Snakes On A Comparatively Mundane Plane


Having enjoyed [redacted]’s recent “Thoth-Amon, Lord Voldemort. Voldemort, Thoth-Amon” post, I’d like to follow up on Mark’s references to ophidians as “an eternal symbol of menace, ” and “a symbol of ultimate evil.” They aren’t invariably the ultimate evil in Howard’s work, and therein lies a tale, or two tales, “The Scarlet Citadel” and “The Valley of the Worm.” The former story debuted in the January 1933 Weird Tales, the latter in the February 1934 issue; did readers who were paying close attention wonder about a connection between the Satha of “Citadel” and that of “Valley”?

In the Conan story, once the king of Aquilonia is shackled in Tsotha-lanti’s “very Halls of Horror named in shuddersome legendry,” the next order of business is to introduce Satha, which Howard does by way of “a soft rustling sound, blood-freezing in its implications.” Conan, by this point in his life a formidably experienced practical herpetologist, recognizes “the unmistakable sound of pliant scales slithering softly over stone.” What torchlight is available reveals the owner of those scales to be “the ultimate horror of reptilian development,” an eighty-footer the “titan coils” and footlong, scimitar-like fangs of which beggar “all Conan’s previous ideas of snakes.” Satha’s hide “white as hoar-frost” (Frazetta was unfaithful to the text of “Citadel” in his cover painting for Conan the Usurper) leads the Cimmerian to conclude “Surely this reptile was one born and grown in darkness,” but that doesn’t keep its eyes from being “full of evil and sure sight.” Just how sure, we learn as the story progresses.

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Hearts In Mouths

Reacting to Volume One of The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, earlier this week Leo wrote “This is the kind of thing that tends to shake loose all kinds of scholarship that would otherwise never have been written.” Scholarly scholarship is beyond my reach even when I’m at my best, and I’m never ever at my best on a Friday afternoon, but I’d like to cheat by riffing on a passage from Howard’s August 9, 1932 letter to Lovecraft that will appear in the middle Collected Letters volume.

Most of us are familiar with Fritz Leiber’s observation that the Texan “knew the words and phrases of power and sought to use them as soon and as often as possible.” So, too, did he know the symbols and images of power — an excardiated heart, for example. The organ in question, even when divine or alien, might be a thuddingly, or throbbingly, obvious symbol, but we can all name authors who would do well to be less wary of the obvious and more wary of the obscure.

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More Star Roving

Guest Blogger Fred Blosser adds his two cents to Steve’s recent post on The Star Rover.

FRED: I appreciate Steve’s tip of the hat in his posting today. The other guy who should be mentioned in regard to connecting the dots between The Star Rover and Howard was de Camp. I believe he was the first observer — at least, the first in print, via Dark Valley Destiny in 1983 — to remark on the similarities between The Star Rover and concepts in the Conan and James Allison stories.

With a little more luck and persistence, I might have beat Sprague to the punch by fifteen years, but to paraphrase Robert De Niro, I blew it.

I noticed the proto-Howard details in the London book when I first read it in 1968, and at that time, I asked Glenn if evidence existed that Howard had read the novel. Glenn supplied me with Howard’s “book that goes to my head like wine” comment, and I built on that in writing a college freshman English paper that I titled “Jack London and the Hyborian Age.” Before the fall semester was over that year, I revised the paper a bit and submitted it to Amra. Over Christmas break, I received a card from George Scithers accepting it for publication — but it never appeared, as far as I’m aware.

When I signed with Ted Dikty and FAX in 1976 to write a book about Howard’s weird fiction, I covered the Little People stories and salvaged a bit of “Jack London and the Hyborian Age,” particularly noting the references to Il-Marinen by both authors. I started writing my book in October 1976 and delivered the final portion of the manuscript to Dikty in February 1977. Dikty said he liked it, and sent me a galley of the first chapter to proofread, along with a xerox of artwork by Alex Nino that he said he’d use for the cover.

I proofed the galley and sent it back to Ted. Around this time, unfortunately for me, Ted decided to put my book on the back burner and first publish a big, expensive map of the Hyborian Age, along with his wife’s accompanying Gazetteer. I never heard from him again, and I presume the single galley chapter was the only one set in type. My book, like several other promised titles, never saw the light of day. (Not from FAX at least. One of the books that Dikty advertised as in the works, Glenn’s The Howard Collector anthology, later found a home at Ace.)

Looking around for something to submit to The Dark Man in the ’90s, I performed another salvage job and turned the unpublished section about the Little People stories into the article that Steve graciously mentioned. At that point, my product wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, since de Camp, in the meantime, had published his observations about Howard’s debt to The Star Rover in the background to the Allison stories, in the genesis of the Æsir and the Vanir, etc. But I’m glad that Steve seems to have liked it, and I was interested in how he picked up many, many other parallels that I hadn’t noticed.

I’ve seen a couple of new trade paperback editions of the London book in the past few years, including a moderately priced Modern Library version. I hope Steve’s article will prompt new fans to seek it out.

Steve adds: Drat. Had a survey of Howard’s weird fiction possessing the customary Blosserian seriousness of purpose appeared in 1977 or 1978, coinciding with Karl Edward Wagner’s game-changing forewords and afterwords to the Berkley Conans, that would have done a lot to improve the locust years that preceded The Dark Barbarian. I’ll have to file this one next to the history of heroic fantasy Leiber once intended to write on my Should-Have-Been Bookshelf.

Correction: Don Herron, far more knowledgeable about Fritz Leiber than are certain antipodean resurrection men I might mention, has informed me that Leiber hoped to tackle not just our favorite subgenre of fantasy but the whole genre, which leaves me yearning even more to read what was mostly never written.

London Calling: The Ragnar Lodbrog Chapter of The Star-Rover

[redacted] and I seem to have at least a desultory Jack London thread going, so I’d like to crack open The Star Rover for this post. The novel has long had a reputation among Howardists as James Allison’s home away from home, and Fred Blosser planted a Howard studies banner in London’s text a decade ago with “The Star Rover and the People of Night” in TDM #4, May 1997, but as the title of that article hints, Fred’s focus was Rover-ian influence on “The Children of the Night.” I’m fascinated by the novel’s Chapter XVII, which finds London, who as much as anyone other than Robert W. Service made the New World’s North his own, turning his attention to the North of the Old World and affording us an example of a major American writer contributing to “the Northern thing” decades before REH, Fletcher Pratt, Poul Anderson, or Fritz Leiber.

The nativity of the chapter’s narrator, Ragnar Lodbrog (actually an Allison-style past incarnation of Darrell Standing, who is doing the hardest possible hard time in San Quentin solitary), could not be more northern, “tempest-born on a beaked ship,” and “delivered in storm, with the spume of the cresting seas salt upon [him].” “For nursery,” Ragnar tells us, “were reeling decks and the stamp and trample of men in battle or storm.” From birth he earns the enmity of Tostig Lodbrog, alias Muspell (“The Burning”, whose immediate inclination is to drown him in “a half-pot of mead.” To establish Tostig’s badassery, London alludes to the sea-king’s having eaten “the heart of Ngun after the fight at Hasfurth” and “the spiced wine he would have from no other cup than the skull of Guthlaf.” The greatest and grimmest of Northern tales comes in with an invocation of “Gudrun’s revenge on Atl, when she gave him the hearts of his children and hers to eat while battle swept the benches, tore down the hangings raped from southern coasts, and littered the feasting board with swift corpses.” Scope that not-for-the-faint-of-heart verb “raped”; London was as bruisingly powerful aboard a longship as he was alongside a dogsled, and it’s a shame he didn’t write more things like the flashback-chapters of The Star Rover.

