Archive for the 'Tevis Clyde Smith' Category

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And while we’re on the subject, why should anyone be down on the flapper? Who is? but a lot of venerable hypocrites who raise a yell when they see a girl doing honestly and openly what they did secretly and evilly? Bah! This blatting about the sanctity of the American home makes me tired. Listen to the words of a bird who knows: love marriages! Bunk. Out of one hundred marriages, five people, I mean men, marry for love. Ten marry to spite some other girl. Fifty marry for money, no, I’ll say thirty. The rest all marry to satisfy their lust. That means men. Most women marry for love, but not all. Some marry for the same reasons most men do. I dont suppose youll believe this. But that wont alter statistics.

Letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, June 8th, 1923

Flappers were with-it young women whose heyday was the Roaring Twenties, at which time Robert E. Howard was in his teens and early twenties. Their dress and conduct scandalized their elders. Flappers wore their hemlines short, about one inch below the knee, and their underwear scant; the teddy and step-ins appeared about that time. They wore makeup. They smoked. They drank, and Prohibition be damned. Not only did they share young men’s hip flasks, they often had hip flasks of their own. They bobbed their hair. They attended parties unchaperoned and drove about in cars with college men. (The typical college man’s car was a stripped-down Ford adorned with slogans like “Chicken, Here’s Your Roost,” “Four Wheels, No Brakes,” and “This Car’s Like the Mayflower – Many a Little Puritan has Come Across In It.”) They danced the Charleston and the Black Bottom, which could not be done in corsets. Their depraved behavior had few limits.

(In passing, ten or a dozen years before, when the tango appeared in England and North America, it had made the blue-noses shudder. A hundred years before, when the waltz came in, that one threatened utter moral collapse among the young. What?  Men and women holding one another while they danced?)

flappers-1The mass-produced automobile brought huge changes in young people’s courting and dating habits by itself. It meant mobility, including social mobility. It meant being able to get out of your own neighborhood and go somewhere anonymous, quickly and with ease. And World War One had slaughtered millions of young men. The ones that were left were at a premium with young women. Wait until you were married?  Why?  When you couldn’t be sure of getting married?  And young men who’d been to the war and come back had a big motivation to live while they could.

Young women during 1914-18 had entered the work force in huge numbers out of necessity, and they too had found an existence outside “church, kids and kitchen”. Amelia Earhart was an example of the new symbol for girls. Besides millions of young people, war had killed the old certainties and the old values. The hellish influenza pandemic of 1918 had killed millions more world-wide, and added to the “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” attitude that widely prevailed.

Makeup was considered shocking. The Mrs. Grundys still called it “painting.” Smoking … well, it was a time when only a certain kind of girl  smoked. Bobbed hair and flat chests (they were in, the Gibson Girl S-curve figure was passe) were disgraceful and unfeminine.

Flappers flicker and flap and flirt,
Hip flasks flame and flash and fly,
Gay tints glimmer beneath each skirt –
Stocking tops go not that high.
Silks and satins take the eye,
Flimsy fabrics that cling and stay
Molding the contours daintily –
But where are the drawers of yesterday?

Step-ins, bloomers and panties all,
Combinations hold brief sway –
Not less easily do they fall –
But where are the drawers of yesterday?

–Robert E. Howard

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Female fashion and wanton adornment was a big issue back in the 14th century. Despite the wars, torture, rape, the black plague, endemic treason among the nobles, and kings as a rule being moral degenerates, a constant topic for ranting sermons was the vanity of women. They were assured by celibate (sometimes) priests with straight faces and loud voices that every follicle they had ever plucked on their hairline or eyebrows would have red-hot needles thrust into it by demons for eternity, once the ladies arrived in hell, as they surely would.

Robert E. Howard was informed enough about the Middle Ages to be aware of the above. And all his fans know he was seldom on the side of conformity. Nor did he have patience with hypocrisy or phony pretense. His verse “A Great Man Speaks” gives us the ruminations of a statue of some big-time politician or whatnot as he gazes over the park. There is a drunkard passed out among the flowers, and the Great Man is wishing he was alive, not a statue, so that he could glug the drunk’s whiskey bottle. A pretty girl passes, and he wishes he was alive, not a statue, so that he could get his hands under her skirt. To hell with the puff jobs his admirers give out.

“They set me up on high, a marble saint,
As if to guard the virtue of the park,
My flanks are gaunt, my gaze is cold and stark,
For I must look the part the liars paint.
They’ve cleansed my history of fleshy taint.
The elders bid the younger people mark
How virtuous I gleam against the dark  –
Could I but speak I’d make the bastards faint.”

belles-on-their-toes-1950-hardcoverFathers, of course, took their daughters’ virtue seriously back then. Trifling with it could still get your arse shot off, and the never-darken-my-door bit happened often enough. They meant it, too. For the genuine flavor of those times, look through a copy of the autobiographical Belles on Their Toes, by brother-and-sister team Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. It’s breezy, warm and rambunctious. (The hilarious scene where the large group of siblings, it was a big family, catch a peeping tom and reduce him to gibbering pleas as he’s trapped up a tree, is beyond price.)  But the girls were young and full of beans in a free-and-easy time, and their father Frank Gilbreth Senior didn’t like it, especially when his daughters wanted to be with-it.

There were disputes, heated ones, about makeup and underwear, and Frank Senior was inclined to thump the table and bluster. He threatened to put his daughters in a convent if they didn’t toe the line, although they knew he wasn’t even close to meaning it. “The one with the ten-foot wall, or the one with the twelve-foot wall?” Ernestine asks pertly, when he accuses her of wearing makeup. (She wasn’t.)

Dad Gilbreth was appalled by modern underwear when Ernestine bought a couple of teddies home. She figured that as the oldest it was up to her to pioneer the revolution and weather the storm. “I don’t want to be a sneak,” she announced, “so I’m showing you these now. If you won’t let me wear them here I’ll change into them on the way to school. I’m not going to be the only girl there with long underwear that has a flap in the back!  It’s disgusting.”

“It’s not as disgusting as having no back to the underwear to sew a flap on!” her father roared. “I can’t believe every girl at your school wears these teddy-bear, or bare-teddy, things. If that’s all the underwear women have on nowadays, no wonder you read about all those crimes and love-nests, like that New Brunswick preacher and the choir-singer …”

That would be the Hall-Mills murder case of 1922. Edward Hall, an Episcopal priest, and Eleanor Mills, a member of his choir, were found shot dead in a New Jersey field.  The main suspects, Hall’s wife and her brothers, were tried in 1926 but acquitted. Nothing eclipsed the case until the Lindbergh kidnapping of 1932. Robert E. Howard was possibly thinking of that double murder when he penned another of his caustic verses on spurious superficial morals, “The Choir Girl”.

“I have a saintly voice, the people say;
With Elder Blank I send the music winging –
I smile, and compliment him on his singing –
By God, I’d rather hear a jackass bray.
I nod and smile to all the pious sisters –
I wish their rears were stung with seven blisters.
That youthful minister, so straight and slim –
I’d trade my soul for one long night with him.”

delphineatger-cars-1920s-01a-575x381Harking back to Belles on Their Toes, Ernestine assured her father she was not drawing the long bow. “Come to school and see.”  He blushed and backed down. In the end he grumbled, “The bare-teddies and six o’clock stockings are OK, I guess, but I’ll have no painted women in this house.”  His daughters told him that everybody used makeup these days, and didn’t call it painting any more. He barked, “I don’t care what they call it.”

For the times, Frank Gilbreth was actually quite liberal and advanced. At least, he was proud of his wife for being an industrial engineer and career woman, (in the 1920s, mind) and all his kids adored him. There were twelve, which means Lillian Moller Gilbreth must have been the sort of superwoman you don’t think exists outside wish-fulfilling novels. Both of them were quirky, affectionate people if the book is halfway right. But like the temple priests in ancient Sumeria, they thought there was no more res-pect for tradition and decency and the world was going to hell.

The Gilbreth girls could be reactionary, too. When their parents yielded on bobbed hair, and Lillian took all five to the salon, the hairdresser asked in all innocence, “What about you, Mrs. Gilbreth?”  Well. Her daughters clouded up and rained all over the parade. “No sir!  You don’t touch a hair of her head. The idea!”

Lillian was tickled to have the situation reversed, and pretended to consider the notion. “I don’t know, girls,” said she, smiling sweetly. “It might look very chic. What do you think?”

“I think it would be disgraceful,” declared Anne – the second oldest, as I remember. “After all, a mother’s a mother, not a silly flapper.”

