Archive for the 'E. Hoffmann Price' Category

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“ … the Druses who worship the Gold Calf … ”

Robert E. Howard, “Three-Bladed Doom”

It must have been nice, in some ways, to write for the pulps in the old days. You certainly didn’t have to worry about being tactful to minorities or foreigners. Or primitive people. If you wanted horrible villains with sinister, incomprehensible, fanatical motives, hey, you could start with Chinese, go on to voodoo cultists from Haiti or New Orleans, and then proceed to the Middle East for a revived Assassin sect … or Yezidee devil-worshippers (Islamic State these days fully agrees with that one) … or Ahriman cultists from Persia … or Druzes. That last wasn’t used as frequently, but it was used. Any religion that wasn’t western, Christian, and White Anglo-Saxon Protestant at that, could be presented as devil-worship. You could also give your imagination free rein in the happy confidence that your audience didn’t know beans about the tribes or cults concerned.

Or as Robert E. Howard said – to E. Hoffman Price, I think – about Baibars’ speech at the end of “Sowers of the Thunder,” with a grin, “Sure, it was crap. But sometimes you have to do it that way.”  To which Price responded, “Damned right you do!”

paysans-druzes-repasThe earliest bit of gaudy fiction – that I know of – to depict Druzes as devil-worshippers is “The Fire-King” by old Sir Walter Scott. Yes, the author of Ivanhoe, The Talisman, and Quentin Durward, all of which I reckon excellent, if you can get past the rich, old-fashioned language and even more old-fashioned attitudes. “The Fire-King” is a ballad of the Crusades done in pseudo-medieval style, not a prose story. It doesn’t mention the Gold Calf; Scott credits his Druzes with a different sort of demonic idolatry, but demon-worship just the same. Their deity is a terrible djinn of flame, the titular Fire-King.

Briefly, Count Albert goes on crusade, and leaves his faithful “fair Rosalie” at home, waiting. A pilgrim from the Holy Land brings the news that the Christians are winning, but “Count Albert is prisoner on Mount Lebanon.”  Rosalie is aghast, but decisive. She takes a horse and a sword and sets out to find him.

That’s the first clue that the heroic count’s captors are Druzes. The Mount Lebanon Range was their original home. Rosalie arrives in Palestine disguised as a knight, like Eleanor de Courcey in REH’s “The Sowers of the Thunder.” But she’s too late. Count Albert has fallen for “the Soldan’s fair daughter,” changed sides and abandoned his faith. And Rosalie withal.

He has thrown by his helmet, and cross-handled sword,
Renouncing his knighthood, denying his Lord;
He has ta’en the green caftan, and turban put on,
For the love of the maiden of fair Lebanon.

The “heathenish damsel” asks him to keep a night-long vigil “ … in the cavern, where burns evermore/the mystical flame which the Curdmans adore.”  Second clue that these are Druzes. “Curdmans” is a nineteenth-century term for Kurds, and while Druzes don’t worship fire, the Persian Zoroastrians did. Druzes are clannish, secretive (especially about their religious beliefs) and don’t marry outside the group, but they descend from Kurds and/or Persians. At least, I can quote one famous, high-powered Oriental scholar to that effect.

The leading families among the Druzes have been throughout their history either of full Kurdish and Persian origin or of Persianized and ‘Irāqized Arab origin. That is, they have been either Kurdish and Persian families or tribes from the Arabian peninsula who, before their advent into the Lebanon, sojourned for many generations in Mesopotamia where they became fully indoctrinated with the ‘Alid ideas and subjected to Gnostic and Manichaean influences.

Origins of the Druze People and Religion, by Philip K. Hitti (1924)

Once Count Albert removes his rosary and cross, the evil djinn of flame appears to him and gives him a charmed sword with which he’ll conquer invincibly, until and unless he shall once again “ … bend to the Cross, and the Virgin adore.”  No problem, thinks Albert, now a renegade. I’ll never do that. I’m protected to the max.

As always, of course, there’s a loophole and a fatal catch he doesn’t foresee. He inadvertently breaks the Fire-King’s condition at the worst moment, right in the middle of a roaring melee against King Baldwin of Jerusalem and the Templars. Read the ballad for the details; it’s a good yarn and it’s online.

f0130a6e9f449a06943972468dfc5344Harking forward to pulp of the early 20th century again, and Howard in particular, he listed the Druzes (in the shorter version of “Three-Bladed Doom” among the other cults that derived from his Zurim or Hidden Ones, “a pre-Canaanitish race who lived in Syria before the coming of the Semitic tribes.” Erlikites, Assassins and Yezidees all derived from the ancient Zurim. The Persian lord of Shalizahr, the Shaykh az Zurim, tells Howard’s hero El Borak that there were also splinters of the cult in Egypt, Persia and India. That sounds rather as though the Brothers of Ahriman (REH, “Black Wind Blowing”) and the Thugs were affiliated with the Zurim also.

Maybe coincidentally – although REH probably read “The Fire-King” – in the yarn “Black Wind Blowing,” Ahriman is described as the “Lord of Fire,” and his evil devotees want a western damsel for sacrifice. Actually Ahriman is the lord of darkness, lies, death and evil, while his opposite, Ormazd, represents sunlight, fire, goodness and life. But the Moslem Arabs who conquered Persia loathed the Zoroastrian fire-worship and represented it as devilish, which may be the source of the idea. (Whenever an evil wizard appears in the Arabian Nights, he’s usually a Persian or posing as one.)

In “Three-Bladed Doom,” REH specifically refers to the Druzes “who worship the Gold Calf.”  That wasn’t Howard’s invention. It was widely believed among folk who are not Druzes. It could even have been true so far as ordinary Druzes knew, since the rank and file of the faith aren’t privy to its inner secrets, only the initiates. A circumstance that always encourages everybody to believe the worst.

Hitti considers this aspect of Druze faith in the chapter of his book titled “The Cult of the Calf.”  He gives pro and con. The Golden Calf, of course, was the figure of a bull which the Children of Israel worshipped below Mount Sinai when they lapsed from belief in Jehovah. It is a perfect symbol of paganism, and the Druze faith is strictly monotheistic. Philip Hitti writes:

Persistent local rumor continues to associate ‘calf worship’ with the Druze religion, but the Druzes them-selves have with equal persistence and vehemence denied it. No worse curse could even today be levelled against a Druze in the Lebanon than to call him ‘calf worshiper.’ Certain travelers like Pococke gave credence to the report; others including Volney rejected it. That there is jealously guarded and hidden from the uninitiate eye, in one of their leading places of seclusion (khalwah), of which there are about forty in the Lebanon, some gold figure of a calf or bull inside of a silver box has been almost ascertained beyond doubt. A high Druze sheikh has practically admitted in a recent interview the existence of such a box.

 The purpose of such an image is a different matter. If it exists. Hitti again, on the question of how it may be interpreted, elucidates.

The question, in view of the secrecy that surrounds the cult and the ambiguity of some of the references, is one of interpretation. De Sacy explains the calf as the emblem of Iblīs (devil), the enemy and rival of al-Ḥākim. Colonel Churchill states that Ḥamzah, indignant at the treachery of his emissary, Darazi, denounced him as the ‘calf whom a deluded people had set up as their idol.’ [Lieutenant Colonel] Conder considers it ‘a relic of older paganism’ which they keep in their solitary meeting places ‘only to treat with insult and contempt.’

If and when the calf cult is proved in the case of the Druze religion, some connection will then be sought with earlier cognate Israelitish and Egyptian cults. Animal worship has greatly figured in Oriental religions, and Christianity bears traces of its survival.

Pulp writers, as I’ve observed, were not scholars. They didn’t have the same purposes as scholars, with one or two exceptions like Harold Lamb, who combined great action writing with a desire to inform as well as entertain. REH admired his work greatly. A desire to be authentic and a capacity for good research imbues a lot of Howard’s stories set in the Orient and the Middle Ages, but he was sometimes rushed and couldn’t take meticulous pains. He also knew perfectly well that a pulp writer could always get mileage out of fiendish Oriental cults with nasty practices.

imagesIn at least one of his stories, he represents Druzes as being almost inhuman. This is “Lord of the Dead,” one of his tales of hard-boiled gumshoe Steve Harrison, often confronted by cases in the Oriental district of the un-named town where he operates. It begins with Harrison attacked in an alley by “a snarling, mouthing fury that had fallen on him, talon and tooth. The thing was obviously a man, though in the first few dazed seconds Harrison doubted even this fact … This denizen of the dark not only was as strong as he, but was lither and quicker and tougher than a civilized man ought to be.”

His assailant follows Harrison, tells him, “You shall not escape again,” and swears “By the Golden Calf!”  In the subsequent fight the would-be killer loses his knife, gets gashed along the ribs and almost blasted with a shotgun before he decides to run for it and vanishes among the trees. An Oriental scholar named Brent, on the basis of the fanatic’s “hawk-like appearance” and “mention of the Golden Calf”, tells Harrison, “I am sure he is a Druse.”  Harrison, slashed, bashed, half-strangled and decidedly irked, roars, “What the hell is a Druse?”

“They live in a mountain district in Syria,” answers Brent. “A tribe of fierce fighters — ”

“I can tell that,” Harrison snarls. “I never ex-pected to meet anybody that could lick me in a stand-up fight, but this devil’s got me buffaloed. Anyway, it’s a relief to know he’s a living human being.”

Harrison goes to a Chinese named Woon Sun for fur-ther information. He asks if these “Druses” are “Moham-medans … Arabs?”  Woon Sun replies, “No, they are, as it were, a race apart. They worship a calf cast of gold, believe in reincarnation, and practice heathen rituals abhorred by the Moslems. First the Turks and now the French have tried to govern them, but they have never really been conquered.”

Harrison answers feelingly, “I can believe it, alright.”

Woon Sun is Chinese, and as much as Harrison and Brent, he is looking at the Druzes from the outside. He may not be wholly correct. The Druzes do appear to believe in reincarnation, but as Hitti points out, it can be doubted that they actually worship the Golden Calf. It’s even possible that they keep the image as a symbol of the ancient idolatries of Baal, which they despise, in order to revile it, as Lieutenant Colonel Conder thought.

The Online website, Brotherhoods and Secret Societies, in the section “Hermetecists and Druzes” has this to say about the Druzes:

They covet no proselytes, shun notoriety, keep friendly — as far as possible — with both Christians and Mahometans, respect the religion of every other sect or people, but will never disclose their own secrets.

Vainly do the missionaries stigmatize them as in-fidels, idolaters, brigands, and thieves. Neither threat, bribe, nor any other consideration will induce a Druze to become a convert to dogmatic Christianity. We have heard of two in fifty years, and both have finished their careers in prison, for drunkenness and theft …  There never was a case of an initiated Druze becoming a Christ-an. As to the uninitiated, they are never allowed to even see the sacred writings, and none of them have the remotest idea where these are kept.

That their religion exhibits traces of Magianism and Gnosticism is natural, as the whole of the Ophite esoteric philosophy is at the bottom of it. But the characteristic dogma of the Druzes is the absolute unity of God. He is the essence of life, and although incomprehensible and invisible, is to be known through occasional manifestations in human form. Like the Hindus they hold that he was incarnated more than once on earth.

Since the website also has sections on “Ancient Secret Societies, UFOs, and the New World Order” and “Occult Symbols Found on the Bank of America Murals”, I’m not absolutely convinced by the “Ophite Esoteric Philosophy” bit, although it’s a fact that the Druzes were, as Hitti says, “subjected to Gnostic and Manichaean influences”, and the claim about their intractable resistance to con-version is right on target.

proclamation_of_king_faisal_i_as_king_of_syriaREH wrote his Steve Harrison stories in the 1930s, which is to say, after the Druze Revolt of 1925-27. It wasn’t solely a Druze Revolt, and is more often and more accurately called the Great Syrian Revolt today, as it involved Sunni, Alawite, Christian and Shi’a rebels as well as Druzes, all of them eager to end French control of the region. But it certainly gave substance to Brent’s description of Druzes as “a tribe of fierce fighters.”  The rebels won early victories, but after that the French sent in thousands of troops, including the Foreign Legion, and shelled and bombed Damascus, destroying much of the city. The revolt was crushed by 1927, and the Druze leader, Sultan al-Atrash, sentenced to death by the French authorities. He fled into exile to avoid the sentence being carried out.

