Sunday, June 29, 2008

Guns of the Border Region: Prologue and Chapter One

[The following is the prologue and opening chapter of a new novel I'm working on set in the universe of Twilight's Last Gleaming. It is my intention that the fictional universe and timeline I've created serve as a backdrop for any type of story. For the first one, I've decided to cut loose and go with an action-adventure, pure pulp fiction. Subsequent chapters will appear as I complete them. Copyright 2008 by Charles Hoffman.]


In the year 2079, the world was rocked by a war the likes of which it had not seen in well over a century. Nations around the globe were drawn into the conflict, but the main antagonists were the United States of America and the Islamic Federation of Europe. America, already in decline, proved no match for the ascending power of Islamic Europe.

During the war’s decades-long aftermath, the American Union broke apart. The Southwest rejoined Mexico, and southern Florida aligned itself with Cuba. Other states seceded to join Canada or become small independent nations.

The Northeastern and Midwestern states were, by the late 21st Century, home to large populations of American Muslims. Under the terms of America’s surrender treaty, these states were to be permitted to adopt Islamic law as their supreme legal authority, superseding even the United States Constitution. In time these states achieved full independence and formed the Islamic States of America.

Meanwhile, the political, commercial and cultural life of what was left of the United States had slowly become centered in what had been the Old South prior to the American Civil War of 1861-65. This section, and the downsized nation as a whole, came to be commonly referred to as the New American Confederacy. Early in the 22nd Century, a new Constitution was ratified. Among its provisions was the stricture that only Christians could be full-fledged citizens. The name “New American Confederacy” was formally adopted. The Old Union was no more.

Between the Islamic States of America and the New American Confederacy lay the Border Region. This area originally consisted of non-Islamic areas of Islamic-majority states that had broken away. In time, however, it included the entire Ohio River Valley and the whole state of West Virginia. The term “Border Region” referred to a location rather than a political entity. With the exception of West Virginia, government was conducted solely at the city and county level. The Border Region was essentially a patchwork of small fiefdoms, with the major urban centers functioning along the lines of ancient Greek city-states.

The people of the Border Region were united chiefly by an independent spirit and a libertarian philosophy. The societies of both the Islamic States and the New American Confederacy, on the other hand, tended to emphasize conformity. Consequently, the Border Region became home to numerous free thinkers, non-conformists, misfits, rogues, entrepreneurs, outlaws, and adventurers.


The setting sun still reddened the western sky, but already the dives and fleshpots of Wheeling were roaring. Bars, clubs, gambling dens and bawdy houses were all crammed full of rowdy patrons. Located in West Virginia’s northern panhandle, a slim finger thrust between southern Ohio and Westsylvania, Wheeling had by the early 22nd Century become known far and wide as a booming crossroads for the countless travelers, wanderers and wastrels that traversed the Border Region.

Hot nightspots were scattered throughout the city, but the greatest concentration of the wilder venues were to be found across the railroad tracks from the main part of town, where the Ohio River flowed darkly southward before turning west. Here in the old section, winding narrow streets, their asphalt worn away to expose the underlying brick, formed a tangled maze lined by garishly lit taverns, strip clubs, and other establishments offering various forms of raucous entertainment. Rain-slick sidewalks reflected the lurid glare of multi-hued neon blazing forth from the buildings’ colorful facades. Barkers stood near some entrances, loudly hawking the pleasures to be found within in an effort to entice the throngs of passers-by. It was a warm night. Throbbing music and shrill laughter blared from open doorways. Meat grilling in open stalls and on tiny food carts scented the air with its savory aroma.

To this dark carnival-land came the woman called Shadow. She strode boldly down the center of the street, spurs jangling on her heavy boots. Clad in a long black duster, the young woman stood over six feet in her boot heels. The upturned collar of the duster framed a delicate-featured face that yet conveyed a hawkish toughness. Her long straight black hair was parted in the middle to reveal a high contemplative forehead and the keen eyes of an observer. Her thin nose and lips gave her pale features a dour cast.

Shadow had just hit town and was looking for kicks. She had spent the long summer in the western reaches of the Border Region cultivating her gardens. A bumper crop of reefer had left her flush, and now she was headed back up the long trail to her native Westsylvania. There she would tend to other enterprises before settling in for winter. But first she was stopping off in Wheeling, her old stomping grounds, for what she trusted would be a truly memorable party night.

For right now, however, the drinking and carousing could wait. After weeks of subsisting mainly on foodpaste, Shadow’s first order of business was a real meal. To that end, she headed straight for Wotan’s Carving Board.

Wotan’s was a popular eatery that saw a lot of the rough outlaw trade. It resembled nothing so much as an old Viking mead hall. Rows of rude wooden tables and benches filled most of the vast interior. Whole hogs and sides of beef roasted over open flames, sending tendrils of blue smoke curling to the rafters. Elsewhere, steaks and chops were being grilled. It was only early evening, but Wotan’s was already crammed to near capacity with hungry feasters come to gorge and guzzle.

Shadow scanned the crowd as she entered Wotan’s, acknowledging the greetings of fellow patrons who knew her of old. She made her way to a table near one of the fire pits. Because of the heat of both the flames and the many bodies that surrounded her, she removed her duster before taking her seat.

Shadow doffed the garment with a shrug of her supple shoulders, a move that drew appreciative glances. Many of the outlaws and adventurers of the Border Region enjoyed dressing the part. Shadow was no exception. Beneath the duster, much of her superb young body was bared. What little she wore was mostly black. Tight boots came to just below her knees, and studded gauntlets encircled her wrists. Crotch-hugging leather pants clung to her powerful thighs and full womanly ass like a coat of lacquer. Above the waist she wore only a scanty bra of PVC. Her exposed body was white as fresh cream, typical of one bred in the cloudy, darkly wooded hill country of Westsylvania. A tribal design had been tattooed onto her right upper arm, and a small ring piercing her navel adorned her rippled drum-tight abs. Her breasts were splendidly shaped, but not overly large. Shadow was built for action.

The sole spot of color in her apparel was the military utility belt that hung snuggly about her hips. It supported an assortment of olive green pouches and a bowie knife in a worn brown leather scabbard. The knife’s blade was narrower than that of the traditional “iron mistress,” but the clip point design was unmistakable. Jutting hilt first from the woman’s left hip, it could be unsheathed, sword-like, with a quick cross-draw motion. Travelers stopping in Wheeling were required to check their firearms with the local sheriff’s office, but other weapons could be worn openly.

Shadow seated herself and ordered her meal. She and several table mates agreed to split a whole ham. As the waiter departed with their order, Shadow added, “Bring me a pitcher of 33 to wash it down.”

33 was a beer brewed in Latrobe, in the Laurel Highlands of Westsylvania. During the 20th Century, the Latrobe Brewery had produced a pale lager called Rolling Rock. Originally a local brew, it grew in popularity and came to be distributed throughout the Old Union. Early in the 21st Century, a major national brewing company had purchased the Rolling Rock brand name and moved production of the beer to New Jersey. Now, over a hundred years later, New Jersey was part of the Islamic States of America. No alcoholic beverages, including the ersatz Rolling Rock, were produced there any longer. A few years ago, however, a group of enterprising Westsylvanians had refurbished and reopened the old Latrobe Brewery. The beer they made there was brewed identically to the original Rolling Rock. The name of their brew derived from the enigmatic number “33” that had appeared on Rolling Rock bottles.

Shadow had nearly finished her first mug of 33 when the feast arrived steaming on a heavy wooden platter. The ham was actually a whole haunch of half-wild boar, a Wotan’s house specialty. Eschewing the steak knife in front of her, Shadow hacked off hunks of meat with her bowie knife. She then stuck the bowie point first into the wooden table, within easy reach. The boar meat was far more savory than any ham from a factory farm hog; it was the rich dark purple of port wine and flaked apart like good tuna. A whole loaf of fresh bread, still warm from the oven, accompanied the ham. Shadow tore off a big piece and slathered it with butter. Potatoes and a large wedge of tangy yellow cheese completed the repast. Shadow fell to with gusto.
As she ate, Shadow studied the crowd more closely. West Virginians and Westsylvanians predominated, along with others from elsewhere in the Border Region. Many, like Shadow, were of the footloose roving breed. There was also a smattering of Muslims come down from the Islamic States to the north to partake of forbidden earthly delights. Likewise, some goody-good Christians from the New American Confederacy had traveled up from the south to go slumming in the Border Region’s wildest town. That could be a dangerous pastime, but too bad if they didn’t know how to look out for themselves. Shadow also noticed some darker complexions that bespoke origins still further south --Mexico or Cuban Florida.

After eating her fill, Shadow rose to take her leave. She plucked the bowie knife from the table, wiped it clean, and re-sheathed it. Slipping on her duster, Shadow exited Wotan’s. Time for bar-hopping and some serious drinking.

Shadow headed off down the street in her long-legged stride, the long unfastened duster billowing out behind her. At length she came to a cozy little bar she had frequented in times past. The place had no name, just a neon sign hung above the door that said “Bar.” Shadow entered the dimly-lit tavern and traversed a floor strewn with sawdust and peanut shells to seat herself at the bar.

The bartender smiled in recognition and shoved a drink across the bar to her. He had remembered her favorite, Jack Daniel’s with Mountain Dew for mixer. Shadow sipped the drink as she took in her surroundings. Behind an assortment of liquor bottles, a mirror ran the length of the bar. This afforded her a view of the entire place. Whenever she went to a bar, club, or other public place, Shadow always seated herself in a location that gave her the best view of the crowd and the exits. When hanging out in a joint, Shadow wanted to know what was going on in every square foot of it.

There was a television behind the bar. Broadcast and cable TV were things of the past in most of the Border Region, but the bar’s set was hooked up to a deck capable of playing home videos in a variety of formats dating clear back to Betamax. Right now the set was showing an old black-and-white monster movie from the mid-20th Century called The Creature Walks Among Us. A character in the movie remarked that mankind was poised midway between the jungle and the stars. After several more Jack-and-Dews, Shadow was moved to reflect that mankind had backslid quite a bit since the movie had been made.

By now Shadow had caught a good buzz, yet gave no outward sign that she had a few drinks under her belt. She had an uncanny knack for holding her booze. Shadow never got so drunk or high that she couldn’t snap back to stone cold sobriety in an instant should the situation require it. When the movie was over, she left the bar to go in search of one with a pool table.

Before long she found a place called Antonio’s that had several tables, so there was no waiting. After hanging up her duster, she moved to one of the empty ones. A guy who seemed pretty nice asked to play, and a few minutes later they were engaged in a friendly game.

It didn’t take her long to draw a crowd of spectators. Most of the men in the bar, as well as many of the women, were looking her way. Shadow in any kind of action was an incredible sight. Circling about the pool table, planning her next shot, she looked like a panther softly stalking its prey. Bending over to take the shot, she exposed breathtaking flashes of her luscious milk-white cleavage. The overhead light illuminated the supple play of her toned muscles moving smoothly under her skin.

When she finished her game with the nice guy, others were waiting. A big guy with an attitude nudged the nice guy rudely aside. He seemed a little drunk. Shadow was adept at sizing up people at a glance. Taller and heavier than Shadow, he looked to be a former athlete gone to fat. Some ex-jocks had personality problems and could be dangerous. Shadow was willing to humor him, but only up to a point.

Shadow agreed to play him, rather than create a scene. Not playing at her best, she still beat him handily. Other men were eager to shoot pool with Shadow, just for the pleasure of her company. But her present opponent had something to prove, and insisted on playing her again.

“Okay, Mac,” Shadow agreed pleasantly, “You’re on. Care to make it interesting?”

Ego-driven, Mac accepted Shadow’s wager. He was not a bad player, just not as good as he thought he was. Shadow made a show of her superior skill, executing difficult shots, pointing out which balls she intended to sink into which pockets and then doing it. She hoped Mac would get the message that he was outclassed and back off while he was not too far behind.

Unfortunately, Mac was none too bright. To make matters worse, his equally oafish friends were egging him on. Thanks guys, Shadow thought. After losing the bet, he still wasn’t ready to quit. “Aw, c’mon,” Mac pleaded, “Just give me a chance to win back my money.”

“Alright,” Shadow sighed, “You asked for it.”

By now, the full attention of nearly all the bar patrons was focused on the one-sided contest between Mac and Shadow. Two more games, and Shadow had cleaned him out.

Not surprisingly, Mac was a sore loser. The jibes of his buddies and the laughter of the women in the bar did little to sooth his temper. “You bitch,” he spat, “You hustled me.”

Shadow knew well from past experience that it was pointless to try to reason or argue with morons. But for the sake of the bystanders, she made the effort.

“I did not set you up,” she said slowly, careful to speak clearly and use direct simple language, “I did not pretend to be lousy to sucker you in. You could have quit any time. Dig?”

