El Borak and Other Desert Adventures

BOOK: El Borak and Other Desert Adventures
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T
HE
F
ULLY
I
LLUSTRATED
R
OBERT
E. H
OWARD
L
IBRARY
from Del Rey Books

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane

The Bloody Crown of Conan

Bran Mak Morn: The Last King

The Conquering Sword of Conan

Kull: Exile of Atlantis

The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume 1: Crimson Shadows

The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume 2: Grim Lands

The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard

El Borak and Other Desert Adventures

Swords of the Hills
first published in
The Lost Valley of Iskander
, 1974

(as
The Lost Valley of Iskander
)

The Daughter of Erlik Khan
first published in
Top-Notch Magazine
, December 1934

Three-Bladed Doom
(long version)
first published in
Three-Bladed Doom
, 1977

Hawk of the Hills
first published in
Top-Notch Magazine
, June 1935

Blood of the Gods
first published in
Top-Notch Magazine
, July 1935

Sons of the Hawk
first published in
Complete Stories
, August 1936

(as
The Country of the Knife
)

Son of the White Wolf
first published in
Thrilling Adventures
, December 1936

Gold from Tatary
first published in
Thrilling Adventures
, January 1935

(as
The Treasures of Tartary
)

Swords of Shahrazar
first published in
Top-Notch Magazine
, October 1934

The Trail of the Blood-Stained God
first published in
Swords of Shahrazar
, 1976

(as
The Curse of the Crimson God
)

The Fire of Asshurbanipal
first published in
The Howard Collector
, Spring 1972

Three-Bladed Doom
(short version)
first published in
REH: Lone Star Fictioneer
, Spring 1976

Untitled
appears here for the first time

My work here is dedicated to Frank Frazetta, Gary Gianni, Mark Schultz
,
Michael Wm. Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson, and Steranko
.
And to Robert E. Howard, wherever you are
.

—Tim Bradstreet

For Mark Westermoe

—Jim & Ruth Keegan

In loving memory of our friend and colleague
Steve Tompkins
1960–2009

Contents

Artists’ Forewords

Introduction

Swords of the Hills

The Daughter of Erlik Khan

Three-Bladed Doom

Hawk of the Hills

Blood of the Gods

Sons of the Hawk

Son of the White Wolf

Gold from Tatary

Swords of Shahrazar

The Trail of the Blood-Stained God

The Fire of Asshurbanipal

Miscellanea

Three-Bladed Doom

Untitled Fragment

Appendices

Gunfighters of the Wild East

Notes on the Original Howard Texts

Illustrations
“The fighters revolved about each other
.
“Not until it was looming over him, the great arms closing upon him”
“There were human skulls nailed above the gate
.”
“…Afzal Khan came and stood over them, combing his crimson beard.

“They passed into a mighty hall of misty twilight
.”
Artists’ Forewords

I once saw an amazing illustration of El Borak by one of my art gods, Jim Steranko. It was a classic Steranko piece, charged with his incredible display of black vs. white. Francis Xavier Gordon was holding a long rifle in the shot if I recollect correctly. Well, it inspired me a great deal. I was immediately curious. Who in the hell is El Borak? Several years later I was fortunate enough to run across an old used copy of
Son of the White Wolf and
got my first real taste of the bold adventurer. I was smitten. I was already a huge fan of Howard’s Conan stories, and here I felt as if I was reading Conan but dropped into a world right out of David Lean’s masterpiece,
Lawrence of Arabia:
romantic, brutal, and dripping with the blood of El Borak’s fallen foes. I feel much the same love for Howard’s other characters in the same vein: Kirby O’Donnell, aka Ali el Ghazi, an American of Black Irish descent, and Steve Clarney — all Americans, and all adventuring in the same real estate around the same time. Would have been cool if they’d all met for an adventure. One of my great inspirations and idols, Frank Frazetta, once said, “I wanted to paint the raw, brutal, primitive world of Howard like it’s never been done before.” That’s pretty much how I felt walking into this opportunity. Howard’s words simultaneously electrify and inspire me as I read his work. Frazetta’s words also resonate with me despite the fact he was referring to Conan. It’s all one when it comes to Howard. My approach to this work was to slash the world in half with black or white, to blow out the edges with harsh desert light, and fill in the details with deepest black shadow. This is how I see the desert adventures.

— Tim Bradstreet

Illustrating this work makes us think of those old suitcases papered in colorful travel stickers from all over the world.