“Just my daughters today, then,” said Lillian. “I guess five bobbed-hair bandits in the family should be enough.”

bathe5413bab61cec5199697161711f0Bathing suits became an issue for the Gilbreth girls too. A two-piece swimsuit then didn’t mean a bikini. The first piece was heavy wool that covered a girl from neck to knee. It wasn’t considered enough for decency. The second piece was a sort of massive, enveloping cape. Long black stockings too. The one-piece suit that appeared in the 1920s consisted of a long top combined with shorts. Legs and arms were exposed. Anne called her mother’s bathing suit a “sea anchor”.

There was more to worry about then, for those who observed it, than petting parties, jazz and blues, too much mobility, or even Al Capone. There was the Red scare, the National Origins Act of 1924, which restricted immigration on precisely the basis it said (and sadly was favored by Howard and Lovecraft) and the exponential rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan had broadened its horizons from lynching and shooting blacks to keep them from voting; its hate now included Catholics, Jews, and foreign immigrants in general. Membership was probably five million across the nation, at a conservative estimate, and included plenty of respectable middle class men, doctors, lawyers and ministers. The Klan didn’t like bootlegging, motion pictures, city folks or any kind of religion but Protestant fundamentalism. It was, naturally, all for strict moral conduct and family values.

The flapper was a lewd menace.

mindful-money-party-flapperThe quintessential novel of the flapper era was The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, the mysterious millionaire and former World War One soldier obsessed with Daisy Buchanan, lives in a mansion and throws extravagant parties. It turns out that his fortune, far from being respectable “old money,” was made bootlegging, and even his name is phony. His passion for Daisy turns out to be delusional too. The woman he has been desperately trying to impress for years is flighty and selfish enough to let him take the blame for a motor car fatality when in fact she was the one driving. Another character, a married man who is himself unfaithful, still explodes in righteous rage when he finds his wife is cheating too. A couple of murders result.

The moral vigilantes of the time should have lived until now. Not that anything is being done now that wasn’t done then. As another Robert, Bob Heinlein, wrote, “Most of our current moral decline can be summed up in one sentence. What used to be covered up is now being talked about.”  I may as well let REH have the last word here:

Ye ancient, honest, olde farmer ye-speaks. “The young people of terday air simply awful. Haint got no decentcy ner nuthin’ … these here one-piece bathin’ suits, and dancin’, and all. Some gals axually read novels! And goin’ bathin’. When I was young folks didnt bathe atall. An’ gamblin’. Taint no harm to bet on hoss-races and play euchre cause I’ve did both myself. But I considers it right-down sinful to play poker and bet on automobeel-races. And drinkin’ … the young men and young women nowadays is right-down scandalous … Well, times aint like they used to be and all the young men and young women is goin’ to hell especially the young women.”

Letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, July 30th, 1923

This entry filed under Howard's Poetry, Tevis Clyde Smith.

Strange-Tales-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

LRBO              Letters to Robert Bloch and Others (Hippocampus Press)

SLCAS            Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith (Arkham House)

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

girasol-WeirdTales-July1925

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are sheer masterpieces. The little Frenchman is one of those characters who live in fiction. I look forward with pleasurable anticipation to further meetings with him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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gloomy_mountains_by_doodlethedemon89-d8q3lql

My soul’s a flame of divine fire, a god’s voice . . .

–Robert E. Howard

The poem “Cimmeria” is usually placed (by the relatively few critics who have considered Robert E. Howard’s poetry and poetics at all) among Howard’s most important published poems. Admirers and literary critics who have considered chiefly his fiction also see it as significant, primarily because of its connection to the Conan cycle of stories. As Rusty Burke relates the story of the beginnings of Howard’s Conan tales, the poem seems to immediately precede the inspiration for Conan:

In February 1932, Howard took his trip down to the Rio Grande Valley, passing through Fredericksburg. While he was in Mission, he wrote the poem “Cimmeria” (at least, so he told Emil Petaja when he sent him a copy of the poem: “Written in Mission, Texas, February 1932; suggested by the memory of the hill-country above Fredericksburg seen in a mist of winter rain.”). At some time during his stay in the Valley, Conan came to him. He returned to Cross Plains via San Antonio, where he stayed a few days. “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” were both returned to him by Farnsworth Wright in a letter dated March 10, so obviously had been sent to Weird Tales some time before that. (Burke, “Without Effort On My Part,” The Iron Harp 1, Vernal Equinox, 2001)

Aside from its seeming importance as the poetic flash that kindled Howard’s imagination to the resultant cycle of Conan tales, the poem is interesting in its own right for several reasons.

