Archive for the 'El Borak' Category


“ … 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.


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 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.


It has become fashionable to regard Robert E. Howard’s Steve Harrison as the author’s lone failure. Much is made of what Howard expressed in letters about disliking hardboiled detective stories as both an author and a reader. Emphasis is placed on the fact that very few of the Steve Harrison stories found a market in the author’s lifetime. Critics measure the Steve Harrison tales against Hammett and Chandler and dismiss Howard’s efforts with disdain. All of this ignores how the character first came to prominence in the late 1970s when Berkeley Books collected “Lord of the Dead” and “Names in the Black Book” in Skull-Face.

Tarzan01h6As a 45-year-old man today, I first discovered Robert E. Howard through the worlds of Conan and Kull from Marvel Comics. My youth in the 1970s had seen me move from Tarzan films to the far more exciting jungle adventures found in DC and Marvel Comics. These comics led me to challenge myself to read the wonderful Ballantine editions of the original Tarzan series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. As a comics fan, the cover art by Neal Adams and Boris Vallejo was half the attraction. A trio of low budget AIP movies with Doug McClure led me to discover the worlds of Caspak and Pellucidar which were back in print courtesy of Ace Books with gorgeous cover art by Frank Frazetta. I soon found Tarzan in Pellucidar in the Marvel Comics series. There was an excitement that made me believe there were far more fantastic worlds to discover.

I found these worlds in Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs was never quite the same. Burroughs was Paradise and Howard was Paradise Lost, but damn if that Forbidden Fruit didn’t taste better than anything else. I was a latecomer to church. Consequently, I resented losing out on Porky Pig cartoons on Sunday mornings. My Mom attempted to entice me with a Children’s Bible. The illustrations were nice, but I was mainly interested in The Old Testament which at least had the Flood and Samson to commend it. Along came Conan and Kull comics and suddenly I found characters that could rival Tarzan but lived in a world closer to The Old Testament but far more interesting to my young mind.

By the time I was thirteen, I had enjoyed a brief obsession with Ian Fleming’s James Bond series before discovering Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books. These opened a world that was to become my favorite retreat from reality and one that continues to resonate with me well into middle age. The Berkeley edition of Skull Face and the Donald M. Grant hardcover edition of Lord of the Dead immediately caught my eye when I first discovered them in my early twenties. Here was Robert E. Howard moving away from the fantastic worlds of his own imaginings and turned loose on the twentieth century. I was in my forties by the time I first encountered El Borak and, along with Steve Harrison, I now knew the Howard characters that held me under a spell greater than his barbarian heroes.

severin_1Howard’s Weird Menace stories, despite their Rohmer influence, were also very much in keeping with his more celebrated sword and sorcery fiction. Steve Harrison was a powerful latter-day barbarian as equally at home with an axe as a pistol. Harrison teamed with Khoda Khan (from Howard’s El Borak tales) to battle the sorcerous Erlik Khan is reminiscent of the bond forged between Kull and Brule the Pict. Harrison removed from the seedy fog-enshrouded River Street to run down a voodoo cult in Bayou country could just as easily be set in Stygia. Those expecting traditional hardboiled gumshoe tropes are doomed to be disappointed, but fans of Howard’s fantastic fiction will find much that will prove the writer’s talents were not bound by place or time. Harrison, like Nayland Smith (the protagonist of the Fu Manchu series) has been granted a roving commission to run down the sort of exotic crimes that fall beyond the white man’s comfort zone of the 1930s.

That last bit is likely the key for me. Howard’s characters are men out of time. Whether Kull or Conan or Solomon Kane or Steve Harrison or El Borak, they are men without homes who function best in exotic worlds. They are old souls who do not fear a world that isn’t white and civilized. They are men at home with Eldritch terrors, in exotic jungles, facing Oriental cults or serpent worshippers. They know this world is far older than white civilization with its fragile sense of security and a neat, orderly view of the world and its creation. They are not afraid to step beyond conventions for the non-white world of exotic danger and pagan thrills promise far more than the restrictions of civilization. And so it is for readers these past 80 years who understood that Robert E. Howard’s fiction was finite, but the promises they hold were infinite.