Though he was born at a later time than such writers of adventure fiction as Kipling, Haggard, and even Burroughs, Robert E. Howard managed to capture that same classic spirit in these stories. At a time when places for adventuring were dwindling, the Middle East of the 1930s had not changed unrecognizably far from the wondrous visions put to canvas by a parade of brilliant Orientalist painters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It’s easy to imagine Howard’s trio of Texans moving about in a David Roberts landscape of ancient ruins and monumental edifices — a mixture of T. E. Lawrence, Allan Quatermain, and “Chinese” Gordon — with a little bit of Douglas Fairbanks, crossing swords in
The Thief of Baghdad
, thrown in for good measure.

Your passport is stamped, the boilers are stoked, and faraway places await.

— Jim & Ruth Keegan

Introduction

Playing the Great Game, a man may feel as though he lives the only life worth while because he has been stripped of everything which may still be considered to be accessory. Life itself seems to be left in a fantastically intensified purity, when man has cut himself off from all ordinary social ties, family, regular occupation, a definite goal, ambitions, and the guarded place in a community to which he belongs by birth
.

— Hannah Arendt

Life itself, the adventurer’s life lived just shy of death’s skeletal clasp, glows with Ms. Arendt’s “fantastically intensified purity” for the Robert E. Howard characters Francis Xavier Gordon and Kirby O’Donnell, years after they’ve jettisoned the domesticating attachments and antecedents she lists. Both Irish-Americans deal themselves into the Great Game, the contest for control of Central Asia that Rudyard Kipling insisted would only end “when everyone is dead,” but Gordon, El Borak, is the more fleshed-out and filled-in protagonist, a gunfighter-turned-blademaster who has exchanged the American Southwest for the Northwest Frontier of the British Raj.

He was a part of Howard’s creativity both early and late, and in between benefited from an evolution, a
maturation
, which did not play itself out in public, or in publications, but underwrote the Francis Xavier Gordon stories of 1934 and 1935. Of Kirby O’Donnell we are told that his “Irish love of a fight” cohabits with another passion: the East, which “long ago [stole] his heart and led him to wander afar from his own people,” but he dims to a silhouette or demi-clone beside El Borak, whose backstory is bolstered not only by the past-life allusions sprinkled throughout his adventures but a compositional prehistory consisting of juvenilia starring “Frank Gordon.”

Howard’s richest, most revealing correspondences as a professional writer were with his fellow
Weird Tales
mainstays H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith and the Lovecraft Circle votary August Derleth. Accordingly, a relatively weirdness-free creation like Gordon is mostly just namechecked, as when Howard mentioned “struggling along with Conan, Breckinridge Elkins and El Borak” to August Derleth in February 1935. Or he isn’t named at all, as when the Texan informed Lovecraft in May 1935 that he’d “been trying to break into some new markets specializing on the adventure angle.
Top-Notch
has bought four long stories from me, giving me the cover design on the last issue, and I’m trying to make it regularly.” Regularity indeed beckoned when the toehold of the Kirby O’Donnell adventure “Swords of Shahrazar” in the October 1934
Top-Notch
developed into a seeming stranglehold with Gordon’s December 1934 print debut “The Daughter of
Erlik Khan,” “Hawk of the Hills” in June of 1935, and “Blood of the Gods” the following month. Otis Adelbert Kline, who acted as agent for
non-Weird Tales
submissions during the Texan’s last years, also placed “Gold from Tatary” (published as “The Treasure of Tartary”) in the January 1935
Thrilling Adventures
, “Sons of the Hawk” (published as “The Country of the Knife”) in the August 1936
Complete Stories
, and “Son of the White Wolf” in the December 1936
Thrilling Adventures
. As we know, tragedy saw to it that the last-named two stories appeared after Howard’s death, and then “Swords of the Hills” and “Three-Bladed Doom” redefined what it meant to be posthumous: the former was not published until 1974 (as “The Lost Valley of Iskander”), while the latter languished until 1976.

Francis Xavier Gordon deserved better than such delays; for El Borak, “the Swift,” speed is always of the essence, as Gordon dares both his foes and his fans to try and keep up. Character reveals itself in swordstrokes and snap-shots, with the Howard hero pitting himself against his enemies, against the clock, against the elements, against unwelcome urgencies like depleted ammunition and drained water-supplies, against the exhaustion that crowds round when sleep is less attainable than Paradise, against the dragon-sickness that renders modern men, like the
dramatis personae
of ancient tales, feverish in the vicinity of treasure. These stories exemplify Hannah Arendt’s fantastically intensified purity, or what Howard himself might style “the lean economy of the wolf.” We find no monsters, give or take an admirably abominable Yeti, and no sorcery, save that so memorably encapsulated by Howard’s epigram elsewhere appreciating the fact that “A good knife is always a hearty incantation.” Streamlined, stripped-down situations prevail, so that Gordon force-marches himself from one paragraph of “Blood of the Gods” to the next “to kill or be killed — not for wealth, nor the love of a woman, nor an ideal, nor a dream, but for as much water as could be carried in a sheep-skin bag.” In his Conanocentric 1983 REH biography
Dark Valley Destiny
, L. Sprague de Camp deemed stories of this sort “fun to read” although little more than exercises in which “hooves thunder, rifles crack, pistols bark, scimitars swish through the air, and blood spurts with gusto.” Is that
really
all that’s going on?

