Archive for March, 2016


“As for Roger O’Farrel … He took me off a sinking ship when I was a baby and raised me like his own daughter. And if I took to the life of a rover, it is not his fault, who would have established me like a fine lady ashore had I wished. ”

– Robert E. Howard, “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom”

Helen Tavrel had piracy and wild roving in her blood. Her kindred were the Taverels of Cornwall, who (among others) had operated out of Fowey port as pirates in the 14th and 15th centuries.  They were licensed to take French vessels while the Hundred Years’ War raged, but they continued without royal sanction after peace was made, and Edward IV had to take steps to suppress them – which included hanging a number.

Taverels were among the Elizabethan sea-dogs of Drake’s time (and Solomon Kane’s). They fought the Armada and plundered Spanish ports and shipping. Some of the Fowey Taverels made for the Munster coasts in Ireland at the beginning of the 17th century, when James I sought to suppress piracy as Edward IV had done before him. They became part of the Munster Brotherhood, a strong organisation of sea-thieves eventually crushed by the Dutch, who had wearied of their predations. Those Taverels who survived to come back from Munster (with an ‘e’ dropped from their name) settled in Cornwall again.

char53b97326f3f09130f6a4afdd82f83300Like greater Cornish families such as the Killigrews, they held by the Royalist cause during the English Civil War, even after Charles I was beheaded. They smuggled arms to English Royalists and information to the exiled Charles II, but eventually they were betrayed.  They attempted to flee to the continent themselves, and were intercepted by a Parliamentary naval ship, in 1654. Helen Tavrel, then two years old, was one of those aboard.

The Cromwellian ship was driven off by the privateer O’Farrel, in the service of Confederate Ireland. He rescued Helen from her burning vessel and carried her aboard his own, the frigate Tisiphone. Golden-haired and grey-eyed, she reminded him searingly of his own infant daughter, Finola, who with her mother had been murdered by Roundhead soldiers in Wexford. The details, and much else concerning O’Farrel’s career, can be found in the series of posts “The Superb Roger O’Farrel.”

Roundheads fighting Cavaliers at WorcesterO’Farrel had been fighting the Roundheads on the seas, as a privateer, for nine years, and had battled the English before that, from 1641 to ’43, at the side of his father, until the elder O’Farrel was killed. Now he sailed to Brussels with the little girl he made his foster-daughter.  Helen never remembered anything about Brussels, though her terror aboard the blazing ship, and O’Farrel lifting her in his arms with a laugh and words of comfort, remained stamped on her mind and heart all her life.  In any case they were not in Brussels long. The southern Low Countries were a centre of the Counter-Reformation under the Hapsburgs, and O’Farrel, a Catholic with an impressive record of fighting heretics, found a welcome there. The Spanish mistrusted Oliver Cromwell’s intentions in the West Indies, and offered O’Farrel a commission in Cuba.  O’Farrel accepted.

The result was that Helen grew up in Havana, then the richest, most opulent port in the Caribbean. The Spanish treasure fleet gathered there each year. When she and O’Farrel arrived, the Captain General (acting) was Don Ambrosio de Sotolongo. De Sotolongo and his lady were charmed by Helen, and soon learned to value O’Farrel.  The Irishman found a Spanish-Indian couple, Ramon and Eulalia, to look after his house and foster daughter. They had a daughter of their own, Renata, of Helen’s age, that O’Farrel thought would make an agreeable playmate for his motherless girl.

Pirates-1He took care to attend mass regularly and in other ways stay on the right side of the Church; the Holy Office was a power in Spanish territories, and while O’Farrel, though Catholic, was scarcely an over-pious man, he met enough danger on the sea from buccaneers and the English to have no need of any from other directions.  Oliver Cromwell’s “Western Design” had brought about the conquest of Jamaica, and the new English authorities there were recruiting buccaneers – English ones for preference – to prevent a Spanish reconquest. Before long O’Farrel was engaged in a dangerous feud with Captain Myngs of the Jamaica Squadron. Helen knew nothing about this; playing with Renata and learning to handle boats were her chief pleasures, when she was not being instructed in the skills reckoned suitable for a girl in colonial Cuba. These she hated; needlework and prayer did not appeal to someone with Tavrel blood. Nor had her experience on the burning ship as an infant left any lasting terror. Helen loved ships and the sea as she loved her foster father.

Aged seven, she was threatened again. Havana society was dissolute despite its splendid cathedral and many churches. An aristocratic waster with gambling debts and expensive mistresses saw in Helen a way out of his difficulties. He offered to abduct her and deliver her to Christopher Myngs. With Helen in English hands in Jamaica, O’Farrel would be easy to coerce. At the least he would then cease his depredations against the English colonies. At the most he might attempt Helen’s rescue and be captured.

Besides being wicked, the scheme was badly conceived and worse put into effect. The man’s wife detested him. She informed O’Farrel, in which she only confirmed what he had learned already from other sources.  O’Farrel sought the man, insulted him in public, and killed him in a duel with swords and daggers. Although he did not intend that Helen should know, she too missed little that went on around her, and spied on the fight from the shadows. She saw the man die.  Knowing the cause, she worshipped her foster-father even more thereafter.

Charles IIBetween 1658 and 1660, O’Farrel remained in Havana with Helen.  Upon the Restoration in England, he visited London, taking her with him.  His record of fighting the Roundheads made him congenial to Charles II, Samuel Pepys and Prince Rupert, but not to Parliament.  Helen did not like England; she found it cold and rainy after the Caribbean, and was glad to return.  She had missed her playmate Renata.  Between the ages of eight and ten, though, she found plenty of undisciplined mischief to get into with the mestiza girl, some of it dangerous.  The pirate blood of the Tavrels combined with her adoration of her foster father inspired her to run wild, and at ten she sought to emulate his skill with a rapier also.  She pleaded with him to instruct her, and he did, thinking she would probably lose interest, as she had with a few other enthusiasms; she was a child, after all.

