“The Day of the Stranger” (1947) by Novalyne Price Ellis

A couple of years after Bob’s death, I was standing on a street corner in Houston and I saw a man coming across the street that looked exactly like Bob. The incident stayed with me for several years. Finally, it wrote itself when I needed to hand in a radio script at LSU. I like the script, and it has briefly, some of the things we talked about almost as we talked them.

Novalyne Price Ellis to L. Sprague & Catherine Crook de Camp, 8 Jun 1978

Every biography ends the same way. A person dies, and whatever is left of them in this world is in the memories of those who knew them. A very few, however, take the next step. From memory to myth, from reality to fiction. Today, Robert E. Howard is as much a literary character as his creations and has appeared as versions of himself in stories (“Far Babylon” (1976) by L. Sprague de Camp, “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg), novels (Lovecraft’s Book (1985) by Richard Lupoff, Shadows Bend (2000) by David Barbour), comic books & graphic novels (The Adventures of Two-Gun Bob (2007) by Jim & Ruth Keegan), and even films (The Whole Wide World (2006), portrayed by Vincent D’Onofrio)—and that only begins to scratch the surface of Robert E. Howard’s many posthumous incarnations.

Though those characters shared Howard’s name, their characters differed. None of the writers knew Bob Howard; they had to work from letters and memoirs, biographies and anecdotes. Yet one of the earliest, if not the first, fictional character based on Robert E. Howard was drawn from the memory of one who knew him well: the eponymous stranger in Novalyne Price Ellis’ radio play “The Day of the Stranger.”

In 1947, my husband [William W. Ellis] and I were attending LSU, and my professor in radio assigned a script to be written and handed in for a semester’s grade. While I was trying to think what to write about, I remembered that incident (seeing Bob Howard get on the bus in Houston, when he’d been dead two years […]). I wrote it up as if it happened in New Orleans, got my grade, directed it for the school radio program, and sold it to a group producing amateur radio scripts.

It was copyrighted in 1949 by J. Weston Walch—Publisher of Portland, aine. I’m not sure he’s still publishing things. He published it in a book called Radio Player’s Scriptbook. It was for amateurs looking for scripts to produce. . . . The Stranger is Bob and it was as much of his regular talk as I could get it. The cry in Jeanne’s heart for a second chance was my cry. Jerry was Truett [Vinson]. The girls in the drug store were just necessary character to help put the story across.

THey changed my original title, which I thought was good. However, at that time, they were afraid that to say ‘New Orleans’ would be to give it a regional slant, and so they changed ‘New Orleans’ to ‘This.’ I’m sure they wouldn’t change it now, and I prefer the use of the city’s name.

Novalyne Price Ellis to Rusty Burke, Day of the Strange: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989), 31

In 1936 when Robert E. Howard died, his sometime girlfriend Novalyne Price was attending school at Louisiana State University. She returned to Cross Plains to teach school, and for much of the next decade she continued teaching and attending courses in Texas and Louisiana. Novalyne had planned to write about Howard’s life, using her journals as material for the book—but life always got in the way. By the time of her marriage to William W. Ellis in 1947, Novalyne had extensive experience with drama, and even radio plays (“Daniel Baker College To Offer Enlarged Speech Program,” The Commanche Chief, 24 Aug 1945). “The Day of the Stranger” would be, in a sense, an early effort to capture some of the words and tone of Robert E. Howard’s character, decades before she could complete her book One Who Walked Alone (1986).

In an interview with Howard scholar Rusty Burke, she went into more detail about the play and the experience that inspired it:

BURKE: A lot of people who may read this interview may not know that there are other things you’ve written about Bob. In fact, a number [of] years ago you wrote a play in which Bob is a character, called “Day of the Stranger”. One of the things the stranger does is that, when he sees someone, he begins telling you what the person is like, what’s on his mind as he sits on the streetcar, and what he’s thinking about. Did Bob do that kind of thing?

ELLIS: All the time. That was his interest in people. Oh, ys. Fantastic stories. I remember very vividly one time, we passed a man—there was a very cold norther blowing—and we passed a man on a horse, riding along, and the man was all humped up over the saddle, trying to get away from the cold—you can imagine sitting ona saddle in a Texas norther—(shivers)—cold, yes—well, I don’t remember the story, but I remember that it was a fantastic story—pretty soon I knew everything that man thought. “Day of the Stranger” was the first thing that I had been able to write about him. I had to hand in a radio script, and all of a sudden it occurred to me. It came from an incident that had happened to me in Houston about two years after Bob’s death. It was a cold, rainy, drizzly day, and I had gone to Houston with some of my teacher friends. I was supposed to meet them somewhere, I’ve forgotten where, but it was in downtown Houston. It was time to go meet my friends. I was standing on the sidewalk waiting to cross a street, ready to step down off the crub. I looked up and there came Bob! Dressed in his brown suit with that tan hat—big man, heavy-set—and I couldn’t cross the street. There was Bob coming toward me! I’m sure, from the way people looked at me, that I made some kind of sound. But I backed up all the way across the sidewalk against a store window, and stood there until the man crossed the street. He stood on the edge of the sidewalk about 8 or 10 feet from me, and I still couldn’t get away from the fact that this was Bob. He turned around and looked at me, and I told myself I could see differences, but I couldn’t. That was Bob. He looked at me for a few minutes—I don’t know whether I was making a sound or not. Then he turned around, turned his back on me, and looked down the street. In just a moment his bus came down the street. Came down, stopped at the corner, and he got on the bus. I watched it. I watched as it went on, and I saw him take his money out and put it in the slot for the fare, and start toward the back of the bus. Then the bus moved on further. I watched it till it was out of sight. I stood there for a few minutes until I could get myself together. Then I went over and met my friends. That was a very vivid incident!

BURKE: That would certainly shock a person.

ELLIS: It shocked me! As I think about it now, I’m shocked by it, I can remember the strange feeling I had. TO see somebody coming across the street that you know has been dead about two years! When I got ready to write my play, I thought about that. I wrote “Day of the Stranger” in order to say some of the things I was still worried about—in order to get some of the old frustrations out of my mind. You say, “Now, in 1947 you were happily married and you had one beautiful child”—I just hadn’t gotten over the feeling of guilt. It’s a feeling that I think everybody who knows a friend or a family member who commits suicide feels. The feeling of guilt has this to do with it—you say, “If I hadn’t said thus-and-so, if i’d been more sympathetic, if I hadn’t sent that book back to Bob, if I’d gone by that morning, if I’d answered his letter”—all these things that you say. It doesn’t matter that maybe your reasoning mind can tell you “Oh, well, this would not have done it”—you still think it. I wrote that play to relieve my own heart. I used that play myself. It was produced a good many places, but after writing it, I felt better. After you were here earlier I read it again, while making the copy; I hadn’t written nearly as much about his Egyptian beliefs as I thought it had.

Day of the Strange: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989), 19-20

At least by 1956, Novalyne had adapted the radio play into a script for a one-act play or dramatic reading suitable for high school dramatics:

Lafayette High School’s Dramatics department has been experimenting with the “Readers’ Theatre” technique since the 1956-57 school year. That year they presented a drama quartet called “The Day of the Stranger,” a radio play written and adapted to the new medium by Novalyne Price Ellis. The quartet, composed of Celia Guilbeaux, Marilyn Montgomery, Gerald Hernandez, and Pauline Harding, performed for the Louisiana State University Workshop in drama and interpretation and at the Northwestern Theatre Festival at Natchitoches.

“Lafayette Drama Class To Present Five Readings,” The Daily Advertizer, Lafeyette, LA, 15 Nov 1966

At least one dramatic reading was directed by her husband William Ellis (The Daily Iberian, New Iberia, LA, 18 Nov 1957), and it it is likely there were several more, either carried out by the Ellises over the years or various amateur groups using the script in Walch’s book.

The script itself is very brief, for five characters with some bit parts and direction for music, appropriate for dramatic radio production. The crux of Novalyne’s eerie experience is retained, but the scene was shifted to a drug store on Canal Street in New Orleans. The character based on Novalyne was named Jeanne, the Robert E. Howard equivalent in the story was named Craig Blair…although it is only the Stranger who gives his voice.

MARY: Why, early this morning when there weren’t many customers in here, I was getting a chocolate malt ready for a fellow. I had my back to the bar. (SOMEWHAT DRAMATIC) Then all of a sudden a voice said: “Hey, my little bunch of onion tops, give me a cup of black coffee, the blacker and stronger the better.” (POINTED) WEll, you know who’d say it like that, don’t you?


MARY: Well, honey, you could have knocked me over with your little finger because when I turned around…well, Craig Blair was sitting in that chair.

JEANNE: (EMOTIONAL) That’s not true. You know that’s not true.

Day of the Strange: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989), 34

The real Robert E. Howard didn’t drink coffee, generally; but the line about “my little bunch of onion tops” could have come straight from his letters to Novalyne Price. Fact and fiction are thus mixed together in this scenario, but readers familiar with Novalyne’s later One Who Walked Alone or the film The Whole Wide World based on it can see many parallels between things the Stranger says in the play. For another example:

JEANNE: (WONDERINGLY) So you still think people live more than one life?(t)

STRANGER: (LAUGHS) Oh, well, I’ve always thought it was possible, if that’s what you mean. Who knows for sure? NOw, I didn’t go to school much—just to the eighth grade, but I’ve read a lot. The Egyptians used to believe you kept being born over and over until you got all your hopes and desires attended to. Pretty confusing thought, I think.

JEANNE: That’s a crazy thing to think, and you don’t really believe. You used… (CONFUSED) …that is… Craig Blair used to say the same thing, but he didn’t believe it. People talk and talk, and they never believe half of the things they say. I think—

Day of the Strange: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989), 36

Robert E. Howard wrote many stories about reincarnation and past lives, from the James Allison tales like “The Valley of the Worm” and “The Garden of Fear” to the Conan the Reaver story “The People of the Dark.” How much he himself believed in reincarnation has always been and probably always shall be an open question. Novalyne Price Ellis would interpret such ideas through her own experiences.

ELLIS: TO me, what Bob said about that was just a fascinating idea. Just another fantastic story to weave. I was down in the dumps. So he says, “Now here I was in Brownwood. I met this man, and we disliked each other the minute we saw each other. Maybe way back yonder somewhere, maybe he stole my woman or the bear I’d killed for food”—which was the most important to him I don’t remember. How could anybody take him seriously? I mean, that was spur-of-the-moment.

Day of the Strange: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989), 21

Whether or not the Stranger is the ghost or reincarnation of Robert E. Howard—or Craig Blair in the setting of the play—it is indubitably an effort to capture something of Howard’s character and mannerisms.

As a piece of drama, “The Day of the Stranger” has legs: the identity of the “stranger” is never revealed, and all of the conflict is in Jeanne’s head, the tumult of emotions as she is torn between the memory of a dead man and the more unimaginative man she’s dating now. Yet on another level, for those familiar with the outlines of Novalyne and Bob’s relationship, it reads as a kind of catharsis—a way for her to work out many of the lingering emotions she might have had, to put a sense of closure on a relationship which ended on an unresolved chord.

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

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Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One (2019) by Matthew N. Sneedon

“KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen- eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”
—The Nemedian Chronicles

Robert E. Howard, “The Phoenix on the Sword”

Know, you scholars of the occult, that during the patriachal years of Hyborian Age the crazy and decadent kings established their totalitarian kingdoms under the sky: Nemedia, with its spurious and imprecise chronicles; Ophir; Brythunia; Zamoa, where young girls were forced to prostitute themselves in dark temples; Zingara and her presumed knights; Koth, who sold their daughters as slaves to the harems of Hirkania to be covered with silk and gold chains. But the greatest and most powerful was Aquilonia, the tarnished jewel of the West in the hands of conceited and incapable men.

And from Cimmeria came Collwen, a free and indomitable woman from the north, with black hair as the firmament, eyes as intense blue as the hottest flame and the animal profile of a wild mountain panther; sword in hand and ready to crush with her footsteps the arrogant patriarchs of the world.

Imagine that the ultimate hero of sword and sorcery, no matter how much the misogynist chronicles had distorted it, was a strong and indomitable woman. Imagine that a daughter of CImmeria would have been the protagonist of thousands of adventures as mercenary, pirate and chief of men; and that her inimitable feats, marked with the tip of her sword, deserved not to be forgotten again.

Matthew N. Sneedon, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One

Most of Robert E. Howard’s heroes were men. A survey of the pulp magazines those characters appeared in during his life such as Weird Tales and Oriental Stories showed that this focus on male protagonists was common. It was unusual for there to be women protagonists in those pulps, and rare indeed to see a woman serial character such as C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, who first saw life in “Black God’s Kiss” (1934).

When Jirel appeared, two years after Robert E. Howard’s Cimmerian first took to the page in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” readers of Weird Tales hailed her as a veritable female Conanbut that wasn’t strictly accurate. Jirel was not an alternate-gender version of Howard’s most famous barbarian, nor were the stories of Jirel of Joiry the same kind of hardboiled fantasy rooted in historical adventure fiction that the Conan tales were. If there were any characters like that, they were in Howard’s own stories: Bêlit, the Queen of the Black Coast; Valeria of the Red Brotherhood; Red Sonia of Rogatino; and Dark Agnes de Chastillonthe latter of whom never saw print during Howard’s lifetime, but Moore would read her story and gush about it in her letters with Robert E. Howard.

The first pastiches of Howard’s particular style of fantasy did not see print until after his death. Weird Tales tried to fill the gap the pulpster had left in their pages with Clifford Ball’s fantasies “Duar the Accursed” (WT May 1937) and “The Thief of Forthe” (WT Jul 1937), and Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis in “Thunder in the Dawn” (WT May-Jun 1938), “Spawn of Dagon” (WT Jul 1938), “Beyond the Phoenix Gate” (WT Oct 1938), and “Dragon Moon” (WT Jan 1941). Very likely, the dismissal of Farnsworth Wright and the ascension of Dorothy McIlwraith as editor of Weird Tales signaled an editorial policy shift away from heroic fantasy, a field that was rapidly becoming competitive.

Musclebound barbarians of any gender were not the norm in fantasy fiction during the 40s and 50s, although male protagonists still dominated in fantasy fiction such as Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword (1954) and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1955). The 1960s, with its paperback reprints of Howard’s Conan and other fantasies, saw a revival of interest with a new generation of writers. Michael Moorcock created Elric of Melniboné with “The Dreaming City” (Science Fantasy No. 47, June 1961), and Joanna Russ created her swordswoman Alyx with “I Thought She Was Afeard Till She Stroked My Beard” (Orbit 2, 1967), among others.

Marvel Comics obtained a license from the Robert E. Howard estate, and in 1970 published Conan the Barbarian, which would run for decades and hundreds of issues, spawning many different series, graphic novels, and related works. In Conan the Barbarian #23 (1973), series writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor Smith introduced the character of Red Sonjainspired by Howard’s Red Sonya of Rogatino from “The Shadow of the Vulture,” Red Sonja was created to be a female swordswoman in the Howardian mold, a female counterpart but not clone of their successful Cimmerian. Red Sonja would go on to have her own series, guest star in various comics, serve as the protagonist in six fantasy novels by David C. Smith and a 1985 film, and her adventures continue today.

Unlike Conan, Red Sonja had no single main writer, and because she is a licensed character, her continuity has seen a great deal more flux. Where most of the official Conan pastiches by writers like L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and Robert Jordan kept the Cimmerian firmly grounded in Howard’s Hyborian Age, Sonja’s career has been more varied. There is no single “Probable Outline of Red Sonja’s Career,” the way there is for Conan. While her comics often have long story arcs or reoccurring characters like the villainous wizard Kulan Gath, they do not exist in a single rational chronicle.

Many of these stories are little more than generic quasi-medieval European fantasies with a female swordswoman protagonist who happens to be Red Sonjaand various writers and artists have taken advantage of this fact by writing their own versions of the She-Devil. Marada the She-Wolf (1982) by Chris Claremont and John Bolton was originally planned as a Red Sonja story, but was changed because of licensing issues. Frank Thorne worked on Marvel’s Red Sonja stories, and when he left the book created his own, more explicitly erotic version of the character, Ghita of Alizarr in 1979.

There are many many more examples that could be cited. For instance, Jessica Amanda Salmanson’s Amazons! anthology in in 1979, which introduced the Sword & Soul character Dossouye, inspired by the real-life women warrior society of Dahomey; and Marion Zimmer Bradley began the long-running Sword and Sorceress anthology series in 1984. The point of this brief history is threefold:

  • There are plenty of women protagonists in heroic fantasy.
  • They are not just Conan the Cimmerian with the serial numbers filed off and a pair of breasts.
  • Their stories are not simply Robert E. Howard pastiches.

These are important points to keep in mind when considering Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One (2019), because this is a work which exists in a specific context, and it has to be evaluated both for what it is, and what it is trying to be, as far as the author Matthew N. Sneedon has stated in his introduction.

Unlike Jirel, Red Sonja, Dossouye, etc., Collwen the Cimmerian is a deliberate and explicit gender-swapped version of Conan the Cimmerian. While their adventures are not identical, the basic descriptions, attitudes, and activities of the characters are substantially similar, and they are operating in the same milieu: Sneedon has set Collwen’s adventures in Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, in the cities and countries from the Conan stories. In this respect Collwen the Cimmerian is perhaps a bit closer to fanfiction or The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez than any of the original heroic fantasy women about such as Jirel or Alyx.

There are two stories in Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One: “The She-Master of the Dark Conclave” and “The Offspring of the Depths.” Both are serviceable and straightforward pastiches; “The Offspring of the Depths” has some initial similarities to Howard’s Conan story “Gods of the North” but turns into something more Lovecraftian before the end. Collwen is a perfectly adequate female pastiche of Conan, played absolutely straight: there are no jokes, no sly asides about gender trope reversals like rescuing and bedding princes, and very little about Collwen’s sexuality at all. The one time it comes up in any substantial way is a single passage:

Collwen had left her homeland to travel the world on her two powerful legs, not on a palanquin. She did not wish to spend years lying on a couch surrounded by maidservants to fatten up and let a round merchant impregnate her with a dozen cubs. She was not motivated by gold or gems. She just wanted to make the most of life; to see all the forgotten corners and wonders of the world, from the western coasts of the Picts to the eastern jungles of Khitai; to eat, drink, love and, above all, fight. She had not board to Stygia to obtain a sack full of gold, but to relish the war that had seen her being born.

