Red Letter Days

Red Letter Days

Riders of the Steppes

This Friday I turned over the final, revised version of my master’s thesis, which pleased me mightily. And last Friday I received an especially pleasant surprise. What should I find pulling up to my home but a delivery truck with a box full of Harold Lamb’s Cossack stories. Volumes 1 and 2 were released last spring; volumes 3 and 4, the final books, have just been printed.

As a teenager I dreamed of being able to read all of these rare and uncollected stories, and as I slowly tracked them down over the years I dreamed of preserving them all, of finding a way to get them between book covers so that other readers and I myself could have the pleasure of holding them. My dream came true this week. It was years in the making, but it came true, and Bison Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, has presented them in lovely covers by Darrell Stevens, with a lovely interior map, and S. M. Stirling, David Drake, Eric Knight, and Harold Lamb’s cousin Barrie Tait Collins have written the introductions. I was privileged to write the forewords to each volume, for over the course of tracking down and assembling the stories and finding a publisher I’d accidentally become an authority on Harold Lamb and his work.

So who’s Lamb and what’s all the fuss? I spent an entire master’s thesis analyzing why he’s important.

In 1917 Harold Lamb was a young man writing for the pulp magazines. He broke into the prestigious Adventure and started work on a cycle of remarkable historical fiction stories set in locations as fabulous and unfamiliar to most readers as Burroughs’ Mars.

Where many adventure tales are predictable from the first word, Lamb’s plots were full of unexpected twists. He wrote convincingly of faraway lands and dealt fairly with their inhabitants, relating without bias the viewpoints of Mongols, Moslems, and Hindus. His stories are rarely profound psychological drama, but Lamb nonetheless breathed humanity into his characters, endowing them with realistic hopes and fears. Unlike almost all of his predecessors, his pacing still feels modern — he never stopped for slow exposition. His plots thunder forward as though he envisioned each one for cinema the moment he slid paper into the typewriter.

The most enduring and complex of all Lamb’s heroes was his first, Khlit the Cossack. Before Stormbringer keened in Elric’s hand, before the Gray Mouser prowled Lankhmar’s foggy streets –before even Conan trod jeweled thrones under his sandaled feet, Khlit the Cossack rode the steppe. He is the forgotten grandfather of all series sword-and-sorcery characters.

The Cossack is already old when his saga begins, late in the 16th century in the grasslands of central Asia. He is an expert horseman and swordsman, unlettered and only a step removed from barbarism, but wise in the ways of war and men. Gruff and taciturn, Khlit is a firm believer in justice and devout in his faith, though not given to prayer or religious musings. He is the friend and protector of many women, but leaves romance to his sidekicks and allies.

Lamb became one of the most popular writers for Adventure magazine and remained so for almost twenty years (he then turned to writing well-respected histories, biographies, and screenplays for Cecil B. Demille). Robert E. Howard named him as a favorite author, and many modern authors still sing his praises, but until these volumes, all of these stories have been out of print. These four books present every single Khlit the Cossack adventure, in order. Some have been unavailable since the 1930s and some have never been printed between book covers. They include all the stories of Khlit’s allies and fellow Cossacks, as well as more than a half dozen standalone Cossack stories, behind-the-scenes letters, and introductions from the aforementioned authors.

Pardon me if I sound briefly like a marketing guy, but this is great stuff, and anyone who loves heroic fiction ought to look into it. Journey now with the unsung grandfather of sword-and-sorcery in search of ancient tombs, gleaming treasure, and thrilling landscapes; match wits with deadly swordsmen, scheming priests, and evil cults; rescue lovely damsels, ride with bold comrades, and hazard everything on your brains, skill, and a little luck.

Wolf of the Steppes 

Warriors of the Steppes

Riders of the Steppes

Swords of the Steppes

I hope your Fridays will deliver good news to you as well.

Next up — either a look at my favorite adventure fantasy beginnings, or a few thoughts on making description work.



Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x