Sunday, December 6, 2015

Untrodden Fields: Robert E. Howard’s Sex Library; Part 3 by Bobby Derie

Intro From Part One:

[Some considerable work has been done by Howard scholars Dr. Charlotte Laughlin, Glenn Lord, L. Sprague de Camp, Steve Eng, and Rusty Burke to identify the books that comprised Robert E. Howard’s personal library, based primarily on the holograph list of books that Dr. I. M. Howard donated to form the Robert E. Howard Memorial Collection after his son’s death, as well as Robert E. Howard’s surviving letters and papers. Among these books are a number of works of erotica or curiosa which, while not pornographic to contemporary tastes, were nevertheless concerned with some aspect of sexuality (usually from a scholarly or pseudo-scholarly perspective) and were often treated as such. It is interesting to see, based on these books, what light if any they can shed on Howard’s life and work.]


The Merry Order of St. Bridget (1868) by Margaret Anson (James Glass Bertram) is a flagellation novel by the author of A History of the Rod, with most of the whipping occurring between women. The Misfortunes of Colette (1930), published for subscribers only, may have been a Gargoyle Press title; a translation of a 1914 French erotic novel about a couple that works to keep Colette in servitude via various tortures. Closely related is Presented in Leather: A Cheerful End to a Tearful Diary (1931) by Claire Willows, where a girl named Flora is imprisoned and tortured by her aunt, waiting for rescue. It is not impossible that one of these works helped inspire Howard’s idea of “lesbianism” being expressed in such a violent fashion.

Painful Pleasures (1931) is an anthology of flagellation anecdotes culled from French sources, translated by W. J. Meusal and published by Gargoyle Press, which specialized in flagellation literature, advertised in the pulp magazines, and sold by mail. (Gertzman 76) Another Gargoyle Press title on Howard’s list is The Strap Returns: New Notes on Flagellation (1933) by Anonymous (Samuel Julian Wegman and Sydney Frank), which consists of a number of accounts of corporal punishment ostensibly taken from American and European newspapers.

Nell in Bridewell: The System of Corporal Punishment in the Female Prisons of South Germany Up to the Year 1848, A Contribution to the History of Manners (Burke notes the 1900 first edition, but the 1934 reprint seems more likely) by Wilhelm Reinhard is another quasi-historical work of corporal punishment, translated from the German.

Tracts of Flagellation (1930) is a privately printed collection of flagellation works reputedly taken from the library of English antiquarian Henry Thomas Buckle (hence Howard’s note): 1. Sublime of Flagellation; 2. A Treatise of the Use of Flogging in Venereal Affairs; 3. Madame Birchini's Dance; 4. Fashionable Lectures; 5. Lady Bumtickler's Revels; 6. Exhibition of Female Flagellants in the Modest and Incontinent World; 7. Part the Second of the Exhibition of Female Flagellants. The assertion “by George Colman” may be due to some editions of Tracts including the epic erotic poem The Rodiad (1871), which was falsely attributed to George Colman the Younger in, among other places, Curiosa of Flagellants. Howard’s entry for The Rodiad directly below Tracts likely suggests he was either unaware of this, or else the catalogue or advertisement he was referring to did not make it plain.

Tender Bottoms: A Psychosexual Study in Morals Based on Personal Experiences and Documentary Evidence (1934) by Pierre Guenoles was published by the American Ethnological Press, and is yet another translation of an older French work containing anecdotes of flogging and flagellation. Much the same is Padlocks and Girdles of Chastity (exact edition unknown; Burke lists the 1925, 1928, and 1932 editions by different publishers) by Alcide Bonneau is a small work of sexology, privately printed, probably by William Faro Inc. (Gertzman 247)

If Howard did purchase the above volumes from his list aside from the two included in the memorial collection donation list and Eulenberg’s treatise, there is no obvious sign of their influence in his fiction or letters—but we can still derive some information from them. While Howard does not provide dates, the titles and publishers he specifies indicates that the earliest this list could have been compiled is around 1934 (if the date for the edition of Tender Bottoms is correct). Late 1934 or early 1935 could be about the right time for such books to be ordered, arrived, and read for inspiration or used as reference by Howard in writing his first story to Spicy Adventure in mid-to-late 1935. (CL3.373)

