[The following was originally published in The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies, Volume 4, No. 2 (June 2009), The Department of English, University of La Verne.]
From time to time, mention is made of a “homoerotic” aspect to Robert E. Howard’s work. A critic may cite the many descriptions of powerful, muscular warriors and boxers that abound in Howard’s writings. Of course, it would hardly have been plausible for Howard to describe weak, puny warriors and boxers. To my mind, Howard was not intending to describe what he desired, but rather what he and most of his male readers desired to be. I have no wish to censure the critiquing of Howard’s work from a homoerotic perspective, and feel that such criticism does have its place in Howard studies. Still, it seems to me that this homoerotic perspective lies mainly in the eye of the beholder. The same cannot be said, however, of sadomasochism in Howard’s work. The purpose of this essay is to cite explicit instances of sadomasochism to be found throughout the Howard canon, and then review the evidence that this did indeed represent a personal interest of REH.
Sadomasochism, of course, is an erotic passion that involves the melding of pleasure and pain in order to achieve a heightening of sensation. It finds expression both in actual practice and in art. Real life practitioners indulge in bondage, flagellation, and similar activities as an erotic pastime, utilizing costumes and other theatrical trappings to enhance drama. Sadomasochism is commonly abbreviated as “S&M,” but actual practitioners prefer “S/m.” Most lifestyle sadomasochists adhere to the “safe, sane, and consensual” rule.
In art, however, we find a different story. Since the reader of a literary work is engaging vicariously in a wholly imaginary experience, the fictional adventure is apt to be more extreme than anything the reader is likely to encounter in the course of everyday living, so as to make a more memorable impression. Thus sadomasochistic episodes in fiction tend not to be consensual, so that the erotic aspect is mingled with other extreme sensations such as fear and suspense. Moreover, since sadomasochism has long been disdained as deviant behavior, these episodes are likely to be conservatively cloaked in standard villain / victim scenarios.
Robert E. Howard was a visionary artist who endeavored to transcend his drab, small town life by creating larger-than-life spectacles in his fiction. His work is characterized by violent action, bizarre situations, brooding menace, and unrelenting emotional intensity. The erotic aspects of his work also tend towards the extreme or edgy. Elements of sadomasochism, or dominance and submission, are noticeable in Howard’s fiction from the very dawn of his career. They are particularly prominent in one of his earliest stories, “The Hyena.”
“The Hyena” was written in 1924 when Howard was just eighteen, and was the second story he sold to Weird Tales. However, editor Farnsworth Wright held onto the story for four years before publishing it. It did not appear until the March 1928 issue. Given the number of notable tales Howard would compose over the next dozen years, it is no surprise that “The Hyena” is regarded as a minor, fledgling effort. It has been underappreciated because Howard had yet to fully develop his distinctive artistic voice, but more so because of its deceptively simple plot. Set on a ranch on the East Coast of Africa, the story concerns a native witch doctor who can assume the form of a hyena. The witch doctor attempts to incite a native uprising and wipe out the local whites. This plot element, plus the story’s undercurrent of racial and sexual tension, would be utilized more memorably in a classic tale from much later in Howard’s career, the controversial “Black Canaan.”
“The Hyena” is narrated by a young man from the American South named Steve. Many “Steves” appear in Howard’s writings, among them his fictional alter ego in the semi-autobiographical Post Oaks and Sand Roughs. The narrator of “The Hyena” describes himself as “a stocky youth of medium height” (“The Hyena” 70) much like REH himself.
Steve’s nemesis is “Senecoza, the fetish-man.” (67) Howard uses the term “fetish-man” to describe Senecoza throughout the story, rather than referring to him as a witch doctor or, more typically for Howard, “conjure-man.” Used in a different context, of course, the term “fetish” refers to an erotic fixation, a subtle irony given the story’s subtext.
As a narrator, Steve displays remarkable candor. He is quick to admit his inherited racist bias: “Because I came from Virginia, race instinct and prejudice was strong in me.” (67) But even more remarkable is his unabashed disclosure of personality traits that S/m practitioners would recognize as characteristic of a male submissive, making Steve an unlikely protagonist from the future creator of Conan.
Steve frankly confesses that “doubtless the feeling of inferiority which Senecoza constantly inspired in me had a great deal to do with my antipathy for him.” (67) At “Six inches above six feet,” Senecoza towers over Steve, who wistfully notes, “he was all muscle — a lean, black giant.” (67) Similarly, Steve describes how, on a visit to the ranch, Senecoza “would stand before us, a naked bronze giant” whom he felt was “mocking us.” (67) Of course, the supposed virility of the black man has long been a source of anxiety for insecure white males.
Even as he extols the attributes of Senecoza, Steve berates himself throughout the story. On safari, he admits that “I was an execrable marksman; I could hardly hit an elephant at close range.” (68) Moreover, he expresses a reluctance to kill animals for sport. In this respect Steve resembles Howard himself, who could abruptly launch into searing misanthropic diatribes but remained more kindly disposed towards the animal kingdom. Steve tells how the “native boy who served as my gun-bearer began to suspect that I was deliberately refraining from shooting, and he began in a covert way to throw sneering hints about my womanishness.” (68) Steve beats up the bearer to reestablish dominance, but immediately after admits that “still I felt inferior when in the presence of the fetish-man.” (68)
Steve has several encounters with a strange hyena lurking about the area that reminds him of Senecoza. However, the story really gets interesting with the arrival of Ellen Farel, a New York socialite who vacations at the ranch for some undisclosed reason. Steve describes her in glowing terms while dismissing himself as “an ordinary, unhandsome youth.” (70) In the course of their conversations, Ellen laughs at Steve and mocks him with quips like, “`I guess you’re my boss, mister man?’” (72) Steve is moved to confess, “I was her slave from the first. Somehow the idea of becoming a lover never entered my mind…Simply, I worshipped her; her presence intoxicated me, and I could think of no more enjoyable existence than serving her as a devoted slave.” (71)
Ellen, on the other hand, is less interested in Steve than in Senecoza, whom she prattles about as “`the most romantic looking savage’” (71) and “`a fine specimen of a savage.’” (72) When Ellen places a friendly arm around Steve, he describes how he was “maddened by the touch of her soft body –such mad devotion as a slave feels. I wanted to grovel in the dust at her feet and kiss her dainty shoes.” (72) To show his devotion, Steve timidly kisses her hand (rather than her feet), but within minutes Ellen is asking him to “`Tell me more about this Senecoza.’” (73)
Steve finds himself in a submissive position not only to Ellen, but to Senecoza as well. Making eye contact with the fetish-man, Steve steps back involuntarily. Later, Steve is outraged to find Senecoza scrutinizing Ellen with a lustful gaze. He draws his gun to shoot Senecoza into a “shredded heap.” (71) (Unfortunately, many white Southerners in 1924 would not have considered this an overreaction.) However, Steve finds himself paralyzed by Senecoza’s penetrating stare. It is hinted that this is due to some hypnotic power, rather than simply personal charisma. Still, Steve seems humiliated by his admission that Senecoza then “turned and strode away, a magnificent figure, while I glared after him and snarled in helpless fury.” (72)
Events reach their climax when Steve and Ellen are out riding—“she challenged me to a race. Her horse easily distanced mine, and she stopped and waited, laughing.” (73) Suddenly, Senecoza and twenty native warriors attack and begin their uprising. Senecoza captures Ellen, ripping her clothes into strips and using them to tie her up. Steve battles Senecoza in both human and hyena form. A good marksman when it counts, Steve sends a bullet through the hyena. Ellen is rescued and the uprising is put down. Steve and the other whites track the hyena to Senecoza’s hut where they learn the secret Howard telegraphed to the reader pages earlier—that the black man Steve found so threatening was a beast in a literal as well as a figurative sense.
On the surface, “The Hyena” is an unremarkable supernatural vignette, just another story in the March 1928 Weird Tales. Yet to a reader even a little knowledgeable about such things, the sadomasochistic subtext is very obvious. Steve’s referring to himself as Ellen’s “slave” three times is a dead giveaway, and his brief but feverish fantasizing about himself in that role leaves no doubt. This undercurrent of sexual yearning and anxiety makes “The Hyena” worth a second look.
The period between 1924, which saw Howard’s first professional fiction sales, and 1929, when his career kicked into high gear, was his most prolific era as a poet. Naturally enough for a youthful poet, some of Howard’s verse contained erotic themes. A portion his erotic poetry dealt with so-called deviant sexuality, or to use a less judgmental term, kinky sex. Howard’s treatment of such topics ranged from light and playful to dark and passionate.
The spanking of adult women seems to have been of special interest to him. He wrote several naughty limericks collected under the heading “Limericks to Spank By.” Longer poems such as “Good Mistress Brown” and “The Harlot” also describe corporal punishment applied to women by both men and other women. The spankings are administered as a comeuppance to some uppity wife or rebellious young “flapper.”
In tone, the spanking verses are lightweight and amusing. The spanking of a headstrong woman often figures in “taming of the shrew” scenarios found in various works of fiction. In the movie “McLintock!” John Wayne spanks Maureen O’Hara, who is clad in soaking wet undergarments, in front of the entire town, and the film is regarded as wholesome family entertainment. I also seem to recall an episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Desi spanks Lucy. So these spanking verses of Howard’s would seem to be fairly innocuous; pretty tame stuff.
However, they are just part of a larger picture. Other poems by Howard that make use of related themes are darker and more compelling. “Lesbia” is a lengthy poem of fourteen stanzas in which a hot-blooded woman narrates her sexual yearnings for other women. The encounters she describes are both consensual and forced. In “Altars and Jesters,” alternately titled “An Opium Dream,” we find an instance of mild female domination.
A dark girl came from the mists and silence,
Her eyes were oceans, dusky and slow,
And her hands were ice as with still cold violence
She stripped me naked and let me go. (“Altars and Jesters” 28)
Elsewhere, Howard is more explicit. The revealingly titled “Strange Passion” recounts episodes of sadomasochism, bisexuality, and exhibitionism. These encounters take place among the “black queens” of darkest Africa. Howard’s erotic attraction to black women has generally been acknowledged, and in his day distant places like the Congo were all the more remote and mysterious. The narrator of “Strange Passion” describes himself spanking women, and also being spanked by them:
I lay across her slim, brown knees,
My firm young buttocks bare upturned.
Each time she shook in passion’s hap
With greater strength she gripped and held,
Stretched me stark naked o’er her lap
And beat me till I fairly yelled. (“Strange Passion” 20)
In addition to working in the more traditional poetic formats, Howard also dabbled in a more obscure form, the prose poem. Prose poetry, as the term suggests, fuses elements of prose, such as narrative structure and discourse, with elements of poetry, such as metaphorical and florid language. It was originated in 19th Century France by poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and adopted by British Decadents such as Oscar Wilde. In America, prose poetry was composed by George Sterling and his protégé, Clark Ashton Smith. Smith, of course, is better remembered today as a colleague of Howard who contributed many fantasy stories to Weird Tales.
Howard composed a cycle of five prose poems, plus a preamble, that he grouped under the heading, Etchings in Ivory. One of the poems, “Skulls and Orchids,” deals directly with male homosexuality. Howard is able to broach the subject tactfully by setting his vignette in ancient Greece. “Skulls and Orchids” is narrated by a young Athenian woman whose Spartan lover has jilted her in favor of a comely boy. Trouble ensues.
Another “etching” is titled “Flaming Marble” and depicts a sadomasochistic encounter. The opening informs us that, “This is a dream that comes to me often. Not in the lazy, illusive haze of day-dreaming, but clear and vivid to my sleeping soul.” (“Flaming Marble” 5) If we take Howard’s words at face value, he is describing an actual recurring sex dream. Another possibility is that he is revealing a sexual fantasy he has indulged in at more than once and is embellishing here.
The dream takes place in some ancient metropolis that the dreamer’s waking self is unable to specifically identify. The dreamer’s ancient alter ego is, not surprisingly for REH, a powerfully muscled barbarian. The scene unfolds:
…Save for the sandals on my feet and a loincloth of silk, I was naked.
A woman reclined on a luxurious couch before me…lounging like a slim and supple leopardess on the furs and silks…
And in my waking hours I wonder –in what lost empire, in what ancient city was that room in which I stood? Who was I? And who was this woman? Was it Athens or Rome? Was it Aspasia, Thais, Messalina or Lais who lay before me? (5)
The dreamer describes how the woman “lashed me with words like silver daggers” (5) and that she looked “like a goddess in her wrath.” (6) He then reveals that “I was her slave…” (6) When he displays a defiant attitude, things take an interesting turn:
The cold eyes flashed with a fiercer light, and suddenly, with the lithe volcanic suddenness of a leaping tigress, my mistress was on her feet and her round white arm swept on high a slender whip with a jade hilt. But before its stinging lash ever touched my great shoulders, I tore it from her hand with a laugh that roared like the singing salt sea, and crushed her to my breast.
She fought like a wild woman as I swept her off the floor and held her, cursing and helpless…A moment she fought against her fate, and then the marble limbs caught fire from my passion, and the round arms went around my massive neck…(6)
There are a number of highly charged elements at play here. A man is being subjected to verbal abuse by a beautiful woman. Verbal humiliation of this sort is frequently a component of sadomasochistic activities. The mistress wields a whip to administer a flogging to the slave (even though the flogging is prevented). The rape of an aristocratic woman is attempted by a man of a much lower caste. The aristocratic woman yields herself sexually to a social inferior. The dreamer several times refers to his past self as “slave” and the woman as “mistress.” The most striking aspect of “Flaming Marble” is that it portrays one of Howard’s brawny barbarians and one of his sultry sex goddesses in a mistress/slave relationship.
Howard’s poetry and prose poetry were written primarily for private self-expression; a mere fraction of it saw publication during his lifetime. However, Howard also incorporated sadomasochistic motifs into his commercial fiction throughout his professional career.
Such motifs are evident in the longest of his Solomon Kane stories, “The Moon of Skulls.” In this adventure, the Puritan swordsman journeys to the heart of 16th Century Africa in search of a kidnapped English girl named Marylin. His quest leads him to the lost city of Negari. The city is ruled by its resident femme fatale, Nakari, who could be one of the “black queens” alluded to in “Strange Passion.”
From a hidden vantage point, Kane first glimpses the queen in her throne room:
…There, dwarfed by the ponderous splendor about her, a woman reclined. A black woman she was, young and of a tigerish comeliness. She was naked except for a beplumed helmet, armbands, anklets and a girdle of ostrich feathers and she sprawled upon the silken cushions with her limbs thrown about in voluptuous abandon.
Even at that distance, Kane could make out that her features were regal yet barbaric, haughty and imperious, yet sensual, and with a touch of ruthless cruelty about the curl of her full red lips. Kane felt his pulse quicken…(“The Moon of Skulls” 114-115)
Kane soon gets a closer look while spying on Nakari as she visits her white slave, Marylin:
…The black woman was clad as she had been when he had seen her on the throne, and the colored armlets and anklets clanked as she closed the door… She moved with the easy sinuousness of a she-leopard and in spite of himself the watcher was struck with admiration for her lithe beauty. Yet at the same time a shudder of revulsion shook him, for her eyes gleamed with vibrant and magnetic evil, older than the world…
…Nakari halted by the couch, stood looking down upon her captive for a moment, then with an enigmatic smile, bent and shook her. Marylin opened her eyes, sat up, then slipped from her couch and knelt before her black mistress—an act which caused Kane to curse beneath his breath. The queen laughed and seating herself upon the couch, motioned the girl to rise, and then put an arm about her waist and drew her upon her lap. Kane watched, puzzled, while Nakari caressed the white girl in a lazy, amused manner. This might be affection, but to Kane it seemed more like a sated leopard teasing its victim…(128-129)
Kane is repelled by Nakari, but also aroused by her. In addition to this hint of interracial lust, an element of female homoeroticism is introduced as Nakari toys with Marylin. This was all very provocative for a story published in 1930. In fact, “The Moon of Skulls” was bowdlerized when first reprinted for book publication in the racially conscious 1960s.
The story’s undercurrent of sadomasochism reaches its peak when Kane himself becomes the queen’s prisoner. Captured, Kane is chained hand-and-foot in Nakari’s dungeon. Kane is kept in helpless bondage as he is interrogated by the queen. Nakari attempts to entice Kane into joining her by offering him her kingdom and her own voluptuous body.
