John Bullard on Robert E. Howard’s “Beyond the Black River”

Sunday, March 29th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Beyond the Black River-smallKeith West dropped me a note this week to alert me to the publication of an intriguing 3-part article on his blog Adventures Fantastic.

“Beyond the Black River”: Is it Really “Beyond the Brazos River”? was written by Robert E. Howard scholar John Bullard, who’s been editing Howard’s correspondence for the next edition of his collected letters. The article examines Howard’s influences when writing the classic Conan tale “Beyond the Black River,” and particularly how he drew from a famous incident in Texas history to create the ending.

I’m not a Howard scholar myself, and generally leave these debates on Howard’s sources to the experts, but Bullard’s piece weaves together fascinating tidbits from letters to H.P. Lovecraft, Carl Jacobi, and others, plus an interview with Novalyne Price Ellis, to make a compelling case for his theory. Just as interesting to me was the intimate glimpse into Howard’s creative process, and his close friendships with his fellow pulp writers. Here’s a sample:

Robert E. Howard’s Conan story, “Beyond the Black River” is considered to be one of his best stories by his fans. It tells of an attack by Howard’s favorite historical peoples, the Picts, against the encroaching colonization of the Aquilonians on the Picts’ deeply forested land between the Thunder River to the East, and the Black River to the west in his fictional Hyborian world setting…

Howard’s recounting of Texas history and characters enthralled his pen pals, and in several of the surviving letters, they encouraged him to write about this history in his fiction…. Yet, prior to the second half of 1934, Howard was unsure of how to incorporate his knowledge of the settling of the Texas frontier into his stories….

Yet sometime after writing the letter to Jacobi, Howard seems to have had a breakthrough in how to incorporate his knowledge of Texas history into his stories and began writing what is generally considered to be one of his finest stories sometime during the Summer or possibly early Fall of 1934… In a December 1934 letter to Lovecraft, Howard wrote:

“My latest sales to Weird Tales have been a two-part Conan serial: “Beyond the Black River” — a frontier story; …in the Conan story I’ve attempted a new style and setting entirely — abandoned the exotic settings of lost cities, decaying civilizations, golden domes, marble palaces, silk-clad dancing girls, etc., and thrown my story against a background of forests and rivers, log cabins, frontier outposts, buckskin-clad settlers, and painted tribesmen. Some day I’m going to try my hand at a longer yarn of the same style, a serial of four or five parts.”(Lovecraft, Dec. 1934)

We’ve discussed “Beyond the Black River,” and its importance to the modern fantasy canon, previously at Black Gate. Recent coverage includes:

Hither Came Conan: Keith West on “Beyond the Black River”
Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “Beyond the Black River”

Read John Bullard’s complete 3-part article at Adventures Fantastic, starting here.


Rogue Blades author: Robert E. Howard, Conan and Me

Friday, March 20th, 2020 | Posted by Ty Johnston

Howard changed my lifeBelow is an excerpt from author John C. Hocking’s essay for the upcoming book, Robert E. Howard Changed My Life, from publisher Rogue Blades Foundation.

I was a precocious reader.  By the time I was seven years old, guided by the taste of my father, I was reading Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, E.R. Burroughs, E.E. Smith, and Lester Dent’s Doc Savage stories.  Around this time my father, an art and history teacher, a martial artist and collector of swords, became a little frustrated that my mother was less than keen to accompany him to see a new, supposedly pretty hardboiled, Western movie called A Fistful of Dollars, so he took me.

In addition to thrusting upon my youthful eyes an unimagined example of cinematic style, the film presented a powerful vision of a highly qualified good and a frighteningly believable evil in stark conflict beyond anything I’d encountered before.  Every aspect of the movie resonated with me, but the depiction of fearsome, believably dangerous villains being faced down by a hero who was actually dangerous enough to confront and destroy them instantly made most of the reading, TV and movies I’d known seem somehow inadequate, even false.

Then, in the summer of 1967, my Dad brought me a copy of Lancer’s Conan the Adventurer.  The Frazetta cover promised much, but I read the first story in that collection, Robert E. Howard’s “The People of the Black Circle,” on a quiet sunny morning and it blew my little mind.

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The Illustrated Safari

Sunday, January 26th, 2020 | Posted by Milton Davis

Changa and the Jade Obelisk cover-small

Cover for Changa and the Jade Obelisk #1

Changa’s Safari began in 1986 as a concept inspired by Robert E. Howard’s Conan. I wanted to create a heroic character with all the power and action of the brooding Cimmerian but based on African history, culture and tradition. Although the idea came early, the actual execution didn’t begin until 2005, when I decided to take the plunge into writing and publishing. During its creation I had the great fortune to meet and become friends with Charles R. Saunders, whose similar inspiration by Howard led to the creation of the iconic Imaro. What was planned to be a short story became a five-volume collection of tales that ended a few years ago with Son of Mfumu.

