Saturday, March 12, 2016

Making Excuses for Lovecraft's Racism

By Charles Hoffman  (copyright 1999, 2016)

In 2015 it was announced that the World Fantasy Award would no longer bear the likeness of H. P. Lovecraft.  This decision was made in the wake of complaints that Lovecraft’s privately-expressed racial views were so offensive that a miniature bust of HPL was an inappropriate trophy to present as an award, especially to minorities, in the 21st Century. 

For the most part, Lovecraft fans and scholars have been straightforward in acknowledging Lovecraft’s racial prejudices.  Of course there have been attempts to mitigate the charges of racism leveled against him.  In Crypt of Cthulhu # 98, Dirk W. Mosig asked the question “Was Lovecraft a Racist?” in his essay of that title.  Mosig observes that Lovecraft did not actually commit any antisocial acts, and even befriended people of various ethnic backgrounds.  He also cites the stress Lovecraft endured during his New York years, when some of HPL’s most offensive diatribes were written.  Mosig makes the valid point that racial attitudes were far different in Lovecraft’s day, but is on shakier ground in asserting that Lovecraft was only telling certain correspondents what they wanted to hear.  While admitting “HPL indeed disliked aliens”, [1] Mosig concludes that H. P. Lovecraft was not a racist in any meaningful sense.

Nice try.  Now here’s the rebuttal:  “When, long ago, the Gods created Earth, / In Jove’s fair image Man was shap’d at birth…”  [2] Need I go on?  In his biography, H. P. Lovecraft: A Life, S. T, Joshi concludes that Lovecraft’s racial views are “the one true black mark on his character”. [3]  While endeavoring to place those views in context, Joshi is nonetheless forthright in admitting that Lovecraft was a racist. Knowing that to conquer death you only have to die, Joshi elects to censure and move on.

In this article, I’m taking a different approach from either Mosig or Joshi.  I bluntly admit that Lovecraft was a racist.  I also bluntly admit that I’m going to make excuses for him.  This approach can’t help but to generate controversy.  Race is a taboo subject today, just as sex was for the Victorians.  Any frank discussion of it is nearly impossible.  In the wake of the O. J. Simpson murder trial, former president Bill Clinton called for a “national dialogue” on race.  This was doomed to failure due to the fearsome taboo surrounding the subject (plus the fact that Clinton was essentially saying “Let’s you and him fight.”)  Another point of controversy will be my attempt to lighten things up with humor along the way.  In the current climate of “political correctness,” people are incredibly thin-skinned.  Mel Brooks’ outrageous film Blazing Saddles could not be made today. My attempts at levity may actually increase tension rather than ease it, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Why even bother to make excuses?  Because everybody else does it.  Bleeding-heart liberals routinely excuse violent criminals based on their disadvantaged background.  In fact, they make so many excuses that it seems like racism is the only thing they find morally reprehensible.  Unfortunately for H. P. Lovecraft, his main character flaw just happens to be the one thing most thoroughly condemned in today’s society.  His reputation could never have been so besmirched by alcoholism, drug abuse, or most other forms of private behavior.  Thus I feel the need to defend him, or at least place his attitudes in perspective.

Here, without further ado, are my excuses for Lovecraft’s racism.

1.  It wasn’t such a big deal back then.

As far as I’ve been able to determine, the terms “racist” and “racism” first appeared in the English language around the turn of the 20th Century --and not always as pejoratives.  Comparatively few people in Lovecraft’s day would have even known what the hell a racist was.  It’s important to realize that the very concept underlying the term “racism” is a fairly recent development.  For uncounted millennia, human society consisted of small groups banded together against outsiders.  Distrust of the stranger was universal.  As tribes grew into nations, first contact with foreigners usually proved antagonistic. For a very long time, most wars were waged between hereditary foes. Squabbles among neighboring peoples of similar ethnicity and language were troublesome enough.  When exploration and expansion finally brought the different races into contact with one another the differences they noted in language, culture, and physical appearance were that much more pronounced.  That the outsider was as either a threat or fair game is the sad story of humanity. Whether you like it or not, what we call “racism” is in unfortunate fact the default state of human perceptions regarding other ethnic and racial groups. Aggression is innate; ethics are learned behavior.

Of course multi-ethnic societies did eventually come into being, but these were usually restricted to port cities, border towns, and caravan crossroads.  The truest multi-ethnic, multi-racial civilization came about very recently, in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  The process was by no means a smooth one.  The Statue of Liberty with its “huddled masses” poem was a slick attempt to make a virtue of necessity.  During the Gilded Age, America was making a transition from an agrarian society to an industrial one.  Cheap labor was needed for industry, and immigration provided this.  As America struggled to assimilate wave after wave of immigrants, the commonplace ethnic stereotypes (the drunken Irishman, the amorous Frenchman, etc.) became staples of pulp fiction and the Vaudeville stage.  With the latter, humor helped to break the ice between groups.  Today this sort of ethnic comedy is usually viewed in hindsight as wrong-headed, despite the innovative use of such humor by Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, and others. 

In any event, it is important to realize that social evolution is the slow work of centuries.  We don’t live long enough to see the big picture.  One can only expect so much progress during one’s own lifespan.  I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed the progress in race relations since my birth in the mid-fifties.  We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.  I do think we’ve turned a corner, however.  Various groups were once seen as being more different then they were alike.  Now, I believe, people are seen as being more alike than they are different.  This is a fairly recent outlook that owes much to technological advances in transportation and communications that have taken place over the last two centuries --not a terribly long time in the course of human events.  The average Englishman in 1800 had only a vague idea what a Chinese even looked like.  Inventions such as photography and, later, motion pictures, helped to show people societies in distant parts of the world.  But in 1900, mass communication was in its infancy.  We need to keep that in mind as we consider my next point.

2.  HPL was a product of his environment.

The wave of foreign immigration was at its high tide during Lovecraft’s boyhood in the 1890s and early 1900s.  As Mosig points out, many of his attitudes concerning various ethnic groups were widespread and respectable.  The world was a larger place when Lovecraft was born, with no movies or television to show Americans distant corners of the globe.  The newcomers, with their strange tongues and peculiar ways, were regarded with curious bewilderment.  One can easily imagine Grandpa Whipple, role model for the young HPL, expressing his dismay around the supper table.  Mosig and Joshi concur that many of Lovecraft’s more severe ethnic diatribes were expressed in letters to his Aunt Lillian.  This indicates that his attitude was shared by his immediate family.  Such views were commonplace in the social class into which HPL was born.

Even so, some of Lovecraft’s utterances are unforgivably harsh whatever the context.  We can’t let him off the hook simply because of his environment.  However, it is folly to hold Lovecraft and his contemporaries to the same post-1960s standards of tolerance that we expect of our fellows. Previously racial and ethnic distinctions were given more attention, though not necessarily in a disparaging way.  It was common to speak of the “English race” and the “German race” and so forth. I’ve noticed this through personal observation. I once mentioned to my aunt, a member of the World War II “Greatest Generation,” that Bruce Lee was one quarter German. She was moved to remark that that meant Brandon Lee was five eighths white. I replied, “Yeah, I guess so.“  My aunt did not have a mean bone in her body; it was just a more significant fact to her than it was to me.

3.  Nobody’s perfect.

This is a matter of who gets to cast the first stone.  I doubt that anyone walking the earth today is totally bereft of some form of prejudice.  Even the most enlightened, gentle person is tainted by it.  We have to acknowledge that people are not perfect.  For example, I’m not homophobic and have really liked nearly every gay person I’ve ever met.  Yet I was not always above an occasional remark like, “J. R. R. Tolkien is for faggots.”  I suppose it stems from growing up in a society in which homosexuals were universally scorned (plus not really being into the little Hobbits.)  Most of the time, though, I endeavor to be sensitive, yet still inadvertently commit the occasional gaffe.  Not long ago, someone objected to my use of the term “Chinaman.”  To me this was no different than referring to someone as an Englishman or a Frenchman, but apparently not everyone sees it this way.

Most people are no better than I am regarding prejudice of one form or another.  I doubt, however, that we’ll see many people come clean about this anytime soon.  One of the most insidious things about political correctness is the way in which one need only step a little out of line in order to be branded a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, or whatever.  This can only lead to rancor and ill feeling far more serious than that which originally existed.  James Ellroy remarked that it is very difficult for hidebound liberals to see a person’s racism as a casual attribute rather than a defining characteristic, even when such is the case.  In such a climate, a “national dialogue” on race can only do harm rather than good.  It would be just like picking at a scab.

Of course in Lovecraft’s case, it’s obvious from the virulence of some of his rants that he was affected by more than vestigial traces of prejudice clinging to him like gum to the sole of his shoe.  Yes, Lovecraft could be an ass.  He could also be much more than that.  Just as people are not perfect, they are not always on their best behavior.  Some commentators on Lovecraft --De Camp comes to mind--  seem unable to tell when he is serious and when he is kidding, when he is being thoughtful and when he is being flippant, when he is good humored and when he is cranky.  In his letters, Lovecraft presented all his thoughts in the same lucid style.  Thus it is not so surprising that a commentator might give the same weight to Lovecraft’s snap judgments and hasty generalizations as to his most carefully considered opinions. 

Then there’s the matter of all those letters.  Lovecraft wrote thousands of letters, a mere fraction of them published in the five volumes of his Selected Letters.  The Cardinal Richelieu once said that, given ten lines written by any man, he could find something in them to hang him.  With Lovecraft, Richelieu would have had millions of lines to work with.  Lovecraft’s letters to far-flung correspondents took the place of face-to-face conversation and could range over a broad spectrum of topics.  Sometimes he presented careful systematic arguments, but at other times he was simply speaking his mind at the moment.  Who of us could not be condemned to the pit for some utterance made while mouthing off in private?

Lovecraft’s letters, along with his essays and other writings, cover the full range of his thoughts and beliefs concerning civilization, aesthetics, history, science, current events, philosophy, and so much more.  He put it all down on paper, basically documenting the complete workings of his mind.  Such extensive documentations exists for no other figure that I know of.  Essentially, we have an extremely comprehensive catalog of a man’s mind and its contents, and guess what?  It’s not all sunshine and lollipops.

We all have a dark side, boys and girls.  Some darker than others.  The brighter the picture, the darker the negative.  Here’s the negative of “The Shadow Out of Time”:

On the Creation of Niggers

When, long ago, the Gods created Earth,
In Jove’s fair image Man was shap’d at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next design’d;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill this gap, and join the rest to man,
Th’ Olympian host conceived a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, a semi-human figure.
Fill’d it with vice, and call’d the thing a NIGGER. [4]

Don’t blame me; I didn’t write it.  I only bring it up to make a point. First, somebody out there just laughed.  Like a lot of tasteless ethnic jokes, this is funny (less so if your people are the butt of the joke.)  The humor derives from the juxtaposition of the high-flown language and classical imagery with the crude, heartless vulgarity of the last six words.  So to create this, Lovecraft had to have realized that he was being crude, heartless, and vulgar.  By extension, he knew he was being an ass.  Sometimes people are just being nasty and they know it.

It’s also worth noting that Rap-master H. P. was only 21 or 22 when he wrote this charming ditty.  A callow youth, in other words.  When I was 21 or 22, my friends presented me with a birthday cake with an enormous red swastika drawn in icing on top of it.  It was a “German chocolate cake,” get it?  It didn’t mean we were pro-Nazi.

“Creation” is indeed a smoking gun for anyone seeking to condemn Lovecraft on the count of racism.  HPL left a lot of ammunition lying around too.  In putting so much of himself on paper, Lovecraft allows us to see him at his worst.  He did not intend to, however.  Each letter he wrote was intended for the addressee alone, and there are times when we would do well to remember that.  “Creation,” too, was doubtless intended for very few eyes.  Most of us can breathe a sigh of relief that our own worst foibles have never been brought to light.  Lovecraft’s racist and anti-Semitic rants in his private correspondence are the equivalent of venting behind what he thought were closed doors.  They are not what he endeavored to offer the world.  That would be “The Dunwich Horror,” At the Mountains of Madness, and his other literary creations.

4.  Lovecraft’s bark was worse than his bite.

The portrait of Lovecraft the bigot has always been balanced by the portrait of Lovecraft the gentleman.  The latter has long been the trump card of apologists like myself.  Lovecraft’s adherence to a gentlemanly code of conduct is perhaps the best-documented aspect of his personality.  Lying at the core of HPL’s system of ethics, this code demanded that others be treated with civility, courtesy, and respect.  It extended to members of various minority groups, regardless of how much Lovecraft may have despised the group as a whole in abstract.  Why he actually had Jewish friends and even married a Jewess, et cetera, et cetera.

Usually this has been weighed as a mitigating factor whenever Lovecraft’s bigotry has been considered.  Of course, it has also led to charges of hypocrisy on Lovecraft’s part as well.  People are so hard to please.  More serious is Joshi’s suggestion of the possibility that Lovecraft wasn’t all mouth.  In H. P. Lovecraft: A Life, he recounts Lovecraft’s recollection of his high school days in which HPL remarks, “I became rather well known as an anti-Semite…”.[5] Joshi comments that this “is considerably embarrassing to those who wish to exculpate Lovecraft on the ground that he never took any direct action against the racial or ethnic groups he despised but merely confined his remarks to paper…[C]learly some form of physical demonstration, if only verbal, is suggested.”.  [6]

Since I wish to exculpate Lovecraft, I would like to point out that HPL was thirteen or fourteen at the time.  An obnoxious teenager; imagine that.  Also, Lovecraft was a frail, sickly boy, so it’s hard to picture him going around picking fights.  Crude taunts like “Hey, Hebe,” don’t seem his style either.  If he confronted Jewish students directly, he’d be more likely to say something like, “I’m sorry, but your culture is clearly inferior.”  In all probability, however, he just ran them down in conversation with non-Jewish classmates.