For anyone who accepts the common belief that Howard stumbled and fell when he created Steve Harrison, I urge you to revisit “The People of the Serpent,” “Names in the Black Book,” or “Graveyard Rats” and see them for the masterly Tales of Weird Menace they are and enjoy the same wonderful world of Robert E. Howard as it exists in a modern world. For a world of fantasy and escape is not ossified in the past, it is accessible today as it was yesteryear. You just need to step outside the confines of a conventional world that is safe and dull and realize the world is as it ever was and always worth discovering Gnostic truths and exploring uncharted corners. The key is to read and learn to open your mind for ultimately, that is the lesson of Burroughs and Howard and Rohmer and every other author who raised the lantern and shone its light on shadows.

William Patrick Maynard is the authorized continuation writer for the Estate of Sax Rohmer. His third Fu Manchu thriller, The Triumph of Fu Manchu will be published by Black Coat Press later this year.


The Swordsmanship of Robert E. Howard

Just as in medieval times most men carried swords but the majority were neither duelists nor skilled fencers. (CL2.103)

Given Robert E. Howard’s lack of access to fencing instructors (CL3.242), never having entered the military or other occupation where he could receive weapons training, and the general absence of military manuals of the sword or treatises on historical European martial arts, most of his ideas about how swords were used would have come from his reading in history and adventure fiction, his limited practical exercise with the swords he collected, and of course the cinema.

I got a big kick out of going through the place — it looks just like scenes from swash-buckling movies. I wouldn’t be surprized to see Douglas Fairbanks came bounding into the patio with his rapier and jack-boots. (CL2.189)

Douglas Fairbanks was the star of cinematic fencing in the early days of Hollywood, leaving his mark in films like The Mask of Zorro (1920), The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), Son of Zorro (1925), The Black Pirate (1926), and The Iron Mask (1929); other stars of the period include Errol Flynn, whose swashbuckling start was Captain Blood (1935), and Lloyd Ingraham in Scaramouche (1923)—and we know Howard was a fan of these films, and mentions many of them in his letters.

Based loosely on classical fencing, fight choreography of the period emphasized spectacle over form: the actors kept their distance, and blades made the maximum contact with each other, frequently clashing with an audible ting. “Flynning” made for exciting cinema, and left their mark on the Texan’s imagination, just as reading about sword-fights in fiction provided him with some of the basic terminology:

You ought to re-read Dumas and crash the historical one — the ad says the tales should generally feature the Anglo-Saxon but that the gallant Frenchman and dashing Spaniard will have their place. I see where I dress Solomon Kane up in a nom de plume and let him thrust, parry and riposte for eighteen chapters. (CL2.195)

captain-BloodThe spectacle of fighting in the movies often eschewed weapons like polearms and defensive advantages like shields, which featured heavily in historical combat. For example, the historical “swashbuckler” was called called that because of the use of bucklers, a small shield that was carried in the off-hand, in combination with a side-sword (a relatively light, short, double-bladed straight sword); this was combat in a civilian context, not on a battlefield, and these were the arms and armors that were convenient to carry in daily life. Film swashbucklers, however, frequently left out the buckler, fighting with swords alone—and often substituting a rapier or other blade for a small-sword—and so too do most of Howard’s heroes, as he adopted the spectacle of fencing while applying his own sanguinary ideas about swordplay.

For instance, in “Swords of the Hills” Howard talks about how “Yard-long Khyber knives clanged and ground against the curved swords of the Attalans.” (EB 25)—a very cinematic image, as in real combat swordsman generally try to avoid such contact with the edges of the blades, which will often damage and notch the cutting edge. Despite such touches, fencing, even cinematic and literary fencing, wasn’t quite what he was looking for:

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)

This emphasis on strength, rather than speed or technique, may also have been inspired by family tales of combat in war or the settling of the west:

My grandfather George Ervin was accounted the strongest man in his regiment and one of the strongest men in Forrest’s command. He could cleave a man from shoulder to waist with a single stroke of his saber. (CL2.265)

This is certainly true of Howard’s fiction, where blows tend to be mighty and it is not uncommon for a stroke of a sword to cleave a skull or pierce through the body of an opponent. The Texan was not unaware of the importance of speed, reach, footing, or form in a fight—they were common elements in boxing, after all—but in fiction his fight scenes tend to be quick, evocative, and light on technical details; less a ringside blow-by-blow commentary and more a vivid prelude to a bloody end. A good example is a passage in “Swords in the Hills”:

He was taller, had the longer reach again and again his blade whispered at Gordon’s throat. Once it touched his arm, and a trickle of crimson began. There was no sound except the rasp of feet on the sward, the rapid whisper of the blades, the deep panting of the men. (EB 26)

Despite his lack of direct experience or training, and a tendency for spectacle, Robert E. Howard’s fictional swordplay shouldn’t be mistaken for pure fantasy. Howard also evinced a certain quality of realism in his fictional swordfights. For example, in his fiction set after the invention of firearms, Howard appears cognizant of the fact that the sword was primarily a sidearm, and in that it largely gave way as technology progressed, this can be seen in “The Land of Mystery” El Borak, where fires his rifle and pistol at the oncoming foes before resorting to his sword as they close in. (EEB 160)

For the most part Howard seems to have avoided the issue of swords in modern war. Even when he does express an opinion on swords in warfare, it is not the reality of trench warfare:

What do we know of Oriental warfare? If a regiment was to meet the charge of a horde of wild Tatars, fanatic Ghazi Afghans, or sword-wielding Mongols, what orders would the officers give? Nine times out of ten, “close ranks and receive with bayonets”. And it has been proven again and again that a man with a bayonet on a rifle is no match for a man with a sword. Unless he can use the rifle as it should be used, not as a pike. The superiority of the sword has been proven at Bannockburn, at Sebastopol, at Kabul. If men are to meet steel with steel, they should be adequately armed. Long spears and short swords to meet a charge of long swords. If you don’t believe that, read the chronicles of Rome and Macedonia. (CL1.19)

This was not a dispute about modern war; this was a view of war that saw bodies of men moving in formation on open fields, when the cavalry charge was still a viable tactic—before the advent of machine guns and repeating rifles. Howard’s criticism of the bayonet is grounded in long-ago battles rather than contemporary conditions of warfare, because modern war with its airplanes and submarines, artillery and poison gas, trenches and flamethrowers had grown impersonal, away from the conditions where the sword was a useful weapon—and that was what Howard was interested in.

I wish warfare was on its older, simpler base. Though I’m far from war-like, yet I’ve always felt that with the proper training, I could learn to be fairly annoying to the enemy with a bayonet or rifle butt, but this new-fangled chemical warfare would make me a total loss. What’s the glory in pushing a button and slaughtering men fifty miles away, or flying over a city and spraying the noncombatants with liquid hell? When they traded the warhorse for a submarine, they ruined the blasted business as far as I’m concerned. (CL2.289-290)

CCC The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Del Rey, 2002)
CL Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index & Addenda, REH Foundation, 2007 – 2015)
CLIMH Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard (REH Foundation, 2011)
CS Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard Vol. 1 (Del Rey, 2007)
DVS Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard (1983, Bluejay Books)
EB El Borak and Other Desert Adventures (Del Rey, 2010)
EEB The Early Adventures of El Borak (REH Foundation, 2010)
LC The Last Celt: A Bio-Bibliography of Robert E. Howard (Berkeley, 1976)
RWM Report of a Writing Man & Other Reminiscences of Robert E. Howard (Necronomicon Press, 1991)

Read Part 1, Part 2

Conan painting by Doug Wheatley
This entry filed under El Borak, Howard's Fiction.


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


In February of 1934, Strange Detective Stories included “Fangs of Gold,” the first Steve Harrison story from Robert E. Howard. It also included “Teeth of Doom,” the second Steve Harrison story from Robert E. Howard. Except it didn’t. Not wanting two tales from the same author, writing about the same character, Harrison became Brock Rollins, Howard became Patrick Ervin and “Teeth of Doom” became “The Tomb’s Secret.” Did you get all that?

Conan, Solomon Kane, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Sailor Steve Costigan, and Breckenridge Elkins: all are characters created by Howard who cast shadows far larger than Steve Harrison’s. Only four stories featuring the tough-as-nails private eye saw print before Howard took his own life in 1936 at the young age of 30. That tally properly would be five, but the should-have-been third, “Lord of the Dead,” went into limbo when Strange Detective Stories folded.