Helen did not lose interest.  She had talent for the blade and soon developed a real love for it; so much so that O’Farrel prevailed upon a fencing master to teach her daily when he was away at sea.  Christopher Myngs returned to the Caribbean at that time – 1662 – and sacked Santiago de Cuba, on the island’s southern coast.  O’Farrel was able to retaliate in the following year, when Myngs led twenty vessels in a looting expedition against Campeche.  O’Farrel, with a mere five ships, still recovered some of the plunder and sank three of the buccaneers.

When Helen was thirteen, she began to strut the sun-drenched streets of Havana dressed as a boy, her golden hair covered by a black wig, her small rapier at her side.  Renata often accompanied her, sometimes in trousers and shirt like her friend, sometimes in a skirt.  The inevitable happened; they were waylaid by a group of young hell-raisers with lewd intentions towards the mestiza.  Helen resisted, drew her rapier, ran one youth through the shoulder and slashed the face of a second.  Afterwards, the pair escaped through the narrow, twisting alleys and over the roofs.  The group swore obscene revenge, but they did not know against whom. Then.

Helen began training with pistols at thirteen, also.  Her hands had been too small for them at ten, but now she practiced with firearms under a professional master, and soon learned to hit her target.  She enjoyed shooting, but loved the rapier with a passion.

sea-queen-of-connaughtRoger O’Farrel was her idol, and it was chiefly because of him that she yearned after the pirate life.  She doubtless heard stories of the pirate queen of Connacht, Grace O’Malley, from her foster father.  She also developed an admiring fascination for the flame-haired female pirate Jacquotte Delahaye, originally from Saint-Domingue.  Jacquotte was said to have become a pirate after her father was murdered, and led a crew of cut-throats for years, until the Caribbean waters became too hot for her.  She escaped pursuit by faking her own death, but returned after a time, and received the nickname “Back From the Dead Red”.  Before long her followers numbered hundreds, and in 1656 they had taken over a small island, with the intent of turning it into a freebooter republic.  Jacquotte died defending it in a gory action when Helen Tavrel was about nine, so they never met, but Helen loved the stories and ballads about her.

Another female pirate who roved the West Indies during Helen’s young girlhood was Charlotte de Berry.  Charlotte was born circa 1636, and in her teens fell in love with a sailor, whom she married against her parents’ wishes.  In the best romantic tradition, she disguised herself as a man, sailed as his shipmate, and fought in naval actions beside him.  An officer discovered their secret but did not divulge it, moved by lust for Charlotte.  He gave Charlotte’s husband the most dangerous tasks in an effort to get him killed, and when that did not succeed fast enough, he accused the young man of plotting mutiny, for which he was flogged to death.  Charlotte put off the officer’s further advances until they reached port, whereupon she knifed him – fatally — and jumped ship.

Dressing in women’s clothes again, Charlotte soon found that had been a mistake, for a brutal merchant captain kidnapped her and subjected her to a forced marriage.  His amorous methods, apparently, would have been considered coarse by a razorback hog, and Charlotte freed herself by doing in fact what her former husband had been accused of doing – fomenting a mutiny.  During a voyage to Africa she inspired the crew to rise against captain and officers, decapitated the former, and became captain by acclaim, as the best leader there.  She remained captain for years, until a disastrous shipwreck reduced the starving survivors to cannibalism before they were rescued, by a Dutch ship.  When other pirates waylaid the Dutch, Charlotte and her fellows stood by their saviours and fought the attackers until they were driven off.  What happened to her after that is uncertain.

Roger O’Farrel had lived a fairly quiet life – for him – in Havana between 1665 and 1667, when Helen turned fifteen.  Then he was offered a large reward by the Captain General of the city, Francisco de Avila Orejón y Gastón, if he would seek and destroy the pirate l’Ollonais, a bestial madman with a hatred for all Spaniards.  He had sworn no quarter to any, an oath he barbarously kept.  O’Farrel accepted, and embarked on the mission.  (See “The Superb Roger O’Farrel – Part Four”.)

pirate1Helen, then fifteen, was tired of life ashore and delighted by her foster father’s deeds.  She wanted to share in them.  Knowing he would never allow her to sail in pursuit of the fiendish l’Ollonais, she disguised herself as a black-haired boy again and went aboard one of O’Farrel’s ships as a powder monkey, demonstrating that she knew the skills of the job and was nimble.  She did not crew in O’Farrel’s own ship, the San Patricio, where he would have recognized her, but in the second one, the Pilar.  Both were fragatas, a type of three-masted New World ship, precursors of the 18th century naval frigates, of about 150 tons each.  They carried cannon at the bows, with others in a broadside row along the single gun deck.  They maneuvered better in contrary winds than the larger, higher galleons.  O’Farrel did have the use of a galleon at the time, the 400 ton Santa Barbara, but he left her behind.  Her draught was too great for his purposes this voyage.

Helen took no weapon aboard but a practical dirk.  Her beloved rapier would have betrayed her identity at once.  The Pilar’s commander, Seamus Browne, a former slave freed by O’Farrel, knew the comely blonde girl Helen Tavrel, but made no connection between Helen and the scruffy black-haired boy before the mast – and Helen kept out of his way.

L’Ollonais sailed from Tortuga with a fleet of six vessels, manned by seven hundred rogues.  Three hundred manned the largest, his flagship, a Spanish craft he had captured at Maracaibo on his last foray, marked by his usual mass murders and torture.  His captains included Moses van Vin, the Gower brothers John and Tobias, the Manxman Finlo Hilton (“Bloody” Hilton) and Pierre le Picard, the youngest.

(Moses van Vin and another Moses, Moses Vanclein, along with le Picard, are those of l’Ollonais’ captains on his last cruise that are known to history.  Bloody Hilton and the Gower brothers are fiction, the creations of Robert E. Howard.  At least, Bloody Hilton is mentioned in connection with Helen Tavrel in “The Isle of Pirates’ Doom,” in which John Gower meets his end, while a different “Captain Gower” is described as dying aboard his ship in the poem “A Song of the Anchor Chain.”  I’ve assumed this was Tobias Gower, John’s brother. )

Pirate-pishaWith the odds weighted against him, O’Farrel had to be circumspect, and he followed the vile l’Ollonais’ sea trail until he was well clear of Cuba, hoping to catch him at a disadvantage.  At one point the Frenchman’s fleet and O’Farrel’s two fragatas were both becalmed for a while.  When a fresh wind rose, O’Farrel resumed the pursuit, but paused to intercept a Dutch merchantman and relieve it of water and food supplies, leaving its crew just enough to make land.  That hardly satisfied Helen’s lust for action.  Events at Pedro Cortes, in the north-western corner of modern Honduras, pleased her better.  L’Ollonais left his fleet on the coast and marched inland against the town of San Pedro Sula.  O’Farrel took his ships into the harbor and devastated the pirate ships’ masts and rigging with chain-shot.  He also used incendiaries, doing a good deal of damage.  As a powder monkey, Helen was kept gleefully busy during this action. Then O’Farrel retreated.