Neither then nor later was the Golden Calf of the Druzes found. Robert Benton Betts gives his views in his book, The Druze (Yale University press, 1990). Betts was a professor at the University of Balamand in Lebanon. He is now retired and living in South Carolina.

Only one person to my knowledge has claimed to have seen the legendary golden calf in this century and that was Francis A. Waterhouse, a former French Legionnaire who wrote about his experiences in Syria during the Druze Rebellion of 1925-27 in a highly sensational and suspect narrative entitled ‘Twixt Hell and Allah. According to Waterhouse, he and a comrade were led by an old Druze man and a naked lad through a hole in the ground (“near the humble Druse village of Tell —– ”) in the Jabal al-Druze to a subterranean cavern where they were allowed to view “the most monstrous effigy that ever beggared imagination.

A Foreign Legionnaire telling war stories wouldn’t necessarily be truthful. Betts calls his account “sen-sational and suspect”. The most suspect thing about it, to me, is the idea that a Druze ancient and a boy of the sect would lead an enemy soldier to the most secret shrine of a secretive religion in the middle of a vicious war. As Eliza Doolittle said, “Not bloody likely.”

Waterhouse served in the 1st Foreign Legion Cavalry Regiment. Besides ‘Twixt Hell and Allah, he wrote another book about his experiences in the Legion, Five Sous a Day. He was wounded in the savage fighting of the Druse Revolt, and honorably released as unfit for com-bat. In 1926 he was hired to wear Legion uniform outside movie theaters to promote Beau Geste. In Five Sous a Day, he insists vehemently that all the incidents he describes in ‘Twixt Hell and Allah did really happen. Decide that for yourself, gentle reader, as you scan this description, in his own words, of the Golden Calf that Waterhouse says he saw “in the dread cavern, deep deep under ground” (Scott).

Towering above our heads on a rough stone dais stood this beast, two long forelegs supporting a grotesque body surmounted by a hideous head in which scintillated two large green stones for the eyes. The beast was graven in solid gold and we stood dumb in wonder, wet with the sweat of fright, gazing … gazing at the Golden Calf of Baal.

Francis A. Waterhouse, ’Twixt Hell and Allah

I’d have to say I prefer REH’s Steve Harrison stories. They’re just as entertaining and no more lurid. Besides, REH didn’t try to tell us they’re strictly true.

This entry filed under E. Hoffmann Price, El Borak.

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If, like me, you love the work of Robert E. Howard (and if you are reading this blog, I know you do), you may be possessed of literary OCD. You need to get it all. Depending on the depth of your OCD, you will fall into several categories – the reader/collector, the completist, the minutia gatherer, or the super collector.

The super collector is that rare individual. They want the best of everything. They need the Herbert Jenkins A Gent From Bear Creek, The Hyborian Age, Skull-Face and Others, Always Comes Evening, the Gnome Press Conans, and complete runs of The Howard Collector and Amra. These collectors are an exclusive bunch and this article is not specifically directed at them.

grant-sowersofthethunderThere are plenty of fine Howard editions out there for the finding. I love the Donald M. Grant The Sowers of the Thunder. Illustrated by Roy G. Krenkel, one of Frank Frazetta’s friends, collaborators and mentors, it is a work of art as well as a collection of four fine stories. Pre-ordered copies from Grant came autographed by Krenkel! In a similar vein The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane from Wandering Star with illustrations from Gary Gianni carried forward that tradition. Both volumes contain numerous illustrations ranging from full color paintings to large detailed black and white illustrations to tiny spot sketches throughout the book. You cannot go five pages without encountering some figure or scene in the text or margin. The illustrations really enhanced the reading experience to me.

So, as a collector, the big question is “How do I do this without breaking (or robbing) the bank? The easiest answer is “You can’t!” There is just too much material out there. Even if you get paperback copies of everything, you will spend several hundred dollars. And much more, if you want nice copies of those paperbacks.

berkley-hourofthedragon-1stAs I write this, American Book exchange (one of the largest online purveyors/pushers of my OCD) lists 11,863 entries when you search for “Robert E. Howard.” This includes 7,180 paperback entries. (now this number is inflated since anthologies listing a Howard piece will be listed as well as any books that feature the names Robert and Howard somewhere in their description). Prices start at $3.00 plus shipping and go to several thousand for some really rare items. Over on eBay, there are 2,468 entries in Books alone (670 in Collectibles). The prices show 728 items over $35 and 818 under $13.

So there is a lot of material out there. How do you go about gathering your collection? There are several tried and tested methods:

  • Buy whatever you can find – REH, de Camp and Carter, pastiches, Role Playing Games, movies. Make Serendipity your favorite muse. I’ve done this on multiple occasions myself. I didn’t really know what I wanted until I saw it, so I bought it all. OCD, I love you.
  • Set up some filters early on. Do you want only the pure REH stuff? Or all the Conans no matter who wrote them? Do you want novels only? (This is not recommended in combination with the pure REH as you will get Almuric and The Hour of the Dragon and be done. And Almuric will be cheating some as it was finished by someone, probably Farnsworth Wright after Howard’s death.) Perhaps it is the artists associated with Howard – Frazetta, Krenkel, Brundidge, Boris, Achilles, Jones, or any of the other great artists who have tackled his work. There are a lot of them too. What about poetry, boxing, oriental, essays? This can help limit what you go after and allow you to focus in on some nice specific items.
  • Pick your format. Paperback? Combine it with the filters above. Hardcovers? Are you interested in any version, first editions, illustrated editions, signed and numbered, US only, US and UK, or full international?
  • Price point is the next important area. What are you willing to pay? Is $50 too much? Then the Arkham House, Wandering Star, and Gnome Press titles are going to be out of your price range. You want a nice Skull-Face and Others with a pristine Hannes Bok dustjacket. Be prepared to shell out some big bucks, generally $600 or more, up to a price with a comma in it. But, if you just want the stories, you have several options. You can get the entire volume in three paperbacks from the UK Panther Press ($25 or more). Or for a hardback copy, the Neville Spearman reprint from the mid-1970’s can be found for $35 to $50. However, it has an awful cover rather than the beautiful Bok cover. Other than that, you can track down the individual stories and/or pulps (Don’t get me started on that path. That way lies MADNESS!! And an extended money sinkhole.) However, going for the individual piece will mean you won’t get the August Derleth introduction or the memories of Lovecraft and E. Hoffman Price which are original and are not reprinted elsewhere that I know of.
  • The thing that happened when collectors get together to discuss their books, the question always comes up about the one that got away. When I was in college, I worked part time for about 20 hours a week at slightly less than $2.00 an hour. My take home was about $32 a week. Things were a lot cheaper then but still. Every time I visited my bookseller/pusher, she showed me a book. It was lovely, bound in bright red leather. The binding said Presentation Copy. It was Phantasmagoria by Lewis Carroll. I was holding a signed Lewis Carroll book. The price was $150. That was roughly five weeks pay! I was already a starving college student trying to justify $5.00 in paperbacks. I regret not getting it to this day, more than 40 years later. But, I could not afford it. The thing to remember is, if you find it and you can afford it, buy it. You don’t generally regret the books you buy. You always regret the ones you did not buy.
  • The most important rule is simply, buy what you like. Do not buy with the idea of investing and making a fortune over the years. Buy what you like at a price you think is fair and you will be happy. Sure some of the prices may go up. But to realize those prices, you have to find someone willing to pay that price. Which means selling it yourself. I’ve been involved in the book selling world for more than 40 years. There is something sad about seeing the face of someone who wants to sell their collection to me. They come in with high, high expectations. But the reality is the buyer (me) has to realize a certain price and profit for that purchase, that means, if I don’t have an immediate buyer, I am going to sit on this investment for a while. So, I have to store it and advertise that I have it and take it to shows and talk to people about it and, if it suffers some wear and tear along the way, mark it down. It might sell in two months, or six months, or maybe, two years. My money is tied up all the time I hold on to it. That means I have to figure all that in what I can offer. And it will not be what you were hoping. That is the sad reality of it. You may decide you want to keep it. Then, if it is something you loved and enjoyed and bought for a price you were happy with, you will generally remain happy. If you bought it as an investment, you may be disappointed. Be happy. It’s better for your life.

So now, where to start? For series characters, you can’t go wrong with the Del Rey omnibus volumes of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, El Borak, or Bran Mak Morn. And they have several great collections of short stories, such as The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard and The Best of Robert E. Howard (a two volume set). Reasonably priced, they contain a lot of great reading. Pick a character and dive in! But this isn’t nearly all there is. You want more!

bison-endofthetrailAnother great place to look is the set of paperbacks published by Zebra Books in the late 1970’s. They include The Sowers of the Thunder mentioned earlier with the great spot illustrations included though there is a different cover. There are at least 13 paperback volumes, most with covers by the amazing Jeff Jones. And these are (generally) not the series characters, no Conan, Kull, Kane. There are some Breckinridge Elkins and El Borak stories. The series includes fantasy, adventure, boxing, oriental, westerns, and other types of fiction. There are many other sets and collections. The Bison Press, Wildside Press and Penguin Books reprints are out there and are worth seeking out. Find the Ace The Howard Collector volume. Search, find, acquire, gloat that you have them. Wallow in the OCD.

And that’s not including the electronic versions out there. My Kindle has a collection of 99 Howard stories from various series as well as standalone pieces. And since I have a Kindle on my smart phone, I always have Howard with me for those times when I am waiting for a movie or a table at a restaurant. (Of course, my Kindle has a couple of hundred books on it!) There are many electronic collections out there. For free you can check out Project Gutenberg or manybooks.net which have a mix of stories available.

rehfoundationpress-fistsofironAnd I would be remiss if I do not address the work of the Robert E. Howard Foundation Press and the fabulous hardcover books they publish. Titles like Spicy Adventures and Tales of Weird Menace feature the more obscure stories, variants, outlines, and their history of writing and publication. And the four volume Fists of Iron is to die for. These are for the hardcore collector who wants it all. Check them out. True story here. When I first looked at them, I was at Howard Days at a time when I was unemployed and looking for work. I saw the books and I wanted them. I bought $300 of them at the show, I did not hesitate or think about it. I wanted them right then and I knew that if I hesitated I would regret it.

So, now if you have followed the guidelines, you have a roadmap for your collecting habits. There is a whole wide world of Robert E. Howard material waiting for you to step up and find it. Or, you could just go off-roading.