After proto-Howardian observations about Tostig’s entourage like “Their thoughts were ferocious; so was their eating ferocious, and their drinking,” Ragnar escapes and is finally captured by the Romans, where, from the young Robert E. Howard’s point of view, the chapter goes to hell in an imperator‘s chariot. The Northron is made “a sweep-slave in the galleys” but works his way up to “freeman, a citizen, and a soldier.” We even learn that he will eventually rise to command a legion—imagine Howard’s disgust! All of the storms and stroppiness back home are just a preamble to a Gospel According to Jack, as Pontius Pilate, who is enduring a full-court press from the Sanhedrin, Ragnar, and his highborn love interest Miriam debate what should be done with a “vagrant fisherman, this wandering preacher, this piece of driftage from Galilee.” Ragnar digs himself in deeper by insisting to Miriam “The Romans are the elder brothers of us younglings of the north. Also, I wear the harness and eat the bread of Rome.” If London’s novel did indeed “generally [go to Howard’s] head like wine,” as he told Harold Preece, Ragnar’s civis Romanum sum sentiments must have been the undrinkable lees.

(Two pop culture asides: We can’t blame London for the lamentable Revenge of the Sith-associations of the term “younglings,” and thanks to Monty Python, can anyone read or see a scene featuring Pilate or other administrators of Occupied Judaea without instantaneously thinking of Biggus Dickus? I first met B. Dickus in a German movie theater in 1981, where his nom de dubbing was Schwanzus Langus–even funnier, perhaps)

For evidence of the Ragnar chapter’s impact on Howard, we need only consult the novel-fragment published for the first time in the Del Rey version of Bran Mak Morn: The Last King, which it might still be convenient to refer to by the title Glenn Lord assigned in The Last Celt, “The Wheel Turns.” (This is the abortive project referred to in an October 5, 1923 letter to Tevis Clyde Smith–“a book which doubtless would make you tired” Howard’s narrator is Hakon, who crews for Tostig the Mighty, “a terrible warrior and a man whose wish was his only law.” Tostig’s second ship is captained by one Ragnar, and another of the dramatis personae is named Lodbrog. Where a blow from London’s Tostig sends his narrator “dazed and breathless half the length of the great board”; Howard’s Tostig is no less enraged by the narrator’s disobedience, “I caught the blow on an up-flung arm but the force was enough to knock me from my feet and send me rolling along the deck.”

London’s Tostig feasts “under the smoky rafters of Brunanbuhr” and “Jutes” is spelled “Juts” in The Star Rover, a spelling retained by Howard, in the last sentence of whose Chapter 2, “The Viking,” two ships are “sold to the Juts at Brunanbuhr.” Howard’s fragment features an “Angle” ship helmed by Gathlaff–recall London’s reference to Guthlaf and his skull’s afterlife as a beverage holder. Interestingly, this section of “The Wheel Turns” also offers a preview of Conan’s underhanded undermining of Zaporavo in “The Pool of the Black One”:

Cunningly, without speaking against Tostig and giving him an excuse to slay me, craftily, without drawing suspicion of any sort to myself, I turned the Vikings against Tostig, against his arrogance, his over-bearing ways, his cruelty. Many of them hated Tostig anyway, so it was not such a difficult matter.

We know that when Howard was taken by a story, that story was sometimes taken by Howard, who would then make it his own. In his introduction to The Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient, Patrice Louinet notes “Howard’s first attempt at writing an Oriental story was contemporary to his reading Lamb’s ‘The Wolf Chaser’ (Adventure Magazine, April 30, 1922). . .The Texan first wrote a short recap of Lamb’s story, then proceeded to write a short story, or rather outline of a story, which apparently didn’t go beyond the second page.” But I think the after-effects of London’s Ragnar chapter outlasted the rather blatant appropriation evident in “The Wheel Turns.” Might not Howard’s later “Men of the Shadows” be a sort of indignant answer-song? If barbarism is the natural state of manking, then it is damn sure the natural, the only permissible state of barbarians, and Ragnar should be ashamed of himself. Against the stark backdrop of the north of Britain, where a “high mountain wind” roars “with the voice of giants,” Howard’s unnamed Scandinavian legionary reverts to his true self as the “real” Romans are Pict-picked off one by one: “By Thor and Wotan, I would teach them how a Norseman passed! With each passing moment I became less of the cultured Roman.” We can sense Howard’s glee as his Viking remarks on “years of Roman culture [slipping] away like sea-fog before the sun” and he can’t divest himself of “all dross of education and civilization” fast enough (I feel the same way when I try to read Cicero). Picture Howard at his Underwood, glaring at his well-thumbed copy of The Star Rover as he types “I was no Roman, I was a Norseman, a hairy chested, yellow bearded barbarian. And I strode the heath as arrogantly as if I trod the deck of my own galley.”

