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!'"


POEMS

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.]

RETURN TO XUTHAL
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.

Conclusions

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.


Notes.

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.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Remembering Wolfshead

[Originally published in The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, March 2010. Copyright 2010 by The Dark Man.]

Robert E. Howard has been a huge part of my life. Amazing to think that I have been reading, enjoying, studying, reflecting on, and commenting on writings by and about Howard for a little over four decades. Today I am recalling a major milestone in my development as a Howard enthusiast --the 1968 Lancer Books paperback Wolfshead (ISBN: 0-447-73721-060).

Like many Howard readers of my generation, my first exposure to the author's work was with my discovery of the Lancer Conan series. Marc Cerasini introduced me to the Lancer series when I was twelve. To this day, every time I hear The Doors' "Light My Fire" I flash back to when I was lying on my couch in my old house reading Conan the Warrior while the song was playing on the radio. I am not kidding when I say this happens every time I hear that song. That's the sort of impact the Conan books had on me --it was a formative, transcendental, life-altering experience. At the time I was introduced to them, four Conan volumes had already appeared: Adventurer, Warrior, Conqueror, and Usurper. These were soon followed by King Kull and the volume simply entitled Conan. I vividly recall my first sight of these on the book racks of various drug stores and 5&10 stores of that vanished era.

I was no less excited when I first beheld the cover of Wolfshead displayed on the book rack. My eyes were drawn right to it, for here was another glorious, eye-popping cover painting by Frank Frazetta. The cover depicts a barbarian swordsman, this one a Nordic blond, grappling with a monstrous green serpent in some ancient temple. In the background lurks a mysterious robed figure. Now please remember that I was only thirteen at the time, and Howard was being marketed as the master of "sword and sorcery" fiction. But my initial reaction was like, wow, here's another cool barbarian character --some guy named Wolfshead!

The other feature of that cover that immediately caught my eye was something that doesn't embarrass me now. That was the author line: Robert E. Howard. It just said "Robert E. Howard" --no "and L. Sprague de Camp," no "and Lin Carter," no "edited by L. Sprague de Camp." I grabbed the book like a junkie seizing a package of unadulterated heroin.

When I got home I was able to examine the book more closely. I soon realized that I had embarked on a voyage of discovery. As I looked over the back-cover copy, it began to dawn on me that this was not a collection of stories about a single character like the previous Howard volumes. Opening the cover to the teaser page, I found the opening of the story "Wolfshead" quoted. Okay: "Wolfshead" was the name of a story and not a character. Silly me. But what hit me was that, unlike the previous Howard stories I had read, this one was written in the first person. And it was a horror story, not a heroic fantasy. In his Conan introductions, de Camp had made passing mention of the fact that Howard had written in a variety of genres. At that time, for some reason, I hadn't expected to read any of these other works. But now, I was getting my first indication that Howard was also a noteworthy author of horror stories.

On to the introduction: The back-cover copy had promised "a special introduction by the author." I was looking forward to reading it. Finally, an introduction that did not consist of some editor's or "posthumous collaborator's" evaluation of Howard's fiction --just Howard's own take on his writing. I read what Howard had to say with interest, but in the back of my mind, I wondered when and why he had written these words. Then I reached the end of the piece, where I was startled to learn that it was an excerpt from a letter to H.P. Lovecraft. I had not read Lovecraft at this point, but was aware of him. I could not fail to recall the peculiar name I knew by reputation as that of a great horror writer. So, here was another major discovery: the Lovecraft-Howard correspondence.

In the days that followed, I devoured the collected stories and was not disappointed. First up, "The Black Stone." This was the first Howard story that I read in a genre other than heroic fantasy, and the genre was horror. The first-person narrative was different from the third-person action tales I had read previously, but no less compelling. I savored this eerie story of mystery and menace, and it remains a favorite to this day.

The second story in the collection was "The Valley of the Worm." I was pleased to find that heroic fantasy was by no means absent from Wolfshead. What do I need to say about "The Valley of the Worm"? It's a top-of-his-game Howard story, and a top-ten favorite on everybody's list. And I first read it in Wolfshead.