As an adult, Lovecraft avoided shrill rancorous arguments as distasteful.  Therefore he tended to share his more bigoted opinions with those whom he believed would not be offended.  In general, he did not look for trouble.  I can’t help but regard this as at least somewhat commendable, considering my next point.

5.  He really had it rough.

Here’s a brief biographical sketch of H. P. Lovecraft:  Lovecraft was born into an affluent family of old New England stock, and reared amid an environment of culture and privilege.  The bottom fell out of everything during his adolescence, when his family lost all of its money.  As an adult, Lovecraft endured humiliation and poverty.

You really could not come up with a better scenario for warping someone’s personality if you planned it that way.  And it should come as no surprise that Lovecraft’s bigotry became most strident during his “New York exile,” the most miserable period of his entire life.

All things considered, it’s remarkable that HPL remained as stable as he did.  Some of the tribulations he endured were worse than previously thought.  Joshi quotes a letter from Lovecraft’s New York period in which HPL enthuses about having acquired a heater that would enable him to prepare hot meals.  Lovecraft mentions subsisting on cold beans out of a can and (yuck!) cold canned spaghetti.  Possibly, he had been doing so for many months.  Yet he didn’t go to a tower with a sniper rifle, or send out any letter bombs, or physically lash out at anyone even in a small way.  He simply did not have it in him.  I, too, have known hard times, though not as hard as Lovecraft’s.  From experience, I know that his despair and inner rage must have been monumental at times.  Can we cut him any slack on the racism yet?

It is no mere happenstance that Lovecraft held himself together by adopting a dispassionate low-key outlook on life.  Freaking out was not an option for him.  Both his parents died insane, and the specter of insanity was his ultimate terror in both his life and fiction.  He had personally known chronic headaches, depression, and bad nerves.  As an adult, he remained vigilant against any pressures capable of spiraling him down into a withdrawal or breakdown from which he might not be able to emerge.  The stress brought on by his poverty and humiliating circumstances was no mean threat.  Lovecraft had to muster every inner resource at his disposal.  Among his chief defense mechanisms were the aristocratic values of his native class and culture.

Lovecraft would have considered the preservation of stoic dignity in the face of adversity the attribute of a true gentleman.  Money he may lack.  Material comfort he may lack.  But his aesthetics and values could not be taken from him.  He clung to these desperately, like a miser hoarding gold coins.  One unfortunate result is that unsympathetic critics have ridiculed him for affectation and snobbery.  More unfortunate is the fact that the Phillips family values included assumptions of Anglo-Saxon superiority.

The most insidious thing about our prejudices is that, even if we try to shed them, they’re always there to fall back on in a pinch.  Lovecraft’s served him as a security blanket most of his life, but never more than in New York.  There a number of factors combined to make Lovecraft’s intolerance all the more livid.

First, having lived in New York myself for more than a decade, I can attest that nothing brings out the worst in people like piling eight million on top on one another.  Add to this HPL’s abject poverty.  Finally, whereas Lovecraft had previously dealt with various ethnic types mostly in the abstract, he was now forced to deal with them in the flesh on a daily basis.  He was trapped in a world he never made, where all the bad buttons were being pressed.  Hence the rants about the “loathsome Asiatic hordes who trailed their slimy carcasses where white men once walked.”

6.  Lovecraft mellowed with age.

Here is another big favorite of us apologists.  Lovecraft took back a lot of his intolerant rhetoric in later life.  Even L. Sprague de Camp, who hammered HPL on bigotry throughout his biography, gives him credit on this score.  It need not surprise us.  Lovecraft was only 46 when he died, but certain comments made during his last years indicate his awareness on some level that time was running out.  Many a man has sought to put aside old hatreds late in life.

This is particularly true of those who have fought long and hard against someone.  For example, the brilliant Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest was a slave trader before the Civil War.  During the war, troops under his command carried out the infamous Fort Pillow massacre of black Union soldiers.  During Reconstruction, he was appointed the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.  Yet Forrest ultimately repudiated the Klan’s racial hatred and publicly ordered it to disband.  (It actually died out in the 1870s; the modern KKK began as a recreation, circa 1920, with no links to the original organization.)  He ended his days as a racial moderate, believing blacks had much to contribute to American society.

Had Lovecraft lived a fuller lifespan, he would have been seventy in 1960.  He would have lived to see the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement. It seems reasonable to assume that his views would have become progressively more tolerant.

7.  Some of Lovecraft’s views on race and culture actually have merit

I believe I may be the first to make this point.  Lovecraft may have been misguided in his strident insistence that Jews and foreign immigrants would pollute the integrity of Anglo-American culture.  However, in formulating his argument, he did recognize that various peoples’ distinctive cultural traditions were worthy of preservation.

Such recognition is especially notable in a spate of letters HPL wrote in 1933.  At that time the Nazis had just come to power in Germany, and Lovecraft discussed the pros and cons of Hitler’s policies with various correspondents.  Lovecraft has taken considerable flak for his alleged sympathy for Hitler.  It is worth noting that HPL died in early 1937, well before Crystal Night of 1938 marked the true beginning of the holocaust.  Five years earlier, in 1933, Hitler had just been elected chancellor.  Lovecraft is therefore discussing a figure currently in the news, not “history’s greatest monster.”  Even so, HPL is astute enough to declare Hitler an “unscientific extremist” [7] and “a clown.” [8] He qualifies his view of Hitler’s policies, adding, “I do not mean to imply that his actual programme is not extreme, grotesque, and occasionally barbarous.” [9]

One element of the Hitler agenda that HPL did respond to sympathetically was the perception that the indigenous German culture was being undermined by foreign (Jewish) influences.  Lovecraft often expressed the opinion that Jews wielded too much influence in New York’s literary, artistic, and intellectual circles, and this was antithetical to mainstream American culture.  HPL considered this Jewish influence incompatible with American society purely on the basis of culture, rather than biology (he was not so charitable in regard to blacks).  Time and again he stressed that minorities should conform to the society in which they cast their lot.  However, he did not hold that Anglo-American culture, or Western European culture, was intrinsically superior to all others.

Lovecraft does indeed remark that, “Aryans ought not to leave their guidance and interpretation to persons of an irreconcilable Semitic culture,” but in the same breath insists that “Chinamen ought not to let American missionaries dictate & interpret their policies.” [10]  He qualifies his anti-Semitism by saying, “If the Jews had a nation of their own (and they would if they had our guts and self-respect) I’d be the first to insist that it be kept free of Aryan influences.  As it is, I honestly regret the Aryan taint (any infusion is a taint if it’s where it doesn’t belong) in the noble and ancient culture of Japan.” [11]  That same year, Lovecraft prophetically warns that America must be prepared to respond to an inevitable military onslaught by Japan at some point in the future.  All the same, he is moved to comment, “The Japanese carry the spirit of art into the smallest details of life more fully than any other people since the Greeks -- & it will be an irreparable loss if their newer generations lost the old spirit of it in an effort to assimilate western traditions.  Hybridism never pays.” [12]

Today, there is a word for this sort of outlook; multiculturalism.  It is a contemporary view that negates the old ideal of the “melting pot.”  Extreme versions of it can be found on both ends of the political spectrum.  On the right, we encounter white separatists (as opposed to white supremacists), who believe the races should dwell in peace, but apart. On the left, similar notions are held by Louis Farrakhan and his followers.

To weigh the validity of this position, we must consider the plight of the American Indian.  In America, we revile the Nazi “Final Solution.”  After all, it’s not like we ever tried to kill every Indian on the prairie.  Oops, never mind.  Seriously, though, it is believed that Hitler was inspired by the institution of the “reservation” to try something similar.  Truly, the expansion of European civilization into the Western hemisphere was a catastrophe for the indigenous peoples.  However, not every white person in 19th Century America was blithely indifferent to it.  The subjugation of the Indian was roundly and rightly condemned in the liberal press.  This, however, brings us to an important point:  Even the most bleeding-heart liberal --even the most saintly pacifist-- felt that American Indians should be transformed into Christian farmers.  The modern notion of “culturecide” did not as yet exist.  And yet H. P. Lovecraft would have immediately recognized and condemned this development, even if he didn’t have the trendy catchphrase.

It is supremely ironic that certain of Lovecraft’s racial views would now actually be considered progressive.  Certainly, they seem less offensive now than they did forty years ago.

8.  Remarkable individuals often do have flaws commensurate with their stature.

Imagine John Lennon beating the snot out of friend and fellow band member Stu Sutcliffe. It’s easy if you’re aware that he had a bad temper and violent streak that led to the physical and mental abuse of his wives.  Alfred Hitchcock had an unhealthy obsession with his female stars, and sabotaged Tippi Hedren’s subsequent film career.  Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Martin Luther King engaged in extramarital affairs.  Henry Ford was a notorious anti-Semite, as was Richard Wagner. Woodrow Wilson was an unreconstructed Southerner with all the racist views that went along with it.  Thomas Edison had a reputation for unscrupulous business practices and cheating important colleagues like Nikola Tesla.

Narrowing our focus to notable literary figures, it is disconcerting to learn that Charles Dickens was a xenophobe who subjected his wife to extreme mental cruelty.  Sylvia Plath, like many another writer, was suicidal --so much so that she took her life even though she was abandoning two small children.  Oz creator L. Frank Baum once advocated the extermination of American Indians.  In addition to being a chronic alcoholic, Jack London expressed racist sentiments, particularly in regard to the “yellow peril.”  Knut Hamsun, Nobel Prize winner and Norway’s greatest author, was a Nazi sympathizer and outspoken supporter of Hitler. Ezra Pound supported Mussolini and Hitler, and even made propaganda radio broadcasts on behalf of Italy’s Fascist regime.  Both Hamsun and Pound were formally charged with treason. So why isn’t Ezra Pound currently being subjected to the same flak as Lovecraft?  Possibly because there are no Cantos role-playing games. Unfortunately, Lovecraft is to some extent a victim of his own popularity and posthumous success.

H. P. Lovecraft was in good --or bad-- company, depending on your point of view.  Also it is worth noting that Lovecraft’s bigotry remained confined to his privately-expressed personal views and did not lead him to undertake any form of political activism.

9.   H. P. Lovecraft would not be the same man, or the same writer, without the rough edges.

And now for the big one.  If this whole essay consisted of just this one point, it would be more than enough.  It really renders my first eight excuses superfluous.  I just wanted to stack the deck in HPL’s favor as much as possible. But the bottom line is this: what looms larger in the big picture?  Is it tasteless comments and faulty reasoning expressed to friends and relatives? Or is it “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and At the Mountains of Madness?  And, yes, the former does have something to do with the latter.

The most telling thing about Lovecraft’s bigotry is not its depth but its breadth.  Lovecraft routinely vents his spleen on more than just the usual suspects (blacks and Jews).  He remarks that, “in New England we have our own local curses…in the form of Simian Portugese, unspeakable Southern Italians, and jabbering French-Canadians.  Broadly speaking, our curse is Latin, just as yours is Semitic-Mongoloid, the Mississippian’s African, the Pittsburgher’s Slavonic, the Arizonian’s Mexican, and the Californian’s Chino-Japanese.” [13]

Thus we realize that to do Lovecraft’s “racism” justice, we must call it by its proper name: xenophobia.  The term “xenophobia” has long been used in connection to Lovecraft due to the fact that his aversion to various ethnic types extends to virtually all non-WASPs.  Nor does he stop with the squalling Italians and jabbering Portuguese.  I even recall him referring to a fellow New Englander as a “Massachusetts high hat.”  Clearly, Lovecraft was capable of regarding anyone whose background disturbed him in some way as an alien.

Recognizing Lovecraft as a xenophobe does alter our estimation of him somewhat.  The term indicates a deep-seated pathological dread, no less real than an acrophobic person’s fear of heights or a claustrophobic person’s terror of enclosed spaces.  This in itself mitigates Lovecraft’s intolerance just a little.  He was not indulging in hate for hate’s sake.  Rather, he was seriously troubled by a sense of fear and revulsion that was deeply rooted in the core of his personality.  Possibly, he is more deserving of pity than contempt.  That said, I’m not about to excuse the neo-Nazi or Klansman on the basis of their insecurities or inadequacies.  No one is likely to mistake either of these for kindly gentlemen.  Lovecraft, on the other hand, seems to me not truly a bigot, but a man with a bigot on his back.

The notion of bigotry as a kind of personal demon is by no means exclusive to Lovecraft.  It’s important to recognize that bigotry bedevils good men as well as bad.  We can admire individuals for their accomplishments without condoning everything they do.  Again, nobody’s perfect.  It is largely a matter of degree that determines how reprehensible the presence of racism is in an individual, since it is hard to do away with it completely.  Everyone is prey to fear and insecurity, and these are the natural manure of intolerance.  Nowhere is this more true than in regard to sex.