Bran himself gets in on the de-Romanizing action: “But you are a Roman, to be sure. And yet, methinks they must grow taller Romans than I had thought. And your beard, what turned it yellow?” Is it fanciful to suggest that one reason why the first few pages of “Men of the Shadows” are a real story, rather than a rejection-earning summation of Pictish history, is because Howard was picking a fight with London/Ragnar? We need not drag in Harold Bloom’s theorizing about the anxiety of influence and the patricidal inclinations of authors just starting out to speculate along these lines.

And beyond “Men of the Shadows,” might one of Ragnar’s conversations with Miriam contain an echo-in-advance of Conan and Belît’s conversation as the Tigress glides up-river on the sinister Zarkheba? Here’s London:

Let these mad dreamers go the way of their dreaming. Deny them not what they desire, above all things, above meat and wine, above song and battle, even above love of women. Deny them not their hearts’ desires that draw them across the dark of the grave to their dreams of life beyond this world. Let them pass. But you and I abide here in all the sweet we have discovered of each other. quickly enough will come the dark, and you depart for your coasts of sun and flowers, and I for the roaring table of Valhalla.

As for other possible debts, in London we find “Once I was Ushu, the archer,” in Howard “I was Lakur the archer in the land of Kita.’ In Chapter XXI of The Star Rover, a pre-Ragnarian but equally Aryan reverie, the narrator would have us know “The sword, in battle, sings not so sweet a song as the woman sings to man merely by her laugh in the moonlight, or her love-sob in the dark, or her swaying on her way under the sun while he lies dizzy with longing in the grass.” I can’t prove it, but one of Asgrimm’s disgusted utterances in “Marchers of Valhalla” seems like a direct retort to what might have struck Howard as treacle: “The kisses and love-songs of women soon pall, but the sword sings a fresh song with each stroke.”

Returning for a moment to Before Adam, one last example of Howard redoing London to his own satisfaction possibly occurs in Chapter 1 of “The Wheel Turns,” “Back Through the Ages,” which borrows the senior writer’s term “the Younger World” and evokes “the Swift One” with a character named Swift-Foot. Red-Eye, the throwback more pongid than hominid of Before Adam, gets away with murder and worse. That surely didn’t sit well with Howard, and so we get:

For I saw red rage and there, in the swaying tree-tops, a hundred feet from the ground, we fought hand to hand, the Hairy Man and I, and bare-handed and unaided I slew him, there in tree-tops, when the world was young.

And was this cursorily described incident then one of the kernels of “Spear and Fang”? Food for thought–and in honor of London, a San Francisco treat.

After the End: Howard & London’s Postapocalyptic Imagery

At the grim climax of Before Adam, Jack London’s 1907 novel of “The Younger World,” narrator Big-Tooth describes how he and his proto-hominid kinfolk were hunted into the swamps by the more Cromagnonesque Fire People, who have mastered arson and archery:

We make plaintive querulous noises, look at one another and cluster close together. It is like the meeting of the handful of survivors after the day of the end of the world.

Was the just-quoted passage the ur-version of one of Howard’s favorite reality-heightening similes? Let’s compare:

Slowly through the corpses they came, as ghosts might come to a tryst through the shambles of a dead world. (“The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”)

The survivors stared bleakly and blankly at each other, like survivors after Judgment Day or the destruction of the world. (“Red Nails”)

…until dawn came slowly, sullenly and dimly, and we halted and stared haggardly at each other, like ghosts in the morn after the destruction of the world. (“The Thunder-Rider”)

Now my intent here is not to whittle away at Howard’s artistry. In all three instances he noticeably improves upon the London original. Survivors dematerialize into ghosts, or regard each other “bleakly or blankly,” and the images of “the shambles of a dead world” and a dim and sullen dawn are all Howard. This is just one of many examples of what we’ve known for decades, that London’s work contains whole Klondikes and Yukons wherein Howardist source-hunters can prospect for inspiration-nuggets.

