Hardboiled and Proto-Noir Elements in the Life and Fiction of Robert E. Howard

©2006 Ross E. Lockhart

A corrupt priest, “the real ruler” of a decadent city filled with “dives and brothels,” “muddy winding alleys and sordid dens,” presses a small box into a “foppish” young man’s hands amid the chaos and pageantry of a city-wide festival. To his horror, the young man, a successful politician and businessman named Murilo, discovers that the box contains a human ear. Later that night, Murilo, “no weakling to bend his neck to the knife without a struggle,” propositions a shackled prisoner, a foreigner “betrayed” by “his punk” and held for the savage murder of a “fat and full-fed” priest who had conducted a “thriving trade” as “a fence for stolen articles and a spy for the police.” Through shadows cast by the bars of the cell, Murilo and the muscular assassin regard one another, tension culminating when Murilo offers the foreigner a means of escape in return for a simple task. “I want you to kill a man for me,” says Murilo, indicating that the man he wishes eliminated is none other than the very clergyman that gave him the ear (Howard 279-280).

No, these are not characters and scenes cut from Robert Rodriguez’s hyperactive neo-noir adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City. Nor are they those inhabiting the classic chiaroscuro frames of an obscure film noir thriller featuring Boris Karloff as the menacing “Richelieu-like” (Cerasini 69) Red Priest Nabonidus. They are not pulled from a hard-boiled detective yarn scribed by the likes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or Mickey Spillane; in fact, this is no conventional detective story at all. Instead, these stark, brutal, and realistic images are drawn from “Rogues in the House,” a swords-and-sorcery fantasy tale published in the January 1934 issue of Weird Tales. Written by Robert E. Howard, the prolific, yet doomed, young Texan that created larger-than-life pulp protagonists Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, and King Kull, “Rogues in the House” is the seventh story to feature Howard’s best known anti-hero, the incarcerated killer seen above, Conan the Cimmerian, “a thief and a reiver, […] a barbarian” (Knight 131). Like the detective archetype found elsewhere in pulp fiction, Conan was a self-made, self-determining man, living by his own code, yet forced to work outside the boundaries of power. “His accomplishments are those of a man working his way in the world; they are, in a sense, violent fantasies in the Horatio Alger type” (Knight 131).

Until only recently, with the appearance of the genre-bending urban noir fantastic of the New Weird, the literary realms of pre-historic swordsmen’s adventures and modern-era detective stories were regarded by most readers as topics miles apart from one another. This attitude, encouraged by a publishing industry intent on establishing clearly-defined marketing categories, seems at odds with the era when pulp magazines “for every possible taste” (Haining 20) filled newsstands across the country with riveting short stories of every hue, and an author like Howard could make a living writing for dozens of markets. Lurid-covered magazines with titles like “Amazing Stories, Black Mask, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Detective Story Magazine, Ghost Stories, […] Spicy Mystery Stories, Stolen Sweets, Terror Tales, War Stories, and Weird Tales” (20) were among the publications that helped, for better or worse, to establish the genre classifications and marketing categories that today rule the publishing industry: mysteries, adventures, science fiction, fantasy, horror. The popular pulp magazines, according to L. Sprague de Camp, “catered to a heavily male readership. They featured fast action, two-dimensional characters, and a straightforward narrative style” in which “violence was an accepted-even an integral-part of every tale” (268).

The authors of Howard’s era felt freer than many of today’s writers to dabble in all genres. In Dashiell Hammett’s 1931 anthology of favorite horror tales Creeps by Night, he includes a story by one of Howard’s fellow Weird Tales contributors, H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann.” When Raymond Chandler set down plans for his own future writing in 1939, he included “a set of six or seven fantastic stories, some written, some thought of, perhaps one brand new one. Each a little different in tone and effect from the others.” The synopsizing titles Chandler provides for these stories in his outline, “The ironic gem, the Bronze Door, the perfect fantastic atmosphere story The Edge of the West, the spooky story, Grandma’s boy, the Disappearing Duke, the Allegory Ironic, the Four Gods of Bloon, The pure fairytale The Rubies of Marmellon” (MacShane 80), provide an unfulfilled, yet captivating, glimpse into what might have been. Likewise, Howard experimented with whatever markets he could. According to Robert E. Briney, Howard “continually attempted to broaden the scope of his writing and expand into new markets. During his lifetime his fiction appeared in at least eighteen different pulp titles: fantasy, weird, adventure, sports, detective, ‘spicy'” (11).

