Archive for January, 2016


Yab Conab, son of Conab the Enormity, was in all things identical to his father, save only that his father was considerably older and punch-drunk. Young Yab, dubbed Conab the Bonehead because of his lumpy protruding brow, had been captured in his childhood by slave-raiders who took him out of Cimmeria, and set him to hard labor in a tomato garden.

He was often hungry because he’d been told the tomatoes were toxic and were only harvested to make poisons to kill wolves. At age seventeen he discovered this was a lie to keep the slaves from eating the harvest. This angered him sufficiently that he raised a rebellion.

Armed only with a garden trowel and manure rake, he killed everyone, even his fellow rebels, and a pack of wolves for good measure, then set off for a career as a freebooter, mercenary, and chimney sweep. At long last by means of usurpation (or by marrying a homely widowed queen) he became king of some great kingdom (or a settlement of wattle huts by a walnut grove).

He thereafter spent a good deal of time deciding dull matters of state and eating too many berries, walnuts and pasta, and drinking great flagons of hot melted pork fat, brooding in his throne because of the sad emotions awakened in his heart. His small pointy jaw rested on his humongous fist, in an aspect of thoughtful and woebegone bewilderment, like unto a man who cannot think of the precise word nor quite remember the capital of a given country.

One day King Bonehead stood in his boudoir gazing in a mirror of bronze. Ordinarily this was a joyful exercise, as the bronze surface of the mirror distorted his face, making him handsomer than was true, and gave his palorous Cimmerian complexion a rosy hue. But presently he realized he was looking older, his paunch hung over the front of his sword belt, and his hair was thin.

His mind drew back in time, to when he was a young man. Thinking he was not even now too old for adventure, he set out for Cimmeria, hoping to be reunited with his greatly beloved father, Conab the Enormity. It was a perilous journey with many close escapes and minor conquests, like the Adventure in the Wilderness, where Yab earned impressive scars upon his rump, rendered by an angry hog whose slop pail Conab had attempted to rob.

In Cimmeria he searched far and wide, at last encountering a pot-bellied drunkard whose scraped and meaty fists were used for nothing more refined than the sport of rat-mashing.

This was his father, whom Bonehead met in a low dive where he was busy mashing rats, one after the other, to the sound of riotous laughter, and downing, between mashings, whole buckets of the damp, spoiled chicken mash that passed for beer in Cimmeria.

“Father, ’tis I, Conab the Bonehead!” said Conab the Bonehead, master of his destiny. He held wide his arms, eager for an embrace, but the drunken rat-masher evaded the hug.

“What? Eh? What do you mean, ‘Father.’ I have no son.”

“But look at me, if I were more greatly potbellied, aged, besotted, with rat-bites on my knuckles, punch-drunk and silly, you would see I’m your very double.”

“What? Eh? Seeing double?”

“I am your son!”

The senior Conab waxed nostalgic. “Had a son once.”

“I was captured by raiders, taken to a far land.”

“There! You see! My son wasn’t captured by no one. I sold him to some passing caravan for the price of a few potatoes.”

“I am that son.”

“If you’re my son Bonehead the Unlamented, prove it by mashing a few strong rats.”

Yab took one look at the manged rodents for several heartbeats before a sense of profound discouragement overwhelmed him. He turned on his heel and fled in horror of his father, though Conab the Enormity always assumed the fellow ran out for fear of the rats, proving the stranger was no son of his.

And so Yab returned to his little walnut kingdom, or town, and entered his castle, or wattle hut, and tried to be satisfied that things were as good as they were. Yet after many years had passed, Yab saw that he had become indeed like his father, though it was good wine instead of spoiled mash that made him sotted, and good pasta with sausages washed down with warm semi-liquescent lard instead of rat-kabobs that made him wide of bum and big of belly.

He had three sons, dubbed Conab the Button-nose, Conab Smalldong, and his youngest, Conab the Player with Dolls and Kittens.

The lads liked nothing better than to gather about their poppa when he was on his throne, and listen to him cracking walnuts in his huge fists while telling unlikely tales of his glorious youth as a wizard-slayer, wool-strangler, freebooter, cattle-rustler, and roustabout.

When his sons reached their individual ages of fifteen, eighteen, and twenty, they conspired to poison old Yab, who fell dead in the walnut grove wherein he had been chasing after a pretty, flirtatious she-goat. The sons divided up the property, cut down the nut grove, and built highrise apartments with a lovely view of some ditchwater and a clearcut mountain called Baldy. The apartment dwellers claim the spirit pf Yab Conab to this day wanders the hallways, and rides the elevators up and down, chasing after a bleating horned beast whom the ghostly Yab calls Daisy. A sad tale but a true one, and even so, nobody cares a tiddle nor gives a quid.

