The 112th Birthday of Robert E. Howard

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Howard, the Texas author who is best known for creating the character Conan the Barbarian.

I owe a great debt to Howard for inspiring my own work, and so, as every year, I celebrate here on the blog with an excerpt from the man’s writing.

This year I decide to eschew the usual blood and thunder and post a bit of Howard’s humorous work, something I don’t think people recognize as much.

I used to read this aloud to my wife while she was pregnant, and it used to induce such belly laughs I would momentarily fear an early trip to the hospital.

This is from A Gent From Bear Creek, which features Howard’s Lil Abner-esque character Breckenridge Elkins. In this excerpt you get a bit of Howard’s trademark action, but his sense of folksy humor’s really on display here. I love the various turns of phrase – reminds me of Mark Twain at times.

Serape 2

After I’d gone maybe a mile I heard somebody in the trail ahead of me, and peeking through the bushes, I seen a most pecooliar sight. It was a man on foot, going the same direction as me, and he had on what I instinctly guessed was city clothes. They warn’t buckskin nor homespun, nor yet like the duds Mister Wilkinson had on, but they were very beautiful, with big checks and stripes all over ’em. He had on a round hat with a narrer brim, and shoes like I hadn’t never seen before, being neither boots nor moccasins. He was dusty, and he cussed considerable as he limped along. Ahead of him I seen the trail made a hoss-shoe bend, so I cut straight across and got ahead of him, and as he come along, I come out of the bresh and throwed down on him with my cap-and-ball.

He throwed up his hands and hollered: “Don’t shoot!”

“I don’t want to, mister,” I said, “but I got to have clothes!”

He shook his head like he couldn’t believe I was so, and he said: “You ain’t the color of a Injun, but–what kind of people live in these hills, anyway?”

“Most of ’em’s Democrats,” I said. “But I ain’t got no time to talk politics. You climb out of them riggin’s.”

“My God!” he wailed. “My horse threw me off and ran away, and I’ve bin walkin’ for hours, expecting to get scalped by Injuns any minute, and now a naked lunatic on a mule demands my clothes! It’s too dern much!”

“I cain’t argy, mister,” I said; “somebody’s liable to come up the trail any minute. Hustle!” So saying I shot his hat off to encourage him.

He give a howl and shucked his duds in a hurry.

“My underclothes, too?” he demanded, shivering though it was very hot.

“Is that what them things is?” I demanded, shocked. “I never heard of a man wearin’ such womanish things. The country is goin’ to the dogs, just like pap says. You better git goin’. Take my mule. When I git to where I can git some regular clothes, we’ll swap back.”

He clumb onto Alexander kind of dubious, and says to me, despairful: “Will you tell me one thing–how do I get to Tomahawk?”

“Take the next turn to the right,” I said, “and–”

Jest then Alexander turned his head and seen them underclothes on his back, and he give a loud and ringing bray and sot sail down the trail at full speed with the stranger hanging on with both hands. Before they was out of sight they come to where the trail forked, and Alexander taken the left branch instead of the right, and vanished amongst the ridges.

I put on the clothes, and they scratched my hide something fierce. I thinks, well, I got store-bought clothes quicker’n I hoped to. But I didn’t think much of ’em. The coat split down the back, and the pants was too short, but the shoes was the wust; they pinched all over. I throwed away the socks, having never wore none, but put on what was left of the hat.

I went on down the trail, and taken the right-hand fork, and in a mile or so I come out on a flat, and heard hosses running. The next thing a mob of men on hosses bust into view. One of ’em yelled: “There he is!” and they all come for me full tilt. Instantly I decided that the stranger had got to Tomahawk after all, somehow, and had sot his friends onto me for stealing his clothes.

So I left the trail and took out across the sage grass, and they all charged after me, yelling stop. Well, them dern shoes pinched my feet so bad I couldn’t make much speed, so after I had run maybe a quarter of a mile I perceived that the hosses were beginning to gain on me. So I wheeled with my cap-and-ball in my hand, but I was going so fast, when I turned, them dern shoes slipped and I went over backwards into a cactus bed just as I pulled the trigger. So I only knocked the hat off of the first hossman. He yelled and pulled up his hoss, right over me nearly, and as I drawed another bead on him, I seen he had a bright shiny star on to his shirt. I dropped my gun and stuck up my hands.

They swarmed around me–cowboys, from their looks. The man with the star got off his hoss and picked up my gun and cussed.

“What did you lead us this chase through this heat and shoot at me for?” he demanded.

“I didn’t know you was a officer,” I said.

“Hell, McVey,” said one of ’em, “you know how jumpy tenderfeet is. Likely he thought we was Santry’s outlaws. Where’s yore hoss?”

“I ain’t got none,” I said.

“Got away from you, hey?” said McVey. “Well, climb up behind Kirby here, and let’s git goin’.”

To my surprise, the sheriff stuck my gun back in the scabbard, and so I clumb up behind Kirby, and away we went. Kirby kept telling me not to fall off, and it made me mad, but I said nothing. After an hour or so we come to a bunch of houses they said was Tomahawk. I got panicky when I seen all them houses, and would have jumped down and run for the mountains, only I knowed they’d catch me, with them dern pinchy shoes on.

I hadn’t never seen such houses before. They was made out of boards, mostly, and some was two stories high. To the north-west and west the hills riz up a few hundred yards from the backs of the houses, and on the other sides there was plains, with bresh and timber on them.

“You boys ride into town and tell the folks that the shebang starts soon,” said McVey. “Me and Kirby and Richards will take him to the ring.”

I could see people milling around in the streets, and I never had no idee they was that many folks in the world. The sheriff and the other two fellers rode around the north end of the town and stopped at a old barn and told me to get off. So I did, and we went in and they had a kind of room fixed up in there with benches and a lot of towels and water buckets, and the sheriff said: “This ain’t much of a dressin’ room, but it’ll have to do. Us boys don’t know much about this game, but we’ll second you as good as we can. One thing–the other feller ain’t got no manager nor seconds neither. How do you feel?”

“Fine,” I said, “but I’m kind of hungry.”

“Go git him somethin’, Richards,” said the sheriff.

“I didn’t think they et just before a bout,” said Richards.

“Aw, I reckon he knows what he’s doin’,” said McVey. “Gwan.”

So Richards pulled out, and the sheriff and Kirby walked around me like I was a prize bull, and felt my muscles, and the sheriff said: “By golly, if size means anything, our dough is as good as in our britches right now!”

I pulled my dollar out of my scabbard and said I would pay for my keep, and they haw-hawed and slapped me on the back and said I was a great joker. Then Richards come back with a platter of grub, with a lot of men wearing boots and guns and whiskers, and they stomped in and gawped at me, and McVey said: “Look him over, boys! Tomahawk stands or falls with him today!”

They started walking around me like him and Kirby done, and I was embarrassed and et three or four pounds of beef and a quart of mashed pertaters, and a big hunk of white bread, and drunk about a gallon of water, because I was purty thirsty. Then they all gaped like they was surprised about something, and one of ’em said: “How come he didn’t arrive on the stagecoach yesterday?”

“Well,” said the sheriff, “the driver told me he was so drunk they left him at Bisney, and come on with his luggage, which is over there in the corner. They got a hoss and left it there with instructions for him to ride on to Tomahawk as soon as he sobered up. Me and the boys got nervous today when he didn’t show up, so we went out lookin’ for him, and met him hoofin’ it down the trail.”

“I bet them Perdition _hombres_ starts somethin’,” said Kirby. “Ain’t a one of ’em showed up yet. They’re settin’ over at Perdition soakin’ up bad licker and broodin’ on their wrongs. They shore wanted this show staged over there. They claimed that since Tomahawk was furnishin’ one-half of the attraction, and Gunstock the other half, the razee ought to be throwed at Perdition.”

“Nothin’ to it,” said McVey. “It laid between Tomahawk and Gunstock, and we throwed a coin and won it. If Perdition wants trouble she can git it. Is the boys r’arin’ to go?”

“Is they!” says Richards. “Every bar in Tomahawk is crowded with hombres full of licker and civic pride. They’re bettin’ their shirts, and they has been nine fights already. Everybody in Gunstock’s here.”

“Well, le’s git goin’,” says McVey, getting nervous. “The quicker it’s over, the less blood there’s likely to be spilt.”

The first thing I knowed, they had laid hold of me and was pulling my clothes off, so it dawned on me that I must be under arrest for stealing that stranger’s clothes. Kirby dug into the baggage which was in one corner of the stall, and dragged out a funny looking pair of pants; I know now they was white silk. I put ’em on because I didn’t have nothing else to put on, and they fitted me like my skin. Richards tied a American flag around my waist, and they put some spiked shoes onto my feet.

I let ’em do like they wanted to, remembering what pap said about not resisting no officer. Whilst so employed I begun to hear a noise outside, like a lot of people whooping and cheering. Purty soon in come a skinny old gink with whiskers and two guns on, and he hollered: “Lissen here, Mac, dern it, a big shipment of gold is down there waitin’ to be took off by the evenin’ stage, and the whole blame town is deserted on account of this dern foolishness. Suppose Comanche Santry and his gang gits wind of it?”

“Well,” said McVey, “I’ll send Kirby here to help you guard it.”

“You will like hell,” says Kirby. “I’ll resign as deputy first. I got every cent of my dough on this scrap, and I aim to see it.”