The non-crime pulp, Man Adventures, ran from October 1930 to July of 1931 (monthly, except for a pair of two-month issues). In November of 1931, it resurfaced as Popular Fiction, running until September 1932 (missing two months along the way). It then came out as Nickel Detective in January of 1933 (I can imagine the blurb: “Twice as much two-fisted crime as Dime Detective at half the price!”), publishing six issues in eight months. That title disappeared after the August issue and the magazine made one last, dying gasp in November of 1933 as Strange Detective Stories. Four months later, in February, it would print the two Robert E. Howard stories and fold up for good: it had no more lives remaining.

It’s a pretty good example of the high mortality rate of pulp magazines during the era. Howard was third-billed in that final issue, directly below William E. Barrett, who wrote Lilies of the Field, which was made into one of Sidney Potier’s finest films. Another novel, The Left Hand of God, became one of Humphrey Bogart’s final films.

dalyThe hard boiled school of detective fiction was well out of its explosive ‘birth’ era when Howard briefly enrolled. Carroll John Daly, Dashiell Hammett, Raoul Whitfield and Frederic Nebel were either completely or almost totally finished writing for Black Mask, the seminal magazine that created the hard boiled genre. The unbelievably prolific Erle Stanley Gardner had appeared in Black Mask 81 times from 1923 through 1933. There would be only 24 of his stories in Black Mask in the next eleven years.

In fact, only two years after “Fangs of Gold,” Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw, the editor at the heart of Black Mask’s prominence, would be relieved of duties. And after an amazing decade of production, Dashiell Hammett would barely write any more fiction until his death in 1961. Raymond Chandler’s (rather elitist) literary approach to the genre had just begun when “Fangs of Gold” appeared.

Howard wasn’t some romantic writing for the sake of art. He wrote to make a living and fought to get his payments. So, he wrote in a wide range of genres, working hard to get stories published in as many markets as he could. The mystery field was one he entered relatively late and also one that he spent very little time in.

Hugh_B_Cave_nodateHoward’s first mystery, “Black Talons,” had appeared in the December issue of Strange Detective Stories. You know, with three stories by Howard and one from Hugh B. Cave in its four-issue lifespan, it’s too bad that pulp couldn’t hang around a bit longer! “Talons” is really a weird tale with a detective thrown in and a bit of mystery. The protagonist is Joel Brill, a scientist-adventurer, and Detective Buckley is a rather unimpressive supporting character. It may (or may not) be a mystery, but not a detective/PI story.

In a letter to August Derleth, Howard wrote, “You’re right in saying that I don’t have the feel for detectives that I do for weirds. However, I’ve been writing weirds for nine years and “Black Talons” was the first detective story that I ever wrote in my life.”

Derleth, best known to Howard fans as that Cthulhu guy, would write over seventy tales featuring Solar Pons, who was, as Vincent Starrett said, “the best substitute for Sherlock Holmes known.” He certainly knew something about mysteries.

But it is in “Fangs of Gold” that we meet Howard’s hard boiled private eye, Steve Harrison. The story takes place in swampland somewhere in the Southern United States. The detective is after Woon Shen, who killed a fellow Chinaman and stole 10,000 dollars back in River City (Harrison’s usual hometown). The swamp is inhabited by Haitian refugees who practice voodoo.

I don’t really consider this to be a hard boiled story. Harrison is a tough guy who marches confidently into the dark, but the setting and the voodoo cult completely transform the feeling. However, change the swamp to River City; voodoo to a jewelry smuggling ring and put the power grab in that context and I think you would have a typical hard boiled tale.

dick_5L5bHr1o“Teeth of Doom” takes place in River City and fits the mold a bit better: though still not too well. Ostensibly, Harrison is trying to prevent the murder of a rich philanthropist: shades of maybe Ross MacDonald. But in fact, there’s a sinister plot afoot, with a Mongolian secret society, the Sons of Erlik, after the secrets to a formula for poison gas. The whole case has Far East ties and a world domination plot at its core. Harrison functions as more of the typical private eye in this one, though he’s actually a police officer and pretty much gives orders to everybody, including his boss. It feels more Dick Tracy than Sam Spade.

Back on January 1, Dierk Guenther wrote a post here at Two Gun Raconteur about Howard’s detective and crime stories. He made an interesting point about Howard having spent very little time in cities, which could well have impacted his ability to write hard boiled detective stories. That may well be valid. In a post I made last year over at Black Gate about Carroll John Daly and the birth of the hard boiled school, I wrote:

Regarding (Three Gun Terry) Mack and (Race) Williams, what Daly did was turn the classic pulp western into an urban story. Hammett would bring a realism to the new genre and Chandler would paint word pictures of the “errant knight.”

