Archive for January, 2017
And so his boyhood wandered into youth,
And still the hazes thickened round his head,
And red, lascivious nightmares shared his bed
And fantasies with greedy claw and tooth
Burrowed into the secret parts of him –
Gigantic, bestial and misshapen paws
Gloatingly fumbled each white youthful limb,
And shadows lurked with scarlet gaping jaws.
Robert E. Howard, Fragment
Justin Geoffrey left the witch-haunted town of Arkham early in 1916, with heartfelt thanks to his friend and fellow poet Edward Derby. He returned to Greenwich Village resolved to gain some worldly advantages before he was done – if not a complete formal education, then at least sufficient money. He hungered to visit Europe. He had made casual acquaintances of French, Italian, German and Hungarian origin in the Village, and despite his generally antisocial nature, they liked the intent way he listened to their stories of their home countries.
In a former stable that was now an artist’s studio in MacDougal Alley, at a party to celebrate recent successful sales of several paintings, Justin Geoffrey met a fake medium by the name of Ethan O’Neill. O’Neill too was enjoying success, but he thought it might be greater. Genteel in appearance and manner, he was also blandly ordinary, and he thought an intense young poet with a disconcerting presence would make a useful partner. Justin didn’t care for O’Neill’s line of grifting – in fact, he despised it – but he saw his chance and deep-sixed his remaining scruples. Sourly quoting a line of Horace he had picked up from Derby in Arkham (“Si possis recte, si non, quocumque modo rem”)* Justin began helping O’Neill fleece his various well-breeched dupes. (*If possible make money honestly; if not, make it somehow.)
O’Neill had been right about the value of Justin Geoffrey’s presence. Business picked up remarkably. The United States had not yet entered the war in 1916, but there were many bereaved families in England that O’Neill reasoned would be in the market for messages from beyond. To England they went.
Again, he was right, and they did well, especially when the hellish carnage of the Somme began. There were over 57,000 British casualties on the first day (July 1st). O’Neill concentrated on noble and wealthy families, from which many British officers came, and he was a Protestant who decried the Easter Rising, so his Irish descent did not count against him. (To ingratiate himself with clients he would have said it even if he had been a red-hot rebel at heart.)
Justin detested the fraud even while money rolled in — the fraud and his partner. Neither offended him ethically very much, but the banal platitudes he uttered daily turned his stomach. He seethed at the thought that his darkly brilliant poetry made him almost nothing, while this rubbish gained the pair thousands of pounds.
O’Neill and Geoffrey were lucky enough to make the acquaintance of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while in England, and to gain his active support. Conan Doyle had become an ardent believer in spiritualism by this time, and he was impressed by the pair. He attended some of their séances and endorsed them as genuine. Their clients after that included some of the noblest – and richest – families in the land.
Justin was still subject to fearful nightmares. He did in fact possess psychic sensitivity, but not of a kind to comfort bereaved parents or wives, or – in the end – to have much commercial value. His talent and magnetic presence disturbed more than soothed when he sprang to his feet while feigning to commune with a soldier dead in an artillery barrage and screamed, “The face … the face … the face!” O’Neill carried such moments off by explaining that malign spirits were interfering with the séance, but he worried that this might not succeed forever, and even more that Justin would go insane, as the youth feared would happen.
Besides, Justin told him ever more frequently that he wanted to quit his imposture and travel on the continent once the war ended, regardless of who won. Their partnership was going to cease whether or not O’Neill desired it. The older man decided to end it unexpectedly and on his terms; to run out on Justin, taking their considerable profits with him.
O’Neill knew Justin was young, thought him naïve and foolish, possibly mad, but he made a fatal mistake in deeming him stupid. Justin knew things about O’Neill, too – that he lacked any trace of scruple and thought it clever, even admirable, to deceive. When O’Neill tried to decamp with their money in the spring of 1918, his actions did not take Justin by surprise. O’Neill fled from London to Southampton, planning to sail for the United States on a liner.
He never boarded the ship. He disappeared.