While a waiting game did not suit Helen’s temperament, or her youth, she saw it could be effective.  O’Farrel knew that l’Ollonais was careening his main vessel before he continued his voyage. O’Farrel sent back to Cuba for a decoy ship, a decrepit old galleon, and l’Ollonais took the bait.  He captured the ship, but again he was frustrated; the cargo was worth little and the timber was riddled with shipworms.  However, it mounted forty-two cannon, which l’Ollonais stubbornly kept, though their weight made them a liability more than an asset.  Some of his captains, including the Gower brothers and Picard, deserted him, weary of the unsuccessful cruise.  O’Farrel finally outplayed l’Ollonais and stranded him on a savage coast where he was murdered by Indians.

Not until nearly back at Havana did O’Farrel discover his foster-daughter had been in the Pilar all the time.  He was thunderstruck.  If his project had gone awry, Helen could have fallen into the hands of the vilest monster in the Caribbean.  Helen was unrepentant; her only regret that there had not been more direct action.  O’Farrel gave the girl one of the very little whaling she had ever received from him.  She took it without tears or resentment, but O’Farrel saw she was the true offspring of her Cornish pirate ancestors and there was no settling her ashore as a fine respectable lady.  Helen was what she was – and it was partly due to his example, no doubt.

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

This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.



  1. a fertile area in southern United States and especially Florida that is usually higher than its surroundings and that is characterized by hardwood vegetation and deep humus-rich soil

[Origin: 1555; alteration of hammock; earlier hammok, hommoke, hummock; akin to Middle Low German hummel small height]


Gulls that lair in the blue,
Cranes where the ripples quiver,
The great tides thunder through
But the mist is chained to the river.

My heart tugs to be gone
And the far winds break the billows,
But I watch each dreary dawn
From the hummocks in the willows.

Oh, the winds and the deep sea rain,
And the endless surges sweeping;
My heart is hollow with pain
And my eyes are blind with weeping.

[from “Castaway”; for the complete poem see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 370 and Shadows of Dreams, p. 24]

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

Over at You Tube there is a clip available of actor/comedian Joe Rogan giving a spirited defense of Robert E. Howard and Conan. The Fear Factor host gives a hyper-macho somewhat humorous speech about the greatness of REH and Conan. What makes this important to this article is his summary statement: “… you’d buy the paperbacks, with the Frank Frazetta oil paintings on the covers!  Holy Shit!  Those were books!”


While fans can argue over his comments about REH’s sanity, you can’t argue with his conclusion. The Lancer paperbacks are totemic. They’ve become a distinctive and venerated symbol of sword and sorcery.

Let’s rehash the familiar story. REH died in 1936 and Conan seemed a goner as well. There was talk of other authors continuing the adventures of Conan but Farnsworth Wright put the kibosh on that idea.

The Conan stories remained uncollected except for a few that were reprinted in Arkham House’s Skull-face and Others. Derleth said jokingly, the complete stories would need to “printed on blood-colored paper.”

Books Gnomes

Then publisher Martin Greenberg, whose reputation seems to be one of avoiding royalty payments to authors, along with longtime REH fan John D. Clark editing the first few volumes, began the Gnome Press editions. Author Fletcher Pratt gave a copy of Conan the Conqueror to L. Sprague de Camp. De Camp became an instant fan and took over the character for the next 40 years.

Gnome Press went out of business in 1962 and de Camp gambled on taking the books to another publisher. Legal wrangling between him and Greenberg came out in de Camp’s favor and Lancer editor Larry Shaw made the decision to start publishing Conan paperbacks.

Lancer Books existed from 1961 – 1973. Irwin Stein and Walter Zacharius were the men behind the curtain. Stein was a former magazine publisher who was betting paperback publishing was the better horse. Zacharius (also an author) was more the financial backer and when Lancer went bankrupt in 1973, he continued on with Zebra and Pinnacle Books.

Larry Shaw, a science fiction writer, was no stranger to SF/Fantasy fandom and publishing and was aware of Frazetta and Krenkel’s art for Ace Books and their successful Edgar Rice Burroughs’ line. According to Arnie Fenner, writing in Icon, Shaw was astute enough to offer Frazetta “twice the pay rate he was getting from Ace and a provision that the original art would be returned to him.”

According to Fenner, again from Icon, “Upon publication of the first cover, Conan the Adventurer in 1966, long-time friend and fellow illustrator Wallace Wood clapped Frank on the back and asked, “How’s it feel to be the world’s greatest cover artist?””

Conan the Adventuer

Conan the Adventurer sold well and was followed with more great Frazetta covers. Sometimes, it is said by the more Frazetta oriented fan, that his covers sold the books. It is, of course, axiomatic that an editor chooses art that sells books. Farnsworth Wright paid Margaret Brundage to sell Weird Tales, publishers paid Robert McGinnis to sell sexy thrillers, Bantam Books paid James Bama to sell Doc Savage and so on.

But REH’s fiction and the Conan character kept fans buying the books and turning them into million sellers. REH and Frazetta were the perfect combination. Other series with Frazetta covers did not sell as well and Frazetta’s own concepts like Death Dealer and Fire and Ice did not have the impact of Conan.

Did Lancer Books know that Frazetta was such a hit?  Even though Larry Shaw hired him and knew he was a talent, they hedged their bets in 1968. Five Conan books were published that year and three of the books featured cover art by John Duillo.