Bet you didn’t see that coming.  Sex is the true litmus test for vestigial racism among basically tolerant, easy-going males.  I’ve seen more than one white liberal clutch his Channel 13 tote bag a little more tightly when some athletic black man happened to glance in the direction of his significant other.  Lovecraft’s colleague, Robert E. Howard, cuts to the heart of the matter in one of his reincarnation fantasies, making this bold statement:

A man is no better and no worse than his feelings regarding the women of his blood, which is the true and only test of racial consciousness.  A man will take to himself the stranger woman, and sit down at meat with the stranger man, and feel no twinges of race-consciousness.  It is only when he sees the alien man in possession of, or intent upon, a woman of his blood, that he realizes the difference in race and strain.  So I, who had held women of many races in my arms, who was blood brother to a Pictish savage, was shaken to mad fury at the sight of an alien laying hands upon a woman of the Aesir. [14]

Yow!  Sounds like something touched a nerve.  We also detect a little bit of a double standard here. I should point out that Howard, though he did make use of racial stereotypes, was also capable of portraying blacks and other ethnics sympathetically.  In the thirties, this was a rather rare quality among Southerners, and even some New Englanders.  I cite the paragraph above to call attention to a common, if not universal, male insecurity.  It begins as an extension of simple jealousy; the average male doesn’t really care to see an attractive female in the arms of any other man, let alone a [fill in the blank].  This particular prejudice is common to all males, regardless of their ethnicity.  It has to do with competition for females, which reaches back to the dawn of time.  It must, therefore, be regarded in some sense as innate and instinctive, as Howard seems to suggest in the above passage.  Only social conditioning can serve to alleviate this tendency.

I mention all this because it lies at the root of the concept of miscegenation.  Miscegenation, of course, was the name given to the concern that a people’s bloodline would be tainted if diluted with an incompatible foreign (read: “inferior”) strain.  The term is not heard so much today, but it was bandied about freely in Nineteenth Century America.  Lovecraft was most definitely familiar with it.  The very word “miscegenation” was a weighty expression with the power to batten and feed on men’s most morbid anxieties.  The Nazis got considerable mileage out of crude caricatures of troll-like Jews slavering over golden-haired Rhine maidens.  Of course, the double standard decrees that women of other races are fair game.  A white man lying with a black woman is having an adventure; a black man lying with a white woman threatens the pillars of civilization.

This is no mere digression as far as HPL is concerned.  H. P. Lovecraft wrote the great parable of miscegenation, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”  Ironically, the asexual Lovecraft was among the small minority of men least likely to be troubled personally by sexual jealousy and its resultant anxieties.  However, he did buy heavily into the belief that miscegenation posed a ghastly threat to the white race and Western civilization.

“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” stands as one of the best-known horror stories of the Twentieth Century, and rightly so. Generations have been enthralled by Lovecraft’s tale of the isolated, decaying New England seaport and its sinister inhabitants.  These inhabitants, hybrids of human beings and the ocean-dwelling “Deep Ones,” are one of Lovecraft’s most fully realized horrors.  They represent a nightmare of miscegenation.

Readers will recall that the Innsmouth natives begin life as more-or-less normal looking humans.  As they mature, however, they acquire the loathsome “Innsmouth look,” with its leathery skin, bulging eyes, and so on.  Finally, they complete their metamorphosis into full-blown Deep Ones, leaving the land behind to dwell in the depths of the ocean.

Lovecraft considered the malign suspension of natural law the most terrible conception of the human brain.  With the Deep Ones, we see evolution itself thrown into reverse.  Life began in the oceans, slowly migrated onto land, and developed into complex organisms.  The Deep One hybrids start out on land and return to the sea.  The life-cycle of natural amphibians begins with the water-breathing tadpoles that mature into air-breathing frogs and salamanders.  The people of Innsmouth start out human, then devolve into sea creatures.  The human fetus passes through an early stage in which vestigial gills are present, then vanish.  This too is reversed in the case of Lovecraft’s Deep Ones, resulting in a backwards-running parody of natural growth.

The spawn of human and Deep One does not ultimately take after the human parent.  In the end, humanity is only made monstrous.  Thus we see that one of Lovecraft’s most famous classics is based on the theme of miscegenation, rooted in the author’s xenophobia.

But wait.  The relationship of Lovecraft’s racism to his art involves more than just the simple equation “no xenophobia = no ‘Shadow Over Innsmouth.’”  Let’s look at the Lovecraft canon as a whole.  Lovecraft’s vision of cosmic horror depicts a universe in which  humanity’s position is threatened by the encroachment of alien beings.  These alien beings are possessed of an intelligence that is foreign to us, so much so that their mindset, objectives, and place in the universe are all utterly incompatible with our own.  Sound familiar?

To read Lovecraft is to evoke the gripping dread of paranoia.  This is not to say that Lovecraft was fundamentally a “paranoid.”  The cogency with which he framed his thoughts in his letters, and the stoic dignity that he exhibited during hardship and before his death, indicate that he was fundamentally stable.  Lovecraft’s xenophobia was an aberration, a fluke in his behavior where we can actually catch him frothing at the mouth on occasion.  Here’s a memorable example from a March 1924 letter to Frank Belknap Long:

…I find it hard at present to conceive of anything more utterly and ultimately loathsome than certain streets of the lower East Side where Kleiner took Loveman and me in April 1922.  The organic things --Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid-- inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human.  They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of earth’s corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep sea unnamablities.  They --or the degenerate gelatinous fermentation of which they were composed-- seemed to ooze, seep and trickle thro’ the gaping cracks in the horrible houses…and I thought of some avenue of Cyclopean and unwholesome vats, crammed to the vomiting-point with gangrenous vileness, and about to burst and inundate the world in one leprous cataclysm of semi-fluid rottenness. [15]

It is revealing to note that such racist rants are the portions of Lovecraft’s non-fiction writing that most closely resemble key passages of his horror fiction.  Lovecraft’s xenophobia had one positive aspect --and by no means an insignificant one-- in the sense that it put him in touch with an emotional state that he was able to approximate for creative purposes in his fiction.  It was, therefore, germane to his art.

For this reason, it should not be glossed over by scholars.  Many commentators, due to their personal fondness for HPL, tiptoe around his xenophobia unless it is simply unavoidable.  Intellectually, there is no need for such coyness.  Since at least some of his racist paranoia was sublimated into his art, it requires no apology. The panicked racist dementia Lovecraft was moved to express in the 1924 letter to Long noted above came to infuse his 1925 story, "The Horror at Red Hook."  In this story Lovecraft's terror of the malignant alien invader becomes globalized, permeating the universe, but his presentation was embryonic.  The following year, 1926, Lovecraft escaped New York and the foreign element that so distressed him, and returned to his native Providence. Later that same year he composed "The Call of Cthulhu," inaugurating the cycle of fully-realized cosmic horrors upon which his literary reputation rests.  Interestingly, as Lovecraft's cosmic horror becomes more cogently expressed in fiction, his racist views begin to mellow and abate.  I do not consider this a matter of coincidence.  Rather, I see it as an example of anxiety and aggression being channeled into a positive creative outlet.

If, however, we must demand some punishment of Lovecraft for the crime of racism, let it be this: HPL’s bigotry stands out as an ugly  crack in his cherished façade of an emotionally low-key personal demeanor befitting a coolly rational intellect.  In spouting bile and pseudo-scientific claptrap, he allows emotion to overwhelm intellect --and veers closer to unreason and dreaded insanity than he’d care to realize..

And that should be enough to quiet the voices of indignation.  It would be unwise to tamper with an artist’s personality for the sake of “improvement” even if we could.  It would be like pulling on a thread in a tapestry; you can’t change one thing without changing everything.  Could Robert E. Howard have written so convincingly of carnage and doom if he hadn’t been suicidal?  Could H. P. Lovecraft have portrayed malignant alien beings so grippingly if he hadn’t regarded non-WASP ethnics with some degree of suspicion or even revulsion?  It’s hard to say.  Better we never find out.

Since no scholarly treatise is complete without a Star Trek analogy, I’m going to cite an early episode of the original series, “The Enemy Within” by Richard Matheson.  This is possibly one of the most insightful dramatic works ever televised.  In it, a teleportation accident splits Captain Kirk into two beings, one good and one evil.  The evil Kirk guzzles “Saurian brandy,” sexually harasses a micro-skirted crewwoman, and causes all sorts of trouble.  However, the point of the story is that the good Kirk can’t function without him.  The latter is a marshmallow, unable to make the harsh but necessary decisions that enable him to command.

Consider the result of a similar experiment on Lovecraft.  The bad Lovecraft might be out burning crosses, while the good HPL is home writing for Parisian Life or Baseball Stories.  Maybe --just maybe-- the bigot is Lovecraft’s “enemy within.”

And with that, I’m plumb out of excuses.  And I hope my attempts to lighten things with levity didn’t backfire on me.  I certainly do not take bigotry itself lightly.  To prove just how seriously I take it, I offer this parting message to each individual reader out there:  You may be black, or you may be white.  You may be a woman or you may be a man.  You may be a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a non-believer, or something else.  But whatever the case, I absolutely guarantee that there are plenty of other people out there who would be very happy to see you dead because of it.  So you see, this really is everyone’s problem.

No, I’m not making light of racism.  I’m just making excuses for Lovecraft.


[1] Dirk W. Mosig, “Was Lovecraft a Racist?”, Crypt of Cthulhu No. 98 (Eastertide 1998), p. 6.

[2]  HPL, in S. T. Joshi, H. P. Lovecraft, A Life (West Warwick, RI; Necronomicon Press, 1996) p. 90.

[3]  S. T. Joshi, H. P. Lovecraft, A Life (West Warwick, RI; Necronomicon Press, 1996) p. 651.

[4]  Op cit.  See note No. 2.

[5]  Joshi, p. 70.

[6]  Ibid.

[7]  HPL to J. Vernon Shea, 25 September 1933 (Selected Letters IV, p. 247).

[8]  Ibid., p. 257.

[9]  HPL to J. Vernon Shea, 14 August 1933 (Selected Letters IV, p. 235).

[10] HPL to J. Vernon Shea, 29 May 1933 (Selected Letters IV, p. 194).

[11] HPL to James F. Morton, 12 June 1933 (Selected Letters IV, p. 206).

[12] HPL to Elizabeth Toleridge, 25 March 1933 (Selected Letters IV, pp. 164-5).

[13] HPL to Frank Belknap Long, 21 August 1926 (Selected Letters II. p. 69).

[14] Robert E. Howard, Marchers of Valhalla (New York, Berkley Medallion, 1978), pp. 105-6.

[15] HPL to Frank Belknap Long, 21 March 1924 (Selected Letters I, pp. 333-4).

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Robert E. Howard's Big Book of Revenge

Compiled by Charles Hoffman

Some years back Rick McCollum wrote an interesting essay entitled “The Valley of the Worm: A Gathering of Howard’s Essential Creative Themes.” He posited that “The Valley of the Worm” was the “one essential Howard tale” because it encompassed a number of familiar themes or motifs dealt with separately or a few at a time in other stories. Those cited are: Racial Drift, The Picts, Reincarnation, History, The Physical Superiority of the Barbarian, The Moral Superiority of the Barbarian, Bloodshed and Battle as a Commonplace Event, Hate and Revenge, Lost Civilizations, Unnatural Enemies, One Strong Man Against All Odds, Beneath the Earth Lurks Horror, Serpents and Apes.

Most of these occur in Howard’s fantasy tales --fittingly so, since Howard’s chief claim to fame is as a fantasist-- and to a lesser extent his horror stories. The most notable exception is Hate and Revenge, with an emphasis on revenge. Tales with a revenge theme can be found in every series and every genre in which Howard wrote. The revenge theme occurs in heroic fantasies, historical tales, horror stories, Westerns and even comedies. In some stories revenge is given a passing reference, while in others it lies at the heart of the tale. Over time I have compiled a list of 144 stories and 32 poems featuring some element of revenge. There are undoubtedly examples I have overlooked. In any event, these comprise a sizable portion of Howard’s literary output. Viewed collectively, they suggest the strength of the grip of the revenge theme on Howard’s imagination. All told, Robert E. Howard may well have written more extensively of revenge than any other author apart from George Hayduke (author of such revenge instruction manuals as Get Even, Make `Em Pay, Up Yours, and Screw Unto Others.)

The ubiquitous nature of revenge in Howard’s fiction stands in contrast to its comparative scarcity in everyday life. Consider how few people actually swear vendettas or embark on schemes of revenge. Usually they are deterred by legal consequences, potential repercussions, and/or moral inhibitions. It is much more common in fiction, as it furnishes a motive for the protagonist that leads to conflict and action. Howard was especially adept at using revenge as a goad for his often dark and obsessed characters. It is notable, however, that in his more distinctive tales, such as “Red Shadows” and “The Tower of the Elephant,” vengeance is undertaken on behalf of some helpless, innocent party who has been grievously wronged. And, most interestingly, his masterpieces “Red Nails” and “Worms of the Earth” are centered on the negative, toxic effects of revenge.

Here, then, are the stories and poems that make up Robert E. Howard’s Big Book of Revenge:

ALLEYS OF PERIL. Steve Costigan swears vengeance against the crooked referee who cheated him: "'I'll get you for this!' I bellered." The White Tigress informs Steve of her grudge against the same man: "'I, too, want revenge,' she breathed."

