Part One considered the Pathan warrior Yar Ali Khan who shared adventures with REH’s character Francis X. Gordon, known as El Borak. Both were born in the nineteenth century. Gordon’s adventures in the Middle East certainly take place prior to World War One (“Son of the White Wolf” excepted) and it’s averred that he was a gunfighter in the U.S.A. before he headed out to western Asia. Like Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, he found himself in a new west that was rapidly becoming civilized, and looked for pastures new.

REH’s story “The Fire of Asshurbanipal” does not feature Gordon, but another American adventurer, Steve Clarney. The yarn exists in two forms; one with a supernatural element in the shape of a Lovecraftian monster haunting the lost city, one without the monster. In both, Clarney’s comrade in adventure is – like El Borak’s friend – a big Pathan warrior named Yar Ali.

Just possibly they were the same man. Yar Ali might have ridden with Clarney before he met El Borak, or they might have become companions later. Before would be more probable. The Yar Ali of “TFoA” does not have the honorific “Khan” attached to his name, and he appears to be much younger than El Borak’s comrade.

There is no way to be sure. Internal clues to the time of “TFoA” are slight to non-existent. Nevertheless, there are a couple. Yar Ali is described in the opening sentence as firing a “Lee Enfield”. The Lee Enfield rifle was officially adopted by the British army in 1895. The short magazine Lee Enfield Mark I and Mark II were both in service by 1906. However, the Yar Ali Khan of the El Borak stories would surely have known Gordon by then, and his loyalty to the man was unwavering. (Rick Lai did a fine, thorough job of analyzing the characters and references, to Yar Ali, the Sonora Kid, and others such as Yasmeena and Lal Singh, in his “The Legend of El Borak”. He concluded that the Yar Ali who knew Clarney and the Yar Ali Khan who rode with Gordon were the same fellow. He could be right. But going over the stories I did find a few reasons to question that.)

Besides the Lee Enfield, there’s another internal clue to the date of “TFoA”. It’s slight, but it’s there. Clarney and Yar Ali first hear of the fabulous jewel of the title in Shiraz, from “an ancient Persian trader”. The trader heard it described by a dying man, “fifty years before”. The man was believed by the old trader to have come “from the northwest – a deserter from the Turkish army, making a desperate attempt to reach the Gulf.”

The Persian caravan had found him near “the southern shore of the Persian Gulf”. If he really deserted from the Turkish army, and came “from the northwest”, he might have been involved in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. That conflict was fought in two main areas, the Balkans and the Caucasus. Both are indeed “northwest” of the Persian Gulf and Arabia. Clarney and Yar Ali encountered the old trader “fifty years” after he’d listened to the Turk’s dying words. That would date “The Fire of Asshurbanipal” to 1927 or 1928.

Francis X. Gordon’s Yar Ali Khan (call him Yar Ali I) would have been a real old-timer by then.

The younger Afridi swashbuckler (Yar Ali II) from the brief back-story given in “TFoA” had been partners in adventure with Clarney for some years. They met in India, then wandered “up through Turkestan and down through Persia”. In the supernatural/weird version of the story (the one I prefer, by the way) Yar Ali declares at one point that he senses danger, and reminds Clarney that he’s sensed it before; “in a jungle cavern where a python lurked unseen … in the temple of Thuggee …” Clarney takes him seriously, as he’s learned to trust Yar Ali’s almost psychic instinct for looming danger. (Modesty Blaise’s henchman Willie Garvin has the same gift; his ears prickle.)

REH’s verse features what may be a third, separate Yar Ali. This one also bears the honorific “Khan”. If he is a distinct person, he’d be chronologically the first Yar Ali. He was possibly born in the early nineteenth century, since the verse describes a mass battle of Afghans against Hindu Rajputs. Or possibly they were Sikhs, as the Punjab is the Sikh homeland and Sikhism grew out of the Hindu religion. The verse in question first appeared in one of REH’s letters.

Now bright, now red, the sabers sped among the racing horde,
The Afghan knife reft Hindu life and leaped the Rajput sword.
Oh, red and blue, the keen swords flew where charged the hosts in whirls,
And as in dreams rang loud the screams of ravished Hindu girls.
And through the strife, where sword and knife clashed loud on spear and shield,
With sword in hand, Yar Ali Khan rode o’er the battle-field.
From heel to head the chief was red, the blood was not his own
In crimson tide his sword was dyed that had so brightly shone.

The Sikhs of the Punjab had taken control of Peshawar at that time, and the Afghans resented it. They attempted to retake it, led by Muhammad Akbar Khan, in 1837. At the resulting Battle of Jamrud, the Sikh commander, Hari Singh Nalwa, was killed. The above verse could conceivably refer to that fight.

Afterwards, Akbar Khan (a historical personage of note) appealed to the British for aid against the Sikhs, but it was refused. Akbar Khan then sought help from Tsarist Russia instead. The British decided they couldn’t have that – they feared Russian designs on British India – and so they actively supported the Sikhs. They also replaced Akbar Khan’s father, Dost Muhammad, with a puppet of theirs on the Afghan throne. They regretted it later. The result of their policy was the First Afghan War and the British army’s disastrous retreat from Kabul early in 1842. Perhaps that earlier Yar Ali Khan was in the thick of it as one of Akbar’s aides.