Who knows the thinking at the time?  Paying Frazetta for five covers might have been too expensive for the art budget (Frazetta was definitely asking for more money) or maybe they figured the books would sell anyway without Frazetta, or maybe it was an intentional decision to try another artist?

De Camp apparently had criticized the Frazetta look in some fanzines. I’m unaware of any specific criticisms but de Camp’s final words on the subject appeared in his autobiography Time and Chance. Sounding like your cranky grandpa de Camp writes:

Conan the Adventurer had a cover by Frank Frazetta, who painted covers for most of the Lancer Conans. Frazetta’s work was superior to that of most illustrators, but he gave Conan something I have objected to ever since. Robert Howard described Conan’s hair as a “square cut black mane,” implying a Prince Valiant bob. In 1966, however, the rage among rebellious youth was to let one’s hair grow long. So Frazetta gave Conan hair down to his solar plexus, and long-haired Conan has been ever since.

Books 2a

The Lancer Books were easily available in most cities but rural consumers relied on other means. Jim Warren, publisher of Eerie, Creepy, and Vampirella had used Frazetta covers on his magazines. Jim Warren said he found advertisers avoided his “monster” magazines and he needed revenue from other streams other than newsstand sales. He created Captain Company to sell genre products to his readers. Rubber masks, TV tie-ins, posters, etc. The Captain Company ad for the Conan paperbacks had the iconic Frazetta barbarian but they did not overly stress Frazetta. Two of the four illustrations in the ad are of Duillo art. So, the thinking at the time favored the Conan name over Frazetta.

Frazetta was back for Conan of Cimmeria in 1969, so maybe the Duillo books did sell less as Frazetta supporter’s claim. But printing history for the books does not really support this. Conan the Wanderer (Duillo) went through more printings than Conan the Usurper (Frazetta). So most likely there were letters and fanzine articles that simply clamored for Frazetta’s return and the books in total sold well enough to give the fans want they wanted.

Lancer obviously realized the popularity of Frazetta since they released a Conan poster in 1971 and it sold over 100,000 copies. Frazetta’s wife, who had a head for business, realized they should have a poster business of their own to sell Frazetta’s work. In the early ads for Frazetta posters they featured the Conan name prominently.

Books 3

According to Icon, business acrimony developed between Lancer and Frazetta over the Conan name being used in ads for the posters. The posters began appearing under new names. Conan the Conqueror became Berserker, Conan the Adventurer became Barbarian and so on.

Despite the Conan phenomenon, Lancer went bankrupt in 1973, it took a while for the Conan books to be scarce but once they were the British Sphere series began appearing in the United States. They were heavily advertised as featuring the Frazetta covers.

With the Lancers out of print Frazetta began overshadowing REH, leading some Frazetta fans to credit Frazetta’s art as being the most successful element in the Conan series. But REH fandom was growing as well and the Marvel Comic was huge. Out of the ashes of Lancer, came Zebra Books. They placed their faith in REH and Jeff Jones.

Books 4

When Ace Books republished the Conan series, they had Boris Vallejo do the new volume Conan of Aquilonia and Vallejo later did new covers for the Duillo volumes but Frazetta remained the premiere artist.

Books 5

REH and Frazetta are forever linked. Both have their own fandom and intermingling, of course, exists. After Frazetta, Conan’s popularity continued to rise with scores of new books from Bantam and Tor, two successful movies, and the continuing comics.

Frazetta received his own volumes of illustrations. The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta published by Ballantine Books sold over 300,000 copies!

Today Frazetta’s original Conan art has been sold for record prices. His repainting of Conan the Buccaneer sold for 1.5 million. Conan remains a popular character with graphic novels, planned films, and gaming modules.

REH’s stories are pretty much vacant from the newsstand though. The book industry changed big time after the Thor Power ruling, so now paperback publishers no longer keep an inventory of classic SF/Fantasy authors unless their names are Tolkein, Heinlein, and Dick.

Conan books are currently mostly available online through the remaining stock of the Del-Rey volumes. Will we see a revival if the next Swarzenegger or whatever future Conan movie hits big?  It is impossible to know. Conan is available in millions of old books, public domain collections, and even on-line pirated and non-pirated formats. We most likely will never see a groundswell like the Lancers ever again.

But Joe Rogan was right. Those were books!



  1. alas, woe; sorrow, regret

[Origin: ca. 1470; ScotGael ochan, Ir ochon; cf. och; Gaelic ochoin]


Oh the men of the isle are all loyal and bold
And the women are lovely and fair to the eye;
Ochone for the ones who left with a sigh.
(Betrayin’ their friends for the Englishmen’s gold.)

Oh never the love of that island shall slack
As long as her sons shall roam the world round,
For a country so beautiful n’er will be found.
(God pity the bastards that have to go back.)

[from the untitled poem “There’s an isle far away on the breast of the sea”; for the complete poem see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 624]

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

Melek Taus1

The wings of Melek Taus hover over the world, the winds whisper of revolt, anarchy, war and red ruin for all the sons of men. (CL2.116)

The Yazidis (also given as Yezidis, and Yezidees) are a largely Kurdish people in the Middle East, whose religion reveres Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel; similarities with Abrahamic tales of Lucifer or Shaitan saw the Yazidis labeled as devil-worshippers by their Muslim neighbors, and have been the subject of centuries of persecution. Interest in the Yazidis was spurred by the publication of works like Robert W. Chambers’ The Slayer of Souls (1920) and William Seabrook’s Adventures in Arabia (1926), which includes a visit among those people; many of the details of his visit were incorporated into stories by pulp writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, Seabury Quinn, G. G. Pendarves, and E. Hoffmann Price, which featured in the pages of Weird Tales.