Illustration by Denis Medri

Jessica is this year’s Guest of Honor at Diversicon and a new collection of her poetry has just been published by Raintree, titled The Death Sonnets. Centipede Press is about to publish a big omnibus of Jessica’s novels, tales, and poems. From Alchemy Press early this year will be a volume of the complete weird epistles of Penelope Pettiweather, ghost hunter. And the Sidecar Preservation Society will release during Diversicon Pets Given in Evidence of Old English Withchcraft and Other Bewitched Beings. She has also written an introduction for a forthcoming edition of the complete poetry of Michael Shea. Also, from her Duck’s-foot Tree Productions comes Daisy Zoo and Other Punk-Ass Nonsense to coincide with Diversicon.

This entry filed under Sword & Sorcery.


Berserker Viking Warriors (


1. an ancient Scandinavian warrior frenzied in battle and held to be invulnerable

[origin: first known use 1851; Old Norse berserkr, probably from ber-bear + serkr shirt]


Eric Ranesen, the viking, son of the sword and spear,
Swept down the coast of England at the height of his wild career,
Swooped down on many a village with his berserk, wild wolf band,
Raged along the coast like a hurricane with fire and sword in his hand,
Harried the coast of England from Severn to the Forth,
Loaded his ships with plunder, then sailed back to the North.

Lord of the North was Eric, from Salten fiord to Skye,
Lord of the wide, wild northern sea and many a land thereby.
He had vanquished Saxon and Welshman; Swede and Finn and Dane
Fled when they saw the flashing of the sword of the son of Rane.
Only one man defied him from Salten fiord to Forth,
And that was Harald of Norway, a reiver of the North.
Now Harald is a sea-king with ships, a full half-score,
Three long serpents, three galleys, and smaller vessels, four.
Thirty score men he numbered, thirty score men and ten,
Berserks, sailors, vikings, all fierce fighting men.

[from “Eric of Norway”; to read the complete poem see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 536, Robert E Howard Selected Poems, p. 389 and A Rhyme of Salem Town, p. 76]

This entry filed under Howard's Poetry, Word of the Week.


This is the date 110 years ago when The World’s Greatest Pulpster was born. On January 22, 1906, Hester Ervin Howard and Dr. Issac Howard became the proud parents of a baby whom they named Robert Ervin Howard. REH was off to a humble start, being born the small town of Peaster, Texas. At the time the Howards were living in the isolated community of Dark Valley. So Dr. Howard moved Hester from Dark Valley (in Palo Pinto County) to the larger town of Peaster in Parker County to give birth. Patrice Louinet posted a series of posts on Howard’s early years, his family history and Dr. Howard and Hester’s relationship. The series is called “The Long Road to Dark Valley.” Patrice will soon add additional chapters to the series.

As we celebrate this milestone anniversary, let’s take a look at gifts Howard typically received on his birthday. This excerpt is from a letter written by Howard to H.P. Lovecraft, ca. July 1933:

My own library was generally the largest in the place I lived, but it was small. I generally was given a book on Christmas and on my birthday. Occasionally between times a book was bought.

Back in Howard’s day, during the Great Depression, gifts were usually simple items, like the books he mentions receiving — items that served a purpose and weren’t extravagant.

Now, 110 years after his birth, Howard has gifted all of us with many volumes of his writings. Some things never change. Books were important to Howard throughout his life and books written by him are just as important to us.

So on this auspicious occasion, I’m going to crack open a few of his books and read my favorite Howard stories. Heck, I’ll also crack open a bottle of Maker’s Mark to add to my reading enjoyment of yarns by The World’s Greatest Pulpster.

Happy Birthday, Bob!


Big News: Here is the announcement of the Guest of Honor for this years Howard Days from the Howard Days Facebook page:

The Robert E. Howard Foundation and Project Pride of Cross Plains, Texas are proud to announce the dates and Guest of Honor for the 2016 version of Howard Days, to be held June 10th and 11th at the Robert E. Howard Museum in Cross Plains.

This year’s Guest of Honor is Michael Scott Myers, screenwriter for the movie The Whole Wide World, the biographical film based on the book One Who Walked Alone, which recounted the relationship between Robert E. Howard and Novalyne Price. We are happy to welcome Michael as our GOH, as he is the perfect person to blend with our Howard Days theme this year, Anniversaries.