ALMURIC. After killing Boss Blaine, Esau Cairn realizes that he "could not hope to escape the vengeance of the machine that controlled the city." On Almuric, he vows vengeance against the Yagas: "And out of my sick horror grew a hate that steeled me for whatever might come, in the grim determination to ultimately repay these winged monsters for all the suffering they had inflicted."

BASTARDS ALL! Eve Hotbreech executes a plan of vengeance against Gowtu, for spanking her. Gowtu swears vengeance in kind: "'Thy vengeance, hussy! Thou'lt pay dear for thy vengeance an I be a true man!'"

BEYOND THE BLACK RIVER. Zogar Sag's plan to wipe out the Aquilonian settlers is motivated by revenge for his being thrown in a cell, "'the worst insult you can give a Pict.'" Conan and Balthus confront "`a forest devil summoned by Zogar Sag to carry out his revenge.'"

BILL SMALLEY AND THE POWER OF THE HUMAN EYE. Bill swears vengeance against a Cree Indian he believes has stolen a bear from his trap: “’My bear came along and fell into the snare,’ he orates, ‘then some son-of-a-sea-horse came along and stole my rightful prey, Grrrrrrr, wengeance gr!!’”

THE BLACK BEAR BITES (BLACK JOHN'S VENGEANCE). Black John O'Donnell invades the Dragon House to avenge the murder of Bill Lannon: "I was not seeking escape, but vengeance."

BLACK HOUND OF DEATH. Adam Grimm seeks revenge against Richard Brent for abandoning him to a hideous fate: "'I was upheld by the thought of vengeance!'"

THE BLACK STRANGER. Count Valenso flees to a remote outpost to escape a demon: "'Then I knew that the black one had escaped from the hell where the magician had bound him, and that he would seek vengeance upon me.'"

BLACK TALONS. The Ekoi tribe of West Africa sends a "leopard man" to slay Jim Reynolds for stealing their gold and killing one of their priests.

BLACK VULMEA'S VENGEANCE. Terence Vulmea seeks vengeance against John Wentyard: "'I ought to split your skull,' he wound up. 'For years I've dreamed of it, especially when I was drunk.'"

BLACK WIND BLOWING. John Bruckman is marked for death by the Black Brothers of Ahriman for deserting them.

THE BLOCK. Man swears vengeance after losing money on the stock market due to bad advice: "'If you ever cross my trail again, I'll kick you clear to Hell!'"

THE BLOOD OF BELSHAZZAR. Toghrul Kahn devises a "plan of vengeance" against Jacob.

BLOOD OF THE GODS. El Borak plans to kill Hawkston to avenge Salim.

THE BLUE FLAME OF VENGEANCE. Solomon Kane kills Jonas Hardraker in a knife fight to avenge the daughter of a friend: "'I came, following the trail of vengeance.'"

THE BULL DOG BREED. Steve Costigan fights to avenge an injury to his bull dog, Mike.

CASONETTO'S LAST SONG. The devil-worshipper Casonetto attempts to gain "promised vengeance" on Stephen Gordon from beyond the grave.

THE CASTLE OF THE DEVIL. Solomon Kane plans to avenge the victims of Baron Von Staler. "'It has fallen upon me, now and again in my sojourns through the world, to ease various evil men of their lives.'"

THE CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT. O'Donnel plans to kill Ketrick to avenge his people in a previous incarnation.

THE COMING OF EL BORAK. British colonel threatens to wipe out Afghan tribe if his kidnapped daughter is not returned unharmed: "'...[T]he mullah fears the vengeance of Yar Ali and the British.'"

CUPID FROM BEAR CREEK. Breckinridge Elkins loses a girl to a rival: "And they ain't no use in folks saying that what imejitly follered was done in revenge for Dolly busting me in the head with that cuspidor."

THE CURSE OF THE GOLDEN SKULL. Rotath the sorcerer places a dying curse on his own bones "that they might bring death and horror to the sons of men."

THE CURSE OF GREED. James beats the bootlegger Scarlatti for poisoning people with bad whiskey.

THE DARK MAN. Turlogh O'Brien plans to rescue Moira from the Vikings, or failing that to kill as many Vikings as possible in revenge: "'[B]ehold this token of vengeance!' And he held forth the dripping head of Thorfel."

THE DAUGHTER OF ERLIK KHAN. El Borak seeks to avenge Ahmed: "Ahmed had been his friend and had died in his service. Blood must pay for blood."

DAUGHTERS OF FEUD. The Pritchards seek to exact vengeance against Braxton Brent for siding with their foes in the Pritchard-Kirby feud.

THE DEAD REMEMBER. Ghosts gain supernatural vengeance against their murderer: "'You've killed Joel and you've killed me, but by God, you won't live to brag about it.'"

DELENDA EST. Genseric is aided in his vendetta by a mysterious stranger: "'Rome shall pay for this.'"

DERMOD'S BANE. The ghost of the fiendish Dermod O'Connor attempts to lure Michael Kirowan to his death, to avenge his own death at the hands of Kirowan's ancestor.

THE DEVIL IN HIS BRAIN. Steve beats up his wife-beating brother-in-law.

THE DEVIL'S JOKER. Black Jim Buckley wants to see Sheriff John McFarlane dead, because the Sheriff killed Buckley's brother.

THE DEVILS OF DARK LAKE. Jilted suitor Rackston Bane concocts "a devilish scheme of revenge."

THE DRAGON OF KAO TSU. Bull Davies swears vengeance for the thwarting of his plans: "'I'll get even with somebody, I bet!'"

DRUMS OF THE SUNSET. Steve Harmer swears vengeance against the Navajos he believes killed Joan Farrel: "'They killed her!' he screamed, beating his forehead with his clenched fists. 'And by God, I'll kill 'em all! I'll kill - kill -'"

A ELKINS NEVER SURRENDERS. Breckinridge Elkins becomes embroiled in a family feud: "'Nothin' but blood can wipe out a wrong to a Elkins!'"

FANGS OF GOLD. Steve Harrison agrees to help Celia Pompoloi get revenge against John Bartholomew: "'You want revenge on Bartholomew. All right; guide me there and I'll see that you get plenty.'"

THE FEUD BUSTER. Breckinridge Elkins becomes embroiled in the Warren-Barlow war.

FIST AND FANG. Santos threatens Steve Costigan with the Death of a Thousand Cuts as revenge for a humiliating defeat that ended Santos' ring career: "'Aaahhh! I pay you back!' He looked like a madman, gnashing his teeth and rolling his eyes as he roared at us."

FISTS OF THE DESERT. Boxer Kirby Karnes vows vengeance against the crooked manager who exploited him: "'I'm goin' back to the desert, where I belong --after I’ve settled this score.'"

THE GARDEN OF FEAR. Hunwulf kills Heimdul the Strong to possess Gudrun; "And then follows our long flight from the vengeance of the tribe."

GATES OF EMPIRE. Sir Guiscard de Chastillon seeks vengeance against Giles Hobson.

GENERAL IRONFIST. After being embroiled in all sorts of trouble, Steve Costigan ends up chasing Soapy Jackson "breathing threats of vengeance."

A GENT FROM THE PECOS. Jabez Watkins sees a chance to "'git even'" with Esau Hawkins.

GENTS ON THE LYNCH. After getting shot in a scheme gone wrong, Polk Williams swears vengeance against Pike Bearfield: "`I'll git even with you for this if it takes a hundred years!'“

THE GODS OF BAL-SAGOTH. Turlogh O'Brien seeks to kill Athelstane the Saxon, an ally of the Gael's hereditary foes the Vikings, because "seas of spilled blood call for vengeance!"

GRAVEYARD RATS. Joel Middleton swears "still greater vengeance against the Wilkinsons."

THE GREY GOD PASSES. Conn seeks to slay Thorwald Raven, in revenge for enslaving him.

GUNMAN'S DEBT. Joan Laree tries to kill John Kirby because he refused to kill the man who had jilted her. John Kirby and Jim Garfield are determined to kill each other because of a family feud.

GUNS OF KHARTUM. Emmett Corcoran promises an emir, "'I'll vouch for you to my Ethiopian friends, and among them you'll be safe from the vengeance of the Dervishes.'"

THE HAND OF THE BLACK GODDESS. Smuggler is marked for death by Thugs for stealing an Indian treasure.

THE HAUNTER OF THE RING. Jilted suitor Joseph Roelocke plots revenge against a happy couple.

HAWK OF THE HILLS. El Borak seeks Afdal Khan: "An urge painful in its intensity beat at his brain like a hammer that would not cease: revenge! revenge! revenge!"

HAWKS OF OUTREMER. Cormac FitzGeoffrey seeks to avenge Gerard de Gissclin: "'Hate and the glutting of vengeance!' he yelled savagely..."

HAWKS OVER EGYPT. Diego de Guzman searches for an enemy after his release from a Moorish prison: "'It was another year before I could take the road of vengeance.'"

THE HEATHEN. Town drunk mocks religion. When he falls out a window to his death a year later, the local preacher declares, "'He defied the Lord, and the Lord has taken vengeance!'"

HIGH HORSE RAMPAGE. Cousin Bearfield Buckner plans to scalp Breckinridge Elkins alive, break his legs and leave him for the buzzards after Breck’s blunders ruin Bearfield’s wedding plans.

THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON. Conan frees galley slaves, who take vengeance on their masters: "Conan's ax rose and fell without pause, and with every stroke a frothing, screaming black giant broke free, mad with hate and the fury of freedom and vengeance." Valerius suffers the vengeance of his many victims.

THE HOUSE OF OM. John Stark plans revenge against Joel Bainbridge for abandoning him to the priests of inner Mongolia: "Om told Hawksbane that he had accomplished his vengeance on Bainbridge, for the latter's treachery..."

INTRIGUE IN KURDISTAN. El Borak makes war against the Turks: "'For burned cities, for murdered children, for unarmed men massacred, for the raping of girls and the enslavement of women, Turkey is my foe.'"

IRON SHADOWS IN THE MOON. Conan hacks Shah Amurath to pieces to avenge the slaughter of the Free Companions: "'You Hyrkanian dog!' mouthed this apparition in a barbarous accent. 'The devils of vengeance have brought you here!'"

KHODA KHAN'S TALE. Yar Ali Khan vows to avenge El Borak: "'And if the Matabele slew El Borak, I will slay thee, also, Lal Singh.' said the Afghan in a voice that was like the snarl of a blood-hungry wolf."

KID GALAHAD. Kid Allison vows to avenge a damsel in distress: "'[S]how me the skunk which done this here vile and contemptible deed and I will flail the livin' daylights outa him.'"

KINGS OF THE NIGHT. Cormac of Connacht intends to slay Bran Mak Morn in retribution for the sacrifice of the Viking warriors.

KNIFE, BULLET AND NOOSE. Grizzly Gullen wants to kill the Sonora Kid to avenge Bill Galt, whom the Kid killed to avenge a cowhand.

THE LAST RIDE. Buck Laramie avenges his brother Luke by killing his murderer, Killer Rawlins.

LAW-SHOOTERS OF COWTOWN. Grizzly Elkins, jailed by corrupt lawmen, vows to "'scour the street with their blasted carcasses!'"

THE LION OF TIBERIAS. After twenty years as a galley-slave, John Norwald escapes to take vengeance on Zenghi: "'When I fainted at the oar, it was not ripping lash that roused me to life anew, but the hate that would not let me die.'"

LORD OF THE DEAD. Joan La Tour desires revenge against Steve Harrison because she believes he killed her brother Josef: "'I thought you killed him, yourself...I wanted revenge.'"

LORD OF SAMARCAND. Donald MacDeesa seeks vengeance against both Bayazid, to avenge thousands, and Timour, to avenge one. "...Donald's was the vengeful heart of those wild folk who keep the fires of feud flaming for centuries and carry grudges to the grave."

THE LOSER. Man seeks revenge against rival who cheated him at cards.

THE LOST RACE. The Picts tell Cororuc how they prey on the Britons in revenge for being driven into exile: "'You have made a free, prosperous nation into a race of earth-rats!...But at night! Ah, then for our vengeance!'"

THE MAN ON THE GROUND. Cal Reynolds seeks to kill his old enemy Esau Brill: "After a man has felt his adversary's knife grate against his bones, his adversary's thumb gouging at his eyes, his adversary's boot-heels stamped into his mouth, he is scarcely inclined to forgive and forget, regardless of the original merits of the argument."

THE MAN-EATERS OF ZAMBOULA. Conan delivers Aram Baksh to the cannibals to avenge many innocent victims: "Conan’s vengeful fingers strangled the yell in his throat."

MARCHERS OF VALHALLA. Ishtar destroys Khemu in reprisal for her abuse and imprisonment by its priests.

A MATTER OF AGE. Jealous wife spanks her underage rival.

MISS HIGH HAT. An “insolent flapper” is publicly spanked as a comeuppance for her haughty ways.

MISTRESS OF DEATH. Dark Agnes must contend with a resentful suitor: "'I know well why you wish to arrest me, Tristan,' I said coldly, approaching him with an easy tread. 'I had not been to Chartres a day before you sought to make me your mistress. Now you take this revenge upon me. Fool! I am mistress only to Death!'"

MOON OF ZAMBEBWEI. The treachery of Richard Ballville and John De Albor set Bristol McGrath on a "path of vengeance."