I had always seen Changa’s story as a visual experience. When I began writing the first story I imagined Michael Clarke Duncan as Changa, the Indian Ocean with his crew from adventure to adventure. After Duncan passed away; I settled on Michael Jai White as a worthy replacement for my hero. Having Changa travel the world for his various adventures was also part of the visual experience. It was my hope to one day see it all take place on the silver screen.

A few years ago I embarked a project to make Changa’s Safari an animated series, a project that is still in development. But recently I imagined Changa as a comic book series. I still had a strong desire to see Changa visually, and I felt that the comic book medium would be the fastest way to do so. The comic book would also serve as storyboards for a possible movie, if the opportunity ever came up.

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What I’ve Been Reading Lately: January 2020

Monday, January 20th, 2020 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Garrett_SweetsilverEDITED“Say, Bob, it’s been an ENTIRE month since you told us what you’ve been reading lately. The suspense is keeping me up at night.” OK – so nobody said that to me. I’ll tell you some of the stuff I’ve taken off of the shelves lately, anyways.

GLEN COOK – SWEET SILVER BLUES

I’ve already written about Glen Cook’s terrific hardboiled, fantasy PI series featuring Garrett. It combines Raymond Chandler, Nero Wolfe, and Terry Pratchett in a terrific fashion. I have a hard time imagining a better series. I’ve talked to a couple fellow Black Gaters about a round-robin look at several books in the series: So many ideas, so little time.

I’m working on this essay on Sunday evening, mere hours ahead of deadline, because I spent a couple hours yesterday re-reading book one, Sweet Silver Blues, instead of sitting at the keyboard and writing. I like it quite a bit, but it’s in book two, Bitter Gold Hearts, that the series really settles in. I’ve read most of the series at least twice before over the years. A few of my friends didn’t care for 2013’s Wicked Bronze Ambition, the last (but hopefully not final) book. It’s definitely not one of my favorites, but it’s still Garrett, and I hope there will be at least one more.

This is one of my favorite series’ in both the fantasy and private eye genres. HIGHLY recommended. And I’m also a huge fan of Cook’s The Black Company, which is light years away in tone and style. He’s simply a very good writer. Black Gate buddy Fletcher Vredenburgh did a fantastic walk-through of the entire series last year.

JOHN D MACDONALD

John MacD has been my favorite author for about three decades now. I enjoy his standalones, his short stories, and his Travis McGee books. I’ve written about him several times, and if all I did was write for Black Gate (sadly, I need to pay my bills and other such nonsense), you’d be reading a LOT about him here.

Earlier this month, after holding off for over twenty-five years, I finally watched the 1970 adaptation of Darker ThanAmber, with Rod Taylor as Travis McGee. Then, I went and re-read the book over the next couple of days. Taylor grew on me as the movie progressed, and they followed the book fairly faithfully. The final fight scene between McGee and Terry was really something to see.

I think this is a better version of a McGee novel than the 1983 film starring Sam Elliot (why in the world would you transplant McGee to California?!).

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Hither Came Conan: Gabe Dybing on “The People of the Black Circle”

Monday, July 22nd, 2019 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

Black_Circle

Fellow Black Gater Gabe Dybing loaded his entry directly into the website and it fell off my radar. My fault. HERE is the final entry in our Hither Came Conan series, as he tackles “The People of the Black Circle,” which I’ve always felt, story-wise, was one of REH’s more unique Conan tales. Read on! 

Robert E. Howard’s novella “The People of the Black Circle,” first published in the September, October and November 1934 issues of Weird Tales, contains all of the elements that, in retrospect, entail an ultimate Conan tale. As an exemplar of what was to become known as the Sword & Sorcery subgenre of fantasy literature, “Black Circle” exhibits Conan as a swordsmen at the height of his career in brigandry: the tale commences with Conan negotiating for the release of seven of his hillmen chieftains who are being held by the Devi of Vendhya for ransom or execution.