2016 finds us with a number of important Robert E. Howard Anniversaries: 110 years since his birth, 80 years since his death, 70 years since the publication of Skull Face and Others, 50 years since Conan the Adventurer from Lancer, 40 years since Glenn Lord’s The Last Celt, 30 years since Novalyne Price Ellis’ One Who Walked Alone, 30 years since the very first Howard Days and 20 years since the movie The Whole Wide World (which was based on Novalyne’s book).

Michael’s involvement with The Whole Wide World began with his being a student of Novalyne Price Ellis in Lafayette, LA. Having read her book about Howard, he knew what a wonderful movie it would make. So, our Guest of Honor is doubly qualified this year and we’re thrilled to have him.

There is lots more information to follow and you can read about it here and at the Howard Days blog. While the cold winds of January are blowing now, make plans to come to Texas in June where the warmth will be in both the air and in the fellowship of Robert E. Howard fans!

Howard Days is less than five months away! More exciting news to come, so stay tuned!


“The Vultures of Wahpeton” is perhaps the best of Robert E. Howard’s Westerns. It’s a hard-boiled, two-fisted tale of bad men in a bad town doing bad things, very much unlike the sentimentalized version of the west so often seen in fiction. For that matter, it was a bit out of the ordinary for Howard, who wrote far more comedic tall-tale Westerns about knuckle-headed giants, outlandish misunderstandings, and slapstick fisticuffs. That may not have been simply a matter of inclinations, Howard was a canny pro who knew his markets. He took an unusual gambit with “Vultures,” submitting two endings to the story to editor Clifford Campbell of Smashing Novels, a conventional “happy” ending and a grimmer, more violent ending. Campbell must have concurred with Howard on some level, for he ran both endings, letting the readers choose which they preferred.

“Vultures” touched on some subjects that were recurring interests of Howard: the “good” bad-man, corrupt lawmen, and the thin veneer of civilization over society’s boiling abyss of barbaric violence.

The tale revolves around a Texas gunman, Corcoran, who is recruited as a deputy by Sheriff Middleton of Wahpeton. Corcoran is to replace Deputy Jim Grimes and help clean up the town. A vigilante group is forming, but holding back because they believe Middleton to be a sincere lawman. Corcoran soon discovers that he is being used as a patsy, like Grimes. Middleton is actually the boss of a gold-rush Mafia, engaged in looting stage coaches and travelers. Corcoran cuts himself in on the deal, while courting dance-hall girl Glory Bland. Alliances are formed, enemies made, consciences are stretched to the limit, and blood flows.

As with many of Howard’s best-regarded tales, there is a great deal of interest in Howard’s sources of inspiration for “Vultures.” The principal inspiration was Howard’s imagination of course, coupled with the willpower to hammer away at the keyboard, until the last sentence is wrought like a keenly balanced blade, and The End gleams with razor sharpness.

But if one must know, then even Howard admitted he drew on sources from history to whet his appetite. Keith Taylor has studied Howard’s interest in Hendry Brown, the inspiration for Corcoran. Brown was at one time an outlaw associate of Billy the Kid. Later Brown took on the role of marshal of cowtown Caldwell, Kansas, while keeping up his outlaw activities by robbing banks in neighboring towns, a sideline that eventually led to a bloody death in a hail of lead.

plummer_10272395But what of Sheriff Middleton? For that matter, what of Wahpeton? For role models that Howard drew on, we may look to Sheriff Henry Plummer of Bannack, Montana. Like Middleton, Plummer was a lawman who worked both sides of the law, being a secret ally of thieves and killers. His jurisdiction was the gold rush town of Bannack, named after a local Indian tribe, much like Wahpeton (the Wahpetons are a sub-group among the Sioux). Howard was certainly familiar with Sheriff Plummer, he mentioned Plummer in at least two letters to H.P. Lovecraft. In a letter dated September 22, 1932, Howard numbered Plummer among melodramatic, but deadly gunmen such as Ben Thompson, Bob Ollinger, and Bat Masterson. In the same letter he mentioned Boone Helm’s connection to Plummer’s gang in Bannack. In another letter from September 1934, Howard describes Plummer as an example of a sheriff using his office to loot the territory. That Plummer and Bannack served as models for Middleton and Wahpeton is a likely conjecture.