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In the 1930s, a circle of weird pulp writers developed an interwoven correspondence, with prominent members including Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, E. Hoffmann Price, and Henry S. Whitehead. The exact correspondence varied according to the tastes of each, but they all participating in answering letters, circulating stories, lending books, artwork, and other materials, and of course sharing the latest news and leads regarding their mutual field of endeavor. One of the most intriguing sidelights of this mutual correspondence involved a particularly deranged fan, mentioned by Clark Ashton Smith in a letter to August Derleth dated 15 May 1932:

No word from Bates about my various stories. He sent me yesterday, however, a terrific communication from one G. P. Olsen of Sheldon, Iowa, which had been addressed to me in care of S.T. I’ve had letters from madmen before, but this one really took the gilt-edged angel-cake. Twelve single-spaced pages, much of it phrased with a lucidity almost equal to that of Gertrude Stein or Hegel. Among other things, as well as I could make it out, the fellow seemed to be desirous of correcting certain erroneous ideas about demons and vampires which he had discovered in “The Nameless Offspring.” Also, he wanted to point out the errors of Abdul Alhazred! Some of the stuff about vampires was really weird: “You never thought of a Vampire in your life but he appeared like an Emperor or an Archangel.” Then he exhorts me to refrain from putting vampires in a bad light, since, by virtue of a little blood-sucking, they really confer immortality on those they have chosen! Later, apropos of godknowswhat, he told me that “you must realize it will never be stood for if you act in any other way than that befitting a Spanish Don.” The letter is the damdest mixture of paranoia, delusions of grandeur and mystic delirium that ever went through the U.S. mails. The fellow writes of Ammon-Ra and Ahriman—a regular hash of Oriental mysticism—in the language of an illiterate Swede. He ends with something to the effect that his letter is the most momentous intellectual promulgation of the age. I’m not in the habit of ignoring letters; but there’s nothing else to be done in this case. (SLCAS 177)

“The Nameless Offspring” was published in the June 1932 issue of Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror (which often hit stands the month prior to the cover date), which was edited by Harry Bates. The mention of Alhazred refers to Smith’s “The Return of the Sorcerer” (ST Sep 1931, the premiere issue) so Olsen (or Olson, as Robert E. Howard wrote his name), must have been reading Strange Tales from the the start. The mention of vampires is odd, as neither of Smith’s stories features an actual vampire—”The Return of the Sorcerer” involves another form of undeath, and “The Nameless Offspring” a ghoul—but this appears to have been a characteristic obsession of Olsen, as detailed by Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde smith in May 1932:

I’ve gotten some more letters from that fool Olson, in Iowa. I could endure his lunacy, but his illiteracy gets on my nerves. This time he’s frothing at the mouth on account of my “Horror from the Mound”. He lashed himself into a perfect frenzy because I said a vampire was really dead. He says that there is no death in the first place, and that Christ was a vampire. Also that a vampire is in “reallity” an idealist, with an earth-gravity of 50 per cent. Whatever the hell that means. He says that I ought to be ashamed “tweesting” the facts around and “making the allmighty God look like the dirtiest devil from Hell.” He also says that he is going to “proove” the Medical Society is a pack of fools shortly. He alleges to “proove” his “prooves” by Einstein, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and other great scientists and philosophers. He seems to have the mysteries of life at his finger tips. Well, what the Hell. (CL 2.342-343)

popularfictionpublishingcompany-weird_tales_193205“The Horror from the Mound” appeared in the May 1932 issue of Weird Tales—Howard had, ironically, first submitted it to Strange Tales but it was rejected; he wouldn’t have a story in Strange Tales until June 1932. So it is reasonable that Olsen was a regular reader of WT as well as ST; Howard had previously addressed the subject of vampires in “The Moon of Skulls” (WT Jun-July 1930) and “Hills of the Dead” (WT Aug 1930), and Olsen had apparently previously written to Howard about the latter tale (CL 2.354, AMtF 1.292).

Howard’s story was, as described by Jeffrey Shanks and Mark Finn in “Vaqueros and Vampires in the Pulps: Robert E. Howard and the Dawn of the Undead West”, probably derived from Bram Stoker by way of Universal Pictures and Bela Lugosi. (UIW2 8-9) The vampire de Valdez would be familiar to contemporary readers, a suave nobleman vampire along the lines of Count Dracula; Olsen’s ideas of vampires, by contrast, are very atypical even by the pulp standards of 1932, not in keeping with traditional Eastern European folklore as used by Stoker in Dracula (1897) or Montague Summers’ Vampire: His Kith and Kin (1928), or even the more occult notions of the vampire promoted by Helena Blavatsky in Isis Unveiled (1877).

Whatever Olsen’s immediate sources, his fan-letters appear to be a personal combination of occult metaphysics…and physics, as Howard recounts in a later letter to Clyde Smith:

More gems from Olson: “The A-Rama is Einstein A-Space, the B-Rama is brain or Brama, the C-Rama is Solar Plexus or Pain and in it’s cappacity of being organic Pain it is Visshnue the creator and the D-Rama is that thing we know as Drama, which is the four-armed ballance of Shiva the destroyer, being the basical gender in nature and being in effect also sex, since sex and ellementairy nature is the same thing actually, as soon as I explain it —–” “The chief thing Jesus tried to impress was that want is in itself allmight and that by means of training the mind for greater wants and the body to hold greater hungers, if anything hapens to the consciousness, the atoms hold the hunger and do not break in decay, accordingly as the stomack eats up the filler and the blood thins down, the person comes up with high hungers and if he is a fool he is then a vampire.” “Accordingly, no vampire, however vampirally ignorant he may be, can possibly be as vampirical as yourself and all the people of the earth, since not knowing this, you account not at all the strict code that is Mrs. Cornelius VanderBilt or Mrs. Astor or that of any Duke or Duchess of the world — Why do you suppose that a Duke considers that he may withouth regrets pierce with his sword a man that refuses to pay him respect — A man that refuses to stop and utterly postphone the filling of his hungers the instance the Duke appears in the vicinity?” He also sends me a damnable chain letter and tells me I dare not refuse to continue the chain. Like hell I don’t. I might excuse his insanity, but writers of chain-letters are a blight and a stumbling block on the road of progress. (CL 2.350-351)

This rant at least contains a few more recognizable elements—”Brama” (Bhrama), ”Visshnue” (Vishnu) and Shiva are deities in the Hindu religion, and form a divine trinity; the forehead and solar plexus are typically associated with chakras in tantric yoga, and so suggest Olsen was tapping into Indian or Theosophical materials. The reference to Einstein’s “A-Space” is vague, but appears to be an interpretation of Einstein notation with regards to his theory of General Relativity—although I’ve yet to find a source that uses the exact nomenclature, Einstein notation does involve the use of vectors. Howard, in a letter now lost, apparently communicated something of Olsen to Lovecraft, who replied on 7 May:

As for this Olson—I haven’t ever been honoured by his direct attention, but I have seen some of the letters with which he has been pestering poor Whitehead during the last few months. It appears that he is quite a notorious nuisance among ‘scientifiction’ writers, especially those contributing to the Clayton magazines. he is—in the opinion of Bates, Whitehead (who has had some experience as a psychiatrist) and myself—a genuine maniac; though we don’t know whether or not he is under actual restraint. He may be a relatively harmless case living with his family—though none the less wholly emented in certain directions. He has been giving Whitehead long and frantic lectures on “vectors”, and “A, B, and C-space”. It seems there is something especially sinister and menacing about C—space—so that it will bring about the end of the world very shortly unless all living sages get busy and call in the aid of the “Vectors”. Olson also has some startling and unique biological theories. According to him, the blood is not the life but the death. It is our blood which makes us die—and therefore, since food makes blood, the one simple way to become immortal is to discontinue the use of food! Poor devil—I suppose he is an ignorant, weak-brained fellow who saturated himself with odds and ends of popular occult and scientific lore either before or after the crucial thread of sanity snapped. As Whitehead says, there is nothing to do but ignore the letters of a case like that. (AMtF 1.287)

Whitehead had published stories in both Strange Tales and Weird Tales in the months leading up to May 1932, none of which involve vampires per se, although “Cassius” (ST Nov 1931) comes close. What other writers Olsen made a nuisance of himself of is open to speculation; based solely on what we know of his interests and the magazines he read, likely victims include those whose vampire stories earned the front cover, such as Kirk Mashburn (“Placide’s Wife,” WT Nov 1931; “The Vengeance of Ixmal,” WT Mar 1932) and Hugh B. Cave (“The Brotherhood of Blood,” WT May 1932), though any of the Strange Tales or Weird Tales writers would likely be fair game; and apparently August Derleth was on the receiving end of Olsen’s intentions (SLCAS 289). Robert E. Howard replied to Lovecraft in a letter dated 24 May 1932:

Poor Olson — what you say of him clinches my conclusion that he is completely insane. I first heard from him a long time ago when he wrote commenting on my “Hills of the Dead”; favorably, by the way. “The Horror from the Mound” seems to have enraged him. He hasn’t pulled any “C-Space” or “vectors” on me, though he has had considerable to say about “Ramas” A,B,C, etc.. Neither has he given me the secret of immortality, though he has hinted darkly at it. I’ve never answered any of his letters, though the impulse has been strong to reply with a missive that would make his ravings sound like the prosaic theorizings of a professor fossilized in conventions. But it would be a poor thing to make game of the unfortunate soul. (CL 2.354, AMtF 1.292)

Howard also passed along an abbreviated version of Lovecraft’s record of Olsen’s rantings to Clyde Smith. (CL 2.369) More interesting, perhaps, is that Clark Ashton Smith continued to hear from Olsen, as Lovecraft duly passed on to Howard in a letter dated 8 June 1932:

As for the cracked and ubiquitous Olson—Clark Ashton Smith has been hearing from him now. He is fairly frothing at the mouth over what he considers Smith’s disrespectful treatment of vampires—who, he argues, are the saviours of the world because they take away the blood which forms the death of us all! Obviously, the poor fellow’s epistles admit of no reply. All one can do is to let him keep on writing—which doubtless relieves his agitated and disordered emotions. (AMtF 1.307)

Olsen continued to be a point of discussion for Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith; while their complete correspondence has not yet been published (Hippocampus Press is currently working on the volume, to be titled Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, to be edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz), we do have some intriguing fragments of their conversation. In a November 1933 letter to Lovecraft, Smith wrote:

Olsen, as you wisely say, is a totally different matter; megalomania, dementia, mystic delirium and whatnot were all scrambled together in the one interminable screed he wrote me. (SLCAS 236)

Lovecraft apparently came to Olsen’s attention after “The Dreams in the Witch-House” was published in the July 1932 Werid Tales, and received his own letter—much like Smith, Howard’s, and Whitehead’s in content, though apparently too offering the “secret of immortality” which Howard said he had hinted at. Lovecraft forwarded the letter to Smith, who replied on 4 December 1933:

The Olsen letter, which I return, is most illuminating. Someone, I forget whom, has fathered a book on the sort of cosmogony at which O. is apparently driving. Of course, if you accept the idea that the earth’s surface is really the inside of a sphere surrounding the negligible remainder of the cosmos, then the space-conceptions implied in your Witchhouse story are most egregiously fallacious. The letter is really a marvel of lucidity compared to the 10 or twelve page monograph on the nobility of ghouls, vampires et al which I received from Olsen in correction of my “Nameless Offspring” and the errors of Abdul Alhazred. It would seem that the bats in Olsen’s belfry—or the spirochetae in his spinal column—are less gyrationally active than of yore. However, it is plain that he has not relinquished his position of mentor-in-chief to the Weird Tales contributors! His offer to instruct you in person for 25 paltry pazoors is truly magnanimous not to say magnific. (SLCAS 242-243)

The “Hollow Earth” theory has been around in one form or another for centuries, and by the early 20th century was the domain of cranks, occultists, and fiction writers—he might possibly have been thinking of Marshall Gardner’s A Journey to the Earth’s Interior (1913, revised 1920). “Spirochetae” is a reference to syphilis, with Smith implying that Olsen was suffering from advanced stages of the disease, which can cause delusions and hallucinations; obviously, the Californian never knew that Lovecraft’s father had died of neurosyphilis (and it is unknown if Lovecraft himself was aware of the exact nature of his father’s terminal illness). Smith repeated the assertion in a letter to August Derleth dated 13 April 1937:

As for me, I’ll never forget the letters from that paretic Swede, Olsen; one of which letters corrected at great length certain mistaken notions of Abdul Alhazred. But I remember also that you had some experience with Olsen and his patents of infernal and grandiose nobility! (SLCAS 289)

From that point on, Olsen apparently became a familiar enough touchstone to be mentioned in passing in Lovecraft’s letters (LRBO 256), but was rarely mentioned.

Other than these fragments, we know very little about this individual; no Olson or Olsen with those initials is listed on the 1930 or 1940 US census for Sheldon, Iowa. There is currently no evidence of letters from Olsen before 1930 or after 1933, at least in the published correspondence of Howard, Lovecraft, Smith, & co., nor have I yet turned up any regular fan-letters in the letter-columns of Weird Tales or Strange Tales. Probably there’s some truth to Lovecraft’s assessment that Olsen “saturated himself with odds and ends of popular occult and scientific lore”—what with the disparate homebrewed mix of vampirology, Christian apocrypha, Einsteinian physics, Theosophy or Hindu religion, and Hollow Earth Theory—Olsen certainly qualifies as one of the weirdest correspondents in a weird circle.

Works Cited

AMtF               A Means to Freedom (Hippocampus Press, 2 vols.)