In this scene, Howard treats his reader to a most lurid tableau. Solomon Kane is a religious fanatic whose life is dedicated to stamping out evil. He is not merely a puritan in some figurative sense; he is an actual 16th Century English Puritan. In his world, women are customarily clothed from neck to foot. Totally committed to working God’s will, Kane is presumably celibate. Now he is bound in a dungeon while a luscious, semi-nude black vixen attempts to ensnare and seduce him. It is hard to imagine a situation more fraught with sexual tension. And when the iron-willed Kane rebukes her, Nakari tells him that Marylin “shall be punished as I have punished her before – hung up by her wrists, naked, and whipped until she swoons!” (137)
Such a scene of girl-on-girl whipping is not actually depicted in “The Moon of Skulls.” Howard corrected this oversight a few years later when writing the adventures of his most famous character, Conan. Women are flogged by other women in two of the Conan stories. Interestingly, both of these stories are, like “The Moon of Skulls,” set in lost cities. Howard believed that civilizations carry the seeds of their own destructions, and was moved to portray decaying societies in his fiction. The occurrence of lurid sadomasochistic episodes in such stories serves to heighten an atmosphere of sinful decadence. Metaphorically, the lost cities are shadow realms removed from the everyday experience of the protagonist, and twice removed from that of the reader. The reader follows the hero into a dream world where anything can happen.
In “Xuthal of the Dusk” (originally published in Weird Tales as “The Slithering Shadow”), Conan and his female companion Natala discover a lost city where they meet another beautiful but deadly woman, Thalis. One of the most striking aspects of the story is the contrast between the two women. Natala is a slave girl who has been liberated by Conan, while Thalis is the most powerful woman in the city of Xuthal. The blonde Natala is meek and demure, but good-hearted. The black-haired Thalis is bold, haughty and sensuous, a she-cat who has been steeped in vice. Reminiscent of De Sade’s virtuous Justine and her depraved sister Juliette, they represent two sides of the same coin; top and bottom, dominant and submissive. In due course, they are joined in a highly charged sadomasochistic encounter:
…As in a nightmare Natala felt her tunic being stripped from her, and the next instant Thalis had jerked up her wrists and bound them to the ring, where she hung, naked as the day she was born, her feet barely touching the floor. Twisting her head, Natala saw Thalis unhook a jewel-handled whip from where it hung on the wall, near the ring. The lashes consisted of seven round silk cords, harder yet more pliant than leather thongs.
With a hiss of vindictive gratification, Thalis drew back her arm, and Natala shrieked as the cords curled across her loins. The tortured girl writhed, twisted and tore agonizedly at the thongs which imprisoned her wrists…Every stroke evoked screams of anguish. The whippings Natala had received in the Shemite slave-markets paled to insignificance before this. (“Xuthal of the Dusk” 237)
Howard later reworked elements of “Xuthal of the Dusk” to create his masterpiece, “Red Nails.’ In contrast to the demure Natala of “Xuthal,” the heroine of “Red Nails” is the dynamic Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. Natala and Valeria are both fair-skinned blondes, but there the comparison ends. The pirate Valeria is a formidable and renowned warrior. And in the whipping scene in “Red Nails,” Valeria is the dominant female who administers the flogging. When a serving woman of the lost city of Xuchotl attempts to drug her, Valeria demands to know whom the woman is working for:
Yasala made no reply. She crouched, watching her captor with eyes baleful as those of a basilisk. Stubborn silence always fans anger. Valeria turned and tore a handful of cords from a nearby hanging.
“You sulky slut!” she said between her teeth. “I’m going to strip you stark naked and tie you across that couch and whip you until you tell me what you were doing here, and who sent you!”
Yasala made no verbal protest, nor did she offer any resistance, as Valeria carried out the first part of her threat with a fury that her captive’s obstinacy only sharpened. Then for a space there was no sound in the chamber except the whistle and crackle of hard-woven silken cords on naked flesh. Yasala could not move her fast-bound hands or feet. Her body writhed and quivered under the chastisement, her head swayed from side to side in rhythm with the blows. Her teeth were sunk into her lower lip and a trickle of blood began as the punishment continued. But she did not cry out.
The pliant cords made no great sound as they encountered the quivering body of the captive; only a sharp crackling snap, but each cord left a red streak across Yasala’s dark flesh. Valeria inflicted the punishment with all the strength of her war-hardened arm, with all the mercilessness acquired during a life where pain and torment were daily happenings, and with all the cynical ingenuity which only a woman displays toward a woman. Yasala suffered more, physically and mentally, than she would have suffered under a lash wielded by a man, however strong. (“Red Nails” 254)
In addition to the flagellation and bondage, this scene contains a hint of the humiliation that is also frequently a component of sadomasochistic erotica and activities. The element of humiliation becomes more pronounced when the proud Valeria herself is dominated by both a man and a woman. Valeria, accustomed to holding her own in a world of men, is physically overpowered by the abnormal strength of one of the city’s rulers, the bull-like Olmec. However, she is quickly appropriated by Tascela, a black-haired sorceress possessed of preternatural strength and hypnotic powers:
[Valeria] turned and sprang toward the door, but with a movement that would have shamed a leaping panther, Tascela was before her. Valeria struck at her with her clenched fist, and all the power of her supple body behind the blow. It would have stretched a man senseless on the floor. But with a lithe twist of her torso, Tascela avoided the blow and caught the pirate’s wrist. The next instant Valeria’s left hand was imprisoned, and holding her wrists together with one hand, Tascela calmly bound them with a cord she drew from her girdle. Valeria thought she had tasted the ultimate in humiliation already that night, but her shame at being manhandled by Olmec was nothing to the sensations that now shook her supple frame. Valeria had always been inclined to despise the other members of her sex; and it was overwhelming to encounter another woman who could handle her like a child. She scarcely resisted at all when Tascela forced her into a chair and drawing her bound wrists down between her knees, fastened them to the chair. (270-271)
Valeria is subsequently stripped naked and pinned to a sacrificial alter. In “Red Nails,” Howard treats his reader to the spectacle of a dominant woman being dominated herself.
A briefer passage hinting at sadistic sexual abuse occurs during this exchange between Olivia and Shah Amurath in “Iron Shadows in the Moon:”
“Let me go!” begged the girl, tears of despair staining her face. “Have I not suffered enough? Is there any humiliation, pain or degradation you have not heaped on me? How long must my torment last?”