Mac wasn’t buying it. “You owe me money or ass,” he snarled, and made a grab for her. Shadow swatted his hand away. Mac cocked back a clenched fist and swung. Shadow wasn’t about to take chances with a bigger, stronger opponent. Before he could connect, she kicked him in the balls hard enough to lift him off the ground.
It was a front snap kick, perfectly executed. Shadow’s booted foot crashed sickeningly into Mac’s testicles. He flew up and back like a puppet on strings. Mac thudded against the bar, then slid down to the floor. He lay there shivering for a second before disgorging a thick puddle of vomit.

Shadow glowered down at him. Hopefully he would stay down long enough for her to get out of there without further incident. No such luck. Mac’s friends helped him to his feet. Shadow backed away slowly, keeping her eyes on her foe to determine if there was any fight left in him.

There was. Mac stalked forward, his face an inhuman mask of rage. Even through her considerable annoyance, Shadow was impressed by his ability to take a ball shot and recover so quickly. Mac snatched up one of the pool cues from the table. Shadow grabbed the other one. Mac swung his cue like a club, aiming the thick end at Shadow’s head. Shadow gripped her cue with both hands, quarterstaff style, and raised it to block. So powerful was Mac’s blow that it actually snapped Shadow’s cue in half.

Shadow jumped back as Mac’s cue whizzed past her head. She shifted her grip on the broken cue halves and bored back in, wielding the pieces like a pair of fighting sticks. Trained in Filipino kali, Shadow could launch an effective attack with weapons in both hands. Her first blow smashed Mac’s own weapon hand, causing his cue to slip from his numbed fingers. Filipinos called this “defanging the serpent.” Shadow then used her sticks to batter Mac to the floor. This time he stayed there.

“How ‘bout you assholes!” Shadow roared at Mac’s cronies. Dumbstruck, they were quick to shake their heads vigorously back and forth and raise their hands in appeasement gestures. Shadow spat in disgust, cast her broken pool cue away, and left.

Shadow went to another bar and grill to chill out. She downed several tequila shots, followed by an ice-cold bottle of beer. She had eaten a heavy meal early in the evening, but the fight had whetted her appetite. Hot dogs were sizzling on a grill behind the bar. The wieners were the kind with the natural casing, the only kind Shadow considered worth eating. Shadow ordered two hot dogs, indicating the ones that had been on the grill the longest. A devotee of the crunchy hot dog, she savored the crispy snap as she bit into her first dog.

As she munched on hot dogs and drank more beer, Shadow contemplated her next move. All the trouble notwithstanding, her win at the pool table had left her feeling that she was on a lucky streak. There was a little casino not far away where card games went on all night. Shadow was in the mood for some poker. Maybe she could win herself a pretty big pot. A malicious little grin formed on her thin lips, exposing sharp white predatory teeth. Why not? After all, she would be playing with Mac’s money.

When Shadow reached the Monte Carlo Casino, she headed straight past the slots, roulette and other sucker games to the back rooms where cards were being dealt. It didn’t take her long to find a game. A guy had just folded and hot chicks were always welcome at the card table.

Shadow was dealt in. She spent the first hands taking the measure of the three other players. One was a Southern swell who liked the action but didn’t seem like a serious player. At least he looked like he could afford to lose. Next to him was a non-descript looking guy who appeared to be in his late thirties. Shadow quickly pegged him as a formidable card sharp, but that was okay -- so was she. The last guy was kind of young, with an annoying habit of laughing at remarks that weren‘t particularly funny. He was pretty good, but not in her league.

Shadow felt that she had her work cut out for her. It would take a little time to build some momentum. Snacks and beverages were available. Shadow had some sushi and a bottle of Mad Dog 2020 brought to the table. Then she got busy.

Shadow raised frequently to get more money into the pot. Between her and the non-descript card sharp, they cleaned out the swell in fairly short order. Then they were left to battle it out, with the laughing guy hanging back and studying their moves. Shadow wasn’t afraid to raise the bet even when she held a weak hand; she didn’t want to be observed never to bluff, thereby cautioning her opponents when the good cards did come her way.

Several more hands were played out. Shadow rode out the ebb and flow, keeping even over the long run and then surging ahead. The card sharp realized that he had met his equal, and that Lady Luck had deserted him. He quit the table with a courtly bow that conveyed his respect.

That left the other guy. Shadow wondered if his annoying laughter was done deliberately to unsettle opponents. Not that it mattered; Shadow did not want for steady nerves.

As it turned out, her final opponent played a pretty good game. He won several hands in a row. More through luck than skill, he raked in a pretty big chunk of Shadow’s money. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the sense to quit while he was ahead. Shadow had more than enough money left to keep the game going long enough to recoup her losses. It finally ended when her Ace-high flush of hearts beat his Queen-high flush of diamonds. He finally realized that he had lost all he could afford to and then some.

Shadow stood up, began folding money and stuffing it into the larger pouches of her utility belt. Her defeated opponent sat dumbfounded. Finally he rose unsteadily and glared at her.

“You bitch,” he said sullenly, “You cheated.”

Not again, Shadow thought. She snarled, “Up yours, Laughing Boy! Sorry you lost at cards to a girl. Next time stick to Old Maid.”

She shifted into a fighting stance, waiting for him to try something. He didn’t. Shadow turned and took her leave.

That’s it, Shadow thought as she went into the street. No more gambling! Time to go dancing.

The Metropol was the hottest dance club in Wheeling. It was a refurbished industrial facility with new metallic d├ęcor designed to complement existing fixtures. The club boasted superior lighting and sound systems. In many rural areas of the Border Region, there was still no electricity decades after the War. The cities and larger towns were usually well supplied, however. There was plenty of juice to power Metropol’s all-night revelry.

Throbbing techno music pulsated over the crowded dance floor. Shadow was in the center of the throng, soaking up the rhythm, letting it move her. She had been tense after sitting so long playing cards. Remaining stationary for any length of time tended to make her restless. She had to get out on the dance floor and move.
When she danced, Shadow typically found herself the center of much male and female attention. That was okay. This was a pretty nice crowd; no assholes so far. Plus, she had spotted some familiar friendly faces. Shadow relaxed and felt the tension seep out of her muscles.

After awhile, she took a break. She was greeted by a blonde punkette named Phoenix, a former acquaintance. Phoenix had some interesting news.

“They’re having an amateur contest tonight at the Go-Go Lounge. You oughta enter it. You were hot out there. You could win first prize.”

“It’s probably too late,” Shadow replied.

“Not if we hurry. Last I heard it was still going full blast.”

Shadow and Phoenix left Metropol and headed straight for the Go-Go Lounge. It was an average sized strip club, a little seedy but not a total dive. They got there just in time. Shadow signed up for the contest, and was scheduled to go on last.
As she got ready backstage, Shadow wondered if she wasn’t cheating a little. She had worked as an exotic dancer in the past, although not in Wheeling. She doubted anyone here was aware of it. It had been awhile ago anyway.

Moments later, Shadow went on stage. She had doffed her boots and black leather pants. She went out clad in her skimpy PVC bra and matching thong panties. The military belt, bowie knife and all, remained fastened tightly about her waist. She was greeted by scattered applause as the spotlight hit her.

The music started, generic hard rock characterized by heavy bass and a pulsing backbeat. Dancing at the Metropol had already warmed her up and she merged easily with the rhythm. Shadow strutted up and down the runway in time to the beat, hips swaying seductively. She smiled down into a sea of lustful male faces, meeting their gazes with her own, dominating them. With a contemptuous toss of her hair, she headed back to center stage. Guys in the audience moaned at the sight of her full, firm buttocks bared by the tiny thong as she walked away from them.

Shadow stepped back onto the main part of the stage as the music’s tempo quickened. Jumping into the air with the grace of a leaping gazelle, she deftly caught the brass stripper pole and hauled herself aloft. Her well-defined arm muscles flexed as she swung herself around the pole, long shapely legs extended. The music slowed once more. Shadow swung her legs up and caught the top of the pole between her tightly crossed ankles. Letting go with her hands, she unbent her body, slowly undulating until she hung suspended upside down, her hair just touching the stage. Shadow’s acrobatics evoked enthusiastic applause.

The song ended and another began, one with more of a sexy disco beat. Shadow pressed her hands against the stage to brace herself as her legs released their grip on the stripper pole. In a single fluid motion she flipped back onto her feet and rose majestically to her full height. Shadow stood poised with her back to the audience. Glancing boldly over her shoulder, she transfixed spectators with a sultry bedroom look. Then, with one of her never-fail moves, she reached behind her back and unfastened her bra. As she tossed it aside, Shadow smiled at the audible intake of breath from guys near the stage. Turning about, she strutted back down the runway bare-breasted, flaunting her body like a proud young animal.

Returning to center stage, Shadow danced, swaying hypnotically, eyes half-shut, lips softly parted. She ran her hands over her supple body, to the delight of all. As one of her hands brushed against her thong, the languorous look on her face was replaced by a strangely beautiful angry one. Unhooking the thong, she yanked it roughly from between her thighs and cast it from her. It was as though concealing her body with even a tiny scrap of clothing had suddenly become intolerable to her. Save for her belt and wrist gauntlets, Shadow was now gloriously nude. She stood poised, hands on hips, for dramatic effect, allowing her audience to drink in the sight of her. A light sheen of sweat coated her entire body, causing it to glisten as though slick with baby oil. The crowd roared its approval.

The music stopped, then started. This was Shadow’s last number. She wanted to make her grand finale a memorable one. She shook back her sweat-dampened hair, then abruptly dropped forward. Catching herself on her hands, she stretched her body horizontally along the length of the runway. In this prone position she did several push-ups that caused the supple muscles of her arms, back, thighs, calves and buttocks to flex and tense. Then she began to glide about on all fours. Meeting the eager gaze of patrons who were now eye-level, she seemed like some young lioness scenting blood.

Crawling back to center stage, Shadow remained on hands and knees, her nude body in profile. She began to rock back and forth in time to the music, pushing her hips and ass back as if meeting the thrusts of an invisible lover. The guys in the crowd ate it up. Shifting her position, she faced them frontally once more. Staying on her knees she reared back on her haunches. With head and shoulders flung back, exposing her white neck, she bounced up and down as though she were riding some lucky bastard. As the music ended, she wilted in a graceful bow suggestive of a post-orgasmic swoon.

Following Shadow’s set, all the dancers came back on stage. The contest winners were determined by audience applause. Shadow took first prize. Adding it to her gambling winnings, she reflected that this had been a very profitable evening.

A little while later, Shadow was at the bar drinking Jagermeister with Phoenix. One of her fans had bought the drinks. He offered her a cigarette.

“Thanks,” she said, accepting one, “I don’t usually, but after that I need one.” She rewarded the guy by permitting him to light it for her.

Shadow was clad once more in her leather pants and boots. Her bra was missing, however, having been snatched by someone as a souvenir. She stood at the bar smoking and drinking, brazenly topless. Leaning back against the bar, unconsciously picturesque, she studied the unruly crowd.

Experience had long since taught Shadow that it was best to spot trouble before it got too close. Case in point: that guy she had beat at poker, Laughing Boy, was in the club and headed her way.

“Hiya babe,” he said when he reached her, “No hard feelings. Can I get you a drink?”

“Already got one,” Shadow replied coolly.

Undaunted, Laughing Boy continued his pick-up routine, “I just got here a little bit ago. I caught the end of your act. You are one hot lady. Listen, I got a room not far from here. We could go back, do some drugs. Have some fun…”

“I don’t think so. I’m only in town for tonight. I want to take in as much action as I can.” Shadow was trying to be nice. Instead of just telling him to eat shit, she was giving him a chance to back off and save face. Unfortunately, Laughing Boy wasn’t taking the hint.

“Well, how `bout if I go with you and help you spend some dough?” His expression turned sour, “After all, it’s my money.”

“Alright,” Shadow groaned, tired of this, “So you’re sore about me shooting you down, and you’re sore about losing money to me. If I were to pay you to fuck me, would that square everything?”

Laughing Boy stood dumbfounded, mouth agape. Shadow could sense his brain trying to work. It was like he was actually trying to figure out if she was serious. Shadow wasted no time clarifying matters.

“That was a joke,” she said harshly, “Now will you please quit bugging me?”

“You lousy whore,” he spat back, raising a clenched fist, “I oughta punch your face in.”

“Don’t try it, Laughing Boy,” Shadow warned as she shifted into her fighting stance, “I’ve already kicked the ass of a tougher man than you tonight.” In addition to Filipino stick and knife fighting, Shadow was well trained in Okinawan kenpo karate, judo and Muay Thai. She had nothing to fear from the likes of Laughing Boy. He was no bigger than she was, and his body language told her that he was not skilled. That meant she could put him down without busting him up too badly. She looked forward to teaching him a lesson.