But who was Henry Plummer, and what sort of place could a crooked sheriff make such a dramatic rise and fall in? A study of his life and times reveals a story at least if not more bizarre than fiction.

Henry Plummer has been much debated, both before and since he met his end swinging from a vigilante noose on January 10, 1864. To the early historians of the era, men like Nathaniel Langford and Thomas Dimsdale who had participated in the vigilante movement of Montana Territory and meant to justify the vigilantes’ actions, Plummer was little better than the devil incarnate. To them, Plummer was a murderer and robber, who used the color of office to support other murderers and robbers. Ruth Mather and her co-author F.E. Boswell produced a revisionist history of the vigilantes, Hanging the Sheriff (University of Utah Press, 1987). To Mather and Boswell Plummer was a man who instinctively kept order in a lawless country, protected women, and paid with his life for his courage. Frederick Allen’s A Decent Orderly Lynching (University of Oklahoma Press, 2004) offers the most balanced view. Two facts stand out from Allen’s biography of Plummer, 1) Plummer had terrible judgement, 2) Plummer was a very dangerous man.

hotelparHenry Plummer arrived in California in 1852 at the age of twenty. Plummer was an enterprising youth who became part owner of a bakery and later a saloon in Nevada City, California, a booming gold rush town. In 1856 Plummer was elected city marshal, partly on the strength of his business connections which included the saloon-owners, gamblers, and brothel-keepers of the town. He was as much an aspiring politician as lawman.

Plummer displayed his knack for disastrous misjudgment early. One night in June, Plummer was making his rounds with George Jordan, a drunk and belligerent character who had just been bailed out of jail after breaking a man’s jaw with a piece of lumber. When Plummer intervened in a bar fight, Jordan provoked a gunfight with the saloonkeeper that left Jordan dead and a bystander wounded. Plummer avoided official blame, but taking armed drunks on police business was hardly the way to keep the peace.

Despite the setback, Plummer soon displayed a talent for law work, and gained a reputation for arresting wanted men (a profitable line, as wages for lawmen were low and fees for executing warrants, rewards, and bounties were the way for a lawman to prosper). That reputation took a beating when a joint effort by Marshal Plummer and the local sheriff to bring in a wanted man ended in disaster when a civilian posse gunned down the sheriff and a deputy, mistaking them for the wanted outlaws.

In 1857 Plummer made his worst decision. He got personally involved in the marriage of his tenants George and Lucy Vedder. The Vedders rented a house from Plummer. George was a card dealer and Lucy was raising their child. When their marriage began to fail, George displayed a violent side and began to threaten Lucy. In turn Lucy appealed to Plummer for protection. Plummer took a personal interest in Lucy’s troubles and began spending time with her. While Plummer’s deputy also kept watch over Lucy Vedder, gossip spread. George Vedder now began to threaten Plummer’s life. Matters came to a head when Vedder showed up armed at Lucy’s hotel room and Plummer gunned him down. Vedder never got a shot off. By 21st century standards, it would have been a clear act of self-defense, but “no duty to retreat” and the “castle doctrine” were not so well established. Plummer was put on trial. In a shocking turn, Lucy Vedder testified against him, claiming that Plummer’s solicitude for her safety was a pretext to turn her out as a prostitute. It was a damning indictment, though it may have been a lie, wrung from her by Vedder’s father who was threatening to take her child. True or not, it sunk Plummer and despite getting a second trail he was sentenced to ten years hard labor.

san-quentin-interiorLife in San Quentin took a toll on Plummer’s health. His friends on the outside petitioned for an early release on the grounds that his death was imminent. Plummer walked out of San Quentin in 1859. In a questionable move, he returned to Nevada City. He briefly served as constable until his political patron lost office. Plummer seems to have become a bouncer in a brothel, as if confirming the worst opinions of him.

As a bouncer, Plummer was a deadly one. A man named Muldoon died after Plummer pistol-whipped him, but charges were not filed. In October 1861 Plummer became involved in a fatal altercation with a hard case named William Riley. There are varying accounts of the cause. Plummer may have recognized Riley as an escapee from San Quentin and attempted a citizen’s arrest, as one does in a brothel at 2 A.M. The other version of the story is that Riley and Plummer got in an argument about the Civil War, which could certainly happen to anybody. Riley carved on Plummer’s scalp with a bowie knife, while Plummer ventilated Riley with a six-shooter.

Nevada City’s patience with Plummer was gone. He had three deaths to his credit. He was jailed but managed to escape with the assistance of one of the girls from the brothel. Nobody seemed to regret his departure. Even a one-time ally said that Plummer wasn’t worth jailing if he’d just run off and never come back.