Speaking of the postapocalyptic, congratulations to Cormac McCarthy, the terrible beauty of whose 2006 novel The Road just won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, although I still wonder how readers who take their marching orders from Oprah Winfrey are coping with the roasted-baby-on-a-spit scene.

Who would survive must learn a savage tongue….


The poetry of Robert E. Howard has long been known for its martial splendor and potent battle imagery, but what is most striking to me is how successfully he managed to get into the heads of soldiers and warriors, and how completely he was able to immerse himself (and hence the reader) into the real-life thoughts and feelings of both killers and victims, the battle-hungry and the battle-weary. There’s a difference between merely sprinkling appropriate adjectives into your poetry and capturing the essence of the struggle of warfare in all its harrowing details and viewpoints. In his best work Howard achieves this again and again.

Consider this poem, written by Howard a full decade before the onset of World War II, and yet encapsulating perfectly the civilizational battle for supremacy that was about to explode upon the world:

“Little Brown Man Of Nippon”

Little brown man of Nippon
Who apes the ways of the west,
You have set the sword on your standard,
And the eagle on your crest.

Little brown man of Nippon,
You have dreamed a deadly dream;
You have waked the restless ravens
And the rousing vultures scream.

Oh, lines of an unborn empire,
Foam of a rising flood,
Your bones shall mark the borders,
The tide shall be your blood.

Little brown man of Nippon,
Though the star of the West be set,
And the last of the fair-haired strew the field
Where East and West be met —

Though you herd us down like cattle,
And hew us down like corn,
Our blood shall drown your vision
Of the empire yet unborn.

In utter desolation, and despair
At the end, on a blackened hill,
You shall sit and view your empire,
Broken and charred and still.

The beams of shattered houses,
Reared stark against the sky,
And fields wherein, for waving grain,
Long waves of dead men lie.

We will set the torch with our own hands
To wall and roof and spire;
We will cut the throats of our women,
And feed our babes to the fire;

We will fling our naked bosoms
Against your bloodied steel;
As you tread us under, dying,
Our teeth shall rend your heel.

But, little brown man of Nippon,
Should the dice fall otherwise,
And the gods of the fair-haired triumph
When the battle-dawns arise —

We will give your flesh to the sea-gulls
And your cities to the flame,
Till the world forgets your visions,
And the years forget your name.

Over your island empire
Shall our steel-clad squadrons fly
Till the land lies black and silent
Under a flame-ripped sky.

Till the hungry wolf goes slinking
Along your shattered streets,
And the kite in your ruined palace
Tears at the crimson meats.

And over the crimson gutters
Which infant bodies choke
The raven flaps and strangles
In the drifting shreds of smoke.

No plough shall break your valleys,
No song shall rouse your hill —
Still and silent the ploughmen,
The singers silent and still.

And your nation’s only emblem,
Oh, man of the crimson dream —
Save corpses in the broken streets
And the death-fires’ baleful gleam —

Shall hang at the prow of a cruiser,
That furrows the flying foam,
Bearing the spoils of conquest
To the fair-haired people’s home.

Shall hang at the prow of a cruiser,
Grinning and dripping red,
The price of a dream of empire —
Little brown man, your head.

The dwelling on the savagery and the tenacity of both sides, and the pain and bloodshed that would accompany any war between the powers of East and West, demonstrate striking parallels between Howard’s poetry and the verse written around the same time by actual soldiers in the field. On the web you can read Larry Richter’s first ‘zine for REHupa from many years ago, where he argues that George S. Patton shared many qualities with Howard when writing his own ghostly battle poems. It’s a compelling comparison; who can forget George C. Scott stopping at a line of Roman ruins in the film Patton and giving a speech seemingly written by Howard’s reincarnation hero James Allison?

“The Carthaginians defending the city were attacked by three Roman legions. The Carthaginians were proud and brave, but they couldn’t hold. They were massacred. Arab women stripped them of their tunics and their swords and lances. The soldiers lay naked in the sun. Two thousand years ago. I was here.”