“Well, send somebody!” says the old codger. “I got enough to do runnin’ my store, and the stage stand, and the post office, without–”

He left, mumbling in his whiskers, and I said: “Who’s that?”

“Aw,” said Kirby, “that’s old man Brenton that runs the store down at the other end of town, on the east side of the street. The post office is in there, too.”

“I got to see him,” I says. “There’s a letter–”

Just then another man come surging in and hollered: “Hey, is yore man ready? Folks is gittin’ impatient!”

“All right,” says McVey, throwing over me a thing he called a bathrobe. Him and Kirby and Richards picked up towels and buckets and things, and we went out the oppersite door from what we come in, and they was a big crowd of people there, and they whooped and shot off their pistols. I would have bolted back into the barn, only they grabbed me and said it was all right. We pushed through the crowd, and I never seen so many boots and pistols in my life, and we come to a square corral made out of four posts sot in the ground, and ropes stretched between. They called this a ring and told me to get in. I done so, and they had turf packed down so the ground was level as a floor and hard and solid. They told me to set down on a stool in one corner, and I did, and wrapped my robe around me like a Injun.

Then everybody yelled, and some men, from Gunstock, McVey said, clumb through the ropes on the other side. One of ’em was dressed like I was, and I never seen such a funny-looking human. His ears looked like cabbages, and his nose was plumb flat, and his head was shaved and looked right smart like a bullet. He sot down in a oppersite corner.

Then a feller got up and waved his arms, and hollered: “Gents, you all know the occasion of this here suspicious event. Mister Bat O’Tool, happenin’ to be passin’ through Gunstock, consented to fight anybody which would meet him. Tomahawk riz to the occasion by sendin’ all the way to Denver to procure the services of Mister Bruiser McGoorty, formerly of San Francisco!”

He p’inted at me, and everybody cheered and shot off their pistols, and I was embarrassed and bust out in a cold sweat.

“This fight,” said the feller, “will be fit accordin’ to London Prize Ring Rules, same as in a champeenship go. Bare fists, round ends when one of ’em’s knocked down or throwed down. Fight lasts till one or t’other ain’t able to come up to the scratch when time’s called. I, Yucca Blaine, have been selected as referee because, bein’ from Chawed Ear, I got no prejudices either way. Air you all ready? Time!”

McVey hauled me off my stool and pulled off my bathrobe and pushed me out into the ring. I nearly died with embarrassment, but I seen the feller they called O’Tool didn’t have on no more clothes than me. He approached and held out his hand like he wanted to shake hands, so I held out mine. We shook hands, and then without no warning he hit me a awful lick on the jaw with his left. It was like being kicked by a mule. The first part of me which hit the turf was the back of my head. O’Tool stalked back to his corner, and the Gunstock boys was dancing and hugging each other, and the Tomahawk fellers was growling in their whiskers and fumbling with their guns and bowie knives.

McVey and his deperties rushed into the ring before I could get up and dragged me to my corner and began pouring water on me.

“Air you hurt much?” yelled McVey.

“How can a man’s fist hurt anybody?” I ast. “I wouldn’t of fell down, only I was caught off-guard. I didn’t know he was goin’ to hit me. I never played no game like this here’n before.”

Elkins_02_webMcVey dropped the towel he was beating me in the face with, and turned pale. “Ain’t you Bruiser McGoorty of San Francisco?” he hollered.

“Naw,” I said. “I’m Breckinridge Elkins, from up in the Humbolt Mountains. I come here to git a letter for pap.”

“But the stagecoach driver described them clothes–” he begun wildly.

“A Injun stole my clothes,” I explained, “so I taken some off’n a stranger. Maybe that was Mister McGoorty.”

“What’s the matter?” ast Kirby, coming up with another bucket of water. “Time’s about ready to be called.”

“We’re sunk!” bawled McVey. “This ain’t McGoorty! This is a derned hillbilly which murdered McGoorty and stole his clothes!”

“We’re rooint!” exclaimed Richards, aghast. “Everybody’s bet their dough without even seein’ our man, they was that full of trust and civic pride. We cain’t call it off now. Tomahawk is rooint! What’ll we do?”

“He’s goin’ to git in there and fight his derndest,” said McVey, pulling his gun and jamming it into my back. “We’ll hang him after the fight.”

“But he cain’t box!” wailed Richards.

“No matter,” said McVey; “the fair name of our town is at stake; Tomahawk promised to supply a fighter to fight O’Tool, and–”

“Oh!” I said, suddenly seeing light. “This here is a fight then, ain’t it?”

McVey give a low moan, and Kirby reched for his gun, but just then the referee hollered time, and I jumped up and run at O’Tool. If a fight was all they wanted, I was satisfied. All that talk about rules, and the yelling of the crowd and all had had me so confused I hadn’t knowed what it was all about. I hit at O’Tool and he ducked and hit me in the belly and on the nose and in the eye and on the ear. The blood spurted, and the crowd hollered, and he looked plumb dumbfounded and gritted betwixt his teeth: “Are you human? Why don’t you fall?”

I spit out a mouthful of blood and got my hands on him and started chawing his ear, and he squalled like a catamount. Yucca run in and tried to pull me loose and I give him a slap under the ear and he turned a somersault into the ropes.

“Yore man’s fightin’ foul!” he squalled, and Kirby said: “Yo’re crazy! Do you see this gun? You holler ‘foul’ just once more, and it’ll go off!”

Meanwhile O’Tool had broke loose from me and caved in his knuckles on my jaw, and I come for him again, because I was beginning to lose my temper. He gasped: “If you want to make an alley-fight out of it, all right. I wasn’t raised in Five Points for nothing!” He then rammed his knee into my groin, and groped for my eye, but I got his thumb in my teeth and begun masticating it, and the way he howled was a caution.

By this time the crowd was crazy, and I throwed O’Tool and begun to stomp him, when somebody let bang at me from the crowd and the bullet cut my silk belt and my pants started to fall down.

I grabbed ’em with both hands, and O’Tool riz up and rushed at me, bloody and bellering, and I didn’t dare let go my pants to defend myself. I whirled and bent over and lashed out backwards with my right heel like a mule, and I caught him under the chin. He done a cartwheel in the air, his head hit the turf, and he bounced on over and landed on his back with his knees hooked over the lower rope. There warn’t no question about him being out. The only question was, was he dead?

A roar of “Foul!” went up from the Gunstock men, and guns bristled all around the ring.

The Tomahawk men was cheering and yelling that I’d won fair and square, and the Gunstock men was cussing and threatening me, when somebody hollered: “Leave it to the referee!”

“Sure,” said Kirby. “He knows our man won fair, and if he don’t say so, I’ll blow his head off!”

“That’s a lie!” bellered a Gunstock man. “He knows it war a foul, and if he says it warn’t, I’ll kyarve his gizzard with this here bowie knife!”

At them words Yucca fainted, and then a clatter of hoofs sounded above the din, and out of the timber that hid the trail from the east a gang of hossmen rode at a run. Everybody yelled: “Look out, here comes them Perdition illegitimates!”

Instantly a hundred guns covered ’em, and McVey demanded: “Come ye in peace or in war?”

“We come to unmask a fraud!” roared a big man with a red bandanner around his neck. “McGoorty, come forth!”

A familiar figger, now dressed in cowboy togs, pushed forward on my mule. “There he is!” this figger yelled, p’inting a accusing finger at me. “That’s the desperado that robbed me! Them’s my tights he’s got on!”

“What is this?” roared the crowd.

“A cussed fake!” bellered the man with the red bandanner. “This here is Bruiser McGoorty!”

“Then who’s he?” somebody bawled, p’inting at me.

“I’m Breckinridge Elkins and I can lick any man here!” I roared, getting mad. I brandished my fists in defiance, but my britches started sliding down again, so I had to shut up and grab ’em.

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Published in: on January 22, 2018 at 11:45 am  Comments (1)  
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Happy 111th Birthday, Robert E. Howard

yearbook-detailJanuary 22nd nearly came and went without me marking the birthday of my favorite author, Texan Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan The Barbarian, Solomon Kane, King Kull, and others.

As always, I feel the best way to honor the man is to read his words. This year, I present a selection from The Grey God Passes, Howard’s rendition of the Battle of Clontarf.

“My Lord,” said Conn, fingering the great copper ring around his neck, “I have slain the man who put this thrall-mark on me. I would be free of it.”

Black Turlough took his red stained ax-head in his hands and, pressing it against the ring, drove the keen edge through the softer metal. The keen edge gashed Conn’s shoulder, but neither heeded.

“Now I am truly free,” said Conn, flexing his mighty arms. “My heart is heavy for the chiefs who have fallen, but my mind is mazed with wonder and glory. Will ever such a battle be fought again? Truly it was a feast of ravens, a sea of slaughter….”

His voice trailed off, and he stood like a statue, head flung back, eyes staring into the clouded heavens. The sun was sinking in a dark ocean of scarlet.  Great clouds rolled and tumbled, piled mountainously against the smoldering red of the sunset. A wind blew out of them, biting, cold, and borne on the wind, etched shadowy against the clouds, a vague, gigantic form went flying, beard and wild locks streaming in the gale, cloak billowing out like great wings – speeding into the mysterious blue mists that pulsed and shimmered in the brooding North.

“Look up there – in the sky!” cried Conn. “The grey man! It is he! The grey man with the single terrible eye. I saw him in the mountains of Torka. I glimpsed him brooding on the walls of Dublin while the battle raged. I saw him looming above Prince Murrogh as he died. Look! He rides the wind and races the tall clouds. He swindles. He fades into the void. He vanishes!”

“It is Odin, god of the sea-people,” said Turlogh somberly. “His children are broken, his altars crumble, and his worshipers fallen before the swords of the South. He flees the new gods and their children, and returns to the blue gulfs of the North which gave him birth. No more will helpless victims howl beneath the daggers of his priests – no more will he stalk the black clouds.” He shook his head darkly. “The Grey God passes, and we too are passing, though we have conquered. The days of the twilight come on amain, and a strange feeling is upon me as of a waning age. What are we all, too, but ghosts waning into the night?”

And he went on into the dusk, leaving Conn to his freedom – from thralldom and cruelty, as both he and all the Gaels were now free of the shadow of the Grey God and his ruthless worshipers.

battle_of_clontarf_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_hugh_frazer_1826

Published in: on January 22, 2017 at 7:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Happy 110th Birthday, Robert E. Howard

4PalmTreeI’ve been enamored with Robert E. Howard’s writing since seeing his name in the credits of Conan The Barbarian and hunting down as many of the Frazetta and Vallejo illustrated paperbacks of his work as I could find in the local used bookstore.

His works have set my imagination racing from the time I was twelve or so.

I blogged a while back about the three pop culture items I would waste money on to mark my career milestones as a writer, and the first tier was the Father’s Sword famously forged in the opening of the John Milius movie to the hammering strains of Basil Poledoruis’s monumental score. 

As many of you who follow this must know, I sold my first major professional rate novel, Andersonville, to Random House’s Hydra imprint a couple years ago, and it was published last year, putting me, for a time, ahead of Stephen King in the horror category on Amazon. Yep, I was King for a day.

I really wanted to mark this achievement with my first really foolish purchase of the big old Father’s Sword Windlass put out, but we were in a shaky financial state in Chateau du Erdelac around that time, and my better judgment won out.

I was supremely surprised then, this past Christmas, when one of my two gifts came in a weighty oblong box. My wife and eldest son had gone ahead and chipped in for the sword. On top of that, my uncle, who has always sort of poked fun at my writing aspirations and been pretty blunt in his critiques of my work (he’s not really a fan of ‘weird’ writing), carved a sturdy, rich wood plaque to hang it from and marked the date on the back.

No pics yet, as I haven’t had the time to hang it yet. I’ll post it here when I do. But it was a great gesture.

Anyway, whenever my creativity or enthusiasm wanes, I return to the well that Howard sank. This year, it was partially inspired by the re-reading of the Conan series authors Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward did over on Jones’ blog. 

As ever, I have no new praise to heap upon Howard. Every year here at Delirium Tremens, I let the master’s words speak for him.

This year, on the occasion of his birthday and perhaps in celebration of my ‘taking up the sword,’ I present my favorite passages from the King Conan tale The Scarlet Citadel. Conan has been unseated from his throne of Aquilonia by his enemies and a plotting wizard, replaced by a despotic prince and locked away in a dungeon of horrors presumed dead by his subjects and the rest of the world.

In his absence his kingdom wavers at the brink of chaos….
Jayem_Wilcox_-_The_Scarlet_CitadelWhile Athemides pleaded with Trocero, the mob still raved in the city with helpless fury. Under the great tower beside the royal palace the people swirled and milled, screaming their hate at Arpello, who stood on the turrets and laughed down at them while his archers ranged the parapets, bolts drawn and fingers on the triggers of their arbalests.

The prince of Pellia was a broad-built man of medium height, with a dark stern face. He was an intriguer, but he was also a fighter. Under his silken jupon with its gilt-braided skirts and jagged sleeves, glimmered burnished steel. His long black hair was curled and scented, and bound back with a cloth- of-silver band, but at his hip hung a broadsword the jeweled hilt of which was worn with battles and campaigns.

“Fools! Howl as you will! Conan is dead and Arpello is king!”

What if all Aquilonia were leagued against him? He had men enough to hold the mighty walls until Strabonus came up. But Aquilonia was divided against itself. Already the barons were girding themselves each to seize his neighbor’s treasure. Arpello had only the helpless mob to deal with. Strabonus would carve through the loose lines of the warring barons as a galley-ram through foam, and until his coming, Arpello had only to hold the royal capital.

“Fools! Arpello is king!”

The sun was rising over the eastern towers. Out of the crimson dawn came a flying speck that grew to a bat, then to an eagle. Then all who saw screamed in amazement, for over the walls of Tamar swooped a shape such as men knew only in half-forgotten legends, and from between its titan-wings sprang a human form as it roared over the great tower. Then with a deafening thunder of wings it was gone, and the folk blinked, wondering if they dreamed. But on the turret stood a wild barbaric figure, half naked, blood-stained, brandishing a great sword. And from the multitude rose a roar that rocked the towers, “The king! It is the king!”

Arpello stood transfixed; then with a cry he drew and leaped at Conan. With a lion-like roar the Cimmerian parried the whistling blade, then dropping his own sword, gripped the prince and heaved him high above his head by crotch and neck.

“Take your plots to hell with you!” he roared, and like a sack of salt, he hurled the prince of Pellia far out, to fall through empty space for a hundred and fifty feet. The people gave back as the body came hurtling down, to smash on the marble pave, spattering blood and brains, and lie crushed in its splintered armor, like a mangled beetle.

The archers on the tower shrank back, their nerve broken. They fled, and the beleaguered councilmen sallied from the palace and hewed into them with joyous abandon. Pellian knights and men-at-arms sought safety in the streets, and the crowd tore them to pieces. In the streets the fighting milled and eddied, plumed helmets and steel caps tossed among the tousled heads and then vanished; swords hacked madly in a heaving forest of pikes, and over all rose the roar of the mob, shouts of acclaim mingling with screams of blood-lust and howls of agony. And high above all, the naked figure of the king rocked and swayed on the dizzy battlements, mighty arms brandished, roaring with gargantuan laughter that mocked all mobs and princes, even himself.

Arnold_King_Conan

Published in: on January 22, 2016 at 11:48 am  Leave a Comment  
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Happy 109th, Robert E. Howard

Today would’ve marked the 109th birthday of my favorite writer, Robert E. Howard. As ever, I turn Delirium Tremens over to the master, with an excerpt from his Lovecraftian terror tale, The Black Stone.

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Black-stoneI came out into the glade and saw the tall monolith rearing its gaunt height above the sward. At the edge of the woods on the side toward the cliffs was a stone which formed a sort of natural seat. I sat down, reflecting that it was probably while there that the mad poet, Justin Geoffrey, had written his fantastic The People of The Monolith. Mine host thought that it was the Stone which had caused Geoffrey’s insanity, but the seeds of madness had been sown in the poet’s brain long before he ever came to Stregoicavar.

A glance at my watch showed that the hour of midnight was close at hand. I leaned back, waiting whatever ghostly demonstration might appear. A thin night wind started up among the branches of the firs, with an uncanny suggestion of faint, unseen pipes whispering an eerie and evil tune. The monotony of the sound and my steady gazing at the monolith
produced a sort of self-hypnosis upon me; I grew drowsy. I fought this feeling, but sleep stole on me in spite of myself; the monolith seemed to sway and dance, strangely distorted to my gaze, and then I slept.

I opened my eyes and sought to rise, but lay still, as if an icy hand gripped me helpless. Cold terror stole over me. The glade was no longer deserted. It was thronged by a silent crowd of strange people, and my distended eyes took in strange barbaric details of costume which my reason told me were archaic and forgotten even in this backward land.
Surely, I thought, these are villagers who have come here to hold some fantastic conclave–but another glance told me that these people were not the folk of Stregoicavar. They were a shorter, more squat race, whose brows were lower, whose faces were broader and duller. Some had Slavic and Magyar features, but those features were degraded as from a
mixture of some baser, alien strain I could not classify. Many wore the hides of wild beasts, and their whole appearance, both men and women, was one of sensual brutishness. They terrified and repelled me, but they gave me no heed. They formed in a vast half-circle in front of the monolith and began a sort of chant, flinging their arms in unison and
weaving their bodies rhythmically from the waist upward. All eyes were fixed on the top of the Stone which they seemed to be invoking. But the strangest of all was the dimness of their voices; not fifty yards from me hundreds of men and women were unmistakably lifting their voices in a wild chant, yet those voices came to me as a faint indistinguishable
murmur as if from across vast leagues of Space–or time.

Before the monolith stood a sort of brazier from which a vile, nauseous yellow smoke billowed upward, curling curiously in a swaying spiral around the black shaft, like a vast unstable snake.

On one side of this brazier lay two figures–a young girl, stark naked and bound hand and foot, and an infant, apparently only a few months old. On the other side of the brazier squatted a hideous old hag with a queer sort of black drum on her lap; this drum she beat with slow light blows of her open palms, but I could not hear the sound.

