The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Ramblings on REH

The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Ramblings on REH

Ramblings_KullAxeIn a way, Robert E. Howard’s career is similar to that of Dashiell Hammett. Both men had huge impacts on their genres (Howard wrote many styles, but he’s best known for his sword and sorcery tales). Both were early practitioners in said genres. Both men wrote excellent stories for about a decade. And both men ended their careers on their own.

Hammett, who seemed more interested in a dissolute lifestyle than in writing, effectively walked away from his typewriter. He wrote his last novel in 1934 (The Thin Man) but produced literally nothing for the remaining twenty-five years of his life. He could have gone back to writing the hard-boiled stories that made his career, but he voluntarily ended his writing life.

In 1936, Howard’s mother was failing in a coma. He walked outside to his car, pulled out a gun and killed himself. His writing career was more effectively finished than Hammett’s would be.

Both were supremely skilled writers who chose to deprive the world of their talent and left decades of stories unwritten. But there was a key difference between the two. From the beginning, Hammett was acclaimed and recognized as the leader in his field. Though Carroll John Daly came first (barely), there is no comparison between the two in critical view.

Howard was not critically lauded. His first Conan tale, “The Phoenix on the Sword” (a rewriting of the Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!”), appeared in Weird Tales in December of 1932. The next two Conan tales were outright rejected!

“The Frost Giant’s Daughter” was rewritten to feature Amra (one of Conan’s names in “Phoenix”) and appeared in Fantasy Fan in 1934 as “The Gods of the North.” L Sprague de Camp rewrote “Daughter” and published it in 1953. Howard’s original version was not seen until 1976!

Ramblings_Bowl“The God in the Bowl” (which is really a detective story) was rejected and unlike the prior story, was not rewritten. De Camp again edited the ‘found’ story and it appeared in 1952. Howard’s original would not see the light of day until 1975.

The point being that Howard couldn’t even get Conan stories accepted by magazines.

Like my favorite author, John D. MacDonald, Howard sat at the typewriter and wrote story after story to sell. This was how the writers for the old pulp magazines made money and survived. Howard didn’t sell everything he wrote. But he just kept writing.

As evidenced by the broad range of topics in our Discovering Robert E. Howard series, he wrote in many genres so he could sell more stories to more magazines. Westerns, horror, Cthulhu, sword and sorcery, historicals, private eye, sports, Oriental adventure, spicy tales: Howard’s Underwood cranked out stories in a myriad of genres.

Del Rey’s The Best of Robert E. Howard: Volume 1, Crimson Shadows, is an excellent collection of his writings, covering various styles.

I mentioned here that I don’t think that Howard’s hard-boiled stories about private eye Steve Harrison are among his best works. REH did not like writing them and he gave up on that market relatively quickly. As he wrote to August Derleth, “I’ve given up trying to write detective yarns – a job I despise anyway – and am concentrating on adventure stuff.”

Ramblings_ElBorakBut that said, I can see the seeds of a Sam Spade meets Fu Manchu style of PI yarn. And I think, a Steve Harrison, with a bit of El Borak in him, fighting exotic criminals in Howard’s pulp style, could well have carved out a niche in the detective field.

Speaking of El Borak, I see the blueprint for Doc Savage and Kurt Austin, but without the unlimited resources or a support team. Howard did some of his best writing about Francis Xavier Gordon, the former Wild West gunslinger who becomes the toughest man in Afghanistan and is dubbed, El Borak, which means, ‘the swift.’

“It was the stealthy clink of steel on stone that wakened Gordon. In the dim starlight a shadowy bulk loomed over him and something glinted in the lifted hand. Gordon went into action like a steel spring uncoiling. His left hand checked the descending wrist with its curved knife, and simultaneously he heaved upward and locked his right hand savagely on a hairy throat.”

So reads the first paragraph of “Swords of the Hills,” first published in 1974. THAT is writing! The attacker is a corpse by the end of the second paragraph.

Only five El Borak stories saw print during Howard’s lifetime, while more than twice that number came out in the seventies and eighties. It’s almost unbelievable how many stories Howard had rejected and/or weren’t published until many years after his death. There really was a battered dispatch box for Howard (Sherlock Holmes fans got that joke).

Yeah. Right. That's El Borak...
Yeah. Right. That’s El Borak…

“Three Bladed Doom” was an unpublished El Borak story, which de Camp (there he is again…) rewrote as a Conan tale “The Flame Knife,” published in 1955. Howard’s original 24,000 word version came out in 1976 and a 42,000 worder by Howard followed in 1977. “Three Bladed Doom” (Howard’s version) is a fine story and the final confrontation reads like a Civil War engagement. If you haven’t read El Borak yet, you’re missing out on some of Howard’s best.

Not every story that Howard wrote was stellar. But he wrote good stories in many genres. I can’t think of anyone else who did so many different types of stories so well.

Keep checking in for more posts in our ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard series:

REH Goes Hard Boiled by Bob Byrne
The Fists of Robert E. Howard by Paul Bishop
2015 Howard Days by Damon Sasser
Solomon Kane by Frank Schindiler
REH in the Comics – Beyond Barbarians by Bobby Derie
Rogues in the House by Wally Conger
By Crom – Are Conan Pastiches Official? by Bob Byrne
The Worldbuilding of REH by Jeffrey Shanks
Re-reading ‘The Phoenix on the Sword” by Howard Andrew Jones & Bill Ward

You can read Bob Byrne’s ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column here at Black Gate every Monday morning.