Men who share Howard’s predilections are plentiful for those who keep a lookout for them. I recently came across another soldier-poet in the Howardian mold. In late 1941, Lt. Henry G. Lee was a twenty-seven-year-old recruit serving with the Philippine Division of the US forces. Raised in Pasadena, California, he was an amateur versifier who wrote regularly into a journal about life and battle. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, realizing that he was about to be plunged into the thick of bloodthirsty war, Lee penned the following poem:

“Prayer Before Battle (To Mars)”
(December 8, 1941)
Before thine ancient altar, God of War,
Forlorn, afraid, alone, I kneel to pray.
The gentle shepherd whom I would adore,
Faced by thy blazing plaything, slips away.
And I am drained of faith — alone — alone.
Who now needs faith to face thy outthrust sword,
Bereft of hope, turned to pagan to the bone.
I kneel to thee and hail thee as my Lord.
From such a God as thee, I ask not life,
My life is forfeited, the hour is late.
Thou need not swerve the bullet, dull the knife.
I ask but strength to ride the wave of fate.
And one thing more — to validate this strife,
And my own sacrifice — teach me to hate.

Teach me to hate. Those of you who have read my essay “The Reign of Blood,” in The Barbaric Triumph know that, in my opinion, it would be difficult to conjure a more Howardian sentiment than that.

Months later — with the islands under assault by the Japanese, and certain defeat, capture, and torture looming — Lee and the rest fought bravely alongside Philippine scouts, who he immortalized in another stirring poem:

“To the Philippine Scouts”
Philippine Scouts-N. Luzon, S. Luzon, Abucay, Moran, The Points, Toul Pocket, Mt. Samat, Corregidor (December 8, 1941-May 8, 1942)

The desperate fight is lost; the battle done.
The brown, lean ranks are scattered to the breeze
Their cherished weapons rusting in the sun
Their mouldering guidons hidden by the leaves.
No more the men who did not fear to die
Will plug the broken line while through the din
Their beaten comrades raise the welcome cry
“Make way, make way, the Scouts are moving in.”

The jungle takes the long-defended lines
The trench erodes; the wire rusts away
The lush lank grasses and the trailing vines
Soon hide the human remains of the fray.
The battle ended and the story told
The blood-smeared leaves of history begin
To open to the Scouts, as they unfold
The little tired soldiers enter in.

The men who were besieged on every side
Who knew the disillusion of retreat
And still retained their fierce exultant pride
And were soldiers — even in defeat,
Now meet the veterans of ten thousand years
Now find a welcome worthy of their trade
From men who fought with cross bows and with spears
With bullet and with arrow and with spade.

The grizzled veterans Rome was built upon
The Death-head horde of Attila the Hun
The “Yellow Horror” of the greatest Kahn
The guardsmen of the first Napoleon
And all the men in every nameless fight
Since man first strove with man to prove his worth
Shall greet the Scouts as is their right —
No finer soldiers ever walked the earth.

And then the Scouts will form to be reviewed
Each scattered unit now once more complete
Each weapon and each bright crisp flag renewed
And high above the cadence of their feet
Will come the loud clear virile welcoming shout
From many throats before the feasts begin
Their badge of honor mid their comrades rout —
“Make way, make way, the Scouts are moving in.”

Starving and without aid of any kind, Lt. Lee and his men finally surrendered on April 9, 1942 with the rest of the Americans, and became prisoners of the fearsome Japanese. He was allowed to send a single postcard to his family with his signature on it, and then spent the next three years in hellish conditions in an Imperial prison camp. The Japanese had never signed the Geneva Conventions, and they subjected their charges to a host of horrors.

During that time, Henry Lee continued to surreptitiously record poems in his now-hidden journal, forging a series of very poignant and emotional paeans to warfare and prison that Howard fans will find very familiar.

“Fighting On”

I see no gleam of victory alluring
No chance of splendid booty or of gain
If I endure — I must go on enduring
And my reward for bearing pain — is pain
Yet, though the thrill, the zest, the hope are gone
Something within me keeps me fighting on


“Death March”

So you are dead. The easy words contain
No sense of loss, no sorrow, no despair.
Thus hunger, thirst, fatigue, combines to drain
All feeling from our hearts. The endless glare,
The brutal heat, anesthetize the mind.
I can not mourn you now. I lift my load,
The suffering column moves. I leave behind
Only another corpse, beside the road.