The clamor in the bar had died down and patrons stepped back to give them room. Bar fights were not an unusual occurrence at the Go-Go Lounge, but seldom had it been the setting for one like this. Shadow faced her opponent looking like some bare-breasted Amazon; a cruel smile played on her thin lips and her nipples were conspicuously erect.

Laughing Boy rushed in aiming a left hook at Shadow’s head. So predictable. She blocked it easily, then stung his face with a couple of quick jabs to loosen him up. When he raised his guard, she snaked an uppercut into his midsection. Her tightly-clenched fist sank into his belly just under the diaphragm, knocking the wind out of him and doubling him over. As he folded, she struck the back of his neck with a well-placed karate chop. Laughing Boy hit the floor.

“You’ll never get to Sea World that way!” Shadow smirked as she stood triumphantly over him. Laughing Boy had friends in the bar. One of them came over to help him to his feet. By the time he could stand erect, he was breathing normally.

Shadow knew better than to take her eyes off her foe, a fact which saved her life. Standing just a few feet away, Laughing Boy abruptly reached into his shirt, drew a derringer, aimed it at the center of Shadow’s face.

Shadow was faster. Even as Laughing Boy’s hand disappeared into his clothes, her bowie was out of its sheath. Cold steel flashed through the air as he took aim. Laughing Boy’s gun hand flew spinning from his wrist in a fountain of blood as Shadow’s razor-sharp blade sliced cleanly through flesh and bone.

Laughing Boy howled like a damned soul in torment as he clutched at the stump of his wrist. A bartender applied a makeshift tourniquet to staunch the jetting blood. Leaning on his friend, Laughing Boy staggered towards the exit.

Looking down, Shadow saw the severed hand twitching on the floor. She speared it through the palm with the point of her bowie. Brandishing it aloft, she called out after the departing Laughing Boy:

“Hey dickhole, you forgot something!”

Shadow flicked the knife with a snappy whipping motion, sending the hand sailing through the air to land at Laughing Boy’s feet. The friend picked it up, and the pair continued on their way. Shadow wiped her blade clean with a cocktail napkin as she watched them go.

Next: The Road to Westsylvania

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Sample Chapter: Part Three, Twilight's Last Gleaming

[This chapter is from the final section of the book, Part Three: Twilight's Last Gleaming. The last third of the book concerns the balkanization of America during the decades following World War III. The chapter is preceeded by 6. The Pennsylvania Uprising and its Long-Term Consequences, and followed by 8. The Downsizing of America. Copyright 2008 by Charles Hoffman.]

7. The Southwest Rejoins Mexico

The Special Election and the Pennsylvania Uprising created enormous migrane headaches for the beleaguered Moulton administration. The mutiny of the Pennsylvania National Guard, which should have been foreseen as a contingency, sent shockwaves through the Federal Government. Clearly, any attempt to use the nation's armed forces to quell the uprising could have well resulted in a military coup de tat. It was a chilling, sobering realization. President Moulton touted his own wisdom in moving the Federal Government more-or-less permanently to Liberty's Fortress. For this, the President was pilloried in the press with charges of physical and moral cowardice.

The nation now found itself facing fundamental questions concerning its very identity. Could the Islamic states truly be considered some sort of "country within a country"? Or had they for all intents and purposes seceded from the Union as The Westsylvania Manifesto had maintained? Should the sundered portions of Islamic states, such as Westsylvania, be considered new states?

As these questions and their ramifications were being testily debated in the halls of government, in the media, and in private homes, a smattering of voices chimed in to call attention to a peripheral question; how many stars rightfully belonged on the American flag? Should stars representing Massachusetts, New York, and the other wholly Islamic states be subtracted? Should new stars be added to represent Westsylvania, Southern Ohio, and so on, or did these balance the loss of eastern Pennsylvania, etc., to a region within the country now ruled by Islamic law? This "flag controversy" for the most part elicited exasperated groans from a population long since grown jaded and cynical. There were, however, certain sentimentalists who persisted in making esoteric arguments concerning the flag's symbolic importance. Yet for the most part there was no great inclination to alter the fifty-star flag that had flown over the nation for well over a century. Syndicated columnist Donald McGrath suggested leaving the flag as-is, regardless of future developments, since it had stood for so long and represented the American nation at its zenith --a zenith, he did not add or need to add, that had passed. In this manner the issue was not so much settled as allowed to drop.

Given subsequent events, many breathed a sigh of relief that the flag issue had been put aside. The precise status of the states in the Northeast did not remain of paramount concern for very long. The dust from the Special Election and the Pennsylvania Uprising had barely settled when the nation's attention was drawn to the Southwest. In the wake of the momentous events of World War III and its aftermath, citizens there sensed a sea change in the nation's character. For decades, the Spanish-speaking majority had overwhelmingly favored leaving the Union to join Mexico. They now clamored to do so.

Sensing that the moment was at hand, the people there took to the streets in massive demonstrations that drew worldwide attention. Their local elected representatives could not have gone against this tide even if they had wanted to. The Congressional Chambers of Liberty's Fortress echoed with angry voices in English and Spanish throughout the rest of 2082 and into the following year. Mexico itself entered the debate, politely insisting that Southwesterners be allowed to "determine their own destiny."

To political realists, the secession of the Southwest appeared as inevitable as death. After all, if the State Senate and Assembly of California, for example, elected to quit the Union, what could the Federal Government do about it? A new Civil War waged with 21st Century weapons was unthinkable. Moreover, the Eastern US was still bleeding from the last war. And if formidable Mexico entered the fray on the side of the Southwest, as was almost a given, the US would be at a distinct disadvantage. Indeed, there were some in Mexico City who positively relished the prospect of a second war with the United States, justifiably certain that the rematch would have a decidedly different outcome.

Southwestern secession became the major issue of the 2084 presidential election. President Moulton had decided not to seek reelection, leaving the race wide open. Coveting the electoral votes of populous Southwestern states like California and Texas, candidates for both parties ran on pro-secession platforms. The focus of the debate gradually shifted to the manner in which the Southwest should leave the Union --"if and when the time came," politicians hastened to add in an effort to mollify secession opponents. It was of utmost importance, these politicians declared, that the Southwest and the rest of the Union "part as friends."

There was a good deal of backroom wheeling and dealing that went on between Eastern politicians and the Southwestern governors. California was fully prepared to walk right out of the Union as South Carolina had done in December 1860, triggering a chain reaction of subsequent secessions. The candidates and their minions endeavored to persuade the governors and other important officials to postpone any such move until after the election. In this effort, the candidates were motivated by both personal ambition and the nation's welfare. On the one hand, they were keenly interested in the electoral votes up for grabs if the Southwestern states remained in the Union through the present election cycle. Yet there was also a sincere desire to see the United States spared further humiliation. If the Southwestern states were to just up and leave the Union while the Federal Government could only stand impotently by, it would entail an immeasurable loss of face for a nation that had been humbled repeatedly in recent years. High government officials in the current administration, along with those seeking to succeed it, wished to avoid this at all costs.

To that end, it was deemed advisable to construct some sort of quasi-legal procedure for the secession of the Southwest, destined to come about in any event, so as to preserve the appearance of due process. In order to implement this plan, officials sought the aid of California's charismatic governor, Ramon Vargas (later president of Mexico). Governor Vargas was arguably the most powerful and influential political figure in all of Mexamerica. Other governors and elected officials of the region tended to follow his lead. The front-running candidates, as well as the President himself, travelled to California to meet with Governor Vargas in a series of long, confidential discussions that took place behind closed doors. Following the primaries and national conventions, each nominee, unknown to his opponent, made the same secret pact with the Governor: If the Governor forestalled California's secession until after the general election, the machinery to bring about an amicable parting of the Southwest from the rest of the Union would be put in motion in 2085.

The winner of the election, Rep. Ian McElroy of North Dakota, made good on his word. During his first month in office, he addressed the nation concerning the matter of Southwestern secession. Belaboring the obvious, the new president emphasized how the nation had changed over the past century in regard to the wholly seperate and distinct culture that had evolved in the Southwest. The people in the region had spoken in a loud, clear voice, the President said, and it was time to decide the matter by putting it to a popular vote in the affected states. This motion was widely derided as a face-saving charade. Southwestern secession had been hovering on the horizon like a menacing storm cloud for years, if not decades. Still, the nation cringed at the prospect of another "special election."

Pressed for an answer at a subsequent news conference, President McElroy was obliged to admit that the Special Election that had established Islamic law in much of the Northeast had indeed furnished the framework for the new election about to go forth. The President took considerable flak for this forthright admission, owing to the fact that the original Special Election had been mandated by what amounted to a surrender treaty to a victorious foreign power.

"Special Election Dos," as it came to be called, was held on May 1, just days before the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo. In Arizona and New Mexico, over 90% of the electorate voted "yes" on secession. In Nevada and California, the measure passed with a slightly smaller percentage. Northern California was still home to many Anglos, among them the moneyed aristocracy that congregated in the San Francisco area. The majority of these expressed a haughty indifference concerning which flag flew at government offices.

Secession also passed in Texas, albeit by a slimmer margin. Only in Texas was there any public outcry reminiscent of the Pennsylvania Uprising. A movement to divide the state along ethnic line had begun even before the votes had been tabulated. Among the most prominent activists were two elderly sisters from Austin, Annabel Lee Scott and Veronica Kuykendall. Both had been active in local municipal politics for decades, and were highly esteemed matriarchs in the community. The were instrumental in coordinating protest activities in northern and eastern Texas.

State officials in Texas were quick to hearken to angry Anglo voices, making a timely effort to avoid turmoil, rioting, and bloodshed. In due course, Texas became the only Southwestern state to split in two as Pennsylvania had. The Big Bend area of West Texas that included El Paso joined Mexico, as did all the counties south of Austin. The partitioning of Texas was marred by only a few acts of violence, but one of these was notable for its dramatic impact. Before leaving San Antonio, Anglos there dynamited the Alamo to prevent it from falling into Mexican hands.

By mid-summer, the former American Southwest had been officially joined to Mexico. One of the first acts of the Mexican government in the new era was to secure Mexico's new northern border so as to prevent unauthorized entry from what was left of the United States.

Sample Chapter: Part Two, Twilight's Last Gleaming

[This chapter is from the middle section of the book, Rocket's Red Glare, concerning the Third World War in 2079. The chapter that appears below is preceded by 5. Defeat at Sea, and followed by 7. The War in the Pacific. Copyright 2008 by Charles Hoffman.]

6. Britain Invaded

The battle for Greenland was just the beginning of a series of reversals for both the British and American navies. The Atlantic Ocean now became a vast hunting ground in which a more modern, numerically superior European fleet pursued, harried, and chipped away at Anglo-American naval forces. The US and the UK were never again able to mount an offensive naval operation against the Islamic Federation of Europe.

From almost the second the United Kingdom first lifted a finger to aid the US, Britain found itself engaged in total war with the IFE. Within hours of Admiral Trowbridge's fleet joining forces with the United States Navy, England was reeling under the first of a series of aerial bombardments. Vital military installations were struck first, with key population centers as secondary targets. IFE bombers rained death and destruction on London, where citizens cowered in shelters as their ancestors had done during the German blitz of the previous World War.

The British counterstrike came immediately on the heels of the first IFE attack. The airplanes, manned and drones, missiles, and cruise missiles of the Royal Air Force streaked across the English Channel, but penetrating European defenses proved no easy task. The RAF was able to strike at some important military and civilian targets in Western Europe, but only at great cost.

Seeking to take its own fight to the enemy, the US Air Force tried to lend a hand. It was severely handicapped in doing so, however. Thanks to satellite intell, the IFE high command was aware of the American military's every move almost in advance. Hypersonic scramjet aircraft capable of striking at Europe from the western side of the Atlantic were dispatched from Air Force bases within the US. Most were intercepted by planes and missiles based in Greenland or launched from the IFE Atlantic Fleet.

The combined Anglo-American air forces did manage to inflict damage on civilian population centers in Muslim Europe, including the capitals of Paris and Berlin. Inhabitants of European cities that came under attack endured the onslaught stoically, having been hardened by their rigorous and demanding faith. This stood in clear contrast to the populations of beleagured cities in England and the US, where angry choruses of panicked citizens demanded that the government "do something."

As single nations went, the United Kingdom was still a fairly formidable military presence by the late 21st Century. But its power paled before that of the vast Islamic Federation. Stretching from Portugul to the Chukchi Peninsula in easternmost Siberia, the IFE was a leviathan that spanned a hemisphere. Great Britain was an island pitted against a continent.

It did not take the European military long to neutralize Britain's ability to wage an effective counteroffensive. Hemmed in and on the defensive, the UK could only attempt to ward off further attacks. Subsequent IFE air strikes were aimed at crippling Britain's infrastructure. Vital resources such as water and power were disrupted in London and other cities. Transportation arteries were severed, preventing foodstuffs from reaching the marketplace. Electromagnetic pulse weapons wrought havoc with computer systems. Cut off from its allies by the IFE Navy, the beleaguered island nation was being softened up for the coup de grace. With its military decimated and its civilian population howling, Britain was ripe for invasion.

