Archive for the 'Howard’s Fiction' Category

And so his boyhood wandered into youth,
And still the hazes thickened round his head,
And red, lascivious nightmares shared his bed
And fantasies with greedy claw and tooth
Burrowed into the secret parts of him –
Gigantic, bestial and misshapen paws
Gloatingly fumbled each white youthful limb,
And shadows lurked with scarlet gaping jaws.

Robert E. Howard, Fragment

Justin Geoffrey left the witch-haunted town of Arkham early in 1916, with heartfelt thanks to his friend and fellow poet Edward Derby. He returned to Greenwich Village resolved to gain some worldly advantages before he was done – if not a complete formal education, then at least sufficient money. He hungered to visit Europe. He had made casual acquaintances of French, Italian, German and Hungarian origin in the Village, and despite his generally antisocial nature, they liked the intent way he listened to their stories of their home countries.

In a former stable that was now an artist’s studio in MacDougal Alley, at a party to celebrate recent successful sales of several paintings, Justin Geoffrey met a fake medium by the name of Ethan O’Neill. O’Neill too was enjoying success, but he thought it might be greater. Genteel in appearance and manner, he was also blandly ordinary, and he thought an intense young poet with a disconcerting presence would make a useful partner. Justin didn’t care for O’Neill’s line of grifting – in fact, he despised it – but he saw his chance and deep-sixed his remaining scruples. Sourly quoting a line of Horace he had picked up from Derby in Arkham (“Si possis recte, si non, quocumque modo rem”)* Justin began helping O’Neill fleece his various well-breeched dupes. (*If possible make money honestly; if not, make it somehow.)

O’Neill had been right about the value of Justin Geoffrey’s presence. Business picked up remarkably. The United States had not yet entered the war in 1916, but there were many bereaved families in England that O’Neill reasoned would be in the market for messages from beyond. To England they went.

Again, he was right, and they did well, especially when the hellish carnage of the Somme began. There were over 57,000 British casualties on the first day (July 1st). O’Neill concentrated on noble and wealthy families, from which many British officers came, and he was a Protestant who decried the Easter Rising, so his Irish descent did not count against him. (To ingratiate himself with clients he would have said it even if he had been a red-hot rebel at heart.)

Justin detested the fraud even while money rolled in — the fraud and his partner. Neither offended him ethically very much, but the banal platitudes he uttered daily turned his stomach. He seethed at the thought that his darkly brilliant poetry made him almost nothing, while this rubbish gained the pair thousands of pounds.

O’Neill and Geoffrey were lucky enough to make the acquaintance of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while in England, and to gain his active support. Conan Doyle had become an ardent believer in spiritualism by this time, and he was impressed by the pair. He attended some of their séances and endorsed them as genuine. Their clients after that included some of the noblest – and richest – families in the land.

Justin was still subject to fearful nightmares. He did in fact possess psychic sensitivity, but not of a kind to comfort bereaved parents or wives, or – in the end – to have much commercial value. His talent and magnetic presence disturbed more than soothed when he sprang to his feet while feigning to commune with a soldier dead in an artillery barrage and screamed, “The face … the face … the face!”  O’Neill carried such moments off by explaining that malign spirits were interfering with the séance, but he worried that this might not succeed forever, and even more that Justin would go insane, as the youth feared would happen.

Besides, Justin told him ever more frequently that he wanted to quit his imposture and travel on the continent once the war ended, regardless of who won. Their partnership was going to cease whether or not O’Neill desired it. The older man decided to end it unexpectedly and on his terms; to run out on Justin, taking their considerable profits with him.

O’Neill knew Justin was young, thought him naïve and foolish, possibly mad, but he made a fatal mistake in deeming him stupid. Justin knew things about O’Neill, too – that he lacked any trace of scruple and thought it clever, even admirable, to deceive. When O’Neill tried to decamp with their money in the spring of 1918, his actions did not take Justin by surprise. O’Neill fled from London to Southampton, planning to sail for the United States on a liner.

He never boarded the ship. He disappeared.

It is likely that Justin Geoffrey caught O’Neill as he fled with the cash in a carpetbag, and that a fatal confrontation ensued. Justin’s brother John, still wearing the scar of a far less serious clash when they were boys, would have believed it. Although Justin was neither physically robust nor – much of the time – adequately fed, in a rage he might have overcome a soft, middle-aged man like O’Neill, and even struck him dead without meaning to. No corpse was ever found, but the harbor of Southampton was spacious, boat anchors and baling wire cheap enough.

I believe that Justin Geoffrey went to Ireland for the remainder of 1918, and after that appeared in Europe with enough money to travel where he liked. Justin had produced poetry only in a desultory fashion while associated with O’Neill. In Ireland he began writing again, prodigious amounts, working twenty hours at a stretch sometimes and filling reams in a fortnight. To that period belong his bleak and morbid poems on the theme of murder – of which, perhaps, he was guilty. Since REH created Justin Geoffrey, and wrote a great deal of poetry himself, it is possible to consider some of it as being work Geoffrey might have written. “One Who Comes at Eventide”, for example, deals with the remorse and horror of a man who has committed a terrible slaying.

“My blood ran fire when the deed was done;

Now it runs colder than the moon that shone

On shattered fields where dead men lay in heaps

Who could not hear a ravished daughter’s moan.

“So now I fire my veins with stinging wine,

And hoard my youth as misers hug their gold,

Because I know what shape will come and sit

Beside my crumbling hearth – when I am old.”

There was also “Flight”, purporting to deal with Cain and his emotions as “… now he fled from the silent dead and the wrathful face of God.”  It ends with the couplet,

“The stars were dim and the moon was red and leaves stirred on the bough.

Cain stood alone by the nameless sea and the mark was on his brow.”

Other poems from his hypothetical “Irish period” which Geoffrey might have written were “Recompense”, “The Singer in the Mist”, “Shadows of Dreams”, “The Madness of Cormac”, “Babel” and “Laughter in the Gulfs”.

O’Neill’s disappearance might have been investigated more closely, and Geoffrey arrested, if it had not occurred in the war’s final year. Germany unleashed the desperate “Spring Offensive” in an effort to win before the American forces could be fully deployed. Then the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 began. It killed more people world-wide than the Black Death of the 14th century had done. In Britain it appeared first in Glasgow, in May, and reached London by June. Almost 230,000 people died in that country alone. O’Neill, for all anybody knew, might have been one of them.

Justin Geoffrey contracted it himself, but survived with a mild case. As a young adult – he was then twenty – he belonged to the group most at risk in that pandemic. Children and the aged actually perished less often, statistically, for the precise reason that their immune systems were weaker. This special and uncommon strain of influenza ravaged the human body more fiercely as its immune system fought back. Justin had always been some-what sickly and had poor resistance to illness. In this instance it may actually have saved his life.

He wrote voluminously to Edward Derby while in Ireland, also. Residing in Dublin most of the time, he visited the sites of Tara, Emain Macha and Cashel, as well as spending some time in Cork, Limerick and – for a couple of months – Galway. The Irish War of Independence opened while Geoffrey was there, but as with the Great War, he took little interest in it. He departed in 1919, avoiding Britain, perhaps because he feared being questioned as to O’Neill’s fate. He travelled from Galway to Bilbao on a Spanish freighter.

In Bilbao, a thriving center of shipping and commerce, Geoffrey promptly deposited his money with the Banco de Vizcaya. Then, as far as his haunted mind would let him, he took his ease for a few weeks and planned his future. Another man might have taken the opportunity to cross the mountains and visit Burgos and Valladolid. Justin Geoffrey felt a keener interest in the macabre hints von Junzt had given in Nameless Cults. A hundred years before, von Junzt and his friend Ladeau had come to this very region, and the German had inveigled his way into certain cults of the Basques, a very ancient people he was convinced were related to the Etruscans and the prehistoric Picts described in the Nemedian Chronicles. He had been almost forthright concerning nests of the hideous Deep Ones beneath the stormy surface of the Bay of Biscay. In Bilbao, and then after he crossed the Pyrenees to Bayonne and Bordeaux, Geoffrey wrote several poems about the horrors of the unplumbed sea.

