For such a sedentary fellow (librarian for 40 years), it’s hard to explain why I like action fiction so much, but the truth is my heroes have always been Tarzan and Conan and Lancelot–fighting men who left a trail of dead foes behind them and never gave them a second thought. Perhaps it is the old rule that opposites attract. I don’t have the muscle or the blind courage to be Tarzan or Conan, but in my dreams . . .
In spite of the fact that Robert E. Howard is one of my favorite writers, I have not managed to read everything that the man wrote during his all too brief lifetime. (1906-1936). Yes, I have read all of Conan and Kull, and I think I’ve read all of Solomon Kane as well, but Howard had other heroes. A couple of weeks ago, I got a chance to acquire a book that was new to me. The title is BLOOD OF THE GODS. Paul Herman edited the book and Girasol Collectables published it in a limited trade papaerback edition of 1000 copies. Neil and Leigh Mechem own that business and seem to be devoted to keeping the Pulp Era alive with reprints of stories and magazines from that golden age of American fiction–a time when stories were king, and there were lots of them.
For the most part the pulp authors were not a particularly successful or talented bunch. The names of all but a few of them have faded into obscurity. Even those who succeeded, men and women like R. E. Howard, and H. P. Lovecraft, Henry Kuttner, and Leigh Brackett barely earned enough from their writing to stay alive. The only pulp writer ever known to have gotten wealthy from such writing was L. Ron Hubbard, and he did it by starting a science fiction religion. He wrote some great stories, but they are mostly forgotten today.
Some of the best writers started in the pulps and managed to escape from them. Ray Bradbury comes to mind. Raymond Chandler is another. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Otis A. Kline wrote pulp, but managed to transcend the medium. They all did it by getting their fiction published in books–books that would outlast the flimsy, gaudy magazines where the stories originally appeared.
Howard never made it to books during his lifetime. It remained for people like Martin Greenberg, who started Gnome Press, and August Derleth who started Arkham House to start collecting pulp fiction and immortalizing it in book form. Since Greenberg published the first collection of Conan stories in 1950 in book form, publishers have been making a killing by collecting and re-issuing Howard’s stories ever since.
BLOOD OF THE GODS contains four El Borak novelettes about an American adventurer named Francis Xavier Gordon in turn-of-the-century Afghanistan (and other parts of the mid-east). It also contains one Kirby O’Donnell story. Both men are very similar–black-haired Americans who can disguise themselves as Moslems of one form or another. I bought the book because I had read about El Borak, but had never seen the stories. El Borak was apparently a big deal for Howard. He had five stories about him published during his lifetime,and several others in manuscript. El Borak means the Swift, and he shares a lot with Conan. General appearance, titanic strength and vitality, and the ability to move like lightning. I wonder why Howard bothered with Kirby O’Donnell. The setting is the same as for the El Borak stories. The characters are very similar–so similar that it’s hard to believe two such men could have co-existed in the time and place that Howard gave them. In fact, that was Howard’s entire mythos–all of his heroes were fighters. Not stupid by any means, but more likely to fight their way out of trouble than to think their way out of it. I bought the book because I thought I might be getting all the El Borak stories in one place. I acted on impulse, and did not do my homework before purchasing it. I can’t help thinking that someone should collect all of the El Borak stories including the fragments and the stuff that appeared in fanzines and edit it together into an epic that makes sense. I wonder why it hasn’t been done already–there are many better Howard fans than me who could create such a work.
Objectively, the stories aren’t all that good. There is no character development. Howard’s Afghanistan is as imaginary as his Hyborean Age, but the barbarians have guns. He re-uses names and themes with little attempt to create a coherent tapestry of stories. Each story stands alone. Each story begins with the hero getting into some sort of jam, and each one ends with him fighting his way out of it. Along the way there is hardship, travel, friendship, furious action, and death to the bad guys. It’s all about as deep and real as the butter you spread on your toast. And yet, I love this stuff. No other American writer ever had a better sense of pace for headlong action that just picks the reader up and carries him along to the finish like being caught in the rapids of the Colorado river.
There is no magic in most of Howard’s non Hyborean fiction. Conan, Kull, Bran Mac Morn, and Solomon Kane deal with magic. El Borak, Breckinridge Elkins, Fighting Steve Costigan, and several others don’t go supernatural at all. But it is all fantasy–action fantasy, fighting fantasy. And Crom help me, I still love the stuff, long after I got old enough to know better.
If you’ve ever read an El Borak story, or if you are a fan of Robert E. Howard, why not leave a comment?