The invasion of England, as well as the campaign that paved the way for it, was conceived, planned, and directed by General Andre Desjardineau, arguably the most remarkable figure to emerge from World War III. A Frenchman of the Elder Race, Desjardineau converted to Islam in his early teens to advance the military career he even then aspired to. France was a Muslim-majority nation by then, and to the young Desjardineau life as a civilian was all but unthinkable. Desjardineau's ancestors had served in the French army since the Middle Ages, fighting in virtually every war that France had fought against England. Desjardineau men had shed their blood for France in the Hundred Years War, the War of Spanish Succession, and the War of Austrian Succession. During the Seven Years War, they had served both in Europe and in North America, where the conflict was known as the French and Indian War. A Desjardineau had been with Montcalm when Quebec fell, leading to France's ouster from North America. Another forbear had been with Napoleon at Waterloo.

Scion to an illustrious military family, Andre Desjardineau strove constantly to distinguish himself. As a young officer, he excelled in fencing with the epee and saber, and was for a time the savate champion of the French Army. Tall and powerfully built, Desjardineau was a dynamic, charismatic figure. He rose rapidly through the ranks, commanding the respect of both New Breed and Elder Race Europeans. When war finally appeared to be looming between the IFE and France's ancient rival, Britain, General Desjardineau looked forward to settling an old, old score.

Desjardineau's master plan for the conquest of Britain involved, as we have seen, dismantling the UK's defensive capabilities and then pounding the nation itself until it was dazed and bloody. With these goals achieved, the invasion itself could begin.

London was to be taken first; as London went, so went the nation. The alarm that announced that the invasion was underway came in the form a a cruise missile that smashed into Buckinghiam Palace, exploding inside it. Buckingham Palace had been carefully spared in previous bombings. Now it was gutted by fire and explosion as several more cruise missiles streaked into it. Within minutes only the blackened outer walls remained standing upright, like a giant tombstone for a city and a nation.

The invaders came by sea, entering the mouth of the Thames and moving inexorably upstream. The IFE invasion fleet included light maneuverable hydrofoils designed for river navigation. These came racing up the Thames into the heart of London, escorted by swarms of attack helicopters that darkened the skies above. Another component of the invasion fleet consisted of amphibious assault craft of the sort Admiral Duncan had hoped to land on Greenland, only considerably more advanced. The amphibious craft drove on massive tires along the muddy bottom of the Thames, emerging from beneath the water where river embankments furnished access to the shore. Londoners could only look on in sick horror as the gleaming submersible craft climbed dripping out of the Thames and rolled into the city streets.

From there the amphibious assault craft fanned out into London, broadcasting loud warnings for citizens to get off the streets and indoors immediately. Stragglers were mowed down like ripe grain. With the population driven indoors, the invasion fleet secured bridges and, more importantly, parks and large parking lots to serve as landing fields for the large troop transport helicopters that immediately followed. For the first time since 1066, British soil was trampled by the tread of foreign invaders.

Even as London was being overrun, the European Navy secured the Isle of Wight and the Isle of Man for use as staging areas from which the IFE could complete it conquest of Britain. The seaport city of Liverpool was soon stormed and taken. Elsewhere, IFE hydrofoils and submersibles made their way up rivers like the Trent and the Ouse to stab into the interior of the country and pave the way for the capture of inland cities like Manchester, York, and Birmingham.

IFE troops met with little in the way of resistance, and were even greeted as liberators by some segments of Britain's Muslim minority population. The civilian populace as a whole had long since been disarmed. Moreover, British citizens in public places had been subject to video surveillance since the close of the 20th Century. The IFE military took immediate control of the surveillance cameras, of course, finding in them a convenient and useful tool during the subsequent occupation.

British subjects were not lacking in courage, but improvised weapons such as Molotov cocktails, or even small arms had they been available, would have availed them little. By the late 21st Century, the individual infantryman was so outfitted and equipped as to be a virtual one-man army. For elite outfits, battle armor had evolved into a complete exoskeleton that encased the soldier from head to toe. Helmets were equipped with sophisticated sensors and high-speed computers, as well as filters to screen out airborne toxins. Body armor was designed to augment strength and could therefore be equipped to carry multiple weapons systems. IFE battle armor was the most advanced in the world. A single squad of troopers outfitted in it was sufficient to capture and hold an entire town.

As IFE forces took possession of the nation, government officials were forced to flee into outlying areas. For many, however, flight was not even an option. The King and Queen, who had bravely made their stand in London throughout the aerial bombardments, were killed when Buckingham Palace was struck. Members of Parliament residing in London were compelled to cower indoors along with the rest of the city's population as IFE troopers took control of the streets.

Once the occupation was complete, the Prime Minister had no choice but to accept IFE terms for unconditional surrender. General Desjardineau arrived by helicopter for the signing of the surrender papers, landing before the entrance of 10 Downing Street where the ceremony was to take place. Many cameras were on hand to capture the moment, ensuring that Andre Desjardineau would be enshrined in posterity as "the Muslim Napoleon."

Sample Chapter: Part One, Twilight's Last Gleaming

[This chapter is from Part One: O'er the Ramparts We Watched. The opening third of the book concerns events transpiring from the present day up till the outbreak of World War III in 2079. This chapter is preceeded by 9. Religion in 21st Century America, and followed by 11. Changes in American Society. Copyright 2008 by Charles Hoffman.]

10. Violence and Decay Plague American Cities

The relocation of most American Muslims to the major urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest was pretty much complete by 2055. Unfortunately, the more radical Islamic factions also began to make their presence felt there.

Suicide bombings occured with mounting fequency in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago. Populare restaurants and nightclubs were bombed, as were various other sorts of small businesses. This had a chilling effect on the local economies.

Sporting events and holiday celebrations were favored targets of suicide bombers, snipers, and other terrorist operatives. Major sporting events, such as playoff games and championships, came to be patrolled by small armies of security personnel. While effective, these measures caused terrorists to shift their attacks to taverns and restaurants hosting game-watching parties. A sniper attack on New York's Thanksgiving Day parade caused the event to be discontinued. Occuring at the start of the Christmas shopping season, the attack hurt holiday sales at retail businesses nationwide and caused their fourth quarter profits to evaporate. On July 4, 2062, the fireworks used in a display at a public park in Philadelphia were sabotaged so as to spread toxic agents when ignited, poisoning the crowd of several hundred spectators. Most were sickened and many died. After a similar attack in Boston two years later, fireworks displays were banned in favor of laser light shows in all parts of America where the Fourth of July was still celebrated.

Other atrocities ensued. Outbreaks of anthrax in the Great Lakes cities of Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago wreaked havoc with the shipping industry. These outbreaks also effectively ended honeymoon and other tourism to Niagra Falls. On May 10, 2063, simultaneous nerve gas attacks on the New York subway and the PATH trains linking New York and New Jersey killed over 700 people.

The end result of this activity was a "white flight" from these urban centers so massive that it was referred to at the time as a "rout." Businesses and the middle class fled like rats from a doomed ship. The municipal tax bases were eroded, setting the stage for urban decay on a scale never before seen in America. Due to diminished revenues, police and sanitation services were for the most part reserved for such affluent areas that remained. Elsewhere, those services were spotty at best. Inner city neighborhoods became haunted no-man's-lands by night. Vicious gangs roamed the streets while citizens cowered behind locked doors and barred windows. Abandoned buildings were taken over by squatters. In time, outlaw factions formed de facto governments in blighted areas.

In New York, die-hard native residents hung on despite the city's perils. Upscale sections of Manhattan such as the Upper East Side evolved into tightly controlled gated enclaves where motor traffic was limited to specially authorized vehicles. In the outer boroughs, Italian and Irish American gangs warred incessantly with Arab-American gangs who congregated in such strongholds as the Atlantic Avenue area of Brooklyn.

Similar scenarios played out in other Northeastern and Midwestern cities. Throughout the crises of the `50s and `60s, leaders in the mainstream Muslim community worked tirelessly to rein in the radical elements and stem the tide of chaos. Their exertions did eventually help to bring that troubled era to a close, but not before many corporations and middle class taxpayers had commenced to pull up stakes and take their leave of the major metropolitan areas in the region. With the local tax bases so greatly reduced, city and state politicians felt they had no choice other than to lobby for Federal assistance.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Escape From Eden: Genesis Subverted in "The Garden of Fear"

[This essay was originally published in The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies, Issue 5, Winter 2001. Copyright 2001 by Mind's Eye HyperPublishing / Iron Harp Publications. I have revised it slightly for this appearance.]

One of Robert E. Howard's most celebrated tales is "The Valley of the Worm." Since its original publication in 1934, it has been reprinted and anthologized many times. Its reknown is especially noteworthy since it features none of Howard's well-known series characters. "The Valley of the Worm" does, however, contain a number of common themes and motifs that Howard deals with individually in other stories: a barbarian hero, an imaginary prehistoric era, mysterious ruins, racial migration, reincarnation, the Picts, revenge, giant serpents, and an unearthly subterranean horror. For this reason, "The Valley of the Worm" has been cited as the quintessential Howard story. (See "The Valley of the Worm: A Gathering of Howard's Essential Creative Themes" by Rick McCollum in The Fantastic Worlds of Robert E. Howard.)

"The Valley of the Worm" is narrated by James Allison, a dying invalid who is able to recall all of his past incarnations. The tale begins with Allison's assertion that the narrative he is about to relate is the archetypal story of the dragon-slayer, the actual basis of all the world's myths of this type from Siegfried to St. George. In a past so remote that the continents have been reshaped a score of times since, Allison was the mighty warrior, Niord of the AEsir. In a mysterious lost valley, Niord does battle with a gigantic slug-like abomination he calls "the Worm." He perishes in the battle, but manages to slay the monster. Niord is reborn both as James Allison's incarnations and as every heroic myth-figure of Western civilization.

Niord is not a series character like Kull or Conan, but "The Valley of the Worm" is part of a loosely connected cycle linked by the common narrator James Allison. Howard wrote a handful of other tales narrated by Allison, mostly drafts and fragments unpublished in his lifetime. "Marchers of Valhalla," published posthumously, comes down to us as a complete draft, but the presentation of the reincarnation theme and James Allison himself differ markedly from that in "The Valley of the Worm." In "Marchers of Valhalla," Allison actually has something of an active role in the story's prologue and epilogue, and an explanation is offered for his visions of past lives. In "The Valley of the Worm," on the other hand, Allison remains offstage, narrating the incredible story of Niord from the shadows. This more ambiguous portrayal of Allison and his racial memory enhances the sense of wonder and awe that is so vital to the atmosphere of "The Valley of the Worm."

The Allison story that most closely resembles "The Valley of the Worm" is "The Garden of Fear." This is the only other James Allison narrative published during Howard's lifetime. In it, the role of Allison is once again that of the shadowy off-stage narrator. His past incarnation this time is another powerful blond warrior of the AEsir, Hunwulf. To rescue his mate, Hunwulf must somehow traverse a garden of deadly, bloodsucking plants and confront a strange winged man-like being. As in "The Valley of the Worm," the narrative transpires in an almost-unthinkably remote era of the distant past, during which tribes of the northern AEsir wander the globe in centuries-long drifts. Once again, a barbaric hero from the dawn of time confronts a chilling and mysterious supernatural menace. The narrative structure of "The Garden of Fear" closely matches that of "The Valley of the Worm." Each title refers to a geographic setting fraught with terrible danger --a garden of fear, and a valley of the worm, which is a common metaphor for death.

Given these similarities, "The Garden of Fear would seem a fitting companion piece to "The Valley of the Worm." It has not heretofore been regarded as such, however. No less than the more obscure Allison narratives, it has long been overshadowed by "The Valley of the Worm." This is not so surprising considering that the latter is regarded by many as Howard's best story. "The Garden of Fear," on the other hand, is usually viewed as a good, but not great, Howard story. One reason may be that "The Garden of Fear" ends on a quiet note that lacks the punch of the denoument of "The Valley of the Worm." "The Valley of the Worm" also opens on a high note:

You have heard the tale before in many guises wherein the hero was named Tyr, or Perseus, or Siegfried, or Beowulf, or Saint George. But it was Niord who met the loathy demonic thing that crawled hideously up from hell...[1]

Resonating with the power of the ageless myths it invokes, this opening passage is an irresistable hook that draws the reader in. But what of mythical allusions in "The Garden of Fear"?

