[Recent blogs have consisted of excerpts from my original fiction, in the interests of self-promotion. This time I am offering another of my essays on Robert E. Howard. "Blood Lust" was originally published in The Cimmerian in 2005, and was very well received. It went on to win The Cimmerian's Hyrkanian Award. The version here is slightly longer than the one that appeared in print, so worth reading even if you're already familiar with the printed version. This version Copyright 2009 by Charles Hoffman.]
“The girl looked up at him, her face like a dim white rose in the dark…
“`Tell me.’ His voice was soft, soothing, as one speaks to a babe.
“`Le Loup,” she gasped, her voice swiftly growing weaker. ‘He and his men --descended upon our village-- a mile up the valley. They robbed --slew-- burned…I ran. He, the Wolf, pursued me --and-- caught me--’ The words died away in a shuddering silence.
“`I understand, child. Then--?’
“`Then --he --he --stabbed me--with his dagger--oh, blessed saints! --mercy--’
“Suddenly the slim form went limp. The man eased her to the earth, and touched her brow lightly.
“`Dead!’ he muttered.
“Slowly he rose, mechanically wiping his hands upon his cloak. A dark scowl had settled on his somber brow. Yet he made no wild, reckless vow, swore no oath by saints or devils.
“`Men shall die for this,’ he said coldly.”
--“Red Shadows” Weird Tales, August 1928
“…He laughed at her struggles as his arms savored each intimate charm. ‘I’m no tell-tale, nor blackmailer! I’m not threatenin’ you. I don’t have to!’
“His mouth crushing hers thirstily --the way his muscular arms defeated her frenzied struggles-- was enough to convince her. But, jerking her mouth free, she stormed defiantly: ‘Damn you, let me go! I’ll kill you…you can’t--’
“Her defiance broke in a despairing shriek as she realized the futility of her resistance.
“Presently, as he looked down at her where she lay weeping in rage, shame and humiliation, he started to speak; then he changed his mind, shrugged his shoulders and headed for the door.
“There was no mercy in the game she played, and she had no reason to expect any.”
--“Murderer’s Grog” Spicy-Adventure Stories, January 1937
What a difference eight years make!
The first quotation is from one of Robert E. Howard’s best-known stories, “Red Shadows.” It served to introduce readers to one of Howard’s most memorable heroes, the dour Puritan swordsman, Solomon Kane, a religious fanatic so morally upright that he takes it upon himself to protect all in peril and stamp out evil wherever he finds it. In “Red Shadows,” he seeks to avenge a girl ravaged by a vicious bandit called Le Loup, Kane’s opposite, an amoral thrill-seeker who lives to gratify his lustful appetites at the expense of those weaker than himself.
The second quotation is from the denouement of “Murderer’s Grog” by “Sam Walser.” This story features a very different sort of protagonist, one Wild Bill Clanton, described by the author as a “sailor, gun-runner, blackbirder, pearl-poacher, and fighting man deluxe.” One might also add “serial rapist” to Clanton’s resume-- “Murderer’s Grog” is not the only story in which Clanton forces himself on a woman.
The irony of the contrast between Solomon Kane and Wild Bill Clanton would have been lost on any who chanced to read both these stories upon their original publications in the pulp fiction magazines of the 1920s and `30s --such readers would have had no way of knowing that Robert E. Howard and Sam Walser were one and the same. Walser was a pseudonym --an ancestor’s name-- that Howard used for the Wild Bill Clanton series written in the final phase of his career. Debuting in Weird Tales back in 1928, Solomon Kane had been the first of Howard’s heroes to appear in print. Premiering in Spicy-Adventure Stories in April 1936, a mere two months before Howard’s death, Wild Bill Clanton was most likely the last of Howard’s heroes the author saw introduced. (He may or may not have lived to see his western hero Buckner J. Grimes debut in the June 1936 issue of Cowboy Stories.)
So how was it that the creator of Solomon Kane came at the last to write a series of tales in which, essentially, Le Loup is the hero? In the beginning, it was solely for the money. Weird Tales was never a financially secure publication; it teetered on the verge of bankruptcy throughout its thirty-year history. Payment to authors was often late, and this considerably worsened during the Depression. Early in 1935, Howard was burdened by medical expenses for his aging mother, including a serious operation. At the time of his greatest need, payment from Weird Tales continued to grow ever more unreliable. Weird Tales had been paying Howard in a series of monthly installments, but these were cut off just as his need was greatest. On May 6, 1935, Howard sent “an urgent plea for money” to editor Farnsworth Wright that concluded, “A monthly check from Weird Tales may well mean for me the difference between a life that is at least endurable --and God alone knows what.” Wright responded with part of the money, but Weird Tales owed Howard over a thousand dollars at the time of his death.
Desperate for more dependable sources of income, Howard looked about for fresh markets to tap. To that end he had previously engaged fellow pulp writer Otis Adelbert Kline as his literary agent. Now, in 1935, he followed the lead of his friend and colleague, E. Hoffmann Price. Price was a star contributor to the lucrative “spicy stories” market. The so-called “spicy” pulps were a line of magazines that featured fairly standard genre stories, but with the added ingredient of sex. Of course, for the most part the sex in the spicy magazines was tame, even quaint, by today’s standards. Erotic titillation was furnished mostly by the trappings of sex; the heroine’s scanty undergarments, her inviting boudoir, passionate attitude and so forth. Any actual sexual activity was left to the reader’s imagination. Sexual episodes were indicated by a sentence trailing off in ellipses… followed by a discreet line drop before the story resumed in the next paragraph. Both the cover paintings and the interior illustrations hinted that the magazine’s contents were hot stuff, but the actual stories always seemed to promise more than they delivered. Even so, they were condemned by prudish critics as an affront to decency.