The cost of the books at a dollar or more each generally suggests hardback publication.  The total cost for all volumes listed is $50.95, was a considerable sum in 1934/1935 dollars—the equivalent to a 5,500 word story at a cent per word, after an agent’s commission. As Gertzman notes:
[...] a six-dollar 1935 first edition of a Panurge or Flastaff Press text would cost the equivalent of $71. To pay even one dollar for a novel in 1935 would be comparable to paying $12 in the late 1990s. [...] People with weekly salaries of thirty-five or forty dollars per week were applying for relief. No wonder that pulp magazines and lending libraries were popular then [...] (57)
The expense alone might be why Howard chose only to get a few select volumes. Then again, perhaps he did purchase the volumes and sold, lent, or gave them away to friends, as he sometimes did to Tevis Clyde Smith. (CL2.17) While it is possible that Howard was working from browsing at a book store on his travels, or compiled the list from individual advertisements in the pulps, it seems most likely that the list was taken from the offerings of a mail-order flyer or catalog from a book-store. The likelihood of this increases when we consider that we know Howard had already ordered some curiosa from bookstores before. In a 1930 letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, Howard complains of not receiving the latest catalogue for the Argosy Bookstore in New York (CL2.30)—and in another letter to Smith from May 1932, complains:
I got Apuleius’ Golden Ass from Argosy. A confounded fake. Adlington’s translation, and expurgated much more than your copy. The illustrations were nothing much. Argosy has a way of making misleading statements in their blurbs. This edition was privately printed—why, I can’t imagine. (CL2.339)
Title page of Latin ed. of  Apuleius'
Metamorphoses (the Golden Ass)
The Metamorphoses of Apuleius, more popularly known as The Golden Ass, is an ancient Roman novel which has been translated many times; William Adlington’s translation of 1566 is the first into English (and, perhaps most important to a prospective publisher, long out of copyright). The supposed erotic content (as Howard noted, many edition were expurgated, bowdlerised, or left the more explicit passages in Latin) was trumped in part by its status as a work of Classical literature: claiming the literary high ground was one way for publishers and booksellers to sell risqué with less fear from the likes of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. (cf. Gertzman 65)

Howard apparently made other acquisitions in this vein, or else made himself familiar with similar works in libraries. In his letters he mentions the Satyricon of Petronus, another Roman novel famed for its erotic content, following the adventures of Encolpius and his lover Giton, who keeps being enticed away by others. (CL2.17) In another letter, Howard mentions Giovanni Boccaccio (CL1.52), which is especially interesting because in his story “Children of the Night” (1931) he mentions “the Mandrake Press edition of Boccaccio”—which could refer equally well to Amorous Fiammetta (1929) or Ten Tales from the Decameron (1930), both medieval novels that would classify as gallantia...though still odd shelf-mates for von Junzt’s Nameless Cults!

One of the most infamous anecdotes involving Howard and gallantia involves a Christmas gift to his on-again, off-again girlfriend Novalyne Price:
When I opened it, I may have looked surprised. The Complete Works of Pierre Louÿs. It definitely was not like any other history I’d ever seen. I looked at Bob who sat, looking smug and complacent. [...] Then Bob said the book described very vividly our “rotting civilization.” [...] Carefully, I put the wrapper back on the book, folded my hands on it and watched Bob, ignoring Mother’s interest. Later, I thanked God I hadn’t handed it to her to look at even for a minute. (Price 133)
The Complete Works of Pierre Louÿs (1932) contains his Aphrodite, Woman and Puppet, The Songs of Bilitis, The Adventures of King Pausole, The Twilight of the Nymphs, Sanguines, and Psyche. (Burke) Written in a deliberately classical style, the “Songs of Bilitis” in particular are erotic poems that Louÿs made as a hoax, in the manner of the poetry of Sappho (and borrowing some of her verses); this connection as much as anything else might have attracted Howard’s attention. Novalyne Price, less used to any literature even hinting at the erotic, had a more visceral reaction:
Pornography! That’s what this stupid book was all about. Pornography! Read it at random—a page here. A page there! A paragraph here! A paragraph there! Pornography! My mind was made up. I’d kill Bob the next time I saw him. History of a rotting civilization? He doesn’t know a rotting civilization from a .38 revolver! (Price 135)
When Price did see Howard again, the book and its contents occasioned an argument, familiar enough from Howard’s long argument with H. P. Lovecraft on civilization:
You see, girl, when a civilization begins to decay and die, the only thing men or women think about i the gratification of their body’s desires. They become preoccupied with sex. It colors their thinking, their laws, their religion—every aspect of their lives. Did you read “The Songs of Bilitis?” (Price 139)
Edouard Zier illustration
for Pierre Louys' Aphrodite
She hadn’t. Howard’s sentiment underlines one aspect of his reading that hasn’t been emphasized yet: a confirmation in the moral degeneration of civilizations. Roman novels like the Satyricon and the Golden Ass might be held up as examples of this, showcasing Rome’s trend toward more elaborate and (by 1930s standards) unconventional sexuality, though Howard never did so in any of his surviving letters to Lovecraft, possibly because he never managed to track down the unexpurgated texts. But it was a familiar element in any number of the flagellation anecdotes he might have run across, and stated very boldly in some of the sexology works; Howard even quoted Venus Oceana to Lovecraft to underscore a similar point during an argument: “No thinking person who forms his own opinion on the modern times doubts any longer that civilization is equivalent to moral degeneracy.” (CL3.290)