MURDERER'S GROG. Enemies conspire to get Wild Bill Clanton intoxicated on bhang, the "'drink of murder,'" in the hopes of setting him off on a rampage of revenge against a British deputy-commissioner.

NAMES IN THE BLACK BOOK. Steve Harrison and Joan La Tour are marked for death by Erlik Khan for foiling his evil schemes. They are aided by Khoda Khan, an Afghan warrior "'raised in a code of blood-feud and vengeance.'"

NEKHT SEMERKEHT. Plains Indian attempts to slay invading conquistador: "A vengeful yell of triumph quivered in the late afternoon stillness."

NERVE. Man vows to avenge his brother: "'That was supposed to be a fair fight,' he says, 'and you, you dirty coyote, you've killed him. Well, you've got the knife and I've got nothing, but I'm going to kill you.'"

THE NIGHT OF THE WOLF. Picts battle Vikings: "Driven to madness by countless outrages, the Picts were glutting their vengeance to the uttermost, and the Norse people neither looked nor asked for mercy."

THE NOSELESS HORROR. A mummy takes revenge against the man responsible for its hideous fate.

THE NUT'S SHELL. Barber kills unfaithful wife with a razor.

OLD GARFIELD'S HEART. Jack Kirby "recovered, swearing vengeance" after the narrator scars him in a knife fight.

PAY DAY. Wage slave shoots his wife's boss to avenge an insult to his wife: "Joe collapsed like an empty sack, holding his guts and howling in frightful agony and Bill emptied the gun into his jerking carcass."

THE PEACEFUL PILGRIM. Bill Price swears vengeance against Breckinridge Elkins: "He shook a quivering fist at me and croaked: 'You derned murderer! I'll have yore life for this!'"

THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE. Yasmina plans to use Conan to get revenge on the Black Seers for the murder of her brother: "'I have devoted my life to the destruction of his murderers.'"

THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK COAST. After super-intelligent giant crabs kill his fiancée, the narrator undertakes his "red work of vengeance."

THE PHOENIX ON THE SWORD. Thoth-amon summons a demon to wreak vengeance on Ascalante: "'[B]y the serpent-fangs of Set, you shall pay--'"

PIGEONS FROM HELL. Joan seeks supernatural vengeance against Celia Blassenville: "'And why should one become a zuvembie? ' asked Buckner softly. 'Hate,' whispered the old man. 'Hate! Revenge!'"

THE PURPLE HEART OF ERLIK. Wild Bill Clanton vows to avenge Arline Ellis's rape by Woon Yuen: "'I'll get that filthy cur for that!'"

QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST. Conan kills a monstrous winged ape to avenge Belit. "The black fury in his soul drove out all fear."

RATTLE OF BONES. An evil inn-keeper gloats over a fallen foe: "'Now your gold shall be mine; and more than gold --vengeance!'" A sorcerer gains supernatural vengeance from beyond the grave.

RED NAILS. The Techultli pound red nails into the "pillar of vengeance" to represent slain enemies.

RED SHADOWS. Solomon Kane hunts down Le Loup to avenge an innocent girl: "When the full flame of his hatred was wakened and loosed, there was no rest for him until his vengeance had been fulfilled to the uttermost."

RESTLESS WATERS. A ghost frightens his murderer to death.

THE RIGHT HAND OF DOOM. A sorcerer gains supernatural vengeance from beyond the grave.

A RINGTAILED TORNADO. Breckinridge Elkins shoots up Ace Middleton’s bar: "'You dern murderer!' says he passionately. 'I'll have yore life for this!' 'Shet up!' I snarled. 'I'm jest payin' yuh back for all the pain and humiliation I suffered in this den of iniquity.'"

THE RIOT AT COUGAR PAW. Breckinridge Elkins breaks the toe of his brother John, who swears "'...I'll have his heart's blood if it's the last thing I do.'"

THE ROAD OF AZRAEL Kosru Malik joins forces with Sir Eric de Cogan: "'Whither do you ride? To seek vengeance? I will ride with you.'"

THE ROAD OF EAGLES. Ivan the Cossack is offered a chance to trap an enemy: "'You wish vengeance --here is a chance for both vengeance and profit...'"

ROGUES IN THE HOUSE. Conan drops his treacherous former lover into a cesspool in return for betraying him to the police.

SAILOR DORGAN AND THE DESTINY GORILLA. Gangster seeks revenge against Dennis Dorgan for refusing to throw a fight: "'You'll regret this,' he promised. 'I'll get you, Dorgan...'"

SAILOR DORGAN AND THE TURKISH MENACE. Bill McGlory resents Abdullah's cheating to win a wrestling match: "Bill said he was going to find that Terrible Turk and beat up on him if it was the last thing he ever did."

THE SCALP HUNTER. Breckinridge Elkins tracks down parties he believed scalped Uncle Jeppard Grimes: "Them fellers would be put in the pen safe out of my rech, and Uncle Jeppard's sculp was unavenged!"

THE SCARLET CITADEL. Pelias the wizard gains vengeance against Tsotha-lanti for the former's imprisonment.

SEA CURSE. The witch Moll Farrell places a curse on John Kulrek and his crony Lie-lip Canool after Moll's niece is "put to shame" by Kulrek: "'The sea has taken vengeance and has given me mine.'"

THE SHADOW OF THE BEAST. Fugitive criminal Joe Cagle threatens an innocent girl: "'...Cagle shot my brother, and snarling like a wild beast, promised to revenge himself on me, also.'" Cagle flees from "the vengeful white men combing the country."

THE SHADOW OF THE VULTURE. Suleyman has Mikhal Oglu hunt down Von Kalmbach for wounding him.

SHE DEVIL. Wild Bill Clanton attacks Buck Richardson as soon as he sees him because Richardson once stole a girl from Clanton.

SHIP IN MUTINY. Wild Bill Clanton thrashes Tanoa for attempting to rape Raquel O'Shane: "But for his insane fury Clanton might have wreaked his vengeance and escaped, but the American was in the grip of a berserk rage."

THE SILVER HEEL. Ti Woon plans to behead Steve Harrison, whom he believes killed Ahmed: "'Blood must pay for blood.'"

SKULL-FACE. Stephen Costigan seeks revenge against Kathulos for making him a drug-addicted pawn: “A fierce wild exultation surged over me. Now I could begin to pay the debt I owed Kathulos and all his hellish band!”

SKULLS IN THE STARS. Solomon Kane helps a vengeful spirit find peace: "'Naught but your death will lay that ghost.'"

SLUGGERS OF THE BEACH. Steve Costigan seeks to settle a score with crooked referee Red Hoolihan.

SON OF THE WHITE WOLF. El Borak seeks to kill Osman to avenge a massacre: "[H]e had taken the death-trail and would not turn back while he lived."

SONS OF HATE. Factions pursue a generations-old vendetta: "What a heritage of hate was theirs, molding their lives into vessels of vengeance for men who had died before they were born."

THE SOPHISTICATE. Man shoots a rival for cuckolding him.

SPEARS OF CLONTARF. Conn seeks to slay Thorwald Raven, in revenge for enslaving him.

THE SUPREME MOMENT. Scientist Zan Uller gets revenge on humanity for the many cruelties he has suffered by allowing the world to come to an end when he could have prevented it: "'Gentlemen, this is my vengeance, this the supreme moment!'"

SWORD WOMAN. Dark Agnes forgoes vengeance against Etienne.

SWORDS OF THE NORTHERN SEA. Viking seeks combat with his hated rival: "'Vengeance!' murmured Wulfhere softly. His fierce eyes gleamed in the starlight and his huge hand locked like iron about the handle of his battle-axe."

SWORDS OF THE RED BROTHERHOOD. Count Henri d'Chastillon flees to a remote outpost to escape a ju-ju man he cheated in the slave trade: "'He swore an awful vengeance upon me...'"

THE THUNDER-RIDER. The Sioux slaughter Iron Heart's brother, Red Knife: "And the purpose of my life thereafter was to pay the Sioux the debt I owed them...I was Iron Heart, the Scalp-Taker, the Vengeance-Maker, the Thunder-Rider."

A TOUCH OF COLOR. Robber swears vengeance against gang member who betrayed him to the police: "'I cursed him and promised to repay him when my time was up.'"

THE TOWER OF THE ELEPHANT. Conan enables Yag-kosha to take vengeance on Yara: "Yara threw up his arms and fled as a madman flees, and on his heels came the avenger."

THE TRACK OF BOHEMUND. Galley slave Roger de Cogan escapes and strangles his captor in his sleep.

UNTITLED DRAFT. Enraged by an insult, Kull pursues Felgar. “’Men avenge their own insults in Atlantis --and though Atlantis has disowned me and I am king of Valusia-- still I am a man, by Valka!’”

UNTITLED STORY ("EXILE OF ATLANTIS"). Tribesmen of Atlantis attempt to kill Kull "for violating their strange and bloody code of morals."

UNTITLED SYNOPSIS ("Steve Harrison received a wire from Joan Wiltshaw..."). Joe Barwell waits "ten years to consummate his vengeance..."

THE VALE OF LOST WOMEN. Livia plans to enlist Conan to gain vengeance against Bajujh: "'Kill that black dog Bajujh! Let me see his cursed head roll in the bloody dust! Kill him! Kill him!'"

THE VALLEY OF THE LOST. The story takes place in the fifteenth year of the Reynolds-McCrill feud: "He had grown up in the atmosphere of the feud, and it had become a burning obsession with him."

THE VALLEY OF THE WORM. Niord resolves to slay the Worm after the monster wipes out a settlement of his fellow Æ sir.

THE VOICE OF THE MOB. Wrongly accused black man fears a vengeful lynch mob.

THE VULTURES OF WAHPETON. Corcoran kills Middleton to avenge Glory Bland, his sweetheart: "But if she had been a stranger, or even a person he had disliked, he would have killed Middleton for outraging a code he considered absolute."

WAR ON BEAR CREEK. Uncle Jeppard Grimes swears vengeance against J. Pembroke Pemberton: "'Nothin' but blood can wipe out the stain on the family honor!...I'll git that English murderer if it's the last thing I do..."

WATERFRONT LAW. Steve Costigan agrees to a grudge match with Bucko Brent: "'At last, you blasted Yank,' says he, 'I got you where I want you.'"

THE WEST TOWER. Steve Allison narrates a tale of the Scottish clans: "The clashing of sword on sword ran through his narrative, oppression and rebellion, cruel injustice and savage vengeance and the ambition of a strong man."

WHEN BEAR CREEK CAME TO CHAWED EAR. Breckinridge Elkins forgoes vengeance against Margaret Devon and J. Pembroke Pemberton. Wild Bill Donovan sets Breckinridge up to get even for losing Cap'n Kidd.

WHEN SMOKE ROLLED. Boone Elkins writes: "You jest wait; the Sioux nation will regret shooting a Elkins behind his back."

WILD WATER. Jim Reynolds seeks revenge against financier Saul Hopkins for his abuses of common people. A vengeful Bill Emmett attempts to destroy a dam to flood the town of Bisley: "'Damn 'em, oh, damn 'em! Bisley's goin' to pay! I'm goin' to wipe her out!'"

WINGS IN THE NIGHT. Solomon Kane destroys the akaana to avenge the Bogondi: "'Tell me more of these devils, for by the God of my people, this deed shall not go unavenged, though Satan himself bar my way.'"

A WITCH SHALL BE BORN. Conan satisfies his "red lust for vengeance" against Constantius for the former's crucifixion.

WORMS OF THE EARTH. Bran Mak Morn summons the worms of the earth to take revenge on Titus Sulla: "'I will have a vengeance such as no Roman ever dreamed of!'"


AN AMERICAN EPIC. Hiram shoots hired man who kisses his girl.

AT THE BAZAAR. Ghosts enact bloody vengeance against castrator of eunuchs.

THE BALLAD OF BUCKSHOT ROBERTS. Billy the Kid and company lay siege to Roberts over a killing in the Lincoln County War.

THE BALLAD OF KING GERAINT. Turlogh and Uther settle old scores.

THE BALLAD OF NELL OF SINGAPORE. Nell murders unfaithful lover Cap McTee.

BLACK HARPS IN THE HILLS. Gaels make war against hereditary foes.

THE CUCKOO'S REVENGE. Deranged rejected suitor bites woman's buttocks.

DEAD MAN’S HATE. Walking dead man fulfills vow of vengeance made in life.

THE DEAD SLAVER’S TALE. Murdered slaves sink a slave ship.

A DUNGEON OPENS. Freed prisoner is eager for vengeance against Cromwell's Puritans.

ERIC OF NORWAY. Herald of Norway seeks vengeance against Eric the Viking.

THE FEAR THAT FOLLOWS. Dead woman haunts her murderer.

THE FEUD. Man kills the brother of a man he also killed in retribution for the killing of his son during the Lincoln County War.

HATE'S DAWN. World War I soldier kills an abusive officer.

JOHN KELLEY. A cry for horrible vengeance against John Kelley.

JU-JU DOOM. Plunderer of black people dies of voodoo curse.

THE KING AND THE MALLET. Slave dreams of the bloody overthrow of his conquerors.

THE ONE BLACK STAIN. Solomon Kane contemplates revenge against Francis Drake for an unjust execution.