The company that published the spicy line was, as a business tactic for avoiding official censure, known variously as the Trojan Publishing Company or Culture Publications. The first spicy title was Spicy Detective Stories, its premiere issue dated April 1934. It was joined in July by Spicy Mystery Stories and Spicy-Adventure Stories. The last of the primary spicy magazines was Spicy Western Stories, which did not appear until 1936. Companion magazines from the same publisher included Snappy Adventure Stories, Snappy Detective Stories, and Snappy Mystery Stories. The “Snappy” titles were not appreciably different from those bearing the “Spicy” imprint.
Most pulp writers who submitted work to the spicy titles did so --like Howard-- under pseudonyms. E. Hoffmann Price was bold enough to allow his work for the spicy pulps to appear under his real name. In fact, the spicies were Price’s single biggest pulp market, with over a hundred and fifty stories published in them over the years. Price wrote for Spicy Western as well as for Spicy-Adventure. According to Glenn Lord, Price revealed that most of the stories published in the spicies were actually provided by a select inner circle of half a dozen writers utilizing a vast array of pseudonyms. Price asserted that for an outsider attempting to crack that inner circle, it was as difficult as for the proverbial rich man entering the gates of Heaven. Even so, Robert E. Howard did it handily.
Howard found in the spicy pulps just the sort of reliable revenue source that he so desperately needed. For one thing, the pay was good. Spicy-Adventure paid at the rate of one cent per word to its better authors, quite generous by the standards of the day. More important, however, was the promptness of payment. Authors were paid upon editorial acceptance of their material in contrast to Weird Tales’ editorial policy of payment upon publication. With Spicy-Adventure, Howard’s main complaint was that stories could be no longer than 5500 words. For the most part, however, he found the arrangement satisfactory enough to entertain plans to contribute to Spicy Mystery and Spicy Detective as well.
Altogether, Howard wrote eight spicy stories and a synopsis for an additional unwritten story. Of the eight completed stories, six feature the hot-blooded rogue, Wild Bill Clanton. Five of the Clanton stories appeared in Spicy-Adventure. The additional Clanton story, the two unrelated tales, and the synopsis remained unpublished for decades after Howard’s death, finally appearing in the `70s and `80s.
The first Clanton story, “The Girl on the Hell Ship” was received by the Otis Adelbert Kline literary agency on October 7, 1935, and duly forwarded to Frank Armer at the Trojan/Culture publishing group the next day. Otto Binder was at the time the Kline agency’s New York representative. Binder sold additional Clanton stories to Spicy-Adventure, including “The Purple Heart of Erlik” around December of 1935 and “The Dragon of Kao Tsu” in February 1936.
In a letter to Novalyne Price dated February 14, 1936 --Valentine’s Day-- Howard wrote at length about the spicy pulps, describing his work to date and detailing the editorial requirements:
“…A nice balance must be maintained --the stuff must be hot enough to make the readers bat their eyes, but not too hot to get the censors on them. They have some definite taboos. No degeneracy, for instance. No sadism or masochism. Though extremely fond of semi-nude ladies, they prefer her to retain some garment ordinarily --like a coyly revealing chemise. However this taboo isn’t iron-clad, for I’ve violated it in nearly every story I’ve sold to them. I’ve found a good formula is to strip the heroine gradually --she loses part of her clothes in one episode, some more in the next, and so on until the climax finds her in a state of tantalizing innocence. Certain words are taboo, also, although up to a certain point considerable frankness in discussing the female anatomy is allowed. The hero should be an American, and the action should take place in some exotic clime. I’ve laid my yarns in the South Seas, in Tebessa in Algeria, in Shanghai, and in Singapore…My character is Wild Bill Clanton, a pirate, gun-runner, smuggler, a pearl-thief and slaver, and carefully avoids all moral scruples in his dealings with the ladies.”
Novalyne had once chided Howard for making heroes of such disreputable figures as gunfighter John Wesley Hardin. In his unabashed description of Clanton as such a scoundrel, Howard may have been subtly needling Novalyne. Note that Howard bluntly calls Clanton a “slaver” rather than using the charming euphemism “blackbirder.” Moreover, this occupation appears at the end of Clanton’s resume, right before mention of his lack of moral scruples in regards to women.
The Wild Bill Clanton series began to appear in Spicy-Adventure Stories starting with the April 1936 issue. Howard was already dead by the time most of them saw print. Interestingly, the six Clanton stories can be divided into three pairs, grouped by location and plot devices. “The Girl on the Hell Ship” and “Ship in Mutiny” are set in the South Seas. Closely linked, these two episodes tell how Clanton seizes and retains command of the Saucy Wench, and feature the only recurring character apart from the hero, the beautiful and headstrong “Celtic-Latin” hellcat Raquel O’Shane, distinguished from paler Howard sex goddesses by a splash of Hispanic blood that presumably accounts for her stormy temper. The next two stories, “The Purple Heart of Erlik” and “The Dragon of Kao Tsu,” transpire in the Oriental port cities of Shanghai and Singapore, respectively. Each unfolds as a caper to acquire a priceless relic. The final pair of tales consists of “Desert Blood” and “Murderer’s Grog.” The former takes place in French Algeria, the latter in British India. Both involve gun-running and exotic femmes fatale.