The first mention of the Yazidis by Howard is a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, in December 1930:

No doubt you’ve heard of the Yezidis who live on Mount Lalesh in Syria and worship the devil in the form of a brazen peacock. They believe that Satan was the foremost of angels and that he rules on earth for ten thousand years. God, they say, is too far away, too gigantic, to be concerned with the affairs of the earth, and only by worshipping Melek Taus can anyone prosper, for only he has charge of men’s affairs. Certainly the Devil is loose on the world, and the evil are more likely to prosper than the honest and virtuous. Perhaps the Yezidis are right. Certainly their cult is as logical as religions which teach that this earthly hell of red chaos and black insanity is ruled by principles of good and light, that justice exists and reigns, and that men are compensated for good and evil — God, what a bone-clanking jest — like the cataclysmic laughter from the gaping and froth-dripping jaws of a bleached skull. (CL2.115)

The Daughter of Erlik KhanA few things stick out in this passage: Howard uses the spellings “Yezidis” and “Melek Taus,” includes the image of the brazen peacock, and correctly identifies Mount Lalesh in Syria. This suggests that his source was neither Seabrook nor Chambers (who preferred the spellings “Yezidees” and “Melek Taos”), but more probably an encyclopedia article or the works in Weird Tales and Oriental Stories. H. P. Lovecraft, for example, used the term “Yezidis” in “The Horror at Red Hook” (WT Jan 1927), as did E. Hoffmann Price in “The Peacock’s Shadow” (WT Jul 1925).

Howard’s first writing inspired by the Yazidis would be “The Daughter of Erlik Khan” (Top Notch Dec 1934). In that story, El Borak ventures into a strange country, occupied by the Black Khirgiz, described as “devil worshippers” with a sacred city of Yolgan, who are antithetical to the local Muslims. (EB 30) This provided the basic format for the unsuccessful tale “Three-Bladed Doom,” which went through multiple versions without success, and finally first found publication in 1955, when L. Sprague de Camp re-wrote it as a Conan tale “The Flame Knife.” In “Three-Bladed Doom,” Howard follows much the same plot—El Borak penetrates a secret city of a group of devil-worshippers—but here he is more specific:

Devil worshippers, by the beard of Allah! Yezidees! Sons of Melek Taus! […] the people of that ancient and abominable cult which worships the Brazen Peacock on Mount Lalesh the Accursed. (EB 101)

The use of the term “Yezidees” suggests the influence of, if not Chambers and Seabrook, than perhaps Seabury Quinn, whose Jules de Grandin novel The Devil’s Bride, which was serialized in Weird Tales from February-June 1932. Quinn weaves together aspects of various Satanic myths in his story, from the accounts of the Black Mass to Seabrook (and perhaps also Chambers), postulating a worldwide connection between various cults, including “a revival of the cult of assassins” and attracting members “from as far as Mongolia”—both plot-elements of “Three-Bladed Doom.” (CAJG 2.678-679)

Howard was a fan of the Grandin stories, and in 1926 wrote to Weird Tales regarding them: “These are sheer masterpieces. The little Frenchman is one of those characters who live in fiction. I look forward with pleasurable anticipation to further meetings with him.” (CL1.75) So it appears very likely that he read this story. However, in one of those odd coincidences, shortly after Quinn’s story ran (August 1932), E. Hoffmann Price ran a shorter but thematically similar tale, “The Bride of the Peacock.” Quinn wrote on this:

Coincidences of this sort are not strange. Many readers have accused E. Hoffmann Price of plagiarising Quinn’s “Devil’s Bride” in his own story, “Bride of the Peacock.” The truth of the matter is that both stories were written at the same time, and Price’s story was in Farnsworth Wright’s office before Quinn’s was in print. (F&SF 7)

Also in “Three-Bladed Doom,” Howard identifies the Yazidis with the Kurds:

The man who killed the Sultan of Turkey was a Kurd […] Some of them worship Melek Taus, too, secretly. (EB 102)

There are too many sources where Howard could have picked up this detail to narrow it down much—E. Hoffmann Price mentioned it in “The Stranger from Kurdistan” (1925), Lovecraft in “The Horror at Red Hook” (1927), Quinn in The Devil’s Bride, etc.

The most notorious story using the Yazidi was of course “The Brazen Peacock”—where an adventurer, Erich Girtmann, disguised himself as a Druse (Druze) and infiltrated their city, to make off with a brass idol of a peacock sacred to the cult. Many of the details are plainly drawn either directly from Seabrook’s Adventures in Arabia or some source that ties closely to it, since they are absent from The Devil’s Bride and many of Howard’s other stories. Karen Joan Khoutek wrote an excellent article on Robert E. Howard and the Yazidis, “The Brazen Peacock,”so we need not go into detail of the comparisons here, save to add a few details. For example, where Howard writes:

A Yezidee may not speak the name of Shaitan—so it is commanded in the Black Book of their creed, the scroll dictated long ago by Satan to Sheikh-Adi, founder of the cult. (TWM 115)

The “Black Book” is the Khitab al Aswad mentioned by Seabrook (Khitab Asward in The Devil’s Bride), the “Black Book” or “Black Scripture” of the Yazidis; the similarity of the name with Howard’s own “Black Book”—Unaussprechlichen Kulten—which first appeared in “The Children of the Night” (1931) is probably coincidental.

It is interesting to compare the Yazidis as presented in “The Brazen Peacock” with how they are presented in “Dig Me No Grave,” where Howard writes:

“Malik Tous – good God! No mortal man was ever so named! That is the title of the foul god worshipped by the mysterious Yezidees – they of Mount Alamout the Accursed – whose Eight Brazen Towers rise in the mysterious wastes of deep Asia. His idolatrous symbol is the brazen peacock. And the Muhammadans, who hate his demon-worshipping devotees, say he is the essence of the evil of all the universes – the Prince of Darkness – Ahriman – the old Serpent – the veritable Satan!” (HSREH 136)

The Eight towers and Mount Alamout (Alamut) are details from Robert W. Chambers’ The Slayer of Souls, while the Seven towers and Mount Lalesh are details from Seabrook’s Adventures in Arabia; it is obvious that Howard relied on Chambers but not Seabrook when writing “Dig Me No Grave,” and Seabrook but not chambers when writing “The Brazen Peacock.” Very probably “Dig Me No Grave” dates to an earlier period in Howard’s writing. The use of Malik instead of Melek may owe itself to Howard’s letters with Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price, for Lovecraft’s nickname for Price was “Sultan Malik” and similar variations. (AMtF 2.761)

Three-Bladed DoomThe Druze present a more interesting difficulty; in “The Brazen Peacock” the Druze are explicitly not “devil-worshippers” like the Yazidi, yet in “Lord of the Dead” they are described as “a race apart. They worship a calf cast of gold, believe in reincarnation, and practice heathen rituals abhorred by the Moslems.” (CS 222) In this story, Howard revisits one of the concepts from “Three-Bladed Doom,” the idea of a cult that connects or underlies several different religions and ethnicities in Asia and the Middle East—a syncretism perhaps inspired in part by The Devil’s Bride, and echoing at least slightly the multiracial cult in Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook.” Why Howard chose to use a Druze instead of a Yazidi probably lies in the Druze religious beliefs in reincarnation, which forms a major motivation for the Druze character.