ONE WHO COMES AT EVENTIDE. Murderer knows his victim will rise from the dead to take revenge someday.

REMEMBRANCE. Man is haunted by the ghost of a man he murdered in a previous incarnation.

THE RHYME OF THE THREE SLAVERS. Slave traders suffer the supernatural vengeance of their victim.

THE SAND-HILLS' CREST. Impoverished moonshiner waits to ambush an enemy who turned him in to the law.

SHADOWS FROM YESTERDAY. Man is haunted by memories of a man he killed in a previous incarnation.

SKULLS AND DUST. Man dies from ancient curse.

SKULLS AND ORCHIDS. Scorned Athenian woman kills the boy her Spartan lover has spurned her for; she is killed in turn by the Spartan.

A SON OF SPARTACUS. World War I soldier kills an abusive officer.

SONG BEFORE CLONTARF. Oppressed know that vengeance will soon be theirs.

TARANTELLA. Mob exults in its bloody vengeance against aristocrats during the French Revolution.

THOR'S SON. Shipwrecked Viking, enslaved in the East, escapes to rejoin his comrades and return with "torch and axe."

TO A FRIEND. Galley slaves revolt and kill their captors.

TO A WOMAN. Dead man vows vengeance against a woman.

THE WHOOPANSAT OF HUMOROUS KOOKOOYAM. Husband spanks unfaithful wife.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Return to Xuthal

[Originally published in The Robert E. Howard Reader, edited by Darrell Schweitzer, The Borgo Press, 2010. Copyright 2010 by Charles Hoffman.]

Howard’s Original Sin City Revisited

A Tale of Two Lost Cities

The first Robert E. Howard story I ever read was “Xuthal of the Dusk.” I discovered it in that great old Lancer paperback, Conan the Adventurer. “Xuthal of the Dusk,” appearing under the title “The Slithering Shadow,” was actually the second story in the collection. Preceding it was the novella “The People of the Black Circle,” one of the most popular and acclaimed of Howard’s works. “Black Circle” was an excellent choice to open the book, the first in a series of Conan paperbacks, and introduce the character to a new generation of readers. Many years later, I do not clearly recall why I postponed reading it when I first purchased Adventurer. Possibly because it ran to nearly a hundred pages and I wanted to sample the book’s contents with a story I could complete in one sitting. “Meet Conan, the gigantic adventurer from Cimmeria—and discover one of the greatest thrills in modern fiction!” the book’s cover copy had promised. As it happened, I first met Robert E. Howard’s giant Cimmerian in the lost city of Xuthal.

Lost cities have been featured in many works of adventure fiction, most famously those of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. At the turn of the 20th Century, Africa was still very much the Dark Continent, and both Haggard and Burroughs imagined its unexplored vastness to be honeycombed with the last surviving outposts of vanished civilizations. Robert E. Howard followed closely in their footsteps in the lengthiest of his Solomon Kane stories, “The Moon of Skulls.” Kane, in the course of his wanderings through 16th Century Africa, discovers the lost city of Negari. Like Burroughs’ Opar, Negari is a lost colony of Atlantis, and its alluring queen Nakari recalls both La of Opar and Ayesha, Haggard’s “She-who-must-be-obeyed.”

It was while writing the Conan stories a few years later that Howard placed his own distinctive stamp on the lost civilization genre. Conan’s Hyborian world, itself a lost age remembered only in legend, is littered with remnants of even more remote antiquities. Haunted ruins are encountered from time to time in the course of Conan’s adventures, and the Cimmerian twice discovers an entire inhabited lost city while venturing into unexplored regions. The lost cities of Xuthal and Xuchotl are found in “Xuthal of the Dusk” and “Red Nails” respectively. In both stories, the societies within the cities are in decline. Howard frequently expressed the thesis that civilizations carry the seeds of their own destruction. Xuthal and Xuchotl are both microcosms that enable the author to portray a civilization in its death throes. Their cultural decadence is emphasized by being shown from the perspective of the wilderness-bred Conan.

The importance of this theme to Howard, as well as his belief that he did not quite do justice to it in “Xuthal of the Dusk,” are both demonstrated by the fact that he felt moved to return to it at greater length in “Red Nails.” The novella “Red Nails” was Howard’s final Conan story and the last fantasy he wrote before pressing financial concerns forced him to abandon fantasy altogether in favor of more commercial fiction. For his final allegorical statement, Howard returned to the themes of “Xuthal of the Dusk.”

“Red Nails,” to be sure, is the superior treatment of the themes. In fact, “Red Nails” has come to be regarded as not only one of the best Conan stories, but also as one of the finest of all Howard’s works. “Xuthal of the Dusk,” on the other hand, tends to be slighted as a mid-level Conan yarn at best. In his essay “Howard’s Fantasy,” Fritz Leiber singled it out as “a good (or bad!) example of a run-of-the mill Conan story.“ (1) Patrice Louinet, in “Hyborian Genesis Part III,” asserts that “Xuthal of the Dusk is a rather inferior Conan tale…The heroine was insipid and the story was clearly exploitative.” (2)

I cannot help but to regard this out-of-hand dismissal of “Xuthal of the Dusk” as unfortunate. I have already acknowledged my personal sentimental reasons for liking the story. Also, I don’t think it’s too outrageous to suggest that it would be somewhat more highly regarded were it not overshadowed by “Red Nails.” More significantly, however, I believe that “Xuthal of the Dusk” has points of interest apart from the ingredients it shares with “Red Nails.” Facets of the tale serve to illuminate aspects of the character Conan and Howard’s writing, as well as foreshadowing trends in latter day popular culture. These attributes make “Xuthal of the Dusk” an intriguing story in its own right.

Fear and Loathing in Xuthal

The first noteworthy element of the story is its very title. The lost city of Xuthal is “of the Dusk.” It has reached the end of its day. Before the story even begins, Howard employs dusk as an unambiguous metaphor for the city’s impending doom. Unfortunately, the story did not originally appear under Howard’s title. For its initial publication in the September 1933 issue of Weird Tales, editor Farnsworth Wright changed the title to “The Slithering Shadow.” This title, lurid where Howard’s was subtle, was retained when the Conan stories were collected in the Gnome Press hardback editions of the 1950’s, and in the subsequent Lancer and Ace paperback editions of the 60’s and 70’s. Surely this proved a liability that further hindered appreciation of the story over the years. Consider the awkwardness of any discerning reader attempting to cite a story called “The Slithering Shadow” as a favorite.

The next point of interest is a mere line drop away. The story opens:

The desert shimmered in the heat waves. Conan the Cimmerian stared out over the aching desolation and involuntarily drew the back of his powerful hand over his blackened lips. He stood like a bronze giant in the sand, apparently impervious to the murderous sun, though his only garment was a silk loin-cloth, girdled by a wide gold-buckled belt from which hung a saber and a broad-bladed poniard. On his clean-cut limbs were evidences of scarcely healed wounds. At his feet rested a girl, one white arm clasping his knee, against which her blond head drooped. Her white skin contrasted with his hard bronzed limbs; her short silken tunic, low-necked and sleeveless, girdled at the waist, emphasized rather than concealed her lithe figure.(3)

If this description sounds familiar, it is because it was the basis of Frank Frazetta’s portrait of Conan that first graced the cover of Conan the Adventurer. Starting with this image of a battle-scarred titan in a loincloth, Frazetta fine-tuned some details, such as substituting a more characteristic broadsword for the saber, and so created both his own most famous painting and the depiction of Conan that influenced every subsequent illustration of the character. It is Frazetta’s masterpiece, an iconic image, and the definitive visual portrayal of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. And it didn’t come from “The People of the Black Circle.”

In addition to offering this key image to Frank Frazetta, “Xuthal of the Dusk” was essential in defining the character of Conan to Howard’s original audience, the readers who saw the saga unfold in the pages of Weird Tales. “Xuthal of the Dusk” was the fifth Conan story to appear in Weird Tales. The first two tales featured Conan as the middle-aged king of Aquilonia, an adventurer who seized the throne from a tyrant. The third story, “The Tower of the Elephant,” presented Conan as a teenage thief green to civilization, indicating that subsequent installments would fill in the backstory of this remarkable individual. The fourth Conan adventure, “Black Colossus,” had Conan assume the role of mercenary warrior. “Xuthal of the Dusk” followed, again featuring Conan as a wandering soldier of fortune and thus suggesting that this was the Cimmerian’s usual occupation. The Conan series was off and running.

In the story, Conan and his female companion, Natala, are survivors of a defeated army whose flight leads them to the lost city of Xuthal. Xuthal is located in a vast desert south of the proto-Egyptian realm of Stygia and the black kingdom of Kush. It is my opinion that in the Hyborian Age maps featured in various Conan volumes, the southern lands, Stygia and the black countries, are not to scale. This is not unlike the Eurocentric Mercator projection maps of our own world that diminish Africa’s true immensity. In his own sketches of Conan’s world, Howard allotted more space to Stygia. It follows that Xuthal is located in the vast “African” portion of the Hyborian supercontinent, making it in a sense an African lost city in the Haggard-Burroughs tradition.

Conan and Natala explore the eerie walled city, finding it seemingly deserted and haunted by some strange menace. The mysteries of Xuthal are explained when they meet a stunningly beautiful woman called Thalis. Thalis is not a native of Xuthal, but a Stygian who arrived there as a young girl. She informs the wanderers that the people of Xuthal spend most of their time in death-like slumber, dreaming hallucinogenic visions induced by their consumption of the “black lotus.“(4) The city dwellers’ science is sufficiently advanced to provide for all their basic material needs without much effort on their part. Their lives have become “vague, erratic, and without plan.”(5) Thalis also tells of a shadowy horror called Thog that stalks the city and occasionally devours an inhabitant. The Xuthalians simply accept this gruesome state of affairs with a complacent fatalism. Thalis opines that this is not so different from the human sacrifices practiced in her native Stygia.

Hearing this, Conan is moved to declare, “I’d like to see a priest try to drag a Cimmerian to the altar! There’d be blood spilt, but not as the priest intended.”(6) This sort of dry action-hero wit was not characteristic of such pulp magazine do-gooders as The Shadow and Doc Savage. Wry comments such as this are much more typical of latter day heroes such as James Bond or Dirty Harry.

  “Xuthal of the Dusk” is one of the tales in which Robert E. Howard delineated a new type of hero –cool, supremely confident, with more than a hint of ruthlessness and sinister menace. Let us call this sort of hero “the badass” for lack of a better name. Tough and lethal, ever ready for a brawl, the badass has more in common with the hard, dangerous enemies he fights than any candy-ass types he might end up protecting. The latter regard him not with fawning admiration, but with nervous relief that he’s on their side. Though popular enough in Howard’s day, the Conan character was destined to strike a chord with the reading public in the later, raucous decades of the 1960s and `70s.

It comes as no surprise that Thalis, having tired of her city-bred lovers, is attracted to Conan. She therefore attempts to get rid of Natala --but not before tying her up and whipping her. Thalis is one of the more beguiling evil women to appear in Howard’s fiction. In his essay, Fritz Leiber describes her as “sophisticated, hard as nails, sadistic, catlike, and schooled in every vice.”(7) Her name appears to have been derived from Thais, a courtesan who became the mistress of Alexander the Great, and also the name of the title character of a novel by Anatole France and an opera based on it by Jules Massenet. In “The Garden of Fear,” Howard mentions Thais in company with Cleopatra and Helen of Troy.

To the readers of Weird Tales, Thalis the Stygian was the first femme fatale to appear in a Conan story. Howard had previously introduced the golden-haired siren Atali in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” but the story did not see print in the author’s lifetime.(8) In any event, Atali has little in common with the other femmes fatale encountered by Conan. She is not a poisonous seductress, but a kind of ultimate cock-tease able to get away with her adolescent cruelty thanks to the protection of her menacing big brothers and her daddy’s power and authority. Thalis, on the other hand, is a jaded sophisticate, and the femmes fatale who subsequently appear in the series –Akivasha, Salome, and Tascela- are brunette sybarites who resemble her so closely that they could all be members of the same clique.

In fact, the next of these ubervixens Howard wrote of, Akivasha, so nearly mirrors Thalis that she, too, is a Stygian princess. It is interesting to compare Conan’s first sight of each. Howard’s initial description of Thalis reads:

…A figure framed itself in the doorway…It was a woman who stood there staring at them in wonder. She was tall, lithe, shaped like a goddess; clad in a narrow girdle crusted with jewels. A burnished mass of night-black hair set off the whiteness of her ivory body…The Cimmerian had never seen such a woman; her facial outline was Stygian, but she was not dusky-skinned like the Stygian women he had known; her limbs were like alabaster.(9)

And here is Howard’s introduction of Akivasha in The Hour of the Dragon, written nearly a year and a half later:

…A girl stood at the mouth of a smaller tunnel, staring fixedly at him. Her ivory skin showed her to be Stygian of some ancient noble family, and like all such women she was tall, lithe, voluptuously figured, her hair a great pile of black foam, among which gleamed a sparkling ruby. But for her velvet sandals and broad jewel-crusted girdle about her supple waist she was quite nude…(10)

In much of his writing, Howard seems blessed with a pipeline to his reader’s unconscious. The provocative dream-like image of an alluring woman framed in a doorway or passageway, as though poised on some mysterious threshold, seems uncannily resonant. Clearly the image of Thalis lingered long in Howard’s imagination, and undoubtedly in Conan’s as well.

