The following article was first published on July 28, 2016 at the now defunct REH: Two-Gun Raconteur blog. Thank you to John O’Neill for consenting to reprint my odd stray article so it is archived at Black Gate, which is home to over 275 of my articles written over the past decade. Thank you to Damon Sasser without whom the original article would not exist. Minor editorial changes have been made to the original text.
It has become fashionable to regard Robert E. Howard’s Steve Harrison as the author’s lone failure. Much is made of what Howard expressed in letters about disliking hardboiled detective stories as both an author and a reader. Emphasis is placed on the fact that very few of the Steve Harrison stories found a market in the author’s lifetime. Critics measure the Steve Harrison tales against Hammett and Chandler and dismiss Howard’s efforts with disdain. All of this ignores how the character first came to prominence in the late 1970s when Berkeley Books collected “Lord of the Dead” and “Names in the Black Book” in Skull-Face.
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Many pulp writers were influenced by the success of Sax Rohmer’s Yellow Peril criminal mastermind, Dr. Fu Manchu. The best of the early imitators was Achmed Abdullah’s The Blue-Eyed Manchu while the pulp era brought Robert J. Hogan’s The Mysterious Wu-Fang and Donald Keyhoe’s Dr. Yen-Sin to give the Devil Doctor a run for his money.Today, the best remembered Fu Manchu clone is undoubtedly Ian Fleming’s Dr. No. Marvel Comics’ The Mandarin and The Yellow Claw are the other two characters who have burrowed the furthest into popular culture’s collective memory of the past century.
Having to choose the one of the scores of imitations that came closest to matching Rohmer for style and yet was distinct enough to avoid being nothing more than a shameless copy, I would have to single out Robert E. Howard’s Skull-Face and Erlik Khan, the Lord of the Dead. Howard’s reputation as a story-teller has grown over the past few decades to allow him to escape the looming shadow of his immensely popular sword and sorcery hero, Conan the Barbarian and be recognized as a singular talent who mastered many genres during his all too brief life. Sadly, his Yellow Peril thrillers are still largely unknown outside the circle of Howard completists.
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