Call him Yar Ali III. He might have been thirty years old at the Jamrud fight. That would make his birth year 1807. He would have been thirty-five when he helped harry the British army to destruction in the appalling retreat from Kabul. Steve Clarney’s comrade of the 1920s could have been his great-grandson and namesake. It isn’t likely that an Afghan battle of any size against Rajputs and Hindus would have taken place after 1850, because by then India was under British control and the British held Peshawar. They were occupying Afghanistan too. Keeping its Amir on their political puppet strings to block Russia’s imperial ambitions seemed highly necessary: beyond Afghanistan lay British India.

Another verse of REH’s – “The Song of Yar Ali Khan” may refer to this hypothetical Yar Ali III.

These are the hills and the mountains
And the forests of Yar Ali Khan,
Every man’s hand is against me,
My hand is against every man!
Friends have I of my tribe only,
They follow me against my foe,
My foemen? Why, they are the peoples,
Above and beside and below.
English and Afghan and Russian,
And the swart Punjabi man,
All men are the foes of Yar Ali
Excepting Yar Ali’s clan.
But Yar Ali is strong and his sword is long,
And his tribe are men of war
And the fame of Yar has reached afar,
From Sikhland to Candahar.

It mentions “English and Afghan and Russian, and the swart Punjabi man” as Yar Ali Khan’s enemies, a situation rather more likely in the first half of the nineteenth century than in the second. The Punjab and Peshawar were under British control by then. After the First Afghan War, Akbar Khan died suddenly. It’s believed by many, including some serious historians, that he was poisoned by his jealous and fearful father. Supposing Yar Ali III had admired him and fought in his cause, Akbar’s death might indeed have brought him to think his only friends were those of his own clan. He’d have trusted nobody else after that – Afghans included.

Another poem by REH, although it does not mention Yar Ali Khan, does refer to an Akbar Khan. Its title is “The Tartar Raid”. It describes a battle on the “Oxus’s southern bank” against the raiders, with “the horse of Akbar Khan … the man who knew no fear,” placed “nearest the foe” to “guard the front.” That might have been Muhammad Akbar Khan. He was certainly an experienced soldier by the time of the battle against the Sikhs at Jamrud, and the Tartar raid of the poem might have occurred a few years before that. Yar Ali III might have been there; may even be the narrator of the poem.

Men of the Afghan hills we were, from Kabul to Delhi,
Warriors who well could sit a horse or wield the Khyber knife,
From Kabul and from Kandahar, from Balkh to Abazai,
Well skilled in border warfare, well trained in tribal strife.

The poem appears to be unfinished. The Tartars have ravaged the “cities of Yarkand” and left them ablaze. The survivors are fleeing west, and the narrator sees the plain filled with them, “half mad with fear.” (Yarkand is a region of Sinkiang, near the eastern Afghan border.) He declares that only one man in five escaped the devastated cities with his life, but the actual battle of the Afghans against the Tartars isn’t described, nor are we told who won. This blogger likes to believe the Afghans did, and that Yar Ali III was present. But we’ll never know.

As stated above, I like to believe that Steve Clarney’s comrade was a descendant (perhaps great-grandson) and namesake of the Yar Ali Khan who was (hypothetically) Akbar Khan’s aide. It’s conceivable that the name ran in their family, and that the grizzled grey wolf Yar Ali I was Yar Ali II’s grandfather. If he wasn’t that, he might at least have been a kinsman of Yar Ali II’s father. They were all Afridis, anyhow, and I’d hypothesize that their clan was the Zaka Khel. (One Conan story, “The Devil in Iron” features a superhuman demon of living iron named Khosatral Khel.) Rudyard Kipling mentions the clan in his poem, “Lament of the Border Cattle Thief,” only he spells it Zukka Kheyl.

They have taken from me my long jezail,
My shield and my saber fine,
And heaved me into the Central Jail
For the lifting of the kine.

It’s woe to bend the stubborn back
Above the grinching quern,
It’s woe to hear the leg-bar clack
And jingle when I turn!

The man’s pride is offended and he promises bloody retribution once he’s out.
Tis war, red war, I’ll give you then,
War till my sinews fail,
For the wrong you have done to a chief of men
And a thief of the Zukka Kheyl.

Robert E. Howard’s Yar Ali – or all of them – would have approved every word. El Borak’s comrade, I’m assuming, was born in 1858 and fought in the Second Anglo-Afghan war – perhaps even fired the jezail bullet that wounded an army doctor named Watson, who later recorded many of Sherlock Holmes’s cases. It’s probable that he was also among the leaders of the North West frontier rising of 1897, when the younger Yar Ali was two. Francis Xavier Gordon, a wild young Texan, had either just arrived on that fierce frontier, or was about to.

Further, more definite details can be found in REH’s El Borak stories.

Read Part One

Some members of REHupa were having an email chat about early trips to Cross Plains. This reminded me of a letter that Glenn Lord wrote to Oscar J. Friend, who was the agent for the Howard heirs at that time. Glenn was searching out Howard’s poetry for Always Comes Evening. The letter is presented below:

 13 June 1957

Dear Mr. Friend:

You might be interested to know what I have found in the way of Robert E. Howard material in the Brownwood-Cross Plains area. First, the Howard Memorial Collection is no longer at Howard Payne College—it remained there only a few years until Dr. Howard discovered that the material was being mutilated by students; so he carried it home with him forthwith. Dr. Howard had went to Ranger shortly after Robert’s death and went into co-practice with Dr. Kuykendall in the latter’s hospital there. Upon Dr. Howard’s death in 1944, Dr. Kuykendall found himself, to his surprise, the administrator of the Estate. I talked with him in Ranger and find that he is not being remiss by not answering his letters apropos the Estate but is not aware of anything of interest in his possession; no pictures and no material. He remembers Dr. Howard, shortly before his death, sending tear sheets and other material in a trunk to “Robert’s friend in California,” he believes that it was E. Hoffmann Price of Redwood City.