First, as one of Howard’s only two uses, as it seems, of blank verse (at least of Howard’s extant poetry), it represents an interesting foray into the dominant serious narrative/dramatic poetic form of the English language.

Second, it further demonstrates Howard’s knowledge of and serious study of poetics and gives further evidence of a broad reading experience in the forms and traditions of poetry in English.

Third, simply by its use of blank verse, the seriousness and significance of the subject matter of the poem to Robert E. Howard is likely indicated.

Fourth, it is a marvelous, although quite brief, example of blank verse technique and a demonstration of Howard’s skills and tendencies as a narrative poet.

Fifth and finally for my purposes here, not only is this poetic subject, as indicated by the choice of poetic form, important for Howard, but it is quite possibly of seminal importance to an understanding of his world view and philosophical vision, especially because of its last section—often not included in early printings.

Before addressing these points, it is best to briefly review the origins and tradition of blank verse and its ascendency as a vehicle for heroic narrative and dramatic presentation.

“Blank Verse” in its loosest definition is unrhymed but metered poetry (in other words, verse and not free verse, but without rhyme). In its usual and narrower sense, blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter (lines of ten syllables with the even numbered syllables stressed or accented—at least as the basic rhythm, from which there is allowable subtle variation). Sometimes even called “Heroics” [see Lewis Turco, The Book of Forms], blank verse has been firmly established as the primary mode for serious poetic narrative in English since the sixteenth century.

To give credit where credit is due for its introduction into English, we must go back to another Howard, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (often called simply “Surrey”) who used the form in his translation of Virgil’s The Aeneid. Surrey was also the inventor of the sonnet form later used by Shakespeare and since known as the “Shakespearean” or “English” sonnet. [Alas, for Surrey! But such are the ways of fame and forgetfulness.] In any event, Surry’s use of blank verse, done chiefly in “closed lines”— in lines usually end-stopped by punctuation— marked the beginning of the narrative and heroic traditions that blank verse was to maintain.

The plays, not only of Shakespeare, but also of Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson, were composed primarily in this meter as well, establishing blank verse as the vehicle for serious dramatic poetry in that other important mode of story telling. Later in the seventeenth century, John Milton used it for Paradise Lost. And after the chiming, rhyming heyday of the closed couplet through the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, nineteenth century poets like Tennyson (“Ulysses” and The Idylls of the King and Browning (“Fra Lippo Lippi“) reinvigorated the form for both narrative and dramatic purposes, respectively. In Robert E. Howard’s own era, Robert Frost made much use of the form in poems like “Mending Wall” and [after Shakespeare as is clear from the title’s reference to Macbeth] “Out, out!

Thus, by the time of Robert E. Howard’s nurturing in the ways of poetry, the dominant narrative poetic traditions in English were two: blank verse and the ballad. I have elsewhere discussed Howard’s frequent and innovative use of the ballad stanza as his preferred narrative form [see “Notes on Two Versions of an Unpublished Poem by Robert E. Howard” in The Dark Man #6 and other articles]. Much more study on REH’s preferred narrative pattern and innovation upon the ballad stanza— both the traditional and literary ballad— and upon his use of other exotic forms for the narrative (especially the sonnet) needs to be done. But his almost sole use of blank verse for “Cimmeria” is worthy of this and other studies.

First of all, the poem is the unique instance of blank verse among Howard’s published poetry at the time of this posting. Which is the more remarkable in that it is—by the same standards that T. S. Eliot used in his praise of Christopher Marlowe’s blank verse—both enjambed (making much use of run-on lines rather than end-punctuated, end-stopped, end-paused) and melodious. It demonstrates a fine balance between prose narrative sentence delivery and poetic metered undertones and also displays Howard’s very fine phonic sense, his “ear” for the sounds of—beyond their meanings.

SEL18317018388Likely the best way to establish Howard’s view of himself as a poet as well as a “fictioneer” is to examine his own words in the letters that have been left to us. If one studies the two collections, ably edited by Glenn Lord [Selected Letters: 1923-1930 and 1931-1936, Necronomicon Press] with an eye for REH’s mention of poetry and verse, one will be assured of his developing interest in and continuing study of poetic forms and poetic traditions and his growing sense of urgency not only to become an accomplished poet, but a published poet worthy of note. In his exchange of letters [inclusive of much of his poetic work that survives] he and his friend Tevis Clyde Smith discussed not only poetry and their own work as poets, but, indeed, move toward a planned joint publication (the never-published Images Out of the Sky [although Smith later published his own volume with that title]).