The rhythm of the swaying bodies grew faster and into the space between the people and the monolith sprang a naked young woman, her eyes blazing, her long black hair flying loose. Spinning dizzily on her toes, she whirled across the open space and fell prostrate before the Stone, where she lay motionless. The next instant a fantastic figure followed
her–a man from whose waist hung a goatskin, and whose features were entirely hidden by a sort of mask made from a huge wolf’s head, so that he looked like a monstrous, nightmare being, horribly compounded of elements both human and bestial. In his hand he held a bunch of long fir switches bound together at the larger ends, and the moonlight glinted on
a chain of heavy gold looped about his neck. A smaller chain depending from it suggested a pendant of some sort, but this was missing.

The people tossed their arms violently and seemed to redouble their shouts as this grotesque creature loped across the open space with many a fantastic leap and caper. Coming to the woman who lay before the monolith, he began to lash her with the switches he bore, and she leaped up and spun into the wild mazes of the most incredible dance I have ever
seen. And her tormentor danced with her, keeping the wild rhythm, matching her every whirl and bound, while incessantly raining cruel blows on her naked body. And at every blow he shouted a single word, over and over, and all the people shouted it back. I could see the working of their lips, and now the faint far-off murmur of their voices merged and blended into one distant shout, repeated over and over with slobbering ecstasy. But what the one word was, I could not make out.

In dizzy whirls spun the wild dancers, while the lookers-on, standing still in their tracks, followed the rhythm of their dance with swaying bodies and weaving arms. Madness grew in the eyes of the capering votaress and was reflected in the eyes of the watchers. Wilder and more extravagant grew the whirling frenzy of that mad dance–it became a bestial and obscene thing, while the old hag howled and battered the drum like a crazy woman, and the switches cracked out a devil’s tune.

Blood trickled down the dancer’s limbs but she seemed not to feel the lashing save as a stimulus for further enormities of outrageous motion; bounding into the midst of the yellow smoke which now spread out tenuous tentacles to embrace both flying figures, she seemed to merge with that foul fog and veil herself with it. Then emerging into plain view, closely followed by the beast-thing that flogged her, she shot into an indescribable, explosive burst of dynamic mad motion, and on the very
crest of that mad wave, she dropped suddenly to the sward, quivering and panting as if completely overcome by her frenzied exertions. The lashing continued with unabated violence and intensity and she began to wriggle
toward the monolith on her belly. The priest–or such I will call him–followed, lashing her unprotected body with all the power of his arm as she writhed along, leaving a heavy track of blood on the trampled earth. She reached the monolith, and gasping and panting, flung both arms about it and covered the cold stone with fierce hot kisses, as in
frenzied and unholy adoration.

Wolfshead565The fantastic priest bounded high in the air, flinging away the red-dabbled switches, and the worshippers, howling and foaming at the mouths, turned on each other with tooth and nail, rending one another’s garments and flesh in a blind passion of bestiality. The priest swept up the infant with a long arm, and shouting again that Name, whirled the
wailing babe high in the air and dashed its brains out against the monolith, leaving a ghastly stain on the black surface. Cold with horror I saw him rip the tiny body open with his bare brutish fingers and fling handfuls of blood on the shaft, then toss the red and torn shape into the brazier, extinguishing flame and smoke in a crimson rain, while the maddened brutes behind him howled over and over the Name. Then suddenly they all fell prostrate, writhing like snakes, while the priest flung
wide his gory hands as in triumph. I opened my mouth to scream my horror and loathing, but only a dry rattle sounded; a huge monstrous toad-like thing squatted on the top of the monolith!

I saw its bloated, repulsive and unstable outline against the moonlight and set in what would have been the face of a natural creature, its huge, blinking eyes which reflected all the lust, abysmal greed, obscene cruelty and monstrous evil that has stalked the sons of men since their ancestors moved blind and hairless in the treetops. In those grisly eyes were mirrored all the unholy things and vile secrets that sleep in the cities under the sea, and that skulk from the light of day in the blackness of primordial caverns. And so that ghastly thing that the unhallowed ritual of cruelty and sadism and blood had evoked from the silence of the hills, leered and blinked down on its bestial worshippers, who groveled in abhorrent abasement before it….

Read the full text here….

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0601711.txt

Published in: on January 22, 2015 at 4:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Wood Of Ephraim in Sword And Mythos

swordandmythosMy Lovecraftian sword and sorcery story The Wood Of Ephraim appears in Sword And Mythos, a beautiful new book from Innsmouth Free Press featuring stories from the ever lovin’ Willie Miekle, my friend and master of steamfunk/sword and soul,  Balogun Ojedate, Maurice Broaddus, Graham J. Darling, Paul Jessup, Nadia Bulkin, Bogi Takacs, Orrin Grey, Diana L. Paxson, Adrian Chamberlain, Thana Niveau, E. Catherine Tobler, Nellie Geraldine Garcia-Rosas, and Greg Yuen, and featuring essays by G.W. Thomas, Paula Stiles, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who is even now bringing you She Walks In Shadows, an all-female author anthology of Lovecraftian fiction.

Set during the reign of King David, The Wood Of Ephraim is a retelling of the Biblical account of the death of David’s rebel son Prince Absalom. While fleeing David’s men, Absalom’s long and lustrous hair was famously caught in the low hanging branches of a tree. He was discovered by David’s high general, Joab, who hated Absalom’s guts over various slights in the past, and promptly slain.

ms-KingConan-15I suppose indirectly this story takes place in the universe of my Merkabah Rider series, which posits the existence of the Outer Gods as being which existed in the chaos prior to the creation of the physical universe, and directly references an idea put forth by one of the characters in MR, that the Old Ones (in particular, Shub Niggurath) were unleashed on the earth in Noah’s time, and once again, unwittingly, by King David himself….

But it’s also a sword swinging adventure/ survival horror story of the type I absolutely loved to read in my teenaged years, as penned by Robert E. Howard, and probably takes a bit of inspiration from a King Conan comic (#15) I read and re-read as a kid (and also, just a little bit, Xenophon’s Anabasis). It features the Gibborim – David’s legendary hand picked band of elite warriors, who were the ancient Hebrew equivalent of the Argonauts and Robin Hood’s Merry Men wrapped into one.

This is a great book with some excellent, diverse stories and settings, ranging from Africa to Albion. I love what I’ve read of it so far.

Here’s an excerpt from my own offering.

*****************************************************

absalom_doreAt their approach the aspect of the hanging man grew clear. The ostentatious purple cloak, better suited to the court than the battlefield, the handsome mail, the golden spangles adorning the thin, struggling arms, the rich, jewel studded sandals ten feet off the ground.

Prince Absalom’s grimacing face was partly obscured in the tangle of branches and his own famously long and lustrous hair, which was drawn tightly across his eyes, likely a result of his own efforts to extricate himself.

They came to stand immediately below him in the road. Some of them smiled to see the unfortunate traitor so lucklessly suspended by the chief object of his own vanity.

Joab laughed aloud.

“It seems your pretty locks have caught you up, O prince,” he remarked.

“Shall we pluck this fruit down for you, General?” roared Ira ben Ikkesh.

“Let it ripen!” shouted Hezro.

“Yes,” laughed Gareb, “it’s yet too bitter for the general’s plate!”

“Perhaps we should leave it here to rot,” Elez suggested in all seriousness. “Or divide it amongst us.”

The laughter died down at that. All eyes went to Joab.

Naharai frowned.

“No,” said Joab. “We will cut him down.” He looked back at Zalmon. “The king’s orders are clear.”

“Yes master,” said Zalmon, nodding his approval and glancing at Naharai, who smiled broadly, vindicated.

Joab looked up at the prince, kicking and whimpering in the branches.

“Don’t worry about sparing his lovely hair, men,” said Joab. “He left me once with a bare field because I didn’t come quickly enough when he called. Now we’ll leave him stubble-headed because he didn’t come running when his father bade him.”

Zalmon and two other men moved off the road, intending to scale the tree and hack through bough or hair.

Then Jeribai the charioteer called out from behind.

“Wait!”

The three Gibborim stopped and looked back.

Naharai felt a chill then, as something wet splashed his bare arm. He looked down to see a perfectly round spot of blood, followed quickly by another.

“Look to his face!” Jeribai urged, pointing up at Absalom, his eyes bugging.

absalomThe men on the road moved around to Jeribai’s vantage to get a better look. Naharai backed away, smearing the blood down his arm.

They saw that the spindly fingers of the tree branch were hooked into the corners of Absalom’s clenched mouth, which oozed blood.

For a moment Naharai wondered why Absalom suffered the intrusion as a simple movement of his jaw could have easily dislodged the offending branches. But then he saw; they all saw. The tendons in his neck, the muscles in his jaw, were bunched in an effort to keep his teeth shut against the pull of some unknown force. There were ragged cuts in his lips. His breaths came out in terrified white puffs in the cold air. Before their eyes, his jaw wrenched open with a pop and he screamed.

Then with a hiss, something snaked its way rapidly up the branch, faster than any serpent, snapping twigs and shedding a few brown crackling leaves in its haste. White, shiny tubers circled up the base of every branch, converging on Absalom. They flowed down his throat, filling his gaping mouth with thick wood stuff, choking off his screaming.

The whole tree shuddered as if in ecstasy. A wet sucking sound came down to them. The slick tubers in his mouth quivered. The men staggered back at the perverse spectacle of the blindfolded prince dancing jerkily in the tree limbs. Something dark that was not blood filled the tubers spilling from his mouth, which were translucent enough to see the course it took back to the trunk of the great tree.