But Daly was taking the shoot ‘em up action of the wild-west and transplanting it to the city streets. And this was in direct contrast to the locked room and country cozy stories coming out England as part of The Golden Age. It reflected a Prohibition Era America.”

Daly, who lived like a hermit in White Plains, was nonetheless familiar with New York City and the urban life, even if he eschewed it. He could imagine the Wild West and put it in the big city. Howard, who even set his boxing tales in exotic locales, may have had trouble capturing that gritty, urban feel that was a key part to much (but not all) of the hard boiled school.

Harrisonf2f99215It is the two stories featuring the villain Erlik Khan, “Lord of the Dead” and “Names in the Black Book,” that exemplify where Howard might have carved out a hard boiled-ish niche. Khan is a Mongol, descendent of that Genghis fellow, who plans on uniting all of the Oriental secret societies to basically take over the world. Both tales take place in River City and are urban adventures.

In “Lord of the Dead,” Harrison wields a battle axe in the climactic battle. In “Black Book,” it’s a spiked mace. Howard can’t resist leaning towards those elements that he did so well. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine the “Black Book” rewritten as a Conan tale. And Harrison definitely has shadings of El Borak.

Sax Rohmer revived the nefarious Fu Manchu in the thirties (though we were still a few decades away from Christopher Lee’s portrayal).  They are far ranging adventure yarns, involving a sinister villain bent on world domination. Had Howard wished to continue on with Harrison, Rohmer-like adventures offered him the best chance to succeed.

Harrison himself is a hard boiled character. Howard found himself trying to shoehorn Harrison into the conventional mystery format. And he wasn’t up to it. He ended up with sort of mystery/hardboiled/detective adventure/weird tale stories.

The Harrison stories aren’t quite bad. But an honest assessment has to place them below much of Howard’s other series works. And they aren’t characteristic of the hard boiled genre, so they don’t compare well with quality authors in that field. They don’t fit in for the author or the genre. They are like debutantes at the wrong ball.

But Howard wasn’t interested in trying to work himself into a spot in the mystery field:

I’ve about decided to quit trying to write detective yarns. I sold a few of them – the first one I ever wrote, in fact – but I can’t seem to get the hang of the art. Maybe it’s because I don’t like to write them. I’d rather write adventure stuff.

And he simply packed it in: “I’ve given up trying to write detective yarns – a job I despise anyway – and am concentrating on adventure stuff.”

Perhaps if he had continued writing ‘adventure detective yarns’ – private eye stories with an El Borak feel – Steve Harrison might have found a place and Howard would have had another bankable series character. And books like Private Eyes: 101 Knights – A Survey of American Detective Fiction, 1922-1984 might have had an entry on Harrison.

Dick Tracy illustration by Chester Gould

Bob Byrne is a recognized aficionado on both Sherlock Holmes and Solar Pons, featured on his website. Bob posts at least weekly on the Black Gate blog. Additionally, he is the mover and shaker behind the Discovering Robert E. Howard series of posts by various authors posted on the BG blog.

Melek Taus1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Part 1, Part 2


Fantasy fan Alvin Earl Perry, who  exchanged several letters with Howard in early 1935, wrote a biographical piece on Two-Gun Bob for the July 1935 issue of Fantasy Magazine. Perry seems to have gleaned the majority of his article from facts provided by Howard himself. Here is the text of that biographical sketch:


by Alvin Earl Perry

Conan! Solomon Kane! King Kull! These names mean action-adventure-romance-to thousands of fantasy fans thruout America; they are the heroes of adult fairy tales (rather gory ones it must be admitted) penned by he who is perhaps the greatest “actionist” writing fantasy today-Robert E. Howard!

This much-read author is a Texan. He was born January 22nd, 1906, in the small village of Peaster, some forty-five miles west of Fort Worth, and still resides in the Lone Star State, tho farther west.

At the age of fifteen, the future creator of Conan began writing with the intention of devoting his life to it; but it wasn’t until the fall of 1924, while attending Howard Payne College at Brownwood, that he made a sale. The tale was “Spear and Fang,” bought by Weird Tales for the princely sum of $16. It was very short and dealt with the imagined prehistoric struggles of the Neanderthal men and the Cro-Magnons.

