I've always liked Steve Harrison. I read my first Harrison yarn -- The House of Suspicion -- before I read my first prose Conan story. The two aren't that dissimilar. Both are smart guys, if not intellectuals, who don't mind getting violent if need be. Hell, in one story, Harrison even grabs a battleaxe and mows down some crooks with it! There's no evidence Spillane read REH, but there are some resemblances between Harrison and Mike Hammer.
BTW, for the "Brock Rollins" fans out there, there's no such galoot. Editors, not Howard, decided that the exact same character needed a different name. Same thing happened with Steve Costigan and "Dennis Dorgan".
Here's an example of Harrison going primal, using any weapon to hand, even if it's a Mongol mace!
The Mongols came on as if they, too, were blood-mad. They jammed the door with square snarling faces and squat silk-clad bodies before he could slam it shut. Knives licked at him, and gripping the mace with both hands he wielded it like a flail, working awful havoc among the shapes that strove in the doorway, wedged by the pressure from behind. The lights, the upturned snarling faces that dissolved in crimson ruin beneath his flailing, all swam in a red mist. He was not aware of his individual identity. He was only a man with a club, transported back fifty thousand years, a hairy-breasted, red-eyed primitive, wholly possessed by the crimson instinct for slaughter.
Don Herron is considered by many to be the dean of REH literary criticism. He is absolutely considered to be the authority on Dashiell Hammett. If you don't know who Hammett is, I've got three words for ya: The Maltese Falcon.
Here is part of Don's intro for Steve Harrison's Casebook from the REHF Press...
Hard-Boiled in Texas
“I find it more and more difficult to write anything but western yarns,” Robert E. Howard told H. P. Lovecraft toward the end of a long letter dated May 13, 1936. “I have definitely abandoned the detective field, where I never had any success anyway, and which represents a type of story I actively detest. I can scarcely endure to read one, much less write one.”
Yet write detective stories he did — at the same time he leaned fast-fingered over his Underwood and knocked out the last tales of Conan of Cimmeria he would finish, returned to new adventures of one of his earliest creations in the figure of El Borak, spun out more series of humorous westerns as well as standalone serious oaters, plus the usual boxing fiction, horror stories. . . . Howard’s assault on the pulp jungle was nothing less than volcanic, stories and poems erupting non-stop from his small room in a house in Cross Plains, Texas — the scattered detritus of false starts and fragments alone enough to fill several volumes. For someone who detested detective fiction, the Texan nonetheless proved he could shove a gat in the mitt of a gumshoe and set the sleuthing game afoot.
Less than a month after he made those comments in the letter to Lovecraft, on June 11, the prolific young writer committed suicide at the age of only thirty, throwing into sudden sharp relief each remark dropped into the surviving correspondence. If he had not fired the fatal bullet, would Howard in fact have devoted his creative energies strictly to western stories? The commercial forces of the marketplace soon might have commanded a return to crime fiction — where his natural penchant for headlong action and sudden violence could well have made the creator of Conan a major tough guy writer during the paperback explosion of the 1950s, someone who effortlessly could have out-Spillaned a Mickey Spillane."
I have a copy of "Rats in the Walls" and love REH's detective fiction. The fact that Howard is mentioned in the same sentence with Hammett is pretty cool. I haven't been as much of a fan of Spillaine, but love Chandler and Ross MacDonald. Anyway, I'd put REH's detective fiction in with those other giants.
Marv / Finarvyn Dark Paladin of REH (a la Solomon Kane) OD&D Player since 1975
Finished reading the stories this morning on the subway. The more successful ones combine aspects of detective fiction with other genres where Howard is stronger: Lord of the Dead and Names are more like a cross between Skull Face and El Borak than Hammett while House of Suspicion and Graveyard Rats feel more at home with Pigeons From Hell and Black Canaan. The shorter unsold ones aren't top Howard, like Guenther mentions in his piece, they're similar to God in the Bowl with quick finishes based on contrivances (Color blindness? Really?) Not sure why Names and Rats sold but Lord of the Dead and Suspicion didn't. I found those two better than the ones that appeared in the same issue (whatever their names are). Maybe they were just a little too much outside of the genre for whoever made the publishing decisions.
Not sure why Names and Rats sold but Lord of the Dead and Suspicion didn't. I found those two better than the ones that appeared in the same issue (whatever their names are).
Well, Lord of the Dead was accepted by Strange Detective Stories for March 1934, but remained unpublished as the magazine folded.
I also like REH's weird menace stories set in pine woods. The House of Suspicion was indeed rejected by Strange Detective Stories. Interestingly, even Pigeons from Hell sold only in October 1937, more than a year after REH's death, although it was written already at the end of 1934 (a year after The House of Suspicion)
The magisterial intro to Graveyard Rats and Others by the dean of Howard Studies and world-renowned authority on hard-boiled fiction, Don Herron:
A Black Wind Off River Street
An abiding mystery of Robert E. Howard’s volcanic career as a writer for the wood pulp fiction magazines remains: Why he didn’t smoke the keys on his Underwood with one hard-boiled detective story after another?