The links between Niord's saga and those of Tyr, Perseus, et al, are made explicit by Howard in "The Valley of the Worm." There are ties to one of the great tales of antiquity in "The Garden of Fear" as well, only here the links are not so explicit. But even though he does little in the way of direct allusion, Howard nonetheless invokes an ancient story that lies at the very heart of Western culture. By looking just a little more closely at "The Garden of Fear," we can discern a wildly distorted version of nothing less than the Biblical account of creation from the Book of Genesis. And if that were not enough, Howard does more than simply rework elements of Genesis; he turns the Biblical creation myth completely upside down!

In comparing the story of Hunwulf with the story of Adam, we find instance after instance in which Howard stands Genesis on its head. We can start with the location evoked in the story's title; "the Garden of Fear" as opposed to "the Garden of Eden." In either case the garden is designated by a four-letter word, one beginning with "E" and one beginning with "F." However, Eden was a place where Man could dwell in a state of untroubled bliss, oblivious to worry or care. Fear, on the other hand, is the emotional state most fraught with turmoil and distress.

The story itself opens as James Allison recounts his ability to recall his past incarnations:

...I see with a clear, sure sight the grand panorama of lives that trail out behind me. I see the men who have been me, and I see the beasts who have been me.

For my memory does not end at the coming of Man. How could it, when the Beast so shades into Man that there is no clearly divided line to mark the boundaries of bestiality?...I see a vast shaggy, shambling bulk that lumbers clumsily yet swiftly, sometimes upright, sometimes on all fours. He delves under rotten logs for grubs and insects, and his small ears twitch continually. He lifts his head and bears yellow fangs. He is primordial, bestial, anthropoid; yet I recognize his kinship with the entity now called James Allison...[2]

It is worth noting that Howard makes no mention of Allison's bestial incarnations in "The Valley of the Worm." Their inclusion here stands as another contradiction to the Book of Genesis --evolution, not creation.

As in "The Valley of the Worm," the dying invalid James Allison derives satisfaction from describing the brawny warrior he was in a bygone age. He speaks of Hunwulf's yellow, lion-like mane, mighty shoulders, and " woven steel cords" [3] with evident pride. In two brief paragraphs, the bedridden Allison wistfully recalls growing to "manhood," "full manhood," and "fierce, sinewy, untamed manhood." [4] The source of all this manly pride is "the love of Gudrun" [5]:

What shall I say of Gudrun? How describe color to the blind? I can say that her skin was whiter than milk, that her hair was living gold with the flame of the sun caught in it, that the supple beauty of her body would shame the dream that shaped the Grecian goddesses. But I cannot make you realize the fire and the wonder that was Gudrun. You have no basis for comparison; you know womanhood only by the women of your epoch, who, beside her are like candles beside the glow of the full moon. Not for a millenium of milleniums have women like Gudrun walked the earth. Cleopatra, Thais, Helen of Troy, they were but pallid shadows of her beauty, frail mimicries of the blossom that blooms to full glory only in the primordial. [6]

This introduction is all the more remarkable considering that Gudrun appears in one of Howard's lesser-known tales, and is given no dialogue and little action. However, solely on the basis of this description, Gudrun emerges full-blown as the ultimate Howardian uber-babe. Not even such notable temptresses as Belit, the queen of the Black Coast, and Atali, the frost giant's daughter, are praised in terms quite this lavish. Yet when we consider the parallels between "The Garden of Fear" and the story of Eden, we realize why Howard has placed her at the apex of human womanhood. Gudrun is the counterpart of Eve, the first woman. Note that, except for collective references to women of the tribe, females are absent from "The Valley of the Worm." The relationship examined in that story is the male bonding between Niord and his Pictish comrade Grom. In the present story, however, Hunwulf must have his Gudrun because Adam had his Eve. And, in keeping with Howard's reversals of Genesis, the two mate-women could not be more dissimilar. Genesis unambiguously recounts how God creates Eve from Adam's rib. In "The Garden of Fear," Gudrun's origins are mysterious; she is an orphan of some lost tribe of the AEsir. Eve is created full-grown. Gudrun is discovered as "a waif...a child wandering in a dark forest." [7] Eve is Adam's demure companion and helper; before tasting of the forbidden fruit, she is without sexuality. Gudrun, on the other hand, is a sex goddess without peer.

Adam obtains Eve without any effort on his part, even sleeping through her arrival. Hunwulf can obtain Gudrun only by vigorously inflicting deadly physical violence. Eve is generously given to Adam as a gift from God. Gudrun is also given as a gift, only not to Hunwulf. Once Gudrun grows into "the full ripeness of her glorious young womanhood," [8] the tribal elders decree that she be presented to the tribe's mightiest hunter, Heimdul the Strong, as a reward. Since "the dream of Gudrun was a madness in my soul, a flame that burned eternally," [9] Hunwulf bashes in Heimdul's skull with a stone axe. Here the mention of a cave man's weapon suggests the prehistoric world as known to anthropologists; it therefore stands in further juxtaposition to the Biblical creation account. Even so, Hunwulf's slaughter of Heimdul during a fit of jealous rage recalls Cain's murder of Abel. Abel is favored by God over Cain; Heimdul the Strong is favored by the tribe over Hunwulf. The story of Cain and Abel occurs subsequent to that of Adam and Eve. The killing of Heimdul occurs prior to Hunwulf and Gudrun's adventure in the Garden of Fear.

Up to this point, the story of Hunwulf and Gudrun has been told as exposition, a briefly recounted backstory. Their actual narrative begins with them in flight. Hunwulf has murdered the tribe's favorite son, and must now flee the tribe's vengeance. He recalls how he "went into the wilderness, an exile and an outcast, with blood on my hands," [10] suggesting the mark of Cain. Since Gudrun reciprocates Hunwulf's passion, she accompanies him willingly. The story of Adam and Eve ends with their expulsion from Eden. Conversely, the story of Hunwulf and Gudrun begins with their flight into exile. And, in Howard's most ironic subversion of Genesis, Adam and Eve of Jewish lore are recast as characters with very Germanic-sounding names.

Hunwulf and Gudrun flee together with their angry tribesmen in hot pursuit. They escape by swimming the rapids of "a rising river," [11] a torrent so dangerous that even the bold AEsir break off their chase. The fugitive couple reaches the farther bank of the river "beaten and torn by the frenzy of the flood." [12] Given our Biblical analogy, Howard's choice of the word "flood" here does suggest the story of Noah from later chapters of Genesis. On the far side of the river, the couple enters unknown territory. They traverse forests and mountains where they are stalked by tigers, leopards, and giant condors. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were given dominion over the animals. As Hunwulf and Gudrun approach the Garden of Fear, animals are a constant threat.

The weary pair finds refuge in a village inhabited by a peaceful brown-skinned people. Arriving at dusk, they are treated with hospitality. At a feast held in their honor, Hunwulf indicates that he intends to press on towards the grasslands he glimpsed to the south while descending from the mountains. The villagers cry out and gesture frantically. Though Hunwulf cannot understand their language, it is clear that they are attempting to warn him away from some terrible danger that inhabits that region.

Even as the villagers yammer their panicked warnings, Hunwulf finds himself under sudden attack. A large, dark winged shape swoops down out of the night sky, knocking him to the ground. He hears Gudrun scream as "she was torn from my side." [13] The wording here recalls how Eve was taken from Adam's side, only in the more literal sense of being molded from one of his ribs. In that episode, Adam and Eve were brought together. In Howard's version, Hunwulf and Gudrun are cruelly seperated. Looking skyward, Hunwulf watches in helpless fury as his mate is borne away into the night.

Horrified and enraged, Hunwulf charges into the darkness, weapon in hand. He quickly realizes that his blind chase is hopeless. The friendly villagers calm him and show him a crude painting of the winged creature that abducted Gudrun; it is not one of the giant condors that inhabit the region, but something far more deadly. They try to dissaude him from pursuing this being, but Hunwulf is firm in his resolve. The villagers furnish him with a map and some provisions, and the blond warrior sets off immediately in search of his mate.

As he travels by night, Hunwulf is aware of the proximity of cave bears and saber-toothed tigers. Again these are images we associate with cave men, rather than Adam and Eve. Hunwulf presses on fearlessly. At daybreak he enters a large valley that narrows at the convergence of two lines of cliffs. Nearing his destination, Hunwulf passes wandering herds of mammoths. Once more we are reminded of the Stone Age, not Eden.

Emerging from a wooded area, Hunwulf enters a clearing. At its center he spies a green tower of jade-like stone standing in the midst of a field of unusual red flowers. The tower is about seventy feet high and crowned with a smaller structure surrounded by a gallery and parapet. Doors and barred windows are visible in the top portion alone; this appears to be the only point of entry.

A tower also appear in Genesis, specifically the Tower of Babel in Chapter 11. The Tower of Babel is a human achievement so impressive that God himself feels jealousy. The tower in "The Garden of Fear," on the other hand, is of inhuman origin. Humans at this point in the dim distant past are not yet capable of erecting such a structure. Hunwulf himself does not even have the words to describe it; he has never seen man-made dwellings other than tents and huts. Only the modern James Allison, narrating the story, is able to identify the tower as such.

Hunwulf feels sure that Gudrun is held captive in the tower, yet is wary in approaching it. Surrounding the tower on all sides for hundreds of yards is a field of tall, sinister looking flowers. Growing closely together, the strange plants consist of thick, four-foot stalks adorned with "poisonously green leaves...drooping on long snaky stems." [14] Each is topped with a large blossom of "livid crimson" whose "fleshy" petals are "the hue of an open wound." [15] In Genesis, the plants in the Garden of Eden are described as being good to eat and pleasing to look upon. Concerning the plants in the Garden of Fear, we are told that, "Their whole aspect was repellent..." [16]

His "wild-born instincts" [17] warning him of danger, Hunwulf observes the garden from a place of concealment. Those instincts are confirmed by the "charnel-house reek of death and decay and corruption that rose from the blossoms." [18] In one of Howard's more obvious allusions to Genesis, Hunwulf wonders if "some great serpent" [19] is concealed in the garden. A satanic figure does indeed appear, but not in the form of a serpent.

Noticing movement in the tower, Hunwulf watches as a strange figure emerges onto the parapet, "a man, but such a man as I had never dreamed of, even in nightmares." This man is described as tall and powerful, black as ebony, with batlike wings folded on his shoulders. He leans upon the parapet and looks out over the garden. Howard explicitly ascribes a satanic aspect to this being: "When I, as James Allison, dream again the dreams of Hunwulf, that image is etched in my mind, that gargoyle figure with elbows propped on the parapet, like a medieval devil brooding on the battlements of hell." [21]

In a major revision of Genesis, the serpent of Eden is replaced with a satanic figure from a much later era. A very ancient symbol also associated with Jason and Hercules, the serpent was not even originally identified with Satan in Genesis. That link was established in later books of the Bible. Genesis was written circa 1,000 BCE, with roots in an oral tradition going back undoubtedly much further. In "The Garden of Fear," however, the winged man is explicitly likened to "a medieval devil," with the term "gargoyle" further suggesting the cathedrals of the Middle Ages --an era thousands of years after the time Genesis was set in writing. Howard is also explicit in describing the winged man as black, but with "no suggestion of the negroid." [22] This recalls the Black Man that appears in the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne and elsewhere. In any case, Howard substitutes a comparatively modern satanic image in place of the serpent of ancient myth.

It is also worth noting that the winged man operates in a manner totally at odds with that of the serpent of Eden. The serpent seduces Eve, subtly enticing her with guile. The winged man, on the other hand, abducts Gudrun in the most direct way possible, using blatant physical force to seize and carry her away.

James Allison, recalling what he witnessed as Hunwulf, is given to wonder whether the winged man was an isolated freak of nature or the last survivor of an extinct species. He favors the latter theory: "Winged men are not uncommon in mythology...As far back as man may go in myth, chronicle, and legend, he finds tales of harpies and winged gods, angels and demons." [23] (emphasis added) Allison reminds us that; "Legends are distorted shadows of pre-existent realities." [24] He concludes that "once a race of winged black men ruled a pre-Adamite world..." [25]

Here we have an actual direct reference to the book of Genesis. It is unlikely that, in writing "The Garden of Fear," Howard consciously recognized the numerous reversals of Genesis he embodied in the tale. The mythical allusions he deliberately included concern the harpies and related legends. However, the use of the term "pre-Adamite" does seem to indicate some awareness on Howard's part of the Biblical elements that were percolating in his subconscious.

The reflections concerning the nature of the winged man are those of the modern James Allison. The primitive Hunwulf superstitiously takes the existence of devils and monsters for granted. The bold AEsir warrior believes in demons, but does not fear them. Even so, he does not charge into the field of crimson flowers to recklessly assault the tower. The "wariness of the wild" [26] compels him to be cautious.

Hunwulf's instincts are confirmed when the winged man re-enters the tower and emerges once more with a stuggling captive. It is not Gudrun, but one of the brown villagers. The winged man flies out over the field of crimson flowers bearing his captive, and drops him into their midst. The nearest plants latch onto the pitiful victim and drain way his blood, killing him.

