Thursday, August 23, 2018

Conan and Sappho: Robert E. Howard on Lesbians Part 2 by Bobby Derie

 Howard’s “Lesbians”

The first and one of the most brazen of Howard’s “lesbians” is Queen Nakari in “The Moon of Skulls” (WT Jun-Jul 1930):

Nakari halted by the couch, stood looking down upon her captive for a moment, then with an enigmatic smile, bent and shook her. Marylin opened her eyes, sat up, then slipped from her couch and knelt before her savage mistress—an act which caused Kane to curse beneath his breath. The queen laughed and, seating herself upon the couch, motioned the girl to rise, and then put an arm about her waist and drew her upon her lap. Kane watched, puzzled, while Nakari caressed the girl in a lazy, amused manner. This might be affection, but to Kane it seemed more like a sated leopard teasing its victim. There was an air of mockