Her Letters to Robert E. Howard: Catherine Lucille Moore

Dear Mr. Howard:

My blessing! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed “Sword-Woman.” It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures. Your favorite trick of slamming the door on a burst of bugles! And leaving one to wonder what happened next and wanting so badly to know. Aren’t there any more stories about Agnes?
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 24

Catherine Lucille Moore burst into the pages of Weird Tales with “Shambleau” (Nov 1933). She was a secretary at the Fletcher Trust Company in her native Indianapolis, Indiana, and engaged to a bank teller named Herbert Ernest Lewis. During the Great Depression, jobs were scarce and her $25 a week was needed to support her family; married women were often expected to be homemakers, and this may be why Moore and her fiance had a long engagement—and it is why, when she began to sell her stories to the pulps for extra cash, she used her initials “C. L.” so that her employers would not discover she had an extra source of income.

By the time C. L. Moore hit the pages of Weird Tales, to immediate acclaim, Robert E. Howard had already become a fixture; his stories of Conan the Cimmerian were still going strong, interspersed with other weird tales and poems, as well as sales to Weird Tales‘ companion magazine The Magic Carpet, and he had just employed an agent, Otis Adelbert Kline, who would help Howard break into many other pulp markets.

Both Moore and Howard had correspondents in common, notably H. P. Lovecraft, but also R. H. Barlow and E. Hoffmann Price; Howard and Moore also shared a friend in Frank Thurston Torbett, a Texan fan of weird fiction. Yet there is nothing in the letters of either of the principles to their friends to suggest of a correspondence between two of the great fantasists of Weird Tales in the ’30s. All that is known to survive of their correspondence is a single letter, dated 29 January 1935…and from that, and a few inferences in the rest of their correspondence to others, is all that we can judge of their exchange.

To begin with, we know that Moore was a fan:

I’d like to read everything Robert E. Howard has ever written. The first story of his I read was WORMS OF THE EARTH, and I’ve been a fanatic ever since. And of course Lovecraft and Price.
—C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, n. d. [early Apr 1934], MSS John Hay Library

In the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales, readers were treated to both the Conan story “The People of the Black Circle” and “Black God’s Kiss” by C. L. Moore—which introduced her character Jirel of Joiry, a redheaded French swordswoman in a fantastic medieval France. While not as heavy on the action as Howard, Moore’s weird imagination and the fiery disposition of her warrior made an impression on the readers, with comments printed such as:

I (and I’m sure many others) want to hear a great deal more of Jirel. She’s the kind of person I’d like to be myself. A sort of feminine version of Conan the Cimmerian. He, too, is one of my favorites.
—Mary A. Conklin, WT Dec 1934

The character of Jirel may become as famous to us as Conan. I vote her first place.
—Claude H. Cameron, WT Jan 1935

We don’t know exactly what began the exchange of letters; Lovecraft, Price, Barlow, or Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright could all easily have supplied the other’s address for the asking. Near the end of the letter, Moore writes:

Thanks for being flattering about “Black God’s Shadow,” and for letting me read “Sword-Woman.” So see if you can’t find some more about Agnes?
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 27

“Black God’s Shadow,” the second Jirel of Joiry story, was published in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales, which would have hit the stands in mid-November. Few of Howard’s letters from this period survive, but a letter to August Derleth (11 Dec 1934) mentions the contents of the December Weird Tales. “Sword Woman” was an historical adventure story starring Dark Agnès de Chastillion, a red-haired female warrior-mercenary in 16th century France—with obvious parallels to Jirel of Joiry, although the two were conceived separately. “Sword Woman” is neither set in the East or a weird story, so it would seem unlikely that Farnsworth Wright saw and rejected it, unless it was intended for the never-published third magazine Strange Stories; possibly Howard had intended to send it to Action Stories.

We can only speculate who wrote first. What is clear is that the 29 January letter is not the first letter in the exchange; it is too involved in answering specific points from a previous letter, such as notorious bank robber John Dillinger, who had been shot to death on 22 July 1934:

About Dillinger, it’s not distinction in this part of the country to have known him—practically everyone did. Mooresville, his home town, is only a few miles south of here and happens to be my fiance’s birthplace too. I know several who went to school with him, and in Mooresville the sympathy with him ran very high.
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 24

Howard, who had a fondness for outlaws (at least of a certain sort), had been following news of Dillinger at least somewhat, since he had written to Lovecraft on 24 March 1934 that “Notice they haven’t caught Dillinger yet” (A Means to Freedom 2.724). Presumably he had responded to some comment that Moore had made, possibly regarding his death.

Much of the letter, however, focuses on a mutual love of both Howard and Moore: poetry. In keeping with the theme of warrior-women, Moore thanks Howard for “the original of Mary Ambree,” which suggests Howard copied out the ballad that begins:

WHEN captains courageous, whom death could
Did march to the siege of the city of Gaunt,
They mustered their soldiers by two and by three,
And the foremost in battle was Mary Ambree.

From Moore’s comments, the other snippets of poetry were taken from Kipling (the title of whose novel Captains Courageous is taken from the ballad); Howard had an edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Verse in his library at the time of his death. Other poems Howard quoted include Frederick I. C. Clarke’s “The Fighting Race” (“But his rusty pike’s in the cabin still, With Hessian blood on the blade.”) and G. K. Chesterton’s “The Ballad of the White Horse” (“That bore King Alfred’s battle-sword Broken in his left hand.”) Most, if not all, of the poems are about battle and war, suggesting that they were discussing the theme, possibly as an extension of Jirel and Agnès.

Well, I could go on and one forever on that line, but had better change the subject.
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 25

What’s left of the letter is largely concerned with Howard’s own fiction, especially Conan stories. She mentions “The Devil in Iron” (WT Aug 1934) and “A Witch Shall Be Born” (WT Dec 1934), saying of the latter:

That “Witch” story was pretty strong meat, but perfectly grand. Such a lustiness about your stories when you want them that way. And the witch herself was gorgeous. Odear, I’m consumed with jealousy.
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 24

There is a passing reference to “the new serial, with Conan among the frontiersmen,” which would be a reference to “Beyond the Black River” (WT May-Jun 1935) that Howard had just sold, and accepting his offer for a copy of “The Garden of Fear” (Marvel Tales June 1934). Howard wrote to Lovecraft ca. Dec 1934 a passage which he might have copied, in essence if not word-for-word, in his preceding letter to Moore:

My latest sales to Weird Tales have been a two-part Conan serial: “Beyond the Black River”—a frontier story; and a novelet dealing with Mississippi negroes, etc. “The Moon of Zambebwei”, which I understand will be changed to “The Grisly Horror.” In the Conan story I’ve attempted a new style and setting entirely—abandoned the exotic settings of lost cities, decaying civilizations, golden domes, marble palaces, silk-clad dancing girls, etc., and thrown my story against a back-ground of forests and rivers, log cabins, frontier outposts, buckskin-clad settlers, and painted tribesmen Some day I’m going to try my hand at a longer yarn of the same style, a serial of four or five parts.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, ca. Dec 1934, A Means to Freedom 2.817

Perhaps this precipitated one of the most interesting passages in Moore’s letter, the equivalent to asking Lovecraft if the Necronomicon is real:

Tell me, do  you really think it possible that mankind goes back as far, and thru as many changing times and topographies, as you write about? I understand Lovecraft, for instance, doesn’t take anything he writes at all seriously. But sometimes I have myself half convinced—as those times when I’m alone in the house late at night and am perfectly sure that the entire outside is one solid mass of vampires and were-wolves! It seems rather arbitrary to be hard-headed and say, “Nothing exists but what we can see or feel,” and yet it’s even worse to err on the side of credulity. What’s your opinion?
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 26

Quite a few people would love to read Howard’s answer to that question. This letter to Robert E. Howard predates Moore’s first letter from Lovecraft, so she was repeating what her friend and correspondent R. H. Barlow had said about the Old Gent in Providence. As far as can be ascertained, Howard never mentioned his correspondence with Moore to Lovecraft, Moore never mentioned her correspondence with Howard to Lovecraft, and Lovecraft never mentioned his correspondence with Moore to Howard, but discusses and alludes to his correspondence with Howard to Moore. Whether that means that Howard and Moore corresponded only briefly, and dropped each other after a time—or whether it carried on for the rest of Howard’s brief life, we don’t know.

The implication, from some of her letters to Lovecraft showing ignorance of Howard’s upcoming publications and travels in 1935, suggest that the correspondence may have been sporadic or intermittent (Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 68, 70). Years later, she recalled in an interview:

Do you remember anything in particular about your correspondence with REH?

Moore: We really had such a short period to correspond that I don’t remember much, except that he seemed interested and had a good mind. We had enough common background that we were able to talk to each other, on paper anyway. I think he would have been pleasant to know—just as Lovecraft would’ve.
Chacal #1, 31

On 13 February 1936, her fiance Herbert Ernest Lewis died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Though reported as an accident in the newspapers and in Moore’s letters, the death certificate lists it as a suicide. Moore was severely affected, and Lovecraft rushed to keep her occupied:

Despite my upheaved programme I at once started a letter of what I thought to be the most consoling & useful sort—with sympathetic remarks & citations of others who have bravely pulled out of similar bereavements) gradually giving place to the cheerful discussion of general & impersonal topics in which long time-stretches (thus placing local & individual sorrows at the small end of the telescope) are concerned—answering a letter received early in February. History was the main theme—the dominant topic being Roman Britain & its long decline, as brought up by C L M’s discussion of Talbot Mundy’s “Tros” stories. That, I fancy, is the kind of stuff a bereaved person likes to get from the outside world—sincere sympathy not rubbed in, & a selection of general topics attuned to his interests & quietly reminding him that there is a world which has always gone on & which still goes on despite personal losses. […] I managed to finish & despatch the epistle last Monday. But the tragic accident surely is a beastly shame—far worse than deaths which do not his promising young folk with everything before them.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 11 Mar 1936, O Fortunate Floridian 321

Talbot Mundy, whose Tros of Samothrace was serialized in the pages of Adventure, was a favorite author of Robert E. Howard. What is real is that on 11 June 1936, Robert E. Howard took his own life, also with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Frank Thurston Torbett told Moore; Moore told Lovecraft; Lovecraft told everyone. With Robert E. Howard dead, she wrote to his father Dr. Isaac M. Howard for confirmation…and he wrote back:

I have since received a letter from Dr. Howard, his father, enclosing a note dated May 14 which REH had apparently been saving to send to me. […] The news was like a blow in the face. It’s amazing how real he seemed even through the medium of his letters. I had hoped to see him next year when and if I get that much-talked-of car and make the California trip, but he could scarcely have become more vivid had I known him personally.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 24 Jun 1936, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 130-131

She wrote more to Lovecraft about Howard, but her most important letter was sent to his father:

It was a shock as stunning to me as if I had really known your son, for his letters made him very real to me. […] Nothing that I can say now would help you—I know, for four months ago I too suffered bereavement under very similar circumstances. The young man whom I was to marry this year was accidentally shot in the temple and instantly killed while leaning a gun which he thought unloaded. So I can understand what you are enduring now, and I know that nothing but time will help you find life worth living again. In one respect you are luckier than I, for you have memories of a full and happy life with your wife and son that nothing can take away. […] In the meantime, and until time has brought your comfort, as it is just now beginning to comfort me, there is nothing to say except that all over the United States we are grieving with you, and not only for you but for ourselves.
—C. L. Moore to Dr. I. M. Howard, 25 Jun 1936, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 52-53

The letter was published in the Cross Plains Review for 3 July 1936, although they misspelled her name.

We can only guess what else Howard and Moore might have discussed: poetry, philosophy, history, and action were all shared interests. Perhaps Howard showed her his other unpublished Dark Agnès works, or “Red Nails” with the pirate Valeria; perhaps she shared some of her own unpublished fiction, or they discussed Otis Adelbert Kline. Perhaps; unless some cache of letters surfaces, this is all we have…and perhaps we should be grateful that even this letter was saved from the ash heap of history.

The sole surviving letters to Robert E. Howard and Dr. Isaac M. Howard are published in The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Sin-Eater” (1895) by Fiona Macleod

Now, we are a scattered band. The Breton’s eyes are slowly turning from the sea, and slowly his ears are forgetting the whisper of the wind around Menhir and Dolmen. The Cornishman has lost his language, and there is now no bond between him and his ancient kin. The Manxman has ever been the mere yeoman of the Celtic chivalry; but even his rude dialect perishes year by year. In Wales, a great tradition survives; in Ireland, a supreme tradition fades through sunset-hued horizons to the edge o’ dark; in Celtic Scotland, a passionate regret, a despairing love and longing, narrows yearly before a bastard utilitarianism which is almost as great a curse to our despoiled land as Calvinistic theology has been and is.
—Fiona Macleod, “From Iona” in The Sin-Eater and Other Tales and Episodes (1895), 11-12

It was called alternately the Celtic Twilight and the Celtic Revival. The languages and cultures of the Gaelic-speaking peoples of the British Isles was rapidly fading in response to the events of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century; spreading industrialization, transportation and emigration, especially after the Great Famine in Ireland, accelerated the decline of the Gaelic languages in favor of English, which had become the language of government, literature, and trade in the United Kingdom—and, before the breakup of the British Empire, throughout the world.

Against this decline rose varied movements; some aimed to preserve and promulgate the declining language and customs, such as the gorsedds in Wales, while the Irish Literary Revival in the late 19th/early 20th century sought to raise awareness of Irish literature and writers. Common cause was made between Gaelic speakers based on mutual interest in languages, lore, and preservation of rapidly-disappearing ways of life. The Celtic Revival filtered across the Atlantic to the United States in many forms; W. B. Yeats, Æ (George William Russell), reprints of James Macpherson’s Ossian and the novels of Sir Walter Scot, the fantasies of George Macdonald and Lord Dunsany, the weird tales of Arthur Machen…and, though often forgotten today, the weird works of Scottish writer William Sharp, who also wrote as Fiona Macleod.

Sharp was already a relatively successful author whose books of poetry and realistic novels in the 1880s had progressed to the point where by 1890-1891 he could support himself full-time as a writer and editor. He and his wife went on a trip to Italy, where he found a muse in the form of Mrs. Edith Wingate Rinder (Alaya 125), and the inspiration for a new literary persona.

Anyone might than have observed something different about Sharp. His creative voice was stronger, all his work more passionate and vital. And those who knew him intimately knew also that it was in the years immediately following his return from Italy that Sharp began, quietly but steadfastly, to produce the work later to be attributed to the pen of Fiona Macleod.
—Flavia Alaya, William Sharp—”Fiona Macleod” 1855-1905 (1970), 97

Sharp had previously tried on other literary voices, H. P. Siwaärmill, W. H. Brooks, and COuntess Ilse von Jaromar, but works under these names failed to gather attention. Fiona Macleod was created not just as a female voice for Sharp’s fiction, but a distinctly Scottish one; Sharp was at this point becoming more aware of himself as a Scot, and of the importance of Scottish Gaelic and folklore. It also provided an outlet for Sharp’s more occult leanings; he was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and an associate of Wiliam Butler Yeats on the “Celtic Mysteries” project, which involved trance workings (Talking to the Gods, 23, 36), and “second sight” and prophecy would find their way into Macleod’s work (Alaya 190).

The degree to which Sharp identified with Fiona Macleod has been a point among his biographers, up to and including his wife, who quoted from one of his letters:

…I can write out of my heart in a way I could not do as William Sharp, and indeed I could not do so if I were the woman Fiona Macleod is supposed to be, unless veiled in scrupulous anonymity…

This rape sense of oneness with nature, this cosmic ecstasy and elation, this wayfaring along the extreme verges of the common world, all this is so wrought up with the romance of life that I could not bring myself to expression by my outer self, insistent and tyrannical as that need is. … My truest self, the self who is below all other selves, and my most intimate life and joys and sufferings, thoughts, emotions and dreams, must find expression, yet I cannot save in this hidden way.
William Sharp (Fiona Macleod) A Memoir (1910) 227

The ruse was more than skin-deep; from 1894 onwards he maintained two simultaneous and distinct writing careers, one as Sharp and the other as Macleod, answering letters “in character,” having his sister write out manuscripts in a woman’s handwriting, mailing letters to himself from “Fiona Macleod,” careful that he and his wife would always talk about “Fiona” as if she was a separate entity to avoid a slip, etc. The stress of the dual existence increased during his later years; Sharp forbore applying for a civil list pension because it would require revealing his authorship…and there may have been additional reasons.