I did find, in the hands of the head of history department at Howard Payne, a previously unpublished poem entitled THE TEMPTER, probably one of the last Howard wrote. It has definite suicidal tendencies.

I could find fault with Mr. de Camp’s statement on page 7 of KING CONAN that Howard drove 30 miles into the desert and shot himself. From the CROSS PLAINS REVIEW, June 12, 1936, he walked out of his home, got into his car, shut the door, and shot himself—probably not over 15 feet from his house. Also, the Cross Plains area is not desert—it is rolling plains dotted with scrub oak and looked quite green to me.

From Lindsey Tyson of Cross Plains, who seems to have been Howard’s closest friend there, I obtained 2 snapshots of Howard, both better than the one that Derleth has. He also promised to look for other pictures he once had, including a portrait. Seems that pictures of Howard are really hard to find, took me 2 days of searching to turn up these.

I’ll send along the Mss. shortly. If I find something after I send them along, however, I will put it in the volume. I presume that you want the 10 copies of the book sent to you, but should like to know if Dr. Kuykendall gets one of those as I promised I’d see that he got a copy upon publication.

Cordially,

Glenn Lord

[Date-stamped: “JUN 17 1957”]

Last year, Rusty Burke and I wrote a piece for The Dark Man entitled “Gloria.” The essay was a study of Echla Ovie Laxson, who was Clyde Smith’s girlfriend in the mid-1920s and, according to Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, was the first girl Robert E. Howard ever kissed. At the end of that essay, Burke wonders, “Whither Echla?” At the time of our writing, the 1940 Census had not been released, so we ended with what we knew from Post Oaks and the 1930 Census; a recent search has turned up lots of details, including the 1940 Census, a couple of marriage records, and several listings in city directories. There’s enough “new” information to warrant this addendum. To wit:

In Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, Howard wrote that, in the midst of a pregnancy scare, Tevis Clyde Smith and Echla Laxson—“Clive” and “Gloria” in the novel—had “married and left town the same day,” with “Gloria” reportedly going to Kansas City. In her introduction to Report on a Writing Man, Novalyne Price Ellis gives us the real location: not Kansas, but Oklahoma City. A bit later in the novel, Howard tells us that “Clive returned. He had been in New Mexico, where he had kept in hiding until he heard that his wife had sued for and had been granted a divorce on the plea of desertion.”

Thanks to Charlotte Laughlin’s research notes in the de Camp files at the Harry Ransom Center, I knew the date of the marriage and was able to obtain a copy of the marriage certificate (at left) from the Brown County courthouse; the divorce records were not so easy. I called several counties in Oklahoma and had them search for Echla, without success. Then I stumbled on a few genealogy websites and found the following:

I’m not sure why my call to OK County didn’t turn this up. Thank goodness for the internet!

The next Echla sighting is in the 1930 Census; she is living in Oklahoma as the wife of William T. Hay with son William T., Jr (2.5 years old). That’s where Rusty and I ended our article, but the release of the 1940 Census, as well as other documents, has finally rounded out the life of Howard’s first kiss.

I couldn’t find Echla Hay in 1940; I did find William T. living in New Mexico with one of his children from a previous marriage. He is listed as “widowed”; William Jr, is not listed with him. After poking around some more, I found one Echla O. Geist living in “Davis town,” Oklahoma, with husband Charles C. and son Wayne T., 12-years-old. Like Echla Laxson-Smith-Hay, this Echla was also born in Texas and was the correct age—her son, too, was the correct age. Must be our girl. Armed with the new name, I did another search and found the Geists in a 1935 Enid, OK city directory. “C. Clarence” is the proprietor of Geist Drug Store. The 1941 San Angelo, Texas, city directory has “Chas. C.” working at the City Drug Store; his wife, “Echla E.” is “div. head Sears Roebuck & Co.” The 1946 Springfield, Missouri city directory has Echla Geist working at JC Penny—no other Geists are listed. In fact, there is no mention of a son in any listing; indeed, following Wayne T’s 1940 Census appearance, I have been unable to find any other documents related to him.

I had some trouble finding more on Echla, too. In his article, “The Mysterious Isle” (The Dark Man, vol. 3, no. 1), Patrice Louinet says that Echla died in Texas in the 1950s, and there is a family tree posted at Ancestry.com that says just that; however, no source is given for the information: the only documents linked to the tree are the 1910 and 1920 Census forms. Curious, I searched the Social Security Death Index and turned up yet another Echla: Echla Jones.

Now, the Echla Laxson on the Ancesty.com family tree has a birth date of May 5, 1908, but the Echla Laxson who attended Daniel Baker College with Clyde Smith wrote November 7, 1908 on her college forms; Echla Jones has the same birth date and, moreover, her Social Security number was issued while she resided in Oklahoma. Sounds like our girl to me.

A search for “Echla Jones” returned an April 12, 1946 marriage license for “Echla E. Geist” and Oliver W. Jones in Springfield, Missouri, where Echla is listed by herself in the 1946 city directory. So, either Charles had died or the pair had split up, presumably. Following their wedding, the couple appears to have moved to Natchez, Mississippi, where there is a “Jones, Echla L. Mrs. – slswn Byrne’s” and “Jones, Oliver W.—slsmn Pure Oil” listed in the 1950 city directory. In 1959, Oliver was promoted to “prod eng Pure Oil” and they lived in Houston, Texas. Echla Jones died in June 1985 in Fairfax, Virginia.