Howard himself, writes Peter Ruber, “was a man of emotional extremes. He had violent likes and dislikes; he was introverted and moody, yet often hot-tempered” (85). As a man who came of age in the era of noir, Howard seems to have embodied many of noir’s peccadilloes, and much attention has been given to his paranoia, misogyny, and the oedipal aspects of his suicide.

Howard’s paranoia appears to have deep roots, emerging early in his childhood. L. Sprague de Camp reports that the young Howard, though “supposed to wear his glasses all the time […] feared to do so lest, as he said, some enemy hit him in the eye while he was wearing them” (161). This specter of unseen enemies continued to haunt Howard into adult life, as is illustrated in an anecdote from Tevis Clyde Smith: “Bob’s expectation of personal assault was such that he ordered his pants cuffed two inches higher than the current style because he wanted his feet […] to be free from entangling trouser legs should he have to defend himself” (de Camp 9-10).

De Camp further expands on Howard’s paranoia by relating the story of E. Hoffman Price’s adventurous encounter with Howard while visiting the author in 1934. Howard, driving Price along on a tour of the local countryside, “stopped the car, took his pistol out of the glove compartment, and stalked toward the mesquite in Western gunfighter style.” Returning to the car, Howard explained, “I have a lot of enemies; everyone has around here. Wasn’t that I figured we were running into anything, but I had to make sure […] you’re likely to run into an enemy almost everywhere you go” (306). When Price insisted to Howard that he had no enemies, Howard “was incredulous. How could a man exist without enemies? After all, every hero of adventure fiction had at least one or two. That an enemy is a liability and that constant concern about enemies is stressful and time-consuming, as well as emotionally depleting, never crossed the mind of Robert Howard” (de Camp 161). Though it is possible that Howard’s raving to Price about enemies was merely a put-on designed to get a rise out of his fellow writer, de Camp reports that the “unanimous opinion of those who knew [Howard] is that these enemies were figments of his imagination. Since the boundary between the real and imaginary were always fuzzy to him, Robert treated his imaginary enemies as an ever-present menace” (161).

Though Howard may very well have “felt man’s hate for man to be the normal state in human relationships” (304), attempts at understanding his relationship with the fair sex is a complicated and derisive affair. Though de Camp paints Howard as a man with “a rather skewed and low opinion of women” who “never dated a girl until he was over twenty-eight and, except for his mother, had had no contacts with the opposite sex” (211), further speculating that Howard died a virgin, Marc A. Cerasini defends Howard, writing that “despite aspersions cast on his heterosexuality by small-minded critics,” Howard’s “interest in the opposite sex was normal enough.” Furthermore, Cerasini addresses the issue of Howard’s virginity, intimating that “Howard would have had access to prostitutes in travels throughout the Southwest and Mexico and more conveniently, in the three brothels in nearby Brownwood” (9).

Howard himself seems to address the issue in a letter written to H.P. Lovecraft following his mild success in placing a story (under the pseudonym Sam Walser) in Spicy Adventures, one of “the hots,” a pulp magazine, though “mild as milquetoast” by today’s standards, sold under the “pretence of being pornography.” “Why don’t you five it a whirl?” writes Howard. “The sex element is a cinch; … Just write up one of your own sex adventures, altered to fit the plot. That’s the way I did with the yarn I sold them” (de Camp 332-333). Whether the “sex adventure” Howard references was real or merely bravado affected in order to shock and titillate the puritanical Lovecraft remains an enigma. However, bravado is certainly well-evident in the quote from Howard’s aborted 1928 autobiographical novel Post Oaks and Sand Roughs that de Camp chooses as evidence of Howard’s misogyny: “Women are the spoils of the victor, and they know it and are afraid” (de Camp 211). Over time Howard has come to be regarded, thanks to Dan Ireland’s 1996 film The Whole Wide World, as a Hollywood romantic hero. Even Marc Cerasini admits that “pre-marital chastity was not regarded as abnormal in Howard’s day,” further speculating that “Conan’s sexual prowess may owe something to the sublimation of Howard’s repressed sexual energies” (9).