Passing through France, he paused longest in the region which in the Middle Ages was known as Averoigne. Geoffrey knew a good deal about its legends, the strange beings said to haunt it even in his day, and the medieval sorcerers such as Azedarac and Luc le Chaudronnier who had flourished there. From Nameless Cults he was fully aware that von Junzt and Ladeau had also been in the Averoigne district before him, and experienced one or two disturbing adventures in Vyones. In Germany he visited Schloss Kurenthal outside Dusseldorf, the ancestral castle of the von Junzt barons, and the ruins of the tenth-century monastery where the Nemedian Chronicles had been penned by an Irish monk.

His nightmares had plagued him endlessly during his time in Ireland, nor did they give him peace as he travelled in Europe. His poems dealt more and more with the theme of encroaching madness, the lack of hope or meaning in human existence, the conviction that the universe was ruled by malevolence and chaos. A number of his letters to Derby expressed his conviction that he would die in a madhouse.

Then, in 1921, while passing through Hungary, he stopped at the village of Stregoicavar, which in ancient times – a thousand years or more before Christ – had been known as Xuthltan, a word from a lost, unknown language. The strange monument known locally as the “Black Stone” had been described in von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, and naturally Justin Geoffrey paid it a visit, looking at it for a long time and running his hands over the curious mineral of which it was made. The local innkeeper remembered him as “… a young fellow and queer-acting – mumbled to himself – a poet, I think.”  When he was in-formed, ten years later, that Justin had died screaming in a madhouse, he was not amazed. His only comment was, “Poor lad – he looked too long at the Black Stone.”

(The location of Stregoicavar would be worth another post.)

The narrator of the story, by its end, reaches the conclusion, “Well for Justin Geoffrey that he tarried there only in the sunlight and went his way, for had he gazed upon that ghastly conclave [of ghosts], his mad brain would have snapped before it did.”  He also declares, “… but the seeds of madness had been sown in the poet’s brain long before he ever came to Stregoicavar.”

So they had. However, visiting the Black Stone did nothing to prolong Justin’s fragile sanity, and he must have received disturbing psychic impressions from it. In Hungary he wrote his longest, possibly his most fantastic and terrible poem, “People of the Monolith”. His perennial nightmares began to include, after that, visions of great toadlike horrors with squashy, malleable bodies. They possessed broad boneless wings they could retract within their bodies when not flying, and having that ability despite their bulk – rhinocerotic or greater – seemed to prove they could wholly or partly ignore gravity. They also possessed tentacles. In some cases they had taloned feet, in others misshapen hoofs. Their characteristic sound was a hideous tittering that seemed to express extremes of lust and demonic cruelty. At this time or shortly afterwards, Justin wrote the lines,

They say foul beings of Old Times still lurk

In dark forgotten corners of the world,

And Gates still gape to loose, on certain nights,

Shapes pent in Hell.

It was then too, or in Turkey, that Justin wrote Out of the Old Land, with the passage,

They lumber through the night

With their elephantine tread;

I shudder in affright

As I cower in my bed.

They lift colossal wings

On the high gable roofs

Which tremble to the trample

Of their mastodonic hoofs.

That outpouring of work continued after his return to the U.S.A. in 1923 – but only briefly. The nightmares which had long haunted his sleep entered his waking hours, afflicting him with hallucinations, making him see weird alien landscapes and bizarre monsters where other people saw parks and woodland. On several occasions he fled screaming in the street from demons no-one else could see, or believe in. Before the end of 1923 he was confined in an asylum.

He might have survived an indefinite time there, or even been released, though that seems unlikely – but he was to suffer the last shattering experience that made an end of Justin Geoffrey. H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Call of Cthulhu” records “outré mental illness and outbreaks of group folly or mania in the spring of 1925.”  People around the world, especially those of poetic or artistic temperament, “dream of great Cyclopean cities of Titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror.”  Arthur Wilcox, an eccentric young sculptor, was among them. On March 23rd, he lapsed into a semi-conscious feverish state and hallucinated – or received psychic visions of – a monstrous being miles high, with talons and a tentacled face. Many artists and poets had similar experiences between March 23rd and April 2nd. One “widely known architect with leanings toward theosophy and occultism, went violently insane on the date of young Wilcox’s seizure, and expired several months later after incessant screamings to be saved from some escaped denizen of hell.”

If that was the architect’s fate, Justin Geoffrey’s seems to have been inevitable. R’lyeh, the citadel of great Cthulhu – or part of it — briefly rose again from the abyss at the bottom of the Pacific in 1925, and Cthulhu was as briefly freed. As the narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu” says, “He must have been trapped by the sinking whilst within his black abyss, or else the world would by now be screaming with fright and frenzy.”  That was precisely what happened to a number of artistic or psychically sensitive people around the world – and it was impossible that Justin Geoffrey of all men would have been oblivious to the resurgent horror.

Nor was he. “Screaming with fright and frenzy” was precisely how the unfortunate young man died, a year later, his nightmares even more intense and horrific. His shrieks and convulsions wore out his body, and no drug or medicine could alleviate the visions he suffered. As Conrad says, “Toward the last, they merged so terribly with his waking thoughts that they seemed grisly realities and his dying shrieks and blasphemies shocked even the hardened keepers of the madhouse.”

In pace requiescat – or so let’s hope.

In November 2011, along with many of his family members and other Robert E. Howard fans, I attended Glenn Lord’s 80th birthday party at the Monument Inn in La Porte, Texas. As usual, there was lots of good conversation with good friends. Besides a special birthday cake (baked by Glenn’s wife Lou Ann, if I remember correctly) the big highlight was the new book Anniversary: Glenn Lord and the Howard Collector that was distributed to all the guests by its editor, Dennis McHaney. It contained a series of Glenn Lord tributes by such Howardists as Fred Blosser, Rusty Burke, Bill Cavalier, Frank Coffman, Leo Grin, Paul Herman, Don Herron, Morgan Holmes, Patrice Louinet, Dennis McHaney, James Reasoner, Rob Roehm, Damon Sasser, Roy Thomas and me. In addition to these articles, this limited edition book included a history of the Howard Collector (the prozine founded by Glenn Lord) and five REH stories. I remember how pleased Glenn was as he paged through it.

It was a wonderful weekend for me. The day before I had lunched with Lou Ann and Glenn in Galveston.  Glenn was pretty quiet at first but later we discussed a variety of subjects. The highlight for me that afternoon was listening to Glenn’s low voice as he quoted lines from several of his favorite REH poems. (For more details about the luncheon and the birthday party, see here.)

Like the Galveston lunch, the birthday party the next day was perhaps not as short as it seemed. But both were over all too soon. As I left, I kissed Glenn on the cheek and got a hug in return. I had also attended his 78th birthday celebration in 2009 and I planned to attend them every other year in the future. Sadly, there wouldn’t be any more. He died on December 31, 2011 – just six weeks later.

Glenn and I only met a few times. Yet anyone with a deep appreciation of Howard’s prose and poetry realizes the debt of gratitude we all owe Glenn. He began his search for more Robert E. Howard texts because he loved REH’s poetry. Lou Ann told me many stories about searches in dusty attics, garages, and storerooms. Over the years, this meant sifting through literally thousands of pieces of papers just to track down more original Robert E. Howard typescripts.

That Howard fans today can read REH’s words as he wrote them is due to Glenn Lord. He is the Father of Howard Fandom as well as the glue that bonded us together. I still miss him!

For further information and background about Glenn Lord, see:

In Memoriam” by Damon Sasser, February 14, 2012, which provides links to the tributes and remembrances written by Howard fans, and includes a Glenn Lord biography, an audio interview with Glenn, information about the funeral arrangements and an obituary.

The Legacy of Glenn Lord: REH’s Life’s Work Preserved for Posterity” by Damon Sasser, August 12, 2013.

Conceived and bred in blackened pits of hell,
The poems come that set the stars on fire;
Born of black maggots writhing in a shell
Men call a poet’s skull – an iron bell
Filled up with burning mist and golden mire.

Robert E. Howard, “Which Will Scarcely Be Understood”

Having finished my previous post here with some speculation as to who built the eerie house that had such a malign influence on the boy Justin Geoffrey, I think it’d be fitting to continue with a post about Howard’s mad poet. REH’s fragment “The House” is filled with information about Geoffrey’s background and early life that is priceless to any researcher. Lovecraft supplied some authoritative “facts” about Geoffrey too, as in “The Thing on the Doorstep.”

“The House” was never published in REH’s lifetime. If he’d revised it for printing, a couple of things might have been different. For instance, Conrad says that Justin Geoffrey met “his death at the age of twenty-one”. But we’re also told that Justin “finished high school” before he left the family home, and was down-and-out, starving, in Greenwich Village at the age of seventeen. That leaves a gap of four years. But he travelled to Hungary, which must have been after his time in Greenwich Village, and “looked too long at the Black Stone.” His death in a madhouse was five years after that. “The Black Stone” tells us so, and since that story was published while Howard lived (Weird Tales, November 1931), it has to be given more weight. Besides, in “The Thing on the Doorstep” (Weird Tales, January 1937) Lovecraft refers to “the notorious Baudelairean poet Justin Geoffrey, who wrote “The People of the Monolith” and died screaming in a madhouse in 1926 after a visit to a sinister, ill-regarded village in Hungary.”

For those reasons I tend to accept the usual dates for Justin Geoffrey’s life – 1898 to 1926 – and to think that he was twenty-eight when he died, not twenty-one.

Glitches in chronology aside, “The House” tells us much about Geoffrey’s ancestry and siblings. The Geoffrey family came to America in the late 17th century “to rebuild their fortunes.” It’s probable that, if they were West Country folk and Protestant, they were accused of treason after the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 and deprived of lands and wealth, a couple at least being sentenced to slavery in the West Indies, like Captain Blood in Sabatini’s novel. When James II was deposed in favor of William of Orange in 1688, the transported Geoffreys were pardoned, and their relatives came to the Indies to ensure their release according to the law. Afterwards – I assume – they all moved to New York. A stolid, middle class breed even then, for they seem to have been minor country gentry, not aristocrats, they became merchants and prospered in the new land.

At the 19th century’s end, when Justin was born, his parents evidently lived in Poughkeepsie. The fragment doesn’t mention that city, but it seems likely for several reasons. The experience which changed the ten-year-old Justin so markedly took place at “a small village in New York State – up close to the foot of the Catskills.”  His family was visiting friends there. That area is close to Poughkeepsie. One of Justin’s sisters graduated from Vassar College, located in Poughkeepsie. The town is, and was then, a center of commerce and manufacturing, well suited to the kind of people Justin’s kin are described as being.

When my series on Helen Tavrel ended, I imagined she had married her companion, Stephen Harmer, and went with him to Massachusetts. They prospered in the shipping business. It’d be nicely ironic if a descendant of theirs with the maiden name of Harmer had been Justin Geoffrey’s mother – that conventional brood springing from a pirate hellcat!  Maybe the Harmers covered up Helen’s past – in her own day, because it would have meant a noose for her, in later generations because they didn’t want the shame made public.

In passing, Conrad was too cocksure that his investigation of the Geoffrey line was complete. Unknown to their posterity, there could easily have been a bastard of some poet, gambler or madman in there some-where. It happens in the best families, more often than ever gets into the record. Conrad also seems to have investigated the Geoffrey family line more thoroughly than the mother’s side, which he hardly mentions except to say, “… sober, industrious merchants. Both of his parents are of this class, and likewise his brothers and sisters.”

The description of those siblings bears that out. “His brother John is a successful banker in Cincinnati. Eustace is the junior partner of a law firm in New York, and William, the younger brother, is in his junior year in Harvard, already showing the ear-marks of a successful bond salesman. Of the three sisters of Justin, one is married to the dullest business man imaginable, one is a teacher in a grade school and the other graduates from Vassar this year. Not one of them shows the slightest sign of the characteristics which marked Justin. He was like a stranger, an alien among them.”

After he was ten, maybe. Until then, “he was no whit different from his brothers.”  He even changed physically. Before, “He had the same stubby build, the same round, dull, good-natured face. One would think a changeling had been substituted for Justin Geoffrey at the age of ten!”  (Robert E. Howard, “The House”)

That’s pretty definite. Conrad was fascinated by Justin Geoffrey’s case. Kirowan credits Conrad with “deep knowledge of biology and psychology,” so he must have had a good education which includes those fields. He had certainly been in Vienna – Sigmund Freud’s town, of course – and may have studied there under Professor von Boehnk, whom he mentions in “Dig Me No Grave.”

When Justin was ten, he went fishing with a group of other boys near that small village near the foot of the Catskills, became separated and lost, and slept the night in a grove of oaks surrounding an abandoned old house. Kirowan recognizes “those tall sombre oaks, with the castle-like house half concealed among them” from a painting by the artist Humphrey Skuyler, a friend of his and Conrad’s. This blogger’s theories about “The House” and its builder can be found in the post “Who Are Those Guys?”  Briefly, I think he was a misbegotten warlock, one of the evil, sorcerous van der Heyl family (HPL, “The Diary of Alonzo Typer”) on his mother’s side, and a xenophobic Martense (HPL, “The Lurking Fear”) on his sire’s. The faintly Oriental architecture of “The House” was due to the man’s having spent years in the Dutch East Indies, particularly the Aceh sultanate in Sumatra.

It isn’t a pleasant structure. “It made me shudder,” says Kirowan. “It fairly exudes an aura of abnormality,” says Skuyler. “A ring of tall, gnarled oaks entirely surrounded the house, which glimmered through their branches like a bare and time-battered skull,” adds Kirowan for good measure.

Something evidently haunted the place. Perhaps the ghost of its former inhabitant, perhaps some waif of the outer dark he had conjured while working his magic, perhaps just the baleful influences of the demons with whom he trafficked in his life and the enchantments he had carried out. But the circumstantial evidence was strong that whatever it was entered the mind of the boy who slept among the oaks and worked in him like yeast afterward.

When found among the oaks next morning, Justin was seemingly unharmed, and there were no signs of trauma. He only said he had vivid and extraordinary dreams “which he could not describe”. He continued to have “wild and fearful dreams which occurred almost nightly” as Conrad says. He also remarks in a disparaging way, “This alone was unusual – the Geoffreys were no more troubled with nightmares than a hog is.” He’s clearly out of sympathy with the prosaic Geoffreys, and refers to their home as a “stifling environment”. It’s easy to perceive REH’s own attitude to the environment of small town Texas, in which he felt trapped and from which he sought escape in his writing, in this fragment.

And his fictional mad poet began to write. Aged eleven, in fact, he penned a poem which included the stanza:

“Beyond the Veil, what gulfs of Time and Space?

What blinking, mowing things to blast the sight?

I shrink before a vague, colossal Face

Born in the mad immensities of Night.”

His family didn’t approve, and tried to stop him writing. Conrad is scathing about their response, but I can’t see that they were wrong to suspect lines like that, especially after his big brother John thumped on him for neglecting his chores to write, and Justin turned on the bigger boy ferociously and struck him – perhaps with something hard and sharp, although we aren’t told – and left John with a scar he still carried as an adult. Even Conrad admits that “Justin’s temper was sudden and terrible.”  All since that night in the oaks outside the deserted house. “His eyes blazed with an inner passion and his tousled black hair fell over a brow strangely narrow. That forehead of his was one of his unpleasant features. I cannot say why, but I never glanced at that pale, high, narrow fore-head that I did not … suppress a shudder!”

Puberty and adolescence can certainly account for changes in temperament and physique. Adolescence can be hell, and a lot of us were nothing but prickly, edgy nerve endings, resenting any restraint or intrusion, while we went through it. But none of Justin Geoffrey’s siblings were misfits as extreme as he, just as none showed his precocious talent. The others went through high school, worked diligently if unimaginatively, and went on to college. Justin finished high school unwillingly and refused even to consider college. He rejected mathematics, ignored science, and paid no attention to modern history. But he avidly read everything he could find on the subjects of myth, magic and – I shouldn’t be surprised – ancient and medieval history. Doubtless he shone without effort at English.

Soon after completing high school, he seems to have left Poughkeepsie, and gone to Greenwich Village – a Mecca for unconventional artists and bohemians in general, though there was considerably more to the area – in New York. That would have been in 1914, as the Great War began in Europe, though Justin Geoffrey paid little attention to it. 1914 was also the year Isadora Duncan, dancer and social rebel, came to the United States, and Justin admired her. He possibly knew Duncan had met the occultist Aleister Crowley a few years before, and that Crowley even had an affair with Duncan’s close companion Mary d’Este. It isn’t recorded, though, that Geoffrey ever encountered them.

It is recorded that Geoffrey corresponded with Edward Pickman Derby of Arkham, who at twenty-five was “a prodigiously learned man and a fairly well known poet and fantaisiste though his lack of contacts and responsibilities had slowed down his literary growth by making his products derivative and over-bookish.” (Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”) The critics never viewed Derby’s work as equal in genius or power to Justin Geoffrey’s. But unlike Geoffrey, Derby had parents who indulged him and even took him to Europe on annual journeys. Derby was eight years Geoffrey’s senior, and Derby’s friend and confidante Daniel Upton was eight years older again.

The Village abounded in artists, poets and playwrights. They should have been more congenial to Justin’s temperament than the people he had known in Poughkeepsie, but even in Greenwich Village he found none of the sympathetic affiliations he might have expected. Some “bohemians” he met were as mediocre as anybody in the Poughkeepsie he loathed, pretentious, without a quarter of his talent. Some recognized this and were jealous. Nor was Justin, an intense misfit, a loner whose “temper was sudden and terrible”, haunted by awful dreams and visions from “the mad immensities of Night”, easy to like. In Greenwich Village he was first on record as saying that he was likely to die in a madhouse.

While in Greenwich Village, too, he discovered the poetry of Edward Pickman Derby. The coddled Arkham recluse had published, at eighteen, a collection of poems under the title Azathoth and Other Horrors. That, curiously, had been the same year Justin Geoffrey slept among the oaks outside the old house near the Catskills. Justin read Derby’s poems, wrote to him, and so their correspondence began.

The Golden Goblin Press of New York had brought out an edition of von Junzt’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten (under its English title of Nameless Cults) in 1909. It was lavishly illustrated by Diego Vasquez, and splendidly bound, but fully a quarter of the original material had been excised, as REH informs his readers in “The Thing on the Roof.” Besides, the artistic standards of the publishers had run away with them, and their edition cost too much to sell widely. Justin Geoffrey was not only penniless at the time; he was starving. He perused the edition at the lodgings of one of his Village acquaintances who, flush at the time, had bought the book, chiefly for the Vasquez illustrations. It filled his mind with a craving to study the original of which Derby had told him.

Edward Derby may have saved Justin’s life at that time, indirectly at least. Reading between the lines of Justin’s letters, he realized the boy’s distress. While too impractical and reclusive to take action himself, Derby asked his friend Daniel Upton to visit the youth on his next trip to New York City. Upton complied, and found Justin Geoffrey in a bad way, not only malnourished but haunted by the grotesque nightmares which had begun that night in the Catskills six years earlier.

Geoffrey went to Arkham with Upton and lodged with Edward Derby during 1915. This was years before Derby’s ill-fated attraction to Asenath Waite, which eventually led to Upton’s sending six bullets through Derby’s brain, though he swore Derby had been possessed by another, malign spirit. (Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”)

Daniel Upton’s account does not mention his having met Geoffrey, or the boy’s stay in Arkham. He was more deeply concerned with Derby and the ghastly course of events which led to his destruction. Geoffrey was much taken with “witch-cursed, legend-haunted Arkham”, and as a graduate of Miskatonic University, Derby arranged for him to peruse the unique collection of occult books in Miskatonic’s library. These included the original Dusseldorf edition of Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and the German translation of the Ghorl Nigral by Hermann Mülder. Geoffrey could not read German, but Derby did, and translated aloud for hours. He also wrote down certain passages in English for his youthful guest. Whether this was well-advised, or did Geoffrey any good, is dubious. However, his diet improved in Arkham and he had nightmares less often. He wrote copiously during those months, and produced the first work of his own that he considered excellent. Derby agreed enthusiastically, and helped him publish the work in the collection Towers in the Sky – mentioned in REH’s fragment “The Door to the Garden,” aka “The Door to the World.”

Towers in the Sky caused a sensation in artistic circles from New York to San Francisco, and something of a scandal in Poughkeepsie, but made little money – though if it had, the other Geoffreys might have forgiven Justin its grisly content. He remained poor. As the narrator of “The Black Stone” commented later, “… most of his recognition has come since his death.”

Justin Geoffrey now began to resent that circumstance. He envied his sole friend the ability to travel that his parents’ money gave him. He yearned to do the same. He had never given much thought to acquiring cash before, but he returned to Greenwich Village in 1916 bent on doing just that.

The resolution began a new phase in his life.

This entry filed under H. P. Lovecraft, Howard's Fiction.

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Writers such as Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner, and even J.R.R. Tolkien laid the groundwork for a modern literary genre that is often called Sword and Sorcery, but which might better be called “Heroic Fantasy.” These authors established the broad tropes of the genre for today’s times, but we must recognize that this type of heroic storytelling dates far back in history, to the time of Homer and, even earlier, to the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Heroic fantasy is, and always has been, a literature of myth making and myth exploration. As such, it may well be the most important type of literature ever attempted. The tales in this genre are not about telling things the way they are, or even how they were. They’re about telling, or at least hinting at, the deepest mysteries and truths of human existence.

At their core, the themes of heroic fantasy arise out of ancient days, out of a time thousands and even hundreds of thousands of years ago when human consciousness was first struggling into existence, and when we as a race were becoming something more, and less, than animal. In those days the gods and demons and all manner of supernatural beings were real–at least to the people of those times–more real than they can ever be to modern “sophisticated” humans.

Despite what Robert E. Howard once wrote in The Nemedian Chronicles, heroic fantasy is not about “an age undreamed of.” In symbols, at least, we have all dreamt of such an age. Although most elements from the personality theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung have not held up well under the microscope of modern psychological analysis, these authors’ concepts about symbolism and the origins of human thought bear considering for anyone who is interested in literary traditions. (Today, Freud and Jung are actually more influential in the study of literature than in psychology.)

For both Freud and Jung, human prehistory was a time when the seeds of later myths, and of many later truths, were being planted. I believe they are right, though not always for the reasons they suggested. Biologically, modern humans are not very different from the first fully modern Homo sapiens of 200,000 years ago. Brain size and overall brain architecture appear to have remained largely unchanged from then until today, although small scale changes in brain structure are likely to have occurred throughout that time. We know that cultural complexity began to grow rapidly after about 50,000 years ago and subtle reorganizations of the brain might account for that.

But whether we speak of 200,000 year old sapiens or 50,000 year old ones, the fact remains that our mind is their mind, with a lot of culture and a little bit of rational science as icing on the cake. Both the roots and the trunks of our myths, and our realities, arise from the ways that early Homo sapiens tried to understand their mysterious and dangerous world. They told stories to explain their experiences. And those stories have passed down to us as myths. Heroic fantasy is the closest thing we have to modern mythmaking in the great human tradition.

Storytelling is how we all make sense of our world. And despite Heroic Fantasy’s critics, who sometimes refer to it as “juvenile” literature, no other form of modern storytelling does so much to explore the way that humans became human.

This entry filed under Howard Fandom, Howard's Fiction, Sword & Sorcery.

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That’s the question Butch repeatedly asks Sundance in the movie while the super-posse is hounding them. I felt like asking it myself as I perused some of REH’s horror stories, specifically “The Black Stone,” “The Thing on the Roof” and his Conrad-Kirowan fragment “The House,” in which his two occult investigators probe the early life of the mad poet Justin Geoffrey. Bits of Geoffrey’s verse serve as the epigraphs to both stories. There are mysteries here. Chiefly they concern the identity of the narrators of the stories, neither of whom are named. Can they be the same man?  Are they the same as characters in other REH yarns, or are both “TBS” and “TTotR” one-offs?

(I confess this post is largely a shameless, self-serving plug for Nameless Cults, by Deuce Richardson and myself, now finished, and for the novel on which I’m still working, Damned From Birth, a direct sequel to “TTotR.” The readers have been warned. Let’s go.)

In both stories we learn only a few things about the narrators. Both are studious types who like their rare books, and are fascinated by odd events that took place in largely unexplored alleys of history. Both seem to travel quite a bit. Both are acquainted with von Junzt’s magnum opus, Nameless Cults (ah-haaa!) and seem to know the work of the mad poet Justin Geoffrey. Both place an epigraph of Geoffrey’s verse at the head of their accounts. The narrator of “The Black Stone” discusses Geoffrey and his final fate with the village innkeeper of Stregoicavar in Hungary.

We could infer that the two narrators are the same person. They might even be John Kirowan, Conrad’s friend, who accompanies him into the Catskills to check out a sinister old house that affected the boy Justin Geoffrey’s mind. After all, “The Black Stone” takes place in Hungary, and John Kirowan lost the love of his life in Hungary as a young man (“The Haunter of the Ring”).  He could have returned there years later to pay his respects at her grave.

The chronology would fit. “Dig Me No Grave” is a definite Conrad and Kirowan yarn, and it just as definitely takes place in 1930. That was the year John Grimlan’s bargain with “the one black master” ran out. It’s equally certain that “The Black Stone” takes place in 1931. The narrator tells the innkeeper that Justin Geoffrey “died screaming in a madhouse five years ago.” Justin Geoffrey died in 1926. If “Dig Me No Grave” takes place in England, on wild, desolate Exmoor – and Deuce Richardson and I both think it does – Kirowan could have travelled from there to the continent.

I can’t quite buy it, though. The person narrating “The Black Stone” doesn’t seem like John Kirowan, the disinherited black sheep of a noble Irish family who travelled the world (Zimbabwe, Mongolia, the South Seas) investigating the black occult arts, or a man with a tragic past. He comes across as a bookish academic, pedantically citing various sources like Dostmann’s Remnants of Lost Empires and Dornly’s Magyar Folklore – all as fictional as Nameless Cults. And he doesn’t seem to know enough about the bizarre and supernatural to be Kirowan.

howard03_a09_b(For similar reasons, I doubt the Professor Kirowan who is one of the group in Conrad’s study in “The Children of the Night,” is the same person as occult investigator John Kirowan. The latter was never called “Professor” in any of the stories in which he definitely appears, and Professor Kirowan also seems like a waspish academic who doesn’t know nearly enough about dark occult matters. Probably an English relative. The Kirowans, or Kirwans, of Galway were an extensive race.)

To distinguish the two narrators without making a tedious reference in full each time, I’ll call them N1(TBS) and N2(TTotR) from now on.

References to Nameless Cults in the two stories add to the doubt. N1(TBS) says that he “stumbled upon … one of the unexpurgated German copies, with heavy leather covers and rusty iron hasps.” He also thinks “no more than half a dozen such volumes in the entire world today” are left. Contrarily, N2(TTotR) did not “stumble upon” the copy he found. He obtained it for someone else after diligently searching for three months. He too comments on the German edition’s rarity. “He might almost as well have asked me for the original Greek translation of the Necronomicon.”

This being so, it hardly makes sense to have copies of the original Dusseldorf edition of Nameless Cults showing up here, there and everywhere. N1(TBS) obtained one; N2(TTotR) got hold of one; Conrad in “The Children of the Night” has a copy on the shelves of his “bizarrely furnished study”, and I’ll bet that was one of the originals. John Kirowan’s buddy would be satisfied with nothing less. Miskatonic University is sure to have one, or even two. Michael Strang in “The Hoofed Thing” has one in his library – a strong indication that both Conrad and Strang, and also N2(TTotR) have plenty of cash. They couldn’t afford such rare items otherwise. They must be the independently wealthy types who appear so often in pulp fiction of the 1930s and earlier.

It’s fair to suppose that a couple of the above copies, at least, were the same volume. If N1(TBS) and N2(TTotR) were different men, then one of them might have obtained Nameless Cults after the other disposed of it. Michael Strang might have done so too (obtained it or disposed of it). Any assumption that keeps the number of those “extremely rare” Dusseldorf editions to a minimum is a reasonable one to make.

Now there is a link between the stories “The Black Stone” and “The Thing on the Roof”, or what seems like a connection. (Deuce Richardson pointed this out. I completely missed it. Another one I owe him.)  N1(TBS) sees a similarity between the strange characters on the Hungarian “Black Stone” and those on “a gigantic and strangely symmetrical rock in a lost valley of Yucatan.”  He opined to “the archaeologist who was my companion” that the marks were sophisticated writing and the rock was the “base of a long-vanished column”. The archaeologist “merely laughed” and said the massive base would suggest “a column a thousand feet high.”

Hmm. Deuce is right. N2(TTotR) is an archaeologist, and he has done field work in Yucatan. One of the first things he mentions in “The Thing on the Roof” is his paper, “Evidences of Nahua Culture in Yucatan,” and his academic quarrel with the bull-headed Tussmann over it. He also refers to a “Professor James Clement of Richmond, Virginia” who located his copy of the vanishingly rare Nameless Cults.

A professor. An academic. A man to whom you turn to find a rare book for you. A man who knows all about the history of von Junzt’s “Black Book”. He automatically mentions the publication date and the printing house even of a book he’s only giving a passing mention (Dostmann’s Remnants of Lost Empires, Berlin, 1809, “Der Drachenhaus Press”). He seems a lot like N1(TBS). Seems fair to suppose at this point that the two narrators really are two different men, neither one John Kirowan, but that they are acquainted at least, and that N1(TBS) is Professor James Clement. N2(TTotR) is the still unnamed archaeologist who was his companion in Yucatan, and who laughed at Clement’s speculation about the huge rock they saw in the “lost valley” together. He probably should not have laughed. I infer he was young at the time. And came to take Clement’s view more seriously later.

This blogger is working on a novel that serves as a direct sequel to “The Thing on the Roof” and gives the narrator a name, Boston background, family, fiancée – fleshes him out quite a bit. But none of that is from canonical REH or Lovecraft sources. It doesn’t apply in this context. And nothing in REH, so far as I know, sheds any more light on the background, career, or even name, of N2(TTotR).

howard03_a08_bHe wouldn’t be Costigan in “The Little People.” Nothing in that story suggests he’s an archaeologist, and nothing in “TTotR” suggests that its narrator is an amateur boxer “with a terrific punch in either hand”, as Costigan is. John O’Brien in “People of the Dark” doesn’t seem like a candidate either. He too is no academic, no archaeologist. “I was born and raised in a hard country,” he says, “and have lived most of my life on the raw edges of the world, where a man took what he wanted, if he could, and mercy was a virtue little known.”  Hardly the type an archaeologist like Tussmann would approach to procure for him a rare book like Nameless Cults.

He could possibly be James O’Brien of “The Cairn on the Headland”, as O’Brien is an accomplished and successful scholar. “TTotR” might have happened after eerie circumstance (and the god Odin) rid O’Brien of the blackmailer Ortali. But O’Brien’s line appears to be Gaelic language and history, not Central American ancient cultures. A man established and highly regarded in one field of scholarship wouldn’t shift to another, especially once he was rid of the blood-sucking extortionist who had made his life miserable for ages, and was free to enjoy the rewards of his regular work – in which he “commanded an enormous salary”.

I reckon the verdict there has to be “not proven” – but not too likely.

REH’s mad poet, Justin Geoffrey, has a connection with both “TTotR” and “TBS”. A few lines of his verse form the epigraph or motto to both stories. He is the subject of a conversation in “TBS”, which attests that he too visited that “sinister, ill-regarded village in Hungary”. Justin Geoffrey is without doubt a part of the shared Howard-Lovecraft universe. “TTotR” mentions “the original Greek translation of the Necronomicon.” “The Thing on the Doorstep” names Lovecraft’s character Edward Pickman Derby of Arkham as “a close correspondent of the notorious Baudelairean poet Justin Geoffrey, who died screaming in a madhouse in 1926 …”  The same story mentions “the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt.”

REH’s “The House” has Conrad expounding to his friend Kirowan his certainty that Justin Geoffrey’s extraordinary differences to the other members of his – very mundane – family were due to an experience when he was ten. He was lost overnight near a village (called Old Dutchtown) at the foot of the Catskills in New York State. He slept in a grove of trees near a curious old house, long abandoned, that no-one evidently wanted to own. The artist Humphrey Skuyler says, “It fairly exudes an aura of abnormality … that is, to a man sensitive to such impressions … There’s something almost Oriental about the thing, and yet it’s not that either … At any rate, it’s old – that cannot be denied.”