Howard’s own fascination with capture, torture, and escape, with the evil that men do to those under their bloody thumbs and bootheels, finds echo in Lt. Lee’s lines about an execution, perhaps one of many which he himself witnessed during those grim years:

Red in the eastern sun, before he died,
We saw his glinting hair; his arms were tied.
There by his lonely form, ugly and grim
We saw an open grave waiting for him.

We watched him from our fence, in silent throng,
Each with the fervent prayer, “God make him strong.”
They offered him a smoke, he’d not have that,
Then at his captor’s feet he coldly spat.

He faced the leaden hail, his eyes were bare;
We saw the tropic rays glint in his hair.
What mattered why he stood facing the gun?
We saw a nation’s pride there in the sun.

How desolate must his soul have become after three years of such misery, not knowing if he would ever be rescued, or whether the next crack of a pistol would signify his own death. By 1944 the war was going America’s way, but to the prisoners victory and freedom were but a stale dream. Three years to the day after his Pearl Harbor-inspired poem, Lt. Lee wrote another that gives us an idea of how much he had changed by that time:

“Three Years After”
(December 8, 1944)

“Teach me to hate,” I prayed — for I was young,
And fear was in my heart, and faith had fled.
“Teach me to hate! for hate is strength,” I said
“A staff to lean on.” Thus my challenge flung
Into the thunder of the clouds that hung
Cloaking with terror all the days ahead —
“Teach me to hate — the world I loved is dead;
Who would survive must learn a savage tongue.”

And I have learned — and paid in days that ran
To bitter schooling. Love was lost in pains,
Hunger replaced the beauty in life’s plan,
Honor and virtue vanished with the rains
And faith in God dissolved with faith in man.
I have my hate! But nothing else remains.

Had Howard lived, would he have reached a similar state of mind? Would he have perhaps fought in that very war, and experienced its horrors for himself? How would it have affected his fiction? We’ll never know, but in the writing of Lt. Lee we see what might have been, a man who sees the darkness and the unadorned ferocity of the human soul in ways seldom expressed in this comparatively tender age.

Howard didn’t have war to contend with, but he was engaged for all his life in a war of the mind and of the soul, a battle against the scourges of depression, the pulp marketplace, and the hatred directed at him by the very town in which he lived. Howard was in a prison camp of sorts, too, and with no way out. And it eventually killed him every bit as dead as if he had fallen under the bayonets of the Japanese.


As it happened, there was no escape for Henry Lee, either. In late December 1944, he was put on a transport ship and sent to Japan as slave labor. Before leaving, he hastily dug a hole under a prison hut and buried his journal of poems, hoping that someday in the future — as a free soldier in a victorious American army — he might come back and retrieve it. En route to Japan, an American plane caught sight of the unmarked boat and unleashed a hail of bombs, sending the transport to the bottom of the ocean — and the young Poet of Bataan along with it. Lee was thirty years old — the exact age Howard was when he met his own violent end. Two young poets possessed of searing thoughts and a preternatural sensitivity for the power of words and rhyme, both lost to the worms and the ages.

If there is a happy ending to be found in either man’s story, it is that neither has been forgotten. In Howard’s case, we ultimately have people like Glenn Lord, L. Sprague de Camp, Novalyne Price Ellis, and Rusty Burke to thank for that. As for Lee, on January 30, 1945 the prison where he had spent three years, Camp Cabanatuan, was liberated by the Sixth Ranger Infantry Battalion led by Lt. Col. Henry A. Mucci, who had audaciously led his men far behind the Japanese front and taken the enemy unawares. This unbelievable action — depicted in the book Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission, and later in the 2005 film The Great Raid — resulted in the rediscovery of Lee’s buried journal, and subsequently (in 1948) the publishing of his poems for posterity in a volume called Nothing But Praise. The Great Raid had come a few precious weeks too late to save Henry Lee, but it managed to save his life’s work: a small dirt-encrusted journal containing faded poetry scribbled out with such emotion that it may as well have been penned in blood.