CL                   Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (REH Foundation Press, 3 vols. + Index and Addenda)

LRBO              Letters to Robert Bloch and Others (Hippocampus Press)

SLCAS            Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith (Arkham House)

UIW2               Undead in the West II: They Just Keep Coming (Scarecrow Press)

SKULL_FACE

Howard anniversaries, by their very nature, tend to come along thick and fast. Alongside everything else which is worth commemorating this year it shouldn’t be forgotten that 2016 marks the seventieth anniversary of the publication of Skull-Face and Others, arguably the most important collection of Howard’s work ever compiled.

Strange to consider that it is a book which is now as old as the United Nations, similarly superseded in so many ways but whose importance can likewise never be eclipsed.

The discovery of Skull-Face and Others was, at one time, a pivotal development in a Howard fan’s education. And for Howard collectors the acquiring of a copy of the original Arkham House edition remains a rite of passage. Every copy seems to come with a story of some sort attached to it, be it one of astronomical expense or unbelievable thrift. For what it’s worth my own copy came courtesy of a stallholder at a London pulp fair who told me that he had got it from his father who had once been a New York City taxi driver. His father claimed to have salvaged it from a fly-tip of dumped books on some Big Apple waste ground. I have no idea if the tale is true or not – more likely another New York tall story – but it remains indicative of the sort of mystique and urban mythmaking that continues to attach itself to the book.

derlethWhen August Derleth compiled the book – almost under protest it is often said – he can scarcely have dreamed, even in his wildest nightmares, of the vast array of imitations it would ultimately engender. Even when he died in 1971 the quantity of books by Howard that were then available was relatively modest. He passed away without any serious cause to doubt his conviction that, despite acknowledged potential, Howard was essentially a facile entertainer – albeit an adept one – doomed to be eventually forgotten along with the other 99% of the hacks who had once labored at the rock face of the pulps. In his estimation the very process of putting together what he came to term a “memorial volume” was tantamount to erecting a headstone to Howard’s career, one every bit as unequivocal as its equivalent in Greenleaf Cemetery. As has become palpably self-evident over time we now know that the ending of Howard’s life was but the beginning of his reputation. He has been re-evaluated, reappraised, rediscovered and reassessed so many times over the intervening years that it can sometimes seem as if he never died at all. And yet despite the vast publishing edifice we now all have access to the fact remains that Derleth’s jaundiced and grudging compilation remains the foundation stone for it all. This is both its greatest cachet and its single biggest flaw.

Arkham-TheDarkManandOthersIt has long been an amusing pastime amongst Howard fans to compile lists of his best and/or most important stories. One list seldom chimes with another in all but a minority of indisputably seminal tales. For that reason there seems little point or profit in challenging Derleth’s own idiosyncratic selection for Skull-Face and Others. Although I daresay I can’t be the only one over the years to have scratched his head and wonder how stories such as “Pigeons from Hell” and “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” could be deemed good enough for inclusion in The Dark Man and Others and yet not match the same merit for inclusion in the memorial volume as “Rattle of Bones” and “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Or to dispute why it was considered necessary to include two Solomon Kane stories that are, ostensibly, as similar in nature as “The Hills of the Dead” and “Wings in the Night” when either would have sufficed leaving room for something else. But these are exercises in futility. The book is what it is rather than what it might have been and so must be assessed as such.

As things stand the contents remain perfectly adequate and understandable. The poems and the character sketches by Lovecraft and Price are nice touches which compliment the fiction well. Although, personally, I find it very hard to read the Price appreciation nowadays without thinking of the crabby old misanthrope he was to become; one forever grouching over subsequent generations’ obsession with dead pulp writers whilst perpetually living off of his own recollections of them.

The real problem with the book lies in Derleth’s arbitrary decision to restrict himself solely to Howard’s weird fiction for choice of inclusion. By doing so whatever benefit the book gains in reflecting the span of Howard’s career it loses in the denial of his versatility. One may argue that Arkham House was a weird fiction specialist and as such Derleth was simply catering to his customer base. But Derleth was perfectly well aware that, unlike his beatified Lovecraft, there was a lot more to Howard than a good weird yarn. His own introduction makes the point of acknowledging Howard’s interest and late divergence into western lore. He even postulates the possibility of work of importance eventually arising out of it: (as a regionalist himself Derleth would naturally equate such material as important but it seems odd to dismiss entertainments as unimportant by implication when he has just devoted half his introduction to defending the legitimacy of pulp writing). And yet despite this concession there is almost nothing in the book to reinforce the opinion except for a solitary comedy western included almost as a sop to the idea that there might just be more to Howard than gore and ghosts. By neglecting wholesale Howard’s brilliant excursions into historical fiction, marginalizing his gift for humor and disregarding vast swathes of his output it was Derleth, more than anyone else, who effectively pigeonholed Howard as a mere fantasist for decades afterwards. As a consequence this inflicted incalculable damage upon his reputation simply as a writer first and foremost.

manchess_conanIt might even be argued that the later regrettable pre-eminence of Conan was a direct result of Derleth affording the character undue prominence in the book. Certainly the character had been popular at one time, but that was ten years and more in the past, and surely the purpose of the book was to preserve the best of Howard’s work rather than simply his most successful. If that had been the case then why wasn’t a Costigan or Elkins story included? Derleth himself clearly didn’t rate the Conan stories very much and so one must query why he allocated space to no less than five Conan adventures, particularly when only one of his choices warranted inclusion on literary merit alone.

There is nothing inherently wrong or disreputable about being remembered solely as a fantasy writer. Most authors would give their right arms to be remembered for anything at all, period. But Howard had more than just the one string to his bow and Derleth’s short sightedness denied him the right to be judged on his versatility.

And yet whatever its faults and failings the fact is that Skull-Face and Others remains to this day the quintessential Howard collection. I have it in its Arkham, Spearman and Panther editions, and if my house was burning down it is the Howard volume I would elect to rescue over all others. Although I can’t claim I wouldn’t be fussy about which version I chose to save. That really would be a fantasy story.

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Robert E. Howard was an avid reader of Weird Tales, the famous fantasy pulp magazine that was launched in the spring of 1923. He may have seen the first issue of the magazine while studying in Brownwood. The issues of Weird Tales usually appeared a month earlier than their cover date would suggest. Howard’s first known mention of Weird Tales was in a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith (July 7, 1923):

I sent a story to the Weird Tales, ‘The Phantom of Old Egypt,’ which I suppose they will turn down.

While it is well known that living in Cross Plains, Howard could not always buy the current issue — still it is reasonable to assume he read most of the issues. In a letter to Carl Jacobi (March 22, 1932), he mentions the nearest first-class newsstand (in Brownwood) is forty miles away:

It was not my fortune to read either of the other stories you mentioned; in fact, I live so far out of civilization, as it were, that 1 can’t keep track of the magazines very well. It’s forty miles to the nearest first-class news-stand, so my magazine reading is rather desultory.

In this post I single out some Weird Tales stories that probably influenced Howard on what he chose to write in that particular month. Occasionally I also mention stories whose influences were more long-term.

Howard sent a letter to Weird Tales, ca. January 1926, where he praised Seabury Quinn’s stories of the occult detective Jules de Grandin:

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.

Years later Howard also tried his hands in detective fiction, although his most famous detective, Steve Harrison, operates quite differently than de Grandin. Robert M. Price thinks the name “Harrison” could be a tip of the hat to de Grandin’s base of operations in Harrisonville, and River Street (where many Steve Harrison tales take place) could have been suggested by the Harrisonville River.

The appearance of Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” (Weird Tales, February 1928) was a critical importance in the development of the young Texan’s career. Deuce Richardson in his essay “The Call of Kathulos: Kull, Skull and ‘Call'” has already pointed out the similarities between Lovecraft’s tale and some of Howard’s stories written just after its appearance, or within a few months.

Howard sent a letter to The Eyrie, which was published in Weird Tales, ca. April 1928:

Mr. Lovecraft’s latest story, “The Call of Cthulhu”, is indeed a masterpiece, which I am sure will live as one of the highest achievements of literature.

A scholar named Kuthulos is a protagonist of “The Cat and the Skull” and “The Screaming Skull of Silence,” both tales written in the spring of 1928, and subsequently rejected by Weird Tales. It is possible the name Kuthulos came from the title of Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” which appeared in Weird Tales at the start of the year. The second tale has even more similarities with the Lovecraft story. Like the sailors in HPL’s tale, Kull and his entourage are faced with a castellated tomb with a cosmic monster that is not dead but dreaming for aeons. Just as R’lyeh was found to be of “greenish stone,” Kull and his men find a gong and mallet “apparently of jade.” In both cases, a cosmic menace is dealt a crippling (perhaps mortal) blow.

Ken-Kelly-Original-Oil-Painting-Tomb-of-Deception-“Skull-Face” (Weird Tales, Oct/Nov/Dec 1929), written in the fall of 1928 shows also influences from Lovecraft’s story: the use of the first person, the technique of story within the story, the importance of the sea and the secrets hidden in its depths.

Surama, the resurrected Atlantean villain of Lovecraft’s revision story “The Last Test” (Weird Tales, Nov 1928), bears a curious likeness to Kathulos in many ways. Howard probably read this story around the same time as he wrote “Skull-Face.”

Lovecraft’s influence, and especially of his tale “The Dunwich Horror” (Weird Tales, April 1930), can be seen in a lot of stories REH pounded out on his faithful Underwood No. 5 in the second part of 1930, after starting his correspondence with the older writer in the summer. These tales include “The Fire of Asshurbanipal” (Weird Tales, December 1936), “Dig Me No Grave” (Weird Tales, February 1937), “The Black Stone” (Weird Tales, November 1931), “The Thing on the Roof” (Weird Tales, Feburary 1932) and “The Hoofed Thing” (rejected by Strange Tales). The many references to HPL’s stories and emerging mythology are well attested to and lie outside the scope of this blog post.

But another story was published in the summer, whose influence may be similarly important, Harry Noyes Pratt’s “The Curse of Ximu-tal” (Weird Tales, August 1930). Here, inspired by a jade image of a giant snake, the narrator discovers a Mayan temple and a giant green snake that could swallow an elephant. Many Conan stories feature giant snakes, cities built of jade-like green-stone with names beginning with a “X” (Xuchotl, Xuthal, Xapur).

It is probably after reading Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” (Weird Tales, August 1931) that Howard had decided to change his conception of the Black Stone: his new stories written in the fall, “People of the Dark” (Strange Tales, June 1932) and “Worms of the Earth” (Weird Tales, November 1932) feature a small stone instead of a monolith, as in “The Black Stone.”

The March 1932 issue of Weird Tales featured a story that had repercussions three years later, when REH wrote his last Conan tale, “Red Nails” (Weird Tales, Jul/Aug/Sep/Oct 1936). In Kirk Mashburn’s “The Vengeance of Ixmal” (Weird Tales, March 1932) the American leader of an excavation near a vampire-haunted village in Mexico turns out to be the reincarnation of an Aztec Prince, who was sacrificed on an altar by his lover princess Tascala. “Red Nails” has many Aztecian-sounding names and a princess called Tascela. We know REH had read and liked Mashburn’s stories, as noted in his letter to Mashburn, ca. March 1932:

Mr. Price mentions you often in his letters, and I have been much interested in your work in Weird Tales. I particularly remember “Tony”, “Sola”, “Placide’s Wife”, and your recent “Vengeance of Ixmal” — a powerful tale.

The April 1932 issue of Weird Tales (on sale April 1st) contained a story that could have been a springboard of REH’s reincarnation tales featuring James Allison. In Nictzin Dyalhis’s “The Red Witch” (Weird Tales, April 1932) scientist Randall Crone becomes conscious of his ancient life in an Ice Age tribe as the impetuous young warrior, Ron Kron, in love with the red-haired Red Dawn.