It’s common knowledge that Robert E. Howard used the same names over and over in many of his pulp stories. Amalric, for instance. In our history he was a ruler of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, between 1163 and 1174 CE.  He appears in REH’s historical adventure, “Gates of Empire.” (Another Amalric was the king of both Cyprus and Jerusalem between 1194 and 1205.)

REH recycled the name for his Conan yarn, “Black Colossus,” in which Amalric is the mercenary general Conan serves as a captain of spearmen. “The most turbulent of all my rogues,” Amalric gripes. “I’d have hanged him long ago, were he not the best swordsman who ever donned hauberk … ”  In “The Hour of the Dragon” a character named Amalric appears as one of the conspirators who raise an ancient wizard from the dead, to depose Conan from the throne of Aquilonia. This Amalric is a wealthy Nemedian baron. A further story, unpublished in REH’s lifetime, never got further at his typewriter than an outline and a rough draft of the first half. L. Sprague de Camp finished it and published it as “Drums of Tombalku.” A main character in that one is yet another Amalric. REH used the slight variation “Almuric” a couple of times, too. It was the name of the alien world in his one interplanetary novel.

“Valerius” became a staple name in Howard’s writing as well. He was one of the conspirators in “The Hour of the Dragon,” and a stalwart, loyal young soldier of Khauran in “A Witch Shall Be Born.” The feminine form Valeria was given to the she-pirate in “Red Nails.”

Then, in REH’s Oriental and desert adventure stories set in the modern world and in his poetry too, we have a Pathan warrior (perhaps more than one) by the name of Yar Ali.

The best known of them appears as an associate of El Borak. He has the honorific “Khan” attached to his name. In modern Afghanistan it meant something like “sir” or “chief.” For the most part REH’s Francis X. Gordon adventures are set in a milieu that predates World War One, often in Afghanistan near the North West frontier of British India. “Son of the White Wolf” is an exception. That is assigned specifically to the summer of 1917, with Gordon an associate of T.E. Lawrence. Spoiler follows: one of the characters is an English secret agent, Gloria Willoughby, posing as a German, Olga von Bruckmann.

I’m inclined to think she may be a niece or even daughter of Geoffrey Willoughby of Suffolk. This man appears as an important character in “Hawk of the Hills,” a story in which he seeks to use and is in turn used by El Borak, though both men wish to defuse a dangerous situation and El Borak, in the end, brings about the resolution which Willoughby desires. Both Willoughbys are resourceful agents of their country.

That’s by the way. Yar Ali Khan doesn’t appear in “Son of the White Wolf,” but he takes a part in “Hawk of the Hills.” He’s a distinct character in the adventure “Three-Bladed Doom,” which is clearly set before World War One. The cult of murderers featured in that story are said to have struck at “the Sultan of Turkey … the Shah of Persia … the Nizam of Hyderabad,” before they make an attempt on the Amir of Afghanistan. Now, in the story all these potentates are said to be allies or at least friendly towards the British.  The Amir in the story, supposing he’s meant to be a real person at all, could only have been Habibollah Khan, who ruled Afghanistan as its Amir from 1901 to 1919. He really was friendly to the British and cordially disposed toward British India – for a yearly subsidy of 160,000 quid sterling. He also tried to keep his country politically moderate and introduce reforms. That didn’t please some of his people, and in actual history he was assassinated in the end, while on a hunting trip. An unsuccessful attempt on his life could have been made earlier.

The other potentates the frightened Amir mentions are said in the story to have been successfully killed with a three-bladed dagger, and in the real world that didn’t happen. No Sultan of Turkey was assassinated in the early 20th century, though Sultan Abdul Hamid was deposed in 1909. The incompetent and corrupt Shah of Persia, Mozaffar od-Din, sick and ailing, was forced to grant a new model constitution in 1906 and died of a heart attack in 1907. (Maybe REH assumed for story purposes that the cause of his cardiac arrest was a three-bladed dagger.)  The second last Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahbub Ali Khan, who was believed by his people to possess mystical powers of healing, particularly against snakebite, died in 1911. The Nizam assassinated in REH’s story is not mentioned by name. Neither is the Sultan or the Shah. But where they are concerned, the story at least touches reality to the extent that the reigns of all three ended by death or overthrow within the same half-decade.

REH’s character, the redoubtable El Borak, steps in to finish the murderous cult. He’s aided by his big Afridi henchman, Yar Ali Khan. (The Afridis were a major Pathan tribe of the North West frontier district, around the Khyber Pass.)  This big truculent roughneck, in REH’s phrase, “Might have been a gaunt old wolfhound growling at his master for patting another dog.”  “Lean” and “gaunt” he’s also tall, with “gigantic shoulders.” He’s prone to “berserk fury” in a fight, and shows “wolfish wariness” at other times. “The berserk rage of Yar Ali Khan” is spoken of again, later in the story: “Chapter IX – The Red Orchard.” He’s also described as a “giant,” but in spite of his gruffness and berserk rages, when he believes Gordon to have been fatally wounded, he dissolves into a blubbering mass of sentiment.

Again, in “Hawk of the Hills” (Chapter V) Yar Ali Khan, when he gets the idea that others have abandoned Gordon to danger, lets out a “blood-curdling yell” and seems “transformed into a maniac.” “Dogs!” he raves. “You left him to die!  Accursed ones!  Forgotten of God!”  Despite his loyalty, not the most emotionally stable fellow. It’s a typical pulp fiction stereotype of an Oriental, of course. But here again, there is mention of “tales told of this gaunt giant and his berserk rages.”  He’s also compared to “a gaunt gray wolf.” Yar Ali Khan also appears at the end of “Sons of the Hawk” with last-minute reinforcements to save the day. There, he’s described as a “tall Afridi” and nothing else is added.