GunfightPlummer took refuge with Billy Mayfield, a gambler over in Carson City. While hiding out with Mayfield, Sheriff John Blackburn came looking for Plummer. The gambler and the lawman tangled in a gunfight that left Blackburn dead. So much for laying low.

Mayfield and Plummer headed for the gold rush town of Florence in the northern reaches of Idaho territory. While there Plummer was involved in yet another senseless killing. Plummer was with a gang of gold-field “roughs” who were breaking up a saloon. Plummer and his pals were ejected, but as they were preparing to ride out the saloonkeeper, Pat Ford came out. According to some accounts, Ford opened fire without provocation and was gunned down by return fire from Plummer and his pals. For obvious reasons, we do not have Ford’s version of events.

From being a lawman and would-be politician, Plummer was now an associate of the thugs and desperadoes. While Plummer had been associated with the saloon crowd—gamblers and pimps—in California, this was to a certain extent to be expected. They were after all the very group lawmen were expected to police, a group that was to be tolerated but kept in check. Moreover, they had money and thus a degree of political influence.

The “roughs” were a different class. The gold rushes drew many who adapted to the lawlessness of the frontier by crude bullying. The saloon crowd offered alcohol, games, or women for money. The roughs relied on thuggery to take what they wanted, intimidating store-keepers for food or clothing, saloon-keepers for drinks, and often threatening honest citizens for sheer amusement. Some of the roughs might become gunmen for hire, or footpads, as muggers were called then, or take up highway robbery. Mostly they were simply parasites, a rabble that drifted on the tides of the gold rushes, leaving whenever society got organized enough to produce vigilantes or lawmen, and commonly meeting their end by means of knife, bullet, or noose.

Not too long after the Ford killing, Mayfield and his friends shot up Florence. Plummer was reputed to have taken part, but that was untrue. Instead, Plummer was in Fort Benton, having crossed the Rockies with a traveling companion, Jack Cleveland, another ex-con that knew Plummer in San Quentin. The pair found work as handy-men at a farm run by a missionary, James Vail. In an even more unlikely turn of events, Plummer wooed Vail’s sister-in-law, Electa Bryan. All accounts agree that Plummer could be charming when he wanted to, though one wonders if he simply looked better in comparison to guys like Jack Cleveland.

Plummer_Gang_Robbing_Stage_(1863)Plummer and Cleveland moved on to the booming gold-rush town of Bannack. The town was wild and wooly. Indians of both the Sioux and Shoshoni tribes were increasingly involved in skirmishes with travelers, which would lead to years of bloody warfare from the Rockies to the plains. Law enforcement was more of a notion than a fact. By custom informal “miners’ courts” gave rough justice, but there was no town marshal or county sheriff. The federal government was too busy fighting the Confederacy to worry about problems in a place that no one in Washington D.C. had heard of.

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This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.


intransitive verb

1. endure or suffer

[origin: chiefly Scottish; Middle English, from Old English drēogan; akin to Gothic driugan to perform military service]


There’s a kingdom far from the sun and star
With never a wind to dree;
Where the golden balls of the silence falls
In the high blue halls of the sea.

There’s death to change in that kingdom strange,
For its days are all the same;
Its blue floors blaze in a golden maze
Through a purple haze of flame.

Through an emerald sheen dim shapes careen
And white limbs trail and quiver;
In rose pale fire ’round spear and spire
In white desire they shiver.

[from “High Blue Halls”; to read the complete poem see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 274 and Robert E. Howard Selected Poems, p. 154]

This entry filed under Howard's Poetry, Word of the Week.


In Robert E. Howard’s story “A Witch Shall Be Born,” Taramis, the beloved queen of Khauran, is kidnapped one night by an identical twin sister she thought was dead, who imprisons and tortures her, and steals her identity, ruling in her name as a cruel tyrant. This evil sister is Salome, a name familiar from the New Testament story of John the Baptist’s beheading, and Oscar Wilde’s play, which depicts her as a perverse fin de siècle sensualist.