It is during this episode that we notice that serpentine imagery is by no means absent from "The Garden of Fear." As the plants await their victim, they hiss and sway like snakes. Their leaves vibrate and whir "like the singing of a rattlesnake." [27] The fleshy petals of the blossoms open "like the necks of serpents." [28] The thick stalks of the plants arch "like the necks of serpents" [29] as the blossoms latch onto their victim. Howard's personal aversion to snakes is well documented, and not atypically the inclusion of serpentine imagry enhances the horror of this sequence. The Garden of Eden was paradise on Earth, but the Garden of Fear is presumably the worst place in the world.

After feeding the villager to the flowers, the winged man withdraws to within the tower. Hunwulf emerges cautiously from his hiding place and approaches one of the plants on the fringe of the garden. Its petals spread "like the hood of a roused cobra." [30] When it lunges at him, Hunwulf uses his axe to sever the stalk. Now able to examine the plant more closely, Hunwulf takes note of the clinging barbs on the leaves and the tiny sucking mouths on the petals. With the sole exception of the one he eats of to gain knowledge, Adam is permitted to eat of all the plants in the Garden of Eden. With the sole exception of the one he cuts down to gain knowledge, all of the plants in the Garden of Fear are capable of eating of Hunwulf.

As he completes his examination of the blood-sucking plant, Hunwulf becomes aware of the winged man's return. He looks up as the winged man emerges once more from the tower, bringing the captive Gudrun. Although Gudrun possesses the "supple strength" of a "she-panther," [31] she is helpless in the winged man's powerful grasp. The evil of the winged man is evident as he indulges in deliberate cruelty, laughing at Hunwulf and mocking him in an unknown tongue. In the Tower of Babel episode of Genesis, God causes mankind to speak numerous languages instead of a single one in order to divide humanity. In "The Garden of Fear," several mentions are made of language barriers.

Toying with Hunwulf, the winged man lifts Gudrun as though intending to cast her into the crimson flowers. However, he fails to goad Hunwulf into running into the field of deadly plants. Though distressed, Hunwulf is clear-headed enough to realize that perishing in such a futile act would only deprive Gudrun of any hope of rescue.

Turning away, Hunwulf formulates a plan. He returns to where he saw the herds of mammoths grazing earlier. Setting a number of well-placed brush fires, he causes the mammoths to stampede in the direction of the tower. Hunwulf's use of fire her recalls another creation myth, that of Prometheus. The mammoths flee from the brush fires, "bulls trumpeting like the blast of Judgement Day." [32] Here is yet another direct Biblical allusion. The Day of Judgement is not mentioned in Genesis, however, but in the New Testament. It is described at length in Revelations, the last book of the Bible.

The panicked mammoths stampede right over the Garden of Fear. The deadly plants might be capable of downing a single mammoth, but not a whole thundering herd. The crimson flowers are mashed to pulp. When the mammoths depart, Hunwulf is able to approach the tower in safety. Using a rawhide rope, he is able to scale the tower where Gudrun is pent. Hunwulf is just a few feet below the parapet when the winged man reappears. The winged man draws a knife and is about to cut the rope, sending Hunwulf plummeting to his death.

It is then that Gudrun goes into action. Though not quite Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, she is still capable of breaking down a door and grappling with a monster long enough for Hunwulf to leap onto the parapet. With his trusty axe, Hunwulf caves in the head of the winged man. The winged man's skull proves no tougher than that of Heimdul the Strong. Hunwulf regains his mate in exactly the same manner he won her originally.

The axe Hunwulf uses throughout the story is made of stone, specifically flint. In "The Valley of the Worm," the AEsir are equipped with weapons of bronze. This indicates that "The Garden of Fear" takes place in an even earlier era. We are told that the events of "The Valley of the Worm" transpired so long ago that "the surface of the earth has changed, not once but a score of times...and the very stars and constellations have altered and shifted. [33] "The Garden of Fear," therefore, occurs at the very dawn of humanity...fittingly, considering its parallels with Genesis.

After their devilish adversary falls dead, Hunwulf and Gudrun embrace over the grisly corpse. It is then that Hunwulf catches a glimpse into the room Gudrun had escaped from. Within the tower, he sees strange furnishings and "shelves heaped with rolls of parchment." [34] The modern James Allison expresses regret that his former incarnation did not explore the tower and examine the scrolls. To the primitive Hunwulf, however, the tower and its contents represent nothing more than a fiendish trap; he and his mate waste no time in taking their leave of the place. Adam and Eve were punished for their pursuit of forbidden knowledge. Hunwulf and Gudrun discover arcane knowledge that is theirs for the taking, but want no part of it. They flee the tower and continue on their way into the wilderness. Their story ends with Hunwulf and Gudrun, like Adam and Eve, alone in a newborn world.

"The Garden of Fear" was originally published in the July-August, 1934, issue of Marvel Tales. "The Valley of the Worm" had beaten it into print, but only by a few months, debuting in the February, 1934, issue of Weird Tales. Weird Tales, where the bulk of Robert E. Howard's fantasy first appeare, is well remembered today. Marvel Tales, on the other hand, was an obscure publication, and "The Garden of Fear" marked Howard's only appearance in its pages. Arriving like a kind of stillborn twin, "The Garden of Fear" never achieved the recognition of "The Valley of the Worm."
It is not hard to understand why "The Garden of Fear" has been so over-shadowed. At the heart of "The Valley of the Worm" lies one of the Western world's great mythic tales, that of the dragon-slayer. Howard was fully conscious of this theme, and embodied it in the story with a sure hand. In writing "The Garden of Fear," however, Howard was most likely not consciously aware of the parallels with Genesis. But even if he had been, he could never have been explicit in citing them in the body of the tale. Such a thing would be controversial even today. Even if most Christians don't take the story of Adam and Eve as literal history, it is still an esteemed part of a text widely held as sacred. Therefore Howard could hardly have included a pronouncement like, "Here, then, is the ghastly truth that lies, garbled and distorted, behind that quaint Sunday School fable." The only legend he could explicitly point to was the less-compelling one of the harpies.
However, with recognition of its parallels with Genesis, "The Garden of Fear" does take on additional dimensions. We now see that the past incarnations of a single man, James Allison, include both the prototype of the dragon slayer and the prototype of the Biblical Adam. This raises the intriguing question of whether Allison might simply be insane. As an embittered cripple driven to madness by his affliction, Allison savors delusions of ultimate grandeur that place him at the very center of the collective consciousness of Western civilization.
That's one interpretation, but not one that the author himself would have embraced. Among Howard's most consistent themes is the preeminent importance of the individual and individual effort. In Robert E. Howard's vision, the deeds of one man can become the archetypal basis for myths and legends the world over. Not coincidentally, Howard is very vocal in celebrating the individual in the opening paragraph of "The Garden of Fear."
...I tell you the individual is never lost, neither in the black pit from which we once crawled, blind, squalling and noisome, or in that eventual Nirvana in which we shall one day sink --which I have glimpsed afar off, shining as a blue twilight lake among the mountains of the stars...[35]
This passage is interesting in several different respects. First there is the womb imagry of the black pit, in which humanity's origins are likened to the physical birth of an individual. Then Howard mentions Nirvana, a concept from a religious tradition altogether different form that which concerns him in the bulk of the story. Finally, there is the image of the blue lake and the mountains. He repeats this image in the last line of the story, after Hunwulf and Gudrun make their escape:
...we went hand and hand along the path made by the mammoths, now seen vanishing in the distance, toward the blue lake at the southern end of the valley and the notch in cliffs beyond it. [36]
A blue lake, seen from afar, was used earlier as an explicit metaphor for Nirvana. Now the protagonists are linked to the blue lake by a path made by mammoths seen "vanishing in the distance." In this context, the path of the vanishing mammoths suggests itself as a metaphor for extinction. Again, there is a juxtaposition of religion and paleontology. Nirvana and extinction are intertwined in the author's imagination.
Another of Robert E. Howard's most prevalent themes is the inevitable passing of all things. Empires rise and fall. Races fade away. Seas change their beds and rivers their courses. Glaciers wax and wane. Birth itself is but the beginning os a journey that ends in death. And so it is that Hunwulf and Gudrun, Howard's own Adam and Eve, join hands and start their journey down the path of the mammoths, towards the Nirvana in which humanity shall one day sink.
[1] Robert E. Howard, "The Valley of the Worm," Weird Tales Vol. 23, No. 2 (February 1934), p. 193.
[2] Robert E. Howard, "The Garden of Fear," Marvel Tales Vol. 1, No. 2 (July-August 1934), pp. 11-12.
[3] Ibid., p. 13.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., pp. 13-14.
[7] Ibid., p. 14.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., p. 16.
[14] Ibid., p. 20
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., p. 21.
[21] Ibid., pp. 25-26.
[22] Ibid., p. 27.
[23] Ibid., p. 21.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid., p. 22.
[27] Ibid., p. 23.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid., pp. 23-24.
[31] Ibid., p. 24.
[32] Ibid., p. 26.
[33] "The Valley of the Worm," Op cit. p. 195.
[34] "The Garden of Fear," Op cit. p. 29.
[35] Ibid., p. 12.
[36] Ibid., p. 29.
Special thanks to David Gentzel for furnishing me with the original publication of "The Garden of Fear."

Monday, June 23, 2008

Robert E. Howard vs. the Desert of the Real

[Last year I was asked to provide an afterword for The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume I from Del Rey Books (available at Borders, Barnes & Noble, and all better bookstores; no home should be without one.) My humble contribution is entitled "Robert E. Howard: Twentieth Century Mythmaker." I knew that more people would be reading this essay than all my other Robert E. Howard stuff put together, so I wanted to repeat the most important points I made elsewhere. I drew on a variety of my other writings, but the main template is the essay that follows. The opening section is very similar to "Mythmaker," but it later goes off in different directions. This appeared in Spectrum Super Special #2. Copyright 2004 by Charles Hoffman.]

Robert E. Howard's most famould creation, the indomitable barbarian warrior Conan, was introduced in the December 1932 issue of the pulp magazine Weird Tales. For the first story in the series, Howard provided a brief preface that served to set the stage for Conan's debut:

Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars -- Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet. [1]

Earlier, the editor of Weird Tales had requested some biographical information about the young author himself. Howard's response painted a very different picture:

Like the average man, the tale of my life would merely be a dull narration of drab monotony and toil, a grinding struggle against poverty. I have spent most of my time in the hard, barren semi-waste lands of Western Texas, and since infancy my memory holds a continuous grinding round of crop failures -- sandstorms -- drouths -- floods -- hot winds that withered the corn -- hailstorms that ripped the grain to pieces -- late blizzards that froze the fruit in the bud -- plagues of grasshoppers and boll weevils...

I've picked cotton, helped brand a few yearlings, hauled a little garbage, worked in a grocery store, ditto a dry-goods store, worked in a law office, jerked soda, worked up in a gas office, tried to be a public stenographer, packed a surveyor's rod, worked up oil field news for some Texas and Oklahoma papers, etc., etc., and also etc...[2]

Finally, Howard was moved to conclude, "And there I believe is about all the information I can give about a very humdrum and commonplace life." [3]

As Morpheus said to Neo in The Matrix, "Welcome to the desert of the real."

Many years later Mark Schultz, illustrator of a collection of the Conan tales, recalled:

I discovered Robert E. Howard's Conan in 1969. when I was 13 years old. I read the stories then for their incomparable high adventure and mind-blasting horror. It wasn't unitl much later that I realized they hit so hard and stayed so timeless because Howard's feverish, passionate writing was a crystal clear reflection of a young mind in turmoil, fighting to be free of the limitations of his physical surroundings. [4]

Howard often discussed his writing with a young school-teacher named Novalyne Price, who had literary ambitions of her own. Late in life, Price wrote a memoir of Howard entitled One Who Walked Alone. Her book was subsequently adapted into a touching motion picture, The Whole Wide World starring Vincent D'Onofrio and Renee Zellweger. In One Who Walked Alone, Price recalls mentioning to Howard that she wanted to write about "real people with real problems." [5] Howard's reaction is revealing:

"Not me. I don't want to write about men struggling along on a sandy farm, getting drunk, coming in the house at night and beating up a small, frail woman who can't fight back." [6]

In his view, Novalyne was a "dreamer" who had lived a "sheltered life" [7] and who assumed that her own background represented a kind of universal norm:

"You come from a good home. You don't know these people out here. I do. You think they're nice and sweet and loving. That's not true... Trying to dig out a living on the farm in spite of the hail, and the dust is hard...That fills men with hate." [8]

Defending his own fiction, Howard asserted:

"The people who read my stuff want to get away from this modern, complicated world world with it hypocrisy, it cruelty, its dog-eat-dog life...The civilization we live in is a lot more sinister than the time I write about. In those days, girl, men were men and women were women. They struggled to stay alive, but the struggle was worth it." [9]

H. P. Lovecraft, with whom Howard corresponded regularly, once noted a curious paradox. Lovecraft observed that a great deal of fiction that purports to be about real everyday life is actually quite often rife with sentimental distortions. Howard himself expressed a similar view: "Nobody really writes realistic realism, and if they did, nobody would read it. The writers who thing they write it just give their own ideas about things they think they see. The sort of man who could write realism is the fellow who never reads or writes anything." [10]

By way of contrast, Lovecraft defined fantasy as "an art based on the imaginary life of the human mind, frankly recognized as such; & in its way as natural & scientific --as truly related to natural (even if uncommon & delicate) psychological processes as the starkest of photographic realism." [11] In other words, fantasy fiction makes no pretense of representing the physical world as it actually is. However, in the right hands it can vividly the most intensely felt yearnings of the human heart and soul, from the deepest longings and most dreadful anxieties to the loftiest aspirations. Therefore, it could be said that fantasy need have little to do with reality, yet have a great deal to do with truth, since these are not precisely the same thing.