Terry L. Meyers in The Sexual Tensions of William Sharp (1996), traces some of the subtle issues of gender identity and sexuality that Sharp expressed in his letters and fiction. A fierce advocate for gender equality, Meyers also traces themes of possible homosexual and transgender thought in his work and affiliations with other Victorian writers. Full expression or exploration of these feelings would have been difficult or impossible; Oscar Wilde being a prime example of the consequences of being found out. It is perhaps notable that in 1898 Sharp served on the Free Press Defence Committee formed to defend Havelock Ellis’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Sexual Inversion from prosecution for obscenity (Meyers 18).

While it is impossible at this remove to say definitely whether Sharp was homosexual, transsexual, transgender, genderqueer, or somewhere else on the spectrum, the combination of a strong feminine voice and a focus on authentic Scottish Gaelicisms came together to acclaim in the novels Pharais (1894), The Mountain Lovers (1895), and Green Fire (1896) to positive critical appraisal—sometimes eclipsing that of Sharp under his own name. Yet for all of Macleod’s literary output, the collection of short stories The Sin-Eater and Other Tales and Episodes (1895), particularly the title story, has come to be the most impactful—albeit in a way that Sharp/Macleod could not have foreseen, unless they really did have the Sight.

Alaya describes The Sin-Eater stories as “semi-autobiographical tales”; and there is in them a combination of authentic folklore, realistic portrayals of the lives of the Scottish people (warts and all), and perhaps above all a strong focus on Scottish Gaelic language. Macleod captures not just the somewhat stereotypical cadence of a way of thought and speaking, but makes knowledge of Gaelic a point of identity. Many phrases and a few special passages are in Gaelic, often with translation but some left au natural with only the context to guide the English reader. Yet it is telling when it is written:

The man had used the English when first he spoke, but as though mechanically. Supposing that he had not been understood, he repeated his question in the Gaelic.

After a minute’s silence the old woman answered him in the native tongue, but only to put a question in return.

“I am thinking it is a long time since you have been in Iona?”
—Fiona Macleod, “The Sin-Eater” in The Best Psychic Stories (1920), 127

Frank Belknap Long gifted a copy of The Best Psychic Stories to H. P. Lovecraft c.1923; the editor was Joseph Lewis French, an industrious editor and anthologist developed a reputation for weird anthologies beginning with Great Ghost Stories (1918) and The Best Ghost Stories (1919), and would go on to edit several more anthologies in that vein in the 1920s. The introduction was by Dorothy Scarborough, PhD., author of The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917). French doesn’t mention Fiona Macleod’s alter ego, although the secret had been out a decade or so at that point; Scarborough doesn’t mention it in her brief introduction either, although her 1917 opus refers to Macleod as “Sharp’s other literary self” (65).

It isn’t clear if Lovecraft himself knew that Sharp was Macleod at that point—but it had apparently crossed his radar at a particularly good time for a little story he was working on titled “The Rats in the Walls:”

That bit of gibberish which immediately followed the atavistic Latin was not pithecanthropoid. The first actual ape-cry was the “ungl”. What the intermediate jargon is, is perfectly good Celtica bit of venomously vituperative phraseology which a certain small boy ought to know; because his grandpa, instead of consulting a professor to get a Celtic phrase, found a ready-made one so apt that he lifted it bodily from The Sin-Eater, by Fiona McLeod [sic], in the volume of Best Psychic Stories which Sonny himself generously sent! I thought you’d note that at once—but youth hath a crowded memory. Anyhow, the only objection to the phrase is that it’s Gaelic instead of Cymric as the south-of-England locale demands. But as—with anthropology—details don’t count. Nobody will ever stop to note the difference.
H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 8 Nov 1923, Selected Letters 1.258

Scottish and Irish Gaelic are Goidelic (Q-Celtic) languages; Welsh (Cymric) is P-Celtic. Different branches of the same linguistic family tree, but not mutually comprehensible. Lovecraft had borrowed a Scottish Gaelic phrase and put it where a Welsh phrase should be. As it happened, Lovecraft was correct. No one noticed the slip when the story was published in Weird Tales in March 1924. However, when the story was reprinted in the June 1930 issue, it came under the eye of a Celtophile who had made some effort to learn Irish Gaelic—Robert E. Howard of Texas. As Lovecraft later told the story:

As for the languages represented in the atavistic passage—I don’t recall including Sanscrit [sic], though I did lift a sentence of Celtic (of which I know not a single word) from another story, “The Sin-Eater”, by “Fiona McLeod” (William Sharp). This sentence, incidentally, was what brought me into correspondence with Robert E. Howard. It was—since I swiped it from a Scottish story—a Gaelic specimen, whereas of course the Celtic language of southern Britain was Cymric. R.E.H.—as an expert Celtic antiquarian—noticed the discrepancy, & thought I had adopted a minor theory that a Gaelic wave had preceded the coming of the Cymri to Britannia. He wrote Wright on the subject, & Wright forwarded the letter to me—whereupon I felt obliged to drop a line to the mighty Conan exposing my own ignorance & confessing to my rather inept borrowing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to C. L. Moore, 2 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore 47

Much as I admired him, I had no correspondence with him till 1930—for I was never a guy to butt in on people. In that year her read the reprint of my Rats in the Walls and instantly spotted the bit of harmless fakery whereby I had lifted a Celtic phrase (for use as an atavistic exclamation) from a footnote to an old classic—The Sin-Eater, by Fiona Macleod (William Sharp). He didn’t realise the source of the phrase, but his sharp eye for Celtic antiquities told him it didn’t quite fit—being a Gaelic (not Cymric) expression assigned to a South British locale. I myself don’t know a word of any Celtic tongue, and never fancied anybody could spot the incongruity. Too charitable to suspect me of ignorant appropriation, he came to the conclusion that I followed a now-discredited theory whereby the Gaels were supposed to have preceded the Cymri in England—and wrote Satrap Pharnabazus [Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright] a long and scholarly letter on the subject. Farny passed this on to me—and I couldn’t rest easy until I had set the author right. Hence I dropped REH a line confessing my ignorance and telling him that I had merely picked a phrase with the right meaning from a note to a Scottish story while perfectly well aware that the language of Celtic South-Britain was really somewhat different.
—H. P. Lovecraft to E. Hoffmann Price, 5 Jul 1936, Selected Letters 5.277

Howard’s letters show that in 1929 and early 1930 his reading was turning increasingly to Irish history, with long letters to Harold Preece and Tevis Clyde Smith on Celtic history and language. It was perhaps this focus which made Howard so sensitive to Lovecraft’s use of language in “The Rats in the Walls”—as given in his letter to Wright:

As to the climax, the maunderings of the maddened victim is like a sweep of horror down the eons, dwindling back and back to be finally lost in those grisly mists of world-birth where the mind of man refuses to follow. And I note from the fact that Mr. Lovecraft has his character speaking Gaelic instead of Cymric, in denoting the Age of the Druids, that he holds to Lhuyd’s theory as to the settling of Britain by the Celts.

This theory is not generally agreed to, but I scarcely think that it has ever been disproved, and it was upon this that my story “The Lost Race” was based — that the Gaelic tribes preceded the Cymric peoples into Britain, by way of Ireland, and were later driven out by them. Baxter, the highly learned author of Glossario Antiquae Britanniae upholds this theory on the grounds that the Brigantes, supposed to be the first Celtic settlers in Britain, were unacquainted with the “p” sound, which was not used in Britain until the advent of the Brythonic or Cymric peoples. According to this, the Brigantes were a Goidhelic tribe, and Lhuyd’s point seems proven.

Personally, I hold to the theory of Cymric precedence, and believe that Brythonic tribes inhabited, not only Britain and Scotland before the coming of the Gaels, but Ireland as well. The blond Britons appear to me to be a closer branch of the ancient Aryan stock, the Gaels arriving later, and being mixed with some Turanian or Mediterranean blood. But every man is entitled to his own view and a writer has the right to use any and all theories, no matter how conflicting, in his stories. I may write a story one day upholding a certain theory of science, letters, anthropology or what-not, and the next day, a story upholding a theory directly opposite. A fiction writer, whose job is to amuse and entertain, should give all theories equal scope and justice. But I’m taking up too much of your time.
—Robert E. Howard to Farnsworth Wright, Collected Letters 2.42-43

Howard’s specific source for this argument appears to be O’Donovan and O’Reilly’s Irish-English Dictionary (1864 ed.). We know Howard had this volume, as he cites in a subsequent letter to Lovecraft (CL2.70), and it seems to be the source for some of his Irish language comments in prior letters (cf. CL2.7, 20-21, 22-23). This passage in particular jives with the content of Howard’s letter:

Mr. Baxter (in Glossario Antiquæ Birtanniæ, p. 90) remarks, that the oldest Brigantes, whom he esteems the first inhabitants of Britain, never used in their language the sound of the letter p, which was afterwards introduced by the Belgic Britains. If the old Brigantes were really of the first inhabitants of Britain, it would follow, that they were a part of the Guidelian, or Gaulish colony, which went over to Ireland, and whom Mr. Lhuyd evidently proves to have been the first inhabitants of all that part of Great Britain which now comprehends England and Wales.
“Remarks on the Letter P” in An Irish-English Dictionary 399-400)

Lovecraft’s response is now lost, but that exchange began a correspondence that would last until Robert E. Howard took his own life in 1936; Lovecraft would still mourn his Texas friend until his own death in 1937. It is notable that while the first couple of letters are lost their collected correspondence, A Means to Freedom begins with both men deep into British Celtic history, and their wide-ranging letters spin out from there—but this period would always inform Lovecraft’s image of Robert E. Howard as a scholar and enthusiast for Gaelic language and culture. It is possible that Lovecraft’s high opinion of Howard helped overcome Lovecraft’s lingering prejudices regarding the Irish and “Celtic peoples,” who in the early 20th century still faced racial and ethnic discrimination.

No where in the surviving letters do Howard and Lovecraft discuss William Sharp or Fiona Macleod. The first time that Lovecraft acknowledges Sharp and Macleod as the same individual is in 1929:

The lines of William Sharp (who, by the way, has written some remarkable weird material under the pseudonym of “Fiona MacLeod” [sic]) are highly potent despite their simplicity. I have followed the draining of Lacus Nemorensis with great interest, though without much hope that anything valuable will be discovered on Caligula’s galleys.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 15 Apr 1929, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 57

Lovecraft refers to “The Lake of Nemi” in Sharp’s volume of poetry Sospiri di Roma (1891)—which is, coincidentally, a product of the same trip to Italy in which Fiona Macleod was born in Sharp’s mind. Benito Mussolini had begun a project to drain Lake Nemi (Lacus Nemorensis), which Sharp had visited. So sometime between 1923 and 1929, Lovecraft discovered that Fiona Macleod was William Sharp…and had read enough of Macleod’s fiction to praise it, if only briefly. It is a pity that Lovecraft doesn’t expand on the subject at any length in his letters; he doesn’t even mention Macleod or Sharp in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—and Lovecraft could scarcely have faulted Sharp for using Macleod as a pseudonym, considering Lovecraft had written under the name Elizabeth Berkeley himself.

It may be worthwhile to look at the infamous borrowing in context:

Curse you, Thornton, I’ll teach you to faint at what my family do! … ’Sblood, thou stinkard, I’ll learn ye how to gust … wolde ye swynke me thilke wys? … Magna Mater! Magna Mater! … Atys … Dia ad aghaidh ’s ad aodaun … agus bas dunach ort! Dhonas ’s dholas ort, agus leat-sa! … Ungl … ungl … rrrlh … chchch ….
H. P. Lovecraft, “The Rats in the Walls”

“But, Andrew Blair, I will say this: when you fair abroad, Droch caoidh ort! and when you go upon the water, Gaoth gun direadh ort! Ay, ay, Anndra-mhic-Adam, Dia ad aghaidh ’s ad aodann … agus bas dunach ort! Dhonas ’s dholas ort, agus leat-sa!”†

† Droch caoidh ort! “May a fatal accident happen to you” (lit. “bad moan on you”). Gaoth gun direadh ort! “May you drift to your drowning” (lit. “wind without direction on you”). Dia ad aghaidh, etc., “God against thee and in thy face … and may a death of woe be yours … Evil and sorrow to the and thine!”
—Fiona Macleod, “The Sin-Eater,” The Best Psychic Stories 146

Delapore’s speech devolves from contemporary English (“Curse you, Thornton”) to Elizabethan English (“‘Sblood, thou stinkard”) to Old English (“wolde ye swynke” i.e. “would you belabor me like this?”) to Latin (“Magna Mater!” i.e “Great Mother”) to Gaelic (“Dia ad aghaidh”) and finally prehuman speech (“Ungl.”) As Lovecraft had no knowledge of Scottish Gaelic, he accidentally copied the spelling error (“aodaun” for “aodann”) in The Best Psychic Stories version of the text.

In Macleod’s “The Sin-Eater,” the speech is given not so much as a curse but as a deliberate insult by the eponymous Sin-Eater Neil Ross who is already, though he knows it not, doomed. There is something of a parallel to the two speeches in that regard: both men who speak it are destined to be consumed by madness, driven to their fate by old family sins and quite literal consumption. While it is probably too much to say that “The Sin-Eater” inspired “The Rats in the Walls,” it is likely that Lovecraft might have been struck by the parallels…and the bit of luck that put such an appropriate choice of phrase in his way.

The phrase and the story can only exist in the wider context of the Celtic Twilight, and of Sharp’s assumption of the literary identity of Fiona Macleod; the very focus on Celtic languages and culture which was the focus of Sharp’s purpose in writing and publishing as Macleod in turn directly led to Lovecraft’s correspondence with Robert E. Howard, based on his awareness of and interest in Celtic languages and history.

An odd legacy for Fiona Macleod—yet perhaps oddly appropriate.

“The Sin-Eater” by Fiona Macleod can be read online for free here.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Natalie H. Wooley

I should say that weird fans who have a taste in liking the outre in literature have a superior taste, rather than a morbid one, a sign of an inquiring mind, that is not satisfied with Wild West, Gangster, or sickly mediocre love stories. But to explore the hidden corners of things, whether it be the universe, the mind, or the supernatural, is providing that one’s mind is not smug or narrow. If this be madness, insanity, or morbidity, glory in it, you weird and fantasy fans. 
—Natalie H. Wooley,
The Fantasy Fan May 1934

Natalie Hartley Wooley wrote to Lovecraft by way of Weird Tales in c. June 1933, inquiring into the reality of the strange tomes and Mythos in his fiction. While we cannot say for certain what prompted her letter, Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” was published in the July 1933 issue, which hit stands the month before. Lovecraft, as he always did, revealed that it was an artificial mythology. The correspondence went on from there.

She was 29 years old in 1933, and her son George was nine years old. Biographical details are scarce; very few of her letters appear to have survived, and we have only Lovecraft’s side of the the correspondence, amounting to 15 letters (or parts thereof) from 1933 to 1936. Wooley was also a member of Lovecraft’s late round robin letter group the Coryciani, of which 4 letters survive from 1934-1936. More of her own writing survives in early fanzines and amateur journalism.

It appears that through Lovecraft, Wooley was introduced to both amateur journalism and early science fiction fandom—and joined both. Wooley was a poet, and perhaps had aspirations to be a writer. Lovecraft’s letters give lists of weird fiction that a dedicated fan might read, sources for occult lore ranging from The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray to medieval grimoires and Theosophy, and advice on writing and being published. Perhaps aware of how he had advised revision clients like Zealia Bishop in the past, Lovecraft wrote:

However—don’t bother with weird fiction at all unless you feel a genuine inclination toward it. It is the most difficult of all material to market professionally, & the circle of those who truly enjoy & appreciate it is always discouragingly small.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 6 Aug 1933, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 191

Marketable or not, Wooley tried her hand at it. Her short story of a murderer on death’s row feeling the ghostly revenge of another was published as “Spurs of Death” in The Fantasy Fan (Dec 1933). Acclaim was modest; Lovecraft’s letter in the January 1934 issue reads “All the stories are excellent and the departments are as interesting as usual.”; H. C. Koenig in the February issue wrote “this Wooley person certainly did a very nice job with her story.”