Matthew N. Sneedon, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One

Robert E. Howard’s Conan never explicitly denied the desire to settle down with a wife and have a bunch of kids after a big score. He never had to: there were fewer social expectations for men in the 1930s to settle down and procreate compared with women. Most male protagonists in heroic fantasy don’t have to consciously address or even acknowledge the gender and sexual expectations of their period; by contrast, women fantasy protagonists like Jirel and Red Sonja have had to explicitly deal with these social norms and mores, and how these issues are brought up and dealt with has changed over time.

In her own series of Marvel comics, for example, Red Sonja was noted for an oath to maintain her virginity unless defeated in battlea point which allowed the series to titillate in her chainmail bikini but avoided the appearance of promiscuity that Red Sonja would have had if she had engaged in as many casual sexual liaisons as Conan did. Her oath of celibacy was essentially a hard-coded example of the double standard about sexual experience between men and women in the 20th century. Gail Simone’s 2013 soft reboot of Red Sonja discarded both the character’s celibacy and her heterosexuality, making Sonja both bisexual and removing the supernatural onus against casual sex; writers since have played with both ideas in their own interpretations of the character.

Sneedon doesn’t spend much time on this particular aspect of Collwen’s character, nor does he necessarily have to: having a female character doesn’t necessarily require talking about such issues any more than a male character might. However, in the context of the opening paragraphs to these two stories, it is interesting to note that Sneedon spends little time or effort to actually depict the patriarchal nature of the Hyborian Age. There are a few echoes of the casual sexism that punctuated Robert E. Howard’s Conan series (like calling a grown woman “girl” as a diminutive), but less sexual discrimination or efforts to violently enforce gender norms than perhaps might be expected given the explicit contrast apparently intended between Conan and Collwen’s sagas.

If the patriarchy that Collwen is supposed to rebel against isn’t well-defined, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One unfortunately fallen into one of the traps of pastiching fantasy fiction from the 1930s: racism in the setting. Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age was marked by a combination of contemporary racial attitudes and ahistorical social conventions. Slavery existed, and it was largely slavery as practiced in antiquity or Biblical timesnot restricted to a single race or by skin color, as was the chattel slavery of the South before the American Civil War. Yet when Howard speaks of that slavery he sometimes casts it in explicitly contemporary racial terms:

“Valerius does not protect his subjects against his allies. Hundreds who could not pay the ransom imposed upon them have been sold to the Kothic slave-traders.”

Conan’s head jerked up and a lethal flame lit his blue eyes. He swore gustily, his mighty hands knotting into iron hammers.

“Aye, white men sell white men and white women, as it was in the feudal days. In the palaces of Shem and of Turan they will live out the lives of slaves. Valerius is king, but the unity for which the people looked, even though of the sword, is not complete.[“]

Robert E. Howard, The Hour of the Dragon

In the 1930s, Howard could get away with explicitly exporting contemporary racial attitudes into his mythical Hyborian Age simply because they were so utterly common and widely-held that few readers or editors would find fault with such sentiments; he would lean more heavily into such ideas in describing the racially segregated society in “Shadows in Zamboula,” and would be most explicit about the racial and sexual dynamics in “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967).

Writers who choose to pastiche Howard thus face a challenge: how to be faithful to the spirit of the world Robert E. Howard created and maintain continuity with his stories without explicitly continuing or endorsing those same racial prejudices and attitudes in their own fiction. It can be a fine dance: it is appropriate in a historical story to have a character with historically accurate racial prejudices; it is not appropriate for that character’s prejudices to be portrayed by the narrative as true or accurate. The failure of writers like L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter to observe this distinction in their own Conan pastiches was specifically called out in “Die Black Dog! A Look At Racism In Fantasy Literature” (1975, rev. 2011) by Charles R. Saunders.

Sneedon has not managed to find the correct balance. For example, one character states:

Ngozi is my servant. She was a real princess in her tribe, but here she’s worth less than nothing. We must fear nothing of her. She’s a brute and an ignoramus, incapable of understanding what we expect. But she does understand what would happen to her if she tried to betray me.

Matthew N. Sneedon, Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One

Having a character be racist toward another character is unpleasant, but can help to define a character as unsympathetic or evil, and the relationship between the characters can be defined by that tension of racial prejudice with its arrogance and potential violence. Yet at no point does Sneedon do anything with Ngozi to disprove this prejudice, or to develop this relationship along those lines. Ngozi has no agency, no real voice for her own perspective, no chance to defend herself or deny or defy the stereotypes. The betrayal never takes place, and perhaps was not even planned. It is an attitude that a Howardian villain might well have expressed in a Conan story, but it was written in the 2010s, not the 1930s…and that is terrible. Sneedon should have known better.

Whenever a reader or critic comes across a work like this one, which takes a familiar character and setting and then changes some fundamental aspect like the gender of the main characterquestions have to be asked: why Collween the Cimmerian? What is it about the Hyborian Age in particular that made it the correct setting for Collwen as a character? How is Collwen different from Conan, and how is that difference integral to the stories written about her? Is it just fanfiction, or is there any deeper purpose to these pastiches that serves as contrast to and comment on Robert E. Howard’s stories?

Unfortunately, answers aren’t very forthcoming.

Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One (2019) by Matthew N. Sneedon is available on Amazon Kindle.

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 Robert E. Howard: Hester Jane Ervin Howard

Dec 9 – ’26

My dear little boy:

This is such nasty weather I do hope you keep your feet dry and warm. I am afraid you will expose yourself and take the flu. Please wear your overcoat, or at least your suit with coat and vest. I warned you.

Hester Howard to Robert E. Howard, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 6

Hester Jane Ervin was born 11 July 1870 in Hill County, Texas, the eighth child of “Colonel” George W. Ervin and his wife Sara Jane. The family eventually settled in Lewisville, where Hester began attending school, where she learned to read and write, and found a special love for poetry:

She loved poetry. Written poetry by sheets and reams, almost books of it, was stored in her memory so that from Robert’s babyhood he had heard its recital. Day by [day,] heard poetry from his mother. She was a lover of the beautiful.

Dr. I. M. Howard to E. Hoffmann Price, 21 Jun 1944, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 205

The Erwin family moved as circumstances changed. From Lewisville to Lampasas, TX, and from there to Exeter, MO. Hester Howard’s profession was probably that of a family caretaker, helping to care for her older relatives and her younger stepsiblings; she is known to have traveled to visit relatives in Texas. Marriage, however, remained elusive…until 12 Jan 1904, when she was 33 years old, Hester married a traveling physician, Dr. Isaac M. Howard. (Renegades & Rogues 7-10)

The Howards’ marriage was marked by frequent moves, and private difficulties. They appear to have had trouble conceiving, and even made steps toward fostering Wallace Howard, the youngest child of Dr. Howard’s brother David. The adoption was only called off when Hester became pregnant. She gave birth to Robert Ervin Howard on 22 Jan 1906, when she was 36 years old. A second pregnancy c. 1908 ended in a miscarriage, and Robert would be her only child. (Renegades & Rogues 16-17, 19)

In October 1919, the Howards finally settled down in the small town of Cross Plains, TX; which would be Hester Howard’s home for the rest of her life, aside from a brief stay in Brownwood while Robert was finishing his high school education, and trips to various hospitals and the like. Hester Howard’s death certificate lists the cause of death as tuberculosis, and it is known that for several years she had suffered at least intermittent and increasingly bad health. It isn’t clear when the disease began to manifest, but by the time Howard began corresponding with H. P. Lovecraft in the 1930s the spells of ill-health were no doubt pronounced; Dr. Howard stated in one letter dated 11 Jul 1936 that “Mrs. Howard had been in failing health for five years” (The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 76), and around that time Robert mentions a:

[…] small health resort about thirty miles east of Waco where I spent a week.

Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Jun 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.166

This would have been the Torbett Sanitarium at Marlin, TX, which was run by friends of the Howards and where Hester would receive occasional treatment—almost 160 miles from Cross Plains. The illness would progress, and caring for his mother, paying for her treatment, and getting her back and forth from various hospitals would take a toll on the Howard family.

Only two letters survive from Hester Howard to Robert E. Howard survive, the first dated 9 Dec 1926, the second 4 Jan 1927. At that time, Robert E. Howard was in Brownwood, TX, attending the Howard Payne Academy with the aim for a certificate in bookkeeping, all the while working on his writing. His career in the pulps was just beginning—but it was almost cut short:

There are some cases of measles in Brownwood, and if you begin to feel bad, ache or feverish or anything, go to Dr. Fowler, Bailey or Snyder, or any of these men, & let them go over you to see what your trouble is. Try to be sensible about yourself & keep fit.

Hester Howard to Robert E. Howard, 4 Jan 1927, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 7

The measles outbreak turned into an epidemic, including the boarding house where Robert was staying. According to his friend Lindsey Tyson, the almost-19-year-old Robert did the exact opposite of heeding his mother’s advice:

While we were there an epidemic of measles got started, the Powells we were living with had a baby girl who got the disease. The Howards heard about the epidemic and came to take Bob home as he had never had the measles. Bob said this time I damn [sic] sure will have this stuff, he did not want to go. He went into the bathroom that the little girl had been useing [sic] picked up a glass that the child had probably been useing, [sic] drank out of it, rubbed a towel over his face that he thought she had probably been using.

Quoted in Renegades & Rogues 86

Unsurprisingly, Robert E. Howard got measles.

Hester Howard’s two surviving letters to her son show all the concerns a mother might have for a son who was effectively living away from home for the first time. They ask about his health, give his bank account information, share bits of local news and gossip, sending a bit of money for Christmas 1926 so Robert could buy books—and there would have been more letters from home, probably a steady stream of them week after week during the fall, winter, and spring semesters:

Well, I will write again first of next week if I can’t come.

Hester Howard to Robert E. Howard, 9 Dec 1926, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 6

Well, i believe that is all for this time. Please change your shirts every 2 or 3 days, also your handkerchiefs & sox. Please keep clean, and bring Lindsey [Tyson] & one of the other boys home with you on the 21st next. Don’t know, but we might get to come for you. Can’t tell yet, but will write again. Be sure & write to Mother with love–

Hester Howard to Robert E. Howard, 4 Jan 1927, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 8

How many more letters flowed between mother and son? While Robert E. Howard went on periodic trips throughout his adult life, as far south as the Mexican border and as far west as New Mexico, he rarely stayed in any town or city outside of Cross Plains for long unless he was there to take care of his mother. It is not hard to imagine him sending a postcard or letter from his trips to brighten her day, but he hardly seems to have stayed in one place away from home long enough for any sort of correspondence outside of the extended Brownwood sojourn.

Today, the Howard house in Cross Plains is a museum, and visitors can walk through the rooms and imagine Hester Howard sitting at the table to write out a letter to her son. There would be chores to do around the house; food to cook and animals to look after, washing and knitting or sewing to be done, the newspaper to read, perhaps friends and neighbors to visit with…and Bob’s room, right next to her own, with its piles of books and magazines, waiting for her boy to come home. She would jot down her thoughts, her hopes and concerns, for the young man who was her only son, hoping and praying he would be okay…and waiting, perhaps, on his own letters home to let her know how he progressed in his studies, what movies he had seen, or what King Kull was getting up to in Valusia.

These are not the literary letters that Robert E. Howard might have received from C. L. Moore, or the teasing love-letters from Novalyne Price, but the utterly prosaic letters of a woman who had come very far in life to settle in a small West Texas town, and wanted to make sure her son changed his socks so his feet wouldn’t stink. Far and away from how we might think of Robert E. Howard, who liked to fill his letters to H. P. Lovecraft with blood and thunder…but a part of him that should not be overlooked: the man, not the legend, and the mother who kept him in clean shirts and socks.

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

Deeper Cut: The Two Masters: H. P. Lovecraft, J. R. R. Tolkien, & Racism in Fantasy

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) were contemporary denizens of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and each would become a critical influence on the development of fantasy fiction throughout the latter half of the 20th century and continuing on into the current day. Their influence on each other was, as far as can be determined, practically nonexistent: there is no record of any correspondence between them, and while Tolkien did publish poetry and essays during Lovecraft’s lifetime, his first major work of fiction The Hobbit was not published until September 1937—and Lovecraft died in March of that year. Tolkien had more opportunity to read Lovecraft, whose work was reprinted in the United Kingdom in the Not At Night series, the British edition of Weird Tales, and increasingly in other hardback and paperback anthologies following Lovecraft’s death, but there is no direct indication from Tolkien’s correspondence that he did.

Even if the two did not directly interact with each other on a personal level or read one another’s works, they were both white heterosexual cisgender men who were born and grew up in the Anglosphere—and so it should not come as any great surprise that their respective fictional worlds bare some similarities, and are informed by the prejudices and social norms that they shared. Their works in turn strongly influenced the development of fantasy fiction as it exists today. While a detailed comparison of their lives and works could fill a book, a brief look at some of the key parallels and differences shows how racial ideology shaped both Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos—sometimes in similar ways, sometimes very differently.

British vs. American Fantasy Racism

By the turn of the century, both the United Kingdom and the United States of America were global colonial empires that used military force and other forms of influence (economic, cultural, etc.) to dominate or eradicate indigenous populations and further their geopolitical goals. While many of their colonies broke away and achieved independence over the course of the 20th century, Lovecraft and Tolkien were both familiar with and their views informed by the racist and colonialist ideology that supported the efforts to expand and maintain those holdings, including white supremacist propaganda such as Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” (1899).

Because of this shared cultural basis, trying to map the cultural differences in racial ideology between Tolkien and Lovecraft can be difficult. The United States with its large BIPOC population, formal laws legalizing racial discrimination (Black Codes or Jim Crow, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, etc.), and recent and ongoing history of racial violence (slavery, the American Civil War, the American Indian Wars, lynching, the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, etc.) was perhaps more well-known for racial discrimination than Britain—but the British Empire saw its fair share of violence as well including civil wars, rebellions, and even the 1919 race riots. The Anglosphere, as a whole, was permeated with ideas of white supremacy, colour prejudice, and racial violence.

While Lovecraft and Tolkien had vast differences in their lives and upbringing, they shared that common identity of being white, male, and “Anglo-Saxon” (a term which has become so misused politically, co-opted by white supremacists, and which is of sufficiently questionable historical value that historians are seriously arguing to stop using it). What differentiates them is less any particular national flavor or expression of racism, but in the traditions of fantasy fiction they were working within.

Michael Moorcock famously summed up The Lord of the Rings as “Epic Pooh”, noting:

The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many
of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced. It is Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an
epic. If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron and his henchmen are that old
bourgeois bugaboo, the Mob – mindless football supporters throwing their beerbottles over the fence the worst aspects of modern urban society represented as the
whole by a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom “good taste” is synonymous
with “restraint” (pastel colours, murmured protest) and “civilized” behaviour means
“conventional behaviour in all circumstances”.

Many of Moorcock’s criticisms can apply as well to Lovecraft as to Tolkien: “The Silver Key” is undoubtedly a look backwards to simpler and happier times and “The Street” is effectively a nativist fable where everything was fine until the immigrants came in and property values started to decline, to take only two examples. Lovecraft and Tolkien both held the image of the traditional English rural gentry as a kind of ideal.

Yet Lovecraft was no hobbit. While Lovecraft had an antiquarian yearning for old buildings and a rose-tinted vision of British Colonial period, his fiction was mostly set in the current day and focused on themes of degeneration, hoary survivals from the past, ancient aliens, and cults rather than a celebration or exultation of the small joys in life. While Lovecraft regretted what he called the coming “Machine Culture,” he did not ignore or decry the advancement of technology and industrialization, or exalt a rural state that had fallen into decay. Dunwich is no Shire, for all the rural trappings; it is kind of an anti-Shire, a place where old ways and habits have turned inward and strange.

Moorcock places Tolkien in a tradition of fantasy that includes writers like Lord Dunsany, William Morris, and C. S. Lewis, British authors noted for their backward-looking fantasy with often stark differences between good and evil. Lovecraft was influenced by Dunsany too—but Lovecraft’s fantasy is part of the American school of fantasy as exemplified by Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Fritz Leiber, Jr., who were his friends and correspondents. While no one will accuse Lovecraft of being an action writer in the Sword & Sorcery mold, this school of American fantasy is closer to the hardboiled detective fiction of the period (see George Knight’s “Robert E. Howard: Hardboiled Heroic Fantasist” in The Dark Barbarian), influenced by realism. Lovecraft et al. aren’t generally looking to preserve an idyll setting from corruption: their worlds are already corrupted, lived in, and sometimes degenerate. Good and evil are rarely absolute, or absolutely defined; and the moral grayness is intimate with the settings and the characters.

Understanding this difference is critical to appreciate how both Tolkien and Lovecraft are informed by and use race in their fiction. They are coming from a not-identical but substantially similar ideological background of colonialism and white supremacy, but how they express that ideology is shaped by what both are trying to accomplish, and how they do it.

White Mythic Spaces & Black Hobbits

The popular perception of the First World War has remained an inherently white mythic space in which white men fight against other whtie men and where minorities, when and if they are featured, are given an anonymous secondary role and are subject to the will and motivation of their white heroic leaders.

Stefan Aguirre Quiroga, “Race, Battlefield 1 and the White Mythic Space of the First World War” (2018)

H. P. Lovecraft and J. R. R. Tolkien were white heterosexual men who were writing for what they probably assumed would be a white heterosexual male audience, and the majority of characters in all of their stories are also white, heterosexual (to the degree they express any sexuality), and male. In this, they were not any different from the thousands of other writers at the time, from Ernest Hemingway and J. D. Salinger to P. G. Wodehouse and Joseph Conrad. In many cases, neither Tolkien nor Lovecraft had to specify whether a principal character was “white” in terms of early 20th-century colour prejudice: it was assumed unless stated or implied otherwise. This is what makes stories like “Medusa’s Coil” possible: if every character’s race was clearly defined rather than assumed, there could be no subterfuge and thus no story.