But Conan has not lost any of his more youthful thiefly abilities; his introduction in this story has him climbing through a window after sneaking over a barbican and single-handedly dispatching of the guards there. The “sorcery” portion of the Sword & Sorcery subgenre is supplied here by not just one but by an entire Circle of magic-users. Most notable of these are Khemsa (who even is a perspective character!) and the Master of Yimsha, who ultimately is the chief adversary of the novella. To further exemplify the Sword & Sorcery genre, the narrative contains ample doses of the weird—monstrous antagonists, an adventure locale worthy of a Dungeons & Dragons module, and even one secret passage! But that’s not all!

Other Conan stories contain these things, too, but this story is the very best Conan story because it has what no other does — the Devi of Vendhya. “Black Circle” exhibits all the things that we love about Conan, but, unlike any other, it also details the making of a lover and a heroine to complement Conan in every way.

What? Isn’t that heroine supposed to be Red Sonja (to confuse the Conan “canon”) or one of Conan’s two great “loves” (Belit or Zenobia)? Perhaps, perhaps not. Conan had many women throughout his varied careers, and if he never came to actually “love” Yasmina, the Devi of Vendhya, then he at least recognized in her, at the end of this tale, all of the qualities that he most valued in a woman. A major aspect of “Black Circle” is just who Conan is at this time of his life and what characteristics could counterbalance this hero as a satisfying lover, if not a full mate. Through her experiences in this tale, Yasmina transforms — at least in Conan’s eyes — from an artificial and unattainable Devi into a true “elemental” woman of passion and desire.

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Hither Came Conan – The (Almost) Final Post

Monday, July 15th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

HIther_RoguesVallejoEDITEDEDITOR (ME, BOB)  SCREW UP – Our own Gabe Dybing brought to my attention that I forgot to run his post. He is correct! Entirely an oversight on my part. It will run next Monday morning, and I’ll update this ‘final’ listing afterwards. My fault. Sorry about that.

And so, Hither Came Conan comes to an end. Every Monday morning, from January 7th through today, July 14th, Black Gate brought you story insights from some of the most knowledgeable Robert E.  Howard writers around. And me. We covered all twenty-one completed Conan tales written by Howard: and even tossed in “Wolves Beyond the Border” for good measure!

In case you forgot, each story was randomly assigned to one essayist.  The most common comment I heard was some variation of “Thank goodness I didn’t get “Vale of Lost Women.” Unfortunately for Dave Hardy, he didn’t get to say that…

But while it’s natural that some stories are better than others, what I think this series showed, is that even a ‘bad’ story, contained some worthwhile elements. Whether it was a character, or an exciting scene, or some of his excellent prose, there’s always something worth reading in a Howard story. Or in this case, a Conan tale. Because, while he did write some stories that weren’t particularly good (“The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” almost makes my eyes bleed) Robert E. Howard was an excellent writer.

I am a fan of William Bernhardt’s The Red Sneaker Writers Book Series. Bernhardt, author of the excellent Ben Kincaid legal thriller series, has written some terrific books to help writers. And one of them is Thinking Theme. Several writers mentioned Howard’s frequent depiction of the conflict between barbarism and civilization. That theme is a powerful engine for the Conan series. Decaying civilizations, and honor and justice, were also themes Howard used Conan to comment on. “Beyond the Black River,” “The Scarlet Citadel,” “Rogues in the House”: Howard’s strong belief in theme formed foundations for his tales.

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Hither Came Conan: Patrice Louinet on “Queen of the Black Coast”

Monday, July 8th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_QueenWTCoverEDITEDRobert E. Howard wrote twenty-one tales of Conan, the mighty-thewed Cimmerian. And with today’s entry from Patrice Louinet, Hither Came Conan has looked at all of them: plus, we tossed in “Wolves Beyond the Border” as a bonus! We’ll wrap things up with a summary post. But read on as we close out our examination of the Conan Canon with  story that is generally considered to be in the top two or three – when it’s not ranked number one.

Robert E. Howard’s best Conan tale? Well, it’s a toss between “Beyond the Black River” and “Red Nails,” with a definite leaning for the latter. No way I can say otherwise: I have repeated this over and over, and it’s in print in many places.

And here I am today having to explain why “Queen of the Black Coast” is the best of the Conan tales. Had I been allotted “Vale of the Lost Women,” you would have known I was lying to you, but “Queen”? Luckily for me, “Queen of the Black Coast” is obviously one of the best Conan tales (general consensus), and it also happens to be one of my personal favorites. It contains some very memorable scenes – Conan and Bêlit’s discussion of the afterlife and the gods, most noteworthily – and it addresses in a powerful manner Howard’s theme of the cycle of civilizations:

Conan’s flight from the city to live a barbaric life of piracy only to sail right into the poisonous river that leads to the heart of darkness and the last degenerate survivor of a once-powerful civilization. Powerful stuff in a story that is replete with exquisite – if dark – imagery, and a tragic ending that no one can ever forget. So yes, easily one of the best Conan stories. But not “the best.”

