“If nobody but a pure Celt wore the green…”

Saint Padraic’s Day usually leaves me with a distaste for the whole Celtic Irish race.” Robert E. Howard, from a letter to Harold Preece, ca. early April, 1930.

Howard’s Hibernophilia is hard to contest, but reading the above quote might cause one to wonder. In context, the meaning becomes much clearer. reh_frontier_poseREH (whose photo to the left could easily be that of a “Black Irish” workman of the early twentieth century) noted the “questioning glances” of fellow Texans “who wear purely Gaelic surnames.” His response to such affronts was that, “I’ll wear the green if I have to fight every damned Celt in the world.” A suitably pugnacious Howardian (and Celtic) attitude, in my opinion.

Howard was always ambivalent in his regard for the Irish. In another letter to Preece, REH wrote, “Damn the Irish and damn the black Milesian blood in my veins that makes me like drift-wood fighting the waves and gives me no peace or rest waking or sleeping or riding or dreaming or traveling or wooing, drunk or sober, with hunger or slumber on me”. Again and again REH railed against the waywardness and instability that he saw in the Celtic psyche. “What has my Celtic blood ever done to me but give me a restless and unstable mind that gives me no rest in anything I do”? Obviously, despite Robert E. Howard’s heart-felt pride in his Irishness (the true extent of that Irishness is something Patrice Louinet is researching even now), he didn’t view Erin nor her children through green-tinted glasses, at least not in every instance. (Continue reading this post)

Cold Cuts

“It’s like some sick joke!” — Dr. McKenna

In my admittedly somewhat jejune research into Howard’s psychology, I’ve long questioned the Freudian interpretation of the father-son clash as primarily sexual, the so-called Oedipus complex.

For this, and many other of Freud’s theories, to finally become accepted by the medical establishment, the modifying and corrective theories of Freud’s onetime disciple, Alfred Adler, have generally been adopted. Though considered another of the great Viennese psychologists, Adler is less well known to the general public; but to those interested in Howard and “Oedipalism” he is well worth looking into. Adler [1870-1937] suggested that the son strove not for mama’s sex but for “the laurels, the possibilities, the strength of his father.” He also suggested that this conflict was universal, based on the inferiority a baby inherits upon the realization that all other humans in his immediate environment are not helpless like him, but god-like beings of massive size and strength, with uncanny powers of food production, movement, etc. The development of character begins with how the child reacts to this weakness. On the one end, a child may remain convinced of his weakness, and demonstrate it to gain control through sympathy, and on the other side, the child may determine to become as powerful as the father (the dominant figure in the family) and thus begin the rivalry. It is not the mother that is at stake so much as the world; a blind striving forpower that Adler calls the “masculine rebellion.”


Adler says the infant “learns to overvalue the size and stature which enables one to open a door, or the ability to move heavy objects, or the right of other to give commands and claim obedience to them. A desire to grow, to become as strong or even stronger than all others, arises in his soul.” This is much easier to swallow than Freud’s sex-based theory — Freud was obsessed with sex, anyway.

One might speculate that at the ultimate extreme, the infantile urge is wanting to kill God and rule the cosmos; that should sound at least vaguely familiar to any of you longtime fans of Karl Edward Wagner and Kane. I think if you read Adler you can get a handle on why Howard valued strength, power and freedom, saw the world, perhaps, as an adversary, and get away from the notion that that means he wanted to sleep with his mother. My own browsing included his selection in Psychologies of 1930, his Understanding Human Nature (Greenburg, 1946), The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology (Harcourt, Brace, 1924) and a couple of edited “revivals” of his work published recently, whose titles I have no notes of.

By all accounts, Dr. Howard was a man who projected power such as would seem daunting, and would make a great impression on a small boy growing up in his household. I believe infantile rage is somewhat (in my view) justified, and similar to the precepts of thought I was currently reading in Forrest McDonald’s Novus Ordo Seculorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution [University Press of Kansas, 1985]. I have also noted (thanks to Vern Clark) that Howard had used the idea of toppling God, or at least come close to it, in his portion of “The Challenge from Beyond.” Of course, gods (with a small “g”) like Atali’s brothers, various Lovecraftian monsters worshipped in isolated citadels, and Khosatrel Khel in “The Devil in Iron” (“he stalked through the world like a god…and the city of Dagon…worshipped him”) lie spread like litter across the paths of Conan, Esau Cairn, and Niord.

In a related note, I’ve spoken also of the Alpha Male concept and how the Adler discussion was very close to the idea that all males are born instinctively desiring to be Alpha. I’ve suggested that the source of Conan’s appeal was that we were seeing through the eyes of the ultimate Alpha Male, living vicariously the royal life we’ve felt our birthright since infancy — and make no mistake, even though Conan is only King in the later stories, in all stories he is the dominant character, powerful and aggressive.

Recently in the bookstore, I saw a new coffee-table book on The Art of Sin City. I poked through it, and read the R.C. Harvey introduction. Miller had told this guy how his book Ronin had been an artistic turning point, and for some reason, I decided to go home and re-read Ronin. I’m not going to go into the plot too much, but the lead character, Billy Challas, is a freak. Born without limbs, he also possesses a “mind over matter” telekinetic power. Until he brings this power out, he is an exaggerated infant — limbless, helpless,dependent. He is repressing the bulk of this power because of an incident where he turned a neighbor kid who was tormenting him into a nasty spot on the wall, at which point his mother went postal and institutionalized him. But now, this cybernetic computer at the industrial complex he somehow ended up in is trying to unlock Billy’s telekinesis — through some kind of mental link, the computer-hive mind known as Virgo has him locked into a fantasy world where he has arms, legs and power — a masterless samurai, or Ronin, facing a demonic enemy and his minions. This fantasy somehow extends to envelope the people around him. And it is a violent fantasy, with the Ronin bearing a very sharp sword that, well… here’s how Dr. McKenna and his shrink work it out:

Dr. M: The power still exists [despite being repressed]… and Billy — he’d be unhappy. Armless and legless — he’d have to be unhappy. So what would he do?
Psych: Who knows? He’s not my patient. There’s no way I can talk about somebody I’ve never met. Still… he’d probably have a rich fantasy life…
Dr. M: Yes. Yes. And these fantasies — where would they come from?
Psych: Wherever. Fairy tales. TV. Movies. Like that.
Dr. M: And they might be violent?
Psych: Could be. Especially if he was angry.
Dr. M: Angry? He’d be raging! What else? He’d hate everybody! Everybody with all their arms and legs… he’d want to take their arms and legs and …and… …he’d want to chop…It’s like some sick joke! (laughs, a bit hysterically)


In the end, the multi-layered Ronin plot is, like Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, a kind of satiric, psychological criticism of the sword and sorcery genre. But instead of the Freudian sexual overtones of the latter, Ronin is using the Adlerian themes of infantile helplessness transformed into rage. Remember this: helplessness means rage. Envy. Powerlessness can then easily turn to hate. Examples of Howard characters using a sword to dismember, behead, and otherwise carve up people are rampant in his works. It’s clear when you get Conan mad and give him a sword or axe, what happens to his enemies. Meat. And Howard gleefully paints each butchering stroke, to leave no doubt. Conan was, according to Fritz Leiber, the character into whom Howard “was best able to inject his furious dreams of danger and power and unending adventure…” Furious. Gleeful. And this takes us back to the bullies in his life.

Despite the over the top exagerations of biographer/critic deCamp, there is no reason to doubt the fundamental story we get from Doc Howard, Tevis Clyde Smith, and Novalyne. Howard was, for a time, made miserable by a few bullies who were larger than him, and more numerous. (“overgrown”, older boys”, “half-again his size”, “no one to take my part”) And this had a profound effect on him. (“Unforgettable hatred”, “today.. crush his damned head… the way I would a cantaloupe,” left its mark on Bob until the end, and was responsible for much of his bitterness.) Of course Howard didn’t speak of this period much, or write of it to correspondents. It was a time of shame for him. Most hateful of all, I would think, was the fact that he was helpless. Like a baby, in the grip of the stronger, bigger kids. He entered in to build his body up because of it. Perhaps the fact that he became ill at an age where he was just beginning to walk played a part.

There is another guy who built himself up, like Howard, devising his own low-budget body development plan using auto parts he found in a vacant lot:

“It came from deep-rooted insecurity. You kind of create a muscular shell to protect that soft inside. You try to build yourself into the image that you think people will respect, and it tends to get a little extreme. It’s like playing God, rebuilding your body in your own image.”
— Sylvester Stallone.

Playing God — the opposite of helplessness. Insecurity, protecting the softness inside, seeking respect (or at least to be left alone) — and getting a little extreme. These all seem to describe Howard very well.

Conan, the mighty swordsman and most successful projection of furious dreams of power, is someone we seldom think of as helpless — yet hung on a cross, dead vulture at his feet, this is how Olgerd Vladislav finds him in “A Witch Shall Be Born.” We are told that Conan looks with revulsion on Khauran, the city that had betrayed him, and left him here “like a hare nailed to a tree”. Once his hands are freed, Conan is quick to demonstrate he is no longer helpless — he pushes his helper Djebel away, grabs the pincers with his swollen hands and pulls the nails from his feet himself. A stunningly improbably feat of toughness, but imperative to Conan’s way of being — and he knows the desert men are judging him to see if he’s fit to live, so it is not just pride or self-image, but survival, that drives the act.

Once he has usurped the Zaporoskan’s leadership within the horde, Conan has to deal with Olgerd. Practicality would suggest he be killed — yet he did save the Cimmerian’s life(however rudely and unkindly), so Conan would violate his code, I think, by killing him. Yet Olgerd has done a sinful thing in that he witnessed Conan in his helpless state, so before banishing him, Conan renders Olgerd helpless by breaking his sword-arm. Like the Ronin character, who avenges his limbless helplessness by rendering his enemies limbless, Conan erases his former helplessness by inflicting it on Olgerd. And with Constantius, the true author of it — well, what else is there to do but nail him up on a cross of his own?


Finally, one can surmise that hating helplessness, watching his mother struggle and fade in her lengthy, debilitating illness, Howard’s desire to go out “quickly and suddenly, in the full tide of my strength and health” (as he wrote to August W. Derleth) is his final trumping of the possibility of his ever being helpless again, and should be considered a factor in his plans to suicide.

The Call of Kathulos: Secret Oceans and Black Seas of Infinity


In his first letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard informed HPL that he considered the Man From Providence to be superior to Machen or Poe. In other words, the finest horror writer of them all. In another letter (ca. June 1931), Howard wrote to Lovecraft that “the three foremost weird masterpieces” were Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Machen’s “The Novel of the Black Seal” and last, but not least, “The Call of Cthulhu.” Thus, it is not surprising that some trace of REH’s enthusiasm for HPL’s landmark tale might be found in Howard’s own yarns.

“Skull-Face” would seem to echo with whispers out of R’lyeh. That is not to say “The Call of Cthulhu” was Howard’s only source of inspiration for his tale of Kathulos of Atlantis. Far from it. Over at the Official Robert E. Howard Forum, I went into some depth regarding the influence of Sax Rohmer’s writings upon “Skull-Face.” As I’ll demonstrate below, it appears that a Rohmer novel might have exerted some influence upon “The Call of Cthulhu” as well.

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They Found Howard’s Snake


I hate snakes; they are possessed of a cold, utterly merciless cynicism and sophistication, and sense of super-ego that puts them outside the pale of warm-blooded creatures.

— Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, ca. February 1931

“The visionary explorer, Col. P. H. Fawcett, claimed to have seen a 48-foot anaconda, but I don’t believe it.”

— L.Sprague de Camp, REHupa #57

Novalyne: Well, I haven’t seen any giant snakes, or big-busted naked women frolicking through the West Texas hills lately.

Robert: Oh, but I have.

— The Whole Wide World

From recent science news:

It was the mother of all snakes, a nightmarish behemoth as long as a school bus and as heavy as a Volkswagen Beetle that ruled the ancient Amazonian rain forest for 2 million years before slithering into nonexistence. Now this monster, which weighed in at 2,500 pounds, has resurfaced in fossils taken from an open-pit coal mine in Colombia, a startling example of growth gone wild.

“This is amazing. It challenges everything we know about how big a snake can be.””This thing weighs more than a bison and is longer than a city bus,” enthused snake expert Jack Conrad of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who was familiar with the find.

“It could easily eat something the size of a cow. A human would just be toast immediately.””If it tried to enter my office to eat me, it would have a hard time squeezing through the door,” reckoned paleontologist Jason Head of the University of Toronto Missisauga.


To give de Camp due credit, he was aware of the Gigantophis, a prehistoric python that was the previous record holder at 30-33 feet. And while boas get very large, they do not have the optimal climate for growth that Titanoboa apparently did — really hot, steaming jungles such as Howard assured us was Satha’s natural habitat.

The Call of Kathulos: Kull, Skull and “Call”

I’m Deuce Richardson and I’ll be your blogger for this evening. I’m a native south-east Kansan and grew up working on my parents’ farm/ranch, the fourth generation of Richardsons to do so. At the age of nine I discovered Robert E. Howard and haven’t been right in the head since. Subsequent to graduating high school, I attended Kansas State and then Pittsburg State University. After that, it was time to get to work. In early 2005, I leapt into the twenty-first century by purchasing my own computer. That eventually led me to becoming a member on the Official Robert E. Howard Forum. Membership there landed me in various places like Cross Plains, Texas and then, surprisingly, here. Enough about me. On with the show.

Ever since a certain “Mr. O’Neail” wrote in to Weird Tales wondering, there has always been a question hovering, bat-winged, over Robert E. Howard’s novella, “Skull-Face”: Was REH’s “Kathulos” (and the tale thereof) influenced, somehow, by Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”?

Howard had this to say in a letter to HPL (ca. August 1930):

A writer in the Eyrie, a Mr. O’Neail, I believe, wondered if I did not use some myth regarding this Cthulhu in “Skull Face”. The name Kathulos might suggest that, but in reality, I merely manufactured the name at random, not being aware at the time of any legendary character named Cthulhu — if indeed there is.

That’s that, I guess, but… all indicators point to Robert E. Howard reading “Call of Cthulhu” before he ever started composing “Skull-Face.” In a letter to Weird Tales, Howard demonstrates he’d already savored the darksome pleasures of “CoC” (published in the February 1928 issue of Weird Tales): “Mr. Lovecraft’s story, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ is indeed a masterpiece, which I am sure will live as one of the highest achievements of literature.” (ca. April 1928)


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The Conscience, and the Kisses, of a King


. . .the house of life was riven asunder and the human trinity dissolved, and the worm which never dies, that which lies sleeping within us all, was made tangible and an external thing, and clothed with a garment of flesh.

Arthur Machen, The Three Impostors

Within the overall gift-that-keeps-on-giving jamboree of The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, for those of us who consider “Worms of the Earth” the greatest story this great writer ever told, a comment in a November 1932 letter to Tevis Clyde Smith is more precious than mithril or orichalchum: “The readers took well to my ‘Worms of the Earth’ story. I didn’t know how they’d like the copulation touch.”

I’m beyond baffled that not one of the few Howardists who had access to all-or-most of his letters has ever quoted this; we have so little on the subject of “Worms” from its author, really just the mea culpa to H. P. Lovecraft about having misspelled (or Celticized) “Eboracum” as “Ebbracum” and the well-known, Howard-as-his-own-best-critic insight that “Worms” was the only time he looked through Pictish eyes and spoke with a Pictish tongue. Much more is going on in his “copulation touch,” the night Bran Mak Morn spends with Atla the witch-woman, than Romanophobic politics making for strange bedfellows. The sex isn’t just sex; it’s transgressive sex; Howard’s hero demeans himself en route to damning himself.

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An Early, Albeit Pagan, Christmas in the Old North

During the weapon’s dark nativity the clangor of coerced swordsmith-toil masked the muttering of murder-curses:

Sigrlami was the name of a king who ruled over Gardaríki; his daughter was Eyfura, most beautiful of all women. This king had obtained from dwarfs the sword called Tyrfing, the keenest of all blades; every time it was drawn a light shone from it like a ray of the sun. It could never be held unsheathed without being the death of a man, and it had always to be sheathed with blood still warm upon it. There was no living thing, neither man nor beast, that could live to see another day if it were wounded by Tyrfing, whether the wound were big or little; never had it failed in a stroke or been stayed before it plunged into the earth, and the man who bore it in battle would always be victorious, if blows were struck with it. This sword is renowned in all the ancient tales.