Howard’s first completed reincarnation story was “The Children of the Night” (Weird Tales, Apr/May 1931), which he wrote in September 1930. In that tale O’Donnel is struck unconscious by an accidental axe blow and drifts out of the darkness to find himself as a warrior of a primitive Celtic tribe in pre-Roman Britain fighting against the reptilian Children of the Night. In October 1931 Howard writes “People of the Dark” (Strange Tales, June 1932) where an accidental head injury leads John into a past life as Conan the Reaver, a Gaelic pirate. The reincarnation theme is also present in his poem “Cimmeria,” written in February 1932.

REH completed his first James Allison story, “Marchers of Valhalla,” in April of 1932. Allison lies at the end of a short and sickly life in rural Texas, but remembers a previous incarnation as a mighty yellow-haired warrior, Hialmar. Much has been written about how Jack London’s novel, The Star Rover has influenced the creation of James Allison, but the Dyalhis story could have been the final impetus for REH to start the James Allison series, where for the first time his reincarnated hero is living in the Ice Age and is in love with a gold-haired girl.

The story was rejected by Weird Tales in May. But it did not discourage Howard, who in a few weeks’ time completes “The Valley of the Worm” (Weird Tales, Feb 1934), one of his most famous stories, featuring the Æsir warrior Niord.

REH had created Conan the Cimmerian and wrote the first stories featuring the Cimmerian in February and March of 1932. According to Patrice Louinet, REH had written the third Conan story, “The God in the Bowl” (rejected by Weird Tales) in March. The story shows remarkable similarities to Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Gorgon” in the April issue, which theoretically appeared only at the start of April. In both stories a beautiful, but deadly, mythical entity kills an art collector. It could be just a strange coincidence, or perhaps REH somehow read Smith’s story previously.  REH and Smith have not started correspondence yet, and while it is possible Lovecraft had sent Howard this tale, it is not mentioned in REH’s correspondence.

The publication of Smith’s “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (Weird Tales, May 1932) coincides with REH’s writing of “The Scarlet Citadel” (Weird Tales, January 1933). Smith story taking place in a subterranean catacomb with deadly monsters (in his case brain-sucking leeches) could have influenced REH when created the catacombs beneath the Citadel.

In the spring of 1934 Howard was immersed in writing his only Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon (Weird Tales, December 1935, Jan/Feb/Mar/Apr 1936). A source for the scenes in the Stygian pyramid may have been Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Charnel God” (Weird Tales, March 1934), with a temple for the dead, ghouls (the Khitan sorcerers are described as ghoulish by REH) and reanimation of corpses. We know REH admired the story as stated in a letter to CAS in May of 1934:

Yes, I certainly did like “The Charnel God” and its fine illustration, and the Malygris story came up to expectations splendidly. In some ways I liked the illustration even better than that of “The Charnel God”, though both were fine.

As an aside, both “The Charnel God,” (Weird Tales, March 1934), and “The Death of Malygris,” (Weird Tales, April 1934) were illustrated by CAS.

These are just a handful of instances where Howard “borrowed” ideas and concepts from his fellow Weird Tales writers in the pages of The Unique Magazine.

Sources:

Patrice Louinet: “Hyborian Genesis: Notes on the Creation of the Conan Stories” (The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, May 2002)

Patrice Louinet: “Hyborian Genesis Part II: Notes on the Creation of the Conan Stories” (The Bloody Crown of Conan, May 2003)

Patrice Louinet: “Hyborian Genesis Part III” (The Conquering Sword of Conan, December 2005)

Robert M. Price: “The Many Incarnations of Anton Zarnak,” in Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak Supernatural Sleuth (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, June 2002)

Deuce Richardson: “The Call of Kathulos: Kull, Skull and ‘Call'”(The Cimmerian website, February 11, 2009).

The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2007-2008).

  • To Tevis Clyde Smith, July 7, 1923
  • To Weird Tales, ca. January 1926
  • To Weird Tales, ca. April 1928
  • To Kirk Mashburn, ca. March 1932
  • To Carl Jacobi, pm, March 22, 1932
  • To Clark Ashton Smith, pm, May 21 1934

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Another enjoyable Howard Days has come and gone, and it is safe to say that any who attended were glad they did.  The number of attendees on June 10th and 11th seemed to be a bit above average, reflecting a trend toward straining the capacity of current venues and program formats.  The panel audiences are already larger than could be served by formerly used facilities like the Cross Plains Library and the Howard House Pavilion.  Panels this year were held at the CP High School and the CP Senior Center.  Many new faces were evident at the banquet in the Community Center.  The weather was hot but otherwise pleasant, though mosquito repellent was sometimes required.

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The day before the festivities began, the staff of the Cross Plains Review newspaper kindly offered a tour of their old facilities, complete with antique printing press and other equipment.  Original copies of editions containing articles about or by Robert E. Howard were on display.

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On Friday, following the bus tour of the CP area hosted by Project Pride veteran Don Clark, a panel composed of Rusty Burke, Bill Cavalier, and Susan McNeel-Childers discussed the first 30 years of Howard Days celebrations.  REHupans Burke and Vern Clark made an initial foray to Cross Plains in 1985.  Impressed by the wide open spaces of Texas and even more by how imaginative Howard must have been to have envisioned stories in such settings, Burke thought that other serious fans might be lured to visit Cross Plains, and so organized a trip there the next year by ten REHupans, including Cavalier and Glenn Lord.  The Friends of the Library, headed by Joan McCowen, gave a gracious reception to those they called international scholars on June 6th, which the mayor proclaimed to be “Robert Howard Day.”  Those the visitors talked to included Cross Plains Review editor Jack Scott, head librarian Billie Ruth Loving, REH heirs Alla Ray Kuykendall and Alla Ray Morris, and Charlotte Laughlin of Howard Payne University in Brownwood.  Laughlin would act to preserve what remained of REH’s personal book collection that his father had donated to HPU and which now resides in the Howard House.  Seeing the commercial possibilities in attracting more such visitors, the founding members of Project Pride (originally created to spruce up the downtown area of Cross Plains) bought the Howard House in 1989, which Project Pride then renovated and operated as a museum with the aid of donations.  Alla Ray Morris contributed $10,000 to Project Pride just before her death in 1995. The money was used to install central heat and air conditioning and to remodel the inside of the house. Project Pride also received a portion of Alla Ray’s estate and that money was used to build the pavilion next to the house and finish the remodeling. The pavilion was completed in 2000 and dedicated to Alla Ray. By that time Howard Days had become an annual 2-day event organized by Project Pride and REHupa, who have done so much to welcome and educate fans of the Texas author and to change the once-low opinion of many of the residents regarding Howard and his admirers.

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Guest of Honor Michael Scott Myers spoke at the banquet and was interviewed by REHupan Mark Finn at a Friday panel marking the 20th anniversary of the film The Whole Wide World, which Myers had adapted from the memoir One Who Walked Alone, written by Howard’s sometime girlfriend Novalyne Price Ellis.  Myers was a speech student of Ellis during her last years at Louisiana State University.  As a movie publicist, Myers saw the potential in making a small independent film based on her book, but many individual factors have to align before such a movie can be made.  Myers optioned the book for $20 and wrote the script between 1989 and 1994.  Director Dan Ireland and the actor portraying REH, Vincent D’Onofrio were on board early on.  Replacing actress Olivia d’Abo, who had become pregnant, in Novalyne’s part was Renee Zellweger in her first major role.  TWWW was filmed over 3 and a half weeks in the summer of 1996 for $1.2M.  While it did well at the Sundance Film Festival, an unfavorable release date held the film back until positive reviews led to its success on home video and cable TV.  It served as many people’s introduction to REH, and the film helped to bring a less narrow, more nuanced, and very human portrayal of the author to the fan public.  Ellis did see and enjoy the movie.  After the interview, TWWW was screened in the high school auditorium.

The Robert E. Howard Foundation Awards were bestowed Friday afternoon.  The winners are spotlighted elsewhere on this blog.

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REHupans Mark Finn, Chris Gruber, and Jeffrey Shanks staged another of their always entertaining “Fists at the Ice House” presentations outdoors at the site where Howard boxed with his friends and locals.  This sport, REH’s part in it, and his boxing fiction were the subjects.  Experts on these stories, the speakers recommended them highly to all.  Even if one is not into the sport, the surprisingly good humor of the yarns will be enough to get one through them.  And Howard’s enthusiasm and versatility shed light on important aspects of the author’s personality that one might have no clue about if one is familiar only with his fantasy tales.  Howard’s boxing and boxing stories served as vital releases for the pressures and frustrations that were dogging him at the time.

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The first panel on Saturday concerned REH and artist Frank Frazetta, who painted the covers of most of the Lancer Conan paperbacks of the late 1960s which did so much to attract readers to Howard’s fiction.  The panelists were REHupans Rusty Burke, Bill Cavalier, Gary Romeo, and Jeff Shanks.  Cavalier called the publication of Conan the Adventurer the single most significant event in the history of Howard publishing and the one that drew him in personally.  Shanks noted that this was the 50th anniversary of that event.  Frazetta had illustrated comic books, but it was his covers of Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks that got him noticed.  Frazetta’s artistic resonance with the material made for an impressive product that was greater than the sum of its parts.  Burke said that the Conan stories had come out earlier in book form as Arkham House and Gnome Press hardbacks.  Writer L. Sprague de Camp was a fan of REH and, working with agent Oscar Friend, took on the editing of the Conan reprints.  Romeo explained that de Camp assiduously shopped the stories to publishers, finally hooking Lancer’s Larry Shaw, as well as Frazetta by letting him keep the ownership of his art.  Romeo thinks that Frazetta’s art was a big part of Conan’s appeal, but not as much as the prose itself.  Burke added that, though you can’t judge a book by its cover, the cover can be important in providing an essential good first impression of and introduction to the character.  Shanks observed that, even though the images were static, Frazetta’s dynamic, exciting poses were a game changer for fantastic art.

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The Sword-Lore of Robert E. Howard

Mighty-thewed mape-limbed, in the world-dawn haze
For I was a sword-smith in those old, gold days,
Early in the morning, how my sledge would clang!
Through the sapphire evening how the red sparks sprang!
How my hammer boomed on bronze hilt and shaft!
How the anvil clashed, and the forge, how it laughed.
Glowing through the dusk of the whispering night,
Beating up the morning with its rose-red light!
But Zeus! How I labored! And Jove! How I sweat!
And I grumbled o’er my anvil with a fume and a fret.
For I rose at the dawn and I labored like a slave
For nobles that cursed me for a fool and a knave;
Until late at night and to my hut I’d gone,
To rise again, to toil again with the coming of the dawn.

— Robert E. Howard, “Arcadian Days” (CL1.108)

There are no books specifically on swords, the history of weapons, fencing or military manuals in Bob Howard’s library, nor does he mention any in his letters or fiction. Most of the Texan’s knowledge of the history and development of weapons would appear to come from general history texts, and for all of his keen interest he seems to have had somewhat sketchy and patchwork technical knowledge. An essay, “The Sword” published in Howard’s amateur magazine The Golden Caliph (1923), collects many of his early thoughts on the subject, and begins with a brief statement on the development of the weapon:

The term “sword”, is about as general as the term “gun”. When one says “sword”, one may mean a rapier, a saber, a broad-sword, a cutlass, a scimetar [sic.], anything with a long blade and a hilt.

The sword has been man’s favorite weapon. I tis a natural production of evolution, combining dagger and spear. Man’s first cutting and thrusting weapon was, of course, the knife. Almost simultaneously came the spear. Man saw the disadvantage of a knife in fighting. He was forced to get too close to his enemy in order to use a dagger. And if the enemy had talons or even another knife, he found himself on equal footing with his antagonist. And mans natural inclination is to gain an advantage over his foe, whoever or whatever tha [sic.] foe might be. Thus, the spear. But the spear is a clumsy weapon at close-quarters and if the point is broken it becomes no more than a stick. Hence the idea of lenthening [sic.] the dagger into spear-lenth [sic.]. (LC 378)

Howard’s reasoning is basically correct, in that the dagger and spear preceded the creation of the sword, and the sword developed out of the dagger, though he misses both the general techniques of fighting with a spear and the technical developments in metal-working that led to the development of longer blades, with larger daggers eventually becoming short swords in the Bronze Age. That swords were once made of bronze and later of iron and steel, Howard was at least aware:

[…] Caesar found the Britons still using swords of copper and bronze. If, as some historians maintain, bronze using Gaels preceded and fled before Brythons wielding iron swords, it seems to me that the Britons should have opposed the Romans with weapons of the latter metal. (CL2.52)

He also seemed to be aware of the reputation of Toledo steel. (CL2.417) The form of a sword is a product of its historical context, with specific forms evolving as both technology and method of use change, and certain forms became associated with different cultures. This, Howard recognized very well:

There are almost as many kinds of swords as there are tribes of men.