Virgin or not, Howard’s suicide following his mother’s death in 1936 confers upon his life the theatrical qualities of a Greek tragedy. As Peter Ruber observes, “there was a definite Oedipus Rex relationship between Howard and his mother, whom Howard adored, and possibly because of this he showed little interest in having any extended relationships with women his own age” (85). According to L. Sprague de Camp, the writer Harold Preece, a friend and correspondent of Howard, “spoke of Howard as ‘a strange man.’ […] He regretted that this ‘Tristan’ […] had not found an ‘Isolde’ to separate him from his fixation on his mother” (de Camp 10). Marc A. Cerasini downplays these classical allusions and Oedipal analyses as “dubious theory,” noting that even de Camp admits that “the determinants of Howard’s behavior were deeper and older than his mother’s impending death and … her passing became the occasion for, not the cause of, his suicide” (12). In Howard’s defense, Cerasini offers a “simple observation” from the man himself: “Every now and then one of us finds the going too hard and blows his brains out, but it’s all in the game I reckon” (12).

By 1934, two years before his suicide, Robert E. Howard had been a professional writer for nearly a decade, after selling his first story, “Spear and Fang” to Weird Tales in 1924 (Lord 136). At the urging of his agent Otis Kline Howard attempted to break into the mystery market. The resulting handful of tales, though most were published in Howard’s lifetime, are today considered among the weakest in Howard’s canon. As Glen Lord states, “All of his detectives typically relied on brawn rather than brain; many of these tales also contained sinister Orientals, strange cults, and other esoteric elements” (140). Openly derivative of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sax Rohmer, Howard’s mysteries are easily criticized for being “replete with virulent racism and xenophobia” (Herron 12). While these charges hold water – after all, what are the villains of “Skull Face,” “Lord of the Dead,” and “Names in the Black Book” if not pastiches of Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu – Howard scholar Don Herron explains that “racism and xenophobia were common in that era and pulp marketplace,” and the objection that should instead be raised against Howard’s mysteries is that Howard “doesn’t make these stories stand up and rock-which he does with much the same material in his horror story ‘Black Canaan'” (12). Still, even the least of Howard’s tales, when compared with any of a dozen other writers, can be said to “rock,” and it is to two of Howard’s mysteries, “Names in the Black Book” and “Graveyard Rats” that we now turn our attention.

“Names in the Black Book” is ostensibly a sequel to the unpublished “Lord of the Dead.” Don Herron calls it “equal to several of the escapades Howard wrote about El Borak” (12). Herron refers here to Howard’s early Oriental adventure tales featuring intrepid adventurer Francis X. Gordon. What is different in “Names in the Black Book” is that Howard eschews the distant exoticism of the Far East for River Street, a dangerous Oriental Quarter in a nondescript American city. Howard begins his tale with Steve Harrison, described by de Camp as “a burly city detective who solves his problems by shooting the villain or flooring him with a medieval mace in a no-nonsense kind of way” (312), addressing his “exotically beautiful” female companion, “a dark, supple figure, with the rich colors of purple Eastern nights and crimson dawns in her dusky hair and red lips” (Howard 93). “Three unsolved murders in a week are not so unusual-for River Street,” claims Howard’s brawny detective as the potential girl-in-trouble/femme fatale nervously smokes a cigarette, setting an ominous tone that anticipates the cinematic noir dynamic yet to come.

Howard concentrates on small details as the dialogue unfolds, focusing in on the “shadow of fear” Harrison glimpses in the girl’s “marvelous eyes.” He builds the reader’s unease over the mysterious murders through brisk description and cryptic discourse leading up to the girl’s penultimate question: “Do you remember Erlik Khan?” (93)

Howard shows the reader Harrison’s reaction to this inquiry entirely through visual action, rather than exposition, summarizing the results of the brutish detective’s previous encounter with the sinister Oriental mastermind in a single motion. “Involuntarily his hand sought his face, where a thin scar ran from temple to jaw-rim” (93). The dialogue moves on quickly, revealing Khan’s previous plan for world domination yet refusing to dwell on the depiction of Harrison’s wounded countenance. But as the image is already planted in the reader’s mind, he is scarred, and, like Harrison, once marked by Erlik Khan, will not soon forget the stakes faced in opposing the notorious “Lord of the Dead.”