“The Girl on the Hell Ship” was retitled “She Devil” by the editor of Spicy-Adventure Stories, and featured as the lead story in the April 1936 issue. The story was also chosen for the cover illustration. As was often the case in the pulps, the cover did not accurately reflect the contents of the story. In fact, the editor may have simply used a painting he had on hand, hence the need to change the story’s title. Instead of a ship in the South Pacific, the cover depicts a tavern in the Yukon or some such place. Gruff male patrons are clad in furs and other heavy clothing. A young brunette girl prances merrily through their midst, cheerfully raising a shot glass. Seemingly impervious to cold that make tough men huddle in furs, the cover girl is clad only in a red bra and microskirt, stockings and garters.
Readers familiar with Howard’s work will recognize plot elements in “She Devil” that the author employed previously in the Conan story, “The Pool of the Black One” (Weird Tales, October 1933). Like Clanton, Conan appears after swimming to a ship, having abandoned a leaky boat. Both protagonists were in that situation as the result of earlier predicaments. Aboard ship, Conan meets the pirate captain, Zaporavo, who has abandoned his usual trade to sail into unknown waters. Zaporavo, like the tyrannical Bully Harrigan encountered by Clanton, broods over maps and charts as he searches for some mysterious treasure kept secret from the crew. In both stories, the captain meets his fate after landfall on an island. Conan and Clanton assume command of their respective ships, which must take flight from the island’s dangers. Conan also appropriates Zaporavo’s sultry mistress, Sancha. Sancha is from Zingara, Howard’s Hyborian Age counterpart of seventeenth-century Spain. Like Raquel O’Shane, she is possessed of fiery Latin blood.
The other interesting aspect of “She Devil” is the manner in which Raquel O’Shane mentally compares Bill Clanton to Bully Harrigan; “He was a man at least, not a beast like Harrigan.” Harrigan is described as “a bellowing, red-eyed, hairy monstrosity,” broad as a door” with “a chest and arms muscled and hairy as an ape’s.” Not a pretty picture, but Clanton engages in the same shady enterprises as Harrigan, is just as ruthless, and more devious. But the author holds up Clanton as a superior type, reflected in his appearance. “Clean-waisted” is a term Howard sometimes uses to physically distinguish a brawny hero from a brawny villain. Raquel is immediately taken by Clanton’s rugged good looks. To be fair, however, she has also had to constantly avoid being pummeled and slapped around by Harrigan. “That’s no way to treat a lady!” Clanton asserts gallantly. He is not one to physically abuse women --yet. That aspect of his personality only emerges in the subsequent stories.
“Ship in Mutiny” is a direct sequel to “She Devil.” Notably, it’s the only Clanton story never to appear in the pages of Spicy-Adventure Stories. Commentators on this usually blame Raquel. Editorial policy dictated that the hero should remain footloose, savoring the charms of many women rather than staying more or less monogamous. In “Ship in Mutiny” Clanton does enjoy passionate sex with the island princess Lailu but, faithful in his fashion, returns to Raquel. The editorial mandate was clear; Raquel had to go. She does not reappear in any of the remaining episodes.
In considering the rejection of “Ship in Mutiny” by Spicy-Adventure, commentators tend to look no further. However, other factors may have contributed to its unsuitability. In a letter to H. P. Lovecraft dated December 5, 1935, Howard complained that writing for the spicy pulps “requires a deft, jaunty style foreign to my natural style.” The first story, “She Devil,” was written in this jaunty style, with touches of playfulness and humor. “Ship in Mutiny,” on the other hand, is more typical of Howard’s prose, grimmer and more intense.
The sexual element is more pronounced than in the previous story. In most pulp fiction, the hero inevitably gets the girl; there is little in the way of sexual tension. But Howard recognized the potential of sexual tension to enhance the overall suspense. Thus the villain Tanoa lusts mightily after Raquel, even as Clanton is aroused by Lailu. Passages speak of eager hands itching to cup velvety breasts. Raquel is in danger of being lured away from Raquel by Lailu’s ample charms.
Of course, the pulp fiction double standard is in effect. Clanton actually bedding a woman of another race is perfectly understandable; boys will be boys. But when a nonwhite man even lusts after a white woman, his desire alone is usually a death sentence. In due course, Clanton fights and kills the island chief Tanoa. Clanton had previously rescued Raquel from a Kanaka native in “She Devil,” but that bout was just a warm-up for Tanoa. Tanoa is a half-breed whose European education includes “boxing in Oxford.” In several stories, Howard introduces a barbaric character who has had the benefit of some sort of civilized education or training; such a character is always presented as an especially dangerous foe. Most notable is a virtually identical character, Santos, for the Sailor Steve Costigan story, “Fist and Fang” (Fight Stories, May 1930). Other such characters could be said to include John De Albor from “Moon of Zembabwei” (Weird Tales, February 1935, as “The Grisly Horror”), or for that matter, Conan himself.
Perhaps it is this mingling of civilized and barbaric traits that accounts for Tanoa’s extreme viciousness. In addition to making the story a little too hot, Howard may have violated the publisher’s stricture against sadomasochistic elements. When Clanton is Tanoa’s captive, the half-breed villain declares, “We’ll find the girl and make her watch while I skin him alive! I’ll make a garment of his hide and force her to wear it always about her loins to remind her how her lover died!” It is a sadistic fantasy worthy of the Marquis himself.