That’s the introduction of Tyrfing in Saga Heidreks Konungs ins Vitra, The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise, translated, introduced, annotated, and backstopped with appendices by none other than Christopher Tolkien back in 1960, when he was a Lecturer in Old English at Oxford’s New College. Nor is this ominous glaive’s renown limited to ancient tales; let’s join Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword already in progress, as the eyeless, dragonskin-aproned Jötun-smith Bolverk is tasked to reforge “the banes of heroes,” which has been snapped in two by Thor himself:

Bolverk’s hands fumbled over the pieces. “Aye, ” he breathed,” Well I remember this blade. Me it was whose help Dyrin and Dvalin besought, when they must make such a sword as this to ransom themselves from Svafrlami but would also have it be their revenge on him. We forged ice and death and storm into it, mighty runes and spells, a living will to harm.” He grinned. “Many warriors have owned this sword, because it brings victory. Naught is there on which it does not bite, nor does it ever grow dull of edge. Venom is in the steel, and wounds it gives cannot be healed by leechcraft or magic or prayer. Yet this is the curse on it: that every time it is drawn it must drink blood, and in the end, somehow, it will be the bane of him who wields it.”

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A Farewell to Armistice Day: “What Hellish Seed…?”

It’s been ninety years since “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918 on the Western Front, and very soon now recalled or recollected history will give way entirely to history that is merely recorded. My thoughts never require much encouragement to run to World War One, and this morning two “holiday”-themed pieces got me musing about remembrance and the conflict that murdered illusions and mothered ironies, the distant Armageddon of Robert E. Howard’s childhood. In “Photographer Races Clock to Honor Last Few World War I Vets” Mark Bixier and Paula Hancocks describe the commemorative efforts of one David De Jonge, who’s driven by his awareness of “the last breaths of the last souls who witnessed one of the most horrific wars this world has ever seen.” By his painstakingly researched count, only ten veterans — of any Great War army — still survive:

Four live in Britain, two in Australia, two in France and two in the United States: Buckles and 108-year-old John Babcock of Spokane, Washington, who served with Canadian forces during World War I, DeJonge said.

Each week or month that passes, it seems, brings news of an aging veteran succumbing before DeJonge can find the time and money to photograph him.

Not long ago, he said, two Jamaicans who fought with the British during World War I died. The last known German, French and Austro-Hungarian veterans died in the last year as well.

“These are the last of the last,” he said.

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Howard Gets In Bed With Sylvia

Here’s an interesting blog post on Howard that is apparently four years old, yet I’d never come across it before. In between blasts of the too-cool-for-school style so common to pop-culture bloggers, you’ll find some solid red meat to chew on.

The ideological comparison with Plath is interesting. I’ve always liked her tombstone, which quotes the Hindu adage, “Even amidst fierce flames, the golden lotus can be planted.” One young woman, writing of Plath on her blog, nails the appeal — what one might call the Howardian essence — of her haunting verse:

Her poems are a world of fairytales gone terribly wrong…Her poems are unforgettable because they are, like her, at once violent and vulnerable. They speak, at once, to both the child and the beast within us.

Just so. The violent, vulnerable Texan would have heartily agreed.

“Red Shadows”: Subgenre-Dawn’s Early Light?

Next month if nothing happens the Weird Tales publishes my “Red Shadows” which according to the announcement is “Red Shadows on black trails — thrilling adventures and blood-freezing perils — savage magic and strange sacrifices to the Black God. The story moves swiftly and without the slightest letdown in interest through a series of startling episodes and wild adventure to end in a smashing climax in a glade of an African forest. A story that grips the reader and carries him along in utter fascination by its eery succession of strange and weird happenings.” The announcement does it a fair amount of justice I suppose.
Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, circa June 1928

In “Conan the Argonaut,” their must-read lead article for the worth-the-wait TCV5n4, Morgan Holmes and George Knight say of ‘The Shadow Kingdom,” “That story was Sword-and-Sorcery’s magnificent coming-out party.” Howard’s antediluvian showstopper is usually seen that way, as the beginning of what has been such a beautiful friendship between fantasy, adventure, and horror in the form of a new subgenre. But every once in a while someone is moved to contest the consensus by asking, what about Solomon Kane? He beat Kull into print by a year; “Red Shadows” in the August 1928 Weird Tales was followed by “Skulls in the Stars” in the January 1929 issue. Why isn’t the Devonian (Devonshireman?) rather than the Atlantean accorded the status of having been first to climb into the cockpit as sword-and-sorcery’s test pilot?

My blog-brother Finn would seem to be one such dissenter; in “Two-Gun Musketeer: Robert E. Howard’s Weird Tales,” his introduction to Shadow Kingdoms: The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume One, Mark writes “Howard invented the sword and sorcery tale as we define it with his genre-breaking Solomon Kane.” He regards “The Shadow Kingdom” as then taking “the sword and sorcery concept one step further” by deleting “any semblance of the world we know.”

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