More effusive praise would come for Wooley’s poetry, much of it from Lovecraft himself. Still, she was in the mix and among the fans; her poems and fan-letters graced the pages of The Fantasy Fan and Marvel Tales in 1934 and 1935, and from Lovecraft’s responses it is clear that she read and commented on his fiction. Beyond that, Lovecraft appears to have recruited her to amateur journalism, where she had further outlet for her poetry and opinions:

A new voice in the National is that of Mrs. Natalie Hartley Wooley, whose brief, wistful lyrics strike one’s fancy with singular sharpness through certain faint overtones subtly suggesting magical vistas and dim regions beyond the confines of daylight reality. “Western Night”, in the Summer Goldenrod, has great charm and power; while “Flight”, in the October Sea Gull, unites with its general elfin quality a poignant human pathos.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Bureau of Critics” in the National Amateur (June 1934), Collected Essays 1.375

NATALIE HARTLEY WOOLEY, Kansas, is a member of both the National and United Amateur Press Associations and has contributed to Kansas City Star, Kansas City Journal-Post, Marvel Tales, The Fantasy Fan, and to The Christian Board of Publication periodicals. She wrote the lyrics for “Querida, a Spanish Serenade,” a song which may be heard on the radio.
“Who’s New,” Kaleidograph (Dec 1934), quoted in Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 10n7

As with most of Lovecraft’s letters, what began as a focus on weird fiction eventually grew broader. Wooley asked about Wiggam’s The Fruit of the Family Tree (1924), a popular work on eugenics, which led to a lengthy response from Lovecraft, touching on Nazi antisemitism and the 1933 law on compulsory sterilization, miscegenation and the color-line in the United States, and the rising power of and Westernization of Japan. Yet for the most part their letters concern weird fiction, fellow fans, and especially in the Coryciani letters, poetry. One such letter shows Lovecraft’s appreciation for her verse:

Mrs. Wooley’s contribution is rich in illuminating comments & examples. She is, it would seem, right in believing that both simple & involvedly mystical & allusive (within reasonable limits) verse have a definite & unchallengeable place in the aesthetic scheme. Like Mr. Adams’s, her preferences run to the philosophical—albeit in a somewhat less concrete fashion. A certain wistful, elusive mysticism—involving touches of the whimsical, the fantastic, & the delicately spectral—often characterises Mrs. Wooley’s own verses—as the columns of amateur journalism amply attest.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Coryciani, 17 Mar 1935, Lovecraft Annual (2017) #11 136-137

As an example of her poetry, this bit of verse was squeezed in after a few verses of the Fungi from Yuggoth and before Robert E. Howard’s “Voices of the Night” in The Fantasy Fan (Jan 1935):

THE ALIEN
by Natalie H. Wooley

She is like living golden flame.
She knows not whence or why she came
       Into this world…and yet at times
I hear her call strange gods by name.

There is no warmth in her embrace,
Of human passions not a trace.
       She seems remote, a thing attuned
To summonings from outer space.

And on each starry, moonlit night
She gazes long in rapt delight
        Toward the skies…while I weep
Lest the message come, and she take flight.

Robert E. Howard was another author that interested Wooley. She must have read his Conan story “Beyond the Black River” (Weird Tales May-Jun 1935) with enthusiasm, and written to Lovecraft about him, for Lovecraft wrote back:

Yes—Robert E. Howard is a notable author—more powerful & spontaneous than even he himself realises. He tends to get away from weirdness toward sheer sanguinary adventure, but there is still no one equal to him in describing haunted cyclopean ruins in an African or Hyperborean jungle. He has written reams of powerful poetry, also—most of which is still unpublished.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 28 Jun 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 205

Wooley excerpted a passage from “Beyond the Black River” for a brief critical work titled “The Adventure Story,” published in The Californian (Fall 1935). She praised the Texan as a writer—one of the few such critical assessments he would ever get in his short life.

There, my friends, is writing. A paragraph of less than a hundred words, yet combining description, menace, and a hint of action to come. Each word is carefully chosen. Note that artfully worded last sentence, with its intimation of impending conflict; sustaining the reader’s interest through what otherwise might be a rather colorless bit of description. Mr. Howard, well known adventure-fiction story writer, is one of the few who do not sacrifice beautiful narrative style for the action demanded in such stories, but combines the two masterfully.
—Natalie H. Wooley, “The Adventure Story,” reprinted in Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 441

Robert E. Howard received a copy of The Californian, and wrote back—though any further contact was cut short by his suicide in 1936.

Thank you very much for the copy of The Californian. I feel greatly honored that Miss Wooley should have quoted an excerpt from my serial “Beyond the Black River” in her article in your fine journal.
—Robert E. Howard to The Californian (Summer 1936)

Lovecraft’s friend and future literary executor R. H. Barlow moved to Kansas City to attend the art institute there in 1936; through their mutual friend and correspondent Barlow and Wooley got in touch. It is the only time that Wooley is known to have met with anyone else in the Lovecraft circle—or science fiction fandom in general.

No letters to Wooley or mention of her survives in Lovecraft’s correspondence past December 1936; no doubt his fatal illness curtailed their back-and-forth. We may get a sense of her side of the correspondence from a single letter that survives at the John Hay Library among Lovecraft’s papers—this was sent from Wooley to E. A. Edkins, who forwarded it to Lovecraft.

WooleyLetter

Wooley did not immediately disappear from view; The Fantasy Fan and Marvel Tales, her main outlets for fandom, had both faltered, but she was still active in amateur journalism for a time. A favorite example is her assessment of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922):

As erotica, the book is a disappointment. Some of Boccaccio or Balzac, or the modern writers Bodenheim and Donald Henderson Clarke outstrip it completely. As history, it is
insignificant. As a text-book of hitherto deleted words, it leaves little to the imagination.
—Natalie H. Wooley, “Well, I’ve Read It” in Nix Nem (Dec 1936), quoted in The Fossil 345

What did Lovecraft’s correspondence mean to Natalie H. Wooley? It encouraged her writing and poetry, helped her find new outlets to publish her work. She was, whether she knew it or not, in the thick of early fandom, and her voice was heard among writers who would grow to become legends—though she herself is nearly forgotten today, her poetry lives on.

Lovecraft’s letters with Natalie H. Wooley, along with a selection of her poetry and critical writings from amateur journalism have been published in Letters to Robert Bloch & Others (2015, Hippocampus Press); some of these letters had previously been published in volume 4 and 5 of the Selected Letters from Arkham House. The letters to the Coryciani have been published in Lovecraft Annual #11 (2017, Hippocampus Press).

Thanks and appreciation to Dave Goudsward for his help on this one.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” (1997) by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Ghor, Kin-Slayer was conceived in the late 1970s by Johnathan Bacon, editor of Fantasy Crossroads, a popular fanzine during the Robert E. Howard “boom” of that period. At the time Bacon had been presented with an unfinished story by Robert E. Howard, “Genseric’s Son”, which he quickly recognised as having strong possibilities if completed not by one, but a whole series of authors.

Beginning with Fantasy Crossroads in March 1977 Bacon lined up top authors in the fantasy field to each contribute a chapter until the novel would be completed some 17 installments later. Each issue of Fantasy Crossroads would include two or three chapters until the saga was finished. Unfortunately, thouh, after on 12 chapters saw print with the January 1979 issue, Fantasy Crossroads was no more, and for all intents and purposes, Ghor, Kin-Slayer was lost forever.
—Publisher’s Note, Ghor, Kin-Slayer (1997), 176

“Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” is the sixteenth and penultimate chapter in the saga of Ghor, the round-robin which began with an incomplete story by Robert E. Howard and in time included some of the most prominent names in fantasy and horror—including Karl Edward Wagner, Michael Moorcock, Manly Wade Wellman, Brian Lumley, Frank Belknap Long, Ramsey Campbell, and many others. The only black author was Charles R. Saunders. The only woman was Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Marion Zimmer Bradley had been involved with science fiction & fantasy fandom since the mid-late 1940s, claimed to have met her first husband through the letters pages of Planet Stories, and by the mid-1950s was a published author in her own right, and found particular success in her Darkover series, a science-fantasy sword & sorcery world that takes its inspiration, and some of its names, from Robert W. Chamber’s The King in Yellow (1895), as well as from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1955). She was also published in Amra, one of the premier Robert E. Howard ‘zines of the 1960s, and became one of the most outspoken and well-known women in science fiction and fantasy, and much of her most popular and celebrated work involved female protagonists and a focus on their points of view and concerns—a rarity in male-dominated fantasy and sword & sorcery at the time. After Ghor, Kin-Slayer, she would go on to edit the long-running Sword and Sorceress anthology series, and find international acclaim with The Mists of Avalon (1983).

The story up until the point that Bradley received it was, like many round-robins, not well-balanced in terms of plot and pacing. Ghor had begun as a James Allison tale;  Howard had written several tales with Allison, most notably “The Valley of the Worm” (Weird Tales Feb 1934) and “The Garden of Fear” (Marvel Tales Jul-Aug 1934). In each of these stories, the crippled Allison in the present day would cast back his mind into previous, more heroic incarnations, to relive the glories of past lives and loves. This literary device allowed Howard to explore different fantasy historical periods and settings—in this case, Howard set the stage of Ghor’s adventures in Vanaheim and Asgard, and so implicitly in the Hyborian Age, making Ghor a contemporary (of sorts) with Conan the Cimmerian.

Whatever initial plot Howard had in mind and never finished, in the hands of other fantasy writers, the Ghor saga got properly weird; involving as it does the Cthulhu Mythos, a prophecy, losing a limb and gaining a magical prosthetic (a la Lludd of the Silver Hand), becoming a werewolf, and gaining an affinity with the Hounds of Tindalos. Old pulpster H. Warner Munn left off the previous chapter with Ghor leaving the Caves of Stygia…

Out of the caves of Stygia, then, with the great river Styx bursting forth at our feet and across the desert; Shanara, still unconscious against my breast, and at my feels the dread Hounds, invisible, only a rustling and a panting and a fleeting brush against my thigh. On, Northward through the night, drawn by the northern stars that flickered cold above us; but even the giant strength that I, James Allison, wielded in those nigh-forgotten days when I was Ghor, kin-slayer and great were-wolf, was waning.
—Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ghor, Kin-Slayer (1997), 152

Despite this being the penultimate chapter, it is really in many ways the wrap-up of the whole preceding saga; Richard Lupoff, who got chapter 17, offers something more along the lines of a postscript or epilogue. So Bradley’s 11-page chapter is, in essence, a short story in itself trying to bring about a satisfying conclusion to whatever threads are left—principally, the three curses Ghor had accumulated—starting with:

[…] Shanara had probably been less than faithful wife to me. Well, I thought, looking at her haggard, ravaged features, for that too she had paid. And indeed in such a world as this, a woman had no choice but to obey whoever held her body; she had become my bride by no less forceful process, and that we had come to love one another was only a single blessing showered on me amid many curses. No; I would not ask Shanara what price she had had to pay for surviving the long ordeals of capture. (ibid. 153)

If the tone seems reminiscent of “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967) by Robert E. Howard, it should be remembered that this bit of casual sexism is being filtered through a female fantasy writer, and Bradley is neither entirely unsympathetic to Shanara nor does she ignore the physical and psychological impact of the implied rape. Which includes one of the oldest tropes of body horror, well-familiar to Mythos fans:

For her body was swelling, ripening…and I knew that look. Even her sullenness and the persistent thirst was part of that, and it was not hunger alone set her to seeking the bitter desert herbs as we travelled. Within her breeding body the curse of Gaea was ripening. (ibid. 154)

There is a question of who is the father; and Ghor entertains that it might be his, the sorcerer who kidnapped her, or even “some nameless thing somewhere in the realms of sorcery and evil” (ibid). Ironically, Ghor has no real issues if the child isn’t his; the wild-man’s own family situation being what it was (exposed at birth as an act of infanticide, raised by wolves, killing his own birth-family), he is rather progressive in his determination to adopt Shanara’s kid.

The story skips forward to the birth, and then to the final fulfillment of the curse. Ghor’s story comes full-circle.

In one sense, Bradley had her hands tied: fifteen chapters of increasingly odd sword & sorcery, bringing in everything from the Moorcockian Gods of Law and Chaos to the Cthulhu Mythos—and there were prophecies and curses to wrap up, physical distances to travel to get Ghor back from Stygia to Nemedia and finally in the icy forests where the story started under Robert E. Howard. In another sense, by putting the focus on Shanara and the goddesses who cursed Ghor, by addressing the sexism and realities of sex and family in the Hyborian Age, she makes the chapter her own.

It’s not a bad penultimate chapter by any means. Not something Robert E. Howard was likely to write, but then nothing that any of the other authors had contributed attempted to really pastiche Howard; they all knew better than to try and ape his prose, and they all brought their own ideas to the table while trying to keep the story moving. For fans in 1997 when this was published for the first time, they could likely appreciate that.

Today, readings of Bradley’s fiction tend to be colored by other factors in her life.

Walter Breen was prominent in Darkover fandom. Breen had been convicted of child molestation in 1954 and received a suspended sentence; his continued pederastic activities resulted in his banning from the 1963 Second Sci-Fi Pacificon. This caused an uproar in fandom, with Marion Zimmer Bradley vocal in her defense of Breen, though the actual cause of Breen’s banning was not universally known, and was called the “Boondoggle.” Breen and Bradley would marry in 1964.

In a 1998 deposition, Bradley said she was aware of Breen’s pedophilia and child molestation. They would separate in 1979, although Breen would continue to live on the same street and in Bradley’s employ for the next decade; they would get divorced in 1990. In 1991 he would be sentenced for child molestation, and die in prison in 1994. In 2014, her daughter Moira Greyland came forward to admit that Marion Zimmer Bradley herself had molested children, including her own children. Links to further accounts, and the story as it unfolded, can be read here.

The personal accounts of Marion Zimmer Bradley both as a serial child sex abuser, and as someone that facilitated Breen’s sexual molestation of children, cast a shadow on her fiction. Readers now look for any evidence of predilections which were perhaps not obvious to fans previously—and there are definitely scenes and relationships in Bradley’s work which, in light of these allegations, appear much more skeevy than perhaps they once were.

How do we read “Doom of the Thrice-Cursed,” through this lens? There are, fortunately, no incidents of child sexuality in this story. But the revelation of Bradley’s history of sexual abuse, and her marriage to Breen—how does that reflect on Ghor’s oddly accepting attitudes with regard to Shanara’s pregnancy? Is he actually being weirdly progressive in not caring if the child is his, and supportive of Shanara despite the social ramifications of rape in Hyborian culture—is it at all reflective of Breen and Bradley explicitly condoning and supporting each other in their own extramarital sexual relationships?

There are no good answers for these questions. Many folks, reading this story, would be glad not to have been aware of it at all. In 1967, Roland Barthes published the essay “La mort de l’auteur,” which would have strong and wide-ranging impact on literary criticism. With the death of the author, authorial intent needs no longer be a primary concern of literary criticism; the text can be read and interpreted on its own, apart from the facts of the author’s own life.

A straight reading of the text, with no knowledge of the author, would almost certainly not raise any associations with pedophilia in the reader’s mind. If you take Bradley out of the equation, then “Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” becomes little more than a chapter in a long but not-terribly-great Robert E. Howard fanfiction. The comments on sexism and the Hyborian Age remain, and the story can be ready, studied, critiqued, and enjoyed.

Yet…it is important that Marion Zimmer Bradley was the author, the only female author, in this round-robin. That she choose to address sexism in the Hyborian Age, or at least Ghor’s understanding of it, becomes important—because her male contemporaries in Sword & Sorcery largely didn’t. If you as a reader or critic consider sexism and gender disparity in the field of fantasy fiction important at all, then her presence, as more than mere tokenism, has to count for something.

Marion Zimmer Bradley inspired many. She injured many too.

Marion Zimmer Bradley also wrote a novel with Mythos elements, Witch Hill (1990).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

One Who Walked Alone (1986) by Novalyne Price Ellis

Then he told me about the fan mail he’d gotten. He had received letters from somebody in England; one from Australia; letters from several diffrent states like California, Pennsylvania, and far away places like that. He talked about writer friends of his—Price, Lovecraft, Derleth whose name I had seen in a writer’s magazine, and other people I’d never heard of. They wrote to him and he wrote to them. It all sounded interesting and was, I guess, a world far removed from Cross Plains. Although it was interesting, it didn’t make writing as a profession appeal to me. I want to write, but I also want to be in the thick of life around me.
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone (1986) 116

In May of 1933, Novalyne Price graduated from Daniel Baker College in Brownwood, TX. The Great Depression had settled on Texas, and jobs were scarce—especially for college-educated women. She found a job forty miles away in a small town called Cross Plains, as a schoolteacher in English and public speaking at the local highschool. At a time when many small towns were paying their teachers with scrip, the Cross Plains paid cash…though it did come with certain expectations.