After "Valley," we come to the story that gives the collection its title. Here was Howard's non-traditional take on a traditional icon of Gothic horror, the werewolf. "Wolfshead" is more interesting to me now in retrospect than it was upon first reading. The story, with its colorful cast gathered at a remote outpost and stalked by a demonic figure, can be seen as a precursor to a much later tale, "The Black Stranger." I'm still not quite sure why "Wolfshead" was chosen to serve as the title story for the collection when there were more impressive stories to choose from. My guess is that the title is both brief and very distinctive. And if some kid was fooled into thinking this was a collection about a new series character, that probably didn't hurt either.

The following story, "The Fire of Asshurbanipal," contained some more notable firsts. Since I read Wolfshead long before any of Howard's westerns, I was thrilling to his depiction of gunfights for the first time. Until now it had all been swords, battle axes, and the like. And it would be years before a specialty publisher issued the tales of El Borak. "The Fire of Asshurpanipal" provided my first encounter with one of Howard's Middle Eastern adventurers.

"The House of Arabu" was the second story in the collection to feature a blond barbarian, so the Frazetta cover wasn't totally misleading. Although the cover does not depict an actual scene from either "The Valley of the Worm" or "The House of Arabu," it captures the mood of the latter quite nicely.

"The Horror from the Mound" was the first story I read in which the author utilized a regional Southwestern setting based on his first-hand knowledge. (Little did I then know that this story was actually Howard's first attempt to use the Southwest in his fiction.) In any case, Howard was on to something. The descriptions of the protagonist's hardscrabble existence lingered with me long after the story's vampire menace had faded.

Rounding out the collection was "The Cairn on the Headland." This remains one of my favorite Howard horror stories. In this tale, the narrator glimpses the horrific metaphysical reality underlying the myths of old. Here also was the first reference to the battle of Clontarf that I encountered in a Howard story --or anywhere else for that matter.

Such are my memores of Wolfshead, all those years ago. Hopefully, they might shed a little light on Howard's literary reemergence after decades of obscurity. Certainly that old paperback, now crumbling with age, holds a pivotal place in my own development as a Howard reader. "The Black Stone," "The Valley of the Worm," "Wolfshead," "The Fire of Asshurbanipal," "The House of Arabu," "The Horror from the Mound," and "The Cairn on the Headland" --all these are Robert E. Howard stories I read before I read Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane. The Dell paperback Bran Mak Morn was issued in 1969, and three paperbacks collecting the Solomon Kane stories appeared soon afterwards. I consider it fortuitous that publishers did not wait until all the fantasy series characters were in paperback before issuing Howard stories from other genres. Had this been so, Howard would have been pigeon-holed as a "sword and sorcery guy" that much longer.

That is why I consider the publication of Wolfshead something of a milestone. In the beginning there was just Conan, King Kull, and "sword and sorcery." Wolfshead took me to the next level.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Guns of the Border Region -- Chapter Eight

CHAPTER EIGHT -- HOMECOMING

[Here it is at last, the wrap-up. And, of course, all the previous installments can be read by scrolling down. What I've tried to do here was to create a pulp adventure novel that wasn't retro, ala Indiana Jones. And the novel is autobiographical in the sense that it concerns my homeland of Southwestern Pennsylvania --not as it is, or was, but as it pleases me to imagine it. Copyright 2009 by Charles Hoffman.]

The following afternoon a small group gathered for Arthur’s funeral. Pops, Shadow, Leon, Christian, and Cathy Gorman were in attendance, along with some allies from the previous day’s faction fight who wished to pay their respects. They were assembled in the small forest glade on Pops’ property where Pops had buried Steffy.

“Room enough here for a few more graves,” Pops told Leon, “Steffy and I never had a son. Arthur is more than welcome here. I guess I’ll be joinin’ `em ere long.” He paused and looked about. Sunlight parted the clouds and slanted through the mostly-bare trees. A passing breeze rattled the boughs. A few brown leaves drifted down. “Yep,” Pops said thoughtfully, “This will be a nice little cemetery.”

In the glade a fresh grave had been dug. A simple pine coffin had been lowered into it. Arthur rested within the coffin with the Arkansas toothpick he had borne in battle.

Pops gave the eulogy.