Joan La Tour, Harrison’s “half Oriental” companion from the previous adventure, ups the ante, revealing the shocking twist. Despite the fact that both she and Harrison “saw him die,” “saw him roll to the floor and lie still,” Joan La Tour declares, “Erlik Khan has returned” (94).

Joan La Tour continues, exposing “in an indirect way” characteristic of “her subtle kin” that the three murder victims, a remarkably diverse lot for 1934, were all formerly associated with Erlik Khan. As shocking as the details of the deaths of Li-crin, the Chinese merchant (pushed from his roof), Ibrahim ibin Achmet, the Syrian curio dealer (“bitten by a cobra”), and Jacob Kossova, the Levantine exporter (“knifed in a back alley”) and their connections to Khan may be, Harrison still refuses to believe that supernatural forces may be behind the killings until Joan La Tour reveals her final ace. That convincing scrap of evidence, a page torn from “the Black Book of Erlik Khan,” “a square piece of parchment-like substance, black and glossy” containing five names scrawled “in a bold flowing hand-and in crimson, like spilled blood.” The three dead men’s names are, of course, crossed off. As expected, much to Harrison’s consternation, “the last two names, as yet unmarred, were those of Joan La Tour and Stephen Harrison” (95).

The pace set in the first few pages of “Names in the Black Book” continues unrelenting, throwing all manner of thrills and inventions at the reader. No prop or set is too much for Howard to use. Poisoned cigarettes, brutal gun- and knife-fights, hallucinogenic drugs, weird Oriental temples and opium dens, an impenetrable fortress, and a quite-literally explosive ending can all attest to the ferocious vibrancy and roller-coaster velocity of the story. No reader could soon forget Harrison, at the story’s climax, holding back an encroaching hoard of Mongols with a medieval mace, wielding “it like a flail, working awful havoc among the shapes that strove in the doorway, wedged by the pressure from behind.” Simultaneously hearkening back as far as Beowulf and yet predicting Mickey Spillane’s bare-fisted brawler Mike Hammer and Frank Miller’s Marv, Harrison is a modern man reduced to a savage barbarian in his desperate struggle for survival. Harrison embodies his fight, living only through the actions of brutality. “He was not aware of his individual identity,” writes Howard. “He was only a man with a club, transported back fifty thousand years, a hairy-breasted, red-eyed primitive, wholly possessed in the crimson instinct for slaughter” (130).

Detective Steve Harrison returns in “Graveyard Rats,” a nightmarish blend of mystery and horror incorporating a bitter feud, fraternal betrayal, and grotesque imagery bordering on that of the Grand Guignol. Here Howard plays to his strengths, trading in the anonymous city of “Names in the Black Book” for a rustic environment much closer to the post oak covered hills of home. The Texas landscape serves two purposes. It pulls detective Harrison from a vague urban setting Howard never quite fully managed to pull off and plants him carefully into the landscape of Howard’s own paranoid fantasies of myriad enemies and random, violent assault lurking behind every bit of brush and bramble. Don Herron notes that Paul Herman, editor of the Wildside Press collection Graveyard Rats and Others, “feels that Howard was starting to hit his stride with ‘Graveyard Rats.'” Herron also shares his own take on the story, saying that Howard “reaches a fever pitch of fear […] while playing fair with the conventions of a crime story” (12).

“Graveyard Rats” begins with a nightmare, as Saul Wilkinson awakens to the chilling sound of “icy fingers,” or “hands fumbling in the dark.” Soon, he acclimates himself to where he realizes the “small scurrying” that he hears is the sound of “a rat running across the floor.” With “trembling fingers” Wilkinson glances around in the darkness, imagining the house “peopled” with “shapes of horror” as he realizes that his door is open. He draws his revolver from beneath his pillow, stepping out of bed to explore the room (135).