It is likely that Justin Geoffrey caught O’Neill as he fled with the cash in a carpetbag, and that a fatal confrontation ensued. Justin’s brother John, still wearing the scar of a far less serious clash when they were boys, would have believed it. Although Justin was neither physically robust nor – much of the time – adequately fed, in a rage he might have overcome a soft, middle-aged man like O’Neill, and even struck him dead without meaning to. No corpse was ever found, but the harbor of Southampton was spacious, boat anchors and baling wire cheap enough.
I believe that Justin Geoffrey went to Ireland for the remainder of 1918, and after that appeared in Europe with enough money to travel where he liked. Justin had produced poetry only in a desultory fashion while associated with O’Neill. In Ireland he began writing again, prodigious amounts, working twenty hours at a stretch sometimes and filling reams in a fortnight. To that period belong his bleak and morbid poems on the theme of murder – of which, perhaps, he was guilty. Since REH created Justin Geoffrey, and wrote a great deal of poetry himself, it is possible to consider some of it as being work Geoffrey might have written. “One Who Comes at Eventide”, for example, deals with the remorse and horror of a man who has committed a terrible slaying.
“My blood ran fire when the deed was done;
Now it runs colder than the moon that shone
On shattered fields where dead men lay in heaps
Who could not hear a ravished daughter’s moan.
“So now I fire my veins with stinging wine,
And hoard my youth as misers hug their gold,
Because I know what shape will come and sit
Beside my crumbling hearth – when I am old.”
There was also “Flight”, purporting to deal with Cain and his emotions as “… now he fled from the silent dead and the wrathful face of God.” It ends with the couplet,
“The stars were dim and the moon was red and leaves stirred on the bough.
Cain stood alone by the nameless sea and the mark was on his brow.”
Other poems from his hypothetical “Irish period” which Geoffrey might have written were “Recompense”, “The Singer in the Mist”, “Shadows of Dreams”, “The Madness of Cormac”, “Babel” and “Laughter in the Gulfs”.
O’Neill’s disappearance might have been investigated more closely, and Geoffrey arrested, if it had not occurred in the war’s final year. Germany unleashed the desperate “Spring Offensive” in an effort to win before the American forces could be fully deployed. Then the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 began. It killed more people world-wide than the Black Death of the 14th century had done. In Britain it appeared first in Glasgow, in May, and reached London by June. Almost 230,000 people died in that country alone. O’Neill, for all anybody knew, might have been one of them.
Justin Geoffrey contracted it himself, but survived with a mild case. As a young adult – he was then twenty – he belonged to the group most at risk in that pandemic. Children and the aged actually perished less often, statistically, for the precise reason that their immune systems were weaker. This special and uncommon strain of influenza ravaged the human body more fiercely as its immune system fought back. Justin had always been some-what sickly and had poor resistance to illness. In this instance it may actually have saved his life.
He wrote voluminously to Edward Derby while in Ireland, also. Residing in Dublin most of the time, he visited the sites of Tara, Emain Macha and Cashel, as well as spending some time in Cork, Limerick and – for a couple of months – Galway. The Irish War of Independence opened while Geoffrey was there, but as with the Great War, he took little interest in it. He departed in 1919, avoiding Britain, perhaps because he feared being questioned as to O’Neill’s fate. He travelled from Galway to Bilbao on a Spanish freighter.
In Bilbao, a thriving center of shipping and commerce, Geoffrey promptly deposited his money with the Banco de Vizcaya. Then, as far as his haunted mind would let him, he took his ease for a few weeks and planned his future. Another man might have taken the opportunity to cross the mountains and visit Burgos and Valladolid. Justin Geoffrey felt a keener interest in the macabre hints von Junzt had given in Nameless Cults. A hundred years before, von Junzt and his friend Ladeau had come to this very region, and the German had inveigled his way into certain cults of the Basques, a very ancient people he was convinced were related to the Etruscans and the prehistoric Picts described in the Nemedian Chronicles. He had been almost forthright concerning nests of the hideous Deep Ones beneath the stormy surface of the Bay of Biscay. In Bilbao, and then after he crossed the Pyrenees to Bayonne and Bordeaux, Geoffrey wrote several poems about the horrors of the unplumbed sea.