Young Justin didn’t enter the house, merely slept near it. Yet apparently it caused him to become such an off-the-wall person and eventually go mad. Why did the house exert such a baleful influence, and who (a horrid character, we can assume) built it where he did?  To paraphrase this post’s title … who was that guy?

No-one in the fragment knows. Conrad and Kirowan can’t find out. The owners of both adjoining properties deny it belongs to them. Their friend Skuyler the artist, who was impressed enough by the ominous place to paint a canvas of it, has no idea. Even the mayor of the nearby burg, Old Dutchtown, cannot tell them.

There are three signposts that might point the way for a start. Justin Geoffrey is a character in the Howard-Lovecraft universe. The house stands at the foot of the Catskills. It was built long ago, near “Old Dutchtown.”

Lovecraft had at least two old Dutch families with ghastly histories in his canon, and they both lived in grim, ill-starred big houses. The Martenses of Tempest Mountain (in the Catskills!) in “The Lurking Fear” were one. They were inbred, numerous (a bit too numerous) and characterised by mismatched eyes, one brown, one blue. They also reacted to thunderstorms with horror and intense, violent nervous excitement.

The other Dutch clan, which flourished in the days when New York was still New Amsterdam and one-legged Peter Stuyvesant its governor, was van der Heyl. The Martenses were only degenerate. The van der Heyls (“The Diary of Alonzo Typer”) were vile and diabolic warlocks from far back. They moved from Albany to Attica in 1746 “under a curious cloud of witchcraft suspicion” and built a “large country house” there. The van der Heyls and their servants all “suddenly and simultaneously disappeared” in 1872.

e7c645_09eb3972a7804da6937c7361d86b4da6It’s this blogger’s hypothesis that a Martense man left home, went to work for the van der Heyls in the early 17th century, and married a van der Heyl woman. They were prosperous fur traders then, and had shipping interests in the Dutch East Indies, along with their secret diabolism. “The Lurking Fear” records one instance of a Martense man who did go into the outer world later, in the 1750s, and when he returned after years, his own kindred murdered him and buried him in an unmarked grave. I’m supposing the earlier one prospered and stayed away, sagacious fellow.

Further speculation. He and his van der Heyl wife had a son. The boy had the mismatched Martense eyes, and of course the Martense surname. As an adult, he went out to the East Indies as a van der Heyl agent, and did a fine job trading for them there – in nutmeg, sandalwood, and other commodities. He spent a few years in Aceh, Sumatra. He also learned a good deal about the local varieties of black magic, true to his inheritance on the mother’s side. Back in America, though, he grew sick of having his relatives regard him as less than a true van der Heyl, and broke with them at last. Going back to the Catskills (though not to Tempest Mountain) he built his own “castle-like house” close to the foot of those mountains. Settling there, he practiced the fiendish magic of his mother’s kin and the malignant isolationism of the Martense breed. At last he died.

It would account for the atypical architecture of the house. “Almost Oriental … and yet it’s not that either.”  If the builder had spent years in Java, Aceh and Makassar, that would explain it. If his ghost haunted the place, or it remained imbued with his dark sorceries, that could also explain its effect on young Justin Geoffrey. And maybe the above gives a partial answer to the question of who “those guys” were …

This entry filed under Howard Scholarship, Howard's Fiction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I stood on the deck of a ship offshore
And harked to the awesome and deafening roar
Of the ocean waves when they struck the reefs,
High tossed on the tide like crested chiefs
Whose plumes toss high ‘bove the battling hordes
Where leap the lances and flash the swords,
And the mighty waves rose high and steep
To the hand of the waves that smote the deep
And my soul leaped wild and my soul leaped free,
To the leap and the swing of the rolling sea!

Robert E. Howard, “The Sea”

The strangely matched couple of pirate Helen Tavrel and staid, honest trader Stephen Harmer had been thrown together by fate on a remote Caribbean island. They had mutual enemies, the group of pirates led by brutish, ape-faced John Gower, and already in a couple of clashes they had reduced their adversaries’ numbers. Upon seeing the five surviving rogues come together again, none with the longboat on the beach, Helen decided to return and rifle the boat of supplies. It was reckless, and they were caught in the act by Mike Donler and Will Harbor. Stephen shot Donler through the chest, then finished him with a cutlass, while Helen ran the other pirate through. Now the odds were only three against two.

Gower and his fellows, a dark, saturnine Frenchman with the Spanish name of La Costa, a thing he never explained, and a bearded, ill-natured giant called Bellefonte, might have left in the boat. But Gower, the captain, was obsessed with the idea that there was a fabulous treasure on the island. It was supposedly contained in a stone temple, a relic of a lost empire called “Mogar”, which Harmer doubted had ever been. He also thought that fabulous was the very word to describe the treasure. Helen considered it worth searching for, at least, and she was proved right.

265796_190786330981827_128082643918863_545499_6719297_oThey discovered the temple, on the other side of a noisome barrier of bamboo, vines and mud. Howard’s description of its architecture is not dissimilar to that of the “Temple of the Toad” found some fifteen decades later by Freidrich von Junzt, in Honduras. (REH, “The Thing on the Roof”) “… built of great stone blocks … windowless and doorless … huge, squat columns … formed the front of the edifice …”  Perhaps they were products of the same culture. Steve asked himself, “What alien people had built that shrine so long ago?  Surely some terrible and somber people who died ages before the brown-skinned Caribs came to rear up their transient empire.”

Gower and his companions caught them at a disadvantage there, and Steve was wounded by a pistol shot. Clubbed down by La Costa’s musket, he could not assist Helen, and she too was taken prisoner. Gower spared them for the present only because he was impatient to find the treasure he insisted was there. Bellefonte was just as eager, but La Costa had become skeptical. “As for the gems,” he averred, “a legend hath it that the ancient priests of these people flung them into the sea, and I, for one, believe that legend.”  That aside, he felt superstitious about the temple itself. “This is a haunt of demons; nay, Satan himself hath spread his dark wings o’er this temple and it’s no resort for Christians!”

Whatever gave La Costa the idea that he and Bellefonte and Gower were Christians is beyond me. But that’s by the way. REH had a sense of irony. Before long, searching for secret doors or hiding places, La Costa was bitten by a deadly snake and shot himself to end his torment.

Captain Gower was scarcely moved, and continued his search. After a while he stated, “I believe yon altar is the key of this mystery. Bring the sledge and let us have a look at the thing.”  They had a heavy hammer with them, and Bellefonte had the strength to crack almost anything, even what appeared to be a solid square of stone. But Stephen Harmer felt chilled as he watched them prepare. As he expressed it:

“They mounted the stair like two rogues going up the gallows steps, and their appearance in the dim light was as men already dead. A cold hand touched my soul and I seemed to hear the sweep of mighty bat-like wings. An icy terror seized me, I know not why, and drew my eyes to the great stone which hung broodingly above the altar. All the horror of this ancient place of forgotten mysteries descended on me like a mist, and I think Helen felt the same for I heard her breath come quick and hard.”

Gower and Bellefonte didn’t seem to share those feelings. They continued to batter the altar until it proved hollow and broke open. There was nothing in the cavity, though, except one great red gem at the bottom, which seemed to be set firmly in place. They pried it loose. Not having read REH’s “The Thing on the Roof,” or seen an Indiana Jones movie, they didn’t know enough to be very careful what they touched in a secret ancient temple.

With a crunching, grinding noise, the huge central stone dropped out of the ceiling, smashing the bits of the altar and the two pirates. Nothing more was seen of them except blood oozing from under the stone. There was no treasure, either; that had been a fable, or else La Costa had been right in his belief that the priests of Mogar had hurled the jewels into the sea at the time of the Spanish conquest. The bloodshed and death had been for nothing, but on the pirate round, it frequently was. And then death came close to Helen again, when a vessel passing the island proved to be a warship whose officers would hang her if they knew her identity. Steve promptly vowed to pass her off as his sister, and then made an avowal of love, proposing that they change the plan and tell the ship’s captain she was his betrothed. Helen did not refuse, but she asked for time to consider, and to gain Roger O’Farrel’s approval, he being the nearest thing to a father she had. Steve swore in frustration, but he claimed a kiss at least.

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This entry filed under Howard's Fiction.