White heterosexual man was the default everyman; the express normal. Anything that was not—women, gay, Black, etc.—was “other.” When most folks think of racism in the works of Lovecraft or Tolkien, this overwhelming default whiteness, heterosexuality, and masculinity is often understood, but difficult to acknowledge or talk about because it is still seen as the default. For white audiences especially, the vast numbers of white people in the Lovecraft Mythos or Middle Earth don’t look weird, because white audiences are used to seeing all-white casts. This mythic white space is something that most white audiences might not even question until they see an adaptation or derivative work with more diverse casting, such as the inclusion of Black characters in The Color Out of Space (2020) or The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022).

Is it really that weird to have Black and brown hobbits?

Almost no Afro-American would deny that life for blacks is infinitely better than it was forty years aog. But in the worlds of today’s fantasy, the racial atmosphere remains unchanged. Blacks are either ignored or are portrayed in the same hackneyed stereotypes that should have died with colonialism. A detailed discussion of contemporary fantasy is really a topic for another essay. However, J. R. R. Tolkien and Michael Moorcock are good examples of writers who construct worlds wherein blacks are absent. There is really nothing wrong with that. Who needs black Hobbits? Seriously, the point is that it is better to be ignored than maligned.

Charles R. Saunders, “Die Black Dog!: A Look At Racism in Fantasy Literature”

Arguments over Black hobbits run into two issues: what Tolkien wrote, and what Tolkien did not write. As far as what Tolkien wrote, fans and scholars willing may recall that in the prologue to The Lord of the Rings, in the chapter “Concerning Hobbits,” the Harfoots were described as “browner of skin,” and the Fallonides were “fairer of skin and also of hair.” Whether this corresponded to different races as they are popularly recognized today or whether this reflected or could be interpreted as the early 20th-century racialist ideas of the difference between “dark whites” (Melanochroi) and “fair whites” (Xanthochroi) is up for debate. Tolkien wrote that some hobbits were browner of skin, but that was it. He didn’t go into anthropological detail on the subject.

What Tolkien did not write about hobbits and other characters in his work was anything that utilized the standard racial terminology of the early 20th century. Lovecraft, writing stories set in his contemporary world, could and sometimes did specify Caucasian, Asian, Negroid, etc., and go into as much detail as any anthropologist or Ku Klux Klanner, if necessary. He could and sometimes (though rarely) in his fiction even used racial pejoratives and slurs, particularly if he wanted to establish a given character as a racist (as in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” and “Medusa’s Coil.”) There aren’t a lot of BIPOC characters in Lovecraft’s Mythos, but they exist and are described using familiar terms.

Tolkien didn’t do this; arguably, he couldn’t. Middle Earth is handicapped from using this technical language of race because the fictional setting does not have the same constituent cultural baggage that led to such terminology. “Black hobbits” don’t exist in Middle Earth as Tolkien wrote it not because the physiognomy is impossible but because “Blackness” in the real-world racial sense does not exist in Middle Earth as Tolkien originally conceived it.

Which is a long way to say that yes, there are Dark Elves in Middle Earth, but they’re Moriquendi who are called that because they never saw the light of the Two Trees, not because they necessarily have more skin pigment than other elves; likewise the Black Númenóreans were “black” in that they associated with Sauron, not because of the color of their skin or hair. Tolkien wasn’t explicitly framing his characters in terms of 20th-century racism the way Lovecraft could and did. That doesn’t mean that those racialist ideas didn’t inform what Tolkien did write, and the people who read, illustrated, and wrote about Middle Earth were also bringing their cultural baggage of 20th-century racism with them in interpreting the material.

When illustrators depicted elves and hobbits from Tolkien’s writings, they tended largely to show them as white—reinforcing the idea of the mythic white space, above and beyond the actual words Tolkien wrote. These artistic decisions are important: Tolkien never specifies anywhere in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings that elves have pointed ears, either, but pointed ears have since become a defining feature of fantasy elves.

The Lovecraft Mythos doesn’t tend to get the same “Black hobbits” debate because as much as his works also represent a white mythic space and many of the same preconceptions are there, Lovecraft also very expressly wrote about BIPOC as well. Lovecraft’s characterization of those non-white characters tends to be very stereotypical—the Native American Grey Eagle from “The Curse of Yig” and “The Mound” could have stepped out of a turn-of-the-century Western dime novel, and is a literary cousin to the Native Americans of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. While it’s weird to think of Lovecraft as more expressly racially inclusive than Tolkien in his fiction, the point is that Lovecraft was working within the contemporary framework of racial ideology and the language that was part of his setting (an expression of hardboiled realism) and Tolkien was working outside of that ideology and language, building a world from a different set of first principles that didn’t necessarily have to agree with the real world (an expression of idealism).

Lovecraft and Tolkien were both bringing similar cultural assumptions to bear when creating their fiction, and they were by and large being read and interpreted by the same audience. When we think about race in Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos, we have to keep in mind the large part that reader response plays in the racial ideas being expressed. Every reader brings their own prejudices and ideology to these stories that can color how they can interpret both what is expressly written, and what is not written. Are the Black hobbits not there because Tolkien didn’t explicitly write them, or because we refuse to consider the possibility of Black hobbits? If Black hobbits break our suspension of disbelief, why is that? What does that say about us?

Machen & Mongoloids

When we talk about mythic white space and Black hobbits, we are focusing on real-world racialist terminology as applied to fantasy settings; yet some of the hallmarks of both Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos are the fantasy races that occupy them: the Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Ents, Hobbits, Trolls, Deep Ones, Mi-Go, Ghouls, and Great Race of Yith, among others. Nor were Tolkien and Lovecraft alone in this kind of creation: Lord Dunsany’s fantasies included creatures from Classical myth and folklore such as centaurs (“The Bride of the Man-Horse”) and elves (“The Kith of the Elf-Folk”); E. R. Eddison in The Worm Ouroboros (1922) had Demons, Witches, Imps, Pixies, and Goblins who were essentially humans with individual nation-states of Demonland, Witchland, Impland, etc.; Edgar Rice Burroughs transplanted colonialist tropes to space in his Barsoom tales beginning with A Princess of Mars (1912), with Green Martians, White Martians, Red Martians, Yellow Martians, and Black Martians; Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword (1954) drew from folklore and myth to depict a near-genocidal conflict between elves and trolls, with many other supernatural tribes and nations drawn into the conflict.

The creation, depiction, and reception of all of these fantasy peoples and kindreds were informed by contemporary ideas of race, and the practice of euhemerism in particular introduced a good deal of scientific racism and racial stereotypes into fantasy fiction. Different creators didn’t apply all the same aspects of 20th-century racism in their writing, and the unevenness of the approach can sometimes make it difficult to distinguish how an author is being influenced, but a particular example might help demonstrate how this worked.

They would be seen by a peasant in the fields walking towards some green and rounded hillock, and seen no more on earth; and there are stories of mothers who have left a child quietly sleeping, with the cottage door rudely barred with a piece of wood, and have returned, not to find the plump and rosy little Saxon, but a thin and wizened creature, with sallow skin and black, piercing eyes, the child of another race. Then, again, there were myths darker still; the dread of witch and wizard, the lurid evil of the Sabbath, and the hint of demons who mingled with the daughters of men. And just as we have turned the terrible ‘fair folk’ into a company of benignant, if freakish elves, so we have hidden from us the black foulness of the witch and her companions under a popular diablerie of old women and broomsticks, and a comic cat with tail on end. […] Supposing these traditions to be true, who were the demons who are reported to have attended the Sabbaths? I need not say that I laid aside what I may call the supernatural hypothesis of the Middle Ages, and came to the conclusion that fairies and devils were of one and the same race and origin; invention, no doubt, and the Gothic fancy of old days, had done much in the way of exaggeration and distortion; yet I firmly believe that beneath all this imagery there was a black background of truth.

Arthur Machen, “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895)

Machen penned a loose grouping of stories that supposed the “Little People” (elves, fairies, etc.) were not purely supernatural or otherworldly beings of myth but were based on genuine, physical beings; a lost branch of the human family tree, of which strange survivals might yet exist in the contemporary period—and Machen was directly paralleled in “scientific” literature by anthropologists like Margaret Murray, who in The Witch-Cult of Western Europe (1921) argued that the witch-cult did exist and that it was the nature-religion passed down from a pre-Caucasian “Mongoloid” people in Europe, “Mongoloid” being one of the scientific racism designations for Asian peoples which covered everything from Huns, Magyars, and Sami peoples to Chinese, Indians, and even Jews in some cases. Machen’s emphasis on sallow skin and slant eyes was a direct reference to stereotypes of “Mongoloid” appearance.

H. P. Lovecraft was directly inspired by both Arthur Machen and Margaret Murray; he adopted and conglomerated their ideas into his own personal theory of the witch-cult and strange survivals of a pre-human race, which inspired stories like “The Festival,” and in turn influenced correspondents like Robert E. Howard (see “Conan and the Little People”). Yet Tolkien, while probably not drawing directly from Machen as Lovecraft had, was absolutely influenced by these same stereotypes. In one letter he wrote:

The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the ‘human’ form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.

J. R. R. Tolkien to Forrest J. Ackermann, June 1958, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 274

This is an example of how real-world racial stereotypes influenced Tolkien and Lovecraft. Yet it is important to appreciate that Tolkien and Lovecraft were generally not simply using fantasy as a metaphor for real-world racial conflicts: the appearance of the Orcs were inspired by stereotypes of Asian people, but the Orcs are not culturally Asian or intended to represent real-life nations like China or Japan; neither were the Deep Ones of Innsmouth representative of Asians, Black people, Jews or any other real-life race or ethnicity. H. P. Lovecraft did dabble in a fantasy Yellow Peril with the story “Polaris,” but that was again, not metaphorical: he was very explicit that the ancient Inutos were supposed to be the ancestors of the Inuit of today.

Which again is the difference in approach between Lovecraft and Tolkien. Because he was writing stories predominantly set in contemporary time and with the language of contemporary race and prejudices, Lovecraft had no need for metaphors to conceal racial prejudice—he could be as explicit as he needed to be for the story, and generally was. Lovecraft could and did use real-world racism to his narrative advantage, using racial stereotypes and prejudices as stepping stones to lead readers into much more fantastic and weirder territory. The real-world prejudice expressed against the folks of Innsmouth, for instance, is based on the false assumption that the sailors and townsfolk and intermarried with Chinese brides and Pacific Islanders; the locals of Massachusetts couldn’t even conceive of who the Innsmouth folk actually married. Machen’s adoption of euhemerism to fantasy held tremendous potential for Lovecraft (and many other fantasy writers) to adapt creatures of myth into contemporary scientific racism terms, and writers after Lovecraft continue to use real-world (and changing) attitudes towards race as part of their stories, as in “The Litany of Earth” by Ruthanna Emrys.

By contrast, Tolkien’s racial ideology is more subliminal: the whole framing of the background of Middle Earth and the development and depiction of its peoples is very strongly inspired by the implicit biases of Tolkien’s upbringing in a culture of white supremacy. The delineation of the various kindreds of the Elves is almost Linnaean in its approach, but a lot of the underlying assumptions of race and prejudice in The Lord of the Rings are unexamined and thus never worked out in the course of the books.

For example, one basic problem is the idea of a race, like orcs, being depicted as wholly evil. This is dangerously representative of racist propaganda of the early 20th century, the kind of blanket bigotry which led directly to the Holocaust. While Tolkien doesn’t address this much in the actual text of The Lord of the Rings, he admits in one letter:

[…] asserted somewhere, Book Five, page 190, where Frodo assets that the orcs are not evil in origin. We believe that, I suppose, of all human kinds and sorts and breeds, though some appear, both as individuals and groups to be, by us at any rate, unredeemable…

J. R. R. Tolkien to W. H. Auden, 12 May 1965, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 355

The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book 5, page 190

Whether or not Tolkien was consciously aware of the influences on his writing, the first generation of readers of The Lord of the Rings lived during the tumultuous 1950s, 60s, 70s did so in the shadow of the Holocaust, when de-colonization and civil rights movements were front-page news, and they could hardly have missed it. While not everyone would read racial bias into the work of Tolkien—or even Lovecraft, whose more explicitly racist works were not widely published for the first few decades—reading race in their stories was very common, and why the idea of fantasy races persists in fantasy fiction to this day. Tolkien and Lovecraft were not alone in this recontextualization of mythic and folkloric figures in terms of early 20th-century racist ideology, but they were both very influential in promoting that idea, either explicitly (in terms of Lovecraft and the witch-cult/Little People theory) or implicitly (Tolkien’s evil orcs).

Half-Elves & Hybridity

As for the negro question in general—I think that intermarriage ought to be banned in view of the vast number of blacks in the country. Illicit miscegenation by the white male is bad enough, heaven knows—but at least the hybrid offspring is kept below a definite colour-line & kept from vitiating the main stock. Nothing but pain & disaster can come from the mingling of black & white, & the law ought to aid in checking this criminal folly. Granting the negro his full due, he is not the sort of material which can mix successfully into the fabric of a civilised Caucasian nation. Isolated cases of high-grade hybrids prove nothing. It is easy to see the ultimate result of the wholesale pollution of highly evolved blood by definitely inferior strains.

H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 30 July 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea et al. 142-143

Irredeemably evil races are one problematic ramification of the influence of racial ideology on fantasy literature, but once you include the idea of “races” in a fantasy setting, it may necessarily introduce other contingent ideas such as interracial relationships, individuals with biracial or multiracial ancestry, eugenics, and genocide. Both Tolkien and Lovecraft developed these ideas into their fictional words in different ways, and they had plenty of works to draw inspiration from, including the demigods of Classical Greek and Roman mythology and contemporary fantasists like Lord Dunsany (the eponymous “Bride of the Man-Horse” had as grandparents a centaur, a god, a desert lion, and a sphinx) and Arthur Machen (notably Helen Vaughan of “The Great God Pan”).

Lovecraft would be inspired by “The Great God Pan” in particular when he wrote “The Dunwich Horror,” and the hybrid entity Wilbur Whately and his twin can fairly be described as a product of cosmic miscegenation. In his fiction, Lovecraft essentially always uses portrays race-mixing as something abhorrent, or resulting in a monstrous entity; readers might read something of Lovecraft’s personal prejudice into that fact, but in terms of stories like “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” “The Curse of Yig,” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” the monstrous aspect comes from a genuinely monstrous and inhuman parent, and the effects of that heritage (regardless of how remote) tend to be out of proportion—that is to say, Lovecraft wasn’t being realistic, he was employing fantasy genetics to achieve certain narrative results.

Genetics as a discipline developed throughout the 20th century; the idea of heredity was fairly firmly established before Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859, but the actual mechanism of inheritance (DNA) was not discovered until 1953. Genetic engineering during the writing of the Lovecraft Mythos and Middle Earth was essentially the art of horse breeders and the science of Gregor Mendel’s peas. When we read about the swine-things found beneath Exham Priority in “The Rats in the Walls” or the hybrid gyaa-yothn in “The Mound,” we’re looking at fantasy eugenics at play—and the same is true for Tolkien’s orcs, uruks, and other servants:

The Orcs were first bred by the Dark Power of the North in the Elder Days. […] And these creatures, being filled with malice, hating even their own kind, quickly developed many barbarous dialects as there were groups or settlements of their race, so that their Orkish speech was of little use to them in intercourse between different tribes.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix F, page 409

If Lovecraft used hybridity to emphasize the monstrous for his own story ends, Tolkien could do this as well. In various places in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien seems to hint at different possible relationships between various breeds of hobbits and elves, men, and dwarves, and also of half-orcs and goblin-men, and even once refers to those “out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls” at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields…but most of these relationships are suggested only, or explicit only in supplementary materials. Interracial relationships are almost entirely off-the-page, and only those involving humans and elves like Aragorn’s marriage to Arwen are explicit in The Lord of the Rings itself. The most prominent hybrids in The Lord of the Rings and its backstory are the twin half-elves Elrond and Elros, whose lines of descent would intermarry in a symbolic restoration of the sundered nobility of Númenór on the throne of Gondor.

The differences between Elrond and Wilbur Whateley may seem to outweigh their similarities, but both characters were ultimately expressions of how their different creators used the idea of racial hybridity to tell the stories they wanted to tell. Lovecraft, a devotee of horror and weird fiction, made his hybrids monstrous, creatures that were both human and inhuman; Tolkien’s narrative of nobility and restoration used them as a vehicle for the return of the king. In both cases, the authors were influenced by ideas of interracial relationships and eugenics: they found expression in different ways, but they were coming from the same basic idea that if you cross a horse and a donkey you get a mule, something that partakes of both parents and yet is neither.

Jews, Dwarves, & Hitler

The dwarves of course are quite obviously—wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.

J. R. R. Tolkien, 1964 Interview

Meir Y. Soloveichik in The Secrets Jews of The Hobbit makes the argument that Tolkien coded Jewish stereotypes into the Dwarves of Middle Earth. A case could be made that at least some of these aspects are coincidental; Tolkien was partly inspired by the Nibelunglied, with its magic ring, dragon, magic sword, and greedy dwarves, so he wasn’t exactly making up the dwarves out of whole cloth, but was drawing inspiration from Norse and Germanic myth. Leaving aside for the moment whether the Nibelunglied coded antisemitism into its depiction of dwarves, this confluence of fantasy, Germany, and racism raises the question: what were Lovecraft and Tolkien’s responses to Hitler and Nazism?

Lovecraft, because he died in March 1937, only saw the early years of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. As an antisemite himself, Lovecraft was at first willing to believe the propaganda of the Nazi party after Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933, and though he disagreed with some aspects of the antisemitic Nazi program, he was sympathetic with others:

Our literature & drama, selected by Jewish producers & great Jewish publishing houses like Knopf, & feeling the pressure of Jewish finance & mercantile advertising, are daily getting farther & farther from the real feelings of the plain American in New England or Virginia or Kansas; whilst the profound Semitism of New York is affecting the “intellectuals” who flock there & creating a flimsy & synthetic body of culture & ideology radically hostile to the virile American attitude. Some day I hope that a reasonably civilised way of getting America’s voice uppermost again can be devised. Not that I would advocate violence—but certainly, I can’t regard the Nazis with that complete lack of sympathy shewn by those who take popular newspaper sentiment at face value. By the way—it’s hardly accurate to compare the Jewish with the negro problem. The trouble with the Jew is not his blood—which can mix with ours without disastrous results—but his persistent & antagonistic culture-tradition. On the other hand, the negro represents a vastly inferior biological variant which must under no circumstances taint our Aryan stock. The absolute colour-line as applied to negroes is both necessary & sensible, whereas a similar deadline against Jews (though attempted by Hitler) is ridiculous.