Passing through France, he paused longest in the region which in the Middle Ages was known as Averoigne. Geoffrey knew a good deal about its legends, the strange beings said to haunt it even in his day, and the medieval sorcerers such as Azedarac and Luc le Chaudronnier who had flourished there. From Nameless Cults he was fully aware that von Junzt and Ladeau had also been in the Averoigne district before him, and experienced one or two disturbing adventures in Vyones. In Germany he visited Schloss Kurenthal outside Dusseldorf, the ancestral castle of the von Junzt barons, and the ruins of the tenth-century monastery where the Nemedian Chronicles had been penned by an Irish monk.
His nightmares had plagued him endlessly during his time in Ireland, nor did they give him peace as he travelled in Europe. His poems dealt more and more with the theme of encroaching madness, the lack of hope or meaning in human existence, the conviction that the universe was ruled by malevolence and chaos. A number of his letters to Derby expressed his conviction that he would die in a madhouse.
Then, in 1921, while passing through Hungary, he stopped at the village of Stregoicavar, which in ancient times – a thousand years or more before Christ – had been known as Xuthltan, a word from a lost, unknown language. The strange monument known locally as the “Black Stone” had been described in von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, and naturally Justin Geoffrey paid it a visit, looking at it for a long time and running his hands over the curious mineral of which it was made. The local innkeeper remembered him as “… a young fellow and queer-acting – mumbled to himself – a poet, I think.” When he was in-formed, ten years later, that Justin had died screaming in a madhouse, he was not amazed. His only comment was, “Poor lad – he looked too long at the Black Stone.”
(The location of Stregoicavar would be worth another post.)
The narrator of the story, by its end, reaches the conclusion, “Well for Justin Geoffrey that he tarried there only in the sunlight and went his way, for had he gazed upon that ghastly conclave [of ghosts], his mad brain would have snapped before it did.” He also declares, “… but the seeds of madness had been sown in the poet’s brain long before he ever came to Stregoicavar.”
So they had. However, visiting the Black Stone did nothing to prolong Justin’s fragile sanity, and he must have received disturbing psychic impressions from it. In Hungary he wrote his longest, possibly his most fantastic and terrible poem, “People of the Monolith”. His perennial nightmares began to include, after that, visions of great toadlike horrors with squashy, malleable bodies. They possessed broad boneless wings they could retract within their bodies when not flying, and having that ability despite their bulk – rhinocerotic or greater – seemed to prove they could wholly or partly ignore gravity. They also possessed tentacles. In some cases they had taloned feet, in others misshapen hoofs. Their characteristic sound was a hideous tittering that seemed to express extremes of lust and demonic cruelty. At this time or shortly afterwards, Justin wrote the lines,
They say foul beings of Old Times still lurk
In dark forgotten corners of the world,
And Gates still gape to loose, on certain nights,
Shapes pent in Hell.
It was then too, or in Turkey, that Justin wrote Out of the Old Land, with the passage,
They lumber through the night
With their elephantine tread;
I shudder in affright
As I cower in my bed.
They lift colossal wings
On the high gable roofs
Which tremble to the trample
Of their mastodonic hoofs.
That outpouring of work continued after his return to the U.S.A. in 1923 – but only briefly. The nightmares which had long haunted his sleep entered his waking hours, afflicting him with hallucinations, making him see weird alien landscapes and bizarre monsters where other people saw parks and woodland. On several occasions he fled screaming in the street from demons no-one else could see, or believe in. Before the end of 1923 he was confined in an asylum.