2After participating in the Howard Days panel about the Lancer Conan series,  I realized quite a few are interested in Lancer Books and the later Zebra Books. The presentation (and my previous article) concentrated on Frazetta’s influence, but now let’s talk a little more about Irwin Stein and Walter Zacharius, the founders of Lancer Books.

Irwin Stein had a journalist background but had an affinity for comic books and science fiction. He wrote for Quality Comics (chiefly known for Jack Cole’s Plastic Man) and later the romance comics line for St. John. When he left comic books to start his own company, Royal Publications, he published genre magazines (men’s adventures, detective, SF, monsters).

4Stein and Zacharime partners somewhere along the line. They formed Magnum Communications Corporation. One of their first purchases was Swank Magazine. Martin Goodman (Timely/Atlas/Marvel) was the owner at that time. Swank had a reputation as a quality men’s magazine. Aficionados of these things say the quality took a slightly downward slide after their takeover. Magnum Publications include Untamed, Lion Adventures and True War.

They then started Lancer Books in 1961. Later Stein hired Larry Shaw as editor. Shaw was instrumental in acquiring the Conan series and in getting Frazetta to illustrate the first cover. Mr. Shaw was honored with a special Hugo Award for lifetime achievement in 1984, a year before his death.

The early Lancer books had a distinctive green (often bluish looking) edge around the pages. 1962 saw the start of the Lancer Science Fiction Library. These sold for 75 cents at a time when most paperbacks were only 50 cents. Lancer realized they were pitching to a specialty market that would pay a premium. In 1966 they began publishing paperback originals with the purple colored edges. One notable entry was Michael Moorcock (writing as Edward P. Bradbury) doing a Martian series that owed a great deal to Edgar Rice Burroughs.

For Robert E. Howard fans, the key year was 1966, and the publication of Conan the Adventurer.  There is no need to rehash that story again; suffice to say everyone knew that the Frazetta cover was a smash!

Stein in an interview, from Confessions, Romances, Secrets, and Temptations: Archer St. John and the St. John Romance Comics by John Benson, talks about that first Conan painting:

Yes, those covers really put him on the map, I think. He was known mostly to the fans at the time. I tried to keep one of the paintings, and he threatened to come up with a gun. Well, most of the cover artists, if you said you liked something, they’d say, “Keep it.”  What the hell, they had very little residual value at the time. But Frazetta always had a huge sense of his own worth. And rightfully so. Generally, there were very few that I really wanted to keep for myself. But that was one of them, and I asked him for it.

In 1968 they reissued Conan the Adventurer and issued Conan the Wanderer at 95 cents. From the fanzine, Megavore, which featured a Lancer SF Checklist in their 10th issue comes this comment:

It tells you something about the popularity of the series that Lancer could jump the price so rapidly and not have to worry about the effect it would have on sales.

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Lancer was doing well and besides the Conan books published Howard’s King Kull, The Dark Man and Others, and Wolfshead. Larry Shaw left Lancer in 1968. He was replaced by Robert Hoskins. Hoskins, apparently a fan of S&S, edited an anthology Swords Against Tomorrow for Signet Books that mentions REH as a literary descendant of Homer.

conan-the-adventuer11971 saw the change from purple edges to yellow and 1973 brought with it the bankruptcy.

The details of the bankruptcy can probably be found with enough patience and access to legal archives but suffice to say Lancer Books was no more. Magnum Communications Corporation continued on with various publishing ventures and at least three other non-publishing ventures: Vacation Ownership Marketing; Capital Solutions I, and Fuda Faucet Works.

Gerald Jones in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book tells the story of Harry Donnenfeld. Donnenfeld started National (DC) comics. Donnenfeld apparently had ties to gangster Frank Costello. New York publishers bought a lot of paper shipped from Canada. Canada was in full liquor production during the failed U.S. experiment of prohibition. Along with shipments of paper there was plenty of booze. So pretty much all publishers of exploitation literature (comics, pornography, and men’s adventures) have rumors of mob money.

3As mentioned before Stein and Zacharius purchased Swank from Martin Goodman (of Marvel Comics fame) and Stein worked for various comic book companies. So, yes, they traveled in the same circles as Donnenfeld and others that might have had mob ties. No doubt pornography publishing makes strange bedfellows, but no real evidence of organized crime exists. There was the occasional article in the SFWA Bulletin newsletter about Lancer not paying royalties and offering lame excuses and after the Lancer bankruptcy their remaining publishing arm, Magnum Books, republished books from the Lancer catalog that were in violation of previous contracts. So there were shady-doings but nothing that other publishers had not set as a precedent.

After the Lancer bankruptcy Walter Zacharius chose to start the Kensington Publishing Corporation (which included Zebra Books) with a new partner, Roberta Grossman. Apparently there was a falling out with Stein but other than a very brief mention in Publishing Romance: The History of an Industry, 1940s to the Present by John Markert not much has been said.

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Zebra Books published 14 REH books:

  1. The Sowers of the Thunder
  2. Tigers of the Sea
  3. Worms of the Earth
  4. A Gent From Bear Creek
  5. The Vultures of Whapeton
  6. The Incredible Adventures of Dennis Dorgan
  7. The Lost Valley of Iskander
  8. The Iron Man
  9. The Book of Robert E. Howard
  10. The Second Book of Robert E. Howard
  11. Pigeons From Hell
  12. Black Vulmea’s Vengeance
  13. The Sword Woman
  14. Three Bladed Doom

According to Leon Nielsen in Robert E. Howard: A Collector’s Descriptive Bibliography:

[the] books were selling so well that Zebra capitalized on its success by adding the line, “Heroic fantasy in the tradition of ROBERT E. HOWARD” to the front cover of any book that might fit loosely into the category of heroic fantasy.

Second only to Frazetta as a fan favorite, most of the REH Zebra books featured art by Jeff Jones. Even the most conservative REH fan would probably let Jeff Jones go to the public restroom of his choosing.

Jeff Jones was a troubled fellow with loads of artistic talent. If Frazetta was power, then Jones was poetry. I think it is possible he could surpass Frank Frazetta as a REH fan favorite one day. His best work is breathtaking if not always true to the story.

Walter Zacharius was always an innovator. Early in his career he helped start the Ace Double Novel line (along with Aaron Wyn), and with Kensington he signed deals with Wal-Mart and QVC, and made the first forays into e-books.

One of his more exploitative tricks was during the height of Lee Iacocca’s success with the automobile corporation, Chrysler. Iacocca was popularly known as an innovative entrepreneur (there was talk of him running for President, as if Americans would vote for someone with no political experience!). He had a best-selling autobiography eating up the sales chart. Zacharius republished a previously little read paperback with the same title and it ended up as one of the best selling paperbacks of 1985.

Even with his other successes the Lancer Conan series was a hallmark. His New York Times obituary had this to say in summing up his accomplishments:

With Irwin Stein, he founded Lancer Books in 1961 to publish genre fiction, primarily science fiction and fantasy, notably the “Conan the Barbarian” stories of Robert E. Howard…

The New York Times knew “those were books!”

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Most Howard scholars could probably write an entire treatise on the things they wish they had related to Robert E. Howard’s work, starting with more of everything from a gifted author who died too young.

In amongst all those predictable wishes I could name is a minor but nagging one – that we had more information about his composition of the story Gates of Empire. Surviving correspondence discusses many of his historicals, but little related to this one has come down to us, and that’s a shame, because there’s nothing quite like it in the entire Robert E. Howard canon.

It’s a historical, but while it has detailed and thrilling action, it’s not grim and moody. It’s humorous, but its tone has scant in common with Howard’s Western tales, which are so exaggerated that they clearly aren’t meant to be taken seriously, or even his humorous boxing stories, which, while not quite as embellished as the western yarns, still are many more steps removed from reality. Gates of Empire is both an action adventure and a comic send-up, and it’s a marvelous little tale.

It stands alone, a class by itself in Howard’s work, showing us another kind of tale Howard might have succeeded in, had he the interest, the time, and the market.

The story might very well have come off as grim and relentless as Howard’s more famous historicals, the famous four adventures that immediately preceded it in composition: “The Sowers of the Thunder,” “Lord of Samarcand,” “The Lion of Tiberias,” and “The Shadow of the Vulture.” But with its witty, bumbling ne’er do well protagonist, Giles Hobson, in the driver’s seat, it becomes an entirely different sort of adventure almost from the very start.