“We lay to rest a man of the Border Region. The compass of his soul guided him here, to his home. This land will be stronger with his bones in the ground.”

Afterwards Christian led Leon, Cathy and some of the others in a prayer. Pops and Shadow stood nearby with bowed heads.

When all was said, Pops and Leon picked up shovels and began to fill in the grave. Cathy Gorman burst into tears as the first damp clods struck the coffin lid. She sobbed more loudly as each shovelful of dirt fell. Shadow remained silent, her face as immobile as a stoic Indian’s, but tears streamed freely down her cheeks.

Shadow lingered after the others had departed. The last words uttered at Arthur’s graveside that day were hers.

“Fare thee well, friend. Your love was not wasted.”

#

Shadow found Pops seated before his fireplace. Pain dozed at his feet. Shadow took a seat on the floor next to the dog.

Pops contemplated the flames for a moment before saying, “I guess you’re pissed at me for not letting old Pain here tear that boy’s throat out.”

It was the first time they had spoken of it. Shadow looked up and said, “No. Not actually. I just wish I understood things better.”

“I had to put an end to it,” Pops explained. “You dealt Mad Dog two terrible hurts. You took away his favorite son and crippled him for life. Now he’s physically handicapped and doesn’t have Sailor to back him up. His power is broken and so is he. I saw the fire go out of him, which is sad in a way, but it took the bitterness with it. He became a changed man before my eyes. Yes, it can come over a man just like that. I’ve lived a long time. I’ve seen it happen before more than once.

“But Clanton has friends. They wouldn’t look on it too kindly if I had taken Joel from him after he had begged and pleaded with me for his life. It would be seen as an act of cruelty, me tearing the last pitiful remnants from weak grasping fingers. It would have prolonged the feud, whatever the outcome of the faction fight.

“As it is, Clanton is forever in my debt. Everyone sees him as beholden to me. No one would back him in a move against me. Not that he would attempt such a thing now. He is not without honor in his fashion. And he may be hobbling on a stick from now on, but at least he can rightfully boast that he once used it to best Connor O’Rourke in single combat. No one can take that away from him.

“Arthur sacrificed his life to save you,” Pops concluded, “And by dying in your stead he bought us the peace.”

#

After hearing Pops’ explanation, Shadow went in search of Christian. She found him out back by the still.

“I’ve been looking for you,” she told him, “We need to talk.”

“About what?” Christian asked.

“About what you’re doing here. I want to know why you really came to the Border Region. And don’t give me that lame routine about looking for the girl. Anyone with more than two brain cells would have to know how futile that was. I didn’t care because I was getting paid. But now I want the real story.”

“I was going to tell you anyway,” Christian said as he began his tale, “I’m an accountant from North Carolina, like I said. I was working in Liberty’s City as a low-level bean counter for the Confederate government. And I really was engaged to Angel. That much was true. But I did deceive you about her whereabouts. I’ve always been pretty sure she’s in New York. I didn’t lie when I said she left me. She ran off with a Muslim from the Islamic States.”

“I suspected something of the sort,” Shadow informed him, “Go on.”

The whole story came out. The other man was an ISA diplomat who came to Liberty’s City on a state visit. Angel met him at a party and had been swept off her feet by his debonair charm. When he returned home, she went with him. Christian had been left heartbroken and humiliated. He was plunged into a deep depression and his work suffered. At this point he was approached by a government intelligence agency, the heir to the Old Union’s CIA.

High government officials were concerned about the possibility of a growing Muslim presence in the Border Region. The New American Confederacy, the Free Republic of Alaska, and the Border Region all formed a loose-knit confederation. In addition to utilizing a common currency, Alaskans and Border Regioners could serve in what was referred to as the American Military. The main purpose of the alliance was mutual defense. Though not a part of the New American Confederacy, the Border Region remained connected to it in certain respects. Therefore any encroachment upon the Border Region on the part of the Islamic States of America could be viewed as an indirect threat to the Confederacy. Muslims from the Islamic States might emigrate to certain areas of the Border Region and in time achieve majority status there. Then, theoretically, sections of the northern and eastern Border Region could be subsumed into the ISA county by county. For this reason, the number and location of Muslims residing in the Border Region was of concern to the Confederate government.