The comparison to an “old wolfhound” and the adjective “gray” at least suggests that Yar Ali Khan of the El Borak stories is quite a few years senior to Gordon. And he combines savagery with almost maudlin sentimentality as old men sometimes do. As for Gordon, in “Hawk of the Hills” Geoffrey Willoughby muses that from what he has heard, Gordon “grew up on the southwestern frontier of the United States” and had a “formidable reputation” as a fast man with a gun “before he ever drifted east.”  It’s probable from that hint that Gordon was born around 1875, and left home aged twenty because he saw the wild days of the west fading and possessed a nature that couldn’t make peace with the advance of civilization. After drifting to Arabia and Afghanistan, he plunges into “native feuds and brawls” which must have reminded him of the bloody feuds of his native Texas. Willoughby feels that this was “the response of a primitive nature seeking its most natural environment.” Gordon may be thirty or a little older in “Hawk of the Hills.” He’d necessarily have had to live in that part of the world long enough to be fluent in some of its languages, like Arabic and Pashto, and to know the ways of its people well enough to pass for one, as he frequently does. His comrade Yar Ali Khan may be fifteen or even twenty years his senior.

That would make him fully old enough to have fought against the British in the North West frontier rising of 1897. Being a member of the Afridi tribe, he probably did. Gordon, a U.S. citizen with no particular love for the British Empire, would hardly hold that against him. Yar Ali Khan may even – as a youngster — have been a combatant in the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-80, the conflict in which Sherlock Holmes’s pal Dr. Watson stopped the “jezail bullet” wound which still bothered him when he first met Holmes. (For all we know Yar Ali Khan may have been the one who fired the shot.)

There we have the first, but in all probability not the only, Yar Ali. Grey, grizzled, huge and gaunt, he’s characterized by ferocity, sentimentality, absolute loyalty to El Borak, and occasionally by what resembles a touch of hysteria. We may suppose that as a young man he was a real Khyber badmash (that is, bandit ruffian), a border robber, feudist, cattle-lifter, horse-thief, rebel, and generally a type who would have been congenial to John Wesley Hardin or Bad Bill Longley. This means he also had the qualities that would make him congenial to REH’s fictional Francis Xavier Gordon.

Next post we’ll take a look at the other possible Yar Alis, including the ones who appear in REH’s poetry.

Read Part Two

Sonora to Del Rio is a hundred barren miles
Where the sotol weave and shimmer in the sun—
Like a host of swaying serpents straying down the bare defiles
When the silver, scarlet webs of dawn are spun.

There are little ’dobe ranchoes, brooding far along the sky
On the sullen, dreary bosoms of the hills.
Not a wolf to break the quiet, not a single bird to fly;
Where the silence is so utter that it thrills.

Maybe, in the heat of evening, comes a wind from Mexico
Laden with the heat of seven Hells,
And the rattler in the yucca and the buzzard dark and slow
Hear and understand the grisly tales it tells.

Gaunt and stark and bare and mocking rise the everlasting cliffs
Like a row of sullen giants carved of stone,
Till the traveler, mazed with silence, thinks to look at hieroglyphs,
Thinks to see a carven pharaoh on his throne.

And the road goes on forever, o’er the barren hills forever,
And there’s little to hint of flowing wine—
But beyond the hills and sotol there’s a mellow curving river
And a land of sun and mellow wine.

by Robert E. Howard

At least as early as the mid-1920s, a Pennsylvania chemist named Merlin Wand had started a list of “intellectually marooned” pen-pals. By 1927, he had acquired enough names to start a “one-man operation called ‘Contacts’ [which] was a clearinghouse for isolated book-lovers and neophyte writers.” (*) He began placing ads in various publications—The Survey, Haldeman-Julius Weekly, etc.—where, for the cost of a stamp, interested individuals would receive the “Contacts Listing Form.” Once the form was completed, applicants sent it and one dollar back to Wand to be listed in Contacts, “the only correspondence club for the mentally marooned.” (**) A typical ad appears below:

Contact Without Friction!

Are you mentally isolated? “Contacts,” literary correspondence club, introduces you to versatile, unconventional minds. No Formalities. Books loaned free to members. Registration fee $1.00. Particulars, stamp: Merlin Wand, Manorville, Pa.

Thanks to Glenn Lord’s collection, we now know that in the spring of 1928, Robert E. Howard mailed in a stamp and was sent the “Contacts Listing Form” on May 26.

Based on how Howard filled out his Contacts Listing Form, it appears that he was more interested in gathering information than in obtaining pen-pals. Under a list of 28 subjects including Mysticism, Sexology, Art, Literature, etc., Howard chose only three: Poetry, Anthropology, and Psychology (he typed “Abnormal” after the last). Then, in the “subjects not mentioned” area, he added Criminology and “Obsessional dementia.” In the additional information slot, Howard wrote the following:

Especially would like to hear from anyone having had experiences with cases of compulsory and criminal insanity; information will be treated as confidential. Also interested in devil worship, human sacrifice, anything unusual, grisly or strange.

The fact that this form remained with Howard’s papers shows that he didn’t send it in with the dollar membership fee. One wonders what type of pen-pal he’d have met if he had sent it in.

*Wixson, Douglas. Worker-Writer in America: Jack Conroy and the Tradition of Midwestern Literary Radicalism, 1898-1990. University of Illinois Press: 1998.
**Sears, James Thomas. Behind the Mask of the Mattachine. Psychology Press: 2006.
This entry filed under Glenn Lord, Howard Biography.