No smoking. No drinking (Prohibition had just ended). No dancing, movies, or playing bridge with members of the faculty. Teachers were expected to live in town, and go to church in town every Sunday. Her response was visceral:

I want a cigarette, and I want a glass of beer. I can’t stand the stuff. I hate it as much as the Board of Trustees do, but I want a cigarette, and I want a beer.
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone (1986) 36

Above all, Novalyne Price wanted to be a writer. There was one in town. His name was Robert E. Howard.

One Who Walked Alone (1986) is drawn from the diaries Novalyne kept of Cross Plains from 1934 until 1936, when she left to begin graduate courses in Louisiana. The entries are edited, probably a little censored here or there to spare a feeling or two from those still alive at the time it was published and to keep focused on her relationship, but revealing nonetheless. The relationship was not the soul of romance; Robert E. Howard was a successful writer, and tried to help Novalyne with her writing, even putting him in touch with his agent Otis Adelbert Kline—but their interests in writing were very different things. Early on during a date, when Bob was driving her out in the country in his car, she explained the plot of the story “I Gave My Daughter Movie Fame”:

“A woman has an illegitimate child, a daughter, and she tries to make it up to her. The child is adopted by this aunt of hers. But the woman can’t give up. She keeps doing things for the girl. Finally, she helps the gil become a movie star and very famous.”

Which I was talking, I could see that Bob was trying very hard to keep from laughing. But what was even strangter to me was that the more I talked, the more it became sort of cock-eyed even to me. I didn’t knwo what it took to win movie fame. True, I read movie success stories in magazines. I went to the movies once in awhile. I knew when the acting was good or bad. Did that qualify me to write about movie fame? As for illegitimate children—Well, when I was growing up, two girls whom I knew had illegitimate children. Did that qualify me to know about things like that?
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone (1986) 60

Novalyne’s memoir draws attention because of the Robert E. Howard connection, and it delivers in that regard with many colorful and critical anecdotes; though she was never his wife or even his fiance, it is more intimate and revealing in many ways than The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985) by Sonia H. Davis is of Howard’s friend in Providence.

Yet the main character is Novalyne herself, and she does not blush to hide her own flaws. The Novalyne of 1934-1936 is a young woman in a world that expects everything of her except to have a life of her own. She herself has more than a few expectations, and her relationship with Bob Howard waxes and wanes as the two willful individuals circle between kissing and butting heads again and again. The prospect of marriage hangs over the relationship as it goes on, but there are obstacles: Howard’s mother, dying slowly as her disease consumes her; Howard’s status as an outsider in the small town of Cross Plains; and Novalyne herself, who also dates some of Howard’s friends at the same time, and can’t quite make up her mind who she loves.

It’s hard not to fall in love with the young Novalyne Price a little; she’s a flint that strikes sparks off Bob, able to give as good as she gets, though sometimes her barbs sting a little deep. One exchange from late in their relationship can’t help but raise a smile:

“In a way, I suppose I want to make it a love story,” I said, thinking and planning as I talked. “But I want the woman to have a man-sized man to love. I was thinking that someone—a young woman—from another state who had an illegitimate child—”

“What are you always thinking about illegitimate children?” he asked. “How many illegitimate children have you had?”

“A dozen,” I snapped. “One every thirty days.”

He grinned and relaxed a little. “I suppose if any woman could do it, you could.”
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone (1986) 155-156

More serious conversations dealt with racial prejudice. Although never marked as such, Cross Plains was a sundown town in the Jim Crow days; Brownwood had an African-American population, but that was restricted to a part of the small city called “The Flat.” Howard, though more liberal and progressive in some issues, still held to racial prejudices that Novalyne did not.

“Every man has to uphold his race and protect his women and children,” Bob said earnestly. “He has to build the best damn world he can. You mix and mingle the races, and what do you get? You get a mongrel race—a race that’s not white and not black.”

It seemed to me he was leaving out something important. “Very well, then,” I said flatly. “If a man’s going to fight to keep his race pure, don’t let him go down to the flat and leave a half-white, half-black child down there.”

Bob jerked the steering wheel so abruptly that we almost ran off the road. “Well, damn it,” he groaned. “There’s something there that you don’t understand.”
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone (1986) 95-96

Novalyne’s views may have been influenced in part by her own experiences; her father had been mistaken for a Native American and subject to prejudice by Texans, and Bob’s mother herself supposedly wondered if she had any Native American heritage, with the prejudice unspoken but not hidden.

As a diarist, Novalyne Price was no Samuel Pepys; and we may assume that many of the incidental details of life were quietly edited out. Sometimes, this leaves little mysteries. In April 1935, Novalyne was briefly hospitalized following acute nausea, vomiting, and weight loss; the exact nature of her illness is never discussed in detail, leaving readers to make their own conclusions.

As a young woman, and never becoming truly intimate with Howard’s homelife, there are things that Novalyne gets wrong. She is an accurate reporter of facts, with many of the details she gives being verifiable by Howard’s letters (most of which had not been published at the time One Who Walked Alone was out), and newspaper articles in the local paper, the Cross Plains Review. Interpretation, however, doesn’t always follow: the illness of Hester Jane Howard was much more severe and fraught than Novalyne guessed—and frustration at Bob’s doting on his mother’s health is one of the key issues in their relationship.

Howard himself wrote very little about Novalyne in his letters. His local friends would no doubt prefer to hear about it in person; most of his writer friends simply didn’t share details of their relationships at all. H. P. Lovecraft never appears to have told his Texas friend that he had been married, during all their six years of correspondence.

Several times, Bob has shown me letters he’s gotten from fans of his. He had one from Providence and one from New York just the other day. They have all been nice letters, and I can understand his pride.
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone (1986) 128

One thing that might frustrate those who pick up Ellis’ book with the intent on getting a behind-the-scenes look at how Robert E. Howard wrote, or his relationships with other pulpsters, is that this is specifically the part of Bob’s life that Novalyne seemed to have the least interest in. There are a few anecdotes scattered about, proof of Lovecraft’s influence on Howard, but Novalyne’s interests in literature were so vastly different that the Weird Tales and Sports Story material seemed to be completely out of her sphere.

“Bob,” I interrupted him. “Do you mean that writer friend of yours—that Lovecourt—”

“Lovecraft,” he repeated, still emphatic. “One of the greatest writers of our time. Now, girl, I’ll bring some of the things he’s written for you to read if—”

“Oh, no,” I said hurriedly. “That’s perfectly all right. I don’t want—I don’t really have time to read very much right now, with teaching and trying to get kids ready for interscholastic speech contests.”

He looked at me without speaking as if he were trying to make up his mind if I meant what I said.

“All I wanted to know was what kind of comment about life does he make?” I asked. “And I want to know what kind of comment you make about life in your Conan stories.”
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone (1986) 116

The book ends, as all memoirs of Robert E. Howard end, with his sudden suicide. However, as this is Novalyne’s story, things do not end right at the moment she got the news. As with all suicides, the story continues on with the survivor, the loved ones and friends, who must carry on until they find some kind of closure. So did Novalyne Price.

The unspoken epilogue is what happened after. Novalyne Price received her master’s degree, got married, adopted a son, taught school, and wrote a little when she could. She was an excellent teacher, and her students often won awards. Robert E. Howard’s star began to shine brighter posthumously; a series of hardbacks from Gnome Press in the 1950s gave way to an immensely popular series of paperbacks with covers by Frank Frazetta, the “Howard Boom” of the 60s which inspired dozens of sword & sorcery novels and ushered in a new wave of fantasy. Marvel Comics began adapting his characters to comic books in the 1970s, and in 1982 Conan the Barbarian hit movie screens.

The study of his life and letters slowly picked up. Novalyne Price Ellis was one of those interviewed by the de Camps for Dark Valley Destiny (1983), a biography of Robert E. Howard. As with Sonia H. Davis and H. P. Lovecraft, Novalyne’s views of Bob were not universally welcomed by the biographers:

If the lady you mention published a well-documented book, On Sinning with R.E.H., she might outsell you, unless the oafery seize & destroy her scurilous volume. It is to laugh! I knew him when is not sufficient. One must also write for other than dizzy fans.
—E. Hoffmann Price to L. Sprague de Camp, 7 Apr 1978
in The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 308

E. Hoffmann Price (no relation to Novalyne) was a fellow pulpster and correspondent who had visited Robert E. Howard twice in Cross Plains (neither time meeting Novalyne), and wrote extended memoirs, published in several places. De Camp appears to have used his recollections to “check” Novalyne’s own assertions, much as August Derleth used Lovecraft’s letters to “check” the claims made by Sonia H. Davis.

Letters never tell the whole story. Especially the parts that the writers don’t care to tell.

One Who Walked Alone was published in 1986. Novaylne Price Ellis stayed in touch with some of the Howard scholars, and a briefer and rarer reminiscence was published titled Day of the Stranger: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989, Necronomicon Press), now quite scarce.

A former student of hers, Michael Scott Myers, was so taken with her memoir that he optioned the rights from her for a film. The result was The Whole Wide World (1996), with Renee Zellweger playing the part of Novalyne Price, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Robert E. Howard. A second edition of One Who Walked Alone was published in 1996, with Zellweger featured prominently on the cover, though they are effectively identical.

In 2018, an Index with notes to the book was produced, and given away free at Robert E. Howard Days, which is held at the Robert E. Howard House and Museum in Cross Plains. It is available online for free here.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

¿Donde Duermes, Elderado? Y Otros Poemas (1964) by Clérigo Herrero

Am pulling out of a bad physical slump and have not done too much work, apart from the writing of poems in Spanish, some of which I hope to place sooner or later with Latin-American periodicals. They have been checked over by a good Spanish professor, who did not find too much to correct.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 31 March 1950, Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 364

English was the language of Weird Tales during its first run (1923-1954), though stories might have snippets of any number of languages, natural, artificial, and fictional.

Neither H. P. Lovecraft nor Robert E. Howard were ever fluent in Spanish, though both of them were at least somewhat familiar with it. The evidence for Lovecraft’s knowledge is fairly slight: the two passages in his story “The Mound,” which had been ghostwritten for Zealia Brown Reed Bishop, both of which are largely accurate (the final portion was deliberately designed to appear somewhat crude); Lovecraft’s library included a copy of Ollendorff’s New Method of Learning to Read, Write, and Speak the Spanish Language (Lovecraft’s Library 139), which may have served him as a reference. Lovecraft also used Spanish openings and closings to some of his letters to Bernard Austin Dwyer in 1928 (during the period “The Mound” was written, and when Lovecraft recounted his dream of Roman Hispania), signing himself once “Luis Randolfo Cartero y Teobaldo” (LMM 468)

Robert E. Howard’s knowledge of Spanish was probably more utilitarian. In at least a casual way, he had picked up at least a small stock of Spanish and Mexican words—exclamations, terms of address, names of food and drink. Certainly, when Spanish-speaking characters appear in his stories their English dialogue tends to be sprinkled with a few choice Spanish terms, although sometimes with some peculiarities of spelling; a common technique when Howard wanted to express something of the rural or uneducated nature of the speaker, though it’s hard to tell sometimes if he is doing it on purpose or not, as he seems to have dropped this tendency in Spanish relatively quickly. So, for example, in “Red Shadows” (1928) he writes “Senhor,” in “Winner Take All” (1930) he writes “Senyor,” but in “The Horror from the Mound” (1932) he writes “Señor.”

In late 1948 or early 1949, Smith learned Spanish, made his first translations of Spanish poetry, and wrote his first poems in Spanish.
—Donald Sidney-Fryer, “A Memoir of Timeus Gaylord: reminsicences of Two Visits with Clark Ashton Smith, &c.” in The Romanticist #2 (1978) 3

Smith had already taught himself French from dictionaries and grammars in the 1920s; Lovecraft would praise his translations of Baudelaire. A decade after the death of Howard and Lovecraft, Smith would do the same with Spanish. All three men shared a love of language and poetry, and were autodidacts, but Smith was the only one of the three to attempt anything like fluency in Spanish, at least to the point of translating and composing poetry in that language.

His hopes of being published in that language do not appear to have been fulfilled during his lifetime, although some of his translations of Spanish poetry from Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, José A. Calcaño, and José Santos Chocano (“El Cantor de América”) did see print in zines and his poetry collections, and some of the English translations of his Spanish poems also appeared in his Arkham House poetry collections—including a translation or two of “Clérigo Herrero,” Smith’s Spanish pen-name (“Cleric Smith”—Clark, clerk, cleric).

After Smith’s death in 1961, his widow attempted to continue to publish his work, and selling some of his letters and manuscripts in conjunction with letterpress printer and bookdealer Roy A. Squires. One of these projects was the small pamphlet ¿Donde Duermes, Elderado? Y Otros Poemas (1964), done entirely in Spanish, publishing eight of his poems as by Clérigo Herrero. The colophon says this printing was only 160 copies, although the bibliographies say 176.

Donde-inside

Typescripts of some of his other Spanish poems, discovered after this printing, were published in Shadows Seen & Unseen (2007), showing something of his process:

SSU-sample

For long decades, the Spanish poetry of Clark Ashton Smith was relatively unavailable: published far apart in limited editions. Today it has all been republished as part of the Collected Poetry and Translations of Clark Ashton Smith (2012) …and it is a testament to one of the great voices of Weird Tales to extend himself this way, to explore and express himself in another language. Because there is far more to this world than just the English language.

El mundo es el suyo,
El sol es el tuyo,
La luna es la mía.

The world is yours,
The sun is thine,
The moon is mine.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) by Robert M. Price

[…] we present an original story by the estimable Price, which is dedicated to Lin Carter and Robert E. Howard, as it utilizes Carter’s Dr. Anton Zarnak and Howard’s Steve Harrison. Its style brings back memories of the weird mysteries which Howard was noted for.
—Edward P. Berglund, “Preface to the Revised Edition” Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) vi

In the Spring of 1933, Robert E. Howard got himself a new agent. Otis Adelbert Kline was a pulp writer himself, and had been a reader for Weird Tales in the early days, ghost-editing a single issue to bridge the gap between the outgoing Edwin Baird and the incoming Farnsworth Wright. Kline’s agency handle the promotion and collection of Howard’s work, freeing the Texas pulpster to simply write, and the agent encouraged Howard to splash new markets—to spread his literary wings and try his hands at not just weird fiction but spicy stories and detective fiction.

It was the great period of hardboiled detective fiction, which would become so married to film noir; the pulp magazine Black Mask thrilled to Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s John Dalmas. Yet it was also the era of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels. Yellow Peril literature was still going strong in the interwar period; H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard exchanged letters discussing the danger threatened by Imperial Japan, on the rise since their victories in the Russo-Japanese War and the Great War, and worried over the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and the looming probability of a great race war in the perhaps not too distant future.

This was the background against which Howard created Steve Harrison, star of nine weird detective stories, four of which sold and were published in magazines like Strange Detective Stories, Super-Detective Stories, and Thrilling Mystery between 1934 and 1936. Harrison’s beat was normally the local Chinatown, and the plots tend to be more oriented toward action than detection. Racism and racial conflict are part and parcel for the stories; Robert E. Howard, who had written quite a bit for Oriental Stories, obviously never heard Robert Knox’s rule that “No Chinaman must figure in the story.”

“Three unsolved murders in a week are not so unusual—for River Street,” grunted Steve Harrison, shifting his muscular bulk restlessly in his chair. […]

“It’s your business to solve murders,” she said.”

“Give me a little time. You can’t rush things, when you’re dealing with the people of the Oriental quarter.”

“You have less time than you think,” she answered cryptically. […] “Do you remember Erlik Khan?”

Involuntarily his hand sought his face, where a thin-scar ran from temple to jaw-rim.

“I’m not likely to forget him,” he grunted. “A Mongol who called himself Lord of the Dead. His idea was to combine all the Oriental criminal societies in America in one big organization, with himself at the head. He might have done it, too, if his own men hadn’t turned on him.”
—Robert E. Howard, “Names in the Black Book” (1934) in Steve Harrison’s Casebook 143

Occult detective Anton Zarnak was created by Lin Carter in the late 1980s, first as a minor character in “Curse of the Black Pharaoh,” and then star of his own adventures—sometimes written by Carter, others by Robert M. Price, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr; Pierre Comtois, and C. J. Henderson. Carter alongside L. Sprague de Camp had a hand in the legacies of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard; the two collaborated on many further adventures for Conan; revised, finished, or re-wrote Howard’s fiction; published highly-regarded fantasy anthologies and wrote articles promoting weird fiction and sword & sorcery. Lin Carter also created his own “Xothic Cycle” to expand on the work of Lovecraft and August Derleth.