Howard had the speed, the influences, the personal interest in guns and boxing and other hallmarks of the tough guy crime tale. He hit his professional stride in exactly the right era. Among the vast hosts of his fellow fictioneers, Howard was one of the few to create an enduring icon of the hard-boiled attitude of his age with his most popular creation, Conan: a character and a mood, tougher than tough.
Nailed to the cross in “A Witch Shall be Born,” the Cimmerian emerges triumphant from the ordeal, a quintessential image torn from the heart of the Great Depression. If the American readership of Weird Tales, from young teens on up, needed reassurance that adversity could be met, Howard gave it to them in mythic terms told in emotionally immediate prose. You want a tough guy who can survive anything thrown at him, here’s your tough guy.
Of course, most Weird Tales readers probably weren’t looking at the story with quite those ideas in mind. It usually takes a little time for this kind of evaluation to shake out. When the Dime Novels of the 1800s were trying on various character types, looking for The Hero whose exploits would sell copy after copy, it wasn’t evident immediately that The Cowboy was the archetype which would survive and dominate much of American pop culture in the Twentieth Century.
You cannot say with certainty that Howard himself had a single clue that he had created The Barbarian, not merely a few characters in a fairly large group of stories, but yet another archetype that would ease out into world culture over the next half-century. Yet Robert E. Howard and no one else created The Barbarian in the same era in which another new archetype came along to give The Cowboy a serious challenge as America’s dominant pop culture hero. Both The Barbarian and The Private Eye were born in the wood pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s.
Howard came so close to the tone, setting and concerns of the hard-boiled Private Eye story, it is astonishing that he managed to keep to his own path and carve out a new genre of fiction with his tales of Sword-and-Sorcery. The scenes with Shevatas the thief in the Conan yarn “Black Colossus” or with Conan himself as a young thief in “The Tower of the Elephant” play with the materials of the pulp crime story. Without any need for qualification, “Rogues in the House” is one of the best hard-boiled stories of the era, featuring terrific moments such as the jailer who “had become careless in his dealings with the underworld” or Conan tossing “his punk” who had betrayed him into a cesspool. Especially hard-boiled is the casual thought, when the barbarian “decided it was time for him to kill Nabonidus.”
So close, yet only a month before his death by suicide in June 1936, Howard would tell H. P. Lovecraft in a letter that he could “scarcely endure to read” a detective story, “much less write one.”
In 1935 the Texan briefed Clark Ashton Smith, another of his peers in the pages of Weird Tales, on the creation of Conan: “It may sound fantastic to link the term ''realism’ with Conan; but as a matter of fact—his supernatural adventures aside—he is the most realistic character I ever evolved. He is simply a combination of a number of men I have known. . . . Some mechanism in my sub-consciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prize-fighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian.” Gunmen and gamblers, bootleggers and prize-fighters—the solid stuff of hard-boiled fiction.
Howard’s taste in movies underlines his innate attraction to the form: “Give me a rough, tough brutal story, quick action and a gang of hard-boiled hairy chested eggs: George Bancroft; Mathew Betz; Lionel Barrymore; Vic Maclaglen, who once fought Jack Johnson. . . .” If any writer was participating in the cultural moment, that writer was Robert E. Howard.
The first World War brought literature and film to the boil, although other forces had set out simmering fires earlier. The rise of literary naturalism in the late Nineteenth Century paved the way for a brand of tough-minded realism, and one of Howard’s favorite authors, Jack London, dead at age forty in 1916, was a significant factor in popularizing what would become known as “tough guy” writing. But it took a world actually going to war to set in motion the social and economic forces that would bring the detective story up to speed. Edgar Allan Poe had inaugurated the detective and mystery genre with “Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, with Arthur Conan Doyle’s private investigator Sherlock Holmes the most enduringly popular figure to emerge from the hundreds of fictional detectives to trail in Poe’s wake. Still, before the war, crime fiction lacked a convincing sense of what was realistic.
The realistic hard-boiled form exploded out of the postwar pulps, specifically The Black Mask, which began publication in 1920, though it wasn’t until October 1922 that the significant creative fires were lit. In that issue you find “The Road Home,” the first detective story by Dashiell Hammett, the unquestioned modern master, as well as “The False Burton Combs” by Carroll John Daly, a lesser figure but nonetheless a major influence on later writers such as Mickey Spillane. Daly rapidly produced more stories featuring tough-talking private eyes, but we can look back now and see that it was in 1923 when the hard-boiled detective arrived to stay. That year Hammett began his long series of short stories, novelettes and novels about the exploits of an unnamed operative for the Continental Detective Agency with a tale called “Arson Plus.” By 1928, when Hammett began writing his novel The Maltese Falcon, few had any doubts that something new, something great, had come to literature.