Physically, Mr. Howard is a remarkable man. He stands almost six feet, is a decided brunette but for his blue eyes, rather heavily built, has a 45 inch chest, is 17 inches about the neck and perhaps 37 at the belt. And, he says “no one ever accused me of being handsome.” He admires E. Hoffman Price immensely, calling him “a talented writer and a splendid gentleman.”

Jack London is this Texan’s favorite writer; and he prefers tequila to brandy, beef to pork, and he likes his eggs fried hard. Jack Benny and Gracie Allen are his idols, while Lionel Barrymore and Edna May Oliver hold his attentions in the movies. His sole ambition is to be a successful author, and he enjoyed writing “The Shadow Kingdom” better than any other tale.

Tho he claims to have led an ordinary life, when it is realized that he has been everywhere of interest in the vast Southwest, plus a large portion of Old Mexico and has witnessed the settlement of the Plains country, the development of the Rio Grande territory, and the Central West Texas oil booms, one easily sees the modesty of the statement.

As to his fictional characters, we’ll let Mr. Howard speak for himself. He says: “The first character I ever created was Francis Xavier Gordon, El Borak, the hero of ‘The Daughter of Erlik Khan’ (Top-Notch), etc. I don’t remember his genesis. He came to life in my mind when I was about ten years old. The next was Bran Mak Born, the Pictish king (‘The Kings of the Night,’ etc. Weird Tales) He was the result of my discovery of the existence of the Pictish race, when reading some historical works in a public library in New Orleans at the age of thirteen. Physically he bore a striking resemblance to El Borak. Solomon Kane (‘Red Shadows,’ etc., Weird Tales) I created when I was in high school, at the age of about sixteen, but, like the others I have mentioned, several years passed before I put him on paper. He was probably the result of an admiration for a certain type of cold, steely-nerved duellist that existed in the sixteenth century. King Kull differed from these others in that he was put on paper the moment he was created, whereas they existed in my mind years before I tried to put them in stories. In fact, he first appeared as only a minor character in a story that was never accepted. At least, he was intended to be a minor character, but I had not gone far before he was dominating the yarn. Conan simply grew up in my mind a few years ago when I was stopping in a little border town on the lower Rio Grande. I did not create him by any conscious process. He simply stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures. It was much the same, tho to a lesser extent, with Sailor Steve Costigan (Fight Story Magazine, Action Stories, Jack Dempsey’s Fight Magazine, etc.), Kid Allison (Sport Stories) and Breckinridge Elkins (Action Stories.)

The distinctive style of writing developed by Mr. Howard-swashbuckling, raw, magnificently bloody – is utterly off the trail and has proven consistently popular with Weird Tales readers. Those who have never perused one of his Conan yarns, should do so; they will never regret it.

The issue also featured an impressionistic linoleum cut of REH by author and artist Duane W. Rimel.


Photo courtesy of Patrice Louinet.


In 1936, regular readers of Weird Tales must have thought Robert E. Howard was having a good year. In the first seven months, Howard had serials or stories in six issues, of which two were voted the best story in their issues, and in July he had the cover, illustrated by Margaret Brundage. Even in May, when Howard didn’t have any stories in the issue, the Eyrie was filled with praise and criticism for the conclusion to Howard’s long serial-novel, The Hour of the Dragon. The announcement of his suicide the next month came as a shock, as shown by the outpouring of memorials and remembrances from his fellow pulpsters and fans. Yet behind the scenes, all was not well between Robert E. Howard and Weird Tales.

wrights_shakespeare_library_1935_n1Never a large operation, the Great Depression had taken its toll on the Unique Magazine. The bank that Weird Tales used reportedly closed and never reopened. (WTS 85) Various ventures failed to turn a profit: The Moon Terror (1927), an anthology, didn’t sell through until the 1940s; an effort at radio dramatizations ceased in 1930; a new weird pulp, Strange Stories, never materialized; Oriental Stories (later The Magic Carpet Magazine) did, but the oriental tales ended in 1934, taking with them another market for Robert E. Howard, and “Wright’s Shakespeare Library” (illustrated by Virgil Finlay) of 1935 likewise didn’t pan out. Writers were offered 1¢ per word—double the standard pulp rate—to be paid on publication; as was common at the time, the publisher usually retained all copyrights on the story, unless the writer specified “North American serial rights” only. However, by 1935 the magazine was badly behind on its payments to certain authors, most notably Robert E. Howard, and had been for some time.