H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 29 May 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea et al. 132-133

Within a few years, Hitler’s moves had already alienated Lovecraft, and Lovecraft’s criticisms would outnumber his moderate initial support for some phases of Nazism. The initial interest Lovecraft had in a fascist state that shared his white/Nordic/Aryan identity, and which promoted ideas of white supremacy, antisemitism, and nationalism that Lovecraft shared waned relatively quickly as it became apparent that the Nazis were violent anti-intellectual thugs. For his part, Lovecraft never wrote any reference to the Nazis into his fiction, and only one blatantly Jewish character (the bookshop dealer in “The Descendant”). This may or may not have been the result of earlier pushback Lovecraft had received on publicly voicing antisemitic comments, which he then did not repeat.

Tolkien’s response to Hitler and the Nazis is more directly antithetical. As a philologist, Tolkien was more aware than Lovecraft of the linguistic origin and meaning of “Aryan” and “Semite,” and whatever white supremacist ideas Tolkien might have absorbed growing up in the United Kingdom, they did not extend to embracing any aspect of Nazism or its racist ideology. Tolkien made this quite plain in a pair of letters about a proposed German translation of The Hobbit, where he wrote in part:

I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the nation that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.

J. R. R. Tolkien to Stanley Unwin, 25 July 1938, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 37

I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.

J. R. R. Tolkien to Rütten & Leoning Verlag, 25 July 1938, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 37

Tolkien’s anti-Hitler attitudes would understandably grow more acute after Nazi Germany declared war on Great Britain, and stemmed in part from the great deal of study that Tolkien had put into the Norse and Germanic literature and folklore, which Nazis were corrupting with their racist ideology:

Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that it in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature: it chiefly affects the mere will). Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.

J. R. R. Tolkien to Michael Tolkien, 9 June 1941, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 55-56

Tolkien’s concern about the influence of Nazi ideology on “corrupting” the Norse and Germanic literature he so loved (keeping in mind that English is a Germanic language) with the white supremacist and antisemitic prejudice was well-founded, even today hate groups appropriate Norse and Germanic symbols such as runes, and terms like “Anglo-Saxon” are used to foster white supremacist ideals.

What Tolkien and Lovecraft perhaps did not see coming was the long tail of white supremacist ideological influence on fantasy—not so much the Nazis themselves, who would go on to become stock villains and the models for many more in works like Kthulhu Reich (2019) by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健), but in the way that readers and critics would interpret the racial ideologies and prejudices in fantasy fiction through the lens of World War II. Racial depictions and ideas which would be relatively mainstream and unremarkable before the 1940s thus become subject to atemporal criticism. An example might help demonstrate this:

[Robert E.] Howard’s tales, on the other hand, imagine a world in which a powerful blue-eyed muscled barbarian of the north can subdue various supernatural and racial grotesqueries. It’s hard not to see in his most well-known creation a kind of Death’s Head SS commando in a loincloth, treading the jeweled kingdoms of the earth beneath his jackboots.

W. Scott Poole, In the Mountains of Madness 229

Thus does Poole describe Robert E. Howard’s most popular creation, Conan the Cimmerian. In fairness to Poole, Howard was a white supremacist and subscribed to the idea of a white “Aryan” race; it’s part of the reason Howard got on with Lovecraft. This did influence their fiction: the very first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” states that it takes place “between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas”—a clear reference to the Aryan race theory. However, Poole misses that just because you’re a white supremacist in the 1930s doesn’t automatically make you a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer. Robert E. Howard was an antisemite, but Howard and Lovecraft argued about the Nazis in their letters, and Howard was not in favor of them—not because of any antiracist sentiment, but because he didn’t trust fascist politics, disliked propaganda, and detested bullying.

To some folks, it may seem like splitting hairs: does it really matter if an individual was a card-carrying, goose-stepping, Heil Hitler-ing Nazi™ instead of a general population American or British white supremacist?

Consider Tolkien and his dwarves. You would be hard-pressed to find a fantasist of that period more clearly opposed to Nazism, but being anti-Nazi doesn’t mean your work is free from antisemitic stereotypes or white supremacy. “Nazi” is a powerful label, but it is prone to dilution through misuse and overapplication, and it tends to flatten out any possible nuance or depth. Strictly speaking, Lovecraft, Howard, and Tolkien were never Nazis—but all three of them were drawing on some of the same ideas that the Nazis used in formulating their imagery and ideology. Historical racism is a reality in fantasy fiction that needs to be acknowledged and addressed, and that’s hard to do when blanket labels are applied without respect to historical accuracy, as Poole did with Howard. Characterizing Conan as a Nazi stormtrooper is both inaccurate and lazy; it reduces the character to caricature instead of acknowledging or exploring the complicated ways ’30s racist ideologies informed and shaped fantasy fiction—and Conan the Cimmerian was an is a hugely influential character in fantasy.

The problem with antisemitism in fantasy is that it is pernicious—antisemitism has found so much expression in European myth and folklore, and through that folklore in fantasy literature, sometimes coded and sometimes overt, it can be terribly easy for writers to repeat stereotypes. Sometimes without necessarily knowing that they are doing it.

When J. K. Rowling, for example, attributed goblins in the Harry Potter books as being secretive, greedy, big-nosed bankers looked down upon by wizards, she was perpetuating antisemitic stereotypes. They are little different from Tolkien’s dwarves, with the possible exception of being less subtle and less fully developed—Tolkien expanded considerably on the original presentation in The Hobbit, and the dwarves are never without positive attributes like courage—but it’s still a lot of the same iconography that the Nazis used in Jud Süß.

There is a bit of irony here in that Lovecraft, who was noted as an antisemite during his life and for his at least moderate initial agreement with Hitler, should not be a major force for antisemitic imagery in fantasy while Tolkien who was vocally opposed to Hitler may have coded antisemitic imagery into his dwarves—and did it so well that many aspects like dwarf beards and greed have become incredibly commonplace in fantasy fiction. The distinction between Lovecraft and Tolkien’s personal beliefs and their fiction is a critical one: a writer doesn’t have to believe in racist stereotypes to repeat racist ideas, nor is a racist required to make everything they write reflect their personal prejudices.

Personal Comparisons

I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White.

J. R. R. Tolkien, “Valedictory Address to the University of Oxford” (1959) in J.R.R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam

It is a fact that we have many more examples of H. P. Lovecraft being explicitly racist than we do J. R. R. Tolkien; it is also a fact that we have many more examples of Tolkien being antiracist than Lovecraft—speaking out against apartheid in South Africa, as above, or denouncing association of Middle Earth with white supremacist ideas, for example when he was asked if Middle Earth corresponds to “Nordic Europe” Tolkien wrote:

Not Nordic, please! A word I personally dislike; it is associated, though of French origin, with racialist theories.

J. R. R. Tolkien to Charlotte and Denis PLimmer, 8 Feb 1967, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 375

However, before saying with absolute certainty that Lovecraft was more racist than Tolkien, it is important to remember that Lovecraft died in 1937, before World War II, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and decolonization movements around the world. Lovecraft, more than Tolkien, lived in a culture of legal segregation and anti-miscegenation laws, and saw the rise of the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, the Silver Shirts, and the Coughlinites as well as the Nazi party…and perhaps more importantly, we have a lot more letters from Lovecraft than Tolkien.

The published letters of H. P. Lovecraft comprise more than twenty volumes, with more still to be published, and cover a period of about 26 years (1911 – 1937). The published letters of J. R. R. Tolkien mostly consist of The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (1981) and cover 59 years (1914 – 1972). That isn’t to say there aren’t more Tolkien letters out there, but they largely haven’t been published or studied to the extent that Lovecraft’s letters have been, and the bits that have been published have been largely from during or after WW2. Which is to say: we have a lot more racist material from Lovecraft in part because we have a lot more material period, and we have more antiracist material from Tolkien in part because we have a lot more post-WW2 material, when Tolkien seems to have turned against racism, especially in association with his work.

It isn’t just that we have more material on racism from Lovecraft than Tolkien, we have more material from Lovecraft on almost everything—jazz music, Harlem, Ernest Hemingway, pornography, homosexuality, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, different types of cheese and canned beans, the Scottsboro Trial, etc.—at least, everything before his death in 1937. We will never know if Lovecraft might have changed his stance had he lived to see the true horrors perpetrated by the Nazis against Jews, Roma, homosexuals, etc. during the Holocaust, or the successes achieved by the Civil Rights movements.

Tolkien, to his credit, does appear to have been on the right side of history in opposing Hitler and apartheid—but keep in mind that we do not know the full picture of how he got to that point-of-view, and that views on race and prejudice are often muddy and conflicting, especially when seen through the lens of the present. It is easy in hindsight to see that the Nazis were monsters all along, and that the signs were all there…but it is different in the moment, when reports are conflicting, information is imperfect, and it is impossible to know how things will turn out. Historical racism was complicated, and so were historical individuals: Lovecraft and Tolkien were not simple men, nor were their views static throughout their life, but reflected changes in their lives and the world around them.

For all that Lovecraft was effectively always an antisemite, his views on Jews shifted considerably from his earliest references as a teenager to those at the end of his life. Lovecraft had Jewish friends like Tolkien did, and like Tolkien Lovecraft could credit them as being very gifted as well; Lovecraft even married a Jew, Sonia H. Greene. It is possible to oppose antisemitism and still code dwarves as Jewish; it is equally possible to be antisemitic and have Jewish friends. Not every bit of prejudice in the Lovecraft Mythos is an example of Lovecraft’s own prejudice: the real-life racial discrimination depicted in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is a red herring for the much weirder interspecies relationships taking place. Nor is Tolkien’s stance against white supremacist readings of Middle Earth necessarily reflective of what he wrote: he may have opposed Hitler, but he still wrote a story that shows the heavy influence of the European-centered white supremacist mindset of the day.

More than many authors, we tend to associate Lovecraft and Tolkien with their respective works, but we should not mistake their personal feelings as being necessarily reflective of what appeared in their works. While the letters and supplementary writings of Lovecraft and Tolkien can give us great insight into their lives and imaginary worlds, the Lovecraft Mythos and Middle Earth must also stand on their own—must be interpreted by readers as works apart from the authors themselves. Which readers have been doing for generations, sometimes addressing the racial ideas and implications, and sometimes continuing them.

The Racialist Legacy of Lovecraft & Tolkien

In tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons and massive multiplayer online roleplaying games like Worlds of Warcraft, one of the first choices a player makes is to decide their character’s race. Choosing a race can determine physical appearance, language, physical and mental attributes, and restrict access to various careers or classes. Race in fantasy gaming thus achieves a dream of every racialist in the early 20th century: to be able to both quantify the differences between groups of people, and to hardcode discrimination against them, segregating different races so that they in truth tend to obey various stereotypes.

At least, in some scenarios. In practice, race in fantasy gaming is one option among many, and here are often exceptions, special rules, and bending of said rules to allow players greater freedom to play the character they want. Yet the very fact that we use the term “race” to describe whether a player character is an elf, dwarf, human, halfling, orc, etc. is a reflection of the enduring legacy of Tolkien, Lovecraft, and other 20th century writers on the field of fantasy. Tolkien may not have invented elves and dwarves, taking inspiration from Norse and Germanic sagas and stories, but in a real way The Lord of the Rings helped codify elves and dwarves in the popular imagination—with many variations and further refinements; Gary Gygax famously included a long list of fantasy inspirations for Dungeons & Dragons in Appendix N. The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game (1981) by Sandy Petersen and published by Chaosium, Inc. doesn’t let players pick the race of their characters (at least, in terms of elves and dwarves, players can still pick skin color, ethnicity, nationality, etc.), but they do couch Lovecraft’s various entities in racial terms: Greater and Lesser Servitor Races, Independent Races, etc.

Fantasy gaming is one prominent example of how the idea of race has permeated the field of fantasy literature, but the influence of Tolkien, Lovecraft, et al. goes much further. The Lord of the Rings spawned innumerable fantasy trilogy imitators; the Lovecraft Mythos has had thousands of stories, poems, novels, and games expanding off of or adapting the original material Lovecraft wrote. Both Lovecraft and Tolkien’s work have been adapted to film, spectacularly so in the case of the Lord of the Rings trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, who followed up with a three-film adaptation of The Hobbit.

None of those six films featured Black hobbits. Tolkien’s white mythic space remained intact.

All of the issues of race in Lovecraft and Tolkien’s work come into play in the works derived, inspired, or adapted from Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos. Lovecraft and Tolkien were writing in the early-to-mid 20th century and that culture shaped their work, and because their work has been successful contemporary audiences still have to grapple with the legacy of racial ideology, white supremacy, and antisemitic imagery that appears in what they wrote. More than that, there are generations of writers and artists who have carried on tropes of half-elves, changelings, cosmic miscegenation, and selectively bred servant races without addressing where those ideas come from, or what the ramifications of their inclusion in their stories are.

More than ever, some writers and artists are addressing those issues. Casts of films and streaming shows are getting more diverse, cultural appropriation is less prominent, some of the old tropes are re-examined. The Shadowrun (1989, FASA) roleplaying game has elves, dwarves, orks, and trolls in a near-future cyberpunk setting, one where fantasy racism coexists and blends with real-world racism; Ruthanna Emrys’ The Litany of Earth (2014) looks back at “The Shadow over Innsmouth” from the perspective of the Japanese internment camps of World War II.

Orcs aren’t always evil anymore. A Deep One hybrid may be subject to racial profiling and discrimination. The syntax of race has shifted from Tolkien and Lovecraft’s day, and the interpretations and expansions of that work shift with them, often trailing the current consensus—and faced with reactionary feedback.

We have always lived in a politically-charged, race-conscious culture. Many major events of Lovecraft and Tolkien’s lives were centered around racial conflict, racial violence, and racist ideology. There was no “simpler time” without such conflict, not within historical memory. Greater diversity in adaptations of Tolkien and Lovecraft’s material to different media is a more recent development—a step away from the white mythic space that the Lovecraft Mythos and Middle Earth have occupied for so long—but it is no more politically-charged or forced than when Tolkien and Lovecraft chose how to write their stories in the first place, or when the first artist for their works decided that a given character should look Caucasian rather than Asian, or that orcs should be green or black.

As with picking a race in a roleplaying game, these choices have consequences that can restrict some options and open up others. The foundations of the white mythic space of Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos were laid down by Lovecraft and Tolkien as they wrote as white men to a presumably mostly white and male audience, but the space was built up by generations of writers and artists that perpetuated that imagery of imaginary worlds filled with white people. The reactionary impulse to growing diversity in fantasy is a desire to retreat to that white mythic space—and in doing so, they reiterate the same attitudes that Moorcock criticized Tolkien for. Hobbits wanting to be safe in the Shire, ignoring everything beyond their own borders, upset at any perceived intrusion.

The legacy of H. P. Lovecraft and J. R. R. Tolkien is more than just issues of half-elves and interracial communities in coastal Massachusetts, but the ideas of race that they absorbed in their life, that influenced them and found expression in their fiction, are still relevant today. Just as we deal with the aftermath of racial conflict that Lovecraft and Tolkien lived through in their own lives, we have to deal with how that conflict found expression in their creative works. Lovecraft and Tolkien are dead; they have made all the artistic choices they can. It is up to audiences and creators now to make their own decisions as to how they will address the literary legacy left to them—the future of what the Mythos and Middle Earth can be—and this is only a small part of dealing with the ongoing consequences of historical racism in daily life.

A Final Word

This is not by any means an exhaustive or complete examination of race in the lives and works of Lovecraft or Tolkien; entire books have been written on both men and their fiction, and the well of literary analysis and biography has not yet been exhausted. The point of this essay is to illustrate some of the commonalities and differences in how racism influenced Lovecraft and Tolkien, how it found expression in their respective imaginary worlds, and how their audience then interpreted that work through the lens of their own prejudice as well. Declaring Lovecraft or The Lord of the Rings as racist isn’t technically inaccurate, but it is a gross simplification that obscures how pervasive racism and white supremacy were—and, sadly, still are.

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 Robert E. Howard: Novalyne Price

Dear Bob,

Although you leave nothing for me to say, being a woman, I’ll say something anyway.

Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone 233

Novalyne Price was born to Homer and Etna Reed Price in Brownwood, Texas in 1908. Her parents’ marriage did not last through her childhood; in 1919 Etna remarried to Albert C. Sears, though this marriage would also end in divorce in the 1930s. She was two grades behind Robert E. Howard at Brownwood High, who finished high school at Brownwood because the school at Cross Plains stopped at 10th grade. She took classes at the local Daniel Baker College while still in high school, and finally graduated high school and entered as a full-time student in 1925 with a focus on Oratory and Literature.

It appears that working her way through college required her to alternate semesters, so she did not matriculate with her second diploma until Spring 1933—in the middle of the Great Depression. There were few options for educated women when it came to work; teaching was a respectable professional, but underfunded schools often paid teachers in scrip rather than cash…and had strict expectations:

“There will be no drinking, smoking, dancing, Sunday picture shows, or playing bridge by any member of this faculty.” […]

“You should not plan to go home every weekend either,” Mr. Williams went on. “You will be expected to stay here where your work is and attend church here. I want to make it clear that there will be no drinking by any member of this faculty.” He cleared his throat. “Furthermore, we want to keep the children from smoking if we can. No smoking on the school grounds or in the buildings. If they see you smoke, they will want to smoke, too. And this applies to the lady faculty members; we more or less accept the fact that men smoke, even if we don’t quite approve of it, but lady faculty members are not to smoke anytime, anywhere.” […]

“It has come to my attention that some teachers play bridge so late at night they cannot do their work the next day. You are not to play bridge, not even in your rooms at your boarding places.”

One Who Walked Alone 36

Nevertheless, Novalyne Price began her career as an educator in January 1934 in a small town outside of Abilene, Texas…but the next year she took a position at Cross Plains, closer to Brownwood where her mother and grandmother kept a farm…and where, perhaps not coincidentally, Robert E. Howard lived.