The other two spicy stories written by Howard and unpublished in his lifetime do not feature Wild Bill Clanton. They are “Guns of Khartum” and “Daughters of Feud.” Both merit some comment. “Guns of Khartum” is perhaps most notable for its background. It is set in the Sudan in 1885, during the fall of the besieged city of Khartum. The ten-month siege of Khartum was the culmination of an uprising of Islamic militants led by a religious figure called the Mahdi. The famed British military hero Chinese Gordon perished when Khartum fell. In Howard’s story, an American ivory hunter named Emmett Corcoran is one of the defenders of Khartum. Corcoran battles the Islamic hordes, a French renegade in league with them, and even the Mahdi himself. In a calm during the storm, he finds time for heated sex with both a virtuous white woman and a sinister woman of color.
The tale is anything but “jaunty.” An editor may well have deemed it excessive. The physical and emotional violence is unrelenting, and the sexual content is very intense. Just offstage, white city-dwellers are being slaughtered by non-white invaders. In the aftermath of the siege, the blonde heroine is enslaved in a harem for five months. At one point, the hero beds a woman he finds sexually alluring but otherwise despises. This last incident is certainly a commonplace situation, but perhaps a little too real for the spicy pulps.
In his Valentine’s Day letter to Novalyne Price, Howard mentions setting spicy stories in the South Seas, Algeria, Shanghai, and Singapore. He then mentions yet another story, this one taking place in Kentucky. This last setting is a bet of a jarring note, coming after a string of exotic locales. Kentucky seems an unlikely backdrop for glamour and intrigue. Passion crosses all boundaries, however, as Howard sought to demonstrate in a story titled “Daughters of Feud.”
The subject of feuds between rival clans fascinated Howard to some extent, and he sometimes incorporated it into his fiction. One of the Breckinridge Elkins humorous westerns is entitled “The Feud Buster.” “The Valley of the Lost” and “The Man on the Ground” are horror stories with western setting, and a feud is part of the background in each. Most notably, a feud between factions in a lost city is the subject of “Red Nails,” Howard’s final Conan tale. A feud could even serve as a catalyst for the events of a spicy story.
In “Daughters of Feud,” Braxton Brent is the new schoolteacher in the rural backwater of Whiskey Run (which is not identified as specifically being in Kentucky in the actual story.) He presides over a one-room schoolhouse in which all ages are taught --from tots to nubile nineteen-year-old girls. Two of the latter, daughters of rival feuding families, erupt into a catfight in the middle of class. Dark-haired Ann and fair-haired Joan tear at each other, ripping garments, exposing breathtaking expanses of quivering young flesh, etc. Brent breaks them up and, to maintain discipline among the other unruly students, must administer corporal punishment. After class, he takes each girl in turn to the woodshed, which embroils him in trouble with both feuding families. Things are further complicated when he is overcome with passion for the untamed rustic beauty of Joan.
Howard told Novalyne that the editors said his Kentucky story was “too hot for them to handle.” They might well have added “too rough” and “too kinky.” The lovemaking between Brent and Joan is a tad more explicit than was commonplace in 1936. However, the more objectionable elements would have been the rough stuff. The hero is threatened with castration and the heroine is threatened with gang rape. Brent’s whipping of nineteen-year-old Ann’s naked buttocks with a leather strap is described in loving detail. To protect Brent from charges of partiality, Joan displays her own marked buttocks, which she had actually lashed herself with a switch.
The instances of whipping and self-flagellation in this story are no mere matter of happenstance. Howard’s personal library included such volumes as Experiences of Flagellation, A History of the Rod, and Curiosa of Flagellants and History of Flagellation. He also wrote poetry like “Limericks to Spank By” and “Good Mistress Brown,” the latter concerning the spanking of an adult woman. This does seem to indicate that Howard’s sexual interests extended beyond a simple taste for vanilla. These particular interests, however, are by no means rare. The spanking of a grown woman is often part of a “taming of the shrew” scenario in books and movies. Those who share the interest ate titillated, with the rest of the audience none the wiser. In the movie McLintock! John Wayne spanks Maureen O’Hara --clad in soaking wet undergarments-- in front of the whole town. The film is considered wholesome family entertainment.
Returning to the saga of Wild Bill Clanton, we come to the second pair of stories, “The Purple Heart of Erlik” and “The Dragon of Kao Tsu.” These twin tales unfold in exotic Far Eastern ports teeming with danger and intrigue. Rare artifacts of great value are sought by an assortment of colorful characters. Sinister, inscrutable Oriental villains add a dash of mystery and menace. Such is the very essence of pulp fiction. It is also the sort of thing a master like Howard could write in his sleep.
“The Purple Heart of Erlik” (Spicy-Adventure Stories, November 1936) takes place in Shanghai. Wild Bill Clanton has become a darker character since we saw him last. He does not actually rape the story’s heroine, Arline Ellis, but not for want of trying. When Clanton meets Arline in Shanghai, he tells her, “I’ve made a point to run into you in a dozen ports, and you always act like I had the plague…I came to Shanghai just because I heard you were here…” In contemporary parlance, he has been stalking her. Now comes the moment of truth, “If I didn’t think you were so good-looking, I’d smack your ears back!…Now are you going to be nice or do I have to get rough?…Nobody interferes with anything that goes on in alleys behind dumps like the
Bordeaux…Any woman caught here’s fair prey.”