As the argument continued, Howard’s remarks got personal:
A few years ago, I had a hard time selling yarns about...about sex. Now, I’m going to have to work to catch up with the market. I can tell you the demand is growing for more and more sex. In a few years, there won’t be anything held back. [...] It’s the way Rome was when it fell. [...] Girl, I’m working on a yarn like that now—a Conan yarn. Listen to me. When you have a dying civilization, the normal, accepted life style ain’t strong enough to satisfy the damned insatiable appetites of the courtesans and, finally, of all the people. They turn to Lesbianism and things like that to satisfy their desires. [...] I’m going to call it “The Red Flame of Passion.” (Price 140-141)
Price claims these events occurred Christmas 1934; sp the Conan yarn could be “Red Nails” (completed mid-1935, published 1936); a story where the Cimmerian happens across an isolated, degenerate society in a great and mostly empty city. It contains a scene of Valeria whipping Yasala that would not have been out of place in a flagellation collection; of course, it earned the cover by Margaret Brundage.

Novalyne Price Ellis
There are volumes of erotica from Robert E. Howard’s library that have yet to be identified, and may never well be. Perhaps the most infamous is a long quotation describing a tremendous scene of flagellation from “the text dealing with a certain Congo queen,” given in an undated letter to Tevis Clyde Smith. (CL3.474-475, Burke) It can be said with certainty that the fragment is not taken from any of the works of erotica on the memorial collection donation list, nor from Howard’s price-list of flagellation literature. The text as given is too hot for any of the spicies or weird suspense pulps to have handled. Searches for the source text have so far come up empty—but an educated guess can be made as to the subject of the passage.

Anna Nzinga (c. 1583 - 1663) was queen of Ndongo and Matamba in modern-day Angola in the Congo. Her dealings with the Portuguese and Dutch became almost the stuff of legend among Europeans, who often rendered her name as Zingha, Zinga, Zingua, Zangua, Singua, or Njinga. One account of her was written by Jean-Louis Castilhon, Zingha, reine d’Angola. Histoire africane en deux partes (1769). This work probably served as the basis for a few mentions about her in the works of the Marquis de Sade, including his Historie de Juliette (1797):
Singha, reine d'Angola, avait fait une loi qui établissait la vulgivaguibilité des femmes. Cette même loi leur enjoignait de se garantir de grossesse, sous peine d'être pilées dans un mortier : loi sévère, mais utile, et qui doit toujours suivre la défense des liens et la communauté, afin de mettre des bornes à une population dont la trop grande abondance pourrait devenir dangereuse.
Mais on peut tarir cette population par des moyens plus doux : ce serait en accordant des honneurs et des récompenses au saphotisme, à la sodomie, à l'infanticide, comme Sparte en décernait au vol. Ainsi la balance s'égaliserait sans avoir besoin, comme à Angola ou à Formose, d'écraser le fruit des femmes dans leur propre sein.