I have been mulling this problem for a while now, and of course, I had the answer all along: “Queen of the Black Coast” is the best Conan tale to read if you have never read any before. In other words, it is the perfect story to discover the character, the Hyborian setting, and of course Howard’s talent.

One of the numerous problems that have plagued the perception of the Cimmerian by the general public is this idea that the tales represent as many steps in Conan’s so-called “biography,” though nothing in the series supports that notion. So, how do you understand a character and his motivations if you have no real biographical background? Well, think James Bond or Dirty Harry and read on.

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Convention Report: Robert E. Howard Days 2019

Thursday, July 4th, 2019 | Posted by James McGlothlin

Howard Days 2019 Cross Plains sign-small

Robert E. Howard (1906–1936) is most famously known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian. But he was a very prolific pulp writer of various genres who created several other memorable characters including Solomon Kane and Kull, gracing the pages of Weird Tales and various other pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s.

To celebrate the importance of this writer, Robert E. Howard Days exists as an annual event (first weekend of every June) that brings together Robert E. Howard (REH) fans and scholars to celebrate the life of this great pulp writer. This event takes place every year in the small town of Cross Plains, Texas, the hometown of REH. The primary locus of events takes place at the Robert E. Howard Museum, which was actually the home of REH and his parents, and the place where most of his greatest stories were written.

After years of planning to attend Howard Days, I finally bit the bullet and made the road trip to Cross Plains (from Minnesota!) After arriving in Abilene late Wednesday, I got up early Thursday morning in order to drive to Brownwood (30 minutes or so south of Cross Plains) to go to Greenleaf Cemetery where REH’s grave resides.

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Hither Came Conan: Deuce Richardson on “Black Colossus”

Monday, July 1st, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_BlackRedPicEDITEDIt’s our second-to-last story essay here at Hither Came Conan. Deuce Richardson, who I’ve talked a lot of REH with, looks at “Black Colossus.” And he digs deep on this one. You absolutely should read on!

Robert E. Howard’s “Black Colossus” is the greatest Conan yarn ever written. Within it, Howard distilled–for the first and best time–nearly all the elements that Conan fans have loved over the course of the last nine decades. Saddle up, REH fans. This is going to be one wild and bloody ride.

The tale begins in the deserts of eastern Shem, a hundred miles northeast of Stygia. There we find Kuthchemes, the ruined and shunned city once ruled by the wizard-king, Thugra Khotan, in the days when the Stygian dominion marched all the way to the rugged uplands of eastern Koth.

Shevatas, master-thief of Zamora–itself the City of Thieves in a nation of thieves–has spent long years preparing to plunder the tomb of Thugra Khotan. Robert E. Howard describes him thus:

“This was Shevatas, a thief among thieves, whose name was spoken with awe in the dives of the Maul and the dim shadowy recesses beneath the temples of Bel, and who lived in songs and myths for a thousand years.”

Shevatas penetrates the ivory-domed sepulchre, achieving his life-long dream…and then dies “as no man has died in three thousand years.”

Here lies the first bit of genius within “Black Colossus.” Namely, REH gives his readers the last chapter of a fine sword-and-sorcery tale as the first chapter of his Conan yarn. The tale of Shevatas is a mini-epic in itself and it makes a perfect blood n’ thunder intro to the main story.

Not only does it serve up great action–mortal combat against that archetypical Howardian antagonist, a giant serpent–but it also introduces eldritch, Lovecraftian horror from the git-go, which is a well-nigh essential ingredient in great sword-and-sorcery tales.

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Ramblings on REH (Encore Appearance)

Monday, June 24th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Ramblings_KullAxeDue to some difficulties, I do not have a Hither Came Conan essay ready to run today. I hope to have one next week. And, work is brutal at the moment. Also, as this post goes live, I am on day three of a four-day camping trip with my son. So I did not have time for an original Conan essay — or even a new A (Black) Gat in the Hand post, either. So, from waaay back on August 10, 2015, here’s one of the very first REH-related posts I wrote here at Black Gate. I think the first was a review of Harry Turtledove’s middling Conan of Venarium.

I was an REH neophyte at the time: I’ve learned a LOT since then. I do plan on expanding on the Howard/Hammet similarity some day. I saw that from the very beginning. Since you probably missed this post the first time around, read on!


In 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!

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