Unfortunately, Confederate intelligence resources were meager compared to those of the Old Union. This was where Christian came in. He was tapped to play the jilted lover wandering the Border Region in search of his runaway sweetheart. Enough of the story was true that he could act the part convincingly. The plan was for him to get far into the rural reaches of the Border Region to scout out Muslim enclaves, if any. The Confederate spy masters had little doubt that Christian would agree to take the mission. Assuming the role of a daring secret agent would act as a balm to his injured male pride. And if he helped thwart the designs of the Islamic Federation, he would gain a measure of revenge. He was the perfect cat’s-paw.

“You Border Regioners are suspicious of outsiders,” Christian told Shadow, “A trained agent attempting to infiltrate would be spotted a mile off. But a rank amateur like me just might be able to get away with it. Anyway, that’s what the people who recruited me thought. And that’s the whole story.”

Shadow punched Christian in the mouth. “And that’s for lying to me in the first place,” she said as she stormed off.

Christian rubbed his jaw and watched her ass sway as she walked away from him. He grinned sheepishly. He knew full well that if Shadow had nailed him with her best shot, he’d be flat on his back, out cold. Still, it was probably best to stay out of her way until she cooled off. That evening he unrolled his sleeping bag on Pops’ porch and slept outdoors.

#

Christian awoke early the next morning to the smell of venison sausage cooking inside the cabin. Shadow came out with some breakfast.

“Rise and shine, Churchy,” she said cheerfully, “I brought you sausage and eggs.”

“Uh, so you’re not still upset with me?” he asked.

“We’re good,” she replied. “I just needed to be mad for a little bit.”

They sat on the steps and ate breakfast together. When they finished she informed him, “I’m pulling out of here this morning. Have you had enough of the New Settlements?”

Merciful Lord, yes! he thought. “Where are you headed?” he said.

“Tionesta. That’s up north. Northwest, actually. It’s a couple days’ ride. I have family up there. I think you’d like it. It’s in the middle of some real nice country. And the community there is thriving. It’s a little city-state, almost. They have solar and wind electricity, and a lot of modern conveniences. It’s not like here at all.”

“Then I’m for Tionesta!”

After breakfast they said their goodbyes to Pops. Not long afterwards they were on the road again. Shadow rode Incitatus. Christian was astride the horse formerly owned by the late Sailor Clanton.

Their route took them down from the mountains and back onto the main roads. The trip proved uneventful. They passed the time in conversation. Shadow mentioned looking forward to the big Halloween festival in Tionesta.

“Halloween is not that widely celebrated in the Confederacy,” Christian informed her, “Most people tend to look on it as a pagan celebration. It’s not unheard of, but it’s sort of frowned upon.”

“Well, Halloween is the biggest holiday in the Border Region. Hands down,” Shadow said. She went on to explain its historical and cultural significance in the Region.

The Pennsylvania Uprising that ultimately led to the formation of the Border Region had its beginning in the Pittsburgh area. The Westsylvania secession movement started small, with a series of peaceful demonstrations. However, when a local congresswoman disparaged movement leaders as losers and misfits, things turned ugly. On the night of October 31, 2081, secession sympathizers retaliated by firebombing the congresswoman’s upscale home. This became known as the “Halloween Hellfire” incident. It was the first documented episode of violence associated with the Westsylvania secession movement. Things snowballed from there. Cities and counties erupted in rioting, open rebellion, and finally armed insurrection.

“And today Halloween is celebrated with wild partying all over the Border Region,” Shadow concluded, “I’ve been to some really big blow-outs in Wheeling and Pittsburgh. And, as you might expect, they do it up big in Transylvania. But usually I enjoy getting back to Tionesta for the celebration.”

It was also during the journey that Shadow filled Christian in concerning the Muslim population of the Border Region.

“I’ve traveled all over the Region. I’ve probably wandered over more of it than most. And I really haven’t encountered all that many Muslims. You probably have just as many, or more, still residing in the Confederacy. There are no Muslim ‘enclaves’ that I know of. Just a family here and there. And these tend to be free thinkers looking to practice a less strict form of their religion. As long as they just want to live in peace and do their own thing, they’re welcome. But if they were to try and proselytize and gain converts, they would be made to feel most unwelcome. That sort of thing doesn’t go over well here.”