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Charles Siringo

“Where did you get the Siringo book, and how much did it cost? If not too much, I think I’ll get a copy.”

– Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, April 1932

Many critics have drawn a straight line from the frontier hero to the detective hero, marking the transition from the wild frontier of the 19th Century to the urban jungle of the 20th Century. Charles Angelo Siringo lived the transition. A Texas trail driver, he became an operative for the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency, putting his range savvy to use in pursuing, among many others, the cowboy outlaws of the Wild Bunch. As the wild days of free ranging horseback outlaws faded into history and legend, he shifted his attentions to infiltrating labor organizations that were embroiled in out-and-out warfare with mine owners across the West.

Charles_A_SiringoCharlie Siringo was born in Matagorda, Texas, in 1855, to an Irish immigrant mother and an Italian immigrant father. In other words, he was the quintessential 19th Century American. At age 15 he started working as a cowboy on local ranches, and in 1876 he hit the Old Chisolm Trail, driving 2,500 head of longhorn cattle to Kansas. He rode up the trail again in ’77.

He witnessed Clay Allison hoorawing Dodge City — and gave the lie to Wyatt Earp’s claim that Earp faced Allison down. According to Charlie, it was a couple of storekeepers who talked the mercurial, alcoholic Texan down.

Siringo signed on with an outfit in Dodge that penetrated the Texas panhandle, newly opened up with the demise of Quanah Parker’s final Comanche resistance. He was part of the contingent of cowboys who rode for the legendary LX Ranch. The LX was a target for rustlers, including Henry McCarty, alias William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid. Charlie knew the Kid and rode with a posse that tried unsuccessfully to hunt the young outlaw down.

Cowboying was a young single man’s game, and when Siringo married Mamie Lloyd in 1884, he hung up his spurs and opened a cigar store/oyster bar in Caldwell, Kansas. He didn’t like the staid work, staving off boredom by turning his memories into memoirs — “A Texas Cowboy — Or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony.” It’s a fine memoir, and it sold well, but Charlie Siringo wasn’t ready to consign himself to the quiet life of a storekeeper. A blind phrenologist had run his hands over his skull and told him he’d make a good detective — and that sounded right to Charlie. He migrated with his wife and daughter to Chicago, where he signed on with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, the Eye that Never Sleeps.

Picture-6In the late 19th Century, there was no federal law enforcement. Those with a need for law enforcement investigation and action across state lines had to hire their own. The Pinkertons were the preeminent investigatory outfit in the country, despite a high-profile failure to bring the James-Younger Gang to heel.

Siringo became a kind of specialist — a Cowboy Detective. From Alaska to Mexico, he infiltrated gangs of robbers and rustlers, relying on range skills, nerve, bluff and a natural capacity for acting to keep himself alive and get the goods on the criminal element.

He was no tigerish Howardian hero; he stood about five-foot-eight and was whipcord lean. He was, however, range toughened and as hardy as they come.

“He is as tough as a pine knot,” said William Pinkerton, heir to the detective dynasty. “I have never known a man of his size who can endure as much hardship as he does.”

Charlie’s wife died in 1890, leaving him a widower and single father of a young daughter. He remarried in 1896, but that marriage failed quickly and ended in divorce. Charlie Siringo did not domesticate well.

Driven to expand, the Pinkerton Agency opened an office in Denver, headed by the legendary James McParland, who made his bones by infiltrating and breaking up the Mollie Maguires, a secret organization of Irish coal miners in Pennsylvania in the 1870s. Siringo would become McParland’s top operative.

charlie_Gem_ID-1899Infiltration of radical labor organizations was becoming a specialty of the Pinkerton Agency — along with violent strikebreaking. Charlie was sent up to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to infiltrate miners whose strike against corporate mine owners was little short of low-intensity warfare. Union men and scabs were exchanging pot shots at each other on the forest-clad slopes around the mines, and union strikers dynamited a sluice, killing one man.

This kind of work suited Siringo just fine. He hated the kind of radicalism that was sweeping the nation, and Europe as well, in the late 19th Century He had no problem lying and deceiving in the cause of defeating rampant “anarchism.” The purpose of such infiltration was multifold: to build criminal cases against union leadership — if possible, for conspiracy to commit violence; and to provide intelligence to the Pinkertons’ mine-owner clients to keep them a move ahead in the chess match of labor warfare.