In the context of his times, the “Satanic” output of Robert E. Howard is not particularly exceptional; Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith wrote less of it, E. Hoffmann Price and Seabury Quinn did more. Probably it was only that Howard was published by Arkham House that caught LaVey’s attention—and that scarce enough; “Dig Me No Grave” was published in The Dark Man and Others (1963), a handful of poems in Always Comes Evening (1957), most of the other tales were not published until long after The Satanic Bible came out.

Satanism as Howard, Lovecraft, and Quinn understood it was theistic Satanism; it was focused on worship of an entity, simply not the Christian God. Only Price, of all of them, in his story “The Stranger from Kurdistan” appeared to appreciate the irony of the Black Mass, acknowledging Christ while proclaiming their allegiance to Satan. Satanism as LaVey understood it, and as his latter-day followers like Michael Rose understand it, is atheistic Satanism; more of a philosophy than a religion, despite the trappings and the sorcery. And there is much in Robert E. Howard’s poems and stories which, even without explicit reference to the Devil, fits neatly into the beliefs of LaVeyan Satanism—a desire for freedom of thought and action. Howard expressed ideas that LaVey himself might have written, such as when wrote:

Yet worshipping Satan is too much like kowtowing to a conqueror. We may realize his power without doing obeisance to him. (CL2.115)


Works Cited

AMtF     A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (2 vols, Hippocampus Press, 2009)

CAJG   The Compleat Adventures of Jules de Grandin (3 vols., Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2001)

CL         Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index & Addenda, REH Foundation, 2007-2015)

CS        Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard Vol. 1 (Del Rey, 2007)

EB        El Borak and Other Desert Adventures (Del Rey, 2010)

F&SF    F & SF Self-Portraits 2: Seabury Quinn Creator of Jules de Grandin (Necronomicon Press, 1977)

HSREH    The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard (Del Rey, 2008)

TWM     Tales of Weird Menace (Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2010)

“The Daughter of Erlik Khan” illustration by Tim Bradstreet
“Three-Bladed Doom” illustration by Jim and Ruth Keegan

Read Part 1, Part 2



  1. sea spray; especially spray blown from waves from a gale; 2. fine wind-borne snow or sand

[Origin: 1823; alteration of Scots speendrift, from speen to drive before a strong wind plus English drift]


Sailing-ships are anchored about that ancient isle,
Ships that sailed the oceans in the dim dawn days,
Coracles from Britain, triremes from the Nile.
Anchored round the harbors, anchored mile on mile,
Ships and ships and shades of ships fading in the haze.

And there’s a Roman galley with its seven banks of oars,
And there’s a golden bargeboat that knew the Caesar’s hand,
And there’s a somber pirate craft with shattered cabin doors,
And there’s a sturdy bireme that sailed to Holy Land.

Main-trees lifting like a forest of the south,
Beaked prows looming, and the wide courses furled,
Dim decks heel-marked, marked by rain and drouth,
Spindrift in the cross-trees, drift of southern seas,
Dim ships, strong ships from all about the world.

[from “Ships”; for the complete poem see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 295 and Always Comes Evening, p. 39]

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


But hear me Satan, no man ever made me admit defeat — I’ve reeled beneath a bloody moon, on buckling legs, with blood pouring from my battered mouth and mingling with the sweat on my chest and a scarlet haze shimmering before my eyes — and I’ve been smashed from gong to gong, but I never admitted defeat even when I could scarcely stand. Anybody and any condition can batter me to pieces, but I’ll never admit I’m defeated.

– Robert E. Howard to Harold Preece, Aug 1928 (CL1.220-221)

Robert E. Howard’s “Satanic” output—those stories and poems which have Satan, the devil, or devil-worship as a major element or theme—are comparatively few. However, if taken as a whole with his letters and other materials, readers can get a sense of the development of Howard’s ideas of Satan and devil-worship in his creative output over the last decade or so of his life.

References to the devil, under varied names and forms, punctuate the letters of Robert E. Howard since at least 1926, when in a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith he wrote “By Baal I am joyed that you wrote.” (CL1.75) Very likely, there were earlier usages in letters now lost to us; Smith’s own contributions to The Tattler from 1923 on contain exclamations like “Diavolo” (SFTP 15) and “Diable” (SFTP 17) and Herbert C. Klatt liked to use “Shades of Hades!” (LSOS 101, 110), so it seems probable on the face of it that such mild infernal oaths formed a not-too-uncommon part of the discourse in Howard’s circle.

In Howard’s letters and poetry, his approach to Satan and Christian religion in general is often ambivalent (“My ancestors were all Catholic and not very far back. And I have reason to hate the church.” CL1.237), and while he never quite transitioned to the purely secular materialism of H. P. Lovecraft, his views were in part informed by the anthropological views of the day, which cast a different light on the development of the Devil in Christian theology and folklore:

I feel a curious kinship, though, with the Middle Ages. I have been more successful in selling tales laid in that period of time, than in any other. Truth; it was an epoch for strange writers. Witches and werewolves, alchemists and necromancers, haunted the brains of those strange savage people, barbaric children that they were, and the only thing which was never believed was the truth. Those sons of the old pagan tribes were wrought upon by priest and monk, and they brought all their demons from their mythology and accepted all the demons of the new creed also, turning their old gods into devils. The slight knowledge which filtered through the monasteries from the ancient sources of decayed Greece and fallen Rome, was so distorted and perverted that by the time it reached the people, it resembled some monstrous legend. And these vague minded savages further garbed it in heathen garments. Oh, a brave time, by Satan! (CL1.238)