Price in his introduction to Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth notes that Zarnak’s influences include Sherlock Holmes, the Weird Tales occult detective Jules de Grandin (created by Seabury Quinn), Sax Rohmer’s Sir Dennis Nayland Smith, August Derleth’s Dr. Laban Shrewsbury, Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange, and Robert E. Howard’s own Steve Harrison. Zarnak had his abode in Chinatown, had an Sikh manservant (much as Wong to Dr. Strange, or Ram Singh to The Spider), and had a shelf full of Mythos tomes. The first proper Zarnak story opens:

Below Fourteenth Street, between Chinatown and the river, extends a disreputable region of cryptic, winding alleys, crumbling tenements, rotting wharves and abandoned warehouses slumping in decay. Here dwell the human dregs of a thousand Eastern ports: Hindus, Japanese, Arabs, Chinamen, Levantines, Turks, Portuguese. Once these dark and sinister side-streets and fetid alleyways were the battlefield of the Tong wars; that was in the days of the legendary detective Steve Harrison, who single-handedly dealt out the white man’s law and the white man’s justice along River Street.
—Lin Carter, “Dead of Night” (1988) in Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth 107

Steve Harrison was a product of the 1930s; between the time Robert E. Howard drew his last breath and Lin Carter sat down at his typewriter a second World War had come and gone; together with the Korean War and the Vietnam War these conflicts changed the contours of Yellow Peril fiction—it is often forgotten that comic book characters such as Dr. Strange and Iron Man came to be in the 1960s, their pulp fiction roots showing in characterizations of Asian characters as mystical and exotic, such as the Ancient One who taught Strange his sorcery, and the Mandarin who served as a Chinese counter to the American Iron Man. Later, as such blatant Asianophobia waned, the characters would be re-imagined from their original contexts…so what was Carter up to, writing a story with 1930s racial tropes (and almost 1930s racial language) in the 1980s?

In part, it might be because Howard’s Steve Harrison stories had only rarely been published or republished; most of them only became available in the late 1970s and 80s, during the tail end of the “Howard Boom,” and those often spread out; there was no complete book of Steve Harrison stories at the time. Also in part, it could be that Carter did not see the problem; he avoided the outright vulgarities of Howard (the N-word was casually dropped in several stories), and the nature of the fiction was in keeping with the style of the original—which, for a pasticheur like Carter, was important. Some years before, African-American fantasy author Charles Saunders had specifically called out de Camp and Carter for this approach in their Conan stories:

Carter and de Camp, on the other hand, continue to practice good old-fashioned bigotry in their non-Conan endeavors. Though they have done a good job at ameliorating some of Howard’s more blatant racism, their own efforts at sword-and-sorcery are throwbacks. This is doubly shameful, because both of these men are scholars, and should know better. Their books sell well enough, so it may be that racism in fantasy matters little to fandom.

But it does matter to me.
—Charles Saunders, “Die, Black Dog! A Look At Racism in Fantasy Literature” (1975)

The Cthulhu Mythos is itself no stranger to Yellow Peril tropes, as seen in “Polaris” (1920) by H. P. Lovecraft & “The Lair of the Star-Spawn” (1932) by August Derleth and Mark Schorer. The question is not if such sentiments are present in the original material, but how a new author working with that material chooses to adapt it to the syntax of their own time. There is nothing wrong with presenting historical racism as a fact of life; To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) for example is set during the Great Depression, and the realistic racism in the novel is critical to the story.

The issue when creating fiction set in this period or in this style is how much the story plays into the inherent biases of racial tropes and stereotypes. Having a villain who is Asian does not necessarily make a Yellow Peril story, so long as the individual is not a villain because they are Asian. Presenting historical racism as it was is often necessary; writing a story as if from that period, with all the inherent approach that the racism is true and correct is neither necessary nor commendable. The point is often a fine one, and easily lost on writers trying to capture the spirit of pulp fiction without considering the ideas and messages inherent in the text, never mind the subtext.

Carter was not alone in trying to navigate these difficult waters. One of the more egregious examples might be “Yellow Peril”: The Adventures of Sir John Weymouth-Smythe (1978) by Richard Jaccoma, which is essentially Fu Manchu fanfiction with a very slight wink toward the Mythos (Jaccoma also holds the rather dubious honor of having written the script for Teenage Twins (1976), the first hardcore adult film to feature the Necronomicon—and an incantation from a Robert E. Howard story—but I digress.) Like Carter, he was essentially trying to write a 1930s style Yellow Peril story.

This is essentially where Robert M. Price’s “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) begins:

The one-man posse of River Street set his feet squarely, while the blue steel of twin automatics leaped into his fists and began to discharge a hail of white man’s justice into the knot of Oriental thugs. When his guns were empty he cast them aside and reached for the Gurkha knife had concealed in his belt Eastern style. It descended with the force of a guillotine, cleaving the skull of the first assassin to elude the rain of bullets and reach him. Himalayan blood spattered Harrison as he pulled the blade free of the sundered wreck of a head and managed to dodge a sword thrust aimed at himself.
—Robert M. Price, “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) 140-141

Price is deliberately working the story as a throwback piece; a character that uses the term “chink” or “Chinaman” once or twice can be grimaced at as an acknowledgment of the casual historical use of racial pejoratives; but the text itself describes them as “Asiatics,” “Muhammadans,” and “slant-eyed devils.” Not strong language by Robert E. Howard’s standards in 1936…but in 1996?

The story itself is the kind that weaves together disparate elements of Mythos (and non-Mythos) fiction, one of Price’s major interests. So the story references not just Steve Harrison and Anton Zardak, but the Unaussprechlichen Kulten created by Robert E. Howard in “The Black Stone” (1932) and given a German name through the help of Lovecraft, for more on which see “Unspeakable! The Secret History of Nameless Cults; the minor Mythos story “Dig Me No Grave” (1937) published after Howard’s death; the Black Lotus from the Conan stories, for more on which see “Robert E. Howard’s Reefer Madness”; Gol-Goroth from Howard’s “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” (1931); the cat-headed staff of Howard’s Solomon Kane; a passing reference to Frank Belknap Long’s Chaugnar-Faugn from The Horror from the Hills (1931), which includes an Asian Mythos cult; Lloigor, Zhar, and the Tcho-Tcho from August Derleth and Marc Schorer’s “The Lair of the Star Spawn” (1932)…and those latter especially deserve further consideration:

And the Tcho-Tchos! Every cop in the area knows them only too well: the latest wave of Oriental immigrants to clutter the docks. Damn near every single one of them connected with the criminal underground in one way or another. There are only a few, but even at that, there’s too damn many of them if you ask me!
—Robert M. Price, “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) 155

Derleth & Schorer introduced—and exterminated—the Tcho-Tcho in their story; but the idea of a small alien race in Asia had appeal to Lovecraft, who made reference to them, and were revived by devoted fans like Robert M. Price, who here inserts them into the context of the Asian diaspora to the United States, very unlike their original appearance. The language used against the Tcho-Tcho, who were initially presented as inhuman, is essentially the same as used for any Asian ethnicity in the age of the Asiatic Barred Zone Act (1917). Price doesn’t mention the events of Derleth & Schorer’s story, and glosses over their depiction of the Tcho-Tcho by noting:

You should be aware that these dwarf-like figures belong to a warrior caste specially bred. Not all the Tcho-Tchos are like them, nor have I expressly claimed to be of their nation. (ibid.)

Price’s mingling and confusion of real-world prejudice against Asian immigration with the fantasy racism of Derleth & Schorer’s confusion is a literary sin; whatever his intent, the result is that the real-world fear and hatred is given a justification within the context of story. Price has perhaps exposited too much; the Tcho-Tcho never appear on the page before the revelation is made, so the reader is exposed to their Mythos aspect and the anti-Asian prejudice in virtually the same breath.

Then it gets weirder:

The swelling chorus of guttural voices gave Steve a hint of his earlier dread. Deep down he knew that his Celtic forbears had driven the reptilian kindred of these dusky trolls away from the open spaces of human habitation. His knife thirsted for their stinking blood. He seemed to know that his statuesque cmpanion shared his own primal hate for the Little People. Askbar Singh’s ancestral mythology would know them as the Asuras, eternal enemies of the Aryan gods. (ibid., 163)

For anyone not hip-deep in Mythos lore this probably seems like racist gibberish. It is in fact a very nerdy reference where Price attempts to tie the dwarfish Tcho-Tcho with the Little People in Robert E. Howard’s stories such as “The Children of the Night” (1931) and “The People of the Dark” (1932) which in turn drew inspiration from Arthur Machen’s Little People stories such as “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895), “The Red Hand” (1895), and “The Shining Pyramid” (1906); those interested in the gritty details can read about it in “Conan and the Little People: Robert E. Howard & Lovecraft’s Theory.”

The Little People as initially conceived by Machen and Howard derive from racialist anthropological theories that posited a “Mongoloid” race that inhabited Europe before being driven out by the arrival of the Causcasoid race that were the ancestors of contemporary (and implicitly white) Europeans. Both Machen and Howard attributed powers and non-humanoid characteristics to the Little People, and it’s easy to see how Price might have been drawn to the idea of conflating the Tcho-Tcho and Little People who both shared short stature, non-human nature or attributes, ignorant of modern technology, worship of Mythos agencies (in at least some cases)…but also an at least implicit connection to Asian peoples.

The fact that Price gives Steve Harrison a racial—and almost explicitly Aryan—hatred for the Little People/Tcho-Tcho makes the already bizarre mashup of fantasy and real-world racism uglier. Robert E. Howard, with his strong grounding in racialist ideas of history and narrative, had no difficulty writing such stories in the 1930s; Price in putting those thoughts into Steve Harrison’s head was perhaps doing no different than Howard might have done, and certainly was not writing anything worse than Howard had written in “The Children of the Night.”

Yet this was written in the 1990s, not the 1930s.

The fundamental issue here is not so much the use of the Tcho-Tcho as villains; Derleth and Schorer had already done that. If anything, giving the Tcho-Tcho some greater depth and making them something other than an “evil” race of faceless mooks would be praiseworthy. Attempting to accurately portray the historical racism of the period is certainly understandable given the context of the setting, where Anton Zarnak (who lives in Chinatown) and Steve Harrison (who works the Chinatown beat) meet to deal with a mutual threat. Combining the real-world prejudice and the fantasy racism however…this is where the story really gets problematic.

Price himself was a long-time editor of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu Fiction line, and as part of his notes for Howard’s “The Children of the Night” he wrote:

Can you spot similarities between this tale and three by Lovecraft? I am thinking of “Polaris,” where the narrator recalls an ancient life in which he fell asleep on guard duty when he should have been watching for the advance of his people’s subhuman foes; “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where the narrator’s opening gives nary a sign of the atavistic identity-change he has undergone by the end; and “Pickman’s Model,” where one member of a Kalem-like club is ostracized as a hideous sub-human changeling.
—Robert M. Price, Nameless Cults: The Cthulhu Mythos Fiction of Robert E. Howard 66

Not all the parallels are pleasant: “Polaris” is explicitly a “Yellow Peril” story, albeit one set in a mythical past, for example. Early on “The Shadow over Innsmouth” has more than a trace of it:

But the real thing behind the way folks feel is simply race prejudice—and I don’t say I’m blaming those that hold it. I hate those Innsmouth folks myself, and I wouldn’t care to go to their town. I s’pose you know—though I can see you’re a Westerner by your talk—what a lot our New England ships used to have to do with queer ports in Africa, Asia, the South Seas, and everywhere else, and what queer kinds of people they sometimes brought back with ’em. You’ve probably heard about the Salem man that came home with a Chinese wife, and maybe you know there’s still a bunch of Fiji Islanders somewhere around Cape Cod.

“Well, there must be something like that back of the Innsmouth people.[“]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

With Lovecraft, the prejudice is a red herring. The real-world fears of miscegenation and “foreignness” held by other Massachusetts locals towards the folkd of Innsmouth is a mask for the much weirder and more horrific truth. The locals are correct in that the “Innsmouth look” is the result of Innsmouth being a mixed-race community, they are wrong and ignorant in assuming they know what the “races” involved are. Blinded by their prejudice, they don’t see the terrible reality.

That could have been the case with “Dope War of the Black Tong”—but we never get a sense of the Tcho-Tcho before the Mythos connection is revealed. They have no sympathetic character, no demonstration of the prejudices they must suffer, no real explanation for what they’re doing in Chinatown instead of the Plateau of Sung. In this sense, the Howardian action-adventure approach that Price adopted is partially to blame; he starts off with Harrison in the thick of it, rather than ruminating on what brought the Tcho-Tcho diaspora to the United States, or why they would form a tong.

Price’s story essentially sees Harrison confirm the prejudices he held instinctively against the Tcho-Tcho just for looking Asian.

The racialism in the early Mythos stories from the 1930s can have a very long tail, impacting stories today. It is difficult to say how much influence “Dope War of the Black Tong” has had on the depiction of the Tcho-Tcho as, essentially, default Yellow Peril villains in contemporary Mythos fiction. For example, in the roleplaying game Delta Green, the Tcho-Tcho diaspora and association with drugs and other criminal activities are explicitly part of the setting; however, the explicit association between the Little People and the Tcho-Tcho is not.

“Dope War of the Black Tong” was first published in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd rev. ed., 1996), it has been republished in Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth (2002), and Robert M. Price’s own collection Blasphemies & Revelations (2008/2019).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Vale of Lost Women”(1967) by Robert E. Howard

I was fortunate enough to locate, last year, the bulk of the long lost Howard files. This includes a number of unpublished items, some of which appear in this issue. The unpublished fragment was among these papers; it is impossible to definitely determine whether this is an unfinished story or whether the remaining portion has been lost. Conan fans will be pleased to learn that several previously unpublished Conan stories were found: “Wolves Beyond the Border”, “The Snout in the Dark”, “The Hall of the Dead”, “The Hand of Nergal” and “The Vale of Lost Women”. Only the latter was finished; L. Sprague de Camp has completed the first three titles, while Lin Carter has finished “The Hand of Nergal.” “The Hall of the Dead” has been accepted by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction , while “The Vale of Lost Women” will appear in Magazine of Horror. All titles will appear in the Lancer Conan series in due course.
—Glenn Lord, The Howard Collector #9 (Spring 1967), 2-3

We know almost nothing about the origins of “The Vale of Lost Women.” There are two drafts extant, one unfinished (17 pages) and one complete (21 pages), with editing marks not in Howard’s hand, both undated. It is mentioned in none of Howard’s surviving correspondence, and if it was ever submitted to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales, no records of its submission or rejection have come to light. Howard scholar Patrice Louinet has stated in his essay “Hyborian Genesis” that the story was written circa February 1933—before Howard took Otis Adelbert Kline as his agent, and at the end of the first period of writing Conan stories (The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian 450).

Reader response to the “new” story—unearthed after thirty years and in the midst of the Howard boom of the 1960s—was mixed.

Charles Hidley writes: “The so-called ‘Conan’ story with its fantasy domino slightly askew is a thinly-masked ‘porny’ of the cheapest sado-sexual variety and doesn’t belong in your pages and wasn’t, I’m sure, authored by Robert E. Howard. Sick as that lad may have been, he at least was an author with imagination and writing skill—of sorts—and had the taste and discretion to flesh out his erotic fetishes with some semblance of narrative—and that in a category that could be honestly labelled macabre, outre, fantastic. If this was Howard (and I seriously challenge that labeling) it was surely a segment of something of greater length and depth—and less spuriousness.”

Carrington B. Dixon, Jr., writes from Texas: “1967 seems to be a good year for Conan. First FANTASTIC reprints People of the Black Circle, and now both MOH and FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION bring out new Conan stories! Of the two new ones, however, yours is 100% Howard, and it is easily the better of the two. I cannot imagine why The Vale of Lost Women was not published during Howard’s lifetime; unless it was that he did not live to submit it. It is certainly one of Howard’s better works. It is somewhat atypical for a Conon [sic] story but magnificent nonetheless. The fact that it is told in third person limited from Livia’s point of view adds a great deal to the story. The fight scenes still have gusto, but something has been added. The descent into the Vale has a chill missing in most Conan stories; we know that, no matter what the odds, Conan will come out with a whole skin, but women do not always fare so well…. This was easily the outstanding story of the issue.”
The Magazine of Horror #16 (Summer 1967), 119-120

The mixed opinion have much to do with the combination of racial and sexual dynamics in the story, which reflect a mix of Howard’s influences and themes. The story is, somewhat unusually, told from the perspective of Livia, an Ophirian woman held captive:

As she lay on the angareb in the great hut, her state bordered between delirium and semi-unconsciousness. Outward sounds and movements scarcely impinged upon her senses. her whole mental vision, though dazed and chaotic, was yet centered with hideous certitude on the naked, writhing figure of her brother, blood streaming down the quivering thighs.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 303

“Angareb” is a Sudanese word for a low, wooden-framed bed, which Howard probably picked up from the pages of Adventure; the image of the tortured, probably castrated, brother comes from what Patrice Louinet considers the story’s likely inspiration: the story of Cynthia Ann Parker and her brother John, who were captured by the Comanche in 1836. Robert E. Howard was familiar with versions of the story, which he mentioned to H. P. Lovecraft as early as 1931, and related in some detail to August Derleth in a letter written around January 1933 (Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard 3.4-9) In adapting the story to the Hyborian Age, however, the captors are not Native Americans but black people.