The Pinkertons weren’t above acting as agents provocateur, either. And the mere possibility of infiltration sowed distrust and paranoia among the miners.

As C. Leon Allison, Charlie hired on as a mucker in Finch’s Gem mine. He hung around in the local saloons and stood men to drinks — always an excellent way to make yourself popular. It wasn’t long before he was considered a right kind of fellow. He insinuated his way to the inside of the miners’ union and got elected recording secretary. He and his shift boss arranged for him to be “fired” from his mine job, which gave him plenty of time to gather intelligence and write reports.

Bad luck struck when a man named Black Jack Griffin, whom Siringo had known in Nevada, recognized him and called him out. Charlie did some fast talking that allayed suspicions, but only for the moment. When two miners were savagely beaten in town, the strikers’ mood turned ugly, and they turned on Siringo. He escaped buy hiding under a boardwalk.

A firefight broke out between strikers in the hills and scabs forted up at the mine’s mill. The scabs got the worst of it, and Siringo had to make a run for it, escaping into the pine forest.

charlie_cassidy7Eventually, infiltrating miners’ unions and chasing Wild Bunch Bandits wore ol’ Charlie out. He retired and wrote another memoir. The Pinkertons, whom he had served so well, did not like accounts of their doings that they did not control. They quashed the book, which Charlie ended up publishing as “A Cowboy Detective,” using a fake name for the agency and doctoring the facts to avoid the wrath of the Eye. He came to despise “Pinkertonism” just as much as he did anarchism.

In his retirement, he wrote a second cowboy memoir, titled “A Lone Star Cowboy,” and in 1928 condensed both cowboy books into “Riata and Spurs: The Story of a Lifetime Spent in the Saddle as Cowboy and Ranger” — the book that would wind up on Robert E. Howard’s shelf.

The late, great Howard scholar Steve Tompkins* cast a jaundiced eye on the cowboy detective, calling him “half centaur, half weasel, a cowboy, an agent provocateur, and the man who gave Pinkertons’ unsleeping orb a bad case of pinkeye…” whose work was devoted to “making the world safe for plutocracy.” And, indeed, there is something unsavory about Siringo’s kind of undercover work — winning men’s trust with the intent of betraying them, on behalf of rich men who valued their profits far more than they valued men’s lives.

Howard said that he did not much like detective fiction. Perhaps the tinge of sleaziness that attaches to it was the reason why. Surely Howard found “Riata and Spurs” a fine read. Given everything we know about the Texan’s sympathies, it’s hard to imagine that he would have thought much of Charlie Siringo’s detective work. He wasn’t a Howard kind of hero.

* “After The Gold Rush: From Whapeton to Poisonville” by Steve Tompkins — Vision, Gryphons, Nothing and the Night, A Member Journal of Robert-E-Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association, Issue no. 3, Summer Solstice 2002

Be sure and check out Jim’s excellent Western themed blog, Frontier Partisans.

This entry filed under Howard's Texas, Tevis Clyde Smith.

Conan_the_Barbarian

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

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

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

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

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

The Swords of Robert E. Howard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And sometimes less playfully, as Clyde Smith would write:

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

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

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

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

reh-big

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REH_Three_Swords

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for where Bob kept his collection:

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

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

Read Part 2,  Part 3

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

satan-n-est-pas-celui-qu-on-pense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am Satan; I am weary,
For my road is long and hard
And it lies through regions dreary
Since the Golden Gates were barred.
(CL1.161)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Works Cited

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

DB               The Dark Barbarian (Greenwood Press, 1984)

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

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

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

“The Devil in Iron” illustration by Boris

Read Part 1, Part 3

Strange-Tales-7

I have just gotten hold of your magazine and, believe me, it’s a hummer! I read it from cover to cover the night I bought it, and my one plea is give us more stories by those masters of fiction, Robert E. Howard and Henry S. Whitehead.

– Charles Roe, Strange Tales, January 1933 (WGP 44)

The Reverend Henry St. Clair McMillan Whitehead (1882-1934) was an Episcopalian priest and pulpster, one of the regulars of Weird Tales and Strange Tales and a correspondent of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, E. Hoffmann Price, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Bernard Austin Dwyer, and R. H. Barlow.

Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Whitehead attended Harvard from 1901-1904, in the same class with future president Franklin D. Roosevelt, but did not take a degree. He sold his first story to Outdoors in 1905, and shortly after began working for the Daily Record in Port Chester, CT. In 1909, having worked his way up to assistant editor, he entered Berkeley Divinity School. Whitehead gained an M.A. in pedagogy from Ewing College in 1911 (through an extension course), graduated divinity school in 1912, and was advanced to the priesthood in 1913. (HSMW 1, LHSW 2)

Henry_S_WhiteheadFrom 1912 to 1913, Whitehead was priest at the Trinity Parish House in Torrington, CT, and from 1913 to 1917 he was appointed rector of Christ’s Church in Middletown, CT; ill-health prevented him from serving in the army or the navy during World War I, though he served on the local draft board and in various other roles. 1917-1919 Whitehead was the Children’s Pastor at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York City, and after that was Senior Assistant at the Church of the Advent in Boston. Along with these ecclesiastical duties, Whitehead busied himself with various other positions run concurrently: running summer camps; acting as chaplain for the Connecticut State Hospital for the Insane and the Churchman’s Club in Wesleyan University; practicing psychology, tutoring, and writing. (HSMW 4-6, LHSW 2)

Whitehead suffered from ill-health for many years, and from about 1920 to 1929, began spending his summers in the American Virgin Islands (purchased from the Danes in 1916), and was acting Archdeacon for the Virgin Islands between 1921 and 1929. During this time Whitehead served at the Church of the Advent (1919-1923), Trinity Church in Bridgeport, CT. (1923-1925), Holy Rood Parish in New York City (1926), St. Paul’s Church in Oswego, NY (1927), and St. Luke’s School for Boys in New Canaan, CT (1928), before finally applying for the position of rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Dunedin, Florida, which position he occupied from 1929 to his death.  (HSMW 4-6, LHSW 2, DN)

Much of what we know of Whitehead’s life comes from a letter published in the 10 November 1923 issue of Adventure, which included Whitehead’s story “The Intarsia Box.” It was the custom of the magazine to ask first-time writers for a brief autobiography, and Whitehead obliged with a few autobiographical details, as well as excerpts from a friend’s letter describing Whitehead in the Virgin Islands. One of the appreciative readers of this letter was a young Robert E. Howard, who would later quote sections of Whitehead’s letter to H. P. Lovecraft of 6 March 1933, notably a particular stunt involving a deck of cards:

He is the strongest man, physically, I ever saw. Soon after he came here to Santa Cruz, it was discovered that he took a great deal of exercise. One evening he was asked to do a ‘stunt’ for a large group of people who were having an old-fashioned Crucian jollification, and he called for a pack of cards. He tore them squarely in half, and then quartered them. I had heard of cards being torn in two, but never quartered. Incredulity was expressed. The people present thought it was a trick, and said so, though pleasantly and in a bantering way. Father Whitehead asked for another pack to destroy, and for two wire nails. He nailed the pack through at both ends, so that the cards could not be “beveled”, and then quartered that pack. He had to do this everywhere he went after that. Everybody wanted to see it done. One night Mrs. Scholten, the wife of our Danish Bank manager, gave him a small pack of brand new Danish cards. They were made of linen! He tore those in two.” […] As usual the people of Santa Cruz were most interest in what I didn’t go there to do—strongman stunts. The card thing I have practised since I was about seventeen. (CL3.23-24, AMTF 2.538-539)

1923 was the beginning of Whitehead’s career as a pulpster proper, breaking into not only Adventure but Hutchinson’s Adventure-Story Magazine (“Christabel”) and People’s Story Magazine (“The Wonderphone”). The following year he splashed Weird Tales with a January letter in “The Eyrie” and the short stories “Tea Leaves” (May/Jun/Jul) and “The Door” (Nov). 1925 saw another story in Adventure (“The Cunning of the Serpent”), Whitehead splashing The Black Mask (“The Gladstone Bag”), and four stories in Weird Tales—”The Fireplace” (Jan), “Sea Change” (Feb), “The Thin Match” (Mar), and “The Wonderful Thing” (Jul)—the last of which also shared an issue with the first publication of Robert E. Howard in those pages, “Spear and Fang.”

At the present time, so far as the writer is aware, there is only one market in the English-speaking world for the occult short story. That is Weird Tales, which specializes in this branch of literature. (SWF 25)

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