“As long as I find pleasure in your whimperings, your pleas, tears and writhings,” he answered with a smile that would have seemed gentle to a stranger. “You are strangely virile, Olivia. I wonder if I shall ever weary of you, as I have always wearied of women before. You are ever fresh and unsullied, in spite of me…” (“Iron Shadows in the Moon” 187-178)
Olivia is a slave girl strong enough to take what her master dishes out, but gleans no pleasure from it. She is tough enough to survive where Natala, in “Xuthal of the Dusk,” would have perished, but does not allow herself to become jaded like Thalis.
It is also in the Conan series that we find a depiction of sheer sadism so extreme that were it to be adapted faithfully to film, the filmmakers might well find themselves facing jail time. This scene occurs in the brooding Gothic tale, “The Black Stranger.” In the story, the fear-haunted Count Valenso has retreated with retainers and entourage to an isolated fortress on a desolate coastline. The Count lives in mortal terror of a mysterious demonic black man who pursues him, and has fled to the most remote area he could reach. Among Count Valenso’s entourage is a girl child named Tina, first seen running naked along a beach. When Tina mentions having seen the black stranger, Valenso erupts in an insane fury of enraged horror:
Valenso reeled as if he had received a mortal blow. He clutched at his throat, snapping the gold chain in his violence. With the face of a madman he lurched about the table and tore the child screaming from Belesa’s arms.
“You little slut!” he panted. “You lie! You have heard me mumbling in my sleep and told this lie to torment me! Say that you lie before I tear the skin from your back!”
“Uncle!” cried Belesa, in outraged bewilderment, trying to free Tina from his grasp. “Are you mad? What are you about?”
With a snarl he tore her hand from his arm and spun her staggering into the arms of Galbro who received her with a leer he made little effort to disguise.
“Mercy, my lord!” sobbed Tina. “I did not lie!”
“I said you lied!” roared Valenso. “Gebbrelo!”
The stolid serving man seized the trembling youngster and stripped her with one brutal wrench that tore her scanty garments from her body. Wheeling, he drew her slender arms over his shoulders, lifting her writhing feet clear of the floor.
“Uncle!” shrieked Belesa, writhing vainly in Galbro’s lustful grasp. “You are mad! You can not –oh, you can not--!” The voice choked in her throat as Valenso caught up a jewel-hilted riding whip and brought it down across the child’s frail body with a savage force that left a red weal across her naked shoulders.
Belesa moaned, sick with the anguish of Tina’s shriek. The world had suddenly gone mad. As in a nightmare she saw the stolid faces of the soldiers and servants, beast-faces, the faces of oxen, reflecting neither pity nor sympathy. Zarono’s faintly sneering face was part of the nightmare. Nothing in that crimson haze was real except Tina’s naked white body, criss-crossed with red welts from shoulders to knees; no sound real except the child’s sharp cries of agony, and the panting gasps of Valenso as he lashed away with the staring eyes of a madman, shrieking, “You lie! You lie! Curse you, you lie! Admit your guilt, or I will flay your stubborn body! He could not have followed me here—”
“Oh, have mercy, my lord!” screamed the child, writhing vainly on the brawny servant’s back, too frantic with fear and pain to have the wit to save herself by a lie. Blood trickled in crimson beads down her quivering thighs…(“The Black Stranger” 127-128)
“The Black Stranger” was the only Conan story to be rejected by Weird Tales after the series had become popular with the readers. However, this was most likely due to the fact that Conan himself is offstage for much of the lengthy tale. The story was not published in its original form until 1987. Interestingly enough, even in the version of the story heavily edited by L. Sprague de Camp (“The Treasure of Tranicos”), the whipping of Tina by Count Valenso is presented as Howard wrote it, except for name changes for some of the characters. The sequence is horrific in the extreme, rather than evocative of erotic sadomasochism. I do not believe that Howard intended it to be in any way titillating or expected his readers to view it as such. Its placement in the story was more likely meant to emphasize the depravity of his unsavory characters. Even so, it must be admitted that a passage in which a crazed aristocrat whips a naked prepubescent girl with a riding crop hard enough to draw blood, in front of other leering men, is an episode that would be right at home in the works of the Marquis de Sade himself. While I would not care to meet the sort of person who would be aroused by Tina’s whipping, such people do exist.
Between the Solomon Kane and the Conan stories, Howard tried his hand at writing Lovecraftian horror. “The Black Stone” has long been considered his best story in this vein. The narrator of “The Black Stone” travels to a remote area of Eastern Europe to examine a mysterious monolith of unknown ancient origin. There he has a vision of the dark rites that had been performed at the site centuries earlier by the strange people who once inhabited the region:
The rhythm of the swaying bodies grew faster and into the space between the people and the monolith sprang a naked young woman, her eyes blazing, her long black hair flying loose. Spinning dizzily on her toes, she whirled across the open space and fell prostrate before the Stone, where she lay motionless. The next instant a fantastic figure followed her –a man from whose waist hung a goatskin, and whose features were entirely hidden by a sort of mask made from a huge wolf’s head…In his hand he held a bunch of long fir switches bound together at the larger ends…
…Coming to the woman who lay before the monolith, he began to lash her with the switches he bore, and she leaped up and spun into the wild mazes of the most incredible dance I have ever seen. And her tormentor danced with her…while incessantly raining cruel blows on her naked body…
Blood trickled down the dancer’s limbs but she seemed not to feel the lashing save as a stimulus for further enormities of outrageous motion…she dropped suddenly to the sward, quivering and panting as if completely overcome by her frenzied exertions. The lashing continued with unabated violence and intensity and she began to wriggle toward the monolith on her belly. The priest –or such I will call him—followed, lashing her unprotected body with all the power of his arm as she writhed along, leaving a heavy track of blood on the trampled earth. She reached the monolith, and gasping and panting, flung both arms about it and covered the cold stone with fierce hot kisses, as in frenzied and unholy adoration. (“The Black Stone” 130-131)
The purpose of the ritual is to summon a monster the people worship. The monster is possessed of evil intelligence, and is presented with “a young girl, stark naked and bound hand and foot” (130) to ravish. This “unhallowed ritual of cruelty and sadism” (132), with its frenzied flagellation, causes the naked dancer to collapse in orgasmic ecstasy and then embrace and kiss a phallic monolith jutting from the earth. In “The Black Stone,” Howard takes Lovecraftian horror to a realm where H. P. Lovecraft himself never tread.
Another notable instance of sadomasochism can be found in one of Howard’s regional “piney woods” horror stories, “Pigeons from Hell.” Set at an old abandoned Southern plantation, the story tells of the curse that destroyed the once-illustrious Blassenville family. At the root of the curse was the cruelty displayed be Miss Celia Blassenville toward her mulatto maid, Joan. (“Joan,” like “Steve,” was a name Howard employed with some frequency. Joan is the name of several of his beguiling heroines, and also occurs in his erotic poetry.) Decades later, a character recalls how Miss Celia “used to whip her mulatto maid just like she was a slave” and would “tie this girl up to a tree, stark naked, and whip her with a horsewhip.” (“Pigeons from Hell” 278) Though it is somewhat muted by being a secondhand account, this is yet another episode of woman-on-woman flagellation such as we found in “Red Nails” and “Xuthal of the Dusk.” This account of a haughty Southern belle whipping her servant also brings to mind the numerous scenarios involving aristocratic women and their maids that abound in S/m erotica.
Both the supernatural and sadomasochistic elements in “Pigeons from Hell” can be traced back to a childhood acquaintance of Howard. As a boy living in the “piney woods” area of East Texas, Howard heard many African-American ghost stories from an elderly former slave named Aunt Mary Bohannon. Nor were those the only tales she told. Howard informed H. P. Lovecraft that, “old Aunt Mary had had the misfortune, in her youth, to belong to a man whose wife was a fiend from Hell. The young slave women were fine young animals and barbarically handsome; her mistress was frenziedly jealous. You understand. Aunt Mary told tales of torture and unmistakable sadism that sicken me to this day when I think of them.” (Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 9/30, 58)
In the final phase of his career, Howard entered the lucrative “spicy stories” market. Magazines like Spicy-Adventure Stories and Spicy Detective Stories published fairly standard genre fiction with an added erotic element that was considered quite racy for the time. In a letter to Novalyne Price, Howard explained some of 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…(Ellis, One Who Walked Alone 262)
Nevertheless, Howard did occasionally succumb to the temptation to include sadomasochistic elements in stories written for the spicy pulps.
“Ship in Mutiny” is one of a series of tales about the roguish adventurer, Wild Bill Clanton. In it, the villain describes his plans for Clanton and the story’s heroine: “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!” (“Ship in Mutiny” 34) This brief passage is the extent of the sadomasochism in the story, but once again it embodies a sadistic fantasy worthy of the Marquis de Sade.
Howard indulges in lurid S/m fantasy at greater length in another spicy story, “Daughters of Feud.” As the title indicates, the story concerns feuding hillbilly families. The hero is Braxton Brent, the new schoolteacher. Brunette bad girl Ann and blonde good girl Joan engage in a catfight in the middle of class. To maintain discipline, Brent must administer corporal punishment to his nubile nineteen-year-old students. Howard returns to a familiar theme of his erotic poetry, spanking, in a scene too good not to quote in full:
…She was strong and supple as only a mountain girl can be, and she fought like a wildcat, but Brent was an athletic young man, and he was mad clear through. There was a brief whirl of struggle, and then his superior strength made itself evident. Crushing her resistance, he sat down on the bench and imprisoned her, cursing and kicking, across his knee, and pulled up her skirt. He had already learned that the girls of Whiskey Run wore no underwear. Ann was no exception.
“Now, you little devil,” he swore grimly, “I’m going to show you who’s the boss here!”
And firmly grasping his raging captive, he employed the strap on her bare, squirming, upturned hips with a vigor inspired by his determination to assert his authority once and for all. He didn’t want to have to repeat this scene. At each resounding smack, a broad crimson weal appeared on her olive-tinted hips, and before he had completed his discipline, the entire surface was reddened, and Ann’s curses and threats had changed to shrieks of pain and frantic pleas for mercy. When he released her, she slipped to the floor and groveled at his feet, weeping stormily and contorting her supple body ludicrously with the smarting of her crimson hips. (“Daughters of Feud” 151-152)
Things get complicated when Brent suddenly falls for Joan. (The name of the hero’s love interest is another indication that “Joan” was a feminine name REH was especially fond of.) Joan is spared a spanking when she and Brent make love instead. Later, to protect Brent from charges of favoritism, she displays self-inflicted whip marks on her bared buttocks. The story ends on a cheery note of love and romance. Brent spanks Ann only reluctantly; he is no more a dominant “top” than Solomon Kane, languishing in Nakari’s dungeon, was a submissive. The sadomasochism in this story, as in the others, is an undercurrent flowing beneath the surface.
Another interesting motif is the recurrence of a blonde heroine and a brunette bad girl in “Daughters of Feud,” as in “Xuthal of the Dusk” and “Red Nails.” It serves as a clear simple physical representation of the light and the dark, and is by no means limited to Howard. In Chapter 7 of Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie A. Fiedler explores the symbolism of the light and dark sisters, Alice and Cora Munro, in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.