The ambivalence regarding the Biblical figure of Satan is evident in Howard’s early poetry, where we first find Satan (or the devil, Lucifer, etc.) named in several of his verses, particularly “Lilith” (1927, CL1.145), “The Chant Demoniac” (1928, CL1.161), “To an Earthbound Soul” (CL4.16-17), and the untitled verse “The iron harp that Adam christened Life” (1929, CL1.357) and “The men that walk with Satan” (CL4.9-10); Barbara Barrett in The Wordbook: An Index Guide to the Poetry of Robert E. Howard lists a couple dozen other poems that use some variation of the name (WB 146-147), though these usages are often incidental. The use of Satan in these poems is typically in the popular Christian context, as lord of Hell and understood to be a veritable personification of evil, although in “The Chant Demoniac” he is portrayed more as John Milton did in Paradise Lost:

I am Satan; I am weary,
For my road is long and hard
And it lies through regions dreary
Since the Golden Gates were barred.

Just as Milton famously included old gods such as Mammon and Moloch as demons in his epic, so too did Howard in his verse, though Howard skews closer to the image of fallen idols cast as devils than fallen angels masquerading as idols. Baal (or Baal-peor), for example, appears in Howard’s poems “Astarte’s Idol Stands Alone,” “Baal,” “Baal-Pteor,” “The Mysteries” (1929, CL1.145-146), “The Riders of Babylon”, “Serpent” (1926, CL1.99-100), “The Worshippers,” “The Gods Remember” (1927, CL1.145-146), and “Swings and Swings.” The idea of Satan as synonymous with these old gods appears most prominent in “Black Dawn” (1929), where Satan is listed among non-Christian figures of worship (“Mohammed, Buddha, Moses, Satan, Thor! I lifted fanes to each of you betimes,” CL1.323)

-conan_boris_vallejo02Satan and related matters in Howard’s fiction is a bit more complicated matter. The bulk of stories that feature “devil-worship” or demons do not involve the Christian concept of Satan as such; rather Howard followed the tendency of many other pulp writers in casting foreign, pagan, or exotic worship as “devil-worship,” such as the synopsis “The House of Om” which features a Mongolian “devil-worshipping” cult perhaps loosely based on Robert W. Chambers’ The Slayer of Souls; or various supernatural entities or objects of worship as “devils”—a good example might be the Conan story “The Devil in Iron” (1934), whose Khosatral Khel was an alien being who set itself up as a living god, with dark rites of worship. Other uses of Satan are only incidental, such as in the Solomon Kane story “Skulls in the Stars” (1929), (as “Ahriman”) “Sons of the Hawk” (1936), and (as “Shaitan”) “Black Wind Blowing” (1936) and “The Brand of Satan.” Once those usages are weeded out, the remainder comprises a handful stories, the bulk of which never saw print until after Howard’s death.

Of these, “Casonetto’s Last Song” (1973) is the only Howard story to focus on the Black Mass, a practice of a Satanic cult which meets either in a cavern or “sombre chapel” and involves human sacrifice and a sung invocation. (HSREH 73) The details are perhaps intentionally vague in this short piece, and the typical details supplied by Joris-Karl Huysmans in Là-Bas (1891) or Montague Summers in The History of Witchcraft and Demonology (1926) on the desecration of the host or the specificity of infant sacrifice are omitted. The Texan was at least aware of Huysmans and his reputation, as he was named in “The Children of the Night” (1931).

“Dig Me No Grave” (1937) is essentially a Faustian tale of a sorcerer “had ignored the white side of the occult and delved into the darker, grimmer phases of it – into devil-worship, and voodoo and Shintoism.” (HSREH 132-133) Part of the interest of the tale lies in how Howard crams so many different references and mythologies into it, as if trying to capture in one story all the names of the Devil—“There is but one Black Master though men calle hym Sathanas & Beelzebub & Apolleon & Ahriman & Malik Tous.” (HSREH 140) “Sathanas” being a medieval Latin construction of “Satan,” “Beelzebub” (Ba’al Zebub) and “Apolleon” (Apollyon, Abbadon) corruptions or translations of Biblical names typically taken for demons or fallen angels, “Ahriman” the dark spirit of Zoroastrianism, and “Malik Tous” (Melek Taus) the principle figure in the Yazidi religion.

The Yazidis and the myths surrounding their “devil-worship” form the basis of the bulk of Robert E. Howard’s remaining “Satanic” material.


Works Cited

CL              Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index & Addenda, REH Foundation, 2007 – 2015)

DB               The Dark Barbarian (Greenwood Press, 1984)

HSREH        The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard (Del Rey, 2008)

SFTP            So Far The Poet & Other Writings (REH Foundation, 2010)

WB            The Wordbook: AN Index Guide to the Poetry of Robert E. Howard (REH Foundation, 2009)

“The Devil in Iron” illustration by Boris

Read Part 1, Part 3



  1. legendary Scandinavian sea monster

[origin: 1755; Norwegian dial.]


Were there figures unnamed in the seas of the West?
Were there scale-crusted dragons that rend Viking ships?
Were there ocean-fiends riding the dark billow’s crest
Or icy sea-women with death on their lips?

“Bare stretch the seas to the set of the sun;
“No mermaid or kraken opposes the keel—
“Of the lies of the women and priests are they spun—
“To naked winds only the blue billows reel.

[from “The Return of the Sea-Farer”; for the complete poem see The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 64]

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


Yesterday the the nominees for the 2016 REHF Awards were announced.

Now it’s time for the Foundation members to vote.

If you are not yet a member, basic membership is free, but higher levels get you perks.

Best of all, there is only one party, The Robert E. Howard Party. No politics or squabbling over these awards — just VOTE!

This entry filed under News.


The Robert E. Howard story “Marchers of Valhalla,” the first in his cycle of stories featuring the often-reincarnated James Allison, was recently published as a bonus for members of the Robert E. Howard Foundation, containing the existing typewritten manuscript drafts of the tale.

“Marchers” is of interest as an example of the way Howard’s pioneering blend of historical fact, real-world mythology, and wild imagination were found in his work outside of its use in the Conan stories. Those were explicitly set in a fictional time period full of these hybrid elements, but he also used a similar approach in tales more rooted in “real” history and mythology.