The blonde Natala is the dark-haired Thalis’ victim, and a character generally deemed worthy of little attention. Some commentators on Howard’s work, in an effort to proactively appease feminist critics, cite the author’s ability to create “strong female characters.” Bêlit, Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, and the Devi Yasmina are dutifully trotted out. Of course a woman like Thalis is also a “strong female character,” but the femme fatale tends to be narrowly regarded as another demeaning stereotype, rather than seen as a powerful archetype. “Insipid” heroines like Natala, who merely spice up the story in their capacities as damsel-in-distress and/or sex kitten, are scornfully noted and quickly glossed over.

Natala, however, merits scrutiny precisely because there is so little of the “strong female character” in her makeup; she is almost astonishingly weak and passive. Compared to Natala, heroines like Octavia and Sancha are like Amazons. Wandering through Xuthal with Conan, Natala is at all times timid and easily spooked. When they discover food and drink, Natala worries that they may anger someone by helping themselves, even though she and Conan are dying of hunger and thirst. A sex kitten character like Yasmela may not be much help to Conan, but Natala is explicitly shown to be a downright hindrance. She literally steps on Conan’s heels and endangers them both by clutching at his sword-arm.

Early in the story, when they are stranded in the desert, Conan actually considers putting Natala to death as an act of kindness:

[Conan] had not come to the limits of his endurance, but he knew that another day under the merciless sun in those waterless wastes would bring him down. As for the girl, she had suffered enough. Better a quick painless sword-stroke than the agony that faced him.(11)

The point is made that Natala is not Conan’s equal when it comes to facing the perils of the wilderness. Interestingly, Thalis, like Conan, also regards Natala as less than an equal in terms of her fitness to survive. Rather than the wilderness, however, it is the urban perils of Xuthal that Thalis declares Natala unfit to face. Still, Thalis comes to the same conclusion as Conan when she suggests that Natala should be put to the sword because of it:

“…[I]t would be better for you to cut that girl’s throat with your saber, before the men of Xuthal waken and catch her. They will put her through paces she never dreamed of! She is too soft to endure what I have thrived on…”(12)

Natala is thus deemed inferior in some sense to both Conan and Thalis. This point is emphatically reinforced. Crossing the desert to reach Xuthal, Conan carries Natala not only figuratively, but also literally: “Stooping, he lifted Natala in his mighty arms as though she had been an infant. She resisted weakly.”(13) Later, Thalis carries Natala with similar ease: “With a lithe strength [Natala] would not have believed possible in a woman, Thalis picked her up and carried her down the black corridor as if she had been a child…”(14)

Natala and Thalis contrast startlingly with one another, no less than De Sade’s virtuous Justine and her depraved sister Juliette. Natala, the fair, is meek but good-hearted. Thalis, the dark, is haughty and cruel. “I am the daughter of a king, no common woman,” boasts Thalis.(15) Concerning Natala’s background, we are told:

The girl was a Brythunian, whom Conan had found in the slave-market of a stormed Shemite city and appropriated. She had had nothing to say in the matter, but her new position was so far superior to the lot of any Hyborian woman in a Shemitish seraglio, that she accepted it thankfully…(16)

Among the secondary Conan women we find a “buccaneer’s plaything,”(17) a “dancing girl” or two, and even several designated “captive.” But it is Natala who is explicitly relegated to the role of slave. The “slave girl” is, of course, a common erotic fantasy figure, her popularity attested to by John Norman’s Gor series.

To the extent that she conforms to the “slave girl” fantasy, Natala compliments Thalis as well as contrasting with her. In the whipping scene, they represent different sides of the same coin: top and bottom, dominant and submissive. It is revealing that both women arrived in Xuthal under similar circumstances:

[Conan and Natala] were, so far as he knew, the sole survivors of Prince Almuric’s army, that mad, motley horde which, following the defeated rebel prince of Koth, swept through the Lands of Shem like a devastating sandstorm and drenched the outlands of Stygia with blood. With a Stygian host on its heels, it had cut its way through the black kingdom of Kush only to be annihilated on the edge of the southern desert… From that final slaughter…Conan had cut his way clear and fled on a camel with the girl. Behind them the land swarmed with enemies; the only way open to them was the desert to the south… For days they had fled into the desert, pursued so far by Stygian horsemen that when they shook off their pursuit, they dared not turn back. They pushed on, seeking water, until the camel died…(18)

Natala’s backstory is recounted in the third person, while Thalis boldly narrates her own tale:

“…I was abducted by a rebel prince, who, with an army of Kushite bowmen, pushed southward into the wilderness, searching for a land he could make his own. He and all his warriors perished in the desert, but one, before he died, placed me on a camel and walked beside it until he dropped and died in his tracks. The beast wandered on, and I finally passed into delirium from thirst and hunger, and awakened in this city. They told me I had been seen from the walls early in the dawn, lying senseless beside a dead camel…”(19)

Thus, both Thalis and Natala owe their presence in Xuthal to the thwarted ambition of a “rebel prince” and a subsequent flight on camelback in the company of the sole surviving warrior. In Xuthal, Thalis and Natala become rivals for Conan’s attention, possibly due in part to Thalis’s memory of her own one-time protector. There the similarities between the two women end.

While Thalis is contemptuous of Conan’s “little blond” (20), we are told that “[Natala] felt small and dust-stained and insignificant before this glamorous beauty.”(21) It comes as little surprise when Thalis and Natala are joined in a scene of girl-on-girl sadomasochism. Howard has done everything to depict Natala as a meek submissive short of spelling her name with a lower case “n.”

The whipping scene itself is erotically charged:

…As in a nightmare Natala felt her tunic being stripped from her, and the next instant Thalis had jerked up her wrists and bound them to the ring, where she hung, naked as the day she was born, her feet barely touching the floor. Twisting her head, Natala saw Thalis unhook a jewel-handled whip from where it hung on the wall, near the ring. The lashes consisted of seven round silk cords, harder yet more pliant than leather thongs. With a hiss of vindictive gratification, Thalis drew back her arm, and Natala shrieked as the cords curled across her loins. The tortured girl writhed, twisted and tore agonizedly at the thongs which imprisoned her wrists…Every stroke evoked screams of anguish. The whippings Natala had received in the Shemite slave-markets paled to insignificance before this…(22)

This may seem strong stuff for a magazine sold over the counter in 1933. Nevertheless, this very scene was depicted in full color on the September Weird Tales cover. One of Margaret Brundage’s exquisite pastel compositions illustrates the whipping of a demure Natala by a stern Thalis. In a 1973 interview, Mrs. Brundage revealed that the entire print run of that month’s issue sold out, and remarked that they could have used a couple thousand extra copies. Although this was the first Brundage Weird Tales cover to depict a whipping scene, it was not the last.

It has been suggested that Weird Tales began to feature whipping scenes on its covers in a bid to remain competitive with the “weird menace” magazines or “shudder pulps” that began to appear in the mid-thirties. Lurid pulps like Terror Tales and Thrilling Mystery featured covers and stories that depicted grotesque acts of sadism in the tradition of the Grand Guignol Theater of Paris. However, the first shudder pulp was Dime Mystery Magazine, which adopted the weird menace format in October 1933, one month after Howard’s “Xuthal of the Dusk” appeared in Weird Tales as “The Slithering Shadow.” Terror Tales did not begin publication until September 1934, nearly a year later, and its companion magazine, Horror Stories, debuted in January 1935. Weird Tales did eventually feel the heat from this competition and attempted to get in the game by inaugurating the “Doctor Satan” series, concerning a costumed sadist, in the August 1935 issue.

Howard himself dabbled in the weird menace genre, later contributing “Graveyard Rats” and “Black Wind Blowing” to Thrilling Mystery. It has therefore been suggested that the instances of flagellation and bondage that occur in the Conan stories are examples of the author “pandering” to his readers. However, a look at the contents of Howard’s library reveals a more than passing interest in sadomasochism. “I…have in my possession a very good book on sadism and masochism by a noted German scholar,”(23) he wrote to H. P. Lovecraft. His collection also included small press publications that could be considered soft-core erotica, such as An Amateur Flagellant: Experiences of Flagellation and A History of the Rod. A listing of additional titles for sale such as Painful Pleasures and Presented in Leather was found among his papers. Glenn Lord believed that Howard was interested in acquiring such volumes for “research” purposes. The amount of “research” essential for writing for the shudder pulps notwithstanding, mild sadomasochism, such as the spanking of adult women, occurs in some of Howard’s erotic poetry as well. This does seem to indicate something more than academic interest. Considering that REH was a physically vigorous young male with no regular sexual outlet and possessed of one of the most vivid imaginations on the planet, it would actually be surprising if he possessed no kinks whatsoever.

Returning to the perils of Natala, we find things going from bad to worse. Natala’s screams attract the blob-like monster Thog, which engulfs Thalis and carries her off. Before long Thog returns for Natala:

…A dark tentacle-like member slid about her body, and she screamed at the touch of it on her naked flesh. It was neither warm nor cold, rough nor smooth; it was like nothing that had ever touched her before, and at its caress she knew such fear and shame as she had never dreamed of. All the obscenity and salacious infamy spawned in the muck of the abysmal pits of Life seemed to drown her in seas of cosmic filth. And in that instant she knew that whatever form of life this thing represented it was not a beast.(24)

In his essay, Fritz Leiber notes that, “The lost city is terrorized by the beast-god Thog, who dwells in a deep well which strikes me as a symbol (unconscious? –probably) of female sexuality, and who is an amorphous and ravening Lovecraftian monster with the addition of an unlikely sexual hunger…Thog kills Thalis and at least attempts the rape of Natala.”(25)

Thog is some sort of gelatinous invertebrate, solid but shapeless, and Leiber regards the notion of such a creature lusting after a human female as outlandish. To Howard, however, this sequence represents a kind of ultimate perversity. Boneless, Thog is a creature composed entirely of hungry flesh, essentially a monstrous roaming appetite. We are told that the Xuthalians themselves “`live only for sensual joys. Dreaming or waking, their lives are filled with exotic ecstasies, beyond the ken of ordinary men.’”(26) Lustful and voracious, Thog is the embodiment of the city-dwellers’ unwholesome appetites. However, Thog is also a step above the Xuthalians on the food chain, devouring and defiling them in the manner of a natural predator.

We have already seen that Howard was ahead of the curve when it came to introducing sadomasochistic elements into pulp fiction. In depicting Natala being violated by Thog, he was a good half-century ahead of his time. Today there is an entire pornographic sub-genre of Japanese anime commonly referred to as “tits and tentacles.” These adults-only animated cartoons portray the plight of young women, usually teenage schoolgirls, who are sexually abused by monsters very much like Thog.

The only thing even remotely resembling this in the pulps was to be found in the science fiction magazines. There covers depicted attractive female astronauts clad in skintight spacesuits and fishbowl space helmets being menaced by “bug-eyed monsters.” No sexual context was explicit or implied; it was simply a way to pair a cute damsel-in-distress with a scary monster. And again, this could not have influenced Howard. Mort Weisinger introduced the bug-eyed monster format when he became editor of Wonder Stories (which then became Thrilling Wonder Stories) with the August 1936 issue. Howard was dead by the time it appeared.

All things considered, Natala was perfectly justified regarding her many forebodings of dread concerning Xuthal. Conan has his work cut out for him in dealing with the city’s menaces. And here too we see how Howard was ahead of his time as a purveyor of popular entertainment.

When Conan and Natala first enter the city, they find the gatekeeper lying motionless in the courtyard. Cold and lifeless upon examination, the supposedly dead man rises and attacks moments later. The presumed dead or defeated menace that abruptly launches a new attack has become a horror movie cliché in recent decades. This episode is the first of several plot elements of “Xuthal of the Dusk” that exemplify motifs which became commonplace in later works of popular culture.

Later, Conan finds himself under attack by twenty swordsmen of Xuthal. Unskilled and inexperienced, they are no match for Conan as he slices through them and escapes. In Fritz Leiber’s words, “Conan cuts up a besworded bunch of the `ridiculously slow and clumsy’ drug addicts in a battle described with butcher-shop thoroughness.”(27) Fred Blosser has observed that Leiber’s remarks about “butcher-shop thoroughness” seem quaint in light of today’s ultra-violent entertainment.

Taking this observation further, it is worth noting that the battle of a lone protagonist against numerous multiple attackers is the chief scenario of modern video games. Frequently censured for their violence, such games often feature the hero (the game-player’s surrogate) slaughtering whole herds of enemies in bloody combat. Though seemingly hopelessly outnumbered, the hero is possessed of great prowess while his opponents are comparatively lousy. The latter are like the walking dead in George Romero-type zombie movies –another modern violent entertainment—in that they are not all that dangerous one-on-one, but potentially lethal en masse.

  In the end, of course, Conan prevails and rescues Natala. Natala believes that Conan’s flirtation with Thalis led to their troubles, and Fritz Leiber admits that “Conan’s humorous and matter-of-fact, happy acceptance of the two girls’ rivalry for him is refreshing.”(28) In her last thoughts concerning Thalis herself, Natala admits, “`She tortured me – yet I pity her.’”(29)

Submissive to the last.