Howard portrays Saul’s journey into the darkness in maddening detail, from the “creak of the springs” that “brought his heart into his throat” to the constant “scampering patter of tiny feet, racing up and down, up and down….” As he spins his tale, amid the rat’s frantic pattering and the menacing tick of the clock, Howard makes his reader privy to Wilkinson’s fears of the “old feud” that had claimed his eldest brother “four days since-John Wilkinson, shot down in the streets of the little hill-country town by Joel Middleton, who had escaped into the post oak grown hills, swearing still greater vengeance” (135-136). When, finally, Saul reaches the nerve-snapping realization that “Middleton, or someone-or something” had to be in the room with him, the rat’s scampering has become “red-hot hammers on his crumbling brain” (137). He lights a candle, and finds himself staring face to face with a horrific sight, the “white and cold and dead” severed head of his brother John, and below it, “before the fireplace, up and down, up and down, scampered a creature with red eyes, that squeaked and squealed-a great gray rat, maddened by its failure to reach the flesh its ghoulish hunger craved.” Saul’s reaction to the gruesome sight is pure noir, as Howard focuses in on the audio alone. Saul begins to laugh, “horrible, soul-shaking shrieks that mingled with the squealing of the grey ghoul.” Soon, Saul’s laughter turns to “insane weeping, that gave way in turn to hideous screams that echoed through the old house and brought the sleepers out of their sleep.” Saul’s reason, you see, has been “blasted” “like a blown-out candle flame” (138).

Conveniently, perhaps even inexplicably, Detective Steve Harrison has been staying in the Wilkinson household, and into the “scene of horror and madness” Harrison propels “his powerful, thick-set body” (139), taking command of the situation, binding the gibbering Saul as his remaining brothers argue and plot revenge. Like “Names in the Black Book,” “Graveyard Rats” delivers chills and thrills galore, complete with fratricide, grave robbing, oil profiteering, and plenty of violence metered out with glee and aplomb.

While the deus ex machina climax of “Graveyard Rats” stretches the plausibility of Howard’s yarn, it would have looked astonishing on screen. Amid a crashing, wailing storm, as “John Wilkinson’s fleshless skull, clad in a feathered headdress and bound in place” looks on, lightning smashes into the building into which Harrison has chased the as-yet unidentified killer. “A blinding burst of lightning, a deafening crash of thunder, and the ancient house staggered from gables to foundations! Blue fire crackled from the ceiling and ran down the walls and over the floor.” As the whole house erupts into flame and the ever-present rats panic, the killer, smeared with blood and “naked but for a loin-cloth and moccasins on his feet” reveals himself, pushing through a doorway and menacing Harrison with a revolver clutched in his hand (162-163). In the scant two pages that follow, Howard drives his ending home in a wickedly grotesque feat of dénouement well worth seeking out and reading.

Robert E. Howard, writes L. Sprague de Camp, eventually grew frustrated with the constraints and uncertainties of the mystery market, realizing that he “much preferred the rattle of swords and the shouts of adversaries in action stories. So, in 1935, he abandoned the detective field entirely” (312). Between that and an outstanding debt Weird Tales owed Howard, by 1935, his primary output was Westerns, including a pair of frontier-themed Conan tales, “Beyond the Black River” and “The Black Stranger.” In June 1936, upon being informed that his mother had lapsed into a coma and would never regain consciousness, Howard quickly typed a couplet on his typewriter, strolled out to his car, drew his revolver, and, in what E. Hoffman Price later described as “the act of a 5-year-old’s emotion driving a grown and rugged man accustomed to firearms and violence” (Ruber 86), shot himself in the head. Howard’s final words, that fatal couplet “all fled-all done, so lift me on the pyre; the feast is over and the lamps expire,” doesn’t summarize his life or death in a satisfying way. Too many questions remain. What works might Howard have produced had he not killed himself? Might Howard have returned to mysteries, and if so, might we today count him among the noir canon? Those questions will never be answered. We can, however, enjoy the literary legacy Howard left behind for its action, thrills, and excitement, all the while basking in the bittersweet imagination of what might have been.

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