The Howards too were hard-hit by the Depression. As a country doctor where cash was scarce, Dr. I. M. Howard was often forced to accept barter for his services. (CL2.450, 3.307) In 1932, Fiction House, publisher of Fight Stories and Action Stories suspended publication—this ultimately caused Robert E. Howard to acquire an agent, Otis Adelbert Kline, who broke Howard into new markets for a commission, though Howard kept Weird Tales as a market he had built up himself. (CL3.404) Some of these ventures, like the adventures of Breckinridge Elkins in Action Stories, proved a success. Others, like the Conan the Cimmerian novel The Hour of the Dragon, written for British publisher Denis Archer, didn’t pan out, and Howard eventually sold the 70,000-word novel to Weird Tales in December 1934 or January 1935, to be serialized in 1936. (CL3.255, 302)

Dr. HowardBetween January and May of 1935, matters came to a head. Weird Tales owed Howard $860 for stories published; unable or unwilling to pay the whole amount on publication, the company had settled on sending “half-checks” every month—these would, from notes on payments received that Dr. Howard kept in a ledger, appear to be half-payments for stories (i.e. if a story sold for $150, a half-check would be $75) (CLIMH358-373, CL3.306). The Howards depended on the steady income for medical expenses. Hester Jane Howard, long suffering from tuberculosis and associated illness, required surgery to remove her gall-bladder and reduce adhesions from an appendicitis operation, and the wound later developed an abscess; being far from major cities and hospitals, these operations required lengthy trips and stays away from Cross Plains. (CL3.306, 309) At a time when the Howards needed it most, Weird Tales missed a payment.

In May of 1935, Robert E. Howard sent a letter to Farnsworth Wright begging for money. (CL3.306-308) There was no reply, and in desperation Howard sent a letter to his agent, asking “Is Weird Tales still a legitimate publication, or has it become a racket?” (CL3.309)

It was a fair question; other pulps had treated their writers as badly or worse, with Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories having a particularly poor reputation in the circle of Weird Tales correspondents, and Howard was far from the only writer for Weird Tales in a similar predicament. E. Hoffman Price noted of his own situation:

It is only fair that the most W.T. owed me at any time was never in excess of $300. This peak was achieved only because of a two-parter, and a short. They were not favoring me. When their indebtedness reached a certain point, they got no more scripts from me. My production went to cash customers. Belatedly, Howard, on his own initiative, adopted the same approach. (BOTD 72)

Other writers also noted that backlog of payments got so bad that some payments were made more than a year after publication. (CLIMH 178)

At the time, the staff at Weird Tales consisted of William Sprenger, the business manager; B. Cornelius, the printer, majority shareholder, and treasurer; and Farnsworth Wright, the editor who did everything else, from art layout to writing ad copy. Of the three, Howard had direct dealings with both Wright and Sprenger (though none of the latter’s letters survive), and it is likely that Sprenger made the ultimate decision as to whom would be paid and how much; certainly he signed some of the checks. (CLIMH 79) After Robert E. Howard’s death, Wright responded to Dr. Howard’s criticism of their business:

I must correct the impression that I or anyone else connected with Weird Tales “put in our pockets” the money that was due your son during the period when Weird Tales was in the throes of the depression. Fact is, I often did not know from one month to the other whether I would receive any money at all from the magazine; and I often received nothing (a serious condition, with my wife and son Robert to take care of); and it has been years since I received more than a fraction of the salary I used to get. […] Your son understood this state of affairs with the magazine, for both Mr. Sprenger and I explained it to him in our letters. (CLIMH 103-104)

The rumors that Wright went without a salary added something to the myth of Weird Tales in later decades, though E. Hoffmann Price, who visited Wright and the WT office in Chicago, poo-pooed the idea, and later even claimed:

A good many years after this dialog, I learned from an employee of the bank which had handled W.T. funds from the beginning and on until another outfit bought the magazine, that the publisher had money by the ream. The outfit had always pleaded poverty, and had found the “Great Depression” a handy device to exploit writers who could not, or fancied that they could not write salable yarns for any other than W. T. (BOTD 72)

Read the rest of this entry »


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It may be just as well.

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

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

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