One rule had held through the ages. The West has always used a straight, thrusting sword, and the East has always used a curved, slashing sword.

At least, the Orient has always used swords that would hack better than they would thrust. The swords have not always been curved.

There are, of course, exceptions. The Tauregs [sic.] use straight-bladed swords, supposedly having adopted them from the Crusaders. (LC 378)

spada2When parsed, Howard is essentially asserting that form follows function, with European swords primarily intended to thrust, while Asian swords were intended primarily to cut (although he points out the Tuareg takoba as an exception). This is not attested to historically—swords in all parts of the world, and in all periods, have seen different abilities to both cut and thrust, with some blades being more specialized in one aspect than another. What Howard recognized is that blades designed primarily for the thrust are straight, to put the power of the blow into the point, and in cases like the United States M1913 cavalry sword, are specialized to the point that cutting ability is compromised. Similarly, more curved blades are generally more specialized for cutting, such as the US M1860 cavalry saber, which concentrates the blow on the edge to bite and slice into the target, but is less effective at thrusting, since the force cannot travel in a straight line to the point. Howard would later expand on this idea in a letter to Lovecraft:

Speaking of the contrast between Nordic and Latin knifeplay: I don’t know whether the slashing habit is an Indian or a Spanish instinct. If Spanish, it may be a survival of Moorish influence. As of course you know, the Oriental nations favor curved blades, and generally slash instead of thrusting. The early Nordic warriors hacked too, but they used straight swords, depending on the weight of the blade and the force of the blow, whereas the Orientals curved the blade to gain the effect. But the early Greeks and the Romans understood the art of thrusting, as witness their short swords. And the rapier was created in the West. I am not prepared to say whether the Spaniards borrowed any ideas or weapons and their use from the Moors, but I will say that Mexican swords are generally more curved than those used by Americans. I noted this recently during a trip to the battlefield of Goliad where Fannin and his men were trapped by the Mexican army. I saw two sabers — a Mexican arm and an American — both of which were used in that battle. The Mexican sword was curved far more than the Texan weapon — in fact, it would be almost impossible to thrust effectively with it. Blade, hilt and guard were all made in one piece of steel, and I could hardly get my hand inside the guard to clutch the hilt; some grandee wielded it, no doubt, some proud don with blue blood and small aristocratic hands — well, I hope he got his before Fannin surrendered, and gasped his life out in the mud of Perdido with a Texas rifle-ball through him. (CL2.234-235, cf.217)

Museums such as the one at Goliad would have provided Howard with some of his best opportunities to see weapons with his own eyes, and to understand them in something of their original context. The comparison of Mexican and American sabers from the Goliad Campaign (1836) is fairly accurate; the Mexican officer’s saber of the army of Santa Anna was heavy curved, based on the then-fashionable “mameluke” style swords of Europe which flourished after the French invasion of Egypt, particularly in hussar (light cavalry) regiments, and were styled after the Mamluks scimitars (sometimes scimetar or simitar in older sources, Howard uses all three spellings).

It’s notable that Howard was able to distinguish “blade, hilt, and guard”—the basic elements of the sword—although he was almost certainly incorrect that they were “all made in one piece of steel,” the guard and knucklebow of the Mexican officer’s saber is of one piece and connects with the pommel, and could have been made of steel, so might have given the Texan that impression. Howard expands on the parts of the sword in discussing European weapons:

The West has always been partial to straight-swords. Witness the Roman swords, the broad-sword and the rapier. Even the Scottish claymore, which was probably used more for cutting and hacking than any other Western sword, was straight. It was double-edged, with a heavy guard and, contrary to public notions, did not have a basket hilt.

The cutlass, a rather clumsy weapon, was broad-bladed and curved, and of late years the nation of the West have adopted a slightly curved sabre for cavalry use. It is straight enough to thrust with, but it is self-evident that a curved weapon is better for cavalry use. (LC 378)

The ancient Roman gladius is usually depicted as primarily a stabbing weapon, which was relatively short (50-60 cm/19.5-23.5 in) with a long tapering point, and used very effectively with a shield in tight formation. It gave way in the 1st century AD to the spatha, which was longer and with a shorter point, more specialized for slashing and cutting; Howard is apparently thinking of the gladius.

The term broad-sword has been applied to many styles of blade, but in this context appears to refer to wide-bladed, double-edged swords which developed in the Middle Ages, the “knightly sword” with its crossguard and pommel, straight and tapering to a point.

The rapier is a specialized dueling weapon that developed in the 1400s, and the blade became longer and narrower (and thus, more suitable for thrusting) as it developed, with a more elaborate guard and hilt. Howard would go on to say of the rapier:

For duels and many fights, the rapier was the most effective weapon ever invented, a sword with a long, slim blade, sometimes with no edge at all, sometimes with one, two, three, or even four edges. But in battles, where the fighting is hand to hand, the rapier yeilds [sic.] place to the broad-sword or scimetar [sic.]. (LC 378-379)

The “one, two, three, or even four edges” refers to both the sharpening of the blade and its cross-section (i.e. if you slice a blade in half, the shape of the blade section thus revealed). Single-edged and double-edged blades are fairly self-explanatory, as a typical sword is a bar sharpened on one or both sides. “Three” and “four” edges refers to blades of a very different cross-section—triangular and diamond-shaped, respectively. Such blades are difficult to sharpen, and more often than not remain unsharpened; they are characteristic of thrusting weapons, since being unable to cut effectively, they encourage the user to thrust, and offer considerable stiffness and strength to prevent the sword from bowing if it encounters an obstacle. It is interesting that Howard knew about such blades, but not that they were not usually sharpened.

cccc2z3kkembgpcavwiwThe Scottish claymore (from claidheamh mor) of the 1500s was initially a double-edged broadsword of the type described by Howard, but eventually developed an elaborate and distinctive basket hilt, which begat the “public notions” he mentions.

The term cutlass refers to a variety of different weapons adopted specifically for naval use; initially European militaries used the same weapons as land-based armies, but at the close quarters and with the rigging of wooden sailing ships, around the 18th century nations began to adopt and standardize on one-handed short swords, often single-edged and developing a bowl-guard and a slight curve. Howard’s image of the cutlass might have been fixed by the final cutlass adopted by the U.S. Navy, the Model 1917, which had a distinct clipped point.

The sabre or saber is a curved sword, usually single-edged, typically designated for cavalry use. Cavalry were still in use in the early 20th century, although the cavalry charge as a tactic largely died out during World War I. Howard’s comments on the suitability of a curved saber as opposed to a straight thrusting sword for cavalry are enlightening in showing his general ignorance of modern (and largely final) developments in cavalry swords. The final combat issue sword of the U.S. Army was the Model 1913 Cavalry Sword (designed by Lt. George S. Patton), and was a specialized thrusting weapon—or, as E. Hoffmann Price would put it “a blundering straight bladed thing for thrusting, pike-wise, not for sabre-slashing.” (CLIMH 313) The Patton sword (and similar dedicated thrusting cavalry swords, like the Spanish M1907 and the British P1908) helped transfer the momentum of horse and rider into the thrust, but were not primarily designed for melee or cutting.

On non-European swords, Howard appears to rely more heavily on history and fiction:

For the last century, the East, excepting the Mongols, has used rather light, curved weapons, often with basket-hilts, with one-hand-hilts. But in past ages many Orientals used heavy, cumbersome swords, two handed and double edged, often without a point.

Plutarch remarks that Artaxerzes ordered his Persian armies to discard their heavy, cumbersome weapons and adopt the Roman short-sword.

I quote Harold Lamb, in “The Three Palladins”, “Mukuli Khan’s sword was a two-handed affair, a hundred pounds in weight.”

To this day the Mongols cling to the two handed sword of their ancestors, more so than any other tribe in Asia. (LC 379)

Howard’s sweeping comments on the arsenal east—all two sentences of it—of course gives little to work with, except to show that he was, in 1922-1923, aware that Asia had different types of swords, but didn’t have many specifics to offer. The “heavy, cumbersome swords, two-handed and double-edged, often without point” however might refer to something like the Chinese dadao, a two-handed, single-edged blade designed primarily for chopping (and, indeed, is infamous for its use in executions), or the Indian khanda, which varied considerably but often had a rounded point and was double- or single-edged, and many had a pommel-spike believed to be used for two-handed strikes. Either of these might have featured in the kind of adventure-fiction Howard read.

Howard’s reference to Plutarch provides a good basis for the kind of historical work he might reference in shaping his knowledge of swords and their use. The actual incident that Howard refers to from Plutarch’s Lives was not Artaxerxes but Mithridates:

Mithridates, boastful and pompous at the outset, like most of the Sophists, had first opposed the Romans with forces which were really unsubstantial, though brilliant and ostentatious to look upon. With these he had made a ridiculous fiasco and learned a salutary lesson. When therefore, he thought to go to war the second time, he organized his forces into a genuinely effective armament. He did away with Barbarous hordes from every clime, and all their discordant and threatening cries; he provided no more armour inlaid with gold and set with precious stones, for he saw that these made rich booty for the victors, but gave no strength whatever to their wearers; instead, he had swords forged in the Roman fashion, and heavy shields welded […] (Lives)

Harold Lamb, meanwhile, is very much the type of writer-historian that Howard was drawn to for details on Asian and Crusader weapons. “The Three Palladins” was such a tale, originally published as a three-part serial in Adventure magazine from July-August 1923, and focused on the Mongols—which may go some way to explaining Howard’s enthusiasm for Mongol weaponry in his short essay, and without doubt was his primary source for his thoughts regarding their weapons and usage. (cf. CL1.31)

KyberElsewhere in his letters, poetry, and fiction, Robert E. Howard makes reference to a few other specific types of blade, many of which are discussed by Barbara Bartlett in “Robert E. Howard: The Sword Collector and His Poetry.” For example, the glaive, which appears in “The Ballad of King Geraint” is an archaic word for “sword,” referring to a broad-sword, although it eventually became the specific name for a type of polearm. The references to hangers, tulwars, Khyber knives (CL1.7, 14), Rajput and Mongol swords and the like can be attributed to Howard’s continued reading and weapons. A particular example is “The Iron Terror,” where El Borak is quizzed about a collection of weapons from around the world, in addition to the regular rapier, tulwar, and Bowie knife a cheray, parang-parang, misericorde, anlace, schiavona, Maharati gauntlet-sword, and “a samurai sword of old Japan.”

Perhaps more interesting, given Howard’s position as an early innovator of “Sword & Sorcery,” mythical and magic swords are largely absent from much of his work. King Arthur’s Excalibur, the French Durendal, and the Irish Caladbolg don’t merit mention, nor Lord Dunsany’s eponymous mystic blade from “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth,” although it’s not sure Howard ever read this story. However, Howard did refer to enchanted blades in some of his fiction and poetry. The most famous such weapon is in the Conan story “The Phoenix on the Sword”:

[“]Hold out your sword.”

Wondering, Conan did so, and on the great blade, close to the heavy silver guard, the ancient traced with a bony finger a strange symbol that glowed like white fire in the shadows. And on the instant crypt, tomb and ancient vanished, and Conan, bewildered, sprang from his couch in the great golden-domed chamber. And as he stood, bewildered at the strangeness of his dream, he realized that he was gripping his sword in his hand. And his hair prickled at the nape of his neck, for on the broad blade was carven a symbol – the outline of a phoenix. (CCC 18-19)

The idea of a magic sigil carved or marked on a sword also appeared in an untitled poem: “And ancient sword hilts carved with scroll and rune” (CL1.281), and in “The Madness of Cormac” he wrote:

Draw your sword, the grey sword, the sword of Fin, the fey sword,
Carved with a nameless rune. (CL3.501)

The only other magical blades in Howard’s corpus appear in “The Black Stone,” where Howard wrote: “ancient steel blessed in old times by Muhammad, and with incantations that were old when Arabia was young.” (CS 135) and in “The Devil in Iron,” where a “curious dagger with a jeweled pommel, a shagreen-bound hilt, and a broad, crescent blade.” which was forged from a meteor, and against which the magic of the demon Khosatral Khel is powerless.