I have not seen the horsemen fall before the hurtling host
But I have paced a silent hall where each step waked a ghost.

— Robert E. Howard

Last post brought us to the early Middle Ages and the rise of the armored knight. Early knights, of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Norman Conquest and the Crusades, wore mail, not plate. Even partial plate armor only came in with the fourteenth century.

From the cataphracts (heavy cavalrymen) of Persia and East Rome onward, the bigger, more massive horses they rode had the main purpose of giving more weight and impetus to the charge. As the British cavalry leader Artos says in Rosemary Surtcliff’s splendid Sword at Sunset, “It is the weight that does it. The difference between a bare fist and once wearing the cestus.” First they impaled you on their lances and then crushed what was left before an avalanche of bone, muscle and hoof. There was the additional factor of bigger horses having greater endurance, being able to carry a knight in mail – and later, in a suit of plate – for a whole day if necessary. Not at high speed, of course. No horse can gallop for hours even with a small, unarmored man in the saddle.

To appreciate fully the difference having a horse makes, we might examine the disadvantages of not having them. Central Asia – China – the Middle East – Europe – all these regions had domesticated horses from an early time. Mesopotamia and China are generally thought to have been the cradles of the earliest civilizations. Egypt lacked horses in its first dynasties – and camels — though it possessed donkeys, but it was blessed with the Nile. Besides making the land fertile and productive, the great river served as a highway for water-borne traffic more efficient than carts or donkey caravans. When the Egyptians adopted the horse and the two-wheeled war chariot later, they also became masters of an empire for the first time.

Consider the Americas. The native North American horse became extinct along with many other large mammals, like the giant buffalo, at about the time men were crossing the Bering Straits (then dry land) from Siberia for the first time. Therefore, they were horseless in North and South America until the Spanish explorers introduced equines again. Stallions and mares lost from the early expeditions went wild on the plains, breeding into large feral herds. The Native Americans took to riding with enthusiasm. The horse changed their way of life, most of all on the prairies, between about 1600 and 1750. The result was the dramatic, warlike culture of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Comanche. It lasted only a hundred and fifty years before they were conquered – by Europeans who had forged their own bickering tribes into large, disciplined nations, which the Native Americans weren’t granted time to do. Had they lived in proximity to horses for ten thousand years, they might have been the ones to come calling on Europe while my ancestors were still painting themselves blue and hunting heads over there.

We all know it didn’t work out that way. The Aztec Empire was able to rise – and to possess a capital city, Tenochtitlan, greater and better organized than any in Spain at the time – because they built it on a series of lakes from which they could obtain enough water to sustain the city, as well as creating floating produce gardens to provide food. They also proved tyrants to the tribes around them, making regular war to get sacrificial victims and exacting ruinous tribute. But they couldn’t extend their empire outside the Valley of Mexico without the horse to provide, among other things, swifter communication that runners on foot were capable of. When the Spaniards arrived, the subject tribes could be pardoned for taking their side in the belief that no masters could be worse than the Aztecs. It was a reasonable belief, but it turned out to be wrong, nevertheless.

A significant factor in the astounding Spanish conquest led by Cortez was that they possessed horses while the Aztecs didn’t – only a few dozen, but they still made a vast difference. The moral and superstitious effect was as great as the practical ability to cover ground with messages. Seeing horses for the first time, the Aztecs thought they were divine, and at first even believed the horse and rider were all one creature.

(That was probably the origin of the centaur legends in ancient Greece, too. “Centaur” derives from the Greek “Hoi Khentauroi” – “those who round up bulls”. Cowboys, in other words. They may have been Thracian cattle-herders of whom the Greeks further south heard only vaguely during the Early Bronze Age.)

Horse lovers may be outraged, but the truth is that the horse isn’t really the brightest of mammals. Dogs, pigs, and quite likely dolphins, are all more intelligent. At least they know when to stop eating. Leave a horse alone with a supply of grain and hay sufficient for weeks, and you’ll find on your return that you’ve made a mistake. Your equine genius will gorge, and gorge, until the food is gone and it founders with a distended belly. Then when it recovers from its binge, it will begin starving.

Australian bush poet “Banjo” Patterson, who knew his horses and loved them, was aware of it. In “Pardon the Son of Reprieve” he describes an effort by crooks to nobble the racehorse of the title. The owners, naïve lads that they are, leave the stall unguarded.

You see, we were green, and we never
had even a thought of foul play –
No, never did dream that the clever
division might “put us away.

They got to his stall – it is sinful –
To think what such villains will do –
They gave him a regular skinful
Of barley, green barley, to chew.

He munched it all night, and we found him
Next morning as full as a hog.
The girths wouldn’t hardly meet round him;
He looked like an overfed frog.

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

Howard had great respect for the Texas Rangers whose acts of bravery, bravado and skilled gunplay are forever a part of the Texas mythos. Today, at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco, these brave lawmen are immortalized. So if you are ever in Waco with a few hours to kill, you can visit the museum and see the various displays dedicated to the men who tamed the wild and woolly Texas frontier.