Christian questioned Shadow concerning the specifics of where and when she had encountered Muslims in the Region. Finally he felt satisfied that he had enough information to put in his report when he got back to the Confederacy.

“Why even go back?” Shadow asked, “You should stay here. You belong here. Think about it. You killed your first man before you fucked your first woman. That makes you Border Region in my book, son.”

Christian didn’t have an answer for that one. He rode on in silence. But he did think about it.

#

Tionesta was an isolated community up north in Forest County. Throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries the town had been frequented by visitors. Surrounded by woodlands teeming with game and adjacent to a large lake suitable for fishing and boating, it was a popular getaway destination. Many of the residences were hunting cabins and vacation homes unoccupied for most of the year. A small permanent population provided various goods and services.

Following the Westsylvania secession, the character of the town began to change. Counties to the north including Erie, Crawford, and Warren remained in the Pennsylvania commonwealth by treaty so as to furnish a corridor linking the Northeastern and Midwestern Islamic states. Non-Muslim residents of those areas faced the choice of abiding by Islamic authority or relocating. Many displaced residents came to resettle in and around Tionesta, swelling the population. By the early 22nd Century, Tionesta had become the model of a vital self-sufficient community. It was the northernmost outpost of the Border Region.

Shadow and Christian arrived in Tionesta at about noon on the 31st. They headed for the center of town. There holiday festivities were already underway. The whole downtown area had been transformed into an enormous street fair. Lively crowds milled about everywhere. Handcrafted items and food of every sort was being sold at open stalls. Smoke from the grills scented the air.

“It goes on all day and well into the night,” Shadow informed her companion, “Right now there’s feasting and dancing. After dark there’ll be masquerades.”

After stabling the horses they joined the crowds. Before long Shadow was greeted by an old friend. At the sound of a melodic voice calling her name, she and Christian turned to see a stunning blonde coming their way. The newcomer looked to be a year or so older than Shadow and was roughly the same height and build. Christian watched the two women embrace. Then Shadow made the introductions.

“Christian, this is Anime, or Anna Mae if you prefer. She was my partner in crime during my younger, wilder days. We used to perform in Pittsburgh clubs as a trash dance combo called Filth.”

Christian didn’t ask what a trash dance combo was. Anime warmed him with a smile that would make any man do her bidding. “Pleased to meet you, Chris.”

“She used to be cool,” Shadow said tartly, “Then she settled down and married my blockhead brother.” To Anime, “Where is Hondo, anyway?”

“He’s down in Clarion visiting your parents and your kid sister Penny,” Anime replied, “Any plans to go see them?”

“Maybe at Thanksgiving. I’ve been thinking of going down to Pittsburgh. I could book some sessions at Madame Irene’s and be back up here in time for deer season.”

Shadow noticed the look of sick horror on Christian’s face. She set him straight. “Will you fucking relax, already? I just do domination.”

Turning back to Anime, she asked, “So where are the kiddies?”

“I left them with my friend Sophie to watch while I came over to see you.”

As if on cue two little girls, perhaps four and five, came scampering out of the crowd. They ran straight to Shadow.

“Aunt Tam!” they squealed in unison.

Shadow cast a sidelong glance at Christian. “Not a word out of you, Church-boy.”

Shadow knelt and hugged the children. Straightening she said to Christian, “These are my little nieces that I told you about, Lois and Margo.”

The kids were clearly excited by a visit from their aunt. One of the tots looked up and asked, “Can we ride Incitatus?”

“You sure can!” Shadow promised.

Christian was moved to inquire, “Will Incitatus like giving pony rides to children?”

“I’ll bust him in the snoot if he doesn’t,” Shadow said, then added meaningfully, “You have to show big dumb animals who’s boss.”

Sensing something unspoken between the man and woman, Anime laughed. “You guys must be hungry,” she said.

The group left the street fair and strolled over to a nearby park. There were more crowds of people, and more stalls selling food. Beer, wine, moonshine and cider were sold and consumed in great quantities. From a central pavilion, a band entertained the crowd. Christian remarked that the Halloween celebration seemed to have incorporated elements of Oktoberfest.