Novalyne had been aware of Bob Howard through their mutual friends in Brownwood; she had dated Howard’s good friend Tevis Clyde Smith, and he had introduced the two in 1932. Like Robert E. Howard, she was interested in becoming a writer. Now that they were both in Cross Plains, the two renewed their acquaintance…and began what would be a tumultuous on-again, off-again romance. The two dated, argued, exchanged gifts, flirted, met each other’s families, went on long drives in the country, debated, criticized each other’s fiction, quarreled and made up and quarreled again…a story chronicled in her memoir One Who Walked Alone, later made into the motion picture The Whole Wide World.

For the 1934-1935 and 1935-1936 school years, Novalyne Price lived in a boarding house within easy walking distance of the Howard home. Despite this, the two carried on their relationship in part by correspondence. While Howard was on no set schedule, he occasionally made trips for days at a time out of town, and they would keep in touch by letter; so too, Novalyne Price had to work full-time, and unpaid overtime as she worked to coach some of the school’s extracurricular activities, which left little time during the week for visits so Bob would mail her notes and letters. Ten of these letters from Bob to Novalyne survive, reproduced in Price’s memoir and subsequently in collections of Howard’s letters.

The first letter was sent 27 September 1934:

Dear Novalyne,

How about going to the show in Brownwood Sunday afternoon? I’ll be over about 1:30 p.m. Let me know by return mail.

Your friend,

One Who Walked Alone 68

Teachers in Cross Plains were not supposed to go out to picture shows on Sundays. Nor was Robert E. Howard the normal sort of fellow to date: his profession as a writer set him apart in what was still predominantly a farming and tradesman’s community, a little crossroads town that had grown up overnight due to an oil boom and was still very conservative…and Bob Howard had developed a reputation as someone eccentric. Weird.

If I date Bob, some people will tease me. Others will think I’m crazy or peculiar. So what?

You pay a price for everything in this life. You have to decide for yourself whether the price is reasonable or too high. […]

I went to my room, sat down at the typewriter and wrote three lines to Bob to tell him I’d be glad to go to Brownwood to see a show and that one-thirty would be fine. I took the letter out of the typewriter, got up, and told Ethel I was going to the post office to mail it. She thought she ought to go with me, but I insisted on going alone.

Outside, the stars were dim and far away. A soft wind touched my face. I ran most of the way to the post office.

One Who Walked Alone 69-70

The impression from Novalyne’s memoir is that there were more such notes, because sometime around October 1934 she writes:

The only letter in my box was from Bob. I didn’t have time to read it, but I glanced at it and burst out laughing right there in the post office. He didn’t write “Dear Novalyne” as he usually did. Instead he began: “My Cherished Little Bunch of Onion Tops.”

The letter was nearly two pages, typed, single spaced, and I knew it was going to be mostly about the story I’d gotten back which he had taken home to read.

One Who Walked Alone 106

Novalyne’s early stories aren’t known to survive but appear to have been mostly realistic stories aimed at the confessional or romance pulps, dealing with subjects like a woman with an illegitimate child. With her busy schedule at school, grading papers, and with extracurricular projects, Novalyne had little time for writing or revising her fiction to meet editorial standards…yet she was eager to see what a professional could tell her to improve her writing.

First, he explained that men made a terrible mistake when they called their best girls thier rose or violet or names like that, because a man ought to call his girl something that was near his heart. What, he asked, was nearer a man’s heart than his stomach? Therefore he considered it to be an indication of his deep felt love and esteem to call me his cherished little bunch of onion tops, and, judging from past experience, both of us had the highest regard for onions.

The rest of the letter was about my story—”Vixens CLimb Trees.” He said that he’d gotten the best laugh he’d had in a long time, for he understood perfectly the girl’s discomfiture riding a rough, ornery cayuse like the one I had described in the story.

Something he really liked, he said, was the background for the story. It was just there.

One Who Walked Alone 106

Howard offered to write to his agent Otis Adelbert Kline to look at the story, which he apparently did as later on Price writes about receiving an answer from Kline. This was, though she may not have known it, more than a friendly gesture on his part: like many agents, Kline could demand reading fees for work. Presumably, he didn’t charge Novalyne Price as a favor to Howard, who was on his way to becoming a good client.

Writing was like eating onions; the more you did, the better you liked it. Some day, soon, he was sure I’d find an appreciative editor. But the secret, he said, was to write, write, write.

That was discouraging. How could I write and write? I am behind with my paper grading and Enid is on my back constantly. But working with individual students after school, then going back at night to rehearse plays, how could I write more and more. These diaries and journals, of which he is so skeptical, take about all the time I have to give. Here it is after twelve o’clock, and I’m tired. All I want to do is go to bed and forget everything.

One Who Walked Alone 107

There were several disconnects like that between Novalyne and Bob. He had already made the leap and committed himself to be a full-time writer, and could write twelve hours a day if he had to. His advice was no doubt honest, as it had been what he himself had done: learn by doing. Yet Novalyne had a career already and struggled with her schedule as it was. She couldn’t afford to write like Bob did.

Bob Howard did encourage her, and busy as she was he also doted on her in his own fashion. Presumably, during the week she was often too busy to go out for a drive, see a picture, or even have a fizz at the soda fountain; probably they couldn’t spend hours on the phone either. Yet there was always the post office.

The only bright spot in the whole week has been the cutre little notes or letters I’ve gotten from him every day. All of them ebgin with “My very dear little Bunch of Radishes,” or “My very dear Beans, Cornbread and Onions,” or “My dear Sausage and Big, Brown, Fluffy Bisquits [sic].” He’s still on the kick that a man ought to call his girl names that are close to his heart—his stomach.

In one letter, Bob talked about how much it was raining and that neither man nor animal could keep his feet dry. But all this proved, he said, that he’d walk through floods for me. Then, in the postscript, he said he’d be over Saturday afternoon if it didn’t rain. That was the letter in which he called me sliced red beets with butter over them. […]

I wrote Bob, and he wrote me another goofy note to tell me he’d be over tonight, and we’d ride around and he’d shoot his mouth off. I had told him in th eletter that I loved to walk in the rain, and he said maybe I’d just as soon walk.

One Who Walked Alone 110

His “goofy note” came in an unsealed envelope; Novalyne chided him on this, which led to a small argument:

He was emphatic. “I did not forget to seal that letter. I never forget to seal a letter. That’s the damndest thing I ever heard of. Those bastards in the post office opened that letter and read it.”

My nerves were on edge, but I managed not to sound too irritable. “Oh, Bob, you know better than that. It’s against the law to open a letter and read it.”

“What makes you think people in the Cross Plains post office know what the law says?” he raged.

I laughed without mirth. “Just be sure you seal the next letter you write me.”

One Who Walked Alone 110

And on in that vein. Bob was sensitive to slights, real and perceived; Novalyne was sensitive to appearances. Small misunderstandings have a way, in Novalyne’s memoirs, to turn into more serious and sometimes ongoing arguments. Of course, in this case after their date, Bob went home, wrote her a letter, posted it, and then spent the rest of the night writing. Novalyne got the letter the next day…in an unsealed envelope. It began:

Dear Novalyne and Members of the Cross Plains Post Office Staff

One Who Walked Alone 118

The next letter we have the actual text for is a short note, c. December 1934, which included a poem from a fan (“Echo of the Ebon Isles” by Emil Petaja), and two of Howard’s own poems, “To A Woman” and “One Who Comes At Eventide” which had been published in Modern American Poetry 1933.

Though fahtoms deep you sink me in the mould,
Locked in with thick-lapped lead and bolted wood,
Yet rest not easy in your lover’s arms;
Let him beware to stand where I have stood.

I shall not fail to burst my ebon case,
And thrust aside the clods with fingers red:
Your blood shall turn to ice to see my face
Look from the shadows on your midnight bed.

To face the dead, he, too, shall wake in vain,
My fingers at his throat, your scream his knell;
He will not see me tear you from your bed,
And drag you by your golden hair to Hell.

Robert E. Howard, “To A Woman” (1933)

Not perhaps the most romantic poem to share, but she had asked for it. Their relationship continued in that vein, and perhaps there were weeks when they wrote more than they saw each other because in March 1935 Bob had to take his mother to Temple, Tx. to receive medical treatment. Hester Howard’s illness, probably tuberculosis, was one of long duration and which allowed periods of outward good health; medical care was expensive, and Bob’s doting on a mother that Novalyne couldn’t see physically ailing was another point of misunderstanding.

Bob is coming home. I had a card from him, saying that his mother was getting better, and he was bringing her home. I wanted to write him a letter, telling him how my students did, but he probably will be home before the letter could get to him.

One Who Walked Alone 182

On the way home from a County Meet (22 March 1935) where her students performed, Novalyne Price collapsed and was taken to the hospital at Brownwood (30-31 March 1935). The nature of the illness is unclear; Novalyne’s memoir indicates she was eating little and sleeping little, and had gone down to eighty-five pounds, but never reveals what precisely the diagnosis was (One Who Walked Alone 187). Dr. Dougherty, who treated Novalyne, recommended as part of her treatment she leave Texas for a time—recommending graduate studies out-of-state, which suggestion Novalyne Price would eventually take him up on.

Once back in Cross Plains, Novalyne and Bob’s relationship continued with its ups and downs. As the 1934-1935 semester wound down, a stack of papers that included many of Bob’s letters to her was mistaken for trash and burned. The timing was almost symbolic; in a downturn in her relationship with Bob, Novalyne had begun to date his friend Truett Vinson, without telling Bob. The fact came out while Bob and Truett had driven out to New Mexico (19-24 June 1935); Bob had punctuated the trip with two postcards to Novalyne.

I wrote to Bob in Cross Plains a very short note, telling him that I had gotten his cards and enjoyed them, except for the snake swallowing the rabbit […] The note I wrote was friendly, nothing more nor less.

One Who Walked Alone 229
A common tourist postcard

This was followed by a longer letter from Bob, dated 4 July 1935, that seemed to hint that he knew Novalyne had been hanging out with Truett. She debated how or if to answer him.

I wasn’t quite sure how to answer the letter or even whether I should answer. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to write him and be very sweet and cut him as he had cut at Truett and me. It began to irritate me […] One other thought bothered me. No matter how irriated I became with Bob, I had enjoyed being with him, and I thought Cross Plains without him might be pretty dull.

Finally, I wrote him a short letter, and I tried to be as casual as I could possibly be. I even told him I was looking forward to seeing him again. His answer to that made me so mad I couldn’t see straight.

One Who Walked Alone 230

Robert E. Howard’s letter of 9 July 1935 to Novalyne Price while she was staying with her mother and grandmother in Brownwood is aggrieved: he sees himself as the butt of a cruel joke from two people he had seen as friends, but had concealed that they were going together from him for their own amusement. Novalyne, for her part, could not fathom this attitude: she had all but told him she was dating Truett. The “all but” is probably the heart of the break here, no doubt Bob was honestly hurt at the perceived betrayal, and Novalyne in not wanting to hurt him by telling him outright had worsened the miscommunication. Whatever the case, she did not take it well.

I had to read that letter twice to believe it. I was furious. […] My first impulse was to tear the letter up and go throw it in his face. I sat down at the typewriter and wrote him a letter, telling him to go to hel and take his mother with him! I told him that no other woman in the world but me would have put up with him, and that the only reason I did was because I could appreciate a person who had talent and a profession which he worked at hard enough to make the kind of success he had made. I told him I never wanted to see or speka to him again.

After I wrote it, I read it to Mother and Mammy. […]

“What do you think, Mother?” I asked.

“You’ve said it now,” she said quietly. “Tear it up.”

One Who Walked Alone 231-232

She did, eventually. Then, when she had calmed down a bit, Novalyne Price sat down to write Bob another letter, dated 12 July 1935. It begins:

Dear Bob,

Although you leave nothing for me to say, being a woman, I’ll say something anyway. You said that you didn’t care whom I went with. I know that, Bob. During the time that I went with you, I realized perfectly how you felt about women. Women chain a man down. You always wanted to be free and independent. Such an idea as being chained to a woman was obnoxious to you. Self-preservation was the first law which you recognize. Strange as it may seem, I, too, demand my freedom; self-preservation is also a law of my life. I’ll do anything which gives me pleasure and consider myself under no obligation to tell my friends my personal business.

One Who Walked Alone 233

There was more, about her relationship with Truett Vinson and Tevis Clyde Smith. For all their dates, Novalyne and Bob had never, apparently, defined their relationship. Though they obviously cared for one another, neither had been ready to commit to one another, at least not at the same time. Novalyne’s tone is still hurt, but perhaps not as angry as her first letter. She mailed it.

When I went to the mailbox this morning, I found an envelope with Bob’s name on it. I frowned. It really didn’t seem to me that my letter had had time to get to Cross Plains, yet here was a letter back from Bob, or else, I thought, as I walked slowly toward the house, this one had been written before he got mine. […]

Surprise! It was not a letter from Bob! It was my letter, the one I wrote last Friday! My letter was in the envelope; he had sent it back to me! There was not a single word or line from Bob…just my letter!

One Who Walked Alone 235

Readers today may argue whether or not Robert E. Howard and Novalyne Price were ever in love, but they certainly knew how to piss each other off. Because of Bob’s gesture, this is the only letter from Novalyne Price to Robert E. Howard that survives.

While they may have wounded each other with things said and left unsaid, this was not the end of Novalyne and Bob’s relationship. Her memoirs for the 1935-1936 school year at Cross Plains are less detailed; a bit of the bloom had come off the rose, and Bob Howard had made some long trips as he ferried his mother to hospitals and healthcare facilities in Marlin and San Angelo, Tx., and so he was sometimes away from Cross Plains for days or weeks at a time. But they had managed to forgive each other a little, if not forget. That was part of their dynamic. Novalyne doesn’t write much of their correspondence during this period, but in an entry dated 13 February 1936 she wrote:

“The way to interest a writer, I said to my roommate, “is to ask him about his writing. After you find out what he’s doing and selling, you ask him to help you with your writing.” […]

“So you’re going to ask him about his writing?” she laughed.

“The letter is written and mailed. I asked him where and how much he was selling these days. Then I asked if he had any suggestions about markets I might sell to.”

He answered so promptly Mary Beth put her hand to her mouth and began munching away—to show me I had him eating out of my hand.

One Who Walked Alone 261-262

Bob replied in a good-sized letter dated 14 February 1936; noting the date he added near the end:

This being Valentine Day, I suppose I should make the conventional request for you to go and join the army. That may sound a bit wobbly, but look: Valentine comes from the same word from which “gallant” is derived; a gallant may be a suitor, but is also a cavalier; a cavalier is a knight; a knight is a cavalryman; a cavalryman is a soldier. To ask one to be one’s Valentine is equivalent to asking him, or her, to be a soldier. And one can’t be a soldier without joining the army. So, a request to become a Valentine is approximately a demand to go and join the army.

One Who Walked Alone 264

Yet beneath the surface, all the same issues that had driven them apart before remained. Hester Howard’s health continued to decline, Novalyne continued to harp on Bob about his appearance—she made a particular point of impugning his mustache—and there were other little misunderstandings that often cropped up into disagreements. For all their mutual admiration, Novalyne had no understanding of the seriousness of Hester’s illness or how her decline weighed on Bob; nor did Bob seem to understand why when he was feeling so blue she would pick on him about his mustache of all things.

In late February Bob once again took his mother to Marlin, Tx. for further medical treatment. It meant standing up Novalyne for a date…and he wrote her a letter to apologize for it and explain why, but quickly broke down into a torrent of words over their last date (“My God, arguing over a mustache when my whole life is crumbling to powder under my hands!”), until at the end he summed up with “[…] all I ever wanted was to be allowed to enjoy your company, and I always did, when you gave me any kind of chance. Your friend, Bob” (One Who Walked Alone 274).

I read the letter twice. Then I went into the bathroom, sat down and cried with anger and frustration. He did a beautiful job of blaming me for being foolish and mean when his life was breaking up around him! I admit I handled the situation badly! Should I write to tell him I loved Truett and that it nauseated me to death to hear him say about his mother: “I changed her gown and bed three times last night.” I think that’s his dad’s job. Not Bob’s.

One Who Walked Alone 274

At this point, it’s worth recalling that we really have only Novalyne’s memoir to describe her relationship with Robert E. Howard. Bob wrote almost nothing about his relationship with her: why would he mention such things to H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, or Clark Ashton Smith? They were peers at Weird Tales, but not intimates of that sort. Many of the incidental details of Novalyne’s memoir can be verified in other details of Howard’s letters, like the fact that in January 1936 Hester Howard suffered from terrible night sweats that required changing her gown and bedding.

Novalyne’s honesty in her memoir is presenting it “warts and all”—she does not come across as the sympathetic party, being honest about her own mistakes and feelings at the time, including her lack of understanding and empathy for what the Howards were going through.

The day after he mailed that letter ot me from Marlin, he wrote me a card, a fairly cheerful card, saying his mother seemed to be doing well, and he, too, was feeling better. I didn’t answer. I wasn’t ready to say anything else to him. I had already written him a letter, trying to excuse myself for the silly things I’d said. In some ways I chickened out and said I was unhappy.

One Who Walked Alone 275

Bob’s reply is dated 5 March. A certain strain of fatalism runs through it, beginning with the first paragraph:

Dear Novalyne;

I just not read the letter you wrote me Monday, February 24th. None of my mail has been forward to me at Marlin and this letter was with the rest I got out of the post office this morning. I’m sorry I didn’t get it before I left. If I had, I wouldn’t have written you in what must have seemed like such a bitter strain, though I did not mean it that way. I can’t blame you for not answering the card I wrote you from Marlin. It’s hard, in the last analysis, to blame anyone for anything. We are all caught in a mesh of circumstances we cannot break.

One Who Walked Alone 276

The Cross Plains school year ended 22 May 1936; these were their last days together, as Novalyne had already applied for and been accepted at Louisiana State University for graduate school over the summer, though she would be back in Cross Plains for the 1936-1937 school year. In packing her things to leave, she returned one of the books Bob had given her as a gift…and he wrote what turned out to be his final letter to her, dated 27 May 1936:

Dear Novalyne,

You needn’t have bothered about returning the book. I intended for you to keep it, if you wanted it. I hope you enjoy your vacation, and that you’ll find Louisiana all you hope it to be. I’m sure the courses of study you’re taking will be interesting and helpful. With the best wishes for your health, prosperity and success, I am, as I always was,

Your Friend,

One Who Walked Alone 297

Two weeks before this, Howard had written to H. P. Lovecraft that he had “renewed an old love affair and broken it off again” (A Means to Freedom 2.953). On receiving the letter, Novalyne Price wrote:

Tomorrow, I promised myself, when I finish packing for LSU, I’ll write Bob a friendly letter—one that will make things all right between us again.