In his letters to H.P. Lovecraft and other members of his circle of correspondents, Howard often wrote of these larger than life lawmen — of course, being Howard, he made them and their deeds seem even larger. One of the Texas Rangers Howard admired was Manuel T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas. In a missive to Lovecraft dated July13, 1932, Howard wrote of the “Santa Claus” bank robbery that occurred on December 23, 1927 in Cisco, about 30 miles north of Cross Plains. In the letter, he mentions Gonzaullas:

Gad, the country buzzed like so many bees! The authorities sent south for the great Ranger captain Tom Hickman, and Gonzaullas — “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas — “Trigger Finger” Gonzaullas — “Quick Action” Gonzaullas — hero of more touch-and-go gun-fights than I know, and already almost a mythical figure in the Southwest. But they were not needed; the fugitives staggered in and gave themselves up — haggard shapes in torn and muddy garments, caked with blood from bullet-wounds. It was the end of the last great robber-gang of Texas. Let me see; it was three — no, four years ago. It doesn’t seem that long. All the Southwest rang with the news.

Howard’s memory failed him since both Hickman and Gonzaullas participated in the search as noted in this excerpt of my post of December 23, 2010:

The posse, directed by Ranger Captain Tom Hickman pressed on, allowing the wounded men no opportunity for rest. His sergeant, Manuel T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, went up in an airplane as a spotter, participating in the first aerial search for criminals in Texas history. However, Gonzaullas was unable to spot the fleeing men. But their trail indicated the men were tiring of the chase – close set footprints showed the men were weakening from loss of blood.

Or, since the manhunt ended rather quickly, Howard may not have learned of the involvement of “Lone Wolf” in the search. This was mainly due to a reward offered by the Texas Bankers Association, who offered to pay anyone who killed a bank robber in the commission of a bank robbery $5,000. This led to anyone from eight to eighty who had a gun to grab it and join the hunt. Since everyone in Texas owned a gun, there was quite a mob on the trail of the bank robbers.

Manuel Trazazas Gonzaullas was born in Cádiz, Spain on July 4, 1891 to parents who were naturalized U.S. citizens. His father, Manuel Gonzaullas, was Spanish and his mother, Helen von Droff, was a Canadian — the young couple was on vacation when Gonzaullas was born.

As a young boy growing up in El Paso, Gonzaullas already knew he wanted to be a Texas Ranger, inspired by seeing the legendary Ranger John R. Hughes, the “Border Boss,” on horseback. That fire in the belly to fight lawlessness soon burned hotter as a teenager, when banditos murdered his two brothers and seriously wounded his parents. After serving in the Mexican army and with United States Treasury Department, Gonzaullas took the oath of the Texas Rangers on October 1, 1920. He was still a newlywed when he enlisted in the Rangers, having married Laura Isabel Scherer, a New Yorker, on April 12, 1920. She was an introvert and stayed in the background and stoically endured her husband’s long absences while he was on a dangerous assignment in some faraway Texas town.

Gonzaullas enforced the law in the Texas oil fields, boom towns, and along the Texas border during the 1920s and 1930s. Alone, he pursued murderers, bootleggers, gamblers, drug runners and bank robbers. He came to be known as “El Lobo Solo” (“The Lone Wolf”) and he was one of four Rangers called “Big Four,” who had an enormous impact crime fighting: Gonzaullas, Frank Hamer, Thomas R. Hickman and Will Wright. Gonzaullas would eventually become the first Texas Ranger Captain of Hispanic ancestry.

The mere presence of Gonzaullas inspired an exodus of troublemakers from problem areas. Often, when word reached a Texas town where crime was rampant, most criminals cleared out before he even arrived. Cool under fire and an excellent marksman, Gonzaullas arrested so many bootleggers, gambling operators, thugs and killers that he often had to improvise jail facilities. Such was the case in Kilgore.

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

So, I’m looking through the stack of Howard-related letters and got curious. The letter above appears in The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard; the original is housed at the Cross Plains Public Library. Who, I wondered, were John M. Watkins and Dr. Anna Kingsford, and what kind of books was Doc Howard looking for?

Watkins, it turns out, was a bookseller and publisher of some rather interesting sounding titles, including The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, Christos: the Religion of the Future, and Essays on Alchemy. “John M. Watkins / 21 Cecil Court, Charing Cross Road / London” is listed as publisher of Addresses and Essays on Vegetarianism (1912), by the aforementioned Dr. Anna Kingsford. The long “Biographical Preface” from that volume is presented here.

Another Watkins-published book, The Living Truth in Christianity (1915), by Bertram McCrie, is described on a Kingsford website as follows:

This little book was written as an introduction to the message of the two soul-prophets – known in this age as Anna Kingsford and Edward Maitland – namely, to the recovered New Gospel of Interpretation, the doctrine which they were instrumental in restoring to the West, where the Christ is risen again from the sepulchre of historical tradition, to live and reign in the undying soul of man.

For more than you probably want to know about Kingsford, there is “A Brief Biography” here. It begins with the following:

There have been few lives as incredible as the life of Dr Anna Kingsford, both in the sense of being remarkable and also of being slightly inconceivable. A theosophist, self-proclaimed prophet, feminist, vegetarian, mother and woman of much personal charm, Kingsford is impossible to classify. This may explain her conspicuous absence in contemporary Victorian studies. As a vegetarian, she makes brief appearances in texts about vegetarianism. As a theosophist, she is delegated a paragraph or two in theosophical studies. Either way, further studies of Kingsford could tell us much about Victorian occultism and the place women carved for themselves within it.

The Theosophy angle reminded me of Jeff Shanks’ recent article in The Dark Man (vol. 6): “Theosophy and the Thurian Age: Robert E. Howard and the Works of William Scott-Elliot.” This is outside my area of expertise, but given the 1925 date on the letter above, one wonders if Kingsford’s The Perfect Way (1882), a collection of her mystical visions and dreams, made it onto Howard’s reading list. The book is mentioned on Kingsford’s page at the “Mysterious People” website: “At the time [1882] The Perfect Way, which explored the deeper Mysteries of religion, was extremely well-received and regarded as the most important modern book of esoteric wisdom and mysticism ever published.” Kingsford’s relationship with Theosophy is also discussed.