Within Howard’s tale, the name Salome is given a supernatural resonance. Throughout the centuries, it has been given to all the girls in Taramis’ family who were born with a birthmark, a “blood-red crescent” which is “the mark of the witch” (Howard 257, 259), which is the sign of their evil nature. “Each was named Salome,” she says. “It was always Salome, the witch. It will always be Salome … to walk the earth, to trap men’s hearts by their sorcery, to dance before the kings of the world, and see the heads of the wise men fall at their pleasure!” (259)

This passage stresses the importance of Salome as not just a character, but as an archetype who has, in some form, appeared many times throughout history, both within this fictional universe, and without, since the part about heads falling is obviously meant to evoke the fate of John the Baptist.

BurneyRelief_MedThe Salome of legend is popularly associated with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar to the Babylonians, known as Inanna to the Sumerians, who appears as a goddess, by name, within Howard’s story (see pages 261, 265, 280, for example), bringing her and her associated mythology into the reader’s consciousness. The “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which does not appear in the account of the biblical Salome, is believed by many people to have been derived from the myths of Ishtar.

One of the sources of this equation is Toni Bentley, who wrote that “Ishtar, the great goddess of Babylon, performed the first documented striptease when she descended to the underworld to retrieve her lover-son-husband, the mortal Tammuz. In this death and resurrection myth, Ishtar must relinquish her jewels and robes at each of the seven gates to the underworld until she stands naked in the ‘land of no return’“(Bentley 19).

Possibly the most famous parts of the Ishtar mythology is her “Descent.” In a clear parallel to the plot of “A Witch Shall Be Born,” she visits the Underworld, and ends up imprisoned and suffering at the hands of her sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld. The two are often seen as foils, representing life and death, light and dark.

In the myth, Ishtar goes to the underworld boldly: “If you do not open your gate for me to come in,/I shall smash the door and shatter the bolt … I shall raise up the dead and they shall eat the living:/The dead shall outnumber the living!” (Myths from Mesopotamia 155). Her demand makes her sister’s face turn “livid as cut tamarisk” (ibid).

Before she can enter, the gatekeeper leads Ishtar through seven gates, removing an item of clothing at each gate, until she is naked. He takes away Ishtar’s “great crown,” her earrings, her necklace of beads, “the toggle-pins at her breast,” “the girdle of birth-stones around her waist,” her wrist and ankle bracelets, and finally, “the proud garment of her body” (Myths 156, 157). It is this seven-part disrobing that has become associated with the “Dance of the Seven Veils.”

Once she has Ishtar is in her power, Ereshkigal keeps her in the Underworld, and infects her with various diseases. In the Sumerian version, translated by scholar Diane Wolkstein, Inanna also removes seven items of clothing (a crown, necklace, a “double strand of beads,” her breastplate, a bracelet, a “lapis measuring rod and line” form her hand, and finally, her “royal robe”), one for each gate of the underworld (57 – 59). “Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death./She spoke against her the word of wrath./She uttered against her the cry of guilt./She struck her.” (60) Then, vividly, “Inanna was turned into a corpse,/A piece of rotting meat,/And was hung from a hook on the wall.” (60)

In both versions, Ishtar is eventually brought back to life, and the items that were taken from her are restored at each gate, so that she leaves completely clothed again.

600_443036752According to Wolkstein, Ereshkigal “is the other, neglected side of Inanna … she is enraged, for Inanna’s light, glory, and perpetual movement have, to some extent, been achieved at her expense.” (Inanna 158) She resents all the good things her twin sister possesses, and wants to strip them from her, much like Howard’s Salome, who said she had “returned to take that to which I have as much right as you” (260).
Wolkstein further describes Ereshkigal as having a “compulsive” and “insatiable” sexuality (158), again, like Salome, who is one of the few Howard characters explicitly shown to be sexually perverse, indulging in orgies, forcing other women to take part in the “debauchery of her court” (273), and even handing her sister over to be raped: “Tame the scornful hussy as you wish”(263). The sexual element of the ancient myth is made plain when Ishtar’s release happens mainly because the god Ea sends a good-looking emissary to seduce Ereshkigal: “When she is relaxed, her mood will lighten” (Myths 158).
Also, as Howard’s version of Salome was abandoned and left for dead as an infant, the Sumerian queen of the Underworld is shown having “no protective or caring mother, father, or brother” and her childhood is called “lost,” leaving her “unloving, unloved, abandoned, instinctual, and full of rage, greed, and desperate loneliness” (158).