One Who Walked Alone 297

She never wrote that letter. Robert E. Howard would commit suicide on 11 July 1936, while Novalyne Price was at Louisiana State University; she would not return to Cross Plains until time for the 1936-1937 school term.

The correspondence of Novalyne Price and Robert E. Howard shows us how limited our understanding of relationships can be, not just because we have only an incomplete correspondence—ten letters and postcards from Bob to Novalyne, and one letter from Novalyne to Bob—but because so much of their relationship existed outside of that correspondence. While Robert E. Howard only ever interacted with C. L. Moore and H. P. Lovecraft through the mail, Novalyne and Bob would have interacted mostly face-to-face, talking, laughing, arguing, kissing, and enjoying a quiet moonrise as the case may be. For them, the letters were a buttress to their relationship, mostly during times when they couldn’t enjoy such facetime because of Novalyne’s busy schedule or because they were separated by distance (Novalyne going home to Brownwood during the school breaks, Bob’s trips around Texas and into New Mexico and Mexico).

We don’t have Robert E. Howard’s perspective on the relationship, but in comparison to his letters to friends and peers, his letters to Novalyne seem more intimate and unguarded; it was not unusual for Howard to shift his tone to display humor or pathos and self-recrimination, but the letters to Novalyne do seem to have a quality of pouring his heart out, at least as much as he can. Novalyne’s sole letter, and description of her other letters, show both honesty and her fierce independence. It was not a relationship where either Novalyne or Bob was solely at fault, both had flaws that prevented them from coming together…and punctuated, at last, with a single unanswerable letter.

It’s a feeling that I think everybody who knows a friend or family member who commits suicide feels. The feeling of guilt has this to do with it—you say, “If I hadn’t said thus-and-so, if I’d been more sympathetic, if I hadn’t sent that book back to Bob, if I’d gone by that morning, if I’d answered his letter”—all these things that you say. It doesn’t matter that maybe your reasoning mind can tell you “Oh, well, this would not have done it”—you still think it.

Novalyne Price Ellis, Day of the Stranger: Furhter Memories of Robert E. Howard 20

For more information on Novalyne Price Ellis and her relationship with Robert E. Howard, please see:

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

Editor Spotlight: Interview with Oliver Brackenbury of New Edge Sword and Sorcery Magazine

New Edge Sword & Sorcery is an upcoming magazine which hopes to showcase not just the sword & sorcery fiction of yesteryear, but what sword & sorcery can be. Editor Oliver Brackenbury has been kind enough to answer a few questions for us about what New Edge is, the new magazine, and their approach to editing. One note before we begin:

Oliver Brackenbury: Up front I want to stress that when I’m discussing my attitudes and methods in this interview, discussing them is all I’m doing. I’ve been reminded lately how easily this can come off as a critique of others, or my suggesting there is only one correct attitude and approach. If people take something valuable from what I say, great, but I’m not being prescriptive here.

What is the one-sentence pitch for New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine?

OB: New Edge Sword & Sorcery magazine will feature brand new sword & sorcery short stories as well as intriguing non-fiction related to the genre’s past, present, and future!”

If I can be cheeky and slip in a second sentence, this is our definition of the idea of New Edge Sword & Sorcery, which informs everything done within the magazine:

“New Edge Sword & Sorcery takes the genre’s virtues of its outsider protagonists, thrilling energy, wondrous weirdness, and a large body of classic tales, then alloys inclusivity, mutual creator support, a positive fan community, and enthusiastic promotion of new works into the mix.”

What are your favorite classic Sword & Sorcery stories and why?

OB: Ah, that’s a tough one! I’ll limit myself to three tales, with the caveat that on any given day I might slot one out and slot another in.

Going back to the big man himself, “People of the Black Circle” is my favorite Conan tale.While I suspect Howard had stage plays in mind, if any other storytelling medium, this is hands down the most cinematic of his tales—that pacing!—and as a screenwriter I appreciate that. Nobody in the story is without compelling motivation or some kind of arc, not even Conan’s “mad Afghulis” who lack individual names but are given great purpose and entertaining turns as their loyalty to Conan understandably wavers. The way Conan and Devi Yasmina part on terms of mutual respect, admiration, and competition is a moment I am absolutely chasing in my own writing, I enjoy it so much, and the strong thematic backbone to the tale, the classic “personal desire vs responsibility to others”, is explored with great skill.

C.L. Moore’s “Black God’s Kiss” deserves its excellent reputation, and it deserves to be more broadly known. Moore’s dreamland of an underworld is gripping, as is the emotional throughline of Jirel’s seeking revenge for that forced “kiss”, and the imagery—oh that imagery! The Ace Fantasy edition’s cover, by Stephen Hickman, with the blind horses galloping, fleeing, flowing around Jirel is the only one for me.

My third choice is “Ring of Black Stone” by Pat McIntosh—and really all five Thula tales in total. Bloody shame they haven’t been collected yet, you can only read them one at a time across the first five of Carter’s The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories anthologies. McIntosh’s war-maid protagonist, Thula, reminds me a little of Russ’s Alyx the pick-lock, both seemingly straightforward characters who reveal intriguing depths while inferring even greater ones, with seemingly simple motivations which you often realize are different than what they’re telling everyone, and who show a great deal more evolution in a few short tales than some S&S protagonists do in their whole careers, yet are still sufficiently recognizable as the person you started with—maybe she hasn’t really changed at all, maybe you’ve just gotten to know Thula better! I find myself thinking back on these stories often, Ring in particular for its touching tale about finding new family through tragedy, and the riot of feelings that entails.

Finally, I’ll give an honorable mention for Leiber’s “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” whose climax got the biggest laugh out of me S&S has managed so far.

In your guest post on Scott Oden’s blog discussing New Edge as a mode or evolution of Sword & Sorcery fiction, you emphasize “inclusivity.” What does that mean in the context of the stories and writers you’re looking to publish?

OB: What inclusivity means to me is making sure that people outside my own demographic—white, cishet, neurotypical, able-bodied males, or just “white guys” as, for the sake of brevity, I’ll use going forward—can see themselves in both the stories and the authors creating them, ideally making them feel welcome within the community. This is key for expanding the audience of our beloved fantasy sub-genre, as well as its pool of authors.

I’ve gained firsthand experience with this in my six years volunteering with a group dedicated to promoting the western Hemisphere’s largest publicly accessible speculative fiction genre archive—The Merril Collection. Through no malice of anyone involved, in the time I’ve been with them, our group has been made up almost or entirely of white people. Our selling old paperbacks to help raise funds would often combine with 20th century publishing trends to create the scene of a couple of white people sitting behind event tables coated in covers featuring white characters written by white authors, trying to encourage the full breadth of humanity to spend a few dollars in support of the collection, while hearing our pitch for it.

All that sameness was a significant obstacle to achieving our goals, as more than one non-white individual made clear when—quite reasonably—saying “I only see white faces here.” or “I don’t see myself in what you are doing.”

Even coming back to myself, I don’t hate my fellow white guys any more than I hate IPAs, but I get frustrated when the vast majority of shelf space is filled with the same thing, whether it’s beer or writerly perspectives. All of this has informed the approach I’m taking with the stories and authors I’m looking to publish.

Would you characterize New Edge as a reaction to the real or perceived lack of diversity in Sword & Sorcery fiction written by Robert E. Howard and others?

OB: In part, absolutely yes. Keeping in mind I can only speak for myself and the magazine I run, not the nascent “movement” which roared to life back in the spring of this year, I would say that is a significant part of the appeal, as well as its reason for being.

This does not mean burning down all that came before. Again, I’ve been a volunteer promoting a speculative fiction archive for six years! “We still study the art of Ancient Greece, yet we have ceased to wipe our behinds with small stones,” is my glib way of stating how I feel about studying the art that came before us, for all the old or objectionable attitudes which it may contain.

But whether looking through the canon or glancing around at the contemporary fan & creator community, I mostly see faces like my own. I think changing this not through exclusion, but through greater inclusion, is vital to increasing the popularity & longevity of sword & sorcery.

What do you think of Howard’s women warriors in his Sword & Sorcery tales such as Valeria of the Red Brotherhood (“Red Nails”) and Bêlit (“The Queen of the Black Coast”)?

OB: Dig’em both, including the stories. Like many others—judging by the number of additional adventures she’s had in various comics over the decades—I wish Bêlit had gotten to do more before dying in service of Conan’s story. I feel similarly with Valeria, an overall badass character who didn’t die but did end up chained to an altar so Conan could rescue her. It’s little surprise others have gone on to write more stories with her as well.

Clearly Howard succeeded in creating highly compelling women warrior characters, and I’ve enjoyed all the tales containing them. However, understandably for the period, they are often crafted as a kind of novelty—it’s right there in the title of “Sword Woman”—and one of the ways we can build on what Howard accomplished is by creating proactive, highly capable female characters for whom their gender is not a defining feature, or—as in the case with the 1970’s version of Red Sonja—requiring some kind of supernatural explanation for their skill & toughness. I think this is pretty much the norm these days, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

You specifically mention “Carbon Copy Conans”—do you think that it was authors who followed Howard in creating new Conan stories perpetuated some of the stereotypes of race, sex, and gender in Sword & Sorcery?

OB: Not all of them, but going by what I’ve seen of them so far, yeah, absolutely. Whether authoring direct Conan pastiche or writing a Conan-by-another-name, some of those works are very much surface reproductions of what Howard did, focusing on whatever the author was attracted to—and I think some of those second wave S&S guys writing this stuff in the 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s were attracted to the old fashioned attitudes of the 30’s.

This treatment also served to perpetuate the idea that there were no deeper notions behind Howard’s work. Not as damaging as focusing on and magnifying bigoted attitudes, but also a shame.

Much of Sword & Sorcery takes place within a quasi-medieval European setting; do you think that is essential to what makes Sword & Sorcery distinct from, say, Sword & Planet or historical fantasy fiction?

OB: Thanks to there being some pretty consistent storytelling conventions within sword & sorcery, excellently laid out by Brian Murphy in his book Flame & Crimson: A History of Sword & Sorcery, I feel safe saying that a quasi-medieval European setting isn’t strictly necessary. Certainly the “European” part isn’t mandatory, as authors like Saunders and Dariel Quiogue have demonstrated with great skill.

In terms of the era, I think once you’re past the point of flintlock showing up you’ve kind of hit your limits—it’s hardly sword & sorcery if nobody uses swords anymore. That said, part of my great love of the genre is that it can be oh so many things, and still be clearly recognizable as sword & sorcery. We may enjoy sub-sub-headings like Sword & Planet, Sword & Soul, Sword & Silk…but it’s all part of one big happy family, to me.

You mentioned Dungeons & Dragons as well. How does tabletop roleplaying gaming (TTRPG) influence New Edge?

OB: Well I do love me some TTRPG action, in particular Dungeon Crawl Classics and the Call of Cthulhu spin-off setting, Delta Green. That said, RPGs don’t influence NESS a whole lot beyond my having aggressively dug through Gygax’s increasingly well-known Appendix N Reading List, and finding myself mostly preferring the less highly codified fantasy which came before D&D blew up in the early 80’s.

It seems since then that while variations often occur, at the end of the day most fantasy authors—certainly those rooting their work in Western myth & folklore—like to play with the same demihuman races and creatures you’ll find in one monster manual or another. Outside of a game with its need for rules & definitions, why would you ever standardize the fantastic? It feels counter-intuitive to me, thus my love of the far less predictable, weird and wonderful fantastic elements you’ll find in sword & sorcery, past and present.

It’s fair to say this attitude influences my developmental editing when working with authors writing for the magazine, and will continue to do so moving forward. If there’s a classic fantasy creature in a story I publish, it’s likely because the author made an incredible case for it in their story, and/or it works because of how it deviates from what the creature’s name makes you expect. So yeah, I’d say that’s the main influence of D&D on the magazine thus far.

The field has changed a good deal from the Sword & Sorcery boom of the 1980s and 1990s. If Karl Wagner was alive and sent you a Kane story, or Jessica Amanda Salmonson sent you a Tomoe Gozen or Amazon story, would those have a place in New Edge?

OB: I confess I’ve not read Salmonson’s Gozen or Amazon tales yet, though they are high on my TBR list. That said, I imagine I’d review them the same as I have, say, Bryn Hammond’s tale in NESS #0 and decide accordingly. I gather Salmonson was something of a scholar on medieval Japan but, as I say, I need to read more by and regarding her.

Luckily I have read all the Kane novels and several of the stories. While I can see my own personal taste causing me to request any explicit descriptions of sexual violence be minimized,  I’d still potentially publish a story like “Cold Light,” where such violence illustrates character, while—as I recall—not being designed to titilate. Maybe I’d put a content warning on the first page, I confess I’m still deciding where I sit on such things.

But yes, despicable, villainous characters such as Kane absolutely have a home in New Edge Sword & Sorcery. Including challenging topics doesn’t equal endorsing them, and one of the purposes of literature is to explore difficult themes & ideas. As ever, skill and thoughtfulness make all the difference.

Women have written Sword & Sorcery too, from C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry to Joanna Russ’ Alyx; how do these authors and their creations fit into your conception of New Edge?

OB: My opinion is that they are to be enthusiastically studied and promoted. I shan’t be ignoring the men of the genre’s history, however I can’t see myself rushing to publish profiles on the most frequently discussed fellas, like Howard or Leiber. Cora Buhlert is contributing a great profile of C.L. Moore to issue #0, which I hope will serve as a useful introduction to both the author and her most well-known creation. Joanna Russ, Pat McIntosh, and Jessica Amanda Salmonson are on my wish list for future profiles, as well as editors like Cele Goldsmith Lalli, who saved Fafhrd and Gray Mouser from oblivion, discovered Roger Zelazny, and published S&S when no one else did.

Another evolution of Sword & Sorcery that is aimed at greater diversity is Sword & Soul, as exemplified by Charles Saunders’ Imaro and Milton Davis’ Griots stories. How does New Edge relate to Sword & Soul? 

OB: It actively celebrates and promotes it! Issue #0 features a sword & soul tale by J.M. Clarke, I’ve already reached out to Milton Davis about his writing an author profile on Charles Saunders for a future issue, and have been in touch with a second sword & soul author about contributing a story to either issue #1 or 2, should our crowdfunding campaign for more issues succeed.

This also brings me to an important point, since sword & soul clearly predates New Edge S&S—whether the idea or the magazine of the same name, New Edge Swordy & Sorcery isn’t claiming to have invented the idea of diversity/equity/inclusion in S&S. What it does is add to diversity, equity, & inclusion in S&S, purposefully and with great vigor, while providing a rallying banner the various scattered parties already engaged in this work can choose to unite behind.

“What about [this person] who’s already doing [this thing related to more diverse S&S]?” I’ve heard one or two people say, and my response is always “They’re great, I dig what they’ve been doing, and maybe we’ll work together one day.” It’s not a zero sum game, or any other kind of competition, it’s a collective endeavor.

Many speculative fiction magazines in the past have had an issue with lack of diversity among the authors; it wasn’t unusual even well into the 90s for every author to be white, male, and heterosexual, and the contents of those magazines tended to reflect that. How do you as an editor plan to ensure the diversity of your magazine?

OB: Hell, you still see it today, now and then, or perhaps you see a ToC that’s all white guys but for one or two white women tacked on. Let’s be wary of thinking these issues are done and dusted.

My current plan to ensure diversity in the magazine is by being intentional about the authors whose work I solicit. I’m not doing subs, yet, and I suppose when I get there I’ll have to think about how to handle that. For now I’m limiting the number of white guys I publish in any given issue to one or two, out of six authors total.

Why the limit? Why not just focus on good stories?

Because if you are trying to effect positive change to the current status quo of homogeneity, as I am, then simply focusing on good stories isn’t enough. It ain’t shabby, there are far worse approaches, but it won’t do the trick.

This is because even if you request submissions without names on them, you are only being mindful of things on your end. The world in which your magazine exists, from which those stories are submitted, is not a meritocracy. It is a wildly uneven place where issues of race, gender, class, etc all affect who can even get to a place where they can tell good stories, and who feel welcome participating in any given literary scene. 

The latter is not necessarily because you personally have done anything to make them feel unwelcome, but because the scene as a whole looks extremely white guy-centric and doesn’t seem to be putting off enough signals like “Hey, come on over, you’re welcome here”.  Therefore, regardless of how pure your motives, as an editor you will likely, unintentionally replicate the demographic homogeneity of the scene in your ToC if you aren’t at least somewhat intentional about trying to compensate for this wildly uneven world we all live in, by making a point of spreading around the love, so to speak.

So diversity is a substitute for good stories then?

No. Good stories are assumed. If you’re in the magazine, it’s because I thought you told a good story. This can be a master of their craft, or it can be an emerging talent with promise that I want to support through publication/promotion/payment, but either way nothing has been substituted for a good story. Inclusion is a parallel concern of mine. Beware false choices, folks!

Along similar lines, I’m choosing to have a very clear, concise inclusion statement in the magazine. If the magazine is a restaurant then the inclusion statement isn’t the big neon sign on the roof that says “Burgers!” that brings you in off the highway, that’s the original fiction, non-fiction, and art. The inclusion statement is the wee sticker in the window, near the door, letting you know the appropriate government agency has made sure there isn’t any vermin in the kitchen.

Clearly stating “NOT WELCOME: People who think some humans are less than human because of what kind of human they are,” you know, no hate and no harassment please, has value. This is because for people other than white guys, the risks of entering or participating in the wrong fan community are higher, whether it’s tripping over posts laden with racial slurs & dog whistles, or being harassed for being a woman, and so on. 

Unambiguously letting people know that sort of thing isn’t welcome—and demonstrating as such through your actions—helps expand the pool of people who’ll submit to the magazine, read the magazine, engage with our social media community, and participate in the sword & sorcery scene in general.