This is, of course, not to say that realistic fiction cannot portray weighty abstractions such as spiritual damnation and redemption, just that fantasy can often do so more excitingly and entertainingly. The Star Wars saga of Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader is a perfect example. For better or worse, more people have seen the Star Wars movies than have read Crime and Punishment. Also, interestingly enough, most people are more familiar with the story of Faust than of Crime and Punishment. Fantasy is an uncannily suitable vehicle for conveying powerful themes to a mass audience.

Novalyne Price Ellis recalled a subsequent conversation with Howard: "Bob began to talk about good and evil in life. He said that life was always a struggle between good and evil, and people like to read about that struggle...He wrote for readers who wanted evil to be something big, horrible, but still something a barbarian like Conan could overcome." [12]

Howard's remarks to Novalyne strongly suggest that he felt that his readers benefited in some way from seeing their struggles reflected on a higher level. To that end, Robert E. Howard took the oldest type of story --the tale of heroes, gods, and monsters-- and reinvented it as jolting pulp fiction. His prose, not unlike that of Raymond Chandler, was direct and hard-edged, yet lyrical. Howard's modern brand of fantasy has often been characterized as "sword and sorcery," but Lovecraft may have been more insightful when he deemed it "artificial legendry."

Howard wrote for the American working class of the early twentieth century. His readers were widely seperated by time, distance, and upheaval from the myths and legends that had enthralled their ancestors in the Old World. They lived in an era rocked by cataclysm, no less than the fictional Hyborian Age of Conan had been. In 1906, the year Howard was born, the world was ruled by kings, dukes, emperors, sultans, kaisers, and czars. Twenty years later, they were all gone. The slaughter of the First World War and the lawlessness of the Roaring Twenties were followed by the malaise of the Great Depression. The Depression was a humiliating ordeal for many Americans, and Howard's rousing tales of Conan helped to empower readers with flagging spirits. In a larger sense, however, Howard sought to resurrect the heroic saga where it had long been lost.

When America declared its independence from the Mother Country, it was also bidding farewell to Saint George and King Arthur. No comparable myths grew up to take their places. The new folk legends that appeared in the wake of the Industrial Revolution celebrated laborers and producers of goods. Today everyone has heard of Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Casey Jones, and yet no one really cares about them. One needn't marvel at the fact that no nineteenth century publisher ever attempted to use such characters to sell dime novels. Instead, stories of gunfighters and bank robbers were dime novel mainstays. "Tall tales" of how hard some guy worked were presumably less inspiring. After all, how popular would Horatio Alger's novels have been, had his protagonists simply worked but remained poor?

The dime novel was followed in the early twentieth century by the pulp magazines. At this time, radio and motion pictures were in their infancies, television yet unborn. As astonishing as it may seem today, print was the primary entertainment medium for the masses. Publishing empires were built on pulp fiction magazines that usually sold for ten cents. By the late twenties, scores of different titles were on sale at any given time. The pulp jungle proved fertile ground for a new crop of homegrown heroes: cowboys, sailors, detectives, aviators, and soldiers of fortune. Interestingly, however, such pre-eminent pulp heroes as The Shadow and Doc Savage were essentially supercops, maintainers of the status quo.

Robert E. Howard had something different in mind when he conceived of Conan. His giant barbarian is an outlaw, a sword-for-hire, basically out for himself, yet still retaining a certain knack for doing the right thing. Conan is not a preserver of order; he is a mover and shaker, the whirlwind at the center of momentous events. And though his author endowed him with a very modern hardboiled edge, Conan remains that most immemorial of heroes, the warrior. Writing before Carl Jung was well-known in America, before Joseph Campbell's work had appeared, Howard possessed an instinctive grasp of mythic, archetypal figures-- king, warrior, magician, femme fatale. He knew that the ancient figure of the warrior would resonate with readers on a deeper subconscious level than, for example, the detective, a hero figure in some ways emblematic of the Age of Reason.

Howard's vivid "artificial legendry" has often sadly been dismissed as "escapism." Yet if the lot of the average man is truly one of "drab monotony and toil," as Howard believed, it falls to the skald and the storyteller to furnish needed refreshment for tired minds. And in truth, the average working adult does endure his or her fair share of drudgery. The majority of people earn a living by means of tedious jobs, not rewarding careers.

Herein lies a clue to Howard's well-known resentment of "civilization," for which the author has taken so much flak. Youngsters are told they can become anything they want if they try hard enough; they are never told how many waiters the world needs for every archeologist it can support. The former notion is wishful thinking, the latter a dismal truth Howard knew only too well. Viewed this way, civilized society is like a big lottery in which most people have to lose. As one example, consider the monkey-suited doorman standing in front of a luxury hotel. To Howard, such an individual would be better off, spiritually if not materially, wearing a loincloth and carrying a spear, battling openly against man and nature.

Decades after Howard's death, the lot of the working class changed, but in an important sense it was not for the better. Previously, the laborer could at least derive some satisfaction from accomplishing enormous tasks and producing tangible goods. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, the workplace underwent a transformation. Countless American manufacturing jobs were sold overseas to the lowest bidder. America became a "service economy," a glib euphemism for a nation of flunkies.

The plight of the American working man at the turn of the twenty-first century is explored in Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 novel Fight Club. The novel and its subsequent film adaptation look at a generation of men who are increasingly marginalized. Most are relegated to menial jobs and inane tasks. Alienated from society, they begin to form underground "fight clubs" in the basements of bars and similar places. Here they engage in greuling fistfights, finding a renewed sense of meaning in raw physical strife. At one point a character remarks, "I see the strongest and the smartest men who have ever lived...and these men are pumping gas and waiting tables." [14] It is a statement with which Robert E. Howard would have nodded in somber agreement.

In 1928, before his professional writing career took off, Howard wrote a novel entitled Post Oaks and Sand Roughs. It is actually a thinly-veiled autobiography of Howard (herein called "Steve Costigan") between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. While crossing the threshold of adulthood, Howard at one point toiled at a tedious job in his town's drug store. At this time, Cross Plains, Texas, was in the midst of an oil boom. Oil workers swelled the town's population, and Howard had to work long hours for weeks on end. However, he was able to vent some of his frustration by taking part in amateur boxing matches held in an empty building at a local ice plant. One such episode is recounted in Chapter 9 of the novel. It is Fight Club seven decades early.

The chapter begins with Howard, or "Steve," humbled by his serf-like position:

A man who works all day or all night swinging heavy sledges, clambering about on an eighty foot rig, and in general doing work suitable for a giant, has scant respect for one who makes his living by doling out soft drinks.

Steve hated his job worse than he had ever hated any task, and the contempt and apprehension which he felt toward the mass of oil field workers grew to a fear and venomous hatred of dangerous and abnormal size. It grew to be an obsession with him to hate the blustering, powerful roughnecks who swaggered up to the fountain and domineeringly demanded attention. He served them in silence and with an immobile face, but all hell seethed in his brain. [15]

Reliving the experience as Steve, Howard recalls the physical toll the job took:

He did not read or write, scarcely had time to answer his correspondence. He had absolutely no time for recreation or even rest. All during the day he would dash back and forth behind the fountain which he had grown to hate, serving drinks and waiting on customers, doing many things he was not paid to do. At night he staggered home to fall into his bed and sleep the sodden sleep of utter exhaustion. He went to bed fatigued and he awoke fatigued. [16]

Emotionally drained by a job that's sucking the life out of him, Howard/Steve reaches the brink of despair:

Steve sighed as he walked beneath the cold silver moonlight and the gems of the stars. God, how clean and clear and high -- how far from all this sordid muck of living. Was there, anywhere in the world, such purity, such beauty? No --life was shoving Coca Colas and ice creams across the fountain top to unshaven roughnecks who swore at you --life was sordid and muck. Better that a man would never look at the stars, for they made him realize the terrible hopelessness and filth of his own existence. [17]

Redemption is found in a 1920s version of fight club. In Howard's recollections, the days and nights of toil at the drug store blend and blur together. However, when he recounts his alter ego's first battle, every detail stands out in remarkable clarity:

Steve reeled, the blood gushing from his mouth to mingle with the sweat on his chest. And in the fleeting instant before the fighting commenced again, Steve knew Life, fierce, red, and vibrant. God, but this was his element! To fight, to kill or be killed, here in this hell-hot, smoke-laden atmosphere, with a gang of roughnecks screaming oaths and shouting for his slaughter...

Steve plunged in without waiting for Bill's attack, expecting to be knocked cold, revelling in the fact that he was carrying the fight to his antagonist...They were fighting rough-house style now, with no attempt at science. Blow followed blow as fast as four frantic arms could drive them in, and the gloves, heavy with sweat and blood, flashed past each other in a never ending stream...

Bill was beginning to weaken. Forced into a corner, he gathered his waning strength and leaped forward with the ferocity of an attacking tiger. And Steve met him with a left-handed smash which struck Bill squarely in the mouth; something cracked like a twig. Bill went down. [18]

Howard/Steve comes away from the bout having experienced a kind of epiphany:

Steve felt jubilant in a strange manner. His mind was clear now, and the blood raced through his veins...He sighed deeply and with relish and glanced up at the stars which somehow seemed less cold and more friendly. [19]

Howard initially asserts that "life was shoving Coca Colas and ice creams across the fountain top to unshaven roughnecks who swore at you," but changes his tune once the fight is underway: "Steve knew Life, fierce, red, and vibrant." To put that capital "L" on "Life," one must seek out extreme experiences seldom encountered in the normal course of everyday living. Restless within the folds of a safe, comfortable civilization, adventurous spirits search for ways to test and challenge themselves. Examples can be found at every level of society, from the mountaineer scaling a peak "because it is there" to the teenage street racer.

Howard once told Lovecraft, "Despite the tinsel and show, the artificial adjuncts, and the sometimes disgusting advertisements, ballyhoo and exploitation attendant upon such sports as boxing and football, there is, in the actual contexts, something vital and real and deep-rooted in the very life-springs of the race...Football, for instance, is nothing less than war in miniature, and provides an excellent way of working off pugnacious and combative instincts, without bloodshed." [20] One can experience a fleeting taste of glory through some form of athletic striving, either first-hand or vicariously as a spectator. One can also experience a heightened sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment vicariously through art.

Whatever the case, a transcendental experience is sought. There is a yearning to transcend the coarseness and banality of everyday life. Championship football and soccer games are often followed by racous partying and even rioting, owing to the fact that most of the spectators lead exceedingly humdrum lives. Howard deemed his autobiographical a failure because it was "too vague, too disconnected, too full of unexplained and trivial incidents -- too much like life in a word." [21]

Ordinary everyday life consists of slogging through a morass of stifling worries and squabbles. A week's worth of listings for a courtroom television program like Judge Judy reads like a series of postcards from the desert of the real: "A dispute involving a VCR, a TV, and clothing. / A woman sues her beautician after her hair extensions fall out. / A woman sues her ex over unpaid bills. / A case involving a damaged TV set; an alleged break-in. / A dispute over an unpaid loan. / A dispute over a TV. Also: a fight is sparked by damaged bicycles." [22] The sheer pettiness of it all seems almost suffocating. Even so, there are people who watch such programs religiously, presumably for the dubious satisfaction of seeing others chided and punished. It is a peculiar form of spiritual tunnel vision.

Howard endeavored to offer his readers a wider vista. He knew that working at the counter of a drug store, or pumping gas, or selling shoes, or digging holes, was not enough to fill a man's heart. That is one reason he so excelled at depicting struggles that were epic, against evils that were truly horrific. Such is the essence of adventure, and Howard has been widely lauded as a great adventure writer. The path of the adventurer leads either to glory or doom, but it skirts commonplace tedium and transcends the gradual grinding down of the human spirit by the weight of the world. In its way, the adventure story is a subversive art form in the sense that it carries within it the implicit suggestion that everyday life is inadequate. No author has been more militant in conveying this message than Robert E. Howard.