Arline escapes thanks to the handy pitcher she breaks over Clanton’s head. For some reason, this scene was chosen for an illustration in the pages of Spicy-Adventure. The quote from the story that accompanies the picture reads, “Not even Wild Bill Clanton could stand up under a clout like that.” Clanton has an unfortunate tendency to get hit over the head in these stories. He is stunned by a pitcher and a gun barrel, both wielded by women. On other occasions, he is knocked cold by a belaying pin and a rifle butt that hits him hard enough to break the stock. Clanton will be lucky indeed not to suffer from some form of brain damage later in life.
One can only speculate as to why Howard portrayed Clanton as such a bastard. At the time he was writing the Clanton series, Howard was also writing the humorous western adventures of the powerful but good-natured Breckinridge Elkins. Nearly a score of these stories appeared in Action Stories during the final phases of Howard’s career. After writing so many stories about a character who is constantly being lied to and taken advantage of, the author may have indulged the urge to create a character who was nobody’s fool. Invisible behind the Sam Walser pseudonym, Howard was free to give reign to his darker impulses.
“The Dragon of Kao Tsu” (Spicy-Adventure Stories, September 1936) finds Wild Bill in Singapore. Not surprisingly, he lusts after the wealthy heiress Marianne Allison throughout the story. This time, however, his lust is further fueled by class resentment: “Probably it had never occurred to Old Man Allison’s pampered daughter Marianne that a man on Clanton’s social plane would even think of making a pass at her, but he had to clench his hands to keep them off her.” Remarkably, Clanton is on his best behavior: “[T]here was a limit to even his audacity, and he didn’t dare try any rough stuff on the daughter of Old Man Allison, millionaire and wooly wolf of finance that the old devil was.” Marianne enjoys being in charge: “Feeling perfectly safe from him, she took a feminine delight in tantalizing him. She was aware of her effect on him, and she enjoyed seeing the veins in his forehead swell with frustrated emotion.”
Eventually though, Clanton gains the upper hand. Marianne becomes indebted to him, and has a scandal to avoid. Clanton suggests that, instead of money, she pay her debt with her body. Marianne feigns agreement, then reneges --by striking Clanton on the head with a gun barrel. Though momentarily stunned, Clanton is able to prevent Marianne from fleeing. Swearing that she’ll keep at least one bargain, he then takes her by force. “`You don’t dare!’ she gasped, as he drew her roughly to him. ‘You don’t dare--’ …Bill Clanton didn’t even bother to reply to her ridiculous assertion.” Afterwards, he teases her about associating with men like himself. “Her reply was unprintable, but the look in her eyes contradicted her words as she took his arm and together they went out to the street.” The End.
So it’s really all okay. Or is it? Nowadays, of course, glib rationalizations like the one Howard uses ---her lips said, “No,” but her eyes said, “Yes” -- are deemed unacceptable. No means no. Another such rationalization is “he knew her better than she knew herself.” This one is applicable to James Bond in the movie Goldfinger, in which Bond forces himself on Pussy Galore and saves the American economy by doing so. This scene occurs in one of the most popular movies ever made, a film produced decades after Howard’s death. It was not condemned when the movie was released nor, as far as I know, since. Also, the romance of the popular characters Luke and Laura on the soap opera General Hospital began with a rape, and other sympathetic rapists have been featured on daytime dramas aimed at a primarily female audience. Lest we judge Howard too harshly, we must take this into consideration.
This is not to suggest that Howard just sort of unknowingly blundered into the rape scenes that occur in the Clanton series. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the synopsis for his unwritten spicy story, the hero is held up by a girl and Howard bluntly states “he knocked the pistol out of her hand and raped her.” Interestingly, the girl falls in love with the hero. As in “The Dragon of Kao Tsu,” all’s well that ends well.
In his Valentine’s Day letter, Howard informs Novalyne Price that in the spicies, a favorite formula is for the hero to accomplish what only the villain attempts in conventional yarns. This indicates that not only were rapes by the protagonist tolerated by the editors, but also that such scenes may have been fairly commonplace. Considerable scrutiny is required to adequately account for shifts in attitudes from one era to another. At one time topless women were taboo in motion pictures; now they are a familiar fixture. Conversely, nude baby photos, once so sweet and innocent, are now regarded with suspicion. The sexual attitudes of times gone by can seem odd, ironic or mystifying to people of later eras. As an example, consider these editorial guidelines from Frank Armer, publisher of the Trojan/Culture line of Spicy magazines (reproduced in the Cryptic Publications chapbook Risqué Stories #5):
1. In describing breasts of a female character, avoid anatomical descriptions.
2. If it is necessary for the story to have a girl give herself to a man, or be taken by him, do not go too carefully into details.
3. Whenever possible, avoid complete nudity of the female characters. You can have a girl strip down to her underwear, or transparent negligee or nightgown, or the thin, torn shreds of her garments. But while the girl is alive and in contact with a man, we do not want complete nudity.
4. A nude female corpse is allowable, of course.
It is therefore difficult to gauge Howard’s personal attitudes concerning rape based on the fiction he wrote for the spicy pulps. He may have been following a common magazine format for commercial reasons, or he may have simply been in a bad mood. To be fair, one should look at how he handles the subject in his other fiction. We have previously noted that a rape/murder became the catalyst of Solomon Kane’s quest for vengeance in “Red Shadows.” The matter of rape is also touched on in a pair of stories featuring Howard’s best-known creation. Between Solomon Kane and Wild Bill Clanton, there was Conan. Howard began writing the Conan series in 1932, roughly four years after the appearance of Kane in print and four years before the appearance of Clanton. The two stories of interest at present are “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” and “The Vale of Lost Women.” Neither saw print during Howard’s lifetime. Perhaps they were a bit too hot for the pages of Weird Tales.