For lunch the companions dined on pierogis at one of the picnic tables. The adults drank 33 while the kids enjoyed draft root beer. Following the meal the women got caught up. Shadow narrated her recent adventures, glossing over some of the gorier details. Anime wiped away a tear when told of Arthur’s sacrifice.

Christian proposed a toast --”To Arthur.” He and the women raised their drinks.

The adults sat in respectful silence for awhile. The children played nearby. The youngsters’ laughter proved infectious and the mood at the picnic table began to lighten once more.

“You have to come up to the house and get your vampire costume,” Anime said to Shadow, “You can change before it gets dark.”

“Great,” Shadow replied, “What about you? Are you wearing yours? It’ll be the return of the toothsome twosome.”

“No, I’m afraid not. I’ve agreed to play Sandy this year.”

Shadow laughed loudly and raised her beer in salute. “Halloween Hellfire!” she declared.

From the context Christian assumed this to be a popular toast for the occasion. The reference to “Sandy” puzzled him, however. Anime filled him in.

Sandra Popplevich was the name of the congresswoman whose home had been burned in the Halloween Hellfire episode back in `81. Over the years she became the basis for “Sandy,” an evil witch character in tales told to children. Now on Halloween in communities throughout the Border Region a local woman would dress as Sandy. The children would chase her around and she would pretend to hide. A dummy in similar attire would then be brought forth and set ablaze.

“It’s become a big tradition,” Anime concluded, “And all the kids love it.”

Later that afternoon the group adjourned to Anime’s home. It was located in a semi-rural area not far from the center of town. Shadow and Christian rode there on horseback. Anime and the kids drove in the family horse-and-buggy.

Upon arrival Shadow treated Lois and Margo to the promised pony rides on Incitatus. She then stabled her horse with the others in a small barn to the rear of Anime’s property. After providing the horses with some feed, she rejoined her companions in the house.

Anime was entertaining Christian in the living room. As Shadow came in she was telling him more about life in Tionesta; “As far as essentials are concerned, we’re totally self-sufficient. If we were cut off from the outside, we’d be okay. All of our power is wind and solar. People have been experimenting with wind and solar energy since the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, but it wasn’t produced on a large scale. Advances in the technology finally made it feasible. With communities that are energy self-sufficient, the power doesn’t have to be transmitted over long distance. So you don’t have this vast complicated infrastructure that can collapse like a house of cards.”

Shadow yawned loudly to get their attention. “Glad to see you’re fascinating our guest. If either of want me, I’ll be upstairs getting changed.” So saying, she disappeared up the stairs.

She came down a short time later. Christian turned at the sound of her footstep on the stair and actually caught his breath at the sight of her. Time seemed to slow and she appeared to drift down the stairs in slow motion.

Shadow was dressed to impress. She wore a tight black merry widow corselet. Its heavily-wired cups lifted the ivory globes of her breasts, thrusting them out. Garters from the corselet extended past black panties to uphold stockings woven in an intricate spider-web pattern. On her slender feet she wore open-toed shoes with high stiletto heels. Long satin opera gloves of a deep burgundy hue extended past her elbows. Draped about her shoulders was a black velvet hooded cloak with a red satin lining.

When Christian found his tongue he stammered, “I-I thought you were supposed to be a vampire.”

“I’m a sexy vampire!” she said playfully.

“You look great,” he admitted.

“Thanks. But I still have some bruises on my face make-up won’t cover. So I’m wearing this.”

Shadow produced a mask from somewhere. It was a grotesque affair constructed of several segments of stiff molded leather fastened together with small brass rivets. The segments --smooth domed forehead, cheekbones, upper jaw-- fitted together seamlessly to form the face of a glossy black leather skull. Christian watched uneasily as Shadow slipped the mask on. An elastic band encircling her head held it in place. Most of her face was covered by the skull mask. Only her eyes, nose and chin remained visible. She raised the hood of the cloak.

“I can’t see your face,” Christian objected.

“So look at my tits.”

#

After dusk they all headed back to town for the Halloween masquerade. The whole group managed to fit in Anime’s buggy for the ride down. Christian thought the kids looked cute in their costumes; Lois as a ghost and Margo as a black cat. Anime wore no costume, but a bag at her side contained her Sandy outfit for later. Shadow rode in silence. It was as though in donning cloak, hood and mask she had adopted a more somber, mysterious demeanor.