This was before Howard published his essay “The Hyborian Age,” but it is evident in the story that he had generally conceived of the broad outlines and some of details of the geography in Conan’s world, specifically:

South of Stygia are the vast black kingdoms of the Amazons, the Kushites, the Atlaians and the hybrid empire of Zembabwei.

The black people in this story are thus portrayed as black Africans in all but name; despite the confusion of names (which Lovecraft sometimes chided Howard for), the Kushites here should be seen as more or less metaphorical ancestors of the Kingdom of Kush, located in Nubia south of Egypt; hence the use of a Sudanese term like angareb, and the presence of bamboo is another detail suggesting the general geographic locale of the story.

If it seems weird to contemporary readers that Native Americans may be portrayed as Africans in this manner—it would not be the last time Howard made such a racial transposition. Most notably, in the Conan story “Beyond the Black River” the Picts—one of Howard’s favorites, appearing in not just the Conan stories but the Bran Mak Morn and Kull tales, as both historical Picts of the British Isles and as mythological predecessors from Lemuria and Atlantis—essentially take the place of Native Americans, a theme that John Bullard explored in “Beyond the Black River”: Is It Really “Beyond the Brazos River”? In general, it can be argued that one of the ways that Howard kept the Conan series fresh was by continually adapting different genres and settings to the Hyborian Age, and part of that involves the odd transpositions, as in the case of “The Vale of Lost Women.”

The transposition would have been easier for Howard’s intended audience because of popular pulp (and in general Colonialist fiction) depictions of indigenous peoples of both Africa and the Americas as “savage.” The idea hold connotations beyond the immediately obvious; in the 1930s to be a barbarian was to be juxtaposed to “civilization,” but to be savage was to be incapable of civilization. Even seemingly ambivalent terms like “Noble Savage” have inherent in them the basic racist bias that the people so described would never obtain civilization by their own skill or effort. This is perhaps more important for stories like Howard’s “The Moon of Skulls,” which features a black African kingdom living in the remnants of an ancient Atlantean outpost, but it is implicit in many works from many writers of this period, and one reason why it was “easy” for Howard to translate the Comanche to the Kushites in this story is because they were both, in his understanding, “savages.”

The contrast of savage vs. barbarian vs. civilized, white vs. black, is presented by Howard in very stark relief in “The Vale of Lost Women.”

The hut door opened, and a black woman entered—a lithe pantherish creature, whose supple body gleamed like polished ebony, adorned only by a wisp of silk twisted about her strutting loins. The whites of her eyeballs reflected the firelight outside, as she rolled them with wicked meaning.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 303

Most of the women in this story are either underdressed or nude; Robert E. Howard had learned by this point that Farnsworth Wright preferred a nude or near-nude female character in a scene for the cover illustration, so the use of a nude character in a Conan story is not itself unusual or weird—Seabury Quinn and other writers at Weird Tales were doing the same thing. What sets this scene and interaction apart is the contrast between the white woman, embarrassed at her nudity, and the black woman who flaunts it. This depiction between woman light and dark (not always white and black, but light-haired and brunette, etc.) is a recurring theme in Howard’s fiction, Charles Hoffman discusses this tendency in his essays “Return to Xuthal,” “Blood Lust: Robert E. Howard’s Spicy Adventures,”  and “Elements of Sadomasochism in the Fiction and Poetry of Robert E. Howard,” and it can be seen more clearly developed in later Conan stories like “The Slithering Shadow” and “Red Nails.”

The combination of racial and sexual elements centers now on Livia. Jim Crow was alive and well in the United States of the 1930s; the K.K.K. would be vocal about the need for the “color line” and many jurisdictions had laws against interracial marriage. Racist stereotypes about the supposed licentiousness of African-Americans were rampant, and underlay the accusations of the Scottsboro Boys Trial. Social attitudes, however, were sexist as well as racist; many white male Americans found it acceptable for a white man to visit black female sex workers. The distinction makes up a particularly poignant passage in Howard’s life:

“Every man has to uphold his race and protect his women and children,” Bob said earnestly. “He has to build the best damn world he can. You mix and mingle the races, and what do you get? You get a mongrel race—a race that’s not white and not black.”

It seemed to me he was leaving out something important. “Very well, then,” I said flatly. “If a man’s going to fight to keep his race pure, don’t let him go down to the flat and leave a half-white, half-black child down there.”

Bob jerked the steering wheel so abruptly that we almost ran off the road.

“Well, damn it,” he groaned. “There’s something there that you don’t understand.”

He looked at me, ran his hand over his face, and glared. “Well, sometimes a man—Well, damn it. Sometimes a man has to—”
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone 96

So, it’s not just that Livia is being held captive, but she is being sexually threatened in a way that would specifically speak to the (presumably primarily white and male) audience of Weird Tales—and the nature of this threat is not strictly heterosexual either:

The young black woman laughed evilly, with a flash of dark eyes and white teeth, and with a hiss of spiteful obscenity and a mocking caress that was more gross than her language, she turned and swaggered out of the hut, expressing more taunting insolence with the motions of her hips than any civilized woman could with spoken insults.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 304

Howard’s specific understanding of lesbianism was tied up in contemporary interpretations of homosexuality as a psychological disorder; he appears to have associated lesbianism with both the adoption of masculine attributes (as with his character Dark Agnes in “Sword Woman”) and with sadism, where it represents distorted sexual appetites (for more on this subject, see “Conan and Sappho: Robert E. Howard on Lesbians”). This in particular can be seen in the relationships between women in “The Moon of Skulls,” “The Slithering Shadow,” and “Red Nails”—all three of which dovetail with the light/dark female dichotomy already mentioned as a theme in Howard’s work. The presence of a “mocking caress” in this context then is not surprising—but unusually, in this case it also serves as a foreshadowing of the events later in the story.

Nor is this the only case of racial stereotypes being used in this story:

On an ivory stool, flanked by giants in plumed head-pieces and leopard-skin girdles, sat a fat, squat shape, abysmal, repulsive, a toad-like chunk of blackness, reeking of the dank rotting jungle and the nighted swamps. The creature’s pudgy hands rests on the sleek arch of his belly; his nape was a roll of sooty fat that seemed to thrust his bullet head forward. His eyes gleamed in the firelight, like live coals in a dead black stump. Their appalling vitality belied the inert suggestion of the gross body.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 304

This description of Bajujh, king of Bakalah, is not far off from the first shot of Jabba the Hutt as portrayed in Return of the Jedi (1983)—and there is a similar logic at work. Howard, through the gaze of Livia, is setting up Bajujh as the epitome of disgust. Like in “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch, Howard is building up this individual as a visceral ultimate expression in the minds of the readers. Robert E. Howard was more than capable of describing black characters in many different ways—from obsequious to defiant, young to old, powerful to weak, intelligent and wise to animalistic—and many of his stories build up particular characters as particularly capable or dangerous to the protagonists. Yet Bajujh is not a rival for Conan—he is established as an opposite, a study in contrasts for the Cimmerian who he wanders onto the page a few paragraphs later.

Conan’s interactions with the Kushites deserves attention:

He was clad like his followers in leopard-skin loin-clout and plumed head-piece, but he was a white man. […] He himself, with a few of his chiefs, sat with Bajujh and the headmen of Bakalah, cross-legged on mats, gorging and guzzling. She saw his hands dipped deep into the cooking pots with the others, saw his muzzle thrust into the beer vessel out of which Bajujh also drank.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 305

Bajujh treats Conan as an equal, and by his actions Conan shows no discrimination with sitting and feasting with the Kushites, even to the point of drinking from the same vessels. To Livia, this is a display of Conan’s power, but to the audience the interaction could be seen as more ambiguous: after all, here is essentially a scene of racial equality and getting-along. Lingering Colonialist attitudes may be at play in this depiction, since Conan is depicted as a white man among chiefs, and accorded respect as such; the idea of white men being deemed special and equivalent to black leaders was also a theme in several Solomon Kane tales set in Africa. Yet it is clearly Livia’s own preconceptions about race that are at work when she notes:

But she made no effort to classify his position among the races of mankind. It was enough that his skin was white.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 306

It’s worth mentioning that in 1933, not all European nationalities and ethnicities were seen as equal, even if they were often nominally “white.” Ethnic sentiment against Jews, Italians, Irish, and Eastern Europeans was still widespread, sometimes flaring into violence. So unspoken in this statement is that sentiment that Livia places herself at or near the top of “whiteness”—but that ethnic considerations fade when, outnumbered and alone, she sets up the stark racial dichotomy of white vs. black, us vs. them. This is her view of the world, in this situation, which the readers are expected to recognize and sympathize with. That’s important to set up what comes next.

“You care naught that a man of your own color has been foully done to death by these black dogs—that a white woman is their slave! Very well!” She fell back from him, panting, transfigured by her passion.

“I will give you a price!” she raved, tearing away her tunic from her ivory breasts. “Am I not fair? Am I not more desirable than these soot-colored wenches? Am I not a worthy reward for blood-letting? Is not a fair-skinned virgin a price worth slaying for?[“]
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 307-308

Robert Bloch in the November 1934 issue of Weird Tales would already be lamenting “Conan the Cluck” who every issue “won a new girlfriend, each of whose penchant for nudism won her a place of honor, either on the cover or on the inner illustration.” The idea that the hero wins the girl at the end is part of the casual misogyny of pulp fiction—and of much fiction generally. Livia’s offer is playing very specifically and deliberately to reader’s expectations, based on the almost formulaic trope of the good guy getting the girl and them living happily ever after, and reinforced by the racial and sexual aspects of the story already established.

Which is why Conan’s response catches readers by surprise.

“You speak as if you were free to give yourself at your pleasure,” he said. “As if the gift of your body had power to swing kingdoms. Why should I kill Bajujh to obtain you? Women are cheap as plantains in this land, and their willingness or unwillingness matters as little. You value yourself too highly. If I wanted you, I wouldn’t have to fight Bajujh to take you. He would rather give you to me than to fight me.”
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 308

The response utterly deflates Livia; while Howard would not have put it in such terms, she comes face to face with her own white privilege, and the shock of realizing that her assumptions regarding her value and relationships with other people just because of her gender and skin color aren’t absolute values is crushing to her self-esteem. Her essential powerlessness, carefully developed throughout the first part of the story, and her offer of her virginity are designed to appeal to what white male Americans expected of white female Americans. Livia had wanted to be Helen of Troy, she ended up as Briseis. As one critic noted about this exchange, Conan’s is:

A realistic attitude, but one that is rarely encountered in most sword-and-sorcery. Usually women are masterminds who plot and deceive, using their sex as a weapon. As Howard summed it up best shortly afterward, “In spite of all Livia had experienced, she had still instinctively supposed a woman’s consent the pivotal point of such a game as she proposed to play.”
—Robert Weinberg, The Annotated Guide To Robert E. Howard’s Sword & Sorcery (1976), 106

Winter Elliott in his essay “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Women: Gender Dynamics in the Hyborian World” describes how Livia has “so clearly internalized her society’s consumerist construction of a woman’s sexuality.” (Conan Meets the Academy 62), and it is the transactional nature of the exchange which is at play here: Livia sees herself, and especially her body and virginity, as things of value which are to be exchanged for other things.

Livia, however, is trying to sell herself; she is not participant in an exchange between men, so her offer has no value. It does, however, correctly suggest that she has internalized her society’s view of female flesh as a commodity to be sold. […] In fact, the supposedly barbaric culture in which she finds herself has acted perfectly in accordance with her own civilization; her own society might more delicately treat her as property, but she would still be a possession. […] Livia’s captivity derives not from any fault of her own but from the weakness of her male guardians, who were unable to sustain their hold on their property in the face of fiercer male competition.
—Winter Elliot, ibid. 63

So Livia is not approaching this exactly in the sense of sex work. Having been raised to value herself and think of herself in these terms, she is still not yet cognizant of the fact that she does not really own herself and her own sexuality. The bargain she seeks to strike is emotional and presupposes that she and Conan share more than just skin color, but common values and assumptions of gender roles.

There’s a volatile mix of racial, gender, and sexual politics at play here. If Livia had been a man instead of a woman (or Conan a woman, or homosexual), the same offer and exchange would almost certainly not have taken place—at least, not in 1933 with any hope of getting published in Weird Tales. If Livia had been a been black, Asian, multiracial, or something other than “white,” the sexual offer might still have been part of the appeal for rescue, but not with the specific racial overtones which were such a part of Colonialist rhetoric. With the character of Livia, Howard has very carefully set up exactly this moment of conflict, and specifically so that Conan can poke a hole in it.

The subversion of expectations that takes place can still be framed as sexist; the whole exchange emphasizes the complete lack of power that Livia has as a woman, even over her own body, and serves as a kind of masculine sexual fantasy. Howard may be bending the rules by not having Conan play the noble hero willing to risk all for sexual intercourse with a white woman right away, but he’s still operating well within the general frame of preconceptions that led eventually to John Norman’s Gor and Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty novels. Once it’s clear who is in charge, Conan goes on:

But I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man; and though your kind call me a robber, I never forced a woman against her consent. […] If you were old and ugly as the devil’s pet vulture, I’d take you away from Bajujh, simply because of the color of your hide.

“But you are young and beautiful, and I have looked at black sluts until I am sick at the guts. I’ll play this game your way, simply because some of your instincts correspond with mine.[“]
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 308-309

There’s a lot to unpack here. These are the first racist statements made by Conan himself in the entire story, if not exactly his entire career to this point; Howard had already written “The Queen of the Black Coast,” which involves Conan joining the crew of Bêlit and her black corsairs, although it wouldn’t see print until 1934, so it wasn’t that he hadn’t interacted with black characters at this point, but it emphasizes that while he might lead them and interact relatively equally with them, Conan isn’t above all the prejudices of his own time. Certainly the “black sluts” comment implies sexual experience with black women, illustrating the same double-standard Howard faced in Texas in the 1930s. The language isn’t necessarily too “blue” even for Weird Tales, other stories would use the word “slut.”

The last phrase, “because some of your instincts correspond with mine” echoes the language of H. P. Lovecraft, who would use similar but not identical phrasing in some of his letters to describe the racial homogeneity of different nationalities (cf. A Means to Freedom 1.77) It wouldn’t be the only time some of the arguments and discussions from their letters made their way into Howard’s fiction (or maybe vice versa), “The God in the Bowl” echoes aspects of Lovecraft and Howard’s discussions on the inequalities of justice and policing.

Racism is not just about epithets and depictions, but also absence. In this story, the black characters are almost all unnamed and never have a speaking role. In large part, this is because the story is told from Livia’s perspective: Conan can speak the same language as the Kushites, Livia cannot, so in her narrative they are either silent or voice obscenities and animalistic cries. Livia’s worldview does not encompass how they think or view themselves, except in relation to their interactions with her—which are minimal. The only hint we have at their history and inner life is through her, as it impacts her own life.

The second twist in the story is Livia’s flight from Conan as she imagines him coming to claim her, bearing the price she asked for sexual access to her body. A parallel could be drawn here with the earlier story “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” though unlike in that story, Conan has already stated he has no intention of rape, the fear of it drives Livia into the supernatural menace which Weird Tales would require, the eponymous “Vale of Lost Women”:

[…] she thought of a valley of which the blacks had spoken with fear; a valley to which had fled the young women of a strange brown-skinned race which had inhabited the land before the coming of the ancestors of the Bakalas. There, men said, they had turned into white flowers, had been transformed by the old gods to escape their ravishers. There no black man dared go.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 313

The legend has echoes with Greek myth, particularly that of Daphne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and likewise echoes Howard’s “brown race” of Atlantis as being distinct from both white- and black-skinned peoples in “The Moon of Skulls,” or the discussion of the Boskop Man in his letters with Lovecraft (cf. A Means to Freedom 1.141, 159, 169, 183); Lovecraft himself would refer to the “general of the great-headed brown people who held South Africa in B.C. 50,000” in “The Shadow out of Time.”