Something tells me that Robert E. Howard and Lt. Lee would have made fine friends. Both understood that speaking truth often requires a savage tongue, and that there is honor and succor to be found in struggle and warfare and death. The worlds of history and poetry are both the better for having known them.

Walking Up and Down in the Earth

No getting around it; cinematic sword-and-sorcery is a world of suck. Definitional elasticity is desperately needed so that we can claim artistic successes like John Boorman’s Excalibur, John McTiernan’s The Thirteenth Warrior, and Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers for a subgenre to which they don’t incontrovertibly belong. Hell, George Miller’s The Road Warrior and Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans capture more of the feel and frisson of the best sword-and-sorcery (recall the Mann movie’s endgame of inevitable, almost Iliad-ic death-duels against an impossibly dramatic backdrop with a soundtrack that is all Celtic keening and skirling) than does anything ever dumbed down and screwed up by a member of the De Laurentiis family.

So heroic fantasy aficionados usually have to settle for table-scraps and objets trouvés, an extended sequence here or the better part of a Chronicles of Riddick there. Case in point: the 2 tentacular spectaculars of kraken-on-ship action in this summer’s Dead Man’s Chest, prodigies of special effects, editing, and stuntwork, like Jackson’s Kong-versus-three-tyrannosaurs tour de force last Christmas. Davey Jones’ kraken dragging down its tall-masted prey is probably as close as we’ll ever get to the Oraycha setpieces of Karl Edward Wagner’s sorcery-and-superscience-permeated sea battle in Darkness Weaves.


(Continue reading this post)

The Romantic Primitive Debunked


Conservative columnist Mark Steyn has been reviewing books for the popular Canadian magazine Maclean’s for several months now, and his latest piece focuses on a book that will be of interest to Howard fans.

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade posits the argument that primitive societies were far more warlike and brutal than modern historians and sociologists give them credit for. By the end, when Steyn mentions Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History by Lee Harris, it feels as if the shade of Robert E. Howard is guiding the keystrokes.

I’m hard pressed to think of an author with a more visceral, hypnotic expression of these themes than Robert E. Howard. Others come close — Jack London hits many of the same nerves in The Star Rover, Before Adam, and The Sea Wolf, not to mention a host of short stories such as “Love for Life” and “An Odyssey of the North.” But Howard had a way of making the unfathomable brutality of the past come to life that I have never seen matched. As he wrote to Harold Preece (a quote that [redacted] recently added to this site’s REH quote generator):

I mean my characters are more like men than these real men are, see. They’re rough and rude, they got hands and they got bellies. They hate and they lust; break the skin of civilization and you find the ape, roaring and red-handed.

Those of us who lament the dearth of novels in Howard’s output would be wise to consider to what degree the short story format helped distill and hone this artistic statement in ways difficult to do at novel length. Too often we wish that Howard wrote longer stories or provided more characterization, without realizing that perhaps these “weak spots” in his writing are a necessary adjunct to the most powerful elements. Add more exposition, and perhaps all of the raw power and unbridled momentum would be lost, leaving Howard as just another middling, lukewarm author.

One of the reasons Howard has remained so relevant as an author and artist is because his most passionate themes are so universal that seventy years haven’t aged them at all. Even when plot elements hinge on now-debunked science, the basic soundness of his worldview remains. He engaged in harrowing tales of war and rapine at a time when unfettered violence was far more shocking and frowned upon than it is now, and frequently risked rejection for his single-minded focus on such things to the exclusion of all else. But his contemporaries’ revulsion is our gain: while other authors frequently recede with the passing of years, trapped in the amber of their time and place, REH’s achievement only glows brighter. It seems that hardly a day goes by without me being struck by the application of Howard’s thoughts on the barbaric nature of mankind to something in the news.

I’m convinced that someday, with the right criticism and films and reprintings, Howard will become well known enough to be mentioned and quoted in such articles as Steyn’s — a prophet of primitivism in this uncertain age of teetering civilizations.