“Lord!” Naharai exclaimed. “What is it?”

Eliam looked about to answer when Joab commanded;

“Save the prince!”

Zalmon and the two other warriors at the edge of the road drew their swords and axes and hesitated, unsure whether to pursue their earlier course and climb the tree to reach Absalom, or hew it down instead.

“General!”

It was Eliam, now at Joab’s shoulder.

“It’s too late.”

Joab opened his mouth to protest, but then saw the weird wet stalks thrusting themselves further down Absalom’s throat, so far his neck bulged hideously outward beneath his chin.

He flipped the spear in his hand, drawing it back over his shoulder.

“No!” Naharai interrupted, pushing forward and grabbing Joab’s arm. “Remember the king’s edict!”

By now word had reached King David that the battle had ended in victory and that his son had fled. If Absalom were killed, no one would believe Joab had not murdered him.

But the general was a bull, and the strongest of them. With a mere shrug, Naharai clattered to the road.

youngJoab regained himself and cast the spear. It transfixed Prince Absalom through the chest, a killing blow. Yet still the prince thrashed and fought. His teeth ground loudly against the tubers, finally cracking off in his mouth under the strain.

“Spear!” Joab cried.

Jeribai took hold of one of the general’s spears and tossed it to Joab.

Joab ran Prince Absalom through a second time. The body lurched and sagged in the grip of the tree, blood spurting down the haft.

The flow of stuff from the corpse ceased. There was a sound like a cross between the groan of falling timber and a hysterical chittering.

Then before their eyes, the branches entwined about the dead prince’s head moved.

********************************************

Pick up a copy of the book here or on Amazon –

http://www.innsmouthfreepress.com/blog/tb-books/sword-and-mythos/

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Belated Birthday, Robert E. Howard

Yesterday was Robert E. Howard’s birthday. I usually mark the birthdays of my favorite writers with a post, or an excerpt from some of their work, which is the best way I think, to celebrate them.

With all the Star Wars stuff the past couple days, I let it slip by (sorry, Bob!).

Usually a writer of titanic bloodshed and brooding violence, Howard also had a fun streak which I discovered some years ago when I tracked down a copy of A Gent From Bear Creek and read the stories aloud to my wife at bedtime. I’m in a good mood this week, so I thought I’d post something from the lighter side of REH.

The simple set up is, Breck Elkins, an overgrown backwoods battler, wants badly to court Glory McGraw. But her dang it, her family keeps getting in the way….

jeffrey-jones_a-gent-from-bear-creek_ny-zebra-books-1975_132_front“Lemme handle him,” snarled Mister Wilkinson. “Git outa the way and gimme a clean shot at him. Lissen here, you jack-eared mountain-mule, air you goin’ out of here perpendicular, or does you prefer to go horizontal?”

“Open the ball whenever you feels lucky, you stripe-bellied polecat!” I retorted courteously, and he give a snarl and went for his gun, but I got mine out first and shot it out of his hand along with one of his fingers before he could pull his trigger.

He give a howl and staggered back agen the wall, glaring wildly at me, and at the blood dripping off his hand, and I stuck my old cap-and-ball .44 back in the scabbard and said: “You may be accounted a fast gunslinger down in the low country, but yo’re tolerable slow on the draw to be foolin’ around Bear Creek. You better go on home now,
and–”

It was at this moment that Old Man McGraw hit me over the head with his poker. He swung it with both hands as hard as he could, and if I hadn’t had on my coonskin cap I bet it would have skint my head some. As it was it knocked me to my knees, me being off-guard that way, and his three boys run in and started beating me with chairs and benches and a table laig. Well, I didn’t want to hurt none of Glory’s kin, but I had bit my tongue when the old man hit me with his poker, and that always did irritate me. Anyway, I seen they warn’t no use arguing with them fool boys. They was out for blood–mine, to be exact.

So I riz up and taken Joe by the neck and crotch and throwed him through a winder as gentle as I could, but I forgot about the hickory-wood bars which was nailed acrost it to keep the bears out. He took ’em along with him, and that was how he got skint up like he did. I heard Glory let out a scream outside, and would have hollered out to let her know I was all right and for her not to worry about me, but just as I opened my mouth to do it, John jammed the butt-end of a table laig into it.

Sech treatment would try the patience of a saint, still and all I didn’t really intend to hit John as hard as I did. How was I to know a tap like I give him would knock him through the door and dislocate his jawbone?

Old Man McGraw was dancing around trying to get another whack at me with his bent poker without hitting Bill which was hammering me over the head with a chair, but Mister Wilkinson warn’t taking no part in the fray. He was backed up agen a wall with a wild look on his face. I reckon he warn’t used to Bear Creek squabbles.

I taken the chair away from Bill and busted it over his head jest to kinda cool him off a little, and jest then Old Man McGraw made another swipe at me with his poker, but I ducked and grabbed him, and Bill stooped over to pick up a bowie knife which had fell out of somebody’s boot. His back was towards me so I planted my moccasin in the seat of his britches with considerable force and he shot head-first through the door with a despairing howl. Somebody else screamed too, that sounded like Glory. I didn’t know at the time I that she was running up to the door and was knocked down by Bill as he catapulted into the yard.

I couldn’t see what was going on outside, and Old Man McGraw was chawing my thumb and feeling for my eye, so I throwed him after John and Bill, and he’s a liar when he said I aimed him at that rain-barrel a-purpose. I didn’t even know they was one there till I heard the crash as his head went through the staves.

I turned around to have some more words with Mister Wilkinson, but he jumped through the winder I’d throwed Joe through, and when I tried to foller him, I couldn’t get my shoulders through. So I run out at the door and Glory met me just as I hit the yard and she give me a slap in the face that sounded like a beaver hitting a mud bank with
his tail.

“Why, Glory!” I says, dumbfounded, because her blue eyes was blazing, and her yaller hair was nigh standing on end. She was so mad she was crying and that’s the first time I ever knowed she could cry. “What’s the matter? What’ve I did?”

Published in: on January 23, 2014 at 10:54 am  Comments (2)  
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Happy 107th, Robert E. Howard

rehToday marks what would’ve been the 107th birthday of my all-time favorite writer and chief influence, Robert Ervin Howard, the creator of Conan, Solomon Kane, and a slew of others, and the father of the sword and sorcery genre.

Howard was an extraordinary writer and sometime poet who took his own life before he had the chance to truly blossom or gain the recognition he deserved. He never knew fame or steady success in his lifetime, but he accomplished enough to still resonate with fans all over the world to this day, including myself.  There is no greater writer of sword swinging action in my opinion.

Writing is a kind of alchemy, and the best practioners find a way to string base, everyday words together into a mystic formula that shines golden on the page long after the author is dust. The best parts of his stories enflame the spirit and plunge the imagination down lustrous, vivid paths. Howard was a man out of time and place, who dreamed of the past and idolized it, who could look at fields of churning oil derricks and see groaning monsters, who turned liquor store bullies into barbarians and saw dragon fire in the sun over the West Texas hills. He partly believed his own stories I think, saying they were merely related to him by individuals who existed somewhere, sometime. It’s his own belief in the worlds he is responsible for bringing to light that make them so enduring.

Everybody dreams, but not everybody can relate those dreams in a way that strangers can share in them and believe them too.

Hats off to the man from Texas. Next year, in Cross Plains!

Recompense

I have not heard lutes beckon me,

nor the brazen bugles call,

But once in the dim of a haunted lea I heard the silence fall.

I have not heard the regal drum, nor seen the flags unfurled,

But I have watched the dragons come, fire-eyed, across the world.

I have not seen the horsemen fall before the hurtling host,

But I have paced a silent hall where each step waked a ghost.

I have not kissed the tiger-feet of a strange-eyed golden god,

But I have walked a city’s street where no man else had trod.

I have not raised the canopies that shelter reveling kings,

But I have fled from crimson eyes and black unearthly wings.

I have not knelt outside the door to kiss a pallid queen,

But I have seen a ghostly shore that no man else has seen.

I have not seen the standards sweep from keep and castle wall,

But I have seen a woman leap from a dragon’s crimson stall,

And I have heard strange surges boom that no man heard before,

And seen a strange black city loom on a mystic night-black shore.

And I have felt the sudden blow of a nameless wind’s cold breath,

And watched the grisly pilgrims go that walk the roads of Death,

And I have seen black valleys gape, abysses in the gloom,

And I have fought the deathless Ape that guards the Doors of Doom.

I have not seen the face of Pan, nor mocked the Dryad’s haste,

But I have trailed a dark-eyed Man across a windy waste.

I have not died as men may die, nor sin as men have sinned,

But I have reached a misty sky upon a granite wind.

Published in: on January 22, 2013 at 2:58 pm  Comments (3)  
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Happy 80th Birthday, Conan The Cimmerian

conanWhat do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the  sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs–I was a man before I was a king.

In December of 1932, Farnsworth “Plato” Wright, the editor of the seminal pulp fiction magazine Weird Tales ran a story by a virtually unknown West Texas writer named Robert E. Howard called “The Phoenix On The Sword.”

Set in the mythical Hyborian Age, it introduces a brooding, middle aged barbarian ruler called Conan of Cimmeria who has recently usurped the crown of the kingdom of Aquilonia, having led a revolt against the previous tyrant Numedides and strangling him to death as he sat on the throne. Conan is a dark giant of a man with scores of hard won victories behind him, but as we first find him, he’s confounded by the fickle nature of civilized men. His own people, once grateful to him for rescuing them from the cruelties of Numedides, have now built a statue to the modern king in the temple of the patron god Mitra, and denounce King Conan as a bloody minded foreignor and heathen (he pays nominal honor to a grim northern god called Crom, usually in the form of curses and oaths).

The rest of the story concerns the plan of four would-be conspirators, each with their own personal agendas, to assassinate Conan and retake the throne, and the plotting of a fifth character, a deposed sorcerror turned slave, seeking to regain his former powers, lost when a magic ring was stolen from him. Conan is forewarned of the attempt on his life by a long dead Merlin-like Aquilonian sage, who marks his sword with a phoenix sigil.

King Conan_Conan the BarbarianWaking and half-buckling on his armor, Conan meets his assassins and cuts them down to a man, then proceeds to kill a fanged gorilla demon summoned by the sorceror, who has regained his mystic ring.

This is the first of seventeen stories Weird Tales published featuring the character most know as Conan The Barbarian.

Like a lot of people my age, I came to Conan through John Milius’ marvelous 80’s Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, justly famous for kickstarting (and in my opinion, forever dominating) the sword and sorcery genre in cinema.  From the first thundering drumbeats of its unmatched Basil Poledouris score, to its savage crucifixion scene, Conan The Barbarian grabbed a hold of my 14 year old mind, just arrested my adolescent self, left me wanting more.

Conan_the_AdventurerHaving seen Robert E. Howard’s name in the opening titles, I sought out the original material at my local used bookstore, grabbing as many of the Lancer paperbacks with the incredible Frank Frazetta covers as I could find. This was in the days before the unadulterated Conan, when compiler and editor L. Sprague De Camp altered or finished a lot of Howard’s original stories to fit them into a chronology that included his own and other authors’ pastiches.

I was totally hooked, but even my inexperienced mind (this was before the internet, and I didn’t know a thing about Howard except what DeCamp told me in his forewards) could detect the difference between pure Howardian Conan and the imitators. I started looking for more stories with just Howard’s name, and that led me to Solomon Kane, King Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Cormac Mac Art, and Breckenridge Elkins.

But always, even to this day, I return to Conan, and Howard’s writing probably influences me more than anybody else I’ve ever read.

He’s like a prehistoric James Bond, but better than that. The character is an embodiment of what is primal in man, or in most men, anyway. I would say if you get a knot in your stomach when you think about politics, or the underhanded ways in which people deal with each other, if you dislike the shiftless infidelities modern society tends to deify on a daily basis, then Conan is for you. But I won’t bore you with my own why’s, they’re probably not much different from anyone else’s (or, as in all worthwhile art, your interpretation could be entirely different from mine and your appreciations different from my own, in which case I won’t color your opinions with my own).

I don’t need to tell you why I appreciate Conan. I’ll leave it to Howard’s writing.

My favorite Conan stories remain Black Colossus and The Hour of The Dragon, with The Frost Giant’s Daughter a close third.

Although Howard wrote the Conan stories out of chronological order (likening his process as relating the stories of the adventurer as he chose to recall them, not necessarily in the order they occured), in Black Colossus, I would say we see Conan in a period of transition. In his life he has been a savage barbarian, a worldly thief and bandit, a pirate, a soldier, and a mercenary. In this story we first see him in command of men as a general. This is his last step before becoming the king we will see in Phoenix On The Sword.

blackcolossusThe gods have a hand in Conan’s destiny once again, when Princess Yasmela, the ruler of the kingdom of Khoraja, faced with the oncoming assault of a horde of desert warriors and monstrous creatures led by an ambitious three thousand year old wizard called Natohk, is instructed by the god Mitra (through the statue of Mitra in a temple as she prays in desperation) to place her armies in the command of the first man she meets on the street. Of course it turns out to be a drunken Conan, actually a paid soldier in the Khorajan army, who comically mistakes the princess’ intentions as the lewd advances of a wanton noblewoman.

But soon he is convinced, and finds himself for the first time in command of an army, to his own secret delight and the utter disdain of his former superior officers, noblemen all.

Commanding the defense of a mountain pass as Natohk’s horde advances, Conan is faced first with the mutiny of a subordinate count and his knights, and deals with it it classic Conan fashion.

Conan sprang up with a curse. Thespides had swept in beside his men. They could hear his impassioned voice faintly, but his gesture toward the approaching horde was significant enough. In another instant five hundred lances dipped and the steel-clad company was thundering down the valley.

A young page came running from Yasmela’s pavilion, crying to Conan in a shrill, eager voice. “My lord, the princess asks why you do not follow and support Count Thespides?”

“Because I am not so great a fool as he,” grunted Conan, reseating himself on the boulder and beginning to gnaw a huge beef bone.

“You grow sober with authority,” quoth Amalric. “Such madness as that was always your particular joy.”

“Aye, when I had only my own life to consider,” answered Conan. “Now–what in hell–“

The horde had halted. From the extreme wing rushed a chariot, the naked charioteer lashing the steeds like a madman; the other occupant was a tall figure whose robe floated spectrally on the wind. He held in his arms a great vessel of gold and from it poured a thin stream that sparkled in the sunlight. Across the whole front of the desert horde the chariot swept, and behind its thundering wheels was left, like the wake behind a ship, a long thin powdery line that glittered in the sands like the phosphorescent track of a serpent.

“That’s Natohk!” swore Amalric. “What hellish seed is he sowing?”

The charging knights had not checked their headlong pace. Another fifty paces and they would crash into the uneven Kushite ranks, which stood motionless, spears lifted. Now the foremost knights had reached the thin line that glittered across the sands. They did not heed that crawling menace. But as the steel-shod hoofs of the horses struck it, it was as when steel strikes flint–but with more terrible result. A terrific explosion rocked the desert, which seemed to split apart along the strewn line with an awful burst of white flame.

In that instant the whole foremost line of the knights was seen enveloped in that flame, horses and steel-clad riders withering in the glare like insects in an open blaze. The next instant the rear ranks were piling up on their charred bodies. Unable to check their headlong velocity, rank after rank crashed into the ruins. With appalling suddenness the charge had turned into a shambles where armored figures died amid screaming, mangled horses.

Now the illusion of confusion vanished as the horde settled into orderly lines. The wild Kushites rushed into the shambles, spearing the wounded, bursting the helmets of the knights with stones and iron hammers. It was all over so quickly that the watchers on the slopes stood dazed; and again the horde moved forward, splitting to avoid the charred waste of corpses. From the hills went up a cry: “We fight not men but devils!”

On either ridge the hillmen wavered. One rushed toward the plateau, froth dripping from his beard.

“Flee, flee!” he slobbered. “Who can fight Natohk’s magic?”

With a snarl Conan bounded from his boulder and smote him with the beef bone; he dropped, blood starting from nose and mouth. Conan drew his sword, his eyes slits of blue bale-fire.

“Back to your posts!” he yelled. “Let another take a backward step and I’ll shear off his head! Fight, damn you!”

WeirdTales-1935-12Hour Of The Dragon was Howard’s only full-length Conan novel. Set again during his time as ruler of Aquilonia, it concerns Conan’s long quest to regain his throne after being attacked and overthrown.

It contains one of my favorite passages. Having been prevented from leading his men into battle by sorcery, the Aquilonian army is smashed and the enemy closes on King Conan’s tent, where he has just risen groggily from his cot…

“Here comes the king of Nemedia with four companions and his squire,” quoth he. “He will accept your surrender, my fair lord–“

“Surrender the devil’s heart!” gritted the king.

He had forced himself up to a sitting posture. He swung his legs painfully off the dais, and staggered upright, reeling drunkenly. The squire ran to assist him, but Conan pushed him away.
“Give me that bow!” he gritted, indicating a longbow and quiver that hung from a tent-pole.

“But Your Majesty!” cried the squire in great perturbation. “The battle is lost! It were the part of majesty to yield with the dignity
becoming one of royal blood!”

“I have no royal blood,” ground Conan. “I am a barbarian and the son of a blacksmith.”

Wrenching away the bow and an arrow, he staggered toward the opening of the pavilion. So formidable was his appearance, naked but for short leather breeks and sleeveless shirt, open to reveal his great, hairy chest, with his huge limbs and his blue eyes blazing under his tangled
black mane, that the squire shrank back, more afraid of his king than of the whole Nemedian host.

Reeling on wide-braced legs Conan drunkenly tore the door-flap open and staggered out under the canopy. The king of Nemedia and his
companions had dismounted, and they halted short, staring in wonder at the apparition confronting them.

“Here I am, you jackals!” roared the Cimmerian. “I am the king! Death to you, dog-brothers!”

He jerked the arrow to its head and loosed, and the shaft feathered itself in the breast of the knight who stood beside Tarascus. Conan
hurled the bow at the king of Nemedia.

“Curse my shaky hand! Come in and take me if you dare!”

Reeling backward on unsteady legs, he fell with his shoulders against a tent-pole, and propped upright, he lifted his great sword with both
hands.

“By Mitra, it is the king!” swore Tarascus. He cast a swift look about him, and laughed. “That other was a jackal in his harness! In, dogs,
and take his head!”