Lorange_1889_TabIAlthough it’s not quite clear where exactly Howard got his ideas for magic swords, he was working within fairly established traditions. Inscriptions on the blade or hilt of swords are attested to in the historical and archaeological record, particularly the medieval +VLFBERHT+ swords of. Likewise, meteorites were known as a source of iron since antiquity, and the concept of “starmetal” blades were not unknown. Howard also largely avoided the use of “fantasy” weapons, like the triple-bitted axe which featured so prominently in the Conan the Barbarian (1982) film; the only weapon he “invented” was the three-bladed dagger of “Three-Bladed Doom,” which has its historical analogues such as the main-gauche, and the “scissor” style of katar, so while it might be ahistorical isn’t improbable.

Perhaps more interesting in the discussion of the dagger which was the bane of Kohsatral Khel is its jewelled pommel and sharkskin-covered hilt, which suggests a weapon of status—and as with magic swords, jewelled blades with hilts and guards of precious metal are relatively scarce in his fiction. The vast majority of swords in Howard’s fiction, as in his life, were practical weapons of war, not meant merely for ornament or ceremony, but to be used. Where weapons do appear that are decorated with jewels or precious metals, or are described as works of great artistry, they are still practical weapons, not mere displays of wealth. For example, in the unfinished “The Land of Mystery,” Howard writes:

The blade was long, straight and slim with two edges and of fine blue steel, on the surface of which were engraved faint lines of what seemed to be writing. There was a gold-inlaid steel guard and the hilt was of silver worked and inlaid with gold. Small stones that were undoubtedly diamonds and rubies were set in the hilt and a large one formed the pommel. On one side of the hilt was a small gold plate and on it was carved a lion with the most consummate skill. Tiny rubies were set for the lion’s eyes. (EEB 151)

“Bluing” was a technique where a steel object is treated to obtain a blue-black finish, either by reheating or via a chemical process; the resulting iron oxide layer lends a distinctive appearance to the metal and helps protect against corrosion, and was sometimes applied to more expensive sword blades, even into the modern period, as well as firearms, where Howard is most likely to have been familiar with it. Note how he describes the weapon: it’s shape, it’s cutting edges, the details of blade, guard, hilt, and pommel. These details show how Howard could apply his knowledge of weapons, when he chose to elaborate on them.

“And bronze for a warrior where the broadswords sing!
“Golden hafted, brazen shafted, ho! A kingly sword!
“Fit for a knight to make a stand with such brand in his hand
“Gainst a horde!
“Then ho and ho again! for the anvils roar!
“For the clamor of the hammer and the metal-workers lore!
“A helmet for a chief and a cuirass for a lord!
“For a king’s own hand, a golden hilted sword!
—Robert E. Howard, “Arcadian Days” (CL.108-109)

Cover painting for Conan the Barbarian #20 by Barry Windsor Smith

Read Part 1, Part 3

Conan_the_Barbarian

Weapons, especially edged weapons, axes, swords, and spears, hold my attention as nothing else can. Long ago I started collecting them, but found it a taste far too expensive for my means. I still have the things I did manage to get hold of — a few sabers, swords, bayonets and the like.

— Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 6 March 1933, CL3.31

By the time Bob Howard reached puberty, the sword was almost defunct as a weapon of war. Aside from ceremonial weapons, the only combat swords in the United States military were issued to the cavalry, though the day of the cavalry charge itself was finished, and the navy, which retained a few cutlasses. The sword had its day, and the weapons were surplused, or taken home by old soldiers to be kept, passed down, or sold to the likes of Robert E. Howard.

Yet for centuries the sword was one of the principal weapons of war, its form evolving to changing technologies, needs, and styles of combat, and it features heavily in the fiction and poetry of Robert E. Howard. It is of interest then to examine swords and swordsmanship in the writings and life of Robert E. Howard from a technical viewpoint, to see both what he wrote about swords and using them, and what that tells us about him.

Part of this article will retread familiar ground—readers may recall that several years ago, Barbara Barrett wrote two excellent articles, Robert E. Howard: The Sword Collector and His Poetry and Robert E. Howard: The Sword Collector’s Sword Collection, which illustrated the several types of swords in Howard’s collection, and which were mentioned in his poetry—but are repeated here for the sake of completeness in addressing this subject.

The Swords of Robert E. Howard

We know very little about Howard’s collection, including when or where he bought them, however, from the few details given in his letters and the memoirs of others we can make some educated guesses—and, as fortune has it, a few photographs of Bob Howard and his blades survive, which allows us to at least tentatively identify a few of them.

I enacted these wars in my games and galloped full tilt through the mesquite on a bare-backed racing mare, hewing right and left with a Mexican machete and slicing off cactus pears which I pretended were the heads of English knights. (CL2.292)

Howard’s first “sword” was probably that self-same Mexican machete from his private games; the “racing mare” might have been the same that he had named Gypsy. (CL3.55n39) This was probably the same machete that Howard was wielding in a staged photograph with Truett Vinson.

Robert E. Howard (left), Truett Vinson (right)

Robert E. Howard (left), Truett Vinson (right)

In 1922 at the age of sixteen, Robert E. Howard transferred to Brownwood High School, as the Cross Plains School District only went up to the tenth grade. There, he first made the acquaintance of Truett Vinson and Tevis Clyde Smith, who became fast friends. Howard by that point had either already begun acquiring his collection of swords, or would soon thereafter and they came into play during their leisure:

I used to wish that I could learn to fence, but the opportunity never presented itself, fencing masters not being very commonly met with in West Texas. A friend and I, several years ago, decided to try to learn the art by practice, and being unable to obtain foils, we used a pair of army swords. It was my misfortune, however, to run him through the right hand in the very first bout, and thereafter he could never be persuaded to fence again. I doubt, though, if fencing could ever have interested me like boxing, since it is, apparently, founded on finesse, and gives little opportunity for the exercise of ruggedness and sheer physical power. (CL3.242)

And sometimes less playfully, as Clyde Smith would write:

A mutual friend, talking of the futility of existence, said life meant nothing. “Just the same, you’d jump like hell if I made a pass at you with this knife,” said Bob. He was at the moment trimming his nails with one of his sabres; as the friend went ahead with his discourse, Bob slashed out at him with the cold steel. For some reason or other he missed, no doubt because the friend, in the midst of his eloquent desires for death, leaped out of the way, and howled in a pale voice: “My God, you’d kill a feller!” (RWM 10)

Of course, from Bob’s own accounts, he and his friends were well-used to a bit of rough-and-tumble play:

Two of them had me down once, one big gazabo was on top of me with a quarter-Nelson on me and another guy had me by the feet and was alternately kicking me on the shins and jabbing me in the ribs with a bayonet sheath. I drove my elbow into the neck of the guy that was holding my hands, got one hand free, got hold of a bayonet — and they let go. I used the bayonet, not the sheath, and the point at that. (CL1.11-12)

A few photographs from this period survive, and showcase elements of Howard’s collection from this period. One such depicts Robert E. Howard his neighbor’s children, brother and sister Leroy and Faustine Butler:

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Leroy Butler (left), Faustine Butler (center), Robert E. Howard (right)

While shadowed and partially concealed, these swords—evidently from Bob’s collection—provide enough details that they many can be reasonably identified. The basis for this identification are the key characteristics of the weapon: the length and shape of the blade, the shape of the hilt, which includes the guard (any device to protect the hand), handle, and pommel (the fitting at the end of the handle), the present of quillons (a projection on the guard of a sword), langets (flaps of metal extending from the guard), and any ornamentation. Manufacturer and issue marks on the blades are indistinguishable in the photograph.

The blade in Leroy Butler’s right hand is a long, slightly curved, single-edged blade with a distinct fuller (a groove in the blade to save weight and add stiffness) running most of the length of the blade, stopping several inches before the tip of the blade; the hilt is of the type called a “three-bar hilt” with an oval guard with no quillons or langets; the handle appears to be ribbed, with a ribbed pommel. The three-bar hilt is characteristic of French model cavalry swords of the 18th and 19th century, which were frequently the basis of American cavalry swords, and this appears to be a US Model 1860 Cavalry Trooper’s Sword, or an equivalent weapon.

On his left hip, we can just see the handle of a short sword or dagger—if it was a longer blade, it would likely be evident in Butler’s shadow, and the handle seems to be bare of decoration, with a small rectangular metal guard. Unfortunately, too little of this weapon is showing to identify it.

Faustine Butler carries a straight-bladed sword; the hilt features a knuckle guard with one quillon, with a handle that narrows as it approached the egg-shaped pommel. Blade is shorter than saber on the left. Such blades were based on the military smallsword of the 18th century, designed primarily for thrusting with a single or double-edged blade, and appears to be a US Model 1840 Infantry Non-Commissioned Officer’s Sword.

Robert E. Howard is holding a curved single-edged blade—more curved than Leroy Butler’s saber—with a fuller that stops several inches before the tip of the blade; the blade is apparently not sharpened, or Howard would not be gripping the cutting edge. The hilt is distinguished by small guard with a quillon and langets on either side of the blade, and possibly a knuckleguard, though this and the handle are mostly obscured by the angle of Howard’s hand. The strong curve suggests a saber, and the arrangement of quillon and langets suggests a US Model 1812 Dragoon Saber, or similar blade. The term “Dragoon” originally referred to a French cavalry trooper armed with a firearm called a dragon, but developed into a term for mounted infantry.

Two fixed-blade knives or daggers are stuck through Bob Howard’s belt-sash. On the left is a double-edged dagger with no scabbard, a short cross-guard, and a round handle that is flattened at the end; a very generic design that resists identification, the best that can be said about it is that it does not appear to be a bayonet, being both short and lacking an attachment point.

The blade on Bob’s left hip is a larger knife or short-sword, in a scabbard that suggests it is curved with a single edge; on the handle you can see two places where bolts extend through the handle and the tang (the portion of the blade that extends into the handle), and ends with a rounded, forward-projecting knob. Given the evidence, it appears to be a US Model 1909 Bolo Machete.

Some of these guesses can be at least partially verified when another photograph from the same period is considered:

REH_Three_Swords

Robert E. Howard (left), Truett Vinson (center), Tevis Clyde Smith (right)

Here, these appear to be the same three swords that were in the prior photograph; this time it is notable that all three young men are carrying the the scabbards for their sword.

Clyde Smith (right) appears to be wielding the same curved blade that Howard was grasping in the previous photograph: you can see the curve of the blade, the fuller, the quillon and one of the langets, and in addition it has the distended knuckleguard (sometimes called a “stirrup hilt”) typical of many cavalry sabers of the 19th century, including the US M1812 Dragoon Saber and the Prussian M1811 cavalry saber. The scabbard slipped into his belt appears to be metal (as opposed to wood and leather), and you can see a single band with the ring mount used to adjust the hang of the sword, which would normally be carried in a leather harness or “frog.”

Truett Vinson holds the three-bar hilted saber, where you can fairly see all three bars; swords of this type were typically made primarily for right-handed users, and you can see the bars cover the outside of the right hand when carried in that manner. Bob Howard is carrying the straight-bladed NCO Infantry sword, with few other details discernable.