Watkins Books, by the way, is still around and still located at 21 Cecil Court; their website says, “Watkins Books is an esoteric bookshop in the heart of London. Established over 100 years ago, we are now one of the world’s leading independent bookshops specialising in new, second-hand and antiquarian titles in the Mind, Body, Spirit field.”

This entry filed under Dr. Isaac M. Howard, Howard Biography.

They of the East ride gallant steeds,
And each knight wears a crown –
We fight on foot as our forebears fought
And we drag the riders down.

— Robert E. Howard, “A Marching Song of Connacht”

I’ve opened this post with the above stanza because it seems to embody a curious omission in REH’s writing about the Celts – whether in his letters, his stories, or his poems. He doesn’t say much about the ancient Celts’ prowess as charioteers or horsemen. Plenty about their racial and temperamental traits; a good deal about Celtic languages; a lot about their valor in war. About their horsemanship, and the importance of horses in their culture, not nearly so much.

He refers to it occasionally and in passing. His letter to Harold Preece, postmarked the fourth of January, 1930, contains the lines:

What a nation gains in one way, it loses in another. Had the Saxons, leaping from their dragon-beaked galleys, found the same yellow-haired giants that Caesar found, rushing down in their iron chariots, there had been no conquest, only windrows of slaughtered pirates, and the speech of Britain today would have been not English, but Cymric.

In “Kings of the Night”, the Gaelic prince Cormac of Connacht joins Bran Mak Morn against Rome’s legions, with a mounted body of “hard-riding, hard-fighting Gaels.” Bran declares to him, “With the chariots of the Britons and your own western horsemen, our success had been certain.”

So REH did refer to the matter occasionally – but not too often. And when he writes of Gaelic warriors fighting at home on Irish soil, as in his Turlogh O’Brien stories, or his references to Cormac Fitzgeoffrey’s early life, he generally talks in terms of fighting on foot, clad in wolf skins at that, as in the stanza cited at the beginning of this post.

Going back long before Cormac, Turlogh or even Bran, it’s possible that the ancient Urnfield culture of the late Bronze Age – which dominated central Europe between about 1200 and 700 BCE – marked the emergence of distinctly Celtic culture and language. All Celtic languages were basically Indo-European. The swift spread and marked dominance of Indo-European languages was due to that new, fearsome weapon of war, the horse-drawn chariot, by which the early Indo-Europeans, whatever their original racial type may have been, conquered wherever they went.

Then came iron-working, first developed on a big scale by the Hittites, in their day imperial Egypt’s only real rivals. Once the technique spread to central and Western Europe, it led to the Hallstatt culture’s growing out of the Urnfield and becoming its direct successor. There followed the La Tene culture of the late Iron Age, roughly from 450 BCE until the bastard harsh merciless Caius Julius Caesar divided Gaul into three parts in the first century BCE. He also had the right hands removed from some forty thousand Gaulish captives for having the impertinence to resist his civilizing conquest.

(This blogger regards Caesar about as Talbot Mundy depicted him in his Tros of Samothrace novels. And as Robert E. Howard viewed the Roman Empire in general. Even Poul Anderson, less fiercely partisan than REH, has one of his characters thinking in his story “Delenda Est”, “There was something repellent about the frigid, unimaginative greed of Rome.” And coincidentally, or maybe not, REH had written a story about the Vandal king Gaiseric leading his fleet against Rome from the former site of Carthage, in a story also titled “Delenda Est”.)

Mind you, Talbot Mundy was a one-eyed Celtophile. As the novel Tros opens, the main character is warning the Britons against Caesar and describing what a liar he is with his slanders that the Druids burn human sacrifices to their gods. He’s correct that this is rich coming from Caesar, who “has slain his hecatombs”, but let’s face it, most primitive cultures are bloody and brutal, and to pretend that the barbaric Celts didn’t offer human sacrifice is a woeful evasion. I believe myself that the Druids didn’t actually offer the sacrifices themselves – that was probably the king’s job – but as wise men and interpreters of the gods’ omens, they would attend and preside. A distinction without much difference, especially if you were the sacrifice. And besides burning people alive in wicker baskets, the Celts were among the most ardent head-hunters the world has seen.

That’s probably quite enough academic background. Horses and Celtic horsemanship is the subject. Wild fellows that the ancient Celts were, they rode horses astride as well as driving chariots, and rode them without stirrups, which hadn’t been invented in their day. They probably rode without real saddles, too, just sheepskin pads for cushions under their butts, or else wholly bareback. If some time traveler had introduced them to stirrups, they’d probably have rejected the device with hoots of laughter. “What? Need that device to save us from falling? What are we, arthritic old women? Get out of town!”

There’s never anything as ridiculous as a new idea. The Celts also reckoned armor was unmanly, when armor appeared on their scene. REH makes a point of this in “The Grey God Passes”. Dunlang O’Hartigan is dubious of the armor his Danann lover Eevin of Craglea, fearing for his life, urges him to wear at the coming battle of Clontarf. He considers it craven. “Of all the Gaels only Turlogh Dubh wears full mail.” Eevin cries passionately, “And is any warrior of the Gael braver than he? Foolish! You will go into battle and the harps will keen for you, and Eevin of Craglea will weep until she melts in tears …”

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This entry filed under Harold Preece, Howard's Fiction, Howard's Poetry.