He might have survived an indefinite time there, or even been released, though that seems unlikely – but he was to suffer the last shattering experience that made an end of Justin Geoffrey. H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Call of Cthulhu” records “outré mental illness and outbreaks of group folly or mania in the spring of 1925.” People around the world, especially those of poetic or artistic temperament, “dream of great Cyclopean cities of Titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror.” Arthur Wilcox, an eccentric young sculptor, was among them. On March 23rd, he lapsed into a semi-conscious feverish state and hallucinated – or received psychic visions of – a monstrous being miles high, with talons and a tentacled face. Many artists and poets had similar experiences between March 23rd and April 2nd. One “widely known architect with leanings toward theosophy and occultism, went violently insane on the date of young Wilcox’s seizure, and expired several months later after incessant screamings to be saved from some escaped denizen of hell.”
If that was the architect’s fate, Justin Geoffrey’s seems to have been inevitable. R’lyeh, the citadel of great Cthulhu – or part of it — briefly rose again from the abyss at the bottom of the Pacific in 1925, and Cthulhu was as briefly freed. As the narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu” says, “He must have been trapped by the sinking whilst within his black abyss, or else the world would by now be screaming with fright and frenzy.” That was precisely what happened to a number of artistic or psychically sensitive people around the world – and it was impossible that Justin Geoffrey of all men would have been oblivious to the resurgent horror.
Nor was he. “Screaming with fright and frenzy” was precisely how the unfortunate young man died, a year later, his nightmares even more intense and horrific. His shrieks and convulsions wore out his body, and no drug or medicine could alleviate the visions he suffered. As Conrad says, “Toward the last, they merged so terribly with his waking thoughts that they seemed grisly realities and his dying shrieks and blasphemies shocked even the hardened keepers of the madhouse.”
In pace requiescat – or so let’s hope.
Like many Howard fans, I was first introduced to his lusty characters through Marvel comics. Piggy-backing on the success of Lancer’s paperbacks, Marvel launched the four-color Conan in 1970. It ushered in a comics phenomenon that continues until today, almost half a century later. Let’s look at some of the highlights of Howard’s comics career, starting with Conan and Kull.
I think it is significant that Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian was released in 1970, a watershed year, heralding the end of the Sixties and the love and peace generation. The black-maned barbarian may have worn his hair long, but nobody would’ve mistaken him for a pacifistic flower child. Here was a red-blooded, assertive hero for a new era in which the disillusionment of Vietnam seeped into pop culture, spawning a generation of amoral anti-heroes. Eschewing garish, day-glo spandex and traditional heroic virtues, Conan anticipated the punk movement, which swept away the last vestiges of the love generation. He was a Hyborian Sid Vicious avant la lettre with a broadsword.
Naturally, I didn’t realize any of that when I first came across the character on the cover of CtB #4 on a newsstand in Melbourne in the early Seventies. I was about nine years old and a loyal Marvelite and superhero devotee. I recognized the Marvel logo, but who was this bare-chested, helmeted lout masquerading as a hero? I didn’t know and I wasn’t interested despite the pulp allure of the giant spider and the scantily-clad damsel in distress. It all seemed a bit seedy and steamy. Being a good little Catholic, I was more interested in wholesome Peter Parker and his virginal sweetheart Gwen Stacy. So, I passed on the classic “Tower of the Elephant,” a decision that was to haunt me for many a year. Ah, the sins of youth.
Green Empress of Melniboné
I wouldn’t become a full-blown Conan fan for another year or two with issues 14 and 15. At the time, I was really enjoying Barry Smith’s short run on the Avengers. Issues 98 and 99 had already come out and I was looking forward to issue 100 with all the anticipation a pre-pubescent boy can summon (and that’s plenty). One fateful afternoon, I found my big brother lounging on the living room couch reading his latest acquisitions. Even upside down, I recognized Smith’s distinctive style, but I mistakenly thought it was the eagerly-anticipated Avengers #100. Little did I realize it at the time that it was something even better. Due to the unpredictable vicissitudes of comic distribution in Australia in the early 70s, my brother had managed to snag issues 14 and 15 of Conan. It was a rip-roaring double-parter pitting Conan and Elric of Melniboné against the evil sorcerer Zukala and the Green Empress of Melniboné. I had never read anything quite as enthralling and exciting, nor seen art as mesmerising and visceral, marrying an ornate grace with an almost operatic sturm-und-drang. It made me a fan of Conan and Barry Smith for life.