Nzinga, Queen of Angola, had made a law that prevented the childbearing of women. The same law enjoined them to ensure they did not become pregnant, for fear of being crushed in a mortar: a severe law, but useful, so they should remain at defense links and in the community, to set bounds to a population whose overabundance could become dangerous.
            But it can dry up this population by milder means: it would be giving honors and awards sapphism, sodomy, infanticide, as decreed in Sparta flight. And equalize the balance without the need, as in Angola or Formosa, to crush the fruit of women in their midst.
And in his La philosophie dans le boudoir (1795):
Zingua, reine d’Afrique, immolait aussi ses amants. [...] Zingua, reine d’Angola, la plus cruelle des femmes, immolait ses amants dès qu’ils avaient joui d’elle ; souvent elle faisait battre des guerriers sous ses yeux et devenait le prix du vainqueur ; pour flatter son âme féroce, elle se divertissait à faire piler dans un mortier toutes les femmes devenues enceintes avant l’âge de trente ans.

Nzinga, the African queen, also immolated her lovers. [...] Zingua, Queen of Angola, cruelest of women, sacrificed her lovers as soon as they had enjoyed it; often she watched warriors beat each other and became the prize for the winner; to flatter her ferocious soul, she amused to pound in a mortar all women who become pregnant before the age of thirty years.
Anna Nzinga
The details don’t match the selection in Howard’s letter, but it is likely that these stories grew in the telling, as well as the translation, and it is worth mentioning that Eulenberg in Sadism and Masochism mentions “the negro Queen Zinga” among the “refreshed fairy tales” of “female monsters who were to a certain extent bisexual in relation to cruelty, and who raged against men and women equally and without differentiation.” (Eulenberg 145-146) This approach of multiple translators and disparate anecdotes might also account for some other details of Howard’s letter, like the specific mention of “authors,” which could imply the book was a translation, or that it was an episodic rendering of anecdotes, such as Curiosa of Flagellents.

The influence of these works—erotica, curiosa, gallantia, sexology, anthropology, psychology, or Spicy pulps as they may be—remains something of an untrodden field for Howard studies. While Rusty Burke, Steve Eng, & co. have done good work on examining Robert E. Howard’s library, and Charles Hoffmann has written excellent essays such as Elements of Sadomasochism in the Fiction and Poetry of Robert E. Howard, BLOOD LUST: Robert E. Howard's Spicy Adventures, and Return to Xuthal, there yet remains more work that can be done. The flagellation element is prominent in many of Howard’s works, from the early Mythos tale “The Black Stone” to “Xuthal of the Dust,” from the Spicy stories that were too spicy like “Daughters of Feud” to the unpublished confessional “The Stones of Destiny,” and crops up in too many poems. Yet perhaps more important than the technical set-up of a specific scene and the language it uses, which might be traced back to some inspirational scene, is the more subtle influence of these works that supported and shaped Howard’s worldview, provided proof to buoy his arguments on the degeneracy of civilization...and that with degeneracy came perversion, sadism, and “Lesbianism.”

(Part 1 & Part 2)


Burke, Rusty (2012). “A List of books and prices found among Howard’s papers.” Retrieved from:

Ellis, Novalyne Price (1998). One Who Walked Alone. Hampton Falls, NH: Donald M. Grant.

Eng, Steve (1984). “Robert E. Howard’s Library” in The Dark Barbarian, 183-200.

Eulenberg, Albert (1984). Sadism and Masochism. Translated by Harold Kent. New York, NY: Bell Publishing.

Gertzman, Jay A. (2002). Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica 1920-1040. Philadelphia, PA: University of Philadelphia Press.

Hoffman, Charles (2009). “Elements of Sadomasochism in the Fiction and Poetry of Robert E. Howard” in The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Stories (Vol. 4, No. 2).
Retrieved from:

Howard, Robert E. (2008). The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard. Edited by Rob 5 Roehm. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation Press. 3 vols. + Index and Addenda Abbreviated as CL1-4 above.

Howard, Robert E. (2011). Spicy Adventures. Edited by Patrice Louinet and Rob Roehm. Robert E. Howard Foundation Press.

Jones, Robert Kenneth (1975). The Shudder Pulps. West Lyn, OR: FAX Collectors Editions.

Smith, Clark Ashton (2003). Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House.

Bobby Derie is the compiler of The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard - Index and Addenda (2015, Robert E. Howard Foundation Press) and the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014, Hippocampus Press).

1 comment:

Todd B Vick said...

Excellent series, Bobby. Thanks for sharing it here at On An Underwood No. 5.