This is an apt picture of Salome’s situation in life, and one that is more sympathetic than we find in Howard’s story. Although it’s a matter of record there that Salome does have legitimate grievances, and it’s possible that her cruel nature is the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy, her response to the injustice is so brutal, and equally unjust, that the prophecy that caused her to be outcast can just as easily be seen as a correct prediction of her essential evil qualities.
In “A Witch Shall Be Born,” Taramis is “famed for her virtue, justice and tranquility” (Howard 273), representing the good in human nature, where Salome is depicted as a “fiend of darkness” (259). Shifting the name Salome from the Ishtar-like figure to the Ereshkigal-like one makes some logical sense. Salome, from the story of John the Baptist’s martyrdom, is associated more as a symbol of death and destructive female sexuality than the life-affirming figure Ishtar is more commonly depicted as, although, to be fair, Ishtar is more complex than some goddess figures, with some moral ambiguity.

It’s probably only a coincidence that Taramis, the name of the innocent, victimized sister in Howard’s tale, is used as the name of the evil queen in the film Conan the Destroyer. This character, continually dressed in glamorous black, schemes to betray and sacrifice her virginal niece — more subtly than Salome did the story’s original Taramis, but  nonetheless, she and Salome have a family resemblance, both seeking to usurp the power of a female relative, and both highly sexualized, especially compared to their counterparts.

In her analysis, Wolkstein interprets the myth psychologically, with the two supernatural sisters representing different aspects of the same archetypal woman, and Inanna’s famous “descent” an experience that allows her “to face what she has neglected and feared: the instinctual, wounded, frightened parts of herself” (160). This is what will allow the goddess to become truly great: “It is the Great Below, and the knowledge of death and rebirth, life and stasis, that will make of Inanna an ‘Honored Counselor’ and a guide to the land,” (156) thus deepening her character and making her a more compassionate ruler.

inannadescentExtending this idea, Ishtar/Inanna’s descent into the Underworld is frequently used as a metaphor for initiation and personal growth, especially in connecting with one’s “shadow” or darker self. An early example, the Jungian-influenced Descent to the Goddess, by Sylvia Brinton Perera, views the story as a “controlled therapeutic regression,” in which the “demonic return of the repressed power shadow” (78) can lead to personal transformation. A work like Jane Meredith’s Journey to the Dark Goddess: How to Return to Your Soul is even more typical of modern views, especially within neo-paganism and “New Age” circles. It offers rituals and visualizations, leading women through meditations to put themselves in Inanna’s place, in order to experience an imaginative descent and rebirth.

“A Witch Shall Be Born” shows us a more literal depiction of what a descent into the Underworld would be like if it weren’t merely a psychological visualization, but a horrific reality.

Howard’s story doesn’t slavishly follow the mythological tales of the Ishtar from world history, but uses various elements and mixes them up in new ways. Still, the idea of the “light sister” being dragged down to a “dark” place, by a symbolic counterpart – even, here, an overt doppelganger – who is jealous of what she has – is very much in alignment with the actual Mesopotamian lore. And while Howard had no known access to any of the Jungian-influenced interpretations often found today, Salome and Taramis can be seen as similarly symbolic counterparts. Although they are so alike that they “might have been looking into a mirror” (Howard 257), each has “the opposite of every characteristic” of the other (258), making them mirror images who represent a human being’s split potential for darkness and light.


Works Cited

Bentley, Toni. Sisters of Salome. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

Howard, Robert E. The Bloody Crown of Conan. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.

Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Translated by Stephanie Dalley. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1989.

Perera, Sylvia Brinton. Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women. Toronto, Inner City Books: 1981.

Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth. Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. London: Rider, 1983.

This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.


(artist Nick Eggenhoffer)


1. a usually large and heavy vehicle for farm use

[origin: Middle English, wagon, chariot, from Old English wægn; akin to Middle Dutch wagen wagon, Old English wegan to move]


Grass and the rains and snow,
Trumpet and tribal drum;
Across my crests the people go,
Over my peaks the people come.
Girt with the pelts of lion and hare.
Plodding with oxen wains,
Climbing the steeps on a Spanish mare,
Soaring in aeroplanes.
Men with their hates and their ires,
Men with their loves and their lust
Still shall I reign when their spires
And their castles tumble to dust.

[from “The Mountains of California”; this is the complete poem as it appeared in The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 293 and the Robert E. Howard Selected Poems, p. 237]

This entry filed under Howard's Poetry, Word of the Week.


Between December 1933 and June 1936, a group of rather unusual Robert E. Howard stories were published: “Talons in the Dark” (1933), “The Tomb’s Secret” (1934), ‘‘People of the Serpent” (1934), “Names in the Black Book” (1934), “Graveyard Rats” (1936) and “Black Wind Blowing” (1936) were published in the magazines Strange Detective Stories, Super Detective Stories and Thrilling Mystery, which specialized in crime and detective stories.