Of course not. For starters, the storyteller in question rejoices in a command of the English language that is never a hesitant request. Hurrying feet are “winged by hate and blood-lust.” “Crumbling pinnacles and turrets of black stone” loom “like gaunt ghosts” in the predawn hour — Howard, predisposed to be a toppler of towers, can’t resist foreshadowing the collapses of even natural, non-manmade spires. Someone else’s character might get thirsty; El Borak is “bitten by the devils of thirst.” And even in pick-up-the-pace overdrive, Howard remains irreducibly and unmistakably
Howard:
“Man’s treachery is balanced by man’s loyalty, at least in the barbaric hills where civilized sophistry has not crept in with its cult of timeserving.” One has to have seen more than the keys of one’s typewriter to note, “Men go mad on a slogan; conquerors have swept to empire, prophets to new world religions on a shouted phrase.” A heroine’s “overrefinement of civilization” might “instinctively [belittle] physical action,” but that attitude will be refuted and reprimanded with devastating thoroughness.

The
where
provides much of the
wherefore;
all but two of the El Borak stories take place in Afghanistan, a “leaner, fiercer world” prowled by a “wind knife-edged with ice,” beneath stars like “points of chilled silver,” where ravines “cut up the country horrid,” as Kipling’s Peachey Carnehan would say. War is waged across the world’s roof, on which the encroaching clangor of swords can rouse eagles “to shrill hysteria.” And when we do leave the Afghan mountains, it is for Arabian deserts so brazenly, blazingly inimical that another of Howard’s heroines is tempted to shake “a triumphant fist at the rocky waste about her, as if at a sentient enemy, sullen and cheated of its prey.” Such landscapes are inhospitable to the imperial but themselves imperious in that topographical extremes dictate behavioral extremes. Water is scarcer than mercy, but an “unquenchable thirst for adventure” can be slaked again and again.

Fatally easier to bite off than to chew, Afghanistan was surely created to undermine the overweening, to leave lasting bruises to match the regal purple of their attire. A bundle of tribal tribulations misperceived as a kingdom, the region stubbornly, sanguinarily resists the demands of whatever century the outside world seeks to impose: notably the twentieth, before that the nineteenth, and now the twenty-first.

Afghanistan demands attention not only as what Howard’s north-of-Khyber mentor Talbot Mundy called “the home of contrasts, of blood-feuds that last until the last-but-one man dies, and of friendships that no crime or need or slander can efface,” but as the land positioned by fate and geology “above” a golden subcontinent, from which perch it ceaselessly broods and breeds the warriors who might descend in human flashfloods, human avalanches. Writing to the east-of-Suez specialist E. Hoffmann Price on February 15, 1936, Howard confided, “My old interest in India has recently been revived by reading
Dreamers of Empire
by Pakenham and Achmed Abdullah. Fine, sneering, swashbuckling biographies of such men as Sir Richard Burton, Henry Lawrence, John Nicholson, Chinese Gordon, etc.”

We are perhaps justified in suspecting that his interest all along lay chiefly in Hind not just as the jewel in any empire’s crown, but as a gem that at times seemed invitingly easy to pry loose from the crown with an Afghan tulwar. “India shall bleed for all the fat years she has lain unplundered,” a
character vows in
King of the Khyber Rifles
. For Howard, who wolfed down that Mundy novel and several others in June of 1923, and enjoyed readier access to his inner barbarian than the Englishman ever did, the Khyber Pass became as evocative a conduit/chokepoint and border/barrier between civilization and barbarism as Hadrian’s Wall or his own Black River, briefly the westernmost edge of the Hyborian world. His head and heart lingered in “the Hills” throughout the summer of 1923; in his letters to his friend Tevis Clyde Smith, one of which he claimed originated in Kandahar, we catch him signing off as Kadour Akbar Khan and interpreting the supposed vulnerability of South Asia as a warning for North America: “When India turns from war to trade and becomes debauched the wild tribesmen of Afghanistan come down the Khyber Pass with torch and sword.”