“The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is set in the far North, where Conan encounters Atlai, the daughter of the god Ymir. The siren-like Atali lures men to their doom. Conan escapes Atali’s trap, but Atali barely escapes subsequent rape by Conan. In this story, Howard suggests that Conan was under a spell, and the author allows no actual rape to take place. In “The Vale of Lost Women,” Conan agrees to aid the virgin Livia, who offers her body as an inducement. He ultimately releases her from her agreement, stating that he has never taken a woman against her will and that holding Livia to such a bargain would be no different that forcing her. For the most part, rape or abuse of women, even by villains, is not a prominent fixture in the fiction of Robert E. Howard.
The third and final pair of Wild Bill Clanton adventures is comprised of “Desert Blood” and “Murderer’s Grog.” In both, Clanton is a “fish out of water” in the sense that these exploits find him, not at sea or in port, but further inland. Both plots involve gun-running. In both we meet exotic femme fatales who seem to spend much of their time lolling about on couches, cushions and divans while wearing revealing costumes.
“Murderer’s Grog” is much darker than “Desert Blood,” however. It appears to have been written a good deal later, when time was running out for Howard. In the Valentine’s Day letter, Howard remarks, “I’ve laid my yarns in the South Seas, in Tebessa in Algeria, in Shanghai and in Singapore.” If the order Howard mentions these locales reflects the order that their respective stories were composed (and in the case of the other episodes, it does), then “Desert Blood” was the third Clanton story to be written, after “She Devil” and “Ship in Mutiny” but before “The Purple Heart of Erlik” and “The Dragon of Kao Tsu.” The fact that Clanton displays better character in “Desert Blood” than in either “Erlik” or “Kao Tsu” also suggests earlier composition. Moreover, the Valentine’s Day letter does not mention the setting for “Murderer’s Grog.” That story only arrived at the Kline literary agency two and a half months later, on April 27, 1936. Otto Binder subsequently sold it to Spicy-Adventure in May. Therefore it does seem likely that it was written after a hiatus of weeks or months following the composition of the rest of the Clanton series. This makes “Murderer’s Grog” one of the last stories Robert E. Howard ever wrote.
The earlier story, “Desert Blood,” was actually the second Clanton story to be published. It appeared in Spicy-Adventure Stories for June 1936. Howard may or may not have lived to see it in print.
Set in Algeria, “Desert Blood” opens in the chambers of the local temptress Zouza. There Zouza successfully rebuffs the advances of Clanton, her feminine wiles enabling her to manipulate him. Preying on his vanity, she is able to convince him that only by killing a lion can he prove his manhood and win her. One would think that Wild Bill Clanton, famed as a brawler and womanizer, would possess greater self-esteem, but he submits to her terms. Leaving Zouza’s chambers, Clanton immediately runs into a woman he has met in his travels. She is Augusta Evans, an American schoolteacher (like Novalyne Price) vacationing abroad. Attractive but prim and aloof, she too rebuffs Clanton. Having gotten the cold shoulder twice in less than an hour, Clanton heads for a seedy dive to drink away his frustrations.
After a bout of hard drinking, Clanton comes to his senses on the back of a mule taking him into the desert to meet his guide for the lion-hunting safari. He does not recall setting out. The safari turns out to be a ruse to get rid of Clanton, who ends up captured by the desert sheik Ahmed. Ahmed, Zouza, and another seductress, Zulaykha, are part of a plot to appropriate Clanton’s cargo of guns. Clanton is rescued by the Bedouin beauty Aicha, disguised in western garb. In the epilog, Clanton learns that Aicha appropriated her garments from Augusta Evans, last seen riding naked on a runaway donkey back towards town.
It is admittedly possible that Howard had a certain schoolteacher ex-girlfriend in mind when he created Augusta Evans. Augusta’s embarrassing predicament at the end of the story could even be viewed as a sadistic humiliation fantasy. On the other hand, taking a pompous character down a peg has long been a staple of slapstick comedy. I tend to favor the latter notion.
“Desert Blood” is fairly upbeat in tone, even “jaunty.” For once, Clanton is given an unselfish motive for his undertakings. Regarding his current gun-running, we are told “there was more than money involved. He had a genuine sympathy for these mountain tribesmen, fighting for their lives against a ruthless European power.” Sympathy for the underdog is a redeeming trait shared by a number of Howard’s more roguish protagonists. Moreover, in both his El Borak adventures and in his correspondence with Lovecraft, REH expresses anti-imperialist sentiments. In “Desert Blood,” the rakish Clanton also displays uncharacteristic warmth towards Aicha.
Similarly, Clanton is atypically circumspect in dealing with the local temptress of the tale, Zouza. When Zouza rejects him, we are told that “it was easy to seen that she was not prompted by a coquettish whim, rising from a desire to be deliciously mastered after a mock resistance.” This indicates that Clanton is somehow able to discern the difference, and is possibly intended to mitigate the sort of behavior he exhibits towards the likes of Arline Ellis and Marianne Allison. Clanton makes no move to coerce Zouza. On the contrary, he caves in to her silly demands.
For some reason, I was given to wonder about the possible inspiration for this sequence. Much has been made of Howard’s advice to H. P. Lovecraft concerning writing for the spicies; “Just write up one of your own sex adventures altered to fit the plot.” This comment has been viewed as bluster, or a playful attempt to tweak the puritanical Lovecraft, but most often dismissed with a baffled shrug. One can only offer conjecture as to what Howard actually meant by this remark.
Conceivably, he was simply describing, in admittedly grandiose terms, a process by which he took a mundane incident and inflated it to heroic proportions for fictional purposes. Perhaps the Zouza episode, for example, was inspired by some instance in which Howard went out of his way to appease a female, to the point of doing something he would normally never consider. In the more colorful world of Wild Bill Clanton, the same sort of appeasement might entail killing a lion to impress an exotic mystery woman.
Whatever the case, “Desert Blood” is one of the spicier Clanton adventures. Wild Bill encounters no less than four alluring females, and those are just among the principle characters. In the background there are also “half a dozen dancing girls who had just enough Sudanese blood in them to impart an untamed voluptuousness found only in mixed breeds.” This talk of blood imparting untamed voluptuousness is part of a motif that runs through the story and indeed the entire series. The title “Desert Blood” has less to do with actual blood spilt in the fight scenes than with blood as a metaphor for the libido. Clanton’s first sight of Aicha sets “his already hot blood a-riot.” When Zulaykha offers herself, “not even the realization that only a miracle could keep his severed head from rolling in the sand within the next hour could cool the customary ardor of his reckless blood.” Just as in the South Seas, when the “magnificent figure” of Lailu “drove a pulse of passion through his blood in spite of his plight.” In Singapore, the mere sight of Marianne Allison crossing her legs “made the blood boil to his head.” There was no place in the pages of Spicy-Adventure Stories for either crude talk of “blue balls” or timid, clinical references to “raging hormones.” “Blood” was by far a more apt metaphor for passion. “Blood” alone could denote either sex or violence. It was a strong word Robert E. Howard made frequent, skillful use of.
“Murderer’s Grog” did not appear in Spicy-Adventure until the January 1937 issue. By that time, Howard had been moldering in his grave for half a year, the feast over, the lamps expired. “Murderer’s Grog” lingered like a bad aftertaste. Befitting its title, the last of Wild Bill Clanton’s exploits is a bitter hangover of a story. The bare bones of the plot are stark: Clanton attempts to rape a woman and is thwarted, but after a night at the bottle he resolves to try again and is successful. Fleshed out, the story is like a dark shadow of “Desert Blood.” The plot and location are similar, but the tone is redolent of bitterness and pain.
“Murderer’s Grog” takes place in British India, recalling the French Algeria setting of “Desert Blood.” Clanton is on another gun-running mission. Once again the story opens with Clanton’s visit to a local femme fatale. Sonya Ormanoff is a mysterious adventuress involved in secret dealings. Like Zouza, she enjoys lounging around in a revealing costume. Also like Zouza, Sonya attempts to brush Clanton off though she had previously displayed an interest in him. This time, however, Clanton is not to be distracted by a snipe-hunting trip. He carries her roughly to the couch and begins to undo her clothes, but gets no further. Sonya has burly male henchmen at her beck and call. Though Clanton fights ferociously, he is overwhelmed by their numbers. He is thrown out of Sonya’s apartment and down a flight of stairs. Sonya’s maid follows him into the courtyard “to indulge in the age-old feminine sport of taunting the fallen.”
As in the previous story, Clanton seeks to drown his troubles at this point. Once again, he heads for a vice den to brood, ogle dancing girls, and drink. Wild Bill’s hard drinking has been duly noted throughout the series. In “She Devil,” we are told that “liquor was to him what moonlight and perfume are to some men.” Indeed, the very sight of bottles of booze make Clanton’s eyes glisten. In “The Dragon of Kao Tsu,” Clanton is drinking in a bar when first seen. Eyeing Marianne Allison’s figure as she walks away from him causes Clanton to "moan with despair and grab the whiskey bottle.” In “Desert Blood,” Clanton retires to a hideaway where he “sat and drank and drank and drank…” As a result of that particular binge, he experiences a lapse of memory symptomatic of a problem drinker. Now Clanton’s career as a drinking man reaches a culmination in a story whose very title speaks of strong drink.
Swaggering into a local dive, Clanton demands “'something liquid with a kick.'” When he repeats his demand for “'liquid dynamite,'” he is offered brandy and even opium. Unknown to Clanton, he has enemies nearby, rival gun dealers. They bribe the bartender to serve him a concoction called bhang. Bhang is known as the drink of murder, capable of inducing homicidal madness. Clanton’s foes hope it will cause him to attack a British official he had a run-in with earlier. His subsequent arrest would get him out of the way.
Clanton drinks the bhang and calls for more. Soon he flies into a rage, abusing a dancer and challenging any man in the house to a fight. When no one takes up the challenge, he storms out. But instead of seeking out the British official, he heads back to Sonya Ormanoff. He fights his way through the henchmen. At the end of the tale, Clanton rapes Sonya and leaves her in tears before heading off to complete his gun deal. Here ends the saga of Wild Bill Clanton.
This time there is no question of the woman’s eyes belying her protests, or of Clanton intuitively discerning here repressed desire. Instead, Clanton simply dismisses her sobbing and abject humiliation with a shrug of his shoulders. No excuse is offered for his behavior, other than the revelation that Sonya was a Communist and plotted his downfall. But Clanton knew neither of these things the first time he attempted to take her. Neither was the bhang, the rage-inducing “murderer’s grog,” a factor by the end. Howard goes out of his way to mention that the fight with Sonya’s henchmen cleared Clanton’s head, and that he is in full command of his faculties when he rapes Sonya. The one truly extenuating circumstance, the malign influence of the murderer’s grog, is discarded by the author like an empty beer can.
Sonya Ormanoff is a character who deserved better treatment, by Howard as well as Clanton. We are told that she is a white woman who lives among the natives. “She was blond, with a glorious wealth of light gold hair, and her flesh was a purely white as unstained Northern snow.” Using terms like “purely white” and “unstained” serve to make Clanton’s defilement of Sonya seem all the more heinous. Sonya is comfortable in a foreign milieu and at ease wearing Eastern garb. Sonya had the potential to be the most interesting of all the Clanton women, a female counterpart to Howard adventurers like El Borak and Kirby O’Donnell. Instead, she is treated like a cheap throwaway.
After raping Sonya, Clanton muses, “There was no mercy in the game she played, and she had no reason to expect any.” And in the real world, that is the plain truth of the matter. A man who traffics with dangerous individuals runs the risk of being beaten up and/or killed. A woman who does so runs the risk of rape in addition to being beaten up and/or killed. But in the “jaunty” pages of Spicy-Adventure Stories, it is an extremely harsh lesson for a female character to learn at the hands of the story’s hero.
The bold adventuress Sonya Ormanoff is humbled in “Murderer’s Grog,” but Clanton himself seems little better off. As introduced in “She Devil,” Wild Bill Clanton is a self-assured winner. He starts out with nothing but a pair of pants and within twenty-four hours acquires an alluring lover and his own ship. In “Murderer’s Grog,” he is beleaguered and at bay. “Smoldering rage at the world in general, smarting vanity, and thwarted desire combined to make Bill Clanton a raging demon.” He give in to brooding and bitterly cursing his fate. “‘The British!’ raged Clanton, clenching his huge fists. ‘Always the damned British--’” This from a man who, in “Ship in Mutiny,” had nary a worry at all about escaping a British warship that was hunting him down.
Emblematic of Clanton’s desperation is his isolation from his natural element --the sea. The first pair of Clanton tales takes place in the South Seas, the second pair in Oriental port cities. “Desert Blood” takes place further inland, but only a hundred miles or so. “Murderer’s Grog,” on the other hand, is set far from any ocean. We are told that Clanton came to India from Russia, bringing his guns by camel train all the way through landlocked Afghanistan. “Desert Blood” contains a number of references to his identity as a seafarer. Clanton is “a man of the sea” whose face is “browned by the sun of the Seven Seas.” In “Murderer’s Grog,” however, there is but a lone fleeting mention of him walking with “the lurching roll of a seaman” as he heads off in search of liquor to drown his misery.
Clanton begins the series as a rogue and ends as a scoundrel. His later behavior is certain to be regarded as reprehensible by many modern readers, especially if they’re women. Naturally enough, he receives no comeuppance in stories written for the spicy pulps of yesteryear. Still, in “Murderer’s Grog,” he seems a man without a future. Given his drinking binges and repeated head injuries, he may well end up the toughest mug in the nursing home.
Howard began writing spicy stories as Sam Walser late in his career for purely commercial reasons. At the same time, he was busy with other projects as well. His humorous western tales of Breckinridge Elkins were popular with readers of Action Stories, and he created similar westerns for other magazines. Shortly before his death he sold the first installments in a new western series that had been commissioned by the editor of the prestigious and high-paying Argosy. Ultimately he was successful in recouping his finances. June 1936 saw Howard stories published in no less than five different magazines --Action Stories, Cowboy Stories, Spicy-Adventure Stories, Thrilling Mystery, and Weird Tales. In “Lone Star Fictioneer,” an essay recounting Howard’s writing career published in The Last Celt, Glenn Lord notes, “By the spring of 1936, he was enjoying an all-time high in sales.” David Drake echoes this fact in his introduction to the Howard paperback collection Cthulhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors, observing, “By 1936, Howard was selling regularly to Argosy, one of the top three pulp markets of the day. Robert E. Howard was thirty years old, and his career was about to take off.”
By most accounts, then, Howard’s career was back on track. But how did Howard himself feel about it? In another letter to Novalyne Price, written in late February 1936, he speaks of “my mother’s life ebbing away before my eyes, with my father breaking up and aging before me with the worry and strain we both labor under, and I myself faced with the wreckage of all my life’s plans and labors, and the utter ruin of my career.” (emphasis added) The fact that he went on to take his life a few months later indicates that Howard’s mood did not improve along with his finances. Perhaps money was not everything. Tales of heroic fantasy Howard written a year or more before were still appearing in Weird Tales. Now, these only served to remind him of his glory days.
The fiction of Robert E. Howard is for the most part lacking in misogynistic elements. Not so the fiction of Sam Walser. In the vast range of fiction Howard wrote under his own name, whenever a woman suffers, we are most often meant to feel empathy. This holds true whether in the case of the sadistic abuse of Joan in the horror story “Pigeons from Hell,” or in regards to the terror experienced by Yasmina at the hands of the Master of Yimsha in the Conan adventure, “The People of the Black Circle.” But in one of Howard’s final stories, “Murderer’s Grog,” we find the author in a bitter mood indeed. In the spring of 1936, Robert E. Howard saw the world becoming a very dark place. On June 11, he turned out the last light as he left it.