Robert E. Howard’s major market for fiction, Weird Tales, also was born in 1923, and the teenaged Howard managed to place three stories with that magazine by 1924. He came into the fiction magazine scene virtually on Hammett’s heels. It’s interesting to note that the next major hard-boiled crime writer after Hammett, Raymond Chandler, first appeared in the pages of Black Mask in the December 1933 issue with “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot.” By that time Howard himself was a full-fledged professional writer; he had created Conan in 1932.
In that specific period in the pulps, from no earlier than 1922, with no need to go any later than 1936, the year of Howard’s death, a number of writers following Hammett’s lead hard-boiled the detective story. While they did that, Howard single-handed performed the same job for the fantastic tale, imbuing his stories with the tough realism of the day, adding a new dimension to otherworldly fantasy.
If some hardcore Howard enthusiasts may be experiencing a strong sense of deja vu by this point, perhaps it’s because I have made this argument at length before, some twenty years ago. In 1984 for The Dark Barbarian, a critical anthology about Howard’s writing I edited, I wrote an essay on this theme entitled “Robert E. Howard: Hard-Boiled Heroic Fantasist.” Since I also wrote the essay “The Dark Barbarian” for that book, I decided to disguise the hard-boiled section a bit by using the nom-de-plume “George Knight.” In part I did that for fun, and the fact was that in 1984 you didn’t have Robert E. Howard critics falling out of the trees—not like today. If I wanted that essay, and I did, then I had to write it myself.
So, you can see that I’ve been intrigued by the problem of Howard largely missing out on the most fecund and significant era of the hard-boiled detective story for quite a long time. As a big fan of both Hammett and Howard, this situation gnaws at me. What if? Why didn’t it happen? Wonderful questions.
This collection demonstrates, however, that Howard did not miss his chance completely. A working professional, willing to try any marketplace to make a living, he swallowed his aversion to the detective formula and wrote these tales during the years he chronicled the adventures of Conan. At the same time, he was writing his boxing stories and becoming increasingly interested in Westerns, both serious sage-brushers and his popular burlesques featuring such Tall Tale heroes as Breckinridge Elkins. If he had lived—another always arresting What If—surely Howard would have done more detective stories. And if these stories aren’t on a par with the best of Hammett and Chandler, they’re not much worse than many other yarns published in that heyday of the hard-boiled—I’ve actually met people who like Carroll John Daly’s stories, for some reason.
Howard clearly sensed how to shape his backdrop, although he didn’t do quite enough with detective tales to start filling it all in. You have a private eye named Steve Harrison—or more than one private eye named Steve Harrison—and you have a mysterious locale called River Street: “It was absurd to suppose that the dead Mongol fiend was behind these murderous attacks, yet—Harrison’s flesh crawled along his spine at the memory of things that had taken place in River Street—things he had never reported, because he did not wish to be thought either a liar or a madman. The dead do not return—but what seems absurd on Thirty-ninth Boulevard takes on a different aspect among the haunted labyrinths of the Oriental quarter.” Yeah, that River Street setting, where “three unsolved murders in a week are not so unusual,” could have been a real hotbed for some hard-boiled detective action.
The least stories here perhaps are “Black Talons” and “Fangs of Gold,” replete with virulent racism and xenophobia, but then racism and xenophobia were common in that era and pulp marketplace. If ethically deplorable, an equally strong objection may be made that Howard doesn’t make these stories stand up and rock—which he does with much the same material in his horror story “Black Canaan.”
“Names in the Black Book” impresses me as being equal to several of the escapades Howard wrote about El Borak, adventuring in the wild, rocky hills of Afghanistan. Paul Herman, the editor for this collection, feels that Howard was starting to hit his stride with “Graveyard Rats.” I must agree—he reaches a fever pitch of fear that places this one on a par with the story of the same title by Henry Kuttner, while playing fair with the conventions of the crime story.
And may I point out that a quick glance at the content’s page will remind you of the fact that Howard often used the word “black” (and “dark,” as well) in his titles—as I was saying twenty years ago in “The Dark Barbarian,” that’s because these words represent Howard’s content and themes, not for any lack of inventiveness on his part.
If Howard did not do much with the detective story, he left us with at least this much—and in the larger hard-boiled arena of his day, he was a giant figure. I’d place his Conan saga against Hammett’s Continental Op series any day—both have a few weaker entries, yet both have one story after another that still burn with that same white-hot fire that shrouded the pages as they rolled off the typewriter. Against such poetic masterpieces as Chandler’s “Red Wind” you might pit Howard’s “Worms of the Earth.” Hammett, Howard, Chandler—they are among the finest writers to emerge from the pulps.
And if it’s too damn bad that Howard never managed to get going with hard-boiled detective tales, I have another thought: wouldn’t it have been fascinating if Dashiell Hammett had tried his hand at the Sword-and-Sorcery tale? Great, bad, indifferent, but enough to fill a book of this size?