In an early Howard fragment, a character numbers among his past lives one in which “[he] led a wild, sword-wielding horde down the Khyber Pass into India,” and the predator/prey dynamic between Afghanistan and India eventually became the borrowed backdrop for the 1933 Conan dazzler “The People of the Black Circle,” in which the Cimmerian burns to unite the tribes of Afghulistan so as to plunder Vendhya. When the Gordon character reemerged that same year and was soon joined by Kirby O’Donnell, although they were not quite Men Who Would Be Athelstan King, a more responsible, “real-world” outlook required that “the overthrow of a rule outworn” be framed as a must-to-avoid. O’Donnell’s surprise is glandular as he realizes “for once in his life a driving power mightier than his own desire.” The tensions between Gordon’s own heritage (not only American, one of successful rebellion against imperial rule, but also Celtic, one of wrenchingly unsuccessful uprisings by highlanders and kerns on the recalcitrant fringes of the British Isles) and his exertions to prop up the Raj as the least worst organizing principle for the area helps to ensure that these stories are more than just the shoot-and-stab-’em-ups of L. Sprague de Camp’s estimation.

The unsentimental education that produces El Borak is part of what Howard brings to the Great Game table, part of his demurral to Mundy’s insistence in
King of the Khyber Rifles
that “The Khyber Pass is as much British as the air is an eagle’s.” In many ways the twentieth century jailed Gordon’s creator, but his imagination won free with characters who shared the desire of Peachey Carnehan for “some other place where a man isn’t crowded and can come to his own.” Unlike his Howardian compatriots Esau Cairn (in
Almuric
) and John Garfield (in “The Thunder-Rider”), El Borak remains on the planet and in the present, but employs all his faculties along lines of excellence in a distant arena where he can be, if not quite a white barbarian, then at least an adjuster and adjudicator of the local barbarism. “No, this man was not degenerate; his plunging into native feuds and brawls indicated
no retrogression,” a Gordon-watcher concludes in “Hawk of the Hills.” “It was simply the response of a primitive nature seeking its most natural environment.” By implication his native land is now lost to him as a dismayingly unnatural environment, Aunt Sally on a continental scale, if we recall Huck Finn’s closing defiance: “Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

El Borak returned just as Howard was westering, moving into a “Texican” or Western phase of his fictioneering. In the Gordon stories, the East serves as a West that cannot be “won” or “tamed,” and the hero himself is that familiar figure described by Richard Slotkin in his
Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in 20th Century America:
“A man who straddles the border between savagery and civilization…them and us.” The possessor of hair “straight and black as an Indian’s” and features as “immobile as the deserts he haunted,” Gordon has long since acquired “the patience of the red Indian, which transcends even the patience of the East.” His booted tread is no noisier than the moccasins of the original Americans.

“They say you are as stoical as the red Indians of your country,” Ivan Konaszevski, his Cossack near-nemesis, informs the Texan. In another story he hurls himself onto the vengeance trail, “no more foolhardy than his grandfather who single-handed trailed an Apache war-party for days through the Guadalupes, and returned to the settlement on the Pecos with scalps hanging from his belt.” But the grandson is as much an heir of the most famous Apache as of his own dogged grandpa: “Geronimo almost whipped an army with a handful of Apaches, and I was raised in his country. I’ve simply adopted his tactics,” he assures Geoffrey Willoughby in “Hawk of the Hills.” In another story, we watch as “manipulated with ragged cloak, balls of thick black smoke [roll] upward against the blue. It was the old Indian technique of Gordon’s native plains. “In what is almost our last glimpse of him, he is “running up the slope as the Apaches of his native southwest run.” Nothing else so legitimizes, nothing else so
Americanizes
an American hero (in the century-and-a-half since the surviving “real” Indians were for a time swept under the rug or onto reservations) as do Indian blood (witness David Morrell’s Rambo and Louis L’Amour’s Joseph Makatozi), Indian
belongingness
, or at least Indian skills.

The things Gordon carries with him always and the things he leaves behind both do much to explain how the American creator of a forcefully American character was able to trespass so often on the Northwest Frontier and get away scot-free, or Scots-Irish-free. And although Howard never visited Arabia or Afghanistan, he rarely ceased from exploring the aridities and altitudes of his psyche and the waste places of his own soul. His Afghan
and Arabian scenery is spectacular but rarely specific; background is only obtrusive insofar as it superbly equips Gordon to dominate each story’s foreground. The military historian John Keegan sketched the archetypal Afghan in his article “The Ordeal of Afghanistan” as “master of the high ground, [one who] knows every draw, false crest, goat track, hidden cave, overhang, and pinnacle.” The Gordon we meet has matched such mastery with the adaptability, absorptive capacity and attention to local detail that proved transferable from wild West to wilder East. In doing so he has effected a homecoming that perhaps exceeded his early hopes for his new surroundings; if home is where the heart is, then Francis Xavier Gordon is most at home when adventuring on the edge of precipices both literal and figurative.

BOOK: El Borak and Other Desert Adventures
7.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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