These stories hold a special place in Howard’s work. Although they were published in magazines catering to the crime and detective markets, they were certainly a departure from Howard’s preferred writing subjects. Moreover, Howard’s personal opinion about his achievement in this genre is also noteworthy. In May 1936 he wrote to H. P. Lovecraft:

I have definitely abandoned the detective field, where I never had any success anyway, and which represents a type of story I actively detest. I can scarcely endure to read one, much less write one. (Means to Freedom Vol. 2, 953)

femme_fatale_by_kaceymThis statement raises several questions: why would Howard write anything in a genre he admitted to not only hating, but also not having a propensity for? Are Howard’s crime/detective stories actually ‘crime” stories in the way dictionaries define it? And if not, what are the differences? And lastly, are these stories really as bad as Howard regarded them?

For Howard, who wanted to make a living as a professional writer, the decision to splash other markets was not simply a logical one, but one based on painful necessity – the need for money. The pulps were a volatile market with magazines folding right and left under the weight of the Great Depression. Additionally, the pulps paid very little — anywhere from half a penny a word to five cents a word, with the majority of the pulps paying on the lower end of the scale. So the secret to earning a decent living writing for the pulps was quantity.

He was without a doubt versatile enough and had the necessary skills to be successful outside of fantasy and horror fiction. A look at his work in genres such as historical short stories about the crusaders, weird western tales, humorous westerns, boxing stories, and even his later work published in the “Spicy” magazines clearly demonstrate that Howard could write and deliver quality in a variety of environments.

By the time Howard began to write detective stories, the market was already dominated by stars like Dashiell Hammett and Carroll John Daly. Furthermore, the pulp magazines selling crime stories had a sufficient stock of experienced crime story writers available, writers who specialized in catering to the needs of their readers. All of this made the attempts of latecomers trying to enter this market a daunting task.

To get a foothold in the crime stories market, Howard used a method he was an expert at – mixing different genres. For Howard, that mix would be fantasy and horror genres he had superb experience writing in. The result of such a mixture though, would have probably created another “supernatural sleuth,” and that throne was already firmly held by Seabury Quinn and his Jules de Grandin series.

There is a high possibility that Howard’s literary agent Otis Adelbert Kline encouraged him to write detective stories. In a letter to Lovecraft, dated September 1933, Howard mentions that “Kline has been a big help in teaching me the technique of detective story writing” (A Means to Freedom Vol. 2, 634). This though is not sufficient proof that Kline was really involved in Howard’s decision to write crime stories.

fu_manchu_color_by_madlittleclown-d33xe5fAnother possibility of why Howard might have felt confident in writing crime stories was his love of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories. According to Howard’s personal library inventory list, he possessed eight books by Sax Rohmer. Howard also wrote parodies of Fu Manchu stories (“Few Menchu” or “Fooey Mancucu”) (Collected Letters 1, 53-55, 139 – 142, 113 – 119), which he sent to his friend Tevis Clyde Smith (March 1925/October 1927/February 1929). This clearly indicates that Howard was very familiar with the stories about the Chinese villain. The influence of these Fu Manchu stories on Howard was so strong that some of Howard’s crime stories feature a Mongolian super-villain by the name of Erlik Khan that was obviously based on Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu.

In the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, “crime fiction” is defined as “the commission and detection of crime, with the motives, actions, arraignment, judgment, and punishment of a criminal is one of the greatest paradigms of narrative. Textualized theft, assault, rape and murder begin with the earliest epics, and are central to Classical and much subsequent tragedy.” (192)

Although it is widely assumed that the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murder in the Rue Morgue” (1841) marked the origin of the crime fiction genre, this is actually not the case. According to the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory the first crime story can be traced back to the late 18th century to William Godwin’s “Caleb Williams” (1794). This new genre culminated in its first phase with the 1887 publication of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story, which established the short story as the genre’s prominent form (a form also used by Howard).

The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory set the end of this “First Golden Age of Detection” in 1914. A Second Golden Age of crime fiction began in the late 1920s when female writers such as Agatha Christie successfully entered the stage. These women extended the short story to full novel length. In the United States crime fiction became popular via the pulp fiction market, where according to Ron Goulart, “the private eye was born in the early 1920s and flourished in the decades between the two World Wars” (Cheap Thrills, 89), with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler to be the most prominent writers in the field.

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