The appearance of a third race queers the binaries of Livia’s world in more ways than one:

The lithe brown women were all about her. One, lovelier than the rest, came silently up to the trembling girl, and enfolded her with supple brown arms. Her breath was scented with the same perfume that stole from the great white blossoms that waved in the starshine. Her lips pressed Livia’s in a long terrible kiss.
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 313-314

It’s interesting to compare this lesbian kiss with that in “Red Nails.” Both sexual displays are part of or prelude to occult ritual, or have some supernatural effect. Salacious as the scene may be, Howard’s reserve for such overt displays of homosexuality between women to part of a distinctly weird and supernatural scene may in effect have been his effort to get them past the censor. Or perhaps he felt the broaching of sexual taboos complemented and gave weight to scenes that were set to violate natural laws; his letters are generally silent on the subject.

The denouement is almost perfunctory. Conan’s unusually talkative explanation encompasses the demon from the Outer Dark, how he decided it wasn’t appropriate to hold Livia to her bargain, and that he’s sending her home nearly in the same breath. It is anticlimactic in more than the sense that the last action beat has passed.

Conan’s assurance that “I saw that to hold you to your bargain would be the same as if I had forced you” is in keeping with his previous statement that he had never forced a woman, but there is a thread here which neither Livia nor Conan delve into, which is that due to Livia’s status as a slave it is impossible for her to give consent; they are in an unequal power relationship, and Conan is the one in a position of dominance. One could draw parallels with slave women in the South before and during the American Civil War: Livia’s ability to say “No” is meaningless if Conan chooses not to respect it, and Conan (and Howard) appear perspicacious enough to realize that.

So, Conan’s decision doesn’t change the essential relationship: Conan is still the one making all the decisions about Livia and her body. If they’re not having sex, it’s because that’s what he decided, regardless of her feelings in the matter. Things might be looking up for Livia, in that she’s headed home, but she still has almost no agency as a person and hasn’t learned any particular lesson regarding being racist or assuming privilege for being white and female—since Conan is basically affirming all that by giving her exactly what she wanted for just the reasons she thought he should.

One suspects that there was a desire to give a happy ending which yet left Conan unencumbered by any sort of ongoing romantic relationship; which underscores how Conan circumvents the tropes by not ending up with the woman at the end, and is in stark contrast to the eventual fate of Cynthia Ann Parker. So rather than a tragic ending, or the expected sexual conquest, Howard ends “The Vale of Lost Women” with a gruff masculine joke:

“Crom, girl,” grunted Conan, embarrassed, “don’t do that, you’d think I was doing you a favor by kicking you out of this country; haven’t I explained that you’re not the proper woman for the war-chief of the Bamulas?”
—Robert E. Howard, “The Vale of Lost Women” in The Coming of Conan 317

When picked apart like this, it is easier to see how “The Vale of Lost Women” came to be, from a rough idea translated to the Hyborian Age, to the addition of various commercial elements (nudity, check; weird monster, check), and some of Howard’s common themes (light and dark women, a possible reference to ancient Atlantis, echoes of his discussions of race and civilization with Lovecraft). On top of this, there is the unusual interplay of gender, racial, and sexual dynamics—aspects which Howard doesn’t always get credit for, as noted in “Black Canaan” vs. “Black Cunjer.”

On a cold read, however—how much of that would actually come across? This story was published the year before the Civil Rights Act of 1968; would African-American readers have appreciate a story where they exist only to be either subservient to a white Conan and/or slaughtered? Second-wave feminism was pushing reforms for women in post-WWII America as well, questioning previous popular media images of women as solely homemakers and housewives and pushing for equal access to education and equality in the workplace. Howard may have been relatively liberal for 1930s Texas, but a story poking at tropes of the hero ending up with the girl in 1933 reads very differently in 1967. Or 2020.

Not terribly surprising then that critical reception of the story in the ensuing decades since its publication has been almost uniformly negative. To give a handful of reactions:

Two Conan stories, “The Vale of Lost Women” and “Shadows in Zamboula,” are typical antiblack hysterics. Reading them is like having a front-row seat at a Ku Klux Klan rally. In their depiction of blacks as savages, cannibals, and slaves, these stories deserve a place of dishonor beside Edgar Rice Burroughs in the lowly annals of racist literature.
—Charles R. Saunders, “Die, Black Dog!” (1975)

“The Vale of Lost Women” is probably the worst of the Conan stories and it is not surprising that it was never published during Howard’s lifetime. The supernatural element just seems to be added as an afterthought. The plotting is basic formula, with little complexity. However, the story does have a few noteworthy graces.
—Robert Weinberg, The Annotated Guide To Robert E. Howard’s Sword & Sorcery (1976), 106

Rejected for obvious reasons. Certainly this is the worst Conan story, with the possible exception of “Pool of the Black One.” But it does shed some light on Conan’s career as a chief of the Blacks.
—Darrell Schweitzer, Conan’s World and Robert E. Howard (1978) 52

Not surprisingly, the story failed to sell. If Howard was trying to discreetly infuse some of his growing interest in Western lore into the Conan stories, he was perhaps too subtle: it is impossible to detect the source without having access to peripheral documents. The powerful story of Cynthia Anne and John Parker was lost between the unconvincing supernatural threat and Livia’s penchant for nakedness. As to the racial overtones of the story, while the violent ethnocentricism of the tale is understandable when we recognize its origin in the nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon settler viewpoint, with the blacks standing in for Indians, it makes for unsettling reading for the modern audience. At any rate, Howard’s first foray into the American southwest version of the Hyborian Age was a failure, and it would be another year before he made another attempt.
—Patrice Louinet, “Hyborian Genesis” in The Coming of Conan (2003) 450

Racial overtones aside (the tribesmen of Ersatz-Africa stand-in for the Native Americans, leading to some really strong “anti-Kushite” rhetoric on Conan’s part), what draws the most heat from this story is Conan bartering to rescue the captive Livia in exchange for a roll in the hay. No one looks good in this story. Not Robert, not Conan, not even Livia. No one. This is perhaps the worst Conan story and a real low point for the series. The commercial elements all misfire, and the allegory of “Kushites = Native Americans” when Kush has previously equaled Africa doesn’t work at all. Worst of all is the insulting and contrived hackneyed ending. “Oh, I was going to kill all of the tribesmen anyway, and how dare you think that I’d bed you as payment, even though I’ve given you no reason to suspect otherwise?” Honestly, this reads more like Robert trying to work out a story, or at least work something out in this story.
—Mark Finn, Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard (2013) 226

This story, “The Vale of Lost Women,” contains some of the most problematic—and racist—passages in Howard’s work.
—Winter Elliott, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Women” in
Conan Meets the Academy (2013) 65n5

“Vale of Lost Women” doesn’t stand in the top rank of Howard’s Conan tales. Some might say it is the worst. But best and worst are relative. In “Vale”, Howard’s prose crackles with poetic lyricism, even at the tale’s grimmest moments. The story, so crude and harsh outwardly, rests on a foundation of myth springing from mankind’s basic fears and needs. By any standard “Vale of Women” is a memorable tale that draws in a reader with furious intensity and edge-of-the-seat suspense. If this is Howard at his worst, then he has earned his accolades.
—Dave Hardy, “Hither Came Conan: Dave Hardy on ‘The Vale of Lost Women'” (2019)

The assumption is that the story was rejected. If so, it was not necessarily because of the racial or sexual elementsWeird Tales certainly had both in its pages, and it is hard to say where the line was on such tales. Howard and many other writers had included racism before, nudity was often accepted (even encouraged), suggestions of lesbian interaction were not unknown. Perhaps Howard himself thought the story didn’t come together and chose not to submit it.

We don’t know.

The lesbian touches in “The Vale of Lost Women” has sometimes also been subject to some rather unusual takes, a couple of which are worth examining:

Written in the 1930s, this story was not published until much later, most likely because of its explicit lesbian content. Conan comes upon a  young white woman captive of a tribe of black Africans. Conan rescues the woman, but when he comes to collect her as his reward she has other ideas. Rejecting the brutality of men, she flees to the Valley [sic] of Lost Women, an idyllic all-women society. She finds, to her dismay, that the valley is filled with lesbian natives who seduce her despite her fears. Again, Conan rescues her, and chivalrously allows her to retain her virginity. Sexist and racist.
Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo, Uranian Worlds (1983) 65

Perhaps because of this story’s length and deceptively simple plot, many readers have dismissed it as one of the lesser stories of the canon, some even going so far as to designate it the worst Conan story. It is not—and by quite a margin. It is necessary to correct this oversight by examining his, one of Howard’s most underrated stories. […] When Livia flees from Conan to the vale of lost women, she is fleeing not only her captors, but the male sex as well. […] What Howard seems to be saying is that, although men and women constantly brutalize each other physically and mentally, they belong together nonetheless. To seek refuge from the battle of the sexes in either homosexuality or asexuality is to deny one of the most important constants of the human condition. At best, it can bring about spiritual emptiness; at worst, it can cause spiritual degradation. When Conan rescues Livia, he saves her not from any physical harm, but from a shadowy existence without a soul.

“The Vale of Lost Women” is an interesting counterpoint to “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter.” Composed around the same time, both were among the first stories in the Conan series to be written. Neither story was published during Howard’s lifetime, almost certainly owing to their explicit sexual themes. But, though sexuality lies at the heart of each short tale, in execution they are polar opposites. […] Howard unflinchingly shows his own sex at its absolute worst, wallowing in rapine, murder, and wanton cruelty. Driven to attempt rape in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” Conan opposes it in word and deed in “The Vale of Lost Women.” He turns against sworn allies to keep Livia’s body unsullied by her rapist-captor, he battles a monster to prevent her spirit from being violated, and finally he forsakes any ulterior motives of his own concerning her.

The story’s denouement is that Livia will be returned home; Conan has reestablished normalcy in her life. By keeping her body and spirit inviolate, and by restraining his own passions, Conan also symbolically restores Livia’s normal sexuality.
Marc A. Cerasini & Charles Hoffman,
Robert E. Howard: Starmont Reader’s Guide 35 (1987) 77-79

The take given in Uranian Worlds seems to be a misreading. Part of the problem is that the majority of the lesbian content focuses on the supernatural section, which is relatively brief. The brown women are utterly speechless except for their alien, inhuman song, and we basically get nothing of their inner life or motivations for trying to sacrifice and/or convert Livia. Far from the uranian utopia Garber and Paleo would have it be, there is no indication that the Vale of Lost Women is a human society in any sense. While it might be interesting to see a piece that actually explores the Vale of Lost Women from that perspective—it is interesting to think of the implications of the Vale of Lost Women (Lost to whom? In what way?), the story itself does not really support the reading in Uranian Worlds.

Cerasini and Hoffman’s reading has simply aged badly; based on the idea of homosexuality or asexuality as deviations from heterosexuality rather than equally valid and natural. Such an interpretation still fails to address the essential lack of agency that Livia has in the story; the idea that she needs a man to “rescue” her from homosexuality is just as misogynistic as the idea that Livia has no right to refuse Conan sex. They are correct in that it is a fundamentally different approach to the pursuit of sex that characterizes “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” and the attitude that Conan displays in this story toward refusing to take sex by force would be one of the most important legacies of “The Vale of Lost Women.”

It did have a legacy. In 1979, “The Vale of Lost Women” was adapted for the Marvel comic book Conan the Barbarian #104 (Roy Thomas, John Buscema, Ernie Chan, Ben Sean, Joe Rosen), set chronologically after the events of “The Queen of the Black Coast,” when Conan was adventuring among the black kingdoms of Kush.

After those three original stories, I got a chance in #104 to adapt another REH story: “The Vale of Lost Women.” This was not one of Howard’s best—in fact, not a few of his admirers consider it the worst Conan story he ever wrote. Some editor somewhere may have agreed; the tale wasn’t published until three decades following the author’s suicide in 1936. Still, it was a Howard Conan story, so I was bound and determined to adapt it—and it really didn’t make a bad comic book issue.

Two things commend this story to my memory. One is the fact that it contains the only mention ever by Howard of “Kheshatta, City of Magicians,” a mysterious locale in Stygia. The phrase always fascinated meas it doubtless did sometime Conan prose writer Lin Carter, who in the late 1960s had scribed a paperback novel titled Thongor and the City of Magiciansand I wondered what a city with a sobriquet like that might possibly be like! After all, it’s not as if the rest of Stygia was exactly lacking in the black magic department—so a whole “City of Magicians” must really be something to see! Alas, Howard, gives no clue—for the story’s heroine Livia is captured by the savage Bakalah en route to the place, and never gets there! (It was thus left to me to set a multi-part tale in Kheshatta when I became scripter of The Savage Sword of Conan again in the 1990s—and it was one of my favorite story arcs.)

The other thing I loved about “The Vale of Lost Women” was a line of dialogue Conan speaks near the end of the story. After killing the “demon from the dark” that tries to fly off with Livia, he casually dismisses the creature as just one of many: “They’re thick as fleas outside the belt of light that surrounds this world.” Howard had a real way with a phrase, and this disparagement by Conan of the fanged, bat-winged monstrosity he’s just slain strikes precisely the right note.
Roy Thomas,
The Chronicles of Conan Volume 13: Whispering Shadows and Other Stories (2007),  145-146

By setting this in the context of Conan’s travels, and toning down or jettisoning some of the more overt violence, nudity, and racism, the result is indeed a pretty good comic book, while keeping the essentials of the plot and much of Howard’s prose. In part, this is because of the familiarity of the character as Roy Thomas, John Buscema & co. had built him up to this point; the look and voice of Conan is consistent with the character from previous issues, and seeing the fear and reactions of Livia makes her much more sympathetic as a character. The reader response was also positive…and in-depth:

Dear Roy, John, and Ernie,

Ish #104 was great, as usual, both in art and in Roy’s story adaptation, but something struck me about that particular adaptation that had never registered before. Roy, you and I rarely see eye to eye on the liberties you take with Howard’s stories, but this time I owe you a long overdue apology and a heartfelt thank-you.

As much as I love Robert E. Howard’s work and idolize his greatest creation, the Conan saga, there is one thing about the creator of Conan that I cannot stand. Simply put, the man was a bigot.

This fact is painfully obvious to anyone who has read Howard’s original stories. They are full of derogatory remarks about blacks, rife with racial slurs. And although the Conan stories are not as anti-black as some of his earlier works, they too contain their share of prejudice. “The Vale of Lost Women” has always stood out in my mind as one of the worst. As I was reading issue #104, I prepared myself several times for the racial insults I knew to be forthcoming, but, lo and behold, no slurs! Then and only then did I realize that you had edited the derogatory racial barbs from other Conan stories as well as this one. For this, yo u have my eternal gratitude.

Howard was a bigot, this is true, but he died over four decades ago. He lived before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, back when we had to sit in the back of the bus and drink from separate water fountains, and his writing reflects this. Howard was a product of his times. I understand this and overlook his hatred of my people; others may not.

If you hadn’t cut out Howard’s bigotry and allowed the genius of his writing to shine through, you certainly would have antagonized every black in Conan’s reading audience and many liberal-minded whites as well. Most people would have attributed this bigtory to Conan, not to his creator, and this would have been tragic because the best comic magazine in history would have been cancelled long ago.

Once again, thanks Roy—and I’m sorry it took me so long to get around to it.

—Dale Armelin, “The Hyborian Page” in Conan the Barbarian #110 (May 1980)

The matter of racism in Sword & Sorcery, and the pulp revival in general, was alive and well when Conan the Barbarian was being published, when the Conan paperbacks filled displays at bookstores. African-Americans were customers too, and there really was a conversation to be had about how Howard’s racism would be translated; Charles R. Saunders in “Die, Black Dog!” specifically called out L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter both for ameliorating racism in Howard’s work when they edited/rewrote it—and for not taking the same care to avoid repeating the racism of the 1930s in their own contemporary fiction.

The conversation about race & Robert E. Howard (and Lovecraft, and weird fiction, sword & sorcery, etc. in general) is never over. It is a conversation that must be had continually, if only because the fiction these people wrote in the 1930s still finds an audience, and those who wish to expand and adapt their fictional worlds.