He founded, the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’ and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.

His “The Adventure of the Parson’s Son” is included in the largest collection of new Sherlock Holmes stories ever published.

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Wild Ape

Bob, I’m doing the reading along with HAJ on Howard. I’m playing a bit of catch up though. I plan to start reading through Howard’s detective stories. Sometimes a gunslinger is like a sword slinger. Howard followed what was selling where he could find the market and lucky for him he wasn’t a one genre wonder.

Hammet was busted for conspiring to violently overthrow the government. He was a dyed in the wool Communist. Back then you couldn’t lie to Congress and get away with it.

Lawrence Schick

Actually, Hammett didn’t entirely walk away from writing after “The Thin Man” — he worked on some screenplays for Hollywood, and wrote a handful of short stories.

He was a Communist, but he wasn’t “busted for conspiring to violently overthrow the government.” He was a trustee of the Civil Rights Congress bail fund, and when called before the U.S. Congress and questioned about it, he refused to name any of the fund’s contributors, pleading the Fifth Amendment to every question. He was imprisoned for it, but didn’t “lie to Congress.”

Eugene R.

My earliest experiences of Mr. Howard’s work were in the various collections assembled and (re)edited by Mr. de Camp. While I am fond of Mr. de Camp’s writing, his re-writing of Conan did not do me any favors in advancing my knowledge of real fantasy. It was not until I found an illustrated 2-story collection, The Devil in Iron, with “Shadows in Zamboula” and published by Grosset & Dunlap(!), that I found real REH at last and could appreciate his strengths for themselves. And then Karl Edward Wagner started his Conan republications, too.

As for Mr. Hammett, well, he was a Communist and busy with political work that seems to have diverted him away from fiction, first his anti-fascist work before WW2 and then his civil rights and anti-McCarthyism work after. He was also a disabled US Army veteran of WW1 who volunteered for service in WW2 and pulled strings to get re-enlisted despite his poor health. He wound up serving in the Aleutians.


While Hammett never was involved with Robert E. Howard, it is interesting to note that Hammett edited the 1931 anthology CREEPS BY NIGHT, which included stories by H. P. Lovecraft and Frank Belknap Long. (A good link if you’re ever doing six-degrees of separation games.)

Wild Ape

Your post about hard boiled detective stories that REH wrote was my favorite of your posts. I bought up that book based on your recommendation.

As for Hammet, let me amend that he got busted in an age when you couldn’t withhold evidence from Congress and get away with it. He’d probably get a cabinet post today or rewarded a professorial job like Bill Ayers. I was recalling things from my memory but after a google search, yeah, he was busted for covering information on Communists who were trying to overthrow the government. For me it is the equivalent of backing the bad guys. I don’t like the guy. That said, I am not down with how he got thrown in prison either, I’m just disgusted with him is all.

Detective fiction was not Howard’s strong suit. I think that a comparison between Howard and Hammet is a very good one. Hammet certainly was influential in his genre and Howard in his. Howard was multi-talented as a story teller. I regret inserting my anti-Communist bias to the discussion. I’m just happy to see some Howard fans are reading all this.

@Eugene—-I came to Conan during the De Camp years as well. I’ve heard that many dislike De Camp but I’d like to know why many feel that he ruined Conan stories. My thinking is that he changed some of the stories from El Borak and such to Conan stories. I liked those stories too. I’m just curious.

Eugene R.

Wild Ape,

I cannot claim to hate the de Camp/Carter/Nyberg Conan collections, but the stories just seemed all over the place, probably due to many of them being re-purposed or built off of fragments of original Howard stories. The internal chronology seemed rather forced, too, as a result. Still, some of REH shines forth, and the Frazetta covers usually work (though not the frost giant one, the cover of Conan the Cimmerian, where I had to read the story to figure out what was happening in the illustration). I just felt more comfortable knowing that I was reading REH when the Berkley editions came out.

And Karl Edward Wagner did not share much love for de Camp and Carter’s work when he edited the Berkley books.


I’m currently reading Conan stories/novels according to the Gray Chronology. I’m still early in the chrono but have read quite a few pastiche writers as well as edited REH. Of the pastiche writers de Camp/Carter and Andrew Offutt are the best. Much of the 80s Tor novels are quite bad. Jordan is readable but formulaic and generic fantasy. Leonard Carpenter deserves honorable mention since he attempted interesting stories. His writing didn’t always shine, though.

But so far de Camp/Carter are the closest to the eerie atmosphere of REH. I’m not a REH purist and at times the anger directed towards de Camp seems like a snooty REH clique, but I do thank the purists for bringing to my attention unedited Howard, which I plan on reading after I plod through the Gray chrono.

The absolute worst pastiche writer was Steve Perry. Of his 5 Conan novels, only one is passable. The rest are an embarrasment.

[…] post in the series, and it will be no surprise to me if we hit two dozen before we’re done! Here’s a link to the latest, which includes links to all the prior […]

Wild Ape

You know Bob, that Kull #11 was the best adaptation of the REH story that I’ve read. The artwork is stunning. There have been many adaptations of REH stories over the years but that was one that made me raid the comic stores to get all the back issues.

I think comics and sword and sorcery adaptations bring out that sense of awe that not even a movie can produce. I’d love to hear from other fans if they have seen comic adaptations that they like or perhaps that fell flat.

[…] N (Black Gate) The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Ramblings on REH — “It’s almost unbelievable how many stories Howard had rejected and/or weren’t […]

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