My next introduction to the Howard’s creations and the sword and sorcery genre came shortly after. I’m not completely sure of the chronology, so forgive me if I play loose and fast with history. My brother had come home with another treasure; Monsters on the Prowl #16 featuring Kull the Conqueror. He looked vaguely like Conan, but the artwork was clearly not Smith, which was a bit of a let-down initially. This was actually Kull’s fourth Marvel appearance. He had debuted a bit earlier in Creatures on the Loose #10 in a story by none other than Berni Wrightson in a story called “The Skull of Silence.” It is a beautifully illustrated tale and the young Wrightson does himself proud. It was probably better than what Smith was doing on Conan at the same time. It would be years, however, before I would ever lay eyes on that masterpiece. Kull then premiered in his eponymous mag, illustrated by the unlikely and miss-matched team of Ross Andru and Wally Wood.
Issue 2 of Kull the Conqueror saw the debut of the mag’s regular artistic team consisting of the siblings Marie and John Severin. They would go onto craft a wonderful 10-issue run on the mag, which is among the highlights of sword & sorcery comics. It took me a little while to get used to the Severins’ artwork compared to Smith’s, but once I made the mindshift, I loved their work almost equally. John Severin’s meticulous inks lent the mag a classic look that owed more to Harold Foster’s Prince Valiant than to Smith, who was then writing the book on sword and sorcery comics. Severin’s take is more traditional and less visceral than Smith’s, but it has a timeless, illustrative quality that easily makes it stand the test of time. Monsters on the Prowl (MotP) #16 with its fetid swamps, leviathans and serpent men sent thrills and chills down my spine. Until this day I still remember with a shudder the scene in which a young guardsman begs Kull to kill him before he comes under the thrall of the loathsome serpent men. The noble Kull honors his request without hesitation. This was a different kind of hero than your average Marvel adventurer.
A Phantasmagorical Feast
My next big Howard thrill came with Kull #3, which takes place after right after Monsters on the Prowl #16. The story pits Kull and his faithful companion Brule the Spearslayer against the evil necromancer, Thulsa Doom.
An epic battle unfolds, in which the barbarian king confronts skeletal horses, demons, goblins and all kinds of other horrors conjured up by Doom. Kull eventually wins the mismatched battle through a combination of sheer grit, tenacity and valor. The Severins turned in a beautiful job and the issue is a phantasmagorical visual feast, the likes of which had never been witnessed in comics before. This was real sword and sorcery. Both issues were superbly scripted by Roy Thomas, but issue 3 was his last issue for the nonce. The Severins went on produce another seven issues of Kull with various writers. They were all beautiful to behold and provide good solid, sword and sorcery thrills, but they never again reached the pinnacle of MotP #16 and Kull #3 with Roy at the writing helm.
“The Black Hound of Vengeance”
My next encounter with Smith’s Conan came a few months later, when I stumbled across a copy of issue 20 while visiting my father’s work in the heart of Melbourne. It was another mind-blowing mag and until this day “The Black Hound of Vengeance” remains my second favorite issue of Smith’s color run on Conan and among my most cherished sword & sorcery comics ever. Within the span of mere two years, Smith had developed into a masterful storyteller, producing seamless visual narratives. The pacing and staging was incredible as Smith masterfully manipulated the reader, just as the evil sorcerer of besieged Makkelet, Kharim Azar, sends Conan scurrying like a scared rat through his labyrinth of mirrors, pulling his strings like a master puppeteer. This imagery is further enhanced by the image of a puppet with severed strings in the bottom panel of page 19.
These kinds of subtle visual cues showed Smith’s complete mastery of his craft, even at such a young age. Of course, I had no idea why Smith’s work had such a powerful impact on me. All I knew is I wanted more, which led me on a year’s long search for back issues.