Roy Thomas & co. would go on to make Kheshatta, City of Magicians an established part of the Hyborian World, both in the Conan comic books and subsequent media. Likewise, the attitude of Conan toward “the demons of the Outer Dark” would strongly influence later interpretations of the character. While there had from the very first Conan story (“The Phoenix on the Sword”) been an element of sword against sorcery, that immortal horrors might yet be susceptible to cold steel, this cocksure attitude that a man like himself with a sword is a match for such entities would lay the groundwork for many monster-of-the-issue (or novel, or episode, etc.) takes on Conan.

More important, perhaps, is Conan’s attitude toward women. While Conan is far from exactly chivalrous in his attitudes in “The Vale of Lost Women,” his assertion that he won’t take a woman against her will is significant in a setting where slavery is commonplace. Conan has ever been a sexual entity in all of his incarnations, and many depictions of him have no particular qualms about employing sex workers—but it is that particular characteristic that Conan won’t force a woman to have sex against her will has shaped his contemporary depictions.

In the pages of Savage Avengers Annual (2019), for example, when Conan finds himself in contemporary South America, he refuses to sleep with sex workers being held against their will, and automatically sets about on a quest to destroy the human sex trafficking ring that enslaved them. While this might seem a bit of an obvious attitude to take for many contemporary readers, it’s a canonical approach that was embraced as a core tenet of Conan’s ethos that after it had appeared in “The Vale of Lost Women”—and arguably may have been a part of Robert E. Howard’s own evolving attitude toward women in his fiction.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

The Leopard of Poitain (1985) by Raul Garcia-Capella

“Just—Irem. Ah, I see by your expression you too know of my namesake, that legendary place—”

You have heard of the city called ‘Irem’?”

“I’ve read esoterica about the City of Magicians. ‘Tis said to be but fancy, master. But a poet never forswears such dreams.”
—Raul Garcia-Capella, “Caravan to Kuthchemes” in The Leopard of Poitain 57

The fictional worlds of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft are intertwined, one Mythos shading into another. In his long and varied career Conan faced Lovecraftian horrors such as the tentacled monster Thog in the lost city of Xuthal, and dealt with wizards birthed on Dagoth Hill which might have been cousins to Wilbur Whateley. Lovecraft himself put small references to Valusia, Bran Mak Morn, and the Serpent Men into his fiction…so it is not too much of a gloss to say that the Howardian heroes existed in the same world as nameless Lovecraftian protagonists.

Fans took note of this, and the Lovecraftian element has never quite left Howardian fiction even to this day.

I was born in Puerto RIco and brought up in San Juan in P.R., and in Miami. My paternal grandmother, a schoolteacher, taught me my first couple of grammar school years. Mom and Dad were readers; Dad was also a movie fna. As a kid, I’d read fairy tales to my younger cousins, while Dad introduced me to the serials, some of which were the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon and the Nyoka serials, not to mention a number of Tarzan movies, Westerns, etc. Here’d by books for Christmas, and by the time I was eight had read Tarzan of the Apes and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in Spanish.
—”An Interview with Raul Garcia-Capella” by James Van Hise
in Sword & Fantasy #6, 44

Raul Garcia-Capella is better known as an illustrator for science fiction and fantasy books and magazines, with dozens of covers and interior art to his credit, sometimes under the name Ray Capella or R. Garcia Capella. Born in 1933, his family arrived in Brooklyn in the 1940s, just in time for the last decade-and-a-half of the pulp magazine craze.

DID YOU READ WEIRD TALES AT THE TIME?

No. Weird Tales didn’t attract me, I knew it was horror and my interest was more for science fiction/adventure. Through collecting and coming across Lovecraft’s work in the Boys High Library I realized HPL and Howard had written for Weird Tales.

I’d buy writers that had appeared in WT but I didn’t get the magazine itself, as when I did, I never could get through an entire issue. Later, I discovered Clark Ashton Smith and began appreciating the quality of material published by it. but I never got into collecting it. (ibid., 47)

This was during the period Dorothy McIlwraith was editor at Weird Tales, where she dropped science fiction and adventure stories. It wasn’t until about 1960 that Garcia-Capella became involved with Howard fandom, in the pages of the prominent fanzine Amra, and it was there that he began to write:

I wrote the brief autobiogrpahy of an Argossean; a fanciful bunch of ideas featuring a character who lived in the Hyborean Age. I thought it’s be presumptious to mess with Conan, who could only be done by Howard. So my creation tried to add more color to Conan’s world without altering it. In a word, it was a tribute. But [George H.] Scrithers wouldn’t let me off the hook because I’d outlined stories and titles. He kept nudging me by mail whenever I contirbuted illos or articles. Although hesitant to do it, when I finally started, the tales wrote themselves. It was great fun. I was reading Howard and Brackett and all the people that influenced me. But it was just—boom; they came out. (ibid., 51)

“The Leopard of Poitain” was published in the April 1960 issue of Amra, the outline inspired by “A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career” (P. Schuyler Miller & John D. Clark, 1938). This was followed up over a period of years with other adventures of Arquel of Argos. They were fun; Raul Garcia-Capella was a competent fantasist, and he knew what he wanted to write—action-driven sword & sorcery inspired by Robert E. Howard, Leigh Brackett, A. Merritt, and Fritz Leiber. Arquel himself, the eponymous “Leopard of Poitain,” is no Conan-clone or pastiche. An adventurer, certainly, but like Leiber’s Gray Mouser more interested in the thaumaturgical and wizardly side of things than the Cimmerian.

Working in another man’s story-world is a tricky business. […] Capella wisely—very wisely—uses Howard’s world without using Howard’s principal characters in on-stage rôles. Arquel is neither Conan nor an iitation of him; Capella is no Howard—he’s fr saner, far easier to know and like. n doing so, Capella has illuminated corners of the Hyborean world that Howard overlooked: what was going on behind the scenes; why the enemies were foiled in their attempt to launch a sneak attack or to bring into being a evil, magical past best left buried; and how magic and magicians can work for good as well as for evil.
—George H. Scithers, “Introduction” to The Leopard of Poitain ii

The book-length collection The Leopard of Poitain (1985) is a bit of a hybrid. The first half (“Book I”) is a stitch-up novel that collects all of the Arquel adventures published in the pages of Amra and Fantasy Book up to that point, and pieces them together with brief episodes “Witch’s Pebbles” that forecast the new and longer novella (“The Winds of Acheron”) which makes up the second half (“Book II”), and takes place in and around the events of the final Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon (1936). As he put it:

Jim Kelly, a fantasy fan who wanted to get into publishing, wrote asking why no one had put all the Arquel stories into one volume. The edtiors forward the letter to me. While exchanging letters, I let Jim know the project would need the final novella; it hadn’t been written. He agreed to wait and sent an advance check when the book was ready. The rest you know. Morgan Holmes proposed using the novella—”The Winds of Acheron”—and I did some polishing on it for that edition.
—”An Interview with Raul Garcia-Capella” by James Van Hise, 53

Explicit Lovecraftian references in Garcia-Capella’s Arquel stories are few—a reference to Irem here, a Serpent Man there—and he made no attempt to create new entities and tomes as was common in Mythos pastiches of the period. One of the most Lovecraftian is “Turutal” (1965), which involves a lost dwarf race known as the Ituru awakened from a curse to reclaim their miniature citadel; shades of Robert E. Howard’s “Little People” stories and Conan tales such as “The Devil in Iron” and “Shadows in the Moonlight,” although it has no direct connections to either.

As a result, The Leopard of Poitain is often overlooked and forgotten compared to the Howardian pastiche novels published by L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Björn Nyberg, Poul Anderson, Karl Edward Wagner, Andrew J. Offutt, and Robert Jordan of the period. Yet it is no more or less of a piece than any other work expanding the world that Howard created, and by extension is a serviceable a sword & sorcery offshoot of the Mythos as any other—and more conscientious of the source material and style than most pasticheurs. As he put it:

[Robert E. Howard’s] style balances mood and action almost seamlessly. Whether he’s doing horror or adventure, he has a flair for making scenes segue almost so well that you’re carried headlong. You can’t stop, go back, catch a gltch in the plot or—in the case of the “spicy” stories, for instance—an unevenness about the relationship between the characters. But you don’t care. In other words—his pacing is some of the best there is, in the pulp era or now.

In Moorcock’s aricles on fantasy, he traced the influences of gothic horror and the manner in which a description set story mood or was made to reflect the feelings of the characters involved. Lovcraft overdid it. C. L. Moore did this more lengthily than Brackett; Howard learned how to do it with a few words. In “The devil in Iron,” the fisherman loosens the knife in its scabbard at the beginning of the opening paragraph—which ends with a sentence that sets the mood. Conflict comes first; mood closely folows and is interspersed throught the fisherman’s exploration to his climactic demise. (ibid., 55)

Raul Garcia-Capella continued to write and illustrate, including other “Hyborian Age” tales such as “The Lair” (2006). He died in 2010.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Red Monolith Frenzy” (2012) by Justine Geoffrey

for Howard,
who would have hated it
and for Bob,
who probably saw it coming

Dedication to “Red Monolith Frenzy” (2012)

Robert E. Howard’s “The Black Stone” (Weird Tales Nov 1931) was one of the first expansions of Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s Mythos; it introduced the Black Monolith in the town of Stregoicavar; the mad poet Justin Geoffrey and von Junzt and his Black Book, Nameless Cults. Lovecraft enjoyed these new elements to the Mythos, particularly von Junzt and his book, which the Gent from Providence incorporated into his own stories, including “The Shadow out of Time,” “The Dreams from the Witch House,” “The Haunter of the Dark,” and “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and two stories ghostwritten for Hazel Heald:“Out of the Aeons” and“The Horror in the Museum.” Lovecraft even had a hand in creating a German name for the Black Book: Unaussprechlichen Kulten.

What Lovecraft largely did not comment on in the story was the lengthy flagellation scene that the protagonist in a dream-like vision witnesses before the phallic image of the Black Monolith. Robert E. Howard’s inclusion of this scene was plainly an effort to get on the cover of Weird Tales, which often went to stories with scenes of female nudity and flagellation, as beautifully illustrated by Margaret Brundage. Lovecraft’s refusal to include such scenes may explain why during his lifetime none of his stories ever received a cover illustration.

“The Black Stone” wasn’t the first hint of sex in the nascent Cthulhu Mythos, but for a long time it was one of the few stories that had anything like a sexual act on the page…and has inspired others. For one example, Spanish artist Estaban Maroto famously lifted the flagellation scene from “The Black Stone” to spice up his comic adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Festival,” recently republished in Lovecraft: The Myth of Cthulhu (2018). For another, there’s “Red Monolith Frenzy” by Justine Geoffrey.

Inspired by Robert E. Howard’s mad poet, “Justine Geoffrey” is the female pseudonym of Scott R. Jones, author of books like When The Stars Are Right: Toward An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality, a number of short stories, and the editor and publisher of the sadly defunct Martian Migraine Press, which produced evocative anthologies such as Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath (2014), Resonator: New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond (2015), Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis (2016), Chthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth (2018) as well as Necronomicum: The Magazine of Weird Erotica (2014, 4 issues).

The use of a feminine pseudonym by Jones is similar to the use of “Sally Theobald” by Robert M. Price for “I Wore The Brassiere Of Doom” (1986): a transparent hoax, not intended to deceive the audience. However, where Price never used that name for more than the single story, Jones found his alter ego an excellent editorial voice as well as author pseudonym. In adopting this voice for the editorial of the premiere issue of Necronomicum, “Justine” is able to make observations about her “co-editor”:

For instance, my co-editor Jones frequents any number of Lovecraftian and weird fiction groups on social media, and reports that all too often, when the subject of Sex and the Weird comes up, he is witness to a barrage of prudish voices protesting that there’s no place for sex in horror. “Lovecraft never wrote about sex!” they shriek while clutching at their pearls. (Never mind that sex and sexuality and weird blasphemous couplings are pretty much the foundation of HPLs horrific universe. Methinks the geeks protest too much!) These are the same voices that get inordinately upset when you mention Lovecraft’s racism, or chuckle with derision if you happen to misidentify a Gug as a Ghast during casual conversation. Basically, these are the to-be-expected thrashings of the Old Guard as they’re shown the door by the new fans, and the new voices with new things to say.

As an authorial and editorial poise, the assumption of an identity had value for Jones—and he is neither the first nor the last author to find refuge in a pseudonym, to take on those aspects and attitudes necessary for what has to be written.

Such as the Blackstone erotica series.

Taking its name from Robert E. Howard’s eponymous monolith, the Blackstone series of Lovecraftian erotica began with book 1: “Red Monolith Frenzy” (2012), and was followed by book 2: “Green Fever Dream” (2012); book 3, “Yellow Sign Bound” has not been published, although an excerpt appears in the printed collection Priestess (2014), which also contains the prequel story “Summonings: Anicka and Kamil” (2012) and the interqual “Summonings: Yvette’s Interview” (2013).

“Red Monolith Frenzy” is the start of things, chronologically and narratively. A novella in five parts, the narrative is a combination of the structure of “The Black Stone” and Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” at least initially. “Justine G.” is the narrator, the character that is the focus of the action, and Jones’ adoption of the pseudonym for these works lends strength to the idea that this is really her story (weirdly and unconsciously echoing the confessional style of “Sally Theobald.”)

There is a lot of deliberate homage, sometimes almost to the point of parody. But the work is not a remix in the sense of “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon; it is an original twist on the old material, keeping a sense of humor like “Koenigsberg’s Model” (2011) by Peter Tupper & “The Ape in Me: A Tale of Lovecraftian Lust” (2016) by Raine Roka. The pacing of the story is determined: contemporary erotica demands regular “beats” of titillation every couple of pages, much as action stories require hitting the right action beats to keep things moving, and keep the reader turning to see what happens next. A dull spot in a regular novella a reader might struggle through, but with porn they’re more likely to put the book down and never come back. So the flow of the story is a bit faster than Lovecraft, or even Howard writing at his Lovecraftian best. For the “omnisexual” Justine G., this means the fun and revelations keep on coming, usually more or less at the same time.

The sexual content is explicit and varied. It is difficult not to draw comparisons with Edward Lee’s “Hardcore Lovecraft” fiction such as Trolley No. 1852 (2010) and The Dunwich Romance (2013), which takes similar inspiration from Lovecraft but also doesn’t attempt Lovecraftian erotica pasticheOn the spectrum of erotic horror, this first episode in Priestess definitely leans toward the fun-loving erotic, and does so in a way that doesn’t involve rape, inhuman monsters, or even tentacles, which is rare enough for Lovecraftian erotica. The editorial for Necronomicum returns to mind when considering the direction of this story:

We want to showcase a kind of erotica that, though it draws a lot of its dark inspiration from, say, the work of H. P. Lovecraft and writers of his ilk, moves beyond the cheesy realms of “monster sex” or “tentacle smut” and into areas where our connection to ourselves, and to the Other (within us and outside of us) can be explored. Stories that thrill as much as they chill, that provoke thought in the head as much as they produce heat in the… well, elsewhere, let’s just say.

The character of Justine Geoffrey—both within this story and in a more metafictional way as the author and editor of works for Martian Migraine Press—is not that of a victim, a prostitute, or a sadistic slut. She enjoys sex, and gets sexually excited easily; emotional attachments in this first chapter are very ephemeral, so that sexual attraction and consummation does not necessarily equal love. By some standards, her behavior might certainly be considered evidence of hypersexual disorder, but Justine G. feels no inherent guilt or distress at her sexual desires and escapades.

At what point does a woman empowered by and embracing her sexual nature and actively pursuing sexual experiences cross whatever threshold separates a healthy sexual appetite into a mental health disorder? At what point does a character in a porn novella cease to be a believable character and become a wanton caricature, a fantasy of a nymphomaniac? Does the apparent gender and sexuality of the author influence how the audience reads these stories? These are the questions at the heart of the characterization of Justine Geoffrey, both in the stories and in the larger context as author and editor.

Answers are going to be subjective. The complexity of Scott R. Jones’ female anima is one of the more interesting aspects of a series that largely makes no bones about nor has any shame in being Lovecraftian erotica. “Justine G.” is not a patient to be analyzed, and as an editorial voice has grown beyond the role she experiences and enjoys in “Red Monolith Frenzy” and the other episodes in Priestess, where Jones would go on to draw inspiration from Mythos writers such as Ramsey Campbell and Alan Moore.

“Red Monolith Frenzy” was initially published as an ebook in 2012. It was collected in Priestess in 2014, which was translated into German and published as Die Chronik des Schwarzen Steins in 2018 in a limited edition of 999 copies.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).