. Alexis discovered the marks of misshapen, taloned fingers on his friend’s throat. It is possible that the long arm of the monks of Erlik had reached from deepest Asia to silence von Junzt and repress his final work.

thumb_john_kirowanThe manuscript had been scattered in tatters and shreds about the room. Ladeau, though distraught, swept them into von Junzt’s concealed safe and closed it, after which he informed the police. On instructions from people in high places, they did not look very hard for the murderer. One may gravely doubt the polizei would have found Friedrich’s killer even if they had been conscientious.

Ladeau, still in Dusseldorf, took the fragments of von Junzt’s last manuscript and painstakingly joined them together. He read them. Having done so, he burned the closely written pages and crushed the ashes under his feet until he was sure every word had been eradicated. Then Ladeau cut his own throat with a razor.

When the news spread, many owners of copies of Von Unaussprechlichen Kulten destroyed them, in fear of sharing the two men’s fate. Others reasoned that it was the final manuscript which brought about von Junzt’s death and provoked Ladeau’s suicide Those stalwart occultists retained what swiftly became known as the “Black Book” for its dark subject matter.

VonJunzt2.jpgAlexis Ladeau was a man of steely nerves, for all his quiet nature. He had fought two duels as a student – neither of them willingly – one against a ruthless, notorious rake and fine pistol shot. He had faced Cthulhu cultists in Louisiana. Ladeau read thoroughly, and aided to have printed, Von Unaussprechlichen Kulten without failing in resolution. One has to wonder just what was written on the manuscript pages he burned in horror and utter despair.

In any case, few copies of the Black Book’s first edition survived. From time to time rumors circulated that the manuscript Ladeau left in his Paris bank for safety had been rediscovered. They never proved substantial. Five years after the shocking deaths of von Junzt and Ladeau, a London printer named Bridewall got hold of a copy of the Dusseldorf edition. He had it translated into English and issued a print run.

bridewall-1The general view of scholars is that the translator had acquired his knowledge of the German language from a child’s primer, and in addition was drunk most of the time. The name by which the book is generally known to the Anglophone world – Nameless Cults – graced the Bridewall translation first. It was so shoddy that, as Robert E. Howard wrote, “publishers and public forgot about the book until 1909, when the Golden Goblin Press of New York brought out an edition.” (The Thing on the Roof”)

The Golden Goblin publishers were more artistic than practical. They produced a handsome, beautifully bound and printed volume, with illustrations of commensurate quality by Diego Vasquez. In consequence, it was too expensive for wide sales. As for content, the publishers censored it so strictly that a quarter of the original text was missing. As an artistic curiosity it is interesting, but as a faithful and accurate reproduction of Junzt’s original book it is worthless.

The “unexpurgated German copies, with heavy leather covers and rusty iron hasps” are almost impossible to find. The narrator of “The Black Stone”, writing before World War Two, thought that there were not “more than half a dozen such volumes in the entire world today”.

It may be just as well.

Images by Bryan “Zarono” Reagan, Alex Kozhanov Gutalin, Mariusz Kozik and Others.

Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five

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I was digging through some old REHupa mailings the other day and noticed something that might be of interest. Back in 2010, one of the side trips I took on the way to Howard Days was a little excursion to Marlin, in Falls County, Texas. Robert E. Howard spent lots of time in Marlin on multiple occasions. His May 9, 1931 letter to Clyde Smith is addressed from Marlin, as is the earliest letter we have of Howard’s. At the end of that June 8, 1923 letter, Howard tells Smith, “A letter addressed Robert E. Howard, 508 Coleman Street, Marlin will reach me or should, also one addressed Ali Akbar, 508 Coleman Street Marlin, Texas, should reach me.”

The big draw back then was the town’s natural hot springs. What could be better for Hester Howard’s tuberculosis than the healing waters at Marlin? The Howards were apparently such frequent visitors at the Torbett Sanatorium (above) that Bob became friends with Doctor Torbett’s nephew, Thurston. Thurston’s mother even wrote a letter to Strange Tales’ editor Harry Bates praising Howard’s work. Anyway, my main goal in 2010 was to find out about this 508 Coleman address. I had heard that it was the address for the Torbett Sanatorium, but that turned out not to be the case.

Just past the downtown area, on the north side of Coleman Street, are some pretty old houses—two-story affairs, most in need of some paint, and all with impressive trees and shrubbery growing in abundance. This is an old neighborhood. The homes on the south side are equally old and shaded by greenery, but these houses are much smaller, boxy little bungalows. The one pictured below has 508 above the door. [CORRECTION: A previous version of this post said “208” here. That was a typo. It’s 508.]

2010-06 Texas 179

2010-06 Texas 178

That certainly isn’t the Torbett Sanatorium. But what would the Howard’s be doing in a little place like that? Just down the street, back toward town, the “Marlin Health Spa Apartments” provided the answer.

Modern visitors rent those apartments on the cheap to be near family members in the nearby hospital. They are more “homey” than a hotel room and come with small kitchens and laundry facilities. This is no doubt what 508 Coleman Street was in 1923: a convenient rental for families wanting to spend time in the healing waters.


After my trip, I found a bunch of postcards for Marlin somewhere online. One of them was for the “Buie Clinic and Marlin Sanatarium Bath House.” The postcard was stamped on July 17, 1929. The inscription on the back reads as follows:

Dear Birdie and Family,
We left Houston last Friday morning at 6 a.m. arrived here 1 p.m. I like this place fine. John drinks lots of the water and is taking the baths every day. We came here in our car and the country here is beautiful. Our address is Mrs. [Something], 508 Coleman, Marlin, Tex.

That’s right, 508 Coleman. This appears to confirm that back in the 1920s, 508 Coleman was a place for short stays in Marlin, and provides another touchstone for the obsessed Robert E. Howard fan.