The great joy of Barry Smith’s meteoric rise to fame on Conan is tracing his rapid evolution from a faux Kirby on Conan #1 to a consummate comics artist with a distinctive style all his own. Smith’s unique combination of cinematic story-telling with an unerring eye for decorative detail, presented comic readers with “an age undreamed of.” To be honest, you had to be a veritable Oracle of Delphi to predict his later greatness based on issue 1, but he progressed by leaps and bounds, producing a certifiable comics classic with the aforementioned “Tower of the Elephant.” Issue 4 is universally acclaimed as Smith’s first great work and it is a fine comic, but as far as I’m concerned Smith’s first real masterpiece is Conan #7; “The God in the Bowl.” This probably has something to do with Dan Adkins doing part of the inks.
Seeds of Greatness
Smith quickly went from strength to strength, developing at an amazing rate under the constant deadline pressures. You see his decorative style slowly emerge under Sal Buscema’s overpowering inks and his storytelling prowess improves with leaps and bounds. Smith reached his peak when he found an inker more sensitive to his pencils like Dan Adkins. Outside of his self-inked work, Smith produced his best material on Conan with the assistance of Adkins. Sadly they only did a handful of issues together.
During his short tenure on Conan, Smith actually produced his best work on the b&w mags, where free of tight deadlines, he was allowed more time to give free rein to his imagination and to ink his own work. His first b&w tale was The Frost Giant’s Daughter for Savage Tales (ST) #1, followed shortly after by the amazing Dweller in the Dark, which bears all the seeds of latter-day Smith’s greatness; ornateness, opulence, decadence, sensuality and hair-trigger violence.
Smith Sees Red
Smith’s evolving style is often mistakenly described as art noveau, but it owes more to the romantic, illustrative style of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood than the more decorative work of Beardsley and Mucha. This style reached its peak in on Ctb #24; The Song of Red Sonja and his epic two-part adaptation of Red Nails in ST 2 & 3. Red Sonja was Smith’s swansong on CtB and a fine tune it was. He went all out on the issue, inking and coloring it himself. It’s an exquisitely rendered tale full of lusty, red-blooded action, as Conan allows the eponymous Red Sonja to let his loins do his thinking for him.
The story contains some of most subtly sensual imagery in comics up until then. Despite Smith’s delicate handling, Marvel still felt it necessary to move Conan’s hands from under the water’s surface, where they were having a party and place them demurely on the small of Sonja’s back. Smith certainly went out in style, but he would return for an encore and what an encore it was.
Farewell Fab Barry
With Red Nails, Smith’s comics career reached its absolute zenith. It’s his Abbey Road. Like the Fab Four, Smith’s talents developed at an unprecedented pace. Compare the bubblegum pop of Please, Please Me to the sublime song-smithing on Abbey Road. The difference is light years apart and not a mere 8 years. Now compare CtB #1 with Red Nails, a mere three years later. There is a quantum leap in quality. As if sensing it would be his final word on the character he helped catapult to iconic status, Smith pulled out all the stop, leisurely pacing the story and even adopting a new, lush inking style, perfectly utilizing the b&w medium. Rarely had the comics medium witnessed such finely-wrought, fully-conceived, evocative imagery. The result is a visual cornucopia of vivid images that etch themselves into the reader’s minds-eye like those catchy Beatles song, lingering long after the final page has been turned on. And thus the book closed on Smith’s Conan career, ending an era in the mag’s history.
The Common Denominator
The common denominator in most of these stories is writer Roy Thomas, who ensured Howard was first adapted into comics and who skilfully shepherded his various creations for more than a decade. Thomas deserves a great deal of credit for his masterful work on Howard’s properties, displaying a clear understanding of their characters and respect for them. He also did a fine job of translating Howard’s prose and ethos to comics, presenting a much more faithful version than most of Howard’s prose pastichers. Doug Moench wrote some decent material on Kull, as did Alan Zelenetz, but when it came to Marvel, nobody wrote better sword and sorcery than Roy.
End of part one. In part two; Barbarians in Full Color B&W, David takes a look at more Howardian highlights in comics, including the Thomas/Buscema era on Ctb and Savage Sword of Conan, Mike Ploog on Kull, Frank Brunner’s only Conan classic and Solomon Kane’s storied comics career.