The center of town was closed to vehicular traffic due to the street fair. Anime dropped Christian and Shadow off at the outskirts of the festivities, then drove away to corral the horse and buggy. The children waved goodbye as they departed.

Night had fallen and most people at the fair were now cavorting in costume. Shadow said nothing but took Christian by the hand and led him deep into the crowds of revelers, Here there was food and drink, music and merriment. The only thing resembling this anywhere in the Confederacy was the New Orleans Mardi Gras. This seemed different and darker, however. Christian noticed that there were no funny costumes, but all the familiar figures of folklore and Gothic horror were present. And then there were the women, flaunting themselves in all manner of provocative attire. Christian, accustomed as he was to women modestly dressed, was soon sporting an erection. With an effort he avoided looking at them, and gradually it subsided.

Shadow led Christian to the town square. Here a stage had been set up and the community’s children, including Lois and Margo, were being entertained by a puppet show. In the middle of the performance a strange costumed figure came skulking onto the stage. Christian recognized Anime despite her ragged robes, pointed witch’s hat and fake hook nose. She now began to lurch about making menacing gestures. The puppet master reacted in mock horror. “Oh no, it’s Sandy!” he cried, “Help me, kids, help me!”

Dozens of laughing, screaming, jumping children rose up en masse and stormed the stage. “Sandy” was forced to retreat. The crowds parted to allow the youngsters to pursue the robed figure through the streets. She eventually took refuge in one of the shops along the main drag. The door locked behind her and she vanished into one of the back rooms.

Presently two large men in devil costumes emerged bearing a dummy garbed as Sandy on pitchforks. They went forth into the streets brandishing the dummy aloft. The children followed them through the cheering, jeering throngs as they returned to the town square. There a noose had been thrown over a lamppost. The neck of the dummy was placed in the noose and the mannequin was hoisted upwards. A third man in a devil costume stepped forward holding an upraised torch and set the dummy afire. Cries of “Halloween Hellfire” echoed through the crowd.

“A bit gruesome,” Christian observed.

“Let’s take a walk through Pumpkin-Land,” Shadow said in response, “It might calm your nerves.”

He did not question her as she took his hand once more and led him away. The din of the crowd faded behind them as they entered the park where they had eaten lunch that afternoon. In a meadow and along the slope of a hill the townsfolk had placed hundreds of glowing jack-o-lanterns. Pumpkins large and small had been carved into an assortment of frightful and mournful visages. The candles flickering within them cast a pale unsteady illumination, like that produced by scores of winking fireflies. Shadow and Christian were not alone. Other couples sauntered about. The total effect of the scene was one of strange, eerie, peaceful beauty.

Christian was deep in thought. This land, this Border Region, was a land a man like Arthur had watered with his blood. Christian now felt that he could make a home here. He thought of Anime. Had she not once been as wild as Shadow? Now she was wife to some lucky man.

When he was ready, he spoke.

“Shadow, will you take off your mask?”

“Why?”

“I want to kiss you.”

“Okay.”

She lowered her hood and removed the mask. The couple embraced and kissed passionately. Shadow was impressed; the boy was learning.

After they disengaged he said softly, “I’m planning on moving to the Border Region. I could probably make a good living in one of the city-states. I still have to go back and make my report, but then I’ll be free of obligations.”

He paused, hesitated, and then continued, “And there’s another thing. I want to marry you.”

Shadow was a little surprised, but only a little. I’ll bet you do, she thought, We screwed out of wedlock, and that would give it a kind of retroactive legitimacy. Nice try, Church-boy.

“Not so fast,” she replied. She preferred doing things her way and she wanted to test him, so she said, “You can start off being my personal fuck-toy and we’ll work it from there. How’s that?’

He had to think about it, but not for long. “That’ll be fine.”

“Good. So when do you think you’ll be heading home?

“I’ll be heading down the to the Confederacy in a day or two. Once there I can give my report and get my affairs in order. Then I’ll be back.

“But as to when I’m heading home, I’m already home. Home is here. In the Border Region. With you.”