In “Marchers,” the invalid Allison recalls a past life as Hialmar, a member of the AEsir, whose characteristic curse is “By Ymir” (Howard 77, for example).  Outside of Howard’s story, the AEsir weren’t a race or a tribe, but the pantheon of Norse gods that included Odin and Thor. During the adventure, Allison meets Ishtar, who, of course, was a Babylonian goddess of love and fertility, associated with the similar Mesopotamian Inanna.

Apart from its reincarnation theme, “Marchers” is framed as a historical tale, which supposedly really happened in a past life of the modern-day Allison, as differentiated from an overt “fantasy” story. Despite that, figures from world mythology appear in it, and they have the supernatural powers that go with their mythical status.

In this forgotten age “so long ago that the yellow-haired folk … were called not Aryans, but red-haired Vanir and golden-haired AEsir” (58), Allison remembers that his tribe, which came from a “northern homeland” appropriate to people named after a category of Norse gods, marched across the world. This is a purposeful “trek” motivated “only by our paranoidal drive to see beyond the horizon” (58, 59). Not only is that an apt description of human nature, but it introduces the idea that far-flung people on the planet encountered each other earlier than our historical records might suggest.
Although the flashback tale is set in “what is now the state of Texas” (Louinet), the exotic city encountered by the northern warriors is devoted to the worship of Ishtar. This reinforces the idea of commerce taking place throughout the vastly ancient world. In this case, she came from ancient Lemuria, and was captured far away and brought to the land that will end up flooded by “the Gulf” (clearly the Gulf of Mexico) (87). Characteristically, Howard’s vast prehistory has a prehistory – there’s no bottom to the forgotten depths of time (70).

iahtarThis Ishtar is an ancient, godlike being, kept imprisoned by humans who claim to worship her, a theme similar to that of the Conan tale “The Tower of the Elephant.” It’s probably no coincidence that the Allison story “was apparently composed about April 1932,” at roughly the same time Howard was beginning to write the Conan stories (Burke xvii).

Originally from Lemuria, an Atlantis-like kingdom “which the sea drank so long ago” (82), Ishtar was married to “Poseidon, god of the sea,” who will play an important part in the story’s climax. Poseidon is, of course, familiar as a god in the Greek pantheon, who was known as Neptune to the Romans, adding another layer of world mythology to a scenario that already involves Norse and Babylonian deities.

After being freed by Allison/Hialmar, we learn that Ishtar “learned her lesson,” and became “Ishtar of the Assyrians, and Ashtoreth of the Phoenicians; she was Mylitta and Belit of the Babylonians, Derketo of the Philistines. Aye, and she was Isis of Egypt, and Astarte of Carthage; and she was Freya of the Saxons, and Aphrodite of the Grecians, and Venus of the Romans” (88). Allison recognizes her as “the Eternal Woman – the root and the bud of Creation – the symbol of life everlasting!” (ibid)

Derketo will turn up again in the Conan stories, and the name Belit will become familiar to all Howard fans as the name of Conan’s first love, the “Queen of the Black Coast” from the story of the same name. Her other personas are familiar from various world mythologies.

The Norse AEsir and Vanir have been refashioned as human tribes, in a way that could provide a “real-life” explanation for a belief in the gods: with the passing of time, and the development of oral lore, an impressive army could come to be seen as a group of gods. But Ishtar remains a figure with supernatural abilities, albeit ones based on her origin in an ancient civilization that had mastered arcane practices. It’s not because she’s a goddess, per se, in the way most of us would think of a deity.

Eventually, in this version, she becomes the original of various similar mythological characters — including Aphrodite and Venus, connecting her directly, but after the fact, to Poseidon/Neptune. And including Freya, who scholar John Lindow describes as an “important goddess” to the Norse, and the “only named female of the vanir” (126), something of a female counterpart to Odin (127). This writes Ishtar into the Norse mythology that Hialmar/Allison was already a part of.

ConanTheFrostGiantsDaughterCOVER565Ymir, whose name is the AEsir’s curse of choice, was the first giant, whose body was supposedly the material out of which both heaven and earth were formed (Lindow 322 – 323, quoting different eddas). In Snorri Sturluson’s version, it is explicitly stated about Ymir that “in no way do we acknowledge him to be a god; he was evil and all his descendants. We call them frost giants …” (quoted by Lindow, 323). A Howard fan can’t help but connect this to the similar quasi-historical mash-up of “The Frost King’s Daughter,” an early Conan tale, which similarly includes both supernatural beings with real, godlike powers, and human tribes named the AEsir and the Vanir. The two stories, while having very different characters, plots, and tones, could easily be set in the same fictional universe, and the marchers from the Allison tribe, in fact, could be an offshoot of the group Conan is involved with back home in the North.

In the James Allison story “The Garden of Fear,” we learn of another previous life also among the AEsir, who in Howard’s interpretation, “knew no gods but Ymir of the frost-rimed beard” (38), in direct contrast to the historical depiction of Ymir as a malevolent entity set apart from the gods worshiped by the northern peoples. Since this story is set in a time period “indescribably, incomprehensibly distant” (ibid), Howard is able to imply changes in how these deities have been perceived through time. Ymir was a god, who becomes seen much as a devil; the AEsir and Vanir were human tribes, who came to be seen as gods; Ishtar, while remaining godlike, took on new identities in different historical places and times; and Howard was able to make use of interesting pieces of historical and religious lore, without being weighed down by it.


Sources Cited:

  • Burke, Rusty. “Night Falls on Asgard.” Pages vii – xviii. Swords of the North. Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2014.
  • Howard, Robert E. “The Garden of Fear.” Pages 37 – 52. Swords of the North. Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2014.
  • Howard, Robert E. “Marchers of Valhalla.” Pages 53 – 88. Swords of the North. Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2014.
  • Lindow, John. Handbook of Norse Mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, 2001.
  • Louinet, Patrice. “Introduction.” Page ii. The Complete Marchers of Valhalla Drafts: Special Edition. Robert E. Howard Foundation.
“The Frost Giant’s Daughter” illustration by Card Nord
This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.