Finally, I've gotten to read some new Robert E. Howard! Well, not new -- Robert E. Howard committed suicide in 1936 -- but new to me, anyway!
For those who are unfamiliar, Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) was a Texas author who wrote fantasy, adventure, and horror fiction for pulp magazines such as Weird Tales. He is best known for his creation Conan the Cimmerian, though he wrote a large body of memorable work and introduced many fascinating heroes. For instance, the title of this blog, "Skulls in the Stars", is a title of a story of Howard's about his character Solomon Kane, a puritan adventurer and justice-seeker.
Most of Howard's other works have fallen into obscurity, overshadowed by the popularity of Conan, but in recent years compilations of some of them have been released. I recently picked up a compilation of Howard's modern desert adventures, titled El Borak:
"El Borak" is the Arabic name of American adventurer Francis Xavier Gordon, and the bulk of the tales, though not all, focus on his adventures. The tales are stories of action and intrigue set in the deserts and mountains of the Middle East, stretching all the way to Afghanistan.
The stories are, in an odd sense, very timely, considering the current U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan. Howard's 1930s Afghanistan seems the spiritual kin of the modern-day country: a harsh, unforgiving land, populated by warring tribes vying for power, with violence and death an ever present reality. Though his stories are heroic adventures, Howard still manages to capture very well the brutality and danger of such wild lands, and does not overly glamorize the life of a soldier of fortune.
Francis X. Gordon is a very typical Howard character -- a powerful warrior with both gun and sword, very crafty and clever, and remarkably strong and remarkably fast. According to Howard, "El Borak" is Arabian for "the swift", and it is a reputation that Gordon has earned amongst the peoples of the East. Most of Howard's characters are "noble barbarians", and El Borak is no exception -- though he is perfectly at home among the bandits and raiding parties that he often ends up leading, he is always fighting to protect people and avoid greater bloodshed, and is generally acting in a selfless manner. Oddly, this often manifests itself in him fighting to maintain the status quo of British colonialism in India and Pakistan. As he himself notes, however, the would-be conquerors who would overthrow colonialism would bring an even more unpleasant situation to the colonies.
Howard's depiction of the Arabs and Muslims in his tales is admirably multifaceted. Though there are plenty of evil and inhuman villains, there are also plenty of honorable men as well. As I've noted in the past, Howard himself often argued that barbarism is a superior to civilization, in that barbarians are more honest and civilized men effectively institutionalize their cruel acts. That is a topic to be discussed in detail in a future post, but suffice it to say that Howard's depictions of "savage" cultures are usually very admiring.
Howard's most famous works such as Conan and Solomon Kane are full-blown fantasy stories, with supernatural elements; the El Borak tales are straight adventure and possess nothing unnatural beyond a bit of cryptozoology. This doesn't mean that there aren't fanciful elements, however; we are introduced to hidden cities of thieves and orders of assassins, devil-worshipping cults and forgotten, "cursed" treasures.
Curiously, I'd already read some of these stories before I read them! Back in the 1950s, a number of Howard's desert adventures were converted into Conan stories by L. Sprague de Camp, usually adding a supernatural element to the tale. I recall from the introduction of a Conan compilation that de Camp found the conversion relatively easy; as I noted already, Howard's heroes have a lot of characteristics in common. In this compilation, "Three-Bladed Doom" was also released in the 1950s as "The Flame Knife", and "The Trail of the Blood-Stained God" was released as "The Blood-Stained God". De Camp actually did quite a nice job in converting the stories to Conan tales, and the supernatural elements are quite clever; I recommend hunting down both versions to interested readers.
Howard himself may not have been too upset by the flagrant rewriting of his stories. His first published Conan tale, "The Phoenix on the Sword", is a rewrite of his King Kull story, "By This Axe I Rule!", with Conan replacing Kull and supernatural elements added! The two stories have a very different emphasis, and are both worth reading. "Phoenix" can be read here; I have been unable to find "Axe" online yet.
The compilation consists of seven "El Borak" stories, three "Kirby O'Donnell" stories, and "The Fire of Asshurbanipal", featuring "Steve Clarney". Whereas El Borak is a rather selfless fighter for truth and justice in the wild Middle East, O'Donnell and Clarney are more traditional soldiers of fortune, seeking lost treasures.
All of the stories are entertaining, and will feel very familiar to fans of Robert E. Howard. I found them not quite as compelling as his fantasy stories -- Howard had a very wonderful gift for the weird -- but they are excellent adventure stories and it is great that they've been rereleased.
For the past 5-6 years, Del Rey has been rereleasing much of Howard's hard to find and classic fiction, and they are to be commended for making these stories easily available to the modern reader.