The three soldiers–men-at-arms wearing the emblem of the royal guards– rushed at the king, and one felled the squire with a blow of a mace.
The other two fared less well. As the first rushed in, lifting his sword, Conan met him with a sweeping stroke that severed mail-links
like cloth, and sheared the Nemedian’s arm and shoulder clean from his body. His corpse, pitching backward, fell across his companion’s legs.
The man stumbled, and before he could recover, the great sword was through him.

Conan wrenched out his steel with a racking gasp, and staggered back against the tent-pole. His great limbs trembled, his chest heaved, and
sweat poured down his face and neck. But his eyes flamed with exultant savagery and he panted: “Why do you stand afar off, dog of Belverus? I can’t reach you; come in and die!”

And finally, in The Frost Giant’s Daughter, a very young Conan walks away, the last survivor of a bloody battle on a frozen northern plain between yellow haired Aesir and fierce Vanir tribesmen, and pursues a naked nymph across the blowing snow. It has one of the most memorable openings I’ve ever read (and is a piece of poetry when taken as a whole).

frazettaFROST_GIANTSThe clangor of the swords had died away, the shouting of the slaughter was hushed; silence lay on the red-stained snow. The bleak pale sun that glittered so blindingly from the ice-fields and the snow-covered plains struck sheens of silver from rent corselet and broken blade, where the dead lay as they had fallen. The nerveless hand yet gripped the broken hilt; helmeted heads back-drawn in the death-throes, tilted red beards and golden beards grimly upward, as if in last invocation to Ymir the frost-giant, god of a warrior race.

 Across the red drifts and mail-clad forms, two figures glared at each other. In that utter desolation only they moved. The frosty sky was over them, the white illimitable plain around them, the dead men at their feet. Slowly through the corpses they came, as ghosts might come to a tryst through the shambles of a dead world. In the brooding silence they stood face to face.

 Both were tall men, built like tigers. Their shields were gone, their corselets battered and dinted. Blood dried on their mail; their swords were stained red. Their horned helmets showed the marks of fierce strokes. One was beardless and black-maned. The locks and beard of the other were red as the blood on the sunlit snow.

 “Man,” said he, “tell me your name, so that my brothers in Vanaheim may know who was the last of Wulfhere’s band to fall before the sword of Heimdul.”

 “Not in Vanaheim,” growled the black-haired warrior, “but in Valhalla will you tell your brothers that you met Conan of Cimmeria.”

Happy birthday, Conan.

-Hasta pronto

Published in: on December 2, 2012 at 12:53 pm  Comments (5)  
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DT Moviehouse Reviews: 300

Continuing my infrequent blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I slog my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money, here’s Zack Snyder’s only good movie, 300.

(2007) Directed by Zack Snyder, Written by Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael B. Gordon, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley

Tagline: Prepare for glory!

What it’s about:

The monument to Leonidas and the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae

In 480 B.C. the Persian emperor Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) invades Greece and stubs his well pedicured pinky toe on the militant nation of Sparta, whose forward thinking monarch Leonidas (Gerard Butler) defies convention and logic and leads three hundred soldiers and a couple hundred Athenians to a narrow canyon pathway to bottleneck the million man invasion force in an ultra-heroic do-or-die last stand.

Why I bought it:

300 is the movie that for me, saved modern film.

I had just completed a rotten string of bad luck at the theater. I had seen, in rapid succession, Superman Returns, Nacho Libre, Lady In The Water, (and I could’ve sworn, though the dates don’t seem to bear it out, a Nicholas Cage movie which among my moviegoing friends is now known infamously as ‘that flaming skull biker movie’ and shall remain forever nameless on this blog).

I was pretty disillusioned with Hollywood. I’d gotten to the point where I had to be in the mood to watch anything new.

I was familiar with the story of the Battle of Thermopylae from Larry Gonick’s treatment of it in his seminal Cartoon History Of The Universe, but I hadn’t read Frank Miller’s graphic novel, although I’d been aware of it for some time.

Forget the Spartans...go tell Nanny 911.

I had zero expectations about this. Though it looked visually interesting, I had seen the same extensive green screen technique already used by Robert Rodriguez in his Sin City adaptation, and felt the whole thing had turned out kind of silly. I lovedSinCitythe comic (particularly The Big Fat Kill), but like Watchmen, it worked better as a comic. The exaggerated look of the characters in the film was ridiculously literal and the dialogue just sounded goofy when spoken. I didn’t hate it, but it was pretty forgettable.

I went down to Palm Springs to see 300 with an old buddy who was staying down there for a couple weeks while he worked on the wind turbines (DON’T say windmills in his presence).

From the opening scene, this movie positively arrested me in the theater. It’s baroque style brutality (featuring children no less – something that’s almost NEVER done), it’s Wagnerian music and staging (I love the strangely ominous swelling of the chorus at the return of the majestic young Leonidas wearing the skin of the wolf he killed), and most especially David Wenham’s voice, which drips with the same kind of classical, grand guginol theatrical quality of narration by Vincent Price or Christopher Lee. It’s perfectly matched to the overblown, overdramatic, hyper-realism of the movie’s imagery.

I’m a tremendous fan of Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan. I was drawn to seek out Howard via the 1980 Milius movie, but it was the amazing cover art that graced the various Zebra and Lancer paperbacks of Howard’s work that drove me to obsessively collect them. The art of Boris Vallejo, Jeff Jones, and most especially Frank Frazetta set fire to my imagination.

Frank Frazetta - Seven Romans

300 is obviously meant to reflect the style of Frank Miller, but I can’t help but think of Frazetta watching it. The female figures are voluptuous and sensual (spearheaded by the beautiful Lena Headly as Leonidas’ Queen Gorgo – the woman projects maturity, strength and soft and cuddly womanhood at the same time, without being either a waif or a tomboy.  She really should’ve been tapped to play Wonder Woman), the males tigerish and virile in the extreme, and the various ‘monsters’ suitably hideous yet disturbingly humanoid, bolstering the idea that they’re not quite monsters, just corrupt offshoots of humanity.

Which they are.

I’ve heard the cries of homoeroticism leveled at 300. I guess people see what they want to see. Of course the real life Trojans practiced institutionalized homosexuality (it could be argued, pedophilia – which always makes me cringe ruefully at the ‘boy lovers’ line Leonidas directs at the Athenians at one point), but this is only lightly touched upon if at all, mainly in hints in the friendship between the Captain’s son and his best friend.

For my part though, 300’s unabashed maleness appeals to the 12 year old in me that flexed his skinny arms in the mirror hopefully and dreamt of rescuing the cutest girl in class via some act of extreme, righteous (and somehow impressive) violence. It’s a gung ho, unapologetically un-PC guy movie, promoting esprit de corps, nationalism, and the supposed virtues of war, but God dang it if doesn’t pull it off masterfully.

And it’s a helluva a lot smarter than it lets on (perhaps even smarter than its director knew judging from his other work). Consider that the entire movie is narrated by the lone survivor of the Battle of Thermopylae, Wenham’s Dilios.

Leonidas has defied the Ephors (insanely corrupt, bestial oracular priests who molest virgins are part of their ceremonies) and his own government (being maniuplated by Dominic West, who is on the Persian payroll – and looks like an evil Harry Hamlin/Perseus) in taking the fight to Xerxes because he knows the Persians must be defeated. So he tells the wounded Wenham to return and tell them what’s happened. It’s then revealed in the end sequence that Wenham has been narrating the entire movie to a new force of Spartans and free Greeks who have amassed to deal with the Persian threat following the destruction of the 300.

This immediately puts all of the movie’s gross exaggerations (Xerxes is a giant, the Persians are monstrous and use magicians, the traitor Ephialtes is a subhuman, the corrupt Ephors look like C.H.U.D.s, Sparta itself is a sunblessed paradise) into perspective. Wenham’s Dilios intends to relate a heroic, larger than life tale to spur the Spartans to war.

LEONIDAS: ‘You have another talent unlike any other Spartan. You will deliver my final orders to the council with force and verve. Tell them our story. Make every Greek know what happened here. You’ll have a grand tale to tell.’

Dilios spins his tale.

Thus, the movie we’re watching is a tall tale, a grand, glorious bit of propaganda spun by Dilios, the most eloquent of the three hundred, and every fantastic bit of nonsense becomes completely justified. The bomb throwing ‘wizards,’ the monstrous inhuman Immortals, the incredible martial art death dealing of the individual Spartans (ignoring the fact that most of them break the phalanx that was the most crucial component of their defense), all of it.

300 becomes, in this context, a fantastic Greek hero myth, as lusty and bloody and beautiful as anything Homer might’ve recited to get the audience’s blood pumping.

As I said, 300 made me love movies again. At the time I saw it, it was practically unlike anything else that had come before it, a brilliant moving Frazetta painting with larger than life heroes and action.

Best bit of dialogue:

This movie is endlessly quotable, some of the lines actually coming from the original historical accounts (‘Fight in the shade,’ ‘Spartans! Lay down your weapons!’ ‘Persians! Come and get them!’, are both purported to be true exchanges), but my personal favorite is the final curse Leonidas lays on the traitorous Ephialtes just prior the final stand of the 300. Spartan law decrees that any infant born too weak to be raised as warriors, be left to die, and Ephialtes is a twisted, deformed hunchback. Yet his parents, out of love for him, chose to spare him, and we presume left Spartan society. Ephialtes returns, wearing the warrior garb of his late father, claiming his father taught him how to fight. He offers his service as a soldier to Leonidas. Leonidas rejects him due to the practical reason of his not being able to raise his shield arm to maintain a phalanx with the other Spartans. The spurned Ephialtes goes straight to Xerxes and betrays Leonidas, guiding the Persians to a secret pass by which they can circumvent the Spartan defense and surround the 300 in exchange for wealth, sex, and a ridiculously clownish Persian uniform.