After Robert E. Howard’s death, his father gave his collection of blades to Bob’s friend Earl Baker, who described them as including:

Robert E. Howard’s collection of edged weapons consisted of eight or nine pieces altogether. There were two swords, both sabers of Civil War vintage – one a battle saber, heavy and sharp; the other a handsome dress saber without an edge. There was a double-curved French bayonet of the late 19th century modeled after the Turkish yataghan. There was a World War I trench knife, with a triangular blade and an iron knuckle-guard. There was a boomerang, and there were three or four heavy knives of various kinds. (Barrett)

The de Camps, who interviewed Baker for their biography Dark Valley Destiny, add:

The collection eventually included a pair of foils, a cavalry saber of Civil War vintage, a Latin American machete, a boomerang, and several knives and daggers, one of which was a World War I trench knife with a triangular blade and a scalloped knuckle guard. He even obtained a long French double-curved bayonet of a type copied from the Turkish yataghan. (DVD 215)

A few things stand out in these descriptions; keeping in mind that that the de Camps’ account is based largely on Baker’s interview, as well as other sources. The two sabers that Baker describes could well be the US M1860 cavalry saber and the US M1812 dragoon saber pictured in the photograph of Howard and the Butlers. The M1860 (or even the early M1840) would be Civil War era, though it is important to remember that the model number refers to when the sword pattern was adopted and pattern swords could be produced for decades, and the M1812, as noted above, may not have had an edge.

The “double-curved French bayonet of the late 19th century modeled after the Turkish yataghan” could be any number of a family of yataghan-style bayonets that were popular in the 19th century, including the sword bayonet for the M1861 Navy rifle; Barrett also suggests the M1841 Mississippi Rifle bayonet which is of the same basic design. These bayonets typically featured cast-brass grips, with a quillon on one end of the cross guard and a muzzle ring to attach to the rifle on the other. The yataghan that this style of bayonet derives its name from is a short Ottoman sabre with a forward curve—that is, the part of the blade farthest from the handle is curved to be ahead of the hilt, to provide more striking power.

The “World War I trench knife, with a triangular blade and an iron knuckle-guard” is almost certainly a US M1917 knucklebow knife. The stiletto-like blade has a triangular cross-section and a steel knucklebow studded with small pyramidal projections. The US M1918 knuckle knife, also known as the Mark One Trench Knife, had a cast brass hilt with a studded knuckleduster grip.

The De Camps’ list contains “a Latin American machete”—probably the Mexican machete Howard described in his letter (CL2.292)—and, curiously, a pair of fencing foils. They go on to say of the foils:

Robert and Lindsey took a pair of empty brass cartridge cases, taped them over the ends of the foils, and tried to fence without the fencer’s usual mask, jacket, and gloves. Luckily no eyes were injured. Robert also fenced a little with Earl Baker. (DVD 215)

This is very curious given that in Howard’s 1933 letter to H. P. Lovecraft, he claims “being unable to obtain foils, we used a pair of army swords.” (CL3.242) While it is possible that Howard obtained the foils at a later date, given Howard’s own statement and the lack of mention of foils by Baker, it seems likely that this is an error on the part of the De Camps, or a misrecollection. More likely, Howard and his erstwhile partners used two of the three swords in the above photographs.

As for where Bob kept his collection:

As opportunity and finances permitted, Robert began to collect weapons, some of which decorated the bathroom wall itself, while others were stashed with his guns in the long closet built into the west wall of the room. (DVD 215)

  1. E. Hoffmann Price, in a letter to L. Sprague de Camp (who had apparently specifically asked about it), wrote that “I was in his work room, but, saw nothing. Can’t imagine where he kept the stuff.” But admitted “Or, I may have seen them and without really noting them at all.” (CLIMH 313)

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schultz medium pool of the black one robert e howard

Robert E, Howard’s “The Pool of the Black One” (Weird Tales, October 1933) features a magical pool that kills humans by transforming them into miniature statues.  There is firm evidence that the concept was borrowed from the works of Sax Rohmer and Robert W. Chambers, two authors whom Howard frequently listed among his favorite writers.

“Robert E. Howard’s Library” in Don Herron’s The Dark Barbarian (Greenwood Press, 1984) lists Sax Rohmer’s Tales of Chinatown (1922) among the books owned by Howard. One of the stories in this collection, “Tchériapin,” is a mixture of science fiction and supernatural horror. The title character was a Eurasian violinist who wrote a controversial composition with Satanic themes, “The Black Mass.”  The musician seduced a young model loved by an artist, Colquhoun. Deserted by Tchériapin, the woman eventually committed suicide. To avenge her death, Colquhoun strangled the violinist. One of the artist’s friends, Dr. Kreener, was a brilliant chemist who developed a scientific process that could transform a subject into a tiny statute. Kreener sought to cover up the murder by shrinking the corpse. In the conclusion, the tiny petrified cadaver returned to life in order to haunt Colquhoun by playing “The Black Mass” on a violin Although the resurrection wasn’t explicitly explained, the tale hinted that Tchériapin’s reanimation was due to a cloaked figure who may have been Satan in disguise.

sax-rohmerRohmer’s “Tchériapin” was possibly influenced by two stories in The King in Yellow (1895) by Robert W. Chambers, “The Mask” and “In The Court of the Dragon.” Both stories are connected to an artificial mythology revolving around the King in Yellow, a Satanic hooded figure dwelling among the black stars of outer space. “The Mask” featured Boris Yvrain, a sculptor who invented a liquid pool that could petrify human being into statutes. “In the Court of the Dragon” had an artist pursued by the spectre of a musician whom he killed in unrecorded circumstances. Playing organ music, the ghost transported his quarry to the cosmic realm of the King in Yellow.

Rohmer borrowed from Chambers the petrifying process, the artist and musician characters, and the shrouded Satanic entity. The surname Kreener may have been derived from Mr. Keene, the protagonist of Chambers’s The Tracer of Lost Persons (1906).  “Tchériapin” never detailed the exact nature of the petrifying process invented by Kreener. The chemist merely took the corpse into his laboratory and returned with a small statue.  The concept of a liquid pool only exists in “The Mask.” That fact raises the question of whether Robert E. Howard read “The Mask.”

In his letters, Robert E. Howard described Robert W. Chambers as one of his favorite writers. “Robert E. Howard’s Library” lists five books by Chambers: The Maid-at-Arms (1902), Little Red Foot (1921). America or the Sacrifice (1924), The Drums of Aulone (1927), and The Slayer of Souls (1920)/ The first four novels are historical adventures involving either colonial or Revolutionary War America. The depiction of the Native Americans in those books influenced the portrayal of the Picts of the Hyborian Age in “Beyond the Black River,” “The Black Stranger” and the fragmentary “Wolves Beyond the Border.” The Slayer of Souls is a supernatural thriller which pitted the American Secret Service against the cult of Erlik, the Mongolian god of the underworld. Chambers altered Erlik, an actual figure from Asian mythology, into a variation on the King in Yellow. While the King in Yellow vaguely paralleled Satan, Erlik was explicitly identified with Satan. Rather than lurking in Hell, Erlik resided on a dark stat called Yrimid.  The Slayer of Souls was a sequel to Chambers’s The Dark Star (1917) in which Erlik’s extraterrestrial abode sent forth telepathic emanations to Earth that resulted in World War I.  While there is no evidence in either Howard’s library or letters that he read The Dark Star, a recently discovered poem indicates that he did. “Whence Cometh Erlik” from The Robert E. Howard Foundation Newsletter (Volume 6, #3, Fall 2012) contained these lines:

Erlik the Dark Star,
Forerunner of war

Howard would use the cult of Erlik in several stories such as “The Daughter of Erlik Khan,” “Black Hound of Death” and “The Purple Heart of Erlik.” Howard’s “Dig Me No Grave” (Weird Tales, February 1937) mentioned the “Eight Brazen Towers” from The Slayer of Souls.   The story featured the Peacock King, a version of the Devil utilized by Howard’s friend and correspondent, E. Hoffmann Price, in stories like “The Stranger from Kurdistan” (Weird Tales, July 1925) and “The Word of Santiago” (February, 1926).

Howard gave the Peacock King an Asian appearance (like an idol of Erlik from The Dark Star) and dressed him in a yellow robe. This choice of wardrobe for the Peacock King was probably a subtle tribute to Chambers. Price’s avatar of the Devil was now a Peacock King in Yellow.

Even if Howard had never read Chambers’s The King in Yellow in its entirety, he could still have read “The Mask.” That short story was reprinted in the February 1930 issue of Ghost Stories. Howard was familiar with the magazine. It had published his story, “The Apparition in the Prize Ring,” in the April 1929 issue.

Howard probably read “The Mask” and recognized it as the inspiration for “Tchériapin.” Combining the petrifying pool from “The Mask” and the shrinking process from “Tchériapin,” Howard fashioned “The Pool of the Black One.” This wasn’t the only story by Howard that grew out of a conflation of elements from Rohmer and Chambers,

CasonPublished decades after Howard’s death, “Casonetto’s Last Song” (Etchings and Odysseys #1, 1973) featured Stephen Gordon and his friend, Costigan. The names are similar to John Gordon and Stephen Costigan from Howard’s “Skull-Face.”  One wonders if Howard simply confused the first name of the earlier John Gordon with his associate.

Giovanni Casonetto was an operatic singer who led a cult of Satanists. Witnessing Casonetto performing a human sacrifice in an underground chamber, Gordon eluded the pursuit of the singer’s underlings. Contacted by Gordon, the police arrested Casonetto. Gordon’s testimony at the trial resulted in the singer being sentenced to the gallows. After Casonetto’s execution, Gordon received a record in the mail. This was a recording of Casonetto singing the invocation of the Black Mass.  Foolishly playing the record, Gordon found himself in a trance in which he imagined himself as a sacrificial victim on Casonetto’s underground altar to Satan. Before the knife descended to dispatch Gordon in this nightmarish realm, Costigan rescued his friend by breaking the record with a sledgehammer.

Casonetto is Howard’s version of the violinist Tchériapin. Sax Rohmer based his musician on Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), a great violinist rumored to be both a Satanist and a womanizer. Seeing the historical connection, Howard made his diabolical singer an Italian like Paganini.

While “Casonetto’s Last Song” was primarily inspired by Rohmer’s “Tchériapin,” clear echoes of Robert W. Chambers’s fiction can be found in Howard’s story. Casonetto talks of “the red-stained altar where many a virgin soul has gone winging up to the dark stars.” The passage suggests that the devil made his abode among the dark stars like Erlik and the King of Yellow. There are also elements that suggest Howard was familiar with other stories collected in The King in Yellow besides “The Mask.” Stephen Gordon described his emotional state upon hearing the invocation of the Black Mass in the following manner: “In the darksome caverns of by soul, some blind and monstrous thing moved and stirred like a dragon waking from slumber.” Is the reference to a “dragon’ paying homage to “In the Court of the Dragon?” The title of Howard’s story, “Casonetto’s Last Song,” is also reminiscent of “Cassilda’s Song,” the poem that Chambers included as a preface to “The Repairer of Reputations,” the first story in The King in Yellow.

ky2At the very least, Howard was aware of the existence of The King in Yellow by 1930.  In that year, H. P.  Lovecraft mailed a copy of his essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” to Howard. The essay prominently mentioned The King in Yellow, but only summarized “The Yellow Sign” from that collection. The surviving Lovecraft-Howard correspondence was collected in A Means to Freedom (Hippocampus Press, 2009) edited by S. T. Joshi, David E. Schultz and Rusty Burke. In a letter to Lovecraft written around August 10, 1931, Howard made this remark: “Your splendid article — which I have re-read repeatedly — whets my appetite for the bizarre. Someday I must read ‘Melmoth” and the tales you mentioned by Blackwood, Chambers, Machen etc.”  Howard’s Melmoth reference is to Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), and need not concern us. The significance or the letter is that Howard hasn’t read at least one Chambers’s story discussed by Lovecraft prior to August 1931. Most likely this is “The Yellow Sign,” although Lovecraft’s essay briefly noted two other collections by Chambers, The Maker of Moons and In Search of the Unknown. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Howard read The King in Yellow collection prior to August 1931. However, he still could have read “The Mask” in Ghost Stories during 1930, and possibly read The King in Yellow after August 1931.

Rick Lai is accomplished essayist and author in the field of pulp studies. You can find his books on Amazon.com.

“The Pool of the Black One” painting by Mark Schultz
“Casonetto’s Last Song” illustration by Marcus Boas

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

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