One of the criticisms of Sword & Sorcery fiction is cultural appropriation and the misuse and misrepresentation of BIPOC by white authors. Is New Edge Sword & Sorcery Magazine looking for sensitivity readers to guard against that, or how do you plan to handle such issues if they come up?

OB: In regards to appropriation, the first thing I like to do is look at the author’s knowledge base. For example, Bryn Hammond will have a story in issue #0 that is in part based on historical / medieval Tangut culture specifically, and edge-of-steppe/steppe culture in general. Bryn is a white Australian woman, by no means of these cultures.

However she is an accomplished scholar of the steppe, published and well-reviewed, who has written a few blog posts about racism towards steppe cultures in SF and other popular media, as well as in popular and academic history books, and someone I know well enough to feel comfortable judging a considerate, thoughtful person. As I reviewed her story I saw only a deep respect and love for her real life historical inspiration, nary a whiff of “Look at this weird shit! How exotic.” And thus, I not only feel comfortable publishing her tale, I’m excited to see what people think of it.

I can see sensitivity readers being a tool I turn to, however indie publishing isn’t known for being highly lucrative, so I’ll have to see what I can accomplish within budgetary limits.

If, despite my best efforts, readers bring up issues of appropriation, then my plan is simple – I will listen, perhaps cross-reference with others more knowledgeable than myself, and adjust my methods for future issues accordingly.

Charles Saunders in his essay “Die Black Dog! A Look At Racism In Fantasy Literature” emphasized his dislike of tokenism in fantasy (“Who needs black hobbits?”)—do you agree with that?

OB: Well, as young Saunders said in that section of the essay “…it is better to be ignored than maligned.” , and I can also see why in 2011, looking back, Saunders said “…I was, perhaps simply venting my anger and frustration…”, though certainly young Saunders had plenty to be angry about, for good reason.

But yes, “maligned”. Tokenism is to malign others through the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort at inclusion. So to me it sounds more like Saunders was wary of having white writers include black characters because when they did, they were racist caricatures, and he’d rather they just be left out altogether. Fair!

Do I agree? As a white guy, I don’t think it’s really up for me to agree or disagree as it doesn’t affect me much, if at all. In terms of the magazine, certainly I will be doing my best to avoid tokenism in the stories I publish.

You’re working on a New Edge novel yourself. How do you as a writer work to put your ideas on inclusivity into practice?

OB: Being mindful as I can (ex. “Am I describing all the female characters in this chapter by how attractive they are?”), doing research, and, when it feels necessary, reaching out. “Necessary” being kind of a gut feeling based on how far I’m wandering from portraying someone like myself or a secondary world culture rooted in Western European history. 

For example, there’s an important character present for a good chunk of the novel that is bigender. There’s a great deal more to who they are, and making sure characters are never just “The [X] character” is another thing I’m doing, but that’s the relevant aspect for what we’re talking about here.

I’ve never felt any doubts about my gender identity, nor have I ever felt it fluctuate or like it’s on a gradient, so this was going far off from where I stand, demographically. I figured I should do more than read the Wikipedia article, you know?

So I decided to reach out to an online community, over at r/bigender, by explaining who I am, what I’m doing, the context of the character, and so forth, while also making it clear I was interested in hearing from as many people as were comfortable answering my questions. It was an immensely useful experience, both for my writing the character and just for better understanding my fellow humans.

I offered a little compensation for bigender members of the forum who provided me with useful advice, and was touched that none of the advice-givers felt that was necessary. Still, I’m glad I offered, as I strongly believe authors need to be mindful when asking for what amounts to unpaid research labour, especially when it relates to something as personal as identity.

Down the road I may seek a bigender sensitivity reader for the stories featuring that character. We’ll have to see what I can do within the limits of budget and opportunity. In terms of beta readers in general I’ll also try to make sure they aren’t all white guys, since that will help potentially catch issues that I’d not even think to look for.

Which brings me to an always salient point—doing this kind of stuff isn’t just about being thoughtful regarding the experience of your potential readers, it makes your work better.

As an editor, you must have a pretty decent grasp of the field. What writers would you recommend for readers who want to read new Sword & Sorcery fiction, and why?

OB: I always make people nervous when I ask for reading recommendations during my interviews hosting Unknown Worlds of the Merril Collection…and now I’m finally put in the hotseat! With the caveat that of course I can’t list everyone here who I’d like to, I’d recommend…

  • The Red Man and Others by Angeline B. Adams and Remco Van Straten
    I read this book, then bought two extra copies to give to friends. Early in my path through the genre, this book made me feel hope that sword & sorcery has a future beyond rehashes of its past, that it can expand and grow while still being recognizable. For more detail, here’s my Goodreads’ review.
  • Swords of the Four Winds: Tales of Swords and Sorcery in an Ancient East That Never Was by Dariel Quiogue
    Dariel has his own voice, no doubt, however it’s plain to me that he has truly studied the works of Robert E. Howard and REH’s great influence, Howard Lamb, before applying what he learned to his own tales. Outside of being centered on Asian characters, rooted in the history of Asian cultures, while being written by an Asian author, these tales are traditional sword & sorcery in the best possible sense—bold, fast-paced, and gilded with stunning surprises.
  • The Return of the Sorceress by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
    A novella-length tale pulling the unusual-for-S&S move of featuring a sorcerer protagonist, The Return accomplishes many things beyond the baseline of telling a compelling tale—including putting you in the head of the titular sorceress while walking the tightrope between telling enough of how magic works to follow her concerns & goals without going against the genre by demystifying the fantastic with a highly codified magic system.

Full disclosure, I’ve had the good fortune to interview the authors of the first and second books, and would love to interview the third, however that would not be sufficient cause for me to recommend their works. The stories do have to be good, ya know!

Last but not least, can you tell us about where readers can read New Edge Sword & Sorcery and what they can expect? 

OB: Issue #0 of New Edge Sword & Sorcery is due out for some point in September 2022. “Some point” because I’d rather get it right than rush for a Sept 1st launch date. At www.newedgeswordandsorcery.com you can learn more, as well as sign up for our mailing list that will alert members to the release of new issues, and crowdfunding campaigns to fund future issues. That’s all, it’s very low impact on your inbox.

Issue #0 will feature an original painted cover by Gilead, and each of our all-new stories will feature original B&W illustrations, to say nothing of the reprinted pieces kindly lent to us by their artists to enhance our non-fiction essays, book review, and long-form interview.

The magazine will be available in ePub, softcover, and hardcover via Amazon POD. Exclusive to issue #0, the ePub will be free, while the physical copies will be sold quite cheaply, exactly at the cost of production. This first issue is a passion project for all participants, who hope for it to take off like a rocket, that we might crowdfund issues #1&2. From those issues onward I will be paying people, and paying them as much as I can since the stretch goals for the campaign will be almost exclusively pay bumps for writers and artists.

And hey, if I’m being as thoughtful and intentional about inclusion in the magazine, then imagine how carefully I’m considering all the other aspects! The stories, art, and articles will be high quality, and shall only improve if we get to successfully crowdfund further issues.

Thank you Oliver for answering all of these questions, and best of luck to New Edge Sword & Sorcery!

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

El Puritano (2021) by El Torres, Jaime Infante, & Manoli Martínez

¿Dónde está Bess?
El Puritano (2021)

“Where is Bess?” said Solomon Kane.
“Woe that I caused her tears.”
“In the quiet churchyard by the sea
she has slept these seven years.”
The sea-wind moaned at the window-pane,
and Solomon bowed his head.
“Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,
and the fairest fade,” he said.
—Robert E. Howard, “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming” (1936)

For any other pulp writer, Solomon Kane would be a breakout character. Robert E. Howard’s original pulp stories, even the unpublished drafts, fragments, and synopses, have been collected, published, translated into other languages, and recorded as audiobooks. Kane has been adapted to comics by at least Marvel, Blackthorne, Dark Horse, Diabolo Ediciones, and now Karras Comics. In 2009 a feature film titled Solomon Kane was released; no less an author than Ramsey Campbell handled the novelization, and Campbell had also previously completed some of Howard’s Solomon Kane fragments. There is a Solomon Kane roleplaying game, a Solomon Kane board game, toys and action figures, and bootleg t-shirts. Solomon Kane has even been borrowed into the work of other authors, like Paul Di Filippo’s “Observable Things.”

Few pulp characters can claim as much success in publication, commercialization, and longevity. Yet Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane has since the 1930s dwelled in the shadow of Conan the Cimmerian. While Solomon Kane was Howard’s first successful series character, Conan was easily his most popular, and the tales and poems of the Puritan swordsman are often discovered by readers after they have already been hooked by Conan.

El Puritano (“The Puritan,” 2021, Karras Comics) is an original graphic novel based on Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane, who has fallen into the public domain in Europe. The creators of this graphic novel are El Torres (script), Jaime Infante (pen & inks), & Manoli Martínez (colorist); the logo was designed by Ferran Delgado. While it is a standalone graphic novel in that the story is self-contained, the framing narrative makes this a kind of “second chapter” to Sangre Bárbara (2021) by El Torres, Joe Bocardo, & Manoli MartínezEl Puritano begins where Sangre Bárbara ends, with the former slave Mary Bohannon telling tales to a young Robert E. Howard, so while each stands on its own, taken together there is an episodic narrative…or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Robert E. Howard’s own story, the narrative and mythology of his life, have been closely entwined with his characters so that he becomes the common bridging element between them.

Solomon Kane did not attract as much fan interest as Conan in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, so there were fewer efforts to define a canonical chronology of his adventures—and indeed, Howard made no particular effort to set down a timeline; certain adventures clearly take place after others, because they refer to earlier events or Kane had acquired his strange cat-headed staff, but trying to fix real-world dates gets problematic. We never see Solomon Kane’s parents or home, we never get a fix for when he was born or how old he is; Kane steps onto the page, fully formed, and leaves the same way after completing his mission.

In El Puritano, El Torres and Jaime Infante have placed a much older but still spry Solomon Kane in the English colonies of North America. Various influences are at play here, some more obvious than others: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1956); Twins of Evil (1971), starring Peter Cushing as a witch-hunter; and The VVitch (2015) by director Robert Eggers all play their part in the mix, with little nods and homages to the various creators, actors, and storylines at play. Solomon Kane, the self-declared Puritan, is present in a colony of fellow believers, and yet he is apart from them. As it may be, since Howard noted:

All his life he had roamed about the world aiding the weak and fighting oppression, he neither knew nor questioned why. That was his obsession, his driving force of life. Cruelty and tyranny to the weak sent a red blaze of fury, fierce and lasting, through his soul. When the full flame of his hatred was wakened and loosed, there was no rest for him until his vengeance had been fulfilled to the uttermost. If he thought of it at all, he considered himself a fulfiller of God’s judgment, a vessel of wrath to be emptied upon the souls of the unrighteous. Yet in the full sense of the word Solomon Kane was not wholly a Puritan, though he thought of himself as such.
—Robert E. Howard, “Red Shadows”

The story that unfolds is a love letter to the character, with many references to past adventures without dwelling on them. Kane is faced once again with supernatural evil, and the need to defend an innocent young woman whose only crime may have been to love a witch. But Kane is also faced with his own conscience and past deeds—and how his own people, with all their superstition and ignorant faith, judge him and others. N’longa makes a surprising but very appropriate appearance, this time inhabiting the flesh of a Wampanoag woman, a kind of transgender experience that is at once novel and yet very fitting for the character.

Jaime Infante’s subdued, realistic artwork greatly compliments the script, and Manoli Martínez does some really notable work as a colorist, shifting the palette of the scenes to depict flashbacks, astral visitations, somber daylight, and vicious battle.

The story ends, not with Mary Bohannon talking to a young Robert E. Howard, but with Bob himself in his room, standing before the typewriter. The house still stands in Cross Plains, TX, now a museum with Bob’s room restored. You can see a Tour of the Robert E. Howard Home by Ben Friberg online, if you can’t get out there in person, and see it just as Infante tried to capture it on the page. Bob needs to write a story, and begins to type the opening words of “Red Shadows”…so it is both an ending and a beginning; what might be the last tale of Solomon Kane loops around as Howard records his legend. It begins and ends with Robert E. Howard.

El Puritano can be purchased from Karras Comics; they are working on other new works based on Robert E. Howard’s stories and characters as well.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sangre Bárbara (2021) by El Torres, Joe Bocardo, & Manoli Martínez

“Sabed, oh Principe…

“…que entre los años en que los océanos enguilleron Atlantis y sus resplandecientes ciudades, y el surgir de los hijoes de Aryas…

“…hubo una edad no soñada.”

Brillantes reinos se esparacían por el mundo como mantos azules bao las estrellas.

“Nemedia, Ofir, Brithunia, Hiperbórea…”

“Zamora, con sus mujeres de oscuros cabellos y sus torres plagadas de arácnidos misterios…”

“Zingara y su gallardía, Koth, que lindaba con las tierras de pastoreo de Shem.

“Estigia, con sus tumbas custodiadas por sombras.

“E Hirkania, cuyos jinetes vestían de acero, seda y oro.

“Pero el reino más orgulloso del mundo era Aquilonia, que reinaba suprema en el oeste.

“Ya hacía años que allí regia el poderoso Rey Conan, el cimmerio, aquel que fue guerrero, ladrón, pirata y saqueador antes que gran monarca.

“Y llegó el tiempo en que una sombra se agitó en las junglas Pictas que dormitaban al oesta de Aquilonia.”
“Know, oh Prince…

“…that between the years when the oceans engulfed Atlantis and her resplendent cities, and the rise of the sons of Aryas…

“There was an age undreamed of.”

Brilliant kingdoms spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars.

“Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea…”

“Zamora, with its dark-haired women and its towers plagued by arachnid mysteries…”

“Zingara and her chivalry, Koth, which bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem.

“Stygia, with its shadow-guarded tombs.

“And Hyrkania, whose horsemen wore steel, silk, and gold.

“But the proudest kingdom in the world was Aquilonia, which reigned supreme in the west.

“It had been years since the mighty King Conan, the Cimmerian, ruled there, the one who was a warrior, thief, pirate, and plunderer before being a great monarch.

“And the time came when a shadow stirred in the Pictish jungles that slept west of Aquilonia.”
Sangre Bárbara (2021, Karras Comics)

So begins Sangre Bárbara (“Barbarian Blood,” 2021, Karras Comics). It is a fitting opening, with a variation of the incipit that Robert E. Howard wrote for “The Phoenix on the Sword,” which was the very first Conan the Cimmerian story, and which ran as a masthead across the Marvel Conan the Barbarian comics for decades, and even ran in a slightly different form at the beginning of the Conan the Barbarian (1982) film that starred Arnold Schwarzeneggar. The opening sets the mood; it immediately places the reader in the time and place for the action, and then the story opens…

As with The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate (2019) by Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi and The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez, this is an original work which takes advantage of the fact that Robert E. Howard’s characters and fiction have fallen into the public domain in Europe. The creators of this graphic novel are El Torres (script), Joe Bocardo (pen & inks), & Manoli Martínez (colorist); the logo was designed by Ferran Delgado.

Like The Barbarian King, Sangre Bárbara is set after the series of stories written by Robert E. Howard, giving the creators a freer hand in writing the adventure. Unlike that work, the principal character in the story is not Conan of Cimmeria…although he is still very much in the story…it is his son, the Prince Conan. A lean young man with the lean build and close-cropped hair of a boxer or legionnaire, scouting in the Pictish wilderness over the Aquilonian border, much as his father did in “Beyond the Black River.”

The story that follows wears several of its literary and artistic influences openly: the iconography of the 1982 film runs through the book like a river, from the cover to almost the last page. There is strong dedication to the original Howard texts, as shown in the opening. And there are hints of suggestions from the Marvel comics as well; I wouldn’t liken it to any kind of borrowing, but more of an inspiration: there was a storyline in Marvel’s Conan the King series titled “The Prince is Dead” which might have been the seed of this story…but Karras Comics takes the storyline much further than Marvel would ever have dared.

There is nudity, and there is gore; the writers and artist get away with it because they finally can—the same way the writers and artists of the French Glénat adaptations, and the Italian Leviathan Labs The Barbarian King books. Conan comics have almost always been a little more mature than the standard superhero fare, a little more bloody and sexy and visceral, but they have never been primarily ago either sex or blood. There are plenty of pornographic and horror comics that go in for plenty of each, if those are what readers want; so the trick for Conan comics nowadays is finding the right balance—in 2006, Dark Horse released a nude cover for Conan the Barbarian #24, and that was too much for some. In Sangre Bárbara, for the story being told and the atmosphere being set, it is certainly not much more explicit than in the 1982 film.

When reading this neo-Howardiana, it is interesting to see the choices that the writers and artists make in the depiction of the Hyborian Age. In this particular case, it is notable how racially diverse the cast is. Robert E. Howard held many of the racial prejudices one would expect of a young white man who grew up primarily in small towns in Texas; it was mentioned in the memoir One Who Walked Alone (1986) by Novalyne Price Ellis how Cross Plains was a sundown town. Some of this 1930s Texas racial stratification made it into Howard’s tales of the Hyborian Age—and some of that was continued in the Conan pastiches by other authors, which is why Charles R. Saunders wrote “Die Black Dog! A Look At Racism In Fantasy Literature” (1975, rev. 2011)—but they aren’t essential to it. Of course you can have Black characters in the Hyborian Age. Why not?

It is difficult not to compare Sangre Bárbara and The Barbarian King, since both works are branching off from similar premises, but they go about their work very differently. The Barbarian King is more acid sword & sorcery, heavier on the magic and the melancholy, the dream-like sequences and monstrous clash of color. Sangre Bárbara is much more gritty, subdued, and realistic; there is sorcery, but it isn’t bolts of flame erupting from fingertips, and the conflicts in the story are more complex than just a math problem of how many bodies can be piled up with a sword. There is a constant thread on the nature of civilization that runs through the story…right down to the last, and my favorite page.

As regards African-legend sources, I well remember the tales I listened to and shivered at, when a child in the “piney woods” of East Texas, where Red River marks the Arkansaw and Texas boundaries. There were quite a number of old slave darkies still living then. The one to whom I listened most was the cook, old Aunt Mary Bohannon who was nearly white—about one sixteenth negro, I should say.

Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Sep 1930, A Means to Freedom 1.44

This is, as far as I am aware, the first appearance of Mary Bohannon in comic book or graphic novel—and I like the sentiment, that to honor the past does not mean to be bound to every part of it irrevocably, and that the future remains to be written. The adventures of Conan are far from over, there are tales of the Hyborian Age left to tell—and maybe they will be a little more mature in more ways than just enough blood and nudity to ensure an NC-17 rating, but in what stories they tell and how, and how race fits into the age undreamed of. Certainly, this is a good start.

Sangre Bárbara can be purchased from Karras Comics; they are working on other new works based on Robert E. Howard’s stories and characters as well.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Barbarian King: Salomé (2020) by Barbara Giorgi & Nicolò Tofanelli

Salomé muore e arriva nell’Aldilà.

La vista dell’Inferno è così terrificante de spaventare a morte anche la strega.

Con le ultime energie rimaste stringe un patto con un demonio, un traghettatore di anime, prigioniero anch’egli degli Inferi.

Salomé gli dona parti del suo corpo e quel che rimane della sua anima per fuggire dall’Inferno. In cambio dovrà donare al demone un erede, ma fare patti con il Male ha sempre delle consequenze terribili.
Salomé dies and arrives in the afterlife.

The sight of Hell is so terrifying that it scares even the witch to death.

With her last remaining energy she makes a pact with a demon, a ferryman of souls, also a prisoner of the Underworld.

Salomé gives him parts of her body and what remains of his soul to escape from Hell. In exchange she will have to give the demon an heir, but making deals with Evil always has terrible consequences.
Back cover copy to The Last Barbarian: Salomé (2020)

One of the surprises in The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate (2019) by Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi was the appearance of Salomé, the witch-queen from Robert E. Howard’s Conan story “A Witch Shall Be Born” (Weird Tales Dec 1934). This was a surprise not only because of a tie-in with another classic Conan tale, but because Salomé was quite firmly deceased at the end of that episode, long before Conan won his kingdom of Aquilonia. So how did she show up in The Barbarian King?

To answer that, Leviathan Labs published a spin-off: The Barbarian King: Salomé (2020). The creative team for this effort was Barbara Giorgi (script), Nicolò Tofanelli (pencils/inks), Angelo Razzano (colorist), Massimo Rosi (editor), Mattia Gentili (letter), and Lucrezia Benvenuti (logo & map design). This graphic novel covers what happened to Salomé between the end of “A Witch Shall be Born” and her appearance to aid the stricken Conan in The Barbarian King 1.

Robert E. Howard did populate his Conan tales with various non-Conan characters, but he never wrote any separate adventures of Bêlit or Valeria, or of Conan’s grandfather or sons or daughters, so there was no exact precedent for spin-offs. Thus it should not be surprising that in the seventy-odd years of Conan pastiche stories and novels, and fifty-odd years of Conan comics, spin-offs for side characters are comparatively rare. Pasticheurs, faced with the choice of writing new Conan tales or new non-Conan tales set in the Hyborian Age, generally went with the former; although The Leopard of Poitain (1985) by Raul Garcia-Capella is a notable early exception, and The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez focuses in large part on Bêlit, though it is still a Conan story at heart.

In comic books, Marvel was largely skittish about spin-offs, early in Conan the Barbarian‘s run Roy Thomas and Gil Kane had produced a “Tale of the Hyborian Age” backup feature, echoing the successful “Tales of Asgard,” but the idea was never repeated. As Thomas tells it:

So I enlisted Gil to do a “Tale of the Hyborian Age”—a series I’d hoped to use occasionally in the 52-page Conan to give Barry [Windsor Smith] a rest. “The Blood of the Dragon” introduced the concept (which may have been Gi’s idea, since we co-plotted the story) that, when the hydragon was killed, its human assassin was magically changed to take its place. I was always proud of the name “hydragon,” combining the mythical “hydra” and the word “dragon,” and intended one day soon to use the hydragon of the Bossonian Marches in an actual Conan story.

Roy Thomas, Barbarian Life. vol. 1, 76

Conan never faced the hydragon, and there would be no more “Tales of the Hyborian Age.” Instead, Thomas created Red Sonja—an original Hyborian Age character loosely inspired by Robert E. Howard’s Red Sonya of Rogatino from “The Shadow of the Vulture” (The Magic Carpet Magazine Jan 1934). Red Sonja would go on to become a character who could be the protagonist of her own series—or series of series—which are still ongoing as of this writing.

Leaving Red Sonja aside, there were very few non-Conan series to spin-off from the main line: Conan: The Book of Thoth (2006, Dark Horse), Age of Conan: Bêlit (2019, Marvel), Age of Conan: Valeria (2020, Marvel), and Bêlit & Valeria: Swords vs. Sorcery (2022, Ablaze) are the only other spin-off series centered on characters from the Conan line; one might add Robert E. Howard Presents Thulsa Doom (2010, Dynamite) which spun out of Dynamite’s Red Sonja comics, though the character shares little more than a name with Howard’s original creation. Even so, that is a rather sparse showing from the dozens of series and hundreds of Conan and Red Sonja comics produced.

Red Sonja probably gives a good explanation why: for all of the worldbuilding that was put into the Hyborian Age by Robert E. Howard and subsequent writers, many of the comic adventures made little use of this. Red Sonja and Conan often tackled monster-of-the-month in their individual comics, or adventured through cities and countries never named by Robert E. Howard, in what were effectively generic sword-and-sorcery stories starring familiar protagonists. Even when Marvel published both Conan and Red Sonja comics at the same time, the two series were not written with reference to one another; they were effectively standalone S&S series that only nominally shared the same setting.

The same issue is evident in the spin-off series based around Thoth-Amon, Bêlit, Valeria, and Thulsa Doom. Many of these stories were well-written and illustrated—Sana Takeda’s covers for Age of Conan: Bêlit are absolutely gorgeous—but for the most part, these stories veer fairly far from Howard’s original conception of the characters and often have limited continuity with the Hyborian Age in the series they’re nominally spinning off from. Readers interested in greater lore for the Hyborian Age, like readers of the Cthulhu Mythos that desire more fragments of the artificial mythology to fit into their puzzle, were disappointed.

The Barbarian King: Salomé certainly takes it liberties with the character and the setting—but it begins very faithfully to “A Witch Shall Be Born.” Salomé begins just as Howard and Conan had left her, dead and her schemes unraveled. What we get next is her afterlife, which Howard never depicted or wrote about, so the writer and artist had a very free hand. I rather suspect that a possible inspiration for the series was Claudia Chevalier Vampire (2004- , Pat Mills & Franck Tacito), which is a spin-off of the popular Requiem Chevalier Vampire (2000-2012, Pat Mills & Olivier Ladroit)—both series have an emphasis on Hell, violence, sexuality, and mature storytelling, with the spin-offs taking a prominent female supporting character and turning them into a protagonist to expand on their characterization and tell their story.

Salomé’s harrowing, and the physical and mental transformations of her character—something less than redemption—lead her very far from the character that Robert E. Howard created. Yet it does change her into exactly the strange, wan, damaged character who aids Conan in the pages of The Barbarian King. Nor do they ever lose sight of where Salomé came from; her own abandonment as an infanticide and rescue being important themes in her interactions with other characters.

In that sense, Salomé follows the same philosophy of The Barbarian King: Robert E. Howard’s work is the launching point from which the creators start, but they are pushing into new, unwritten territory…but not without losing sight of where they came from, or where they’re going. If you like The Barbarian King, Salomé is an interesting accessory that goes deeper into the background and character of an important supporting character.

The Barbarian King: Salomé (2020) is available from Leviathan Labs. Like The Barbarian King it is in Italian, with no English translation yet.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate (2019) by Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi

Oggi Aquilonia has ottenuto la pace a caro prezzo e il Barbaro ormai è un vecchio stanco Re pieno di rimorsi, sognando il clamore della battaglia e l’adrenalina dell’avventura… questi sono tempi in cui il fuoco e l’acciaio potrebbero dettare le nuove leggi dell’uomo.

Today Aquilonia has obtained peace at a great price and the Barbarian is now a tired old King full of remorse, dreaming of the clamor of battle and the adrenaline of adventure … these are times when fire and steel could dictate the new laws of man.
— The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate

Dead pulp authors can eternal lie, and in strange aeons many of their works may still be under copyright or have certain characters trademarks depending on the intellectual property laws of any given country. In Europe, the works of Robert E. Howard may be in the public domain, and because of that they are fair game for reprinting and reimagination. This applies both for prose works like the novel The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez, and for comic books and graphic novels like French publisher Glénat’s gorgeous series of new adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s original stories of Conan the Cimmerian.

Comic books and graphic adaptations of the Cimmerian are intriguing because from 1970 to 1993 Conan (and other Robert E. Howard characters) were licensed to Marvel Comics, which provided a distinctive and iconic interpretation of the character—all the more so because the Conan comics were translated and published everywhere from Japan to Turkey. Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian was the most successful sword & sorcery comic of all time, with tie-ins to the 1980s Arnold Schwarzeneggar films, merchandise, and the lore of Robert E. Howard became intimately entangled with the Marvel Universe—including the Serpent-god Set, the Serpent Men, the eldritch entity Shuma-Gorath, the sinking of Atlantis, and by extension the Hyborian backstory of Varnae the Vampire and Kulan Gath, the villain of a popular X-Men event.

Marvel wouldn’t be the first to publish a Conan comic—La Reina de le Costa Negra in Mexico has that honor with its blond barbarian—nor the last, as Dark Horse held the license for many years. Yet Marvel’s Conan remains distinctive in fixing the barbarian’s appearance and some of his mannerisms and the development of his world. Even Dark Horse’s Conan under various artists and writers looked a bit more like the Marvel Conan than it did the original illustrations in Weird Tales, although the Frank Frazetta covers for the Lancer paperbacks in the 60s had their influence on both. Both Marvel and Dark Horse worked to both adapt Robert E. Howard stories and to publish new adventures of the barbarian, woven in and around his published career.

Which makes it really exciting to see how different creative teams handle the character.

The Barbarian King is an Italian-language series of fumetti (comics, equivalent to perfect bound graphic novels in the United States) from publisher Red Dragon and Leviathan Labs. The creative team for the first volume, Le Spade Spezzate (“The Broken Swords”) is Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi (script); Luca Panciroli, Federico de Luca, & Alessandro Bragalini (pencils, ink, & layout); Marco Antonio Imbrauglio (colorist); Enrico Santodirocco (editing); Mattia Gentili (letterer); and Lucrezia Benvenuti (logo & map design).

In adapting Conan to comics there are traditionally two routes to take: adaptation of the original stories or the creation of new works that are based on past works and/or the same characters—Marvel also had a habit of adapting some non-Conan Robert E. Howard stories, non-Robert E. Howard Conan stories, and even some non-Conan sword & sorcery stories as Conan comics. One reason Marvel could “get away” with this is because they took a very different approach to continuity than Robert E. Howard did.

By the time Marvel got Conan, essentially all of his adventures had been published. These were initially written and published out of chronological order; Robert E. Howard was not setting out to create a single sprawling epic novel like The Lord of the Rings or The Odyssey, the adventures of Conan were written and published out of order, telling different stories from different periods of Conan’s life. This freed Howard from any strict timeline of events, much as the Hyborian Age—as a prehistoric hodgepodge of different places and eras—allowed him the freedom to shift setting and tone. Conan could be in a young thief in police procedural one story (“The God in the Bowl”), then an experience adventurer in a pirate story (“The Treasure of Tranicos”), then a king of a mighty nation overthrowing usurpers in a medieval war (The Hour of the Dragon), and it was up to the fans to piece together a probably outline of Conan’s career…which a couple of early fans did in the 1930s, and which other fans have added to or revisited ever since.

Marvel and to a degree Dark Horse would use these outlines as the skeleton on which to build their own storylines. By starting more or less linearly from the beginning of Conan’s career, they could intersperse Robert E. Howard adaptations with original storylines, follow the trace of Conan’s journeys and develop additional characters and plots—sometimes expanding on what Howard and others had written, sometimes adding new elements, even borrowing from the Cthulhu Mythos or staging crossovers. As a method, this has the advantage in that the Conan comics often had a kind of narrative flow that is usually missing from monthly comics in the United States: you can often literally trace Conan’s travels on the map of the Hyborian Age.

It also allows the development of series characters—sidekicks, reoccurring antagonists, etc.—which are almost entirely absent from Howard’s stories. Robert E. Howard’s Conan is not like Michael Moorcock’s Elric to have a Companion to Champions along for the ride for several subsequent adventures, neither does he have the same lover or enemy. Stygian sorcerer Thoth-Amon as Conan’s arch foe is entirely a creation of later writers; they never even meet in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” or in any other Howard story (although Conan runs afoul of the wizard’s deeds in “The God in the Bowl”). Conan’s habit of killing every wizard he meets and always ending the story with a different girlfriend was one of the major critiques laid against the pulp hero—but in the comics, many more encounters could be planned and carried out, more tension built up, relationships would have more lasting impact because they lasted longer from issue to issue and story to story.

The Howard’s Conan chronology ends, effectively, with The Hour of the Dragon. There he is king, he has survived multiple attempts on his life and rule, and he is going to take as queen the young woman Zenobia. No Howard stories are set after this point, though other authors and comics picked up at this point because it is a natural gray area: anything can happen, because nothing more is written after this point! Conan could even die—an impossibility in earlier tales, because of course he has to survive for the next adventure that is already planned out.

So after the events of The Hour of the Dragon is where The Barbarian King picks up.

King Conan is conspicuously different in this incarnation than the Marvel or Dark Horse versions: heavier, hairier, with grey streaks in his beard and scars on his face. While Conan comics have often been a bit more mature than others on the stands, able to get away with more gore and nudity than most comics, The Barbarian King leans into both more than most, but less for exploitation than because this is a very different, darker, more mature story than more readers will be familiar with and occasionally gritty, multi-media artwork fits the tone.

If acid sword & sorcery is a thing, this might be it.

When Roy Thomas and other writers began to adapt Conan to comics in the 1970s, they did so in part with the guidance of L. Sprague de Camp; de Camp had inserted himself into the editing of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and had written several Conan pastiches, finished various fragments and synopses, and expanded the outline of Conan’s career. He didn’t do this for free or even directly, and Roy Thomas is frank about their relationship in his great memoir Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, but de Camp’s influence was still strong on the series. Dark Horse’s comics, on the other hand, were published after a revolution in Howard studies & publishing had strongly emphasized the publishing of the original, unedited Robert E. Howard texts and the decline of pastiche—so show fairly less influence from de Camp—but they still follow Campian certain trends, like the emphasis on Thoth-Amon as an archvillain.

The Barbarian King ignores de Camp more or less entirely. Rather than setting Thoth-Amon up as the villain, they turn to one of the most iconic Conan stories of all time: Yara from “The Tower of the Elephant,” who has escaped from his prison and is now in command of new and inhuman powers from the Cthulhu Mythos to revenge himself on the barbarian king. This crossover isn’t the first time the Mythos have entered a Conan story (Robert E. Howard himself included explicit refrences to Lovecraft’s Mythos in the first draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword”), but it set the tone for the series as it develops: this is sword & sorcery with a strong blend of horror into the mix.

If The Barbarian King avoids de Camp and Marvel’s legacy for the most part, the influence of the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian is still very obvious, in theme, language, and occasional artistic flourishes that call back to the iconic Atlantean sword. Perhaps some of the costuming and nudity may also be reminiscent of 1980s Italian Sword & Sorcery films that were inspired by Conan, such as the Ator series or Sangraal…or perhaps not; the artists and writers on this project are obviously keen on the genre, but this is a Robert E. Howard project through-and-through.

Il desiderio era fondere il Fantasy Eroico Howardiano con un qualcosa di quasi Lovecraftiano e Barkeriano, cosa che immaginai quando lessi i VERMI DELLA TERRA con Bran Mak Morn la prima volta, nonché flavour che ho ritrovato da poco in Britannia di Milligan e Ryp, ad esempio.

The desire was to blend Howardian Heroic Fantasy with something almost Lovecraftian and Barkerian, which I imagined when I first read WORMS OF THE EARTH with Bran Mak Morn, as well as the flavor I recently found in Milligan and Ryp’s Britannia, for example.
—Massimo Rosi, “Intervista a Massimo Rosi a cura di Italian Sword & Sorcery” in The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate

The story is brutal enough in some places to edge toward grimdark, although I don’t think the story is amoral or dystopian in that sense. It is definitely less reminiscent of Howard’s more high-hearted hero and more Conan in his darker and broodier moods, pushed in directions that Howard would never have dared take him in the pulps—and in that respect, I think, the series is highly reminiscent to the new Elric graphic novel adaptions being published by Titan books beginning with The Ruby Throne. Comic storytelling can be grittier and more explicit now than ever before, and in revisiting these characters these writers and artists are pushing the limit a little, going beyond just the words in old paperbacks and pulp magazines…and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Questo è il Re Barbaro! E sono sicuro che lo riconoscerete nell’albo che stringete ta le mani, perché gli autori che lo hanno realizato sono figli di Cimmeria e hanno compreso da temp il segreto dell’acciaio; ad animarli è la passione per le battaglie e per le donne; a contraddistinguerli uno lo spirito libero, sprezzante della censura e del politically correct. Chi sono io per dirlo? Son il cronista delle loro imprese e brindo alla loro gloria. Ma ora, bando alle ciance, è tempo di tornare nel mondo hyboriano.

Buona lettura cimmeri!

This is the Barbarian King! And I’m sure you will recognize it in the book that you hold your hands, because the authors who made it are sons of Cimmeria and have long understood the secret of steel; to animate them and the passion for battles and women; to distinguished by a free spirit, contemptuous of censorship and political correctness. Who am I to say? I am the chronicler of their exploits and I toast to their glory. But now, no more chatter, it’s time to go back to the Hyborian world.

Happy reading Cimmerians!
—Enrico Santodirocco, “Introduzione” in The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate

A preview of the first few pages of The Barbarian King can be read for free on Issuu, and there is a video trailer on Facebook. While The Barbarian King is not yet available in English, the series and its art volumes can be purchased from Leviathan Labs, and some translations into other languages are available; O Rei Bárbaro (2019) for example is in Brazilian Portuguese and printed in black and white.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.