There is little of adventure or glory to be found in the desert of the real, save in the form of a mirage. To invest common events like holidays, weddings, and graduations with an atmosphere of pomp and grandeur involves the use of the creative imagination in a manner not unlike the way the storyteller weaves his tales. "[T]here was pagentry and high illusion and vanity, and the beloved tinsel of glory without which life is not worth living," wrote Howard to a correspondent concerning times gone by, "All empty show and the smoke of conceit and arrogance, but what a drab thing life would be without them." [23] For him, there is no meaning or beauty in life other than what we dream into it. In this respect, and in other respects, Howard could be considered as early existential writer.

2. Serving Time in Disillusionment

Conan's world is one of exotic kingdoms, gleaming citadels, desolate wastelands, and mysterious ruins haunted by nightmarish spectres. Fabulous wealth in the form of gold and precious gemstones lies in heaps for the taking, if one is bold enough to dare the terrors that lurk in the nearby shadows. Monstrous fifty-foot serpents rear up, fangs dripping venom. Giant slavering apes snarl and lurch forward with taloned hands extended. Yet even these horrors can be overcome by the craft, sinew, and fighting prowess of a fierce barbarian warrior. And gold is not his only reward. Alluring women await; some are slave girls, some are princesses, some are warriors in their own right, but all are almost agonizing in their physical perfection.

For daring to conjure such fever dreams, Howard has at times been labelled an "arrested adolescent" by his harsher critics. However, such critics tend to be familiar with only a small portion of Howard's work. Howard lavished whatever exhuberance and love of life he possessed upon his most famous creation, leaving precious little for himself and his other characters. Thus Solomon Kane is driven by fanaticism, and Bran Mak Morn by wrath. King Kull broods on his throne, grappling with philosophical abstactions. The crusaders of Howard's historical tales are not knights in shining armor, but brutal men in dirty chain male vying for power over small medieval fiefdoms. Howard himself was buffeted by severe manic-depressive mood swings. He took his own life at the youthful age of thirty. While only in his early twenties he was writing poetry redolent of world-weariness, loss, and ennui. Far from being an "arrested adolescent," Robert E. Howard was, if anything, a premature middle-aged burnout.

For I rode the moon-mare's horses in the glory of my youth,
Wrestled with the hills at sunset --till I met brass-tinctured Truth.
Till I saw the temples topple, till I saw the idols reel,
Till my brain had turned to iron, and my heart had turned to steel. [24]

So wrote Howard in "Always Comes Evening," in which he concludes: road runs out in thistles and my dreams have turned to dust,
And my pinions fade and falter to the raven-wings of rust. [25]

Verse in a similar vein includes "Shadows on the Road," "Lines Written in the Realization That I Must Die," "The Years Are as a Knife," "Futility," and "Illusion." Howard wrote not one, but two poems called "Surrender." In the less somber of the two, the poet speaks of dropping out of society and drinking himself to death. The other lacks any sort of narrative and consists solely of a "let me die" wail:

My heart is hollow with endless pain, my temples are growing white,
Open the window against the rain and let me go into the night. [26]

More than once Howard speaks of the bone-crushing weight of age pressing upon him, even as he admits he is young in actual years: "I fling aside the cloak of Youth and limp / A withered man upon a broken staff." [27] In "Always Comes Evening" he exhorts the devil to "Feed with hearts of rose-white women ashes of my dead desire." [28] Surely a lament for one's "dead desire" is more appropriate for a man in late middle life than for a young poet of, perhaps, twenty-two years.

Howard gave considerable credence to the doctrine of reincarnation, and this undoubtedly contributed to his view of himself as an "old soul":

I cannot well recall what shapes I bore,
What spears have pierced me, or what axes have gashed,
Yet through my dreams there runs the endless roar
Of nameless battles where lost armies crashed.

Shape upon shape returning, land on land,
Loosed by the ripping axe, the arrow's tooth,
Through endless incarnations, till I stand,
A scarred old man, masked in the guise of youth. [29]

Possible former incarnations notwithstanding, however, Howard did not live out even a single normal life span. Even so, he experienced his share of strife and conflict. This was not in the form of physical combat, but rather resulting from his struggle with his surroundings.

"It seems to me that many writers, by virtue of environments of culture, art, and education, slip into writing because of their environments," he told Lovecraft:

I became a writer in spite of my environments. Understand I am not criticizing those environments. They were good, solid, and worthy. The fact that they were not inducive to literature and art is nothing in their disfavor. Nevertheless, it is no light thing to enter into a profession absolutely foreign and alien to the people among which one's lot is cast. [30]

As a child, Howard was introverted and the prey of bullies. This led him to undertake a rigorous bodybuilding program that gained him a powerful physique as an adult. He informed his father that "I entered in to build my body until when a scoundrel crosses me up, I can with my bare hands tear him to pieces, double him up, and break his back with my hands alone." [31] Growing up, he became increasingly resentful of authority: "I hated school as I hate the memory of school. It wasn't the work I minded...what I hated was the confinement --the clock-like regularity of everything; the regulation of my speech and actions; most of all the idea that someone considered himself or herself in authority over me, with the right to question my actions and interfere with my thoughts." [32] Howard took up writing as a profession in large part because it enabled him to be his own boss: "I worked a while in a gas office, but lost the job because I wouldn't kow-tow to my employer and 'yes' him from morning to night. That's one reason I was never very successful working for people. So many men think an employee is a kind of servant." [33]

All these things contributed to Howard's premature burnout. Possessed of a dominant personality, he was given to butting heads with people and situations with which he felt himself at odds. Essentially, he was fighting the whole damn world, and over time this took its toll. Hence his feelings of world-weariness and futility.

In a larger sense, however, Howard's disillusionment differs from that of the average person only in degree. Everyone experiences some form of unrequited longing or thwarted ambition. Disappointment is a fact of life, an inevitability known to all. For the more sensitive, disappointment is shadowed by disillusionment. There is a vague sense that life has somehow played one false. Often this is simply dismissed with the commonplace observation that things aren't always what they're cracked up to be. But in Howard's prose, as well as his poetry, disillusionment has a way of becoming magnified.

From time to time, Howard writes of some glorious dream that only serves to conceal a hideous underlying reality. In such passages, he feels moved to portray disillusionment on a grand, even cosmic, scale. All pervasive, it enfolds humanity like some form of original sin. Not even Conan can escape it. For Howard's heroes, disillusionment is a dragon no less formidable than a literal monster with fangs and claws. Typically it is the result of a sudden horrifying revelation, rather than the accumulation of minor disappointments. Portrayed in this manner, it is another example of Howard's penchant for depicting ordinary human struggle on a mythical level.

By way of illustration, we might consider a tawdry form of disillusionment common enough in the desert of the real, contrasted with a soul-searing encounter undergone by Conan. In a pair of poems, Howard recounts a youth's depressing visits to a seamy brothel:

My heart was the heart of a broken louse,
The jackal fired my eyes,
When I sought for peace in the bawdyhouse,
And the rest in a harlot's thighs. [34]

Youthful lust and frustration mingle with guilt and shame, and the poet is moved to conclude:

The girl I dreamed she might have been
Fades before she that is--
But I'll forget as do all men
In passion's barren bliss.

For she runs with Life a parallel --
The dream and its rotten core --
For Life's a harlot out of hell
With a red light over her door. [35]

A simple visit to a common prostitute proves so distasteful to Howard that all of life seems somehow tainted. In the saga of Conan, this experience is echoed in an episode in which the mighty Cimmerian confronts an immortal femme fatale. Chapter 18 of The Hour of the Dragon finds Conan deep within the underground tombs of Stygia. There he meets the Princess Akivasha, who lived ten thousand years earlier and is celebrated in myth the world over. According to her legend, she communed with dark forces to remain young and beautiful forever. When she attempts to seduce him, Conan learns that Akivasha is a vampire, an unclean thing. As he escapes her lair, he is nearly overwhelmed with despair:

The legend of Akivasha was so old, and among the evil tales told of her ran a thread of beauty and idealism, of everlasting youth. To so many dreamers and poets and lovers she was not alone the evil princess of Stygian legend, but the symbol of eternal youth and beauty, shining forever in some far realm of the gods. And this was the hideous reality. This foul perversion was the truth of that everlasting life. Through his physical revulsion ran the sense of a shattered dream of man's idolatry, it glittering gold proved slime and cosmic filth. A wave of futility swept over him, a dim fear of the falseness of all men's dreams and idolatries. [36]

Howard may or may not have known a loose woman or two, but he leaves it to Conan to confront the true harlot out of hell. Frequently Conan encounters beings whose capacity for evil or depravity exceeds that of mere mortals. It's all part of a heroic saga of ordeals and triumphs surpassing those to be found in the course of ordinary everyday life. And if there is no escaping disillusionment, Conan must experience disillusionment on an epic scale.

The fantasy of Robert E. Howard encompasses both high adventure and blood-chilling horror. In both prose and poetry, Howard sends the reader soaring to exhilerating summits or plummeting to the very depths of his despair. But in either case, he endeavors to avoid the tedium of what T. S. Eliot described as a life measured out in coffee spoons. This aspect of the storyteller's art is of no small importance.

Critics like Robert McKee have theorized that it is the structure of "the story" that enables us to see our own lives as something other than a chaotic jumble of trivial incidents. We learn to focus on what is important and edit out the mundane. Our lives center on our goals and loved ones, rather than being measured out in coffee spoons, or frozen dinners, or toothbrushes, or flea powder, or parking meters, or crossword puzzles. Bruce Lee once quoted a Zen aphorism about a finger pointing to the moon: concentrate on the finger, and you miss all that heavenly glory. We define our reality by determining what is important to us.

The true "desert of the real" is perhaps nothing more than the desert of the trivial. Narrowness and pettiness are withering wastelands to which we must not succumb. Consider Conan as depicted in the opening of "Xuthal of the Dusk." These are the passages that provided the basis for Frank Frazetta's iconic portrait of the barbarian:

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 statue 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...

The Cimmerian growled wordlessly, glaring truculently at the surrounding waste, with outthrust jaw, and blue eyes smoldering savagely from under his black tousled mane, as if the desert were a tangible enemy. [37]


[1] Robert E. Howard (hereafter REH), "The Phoenix on the Sword," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003), p. 7.

[2] REH to Farnsworth Wright in Glenn Lord, ed., The Last Celt (West Warwick, RI: Donald M. Grant, 1976), pp. 37-38.

[3] Ibid., p. 39

[4] Mark Schultz, Robert E. Howard's Conan of Cimmeria: A Sketchbook (Wandering Star, 2001), p. 2.

[5] Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone (West Kingston, RI: Donald M. Grant, 1986), p. 62.

[6] Ibid., p. 63.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] REH, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs (Hampton Falls, NH: Donald M. Grant, 1990), p. 157.

[11] H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, November 16, 1926, in Selected Letters II (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1968), p. 90.

[12] Ellis, p. 151.

[13] H. P. Lovecraft to Donald A. Wollheim, 1936.

[14] Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (New York: Owl Books, 1997), p. 149.

[15] REH, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, p. 141.

[16] Ibid., p. 95.

[17] Ibid., pp. 101-102.

[18] Ibid., pp. 104-105.

[19] Ibid., p. 106.

[20] REH to Lovecraft, January 1932.

[21] REH, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, p. 141.

[22] All from TV Guide for the week of December 8, 2001: Vol. 49, No. 49, Issue #2541.

[23] REH to Harold Preece, received October 20, 1978.

[24] REH, "Always Comes Evening," Always Comes Evening (San Francisco: Underwood-Miller, 1977), p. 73.

[25] Ibid.

[26] REH, "Surrender," Shadows of Dreams (Hampton Falls, NH: Donald M. Grant, 1989), p. 92.

[27] REH, "The Sands of Time," Echoes From an Iron Harp (West Kingston, RI: Donald M. Grant, 1972), p. 65.

[28] REH, "Always Comes Evening," p. 73.

[29] REH, "The Guise of Youth," The Second Book of Robert E. Howard (New York: Berkley Books, 1980), pp. 211-212.

[30] REH to Lovecraft, circa May/June 1933.

[31] Dr. I. M. Howard to E. Hoffman Price, June 21, 1944.

[32] REH to Lovecraft, March 6, 1933.

[33] REH to Wilfred B. Talman, September 1931.

[34] REH, "Song From an Ebony Heart," Shadows of Dreams, p. 85.

[35] REH, "Love's Young Dream," Shadows of Dreams, p. 88.

[36] REH, The Hour of the Dragon (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1977), pp. 220-221.

[37] REH, "Xuthal of the Dusk," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p. 219.