Xuchotl of the Dusk (or, Red Nails in the Sunset)

Long after the sun set on Xuthal, Conan would tread the gloomy corridors of another lost city with a similar name, Xuchotl, in his final adventure, “Red Nails.” Like Xuthal, Xuchotl is home to a decaying civilization; only here the inhabitants are addicted to homicidal mayhem rather than sex and drugs.

This was not the first instance of Howard’s reworking elements of early Conan stories into later installments of the series. Fred Blosser described how Howard recycled plot elements from “Black Colossus” and “The Scarlet Citadel” to create the novel The Hour of the Dragon, an example of what Raymond Chandler called “cannibalizing.” In this case, Howard was revamping and improving some of his best material to make his only book-length Conan adventure as hard-hitting as possible.

In other instances, however, Howard may have felt that he had failed to do justice to ideas with greater potential. “Xuthal” and “Red Nails” together comprise the most notable example of this principle, but not the only example. “Iron Shadows in the Moon,” written in November 1932, and “The Devil in Iron,” written in October 1933, both feature Conan in the Eastern lands of Hyrkania. In both stories, he is a member of the kozaks, marauders of the wastelands who prey on civilized outposts. However, in the former story, the power of the kozaks has been broken and Conan is first seen as a hunted fugitive hiding in swamps. In the latter tale, Conan is the chieftain of all the kozaks and a thorn in the side of the king himself. Both stories feature similar supernatural menaces found in an island’s haunted ruins. Yet the earlier story’s menace consists of mere “Iron Shadows,” statues that mysteriously come to life and kill some people offstage. The later story raises the stakes with a veritable “Devil in Iron” –a demon walking the earth in a body of iron because flesh is too fragile to contain it. Here we see Howard reworking the story to give it more of a punch.

Howard could also revamp the concept of a previous story to create a purer subtext. Case in point: “The God in the Bowl” and “Rogues in the House.” “The God in the Bowl,” written in March 1932, was Howard’s third Conan story. It was rejected by Weird Tales, and he subsequently reconfigured elements of it in the composition of “Rogues in the House,” believed to have been written in January 1933. In both stories Conan is a youthful thief at odds with civilized society. The action of each story takes place mostly indoors, within some sort of bizarre edifice where a strange creature is on the loose.

Each story was also written as an exposé of the hypocrisy and corruption of civilized authority. Characters in “The God in the Bowl” include a wealthy merchant who plans to steal a treasure and set up an employee as the fall guy, and a foppish young nobleman after the same treasure who hires and then betrays Conan. Then there are police officials who routinely torture confessions from suspects. However, the cast also includes honest men just trying to do their jobs.

In “Rogues in the House,” on the other hand, no one is pure. The “rogues” of the title are Conan, thief and hired assassin; Murilo, another unscrupulous, foppish young nobleman; the Red Priest Nabonidus, who exploits his power in the kingdom for his own gain; and arguably the ape-man Thak, a missing link who endeavors to become more human through murder and theft. But, as though that were not enough, there is also an assortment of unsavory minor characters as well. These include Conan’s partner in crime, who deserted from the army; a priest who plays both ends against the middle as both a fence for stolen goods and a police informer; the girl who sells out Conan to the police; the girl’s new lover, yet another thief; and a jailer who accepts bribes and has underworld ties. There is also an honest jailer, but he is portrayed as petty and drunk with his own authority. A group of assassins attempt to kill the Red Priest for the good of the kingdom, but they are assassins nonetheless. Everyone is guilty of something or has something to hide.

Returning to “Red Nails” and “Xuthal of the Dusk,” we find that “Red Nails” owes much more to its predecessor than those other examples of reworked stories. The lost cities of Xuthal and Xuchotl have nearly identical names, sharing the same first syllable and beginning with the letter “X” –a similarity that invites comparison. They are both located somewhere south of the black kingdoms of Kush and Darfar. Hyborian Age maps show them in roughly the same vicinity. The twin “X” cities are the Sodom and Gomorrah of Conan’s world.

Conan is amazed to discover that the city of Xuchotl is constructed almost entirely of jade. In his earlier adventure, he observed that Xuthal was constructed of “a smooth greenish substance that shown almost like glass.”(30) Green or “greenish” building materials are used from time to time in the Conan series to impart a hint of eldritch menace to mysterious ruins or alien structures. The “shadowy ruins”(31) discovered in “Iron Shadows in the Moon” were built of “greenish stone.”(32) The ruins on Xapur in “The Devil in Iron” that were inexplicably rebuilt overnight, a thing “monstrously out of joint,”(33) were also erected with the “iron-like green stone found only on the islands of Vilayet.”(34) The citadel of the inhuman giants in “The Pool of the Black One” is composed of some “green semi-translucent substance”(35) that heightens the effect of architecture “alien to human sanity.”(36) Outside of the Conan canon, the winged man’s tower in “The Garden of Fear” is also built “of a curious green stone, highly polished, and of a substance that created the illusion of semi-translucency.”(37) One wonders if REH would have described the Emerald City of Oz as “monstrously out of joint” or “alien to human sanity.”

In addition to being composed of similar building materials, Xuthal and Xuchotl are constructed along similar lines. Each city actually consists of a single massive self-contained structure. In “Red Nails,” this is obvious to Conan as he enters Xuchotl. In “Xuthal of the Dusk,” however, he is unaware that the buildings of Xuthal are all interconnected until Thalis so informs him. Her revelation comes when the story is well underway, suggesting that this detail occurred to Howard as he was writing it. An embryonic concept in “Xuthal of the Dusk,” the enclosed city is one of the most striking elements of “Red Nails.”

Other similarities between the two cities include the fact that the inhabitants of both have abandoned agriculture and livestock raising. Instead, all food is produced indoors. The inhabitants of Xuchotl cultivate fruit that “obtains its nourishment out of the air.”(38) In Xuthal, food is manufactured out of the “primal elements.”(39) Each city is illuminated by gems or fossils with luminescent properties. And more interestingly, each city is home to a dark-haired femme fatale whose name begins with the letter “T”—Thalis of Xuthal and Tascela of Xuchotl.

  Of course there are differences as well as similarities between the two stories, and the most striking departure from the earlier tale is undoubtedly the depiction of Conan’s romantic interest. In “Red Nails” the demure Natala is replaced by the bold warrior-woman, Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. Natala and Valeria are both blondes, but there the similarities end. Valeria fights at Conan’s side and more than holds her own.

  “Red Nails” is not without its “exploitative” elements. As in “Xuthal,” sadomasochistic elements enter the story. Unlike the winsome Natala, however, Valeria assumes the dominant role. When a young woman of Xuchotl attempts to drug her, Valeria strips her naked, ties her up, and whips her, as Thalis whipped Natala, with “hard-woven silken cords.”(40) Nevertheless, Valeria meets her match in Xuchotl’s resident femme fatale, Tascela. Their encounter ends with Valeria herself in bondage and finally nude. Readers are treated to the spectacle of a dominant woman being dominated herself.

  Throughout “Red Nails,” Valeria of the Red Brotherhood is presented as a fitting companion for Conan, nearly his equal --yet not quite. Mention is made of the fact that, due to spending so much of her life aboard pirate ships, Valeria cannot run very fast or very far. Therefore, when they are pursued by a carnivorous dinosaur en route to the city, Conan must pick her up and carry her along. Not unlike the meek Natala, Valeria has to be carried by Conan…for a little while at least.


In evaluating “Xuthal of the Dusk” in his essay, “Hyborian Genesis,” Patrice Louinet remarks, “The basic plot of the tale –Conan and a woman finding an isolated city peopled by decadent inhabitants and a wicked woman—would indeed be considerably enriched and developed in the future Red Nails (1935). The theme had profound psychological resonance in Howard’s psyche. In late 1932, however, Howard was not ready to give it the treatment it deserved, and Xuthal of the Dusk pales in comparison with the future Conan tale.”(41)

Perhaps so. Yet it bears repeating that if “Red Nails” had not been written, “Xuthal of the Dusk” would almost certainly be held in higher esteem. Apart from that, “Xuthal” deserves to be seen as more than just a kind of blueprint or rough draft for “Red Nails.”

  If Robert E. Howard is remembered for nothing else, he merits recognition as an important figure in twentieth century art for his key role as a pioneer of sexy, violent entertainment. Howard understood clearly that consumers of narrative art have an innate hunger to identify with protagonists placed in extreme circumstances. After all, Romanticism and its Gothic subgenre were all about unusual situations, intense moods and heightened emotional states. Sex and violence in entertainment are routinely condemned by politicians, teachers, and other authority figures that have an interest in keeping the masses docile. On the other hand, every storyteller, good or bad, knows instinctively that no situation is more dramatic than physical conflict, and that no concept is more compelling than the prospect of total sexual fulfillment. Sex and violence are like the primary colors of the artist’s palette, regardless of how they may subsequently be blended, softened and refined. Howard was adept in employing the “primal elements” of sex and violence in his prose. He made use of them in ways that were decades ahead of his time, and did so in a sure, knowing fashion. Conan eventually superseded Tarzan in the popular imagination owing in part to Howard’s awareness that the typical male’s macho fantasies don’t consist of monogamy and beating up animals.

Howard was without question an accomplished purveyor of electrifying entertainment, but of course that wasn’t all he was. Many readers come to REH for the high adventure, the action and horror, the sex and violence; but they stay for the darker, more compelling aspects of his artistic vision. Howard regarded writing as a profession-- he worked at it; he didn’t play at it. He believed in giving his readers their money’s worth, yet as H. P. Lovecraft noted in his obituary of Howard, he was adept at embodying his worldview within even his most outwardly commercial fiction. Martin Scorcese acknowledged a similar practice among filmmakers when he referred to “the director as smuggler.”

Concerning “Xuthal of the Dusk,” Howard wrote to Clark Ashton Smith that, “It really isn’t as exclusively devoted to sword-slashing as the announcement [in Weird Tales] might seem to imply.”(42) Even so, he later admitted to Lovecraft that he wrote “Red Nails” because “I have been dissatisfied with my handling of decaying races in stories…”(43) “Xuthal of the Dusk” may not rank among the best of the Conan stories, but as we have seen, it is a virtual showcase for the innovative manner in which Howard crafted sexy, violent entertainment. For that reason alone, it merits some attention in its own right.

“Red Nails” casts a deep shadow, but “Xuthal of the Dusk” has been obscured by that slithering shadow for far too long.

Works Cited:

Herron, Don (ed.).  The Dark Barbarian.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984

Howard, Robert E.  The Bloody Crown of Conan.  New York: Del Rey Books, 2004.

_____.  The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.  New York: Del Rey Books, 2003.

_____.  The Conquering Sword of Conan.  New York: Del Rey Books, 2005.

_____.  Eons of the Night.  New York: Baen Books, 1996.

_____.  Selected Letters, 1931 1936.  West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1991.


1 Fritz Leiber, “Howard’s Fantasy,” in The Dark Man (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984 ) p. 9.
2 Patrice Louinet, “Hyborian Genesis III,” in The Conquering Sword of Conan (New York: Del Rey Books, 2005) p. 383.
3 Robert E. Howard, “Xuthal of the Dusk” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Del Rey Books, 2003) p. 219.
4 Ibid. p. 230.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid., p. 231.
7 Leiber, op cit., pp. 9-10.
8 Although Howard did donate a variant version of the tale, with the hero’s name changed to Amra of Akbitana, to a fan publication. This version has appeared under the titles, “The Frost-King’s Daughter” and “Gods of the North.”
9 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit., p. 228.
10 Robert E. Howard, The Hour of the Dragon in The Bloody Crown of Conan (New York: Del Rey Books, 2004) p. 214.
11 Howard, “Xuthal”, op. cit., p. 220.
12 Ibid., p. 232.
13 Ibid., p. 220.
14 Ibid., p. 236.
15 Ibid., p. 232.
16 Ibid., p. 221.
17 Robert E. Howard, “The Pool of the Black One” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Del Rey Books, 2003) p. 255.
18 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit., pp. 220-21.
19 Ibid., p. 232.
20 Ibid.
21 Ibid., p. 229.
22 Ibid., p. 237.
23 Robert E. Howard to H.P. Lovecraft, 5 December 1935, in Selected Letters 1931-1936 (West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1991) p. 68.
 24 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit.., p. 238.
25 Leiber, op cit., p. 10.
26 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit., p. 233.
27 Leiber, op cit., p. 10.
28 Ibid.
29 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit., p. 247.
30 Ibid., p. 221.
31 Robert E. Howard, “Iron Shadows in the Moon” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Del Rey Books, 2003) p. 198.
32 Ibid., p. 194.
33 Robert E. Howard, “The Devil in Iron” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Del Rey Books, 2003) p. 330.
34 Ibid., p. 322.
35 Howard, “Pool”, op cit., p. 260.
36 Ibid.
37 Robert E. Howard, “The Garden of Fear” in Eons of the Night (Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, 1996) p. 45.
38 Robert E. Howard, “Red Nails” in The Conquering Sword of Conan (New York: Del Rey Books, 2005) p. 246.
39 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit., p. 230.
40 Howard, “Red Nails”, p. 254.
41 Patrice Louinet, “Hyborian Genesis” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Del Rey Books, 2003) p. 449.
42 Robert E. Howard to Clark Ashton Smith, quoted by Patrice Louinet in “Hyborian Genesis”, op cit., p. 449.
43 Howard to Lovecraft, op cit., p. 72.