And much as hubris destroys many of the central figures of those four stories, its Giles’s own actions that launch him into adventure, misfortune, and the occasional turn of luck.

A Howard tale often beings in the midst of deadly action, or the plotting of same. Gates of Empire, though, opens with a discussion shared by inebriated servants who’ve invited themselves to the wine in their master’s wine vault. Giles, who’s more clever than his fellows, does lead the others in a plot, but it’s neither meant to unseat a ruler nor obtain riches – it’s a jest meant to get two aristocratic lords fighting each other for no other goal than sheer amusement.

sercerender4Giles may be clever, but he can’t see too much further than the end of his nose, even when sober. Once discovered as the author of the prank he’s forced to flee for his life, and when we see him next he’s been found as an inebriated stowaway aboard a merchant vessel on its way towards the holy land. Once again we find Giles’ planning short sighted, for the owner of the wine he’s been tapping is ready to have him heaved overside.

Fortunately for Giles, the ship soon comes under attack. As arrows fly, mayhem erupts, and men fall to left and right as the Moslem galley closes the distance. The carnage is almost exactly what we’d see in any other Robert E. Howard story, except that we’re getting something of a backstage view. Howard’s not focused on the lone hero or stalwart band who’s readying the defense or the attack. Instead, the camera follows a fellow we might normally have seen simply as a background characters. Arrows miss when Giles bends at just the right moment. He evades getting skewered when he trips and his vast bulk takes down Emir Shirkuh, who mistakes his opponent for a mighty warrior owing to Giles’s vice like hug, desperately thrown about Shirkuh so the redoubtable warrior cannot swing his own blade.

In perhaps this one way Giles could be said to resemble other Howardian heroes, for his strength is remarkable, even if its never used to succeed in bold exploits.

It’s Giles’ tongue that’s his greatest gift, another characteristic uncommon among Robert E. Howard’s characters. Giles may not be adept at long term strategy, but he’s a master of improvisation, soon convincing Shirkuh that he’s a relative of none other than the King of England, a lie that would have proved problematic for other mortals once he’s again with Franks, but Giles passes his first lie off as an exaggeration of his enemies, claiming instead that he’s merely the younger son of a Scottish Baron.

63a9e084e3e7525ebe873f415534f4e9He’s adept at navigating changing circumstance as well, such as when he first wishes to avoid the company of an army riding to war by travelling to Acre until he learns that the lord he’d wronged, Guiscard de Chastillon, commands the city. He quickly claims that “duty calls, and what are weary limbs and an empty belly beside duty? Let me go with you and do my devoir in Egypt!”

I enjoy this story well enough that I’ve written of it before, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a favorite scene that I already covered: the moment Giles is lured from his friends by a lovely dancing girl.

It’s the ideal demonstration of another difference between how Howard presents Giles and how he writes about his other protagonists. For instance, Conan is often a step ahead of us, his readers, whether it be smashing a giant spider with a quickly flung chest or out-thinking a swordsman in the midst of a fight. We’re not sure how Conan will get through, but know that he will, and wait to see how he’ll manage this time. The dangers that come at him are frequently surprises.

Giles, on the other hand, walks into dangers he himself has often created, and that we the readers can see coming a mile away. It’s impossible to imagine Conan unwarily following a woman down a dark hidden passage without suspicion, but Giles does, and we know full well she’s up to no good. He can’t overcome his situations with martial prowess and is unlikely to do so with brawn, so either dumb luck or inspired lying is his only real chance, and it’s a pleasure distinctly different to see how he gets through each challenge.

Howard maneuvers the elements of this story like a master cardsharp, keeping us so busy focused upon other things that each time Guiscard de Chastillon reappears it comes as another shock. The first time Giles encounters him after fleeing, it’s just another challenge amongst all those he’s suffering on the sea seems like it might be the last. The second “encounter” is a mere mention when Giles is offered the sanctuary of Acre, and comes as merely a humorous aside.

4190654_origWhen Giles becomes swept up into a great battle, there’s so much going on around him that Guiscard’s sudden appearance is almost as alarming to the reader as to Giles, and timed to perfection, leading to a climactic moment in the story that may be full of battle, but not owing to a protagonist’s heroic plan or charge! And it’s the enmity between Guiscard and Giles that lies behind a famed charge that ruined a battle and put Shirkuh on his throne, an event lost to history but rendered entirely plausible, as is Shirkuh’s good humored response when he encounters Giles on the battlefield shortly after the victory.

To me it’s always seemed that Howard had mastered the heroic historical fiction story in the preceding four tales and that with Gates he began to experiment with the form to amuse himself. He happened to have amused most readers who’ve chanced upon the story, as well. Unlike other writers who experimented a little with a different style, Howard’s work was a wonderful success. I can only wish that there were a few more just like it. But perhaps its solitary existence is remarkable, and entertaining, enough.

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“After all I have done to keep clean,” she sobbed, “this is too much!  I know I am a monster in the sight of men; there is blood on my hands. I’ve looted and cursed and killed and diced and drunk, till my very heart is calloused. My only consolation, the one thing to keep me from feeling utterly damned, is the fact that I have remained as virtuous as any girl. And now men believe me otherwise. I wish I … I … were dead!”

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

Helen Tavrel returned from her eventful, and bloody, cruise to the Low Countries and shared in its profits. Her captain, Troels Hansen, sold the two shiploads of armaments originally meant for Russia, to various rogues of the buccaneer trade in Tortuga and Port Royal. Helen received her share according to the articles of the voyage. Her foster father, Roger O’Farrel, no longer a young man, was living more quietly now. He made his living – for he had medical training – selling well-equipped medical chests to the surgeons of pirate ships.

He had taken a modest amount of land on Tortuga, and a house in the town. He was friendly with the French Governor, Bertrand d’Ogeron. (A Governor d’Ogeron appears in some of Sabatini’s Captain Blood yarns, but anachronistically; the real d’Ogeron died in 1676, in Paris.)  His Cuban servants Ramon and Eulalia, of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, had moved to Tortuga with him. So had their daughter Renata, Helen’s closest friend. Renata was about to marry a young French pirate who was leaving the red trade and taking land under d’Ogeron’s scheme. Helen went to their wedding, as did her foster father, and they gave the couple generous presents to start their married life. Helen had a wistful moment or two as she drank to their future. But she was convinced no man existed who could compare to Roger O’Farrel, and her view of her fellow pirates in general was not rosy. Hansen and le Ban were probably the best of a scurvy lot. No, a decent life with a decent husband seemed to be absent from the cards for Helen Tavrel. Even Renata’s man might get restless and desert her someday …

Helen stayed in Tortuga with O’Farrel for a short time. She even considered settling down, but the thought was like a thought of death, too tedious for bearing. She was not twenty yet. She loved the sea and her wild, adventurous life. Her greatest model, her only one, was O’Farrel. Her credo might have been the one Robert E. Howard set down in his poem, “The Day That I Die.”

“And ye that name me in after years,
This shall ye say of me:

“That I followed the road of the restless gull
As free as a vagrant breeze,
That I bared my breast to the winds’ unrest
And the wrath of the driving seas.

“That I loved the song of the thrumming spars
And the lift of the plunging prow,
But I could not bide in the seaport towns
And I could not follow the plow.

“For ever the wind came out of the east
To beckon me on and on,
The sunset’s lure was my paramour
And I loved each rose-pale dawn.”

Ntw_i_sloopNevertheless, the slaughter of the arms ships’ crews made her dreams uneasy sometimes. Helen decided to try her luck as captain of her own craft – a sloop, fast and light, such as those in the trade often found convenient for inshore work. And she decided to raid Havana, where she had once lived, and where O’Farrel had been cheated by the Captain General.  Francisco Oregón y Gascón had ceased to hold the office only that year. The new Captain General, another Francisco (Rodríguez de Ledesma) did not know her or O’Farrel. He was about to.

Helen did not sail directly for Havana. Her pirate sloop was too obviously just that for entry into the city’s harbor, unnoticed and unchallenged, to be possible. Instead she sailed east, to Puerto Rico, where – as in Cuba – there was a huge contraband trade due to the Spanish crown’s taxes on legal commerce.  Off the mountainous island, she successfully waylaid a Spanish nao, called the Nuestra Señora de Encarnación.

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