In one simple, almost offhanded remark, Leonidas cuts the traitor to his soul, alluding to all the cultural lessons Ephialtes’ father tried to instill in him about seeking honor and a warrior’s life (which of course must end, by a Spartan’s way of thinking, with a warrior’s death on the battlefield). All in five heavy words.

‘Ephialtes. May you live forever.’

If you play it in slow mo, you can see the exact point where Ephialtes' heart breaks...('oo')...right there.

Best scene:

Again, almost too many to cite.  I love the opening sequence, but there is another scene that really sticks with me.

The Spartans are on a bluff overlooking the ocean as a tremendous night tempest unleashes all it’s fury on the horizon-to-horizon Persian fleet, capsizing the great ships, smashing them into each other, and sending thousands of Persian sailors (and we presume, warriors) sinking slowly to the bottom.

The Spartans lose all their previously established discipline and match the storm’s violence with their own apparent exuberance. They beat each other’s shoulders, ball their fists, and scream their exultation at the drowning Persians as the slanting silver rain drives against their bare skin, plastering their hair and cloaks.

The music reaches a tremendous crescendo, utilizing as never before, weird, crashing electric guitar strains that capitalize the barbarity of the moment -men abandoning themselves to extreme joy at the death of other men.

Dilios narrates:

‘Zeus stabs the sky with thunderbolts and batters the Persian ships with hurricane wind. Glorious.’

The camera cuts to Leonidas, who alone stands grim and subdued, frowning at the destruction, not because he doesn’t share in his men’s appreciation at seeing the enemy so destroyed, but because he knows that ultimately, it’s not gonna be enough.

Dilios continues,

‘Only one among us keeps his Spartan reserve. Only he. Only our king.’

Would I buy it again? Yes.

NEXT IN THE QUEUE: The Adventures of Robin Hood

Writing The West: A Reference Guide

Charles M. Russell’s In Without Knocking

I often write stories set in the Old American West which is why the adage ‘write what you know’ doesn’t really fly with me to a point. If everybody simply wrote what they knew, we wouldn’t have Middle Earth or the Hyborian Age or the Galaxy Far Far Away. Of course, the real interpretation of that saying is to find what you know and relate that to what you’re writing about. Tolkien was a veteran of the Great War, and the battles and reflections of the soldiers in Middle Earth reflect that to an extent. Robert E. Howard was an iconoclast living in a disapproving little town, and Conan’s ‘barbaric’ reactions to a decadent society are his author’s own. The rest is just smoke and mirrors.

But when you’re talking about writing in a real place and time, you’ve got to do your research. I’ve said it a thousand times before. Slapping a cowboy hat on a zombie doesn’t make a weird western, and putting boots on your protagonist doesn’t make him a cowboy.

In the course of my writing, I’ve amassed a reference library of course. Writing to me is a learning experience, both in terms of craft and in terms of the settings I choose. I like to write about the past, and about other cultures, and to challenge myself by writing about things I don’t know too much about. Graham Masterton is an Englishman, but he writes stories set in the US.  If he does his job, you never question his birthplace.

For those interested in writing or just reading about the American West (and I mean the Old West of gunfighters and free roaming Indians), I have a core of books I always find myself going back to.

The New Encyclopedia of The American West, Edited by Howard Lamar – This is the jumping point for any story I write set in the West. In preparing the Merkabah Rider series, I read the Jews In The West entry, and in turn sought out the books cited there. This is an astounding (and thick) reference work with entries on most every state, territory, event and individual you can think of, dating from the early Lewis and Clark days through the waning of Tom Mix’s movies up to the recent present.  It opens with a handy timeline dating from 1785-1998.

 The Look Of The Old West, by Foster-Harris – I recently picked up this gem of a book to familiarize myself with western cavalry uniforms and accoutrements. Besides being written in an extremely present and familiar folksy style, its loaded with invaluable illustrations on every minute aspect of frontier life, from firearms to women’s wear and modes of transportation. It’s quickly become one of my favorite books.

The Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters, by Bill O’Neal – This book is an alphabetical listing of the more notorious western gunmen with cross references of men they’ve faced as well as lesser known personas like William Blake and Heck Thomas. If they were in the west and they ever fired a gun at another person, they’re likely to be in here. There are some great lists in the beginning too, including a timeline specific to gunfighters and a ranking of the most well known gunmen in terms of kills, lifespans, causes of death, and occupations.

Forts Of The Old West, by Robert W. Frazer – A breakdown of military outposts of the frontier period arranged by state, with brief entries on the histories and uses of each.

 A Treasury Of American Folklore, by B.A. Botkin – This is a great potpourri of American frontier culture, including humorous stories and songs from the period.

Dictionary Of The American West, by Winfred Blevins – Another of my favorite books. An alphabetical listing of some wonderfully colorful terms from the American Western lexicon, including a great list of synonyms for the more popular pastimes (dying, getting drunk, getting buried, etc).

Cowboy Slang, by Edgar ‘Frosty’ Potter – I love hearing those western metaphoric sayings like ‘There ain’t enough room in here to cuss a cat without getting a mouthful of hair.’ I always wished somebody would collect them into a book. While I was at Yuma Territorial Prison over the summer doing research I came across this book in their gift shop, and it’s the closest thing I’ve found to what I want. The entries are a little G-rated at times for my liking, but it’s still a pretty good book.

Daughters Of Joy, Sisters Of Misery, by Ann M. Butler – Before you go writing a peachy complexioned Miss Kitty swinging her legs on the piano, her heart of gold fairly brimming from her eyes, you owe it to yourself to read this book, the best I’ve found on the stark realities of frontier prostitutes.

In Their Own Words: Warriors And Pioneers, by TJ Stiles – A great book of first hand accounts from various individuals involved in the period. Includes excerpts from Geronimo, Custer, John Wesley Hardin, and Buffalo Bill Cody among others.

Conversations With Bushwhackers & Muleskinners, by Fred Lockley – Much like the book above, but more unpolished, and thus, a little more valuable. Whereas In Their Own Words includes stuff taken from autobiographies, Conversations is just a collection of anecdotes from plain old folks, most of them relative toOregon. But it’s great just to read the vernacular speech of the time and get a feel for it.

 The Encyclopedia Of North American Indian Tribes, by Bill Yenne – When I write about Native Americans, this is my starting point. A lot of people think of Indians as the Plains variety, all buckskins and feathered bonnets.  If you don’t even know there are some five hundred different tribes of Indians each with their own individual and distinct cultures, this should be yours. The color keyed map at the front showing the general stomping grounds of the various nations both prior to after white encroachment is worth the price alone, but then you get an alphabetical listing of tribes, detailing their languages and some of their customs.

 Saloons Of The Old West, by Richard Erdoes – Another of my favorites, detailing the evolution of the saloon from colonial times onward. There are some great anecdotes about Oscar Wilde’s forays in LeadvilleColoradoas well as information on hurdy-gurdy gals, dance halls, the prices of the spirits and what they were called.

The Encyclopedia Of Civil War Usage, by Webb Garrison – Like the Dictionary of The American West, but focusing on the War Between The States, invaluable if you’re writing about the time directly after, when the gunfighter first started making his mark.

 Age Of The Gunfighter, by Richard Collins – I cherish this book not for the general text on the more famous gunfighters like Billy The Kid and their theaters, but for the awesome annotated photographs of period firearms taken from theAutryMuseumand various private collections.

The People Called Apache/Mystic Warriors Of The Plains, by Thomas E. Mails – If you’re writing about either of these tribes, these books are indispensible. Mails writes indepth about everyday life and customs and includes brilliantly detailed illustrations of even the smallest ornamental items.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown – The greatest, most accessible history of white and Native American conflict ever written.

Black Red And Deadly, by Art T. Burton – A fascinating history of African American and Indian gunfighters on both sides of the law in Oklahoma/Indian Territory.

The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative Of The Negro Cavalry In The West, by William H. Leckie – THE book on the African American cavalrymen.

We live in a visual era, and the way the West comes alive for most people is through film. If you want to get an inspiring look at the West, I’d also recommend these pictures…

The Searchers

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

The Long Riders

Unforgiven

The Wild Bunch

Dances With Wolves

OpenRange

The Missing

Bad Company

The Ballad Of Gregorio Cortez

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Wyatt Earp

Tom Horn

The Culpepper Cattle Company

The Shootist

Of course if you want to be inspired creatively, you can always take a look at the spaghettis, but I’d confine myself to Leone’s Dollars trilogy and Once Upon A Time In The West, and Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence. They have a look that although not always entirely accurate, is all their own.

I’d also recommend perusing the works of some western artists to get you int. Charles M. Russel, Frederic Remington are the two tops, but James Bama does some great western character studies, and I personally like Charles Schreyvogel.

Frederic Remington

Happy Trails.

Published in: on September 14, 2011 at 1:17 pm  Comments (2)  
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