Neither “Ship in Mutiny” nor “Daughters of Feud” were published in Howard’s lifetime. “Ship in Mutiny” was the only story in the Wild Bill Clanton series to be rejected by Spicy-Adventure. This probably owed little to the story’s sole sadistic passage, but rather to editorial preference for stories with an upbeat tone as opposed to the somewhat grim atmosphere that prevails in “Ship in Mutiny.” In “Daughters of Feud,” however, the kinky aspect is very pronounced and went well beyond what the editors would have found acceptable.
So what, then, are we to make of all this? Howard’s use of sadomasochistic elements ranges from mildly titillating spanking limericks to instances of horrific cruelty. A mad count whipping a naked, crying ten year old girl, or a villain planning to make a woman wear Wild Bill Clanton’s skin, exceed the limits of erotic S/m and take us into a realm of sheer nightmare and madness. I personally do not believe that Howard viewed the whipping of Tina as arousing. The imagination is unruly, however, and sometimes takes us to darker places than we meant to go. Therefore, in pondering to what extent Howard’s use of sadomasochism is indicative of creative self-expression, or contrived, or representative of his sexual interests, we have to accept a certain amount of ambiguity.
In the past, commentators have dismissed instances of flagellation and bondage in the Conan stories as a purely commercial contrivance, examples of Howard “pandering” to his readers. Possibly, some commentators arrived at this conclusion because of the many lurid depictions of torture to be found in the “weird menace” magazines, or “shudder pulps,” that became popular late in Howard’s career. Publications like Terror Tales and Horror Stories offered “chamber of horrors” torture scenarios inspired by the Grand Guignol Theatre of Paris. In 1935, Weird Tales inaugurated the “Doctor Satan” series in a bid to remain competitive.
Howard did indeed dabble in the weird menace genre, contributing “Graveyard Rats” and “Black Wind Blowing” to Thrilling Mystery. Additionally, the horror stories “Black Hound of Death” and “Moon of Zambebwei,” published in Weird Tales, were originally intended for the shudder pulps. “Black Wind Blowing,” “Black Hound of Death,” and the posthumously published “The Devils of Dark Lake” all feature scenes depicting nude women in bondage, two of whom are named Joan.
However, “Xuthal of the Dusk,” with its girl-on-girl sadomasochism, was published (as “The Slithering Shadow”) in the September 1933 issue of Weird Tales –one month before the first shudder pulp, Dime Mystery Magazine, adopted the weird menace format with its October 1933 issue. In weird menace stories, villains typically indulge in outré forms of murder such as covering women in gold to create incredibly lifelike statues or freezing them into “corpse-sicles.” This is a far cry from an erotic S/m fantasy such as the dominatrix-like Thalis whipping the naked, writhing Natala in “Xuthal.” Moreover, to the best of my knowledge none of the star contributors to the shudder pulps like Hugh B. Cave or Wyatt Blassingame ever wrote any poetry concerning sadistic practices. Howard’s S/m themed poetry, as well as “The Moon of Skulls” and the horror stories “The Hyena” and “The Black Stone,” predate the weird menace pulps by several years.
A stronger case can be made that Howard was following the lead of Seabury Quinn, a fan favorite of Weird Tales readers since the mid-1920s. Howard complained bitterly to Lovecraft, “I don’t know how much slaughter and butchery the readers will endure. Their capacity for grisly details seems unlimited, when the cruelty is the torturing of some naked girl, such as Seabury Quinn’s stories abound in --no reflection on Quinn; he knows what they want and gives it to them” (Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 8/9/32, 52).
At the time of Howard’s remarks, Quinn had been chronicling the adventures of the occult investigator Jules de Grandin for seven years, to the exclusion of other work. I have recently read all of the De Grandin stories available to me that Howard would have also read, over thirty tales, and have found them to be, for the most part, not nearly as lurid as Howard’s comments would lead one to believe. No naked girls are tortured onstage, much less in “grisly detail.”
The roughest of the De Grandin stories I read was “The House of Horror” (Weird Tales, July 1926), which concerns a mad doctor’s hideous experiments on kidnapped women. The experiments are done offstage, but the results are depicted. In “The House of Golden Masks” (June 1929), girls are forced into white slavery, adorned with golden masks attached to their faces by piercings, and compelled to participate in degrading performances for the benefit of wealthy degenerates. The other stories with prurient elements are: “Children of Ubasti” (12/29) -- ghouls kidnap girls and eat their flesh, and feed them human flesh; “The Dust of Egypt” (4/30) -- threat of flagellation; “The Brain Thief” (5/30) -- forced nudity; “Bride of Dewer” (7/30) -- attempted rape by demon; “Daughter of the Moonlight” (8/30) -- man’s face mutilated by witch. That’s seven stories out of thirty-two. The sadistic elements, which far from “abound,” are more than balanced by the cheerfulness and good deeds of the kindly Dr. De Grandin. Both De Grandin and his sidekick Dr. Trowbridge are middle-aged bachelors with lost loves in their pasts; their adventures frequently center on their efforts to aid a young couple. This lends the stories a sort of bittersweet quality.
On the other hand, Seabury Quinn’s only novel-length tale of Jules de Grandin, The Devil’s Bride, is much stronger than the typical De Grandin short story. In it, infants are sacrificed by Satanists, a nude woman is found crucified, and an innocent girl is blinded and mortally wounded. Again, most of the atrocities occur offstage. The Devil’s Bride was serialized in six issues of Weird Tales, concluding in the July 1932 issue. Therefore it would have been fresh in Howard’s mind when he made his remarks to Lovecraft in early August. Even so, I think, in bashing Quinn, Howard protests too much.
Howard made passing mention of sadism and masochism in other correspondence, to Novalyne Price as well as to Lovecraft. The former was a proper young woman of the era and the latter was virtually asexual, but both were important figures in Howard’s life. Concerning sadism, he told Lovecraft, “I’ve read what Havelock Ellis and other leading psychologists have had to say about it, and have in my possession a very good work on sadism and masochism by a noted German scholar” (Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 5/12/35, 68). This appears to be in reference to Algolagnia: The Psychology, Neurology and Physiology of Sadistic Love and Masochism by Albert Eulenburg.
Howard also owned several books of flagellation erotica, specifically A History of the Rod, Curiosa of Flagellants and History of Flagellation, and Experiences of Flagellation (Eng, Robert E. Howard’s Library 189, 198). Glenn Lord expressed the notion that the presence of these books in Howard’s library may reflect his interest in writing for the weird menace magazines. The amount of research essential for writing for the shudder pulps notwithstanding, the sort of Grand Guignol torture depicted in magazines like Terror Tales bears little resemblance to actual S/m erotica. I suspect that Glenn Lord may have wished to avoid confronting the possibility that REH harbored any “pervert” tendencies. However, Howard’s possession of such books does suggest that he knew what he was doing when he included the whipping scene in “Xuthal of the Dusk,” for example.
A list of erotic titles available for purchase was found among Howard’s papers. The titles listed were: A History of the Rod, The Merry Order of St. Bridget, Curiosa of Flagellants & History of Flagellation, Painful Pleasures, Nell in Bridewell, The Misfortunes of Colette, The Strap Returns, Tracts of Flagellation, The Rodiad, Tender Bottoms, Sadism and Masochism (Eulenburg), Presented in Leather, and Girdles of Chastity. The prices of the titles are included, and notes indicate that most were illustrated and privately printed for subscribers.
Need I add that it was extremely rare for someone to simply stumble upon material of this type back in the 1930s? It may have been more widely available during the Roaring Twenties, but one would have still needed to go out of one‘s way to obtain it. The extent to which Howard pursued this interest way back then –long before John Norman, before Penthouse Forum, before Eric Stanton, before John Willie’s Bizarre, before Irving Klaw, before Bettie Page—is revealing. Most people in Howard’s day were only dimly aware of erotic sadomasochism. Prior to the composition of “Red Nails,” Howard remarked to Novalyne Price that he planned to make it one of his “sexiest, goriest” tales. In reaction to this, Novalyne noted in her diary, “…I couldn’t see that the Conan yarns Bob had brought me to read had any sex in them. Gore, yes. Sex, no.” (Ellis, 201) Frankly, this statement had me puzzled. Then it dawned on me that, in 1935, Novalyne would probably have not even recognized the flagellation, bondage, and assorted sadomasochistic trappings in stories like “Xuthal of the Dusk” and “Red Nails” as “sex.”
The presence of sadomasochistic elements in Howard’s poetry and fiction, viewed in light of the S/m erotica in his collection, does seem to indicate that Howard’s sexual interests extended beyond a simple taste for vanilla. REH was a physically vigorous young male with no regular sexual outlet, and possessed of one of the most vivid imaginations on the planet. It would actually be surprising if he had no kinks whatsoever.
A common thread running through all of Robert E. Howard’s work is a craving for more intense experience than there is to be found in ordinary, everyday life. The sadomasochistic elements in Howard’s writings are a reflection of this, as far as his libido is concerned. Hearts and flowers and Cupid and the moon in June weren’t enough for him. Or as Howard himself put it:
“Mine are the lusts of hoofs and horns,
“Of the he-goat and the loon
“And the naked witches that demons deflower
“On the dark side of the moon.
“No common sin may fire my eyes,
“Glutted with excesses fell—
“My lust is stained with the dung that stirs
“On the stinking streets of Hell. (Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith 61-62)
Robert E. Howard works cited:
“Altars and Jesters,” in Night Images (The Morning Star Press, 1976), pp. 28-31.
“The Black Stone,” in The Best of Robert E Howard Volume I: Crimson Shadows (Del Rey Books, 2007), pp. 121-136.
“The Black Stranger,” in The Conquering Sword of Conan (Del Rey Books, 2005), pp. 103-173.
“Daughters of Feud,” in The She Devil (Ace Fantasy Books, 1983), pp. 147-167.
“Flaming Marble,” in Etchings in Ivory (Hall Publications, 1975), pp. 5-6.
“The Hyena,” in Shadow Kingdoms: The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume 1 (Wildside Press, 2004), pp. 67-78.
Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, ca. September 1930, in Selected Letters 1923-1930 (Necronomicon Press, 1989), p. 58.
Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 9 August 1932, in The Last Celt (ed. Glenn Lord, Donald M. Grant, 1976), p. 51.
Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 5 December 1935, in Selected Letters 1931-1936 (Necronomicon Press, 1991), pp. 65-73.
Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, ca. September 1930, in Selected Letters 1923-1930 (Necronomicon Press, 1989), pp. 60-62.
“Iron Shadows in the Moon,” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Del Rey Books, 2003), pp. 187-216.
“The Moon of Skulls,” in The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane (Del Rey Books, 2004), pp. 99-170.
“Pigeons from Hell,” in The Black Stranger and Other American Tales (University of Nebraska Press, 2005), pp. 264-292.
“Red Nails,” in The Conquering Sword of Conan (Del Rey Books, 2005), pp. 211-281.
“Strange Passion,” in Risqué Stories 1, March 1984, p. 20.
“Ship in Mutiny,” in The She Devil (Ace Fantasy Books, 1983), pp. 22-42.
“Xuthal of the Dusk,” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Del Rey Books, 2003), pp. 219-247.
Other works cited:
Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard, The Final Years (Donald M. Grant, 1986).
Leslie A. Fieldler, Love and Death in the American Novel (Scarborough Books, 1982).
Steve Eng, Robert E. Howard’s Library in Don Herron, ed., The Dark Barbarian: The Writings of Robert E. Howard, A Critical Anthology (Greenwood Press, 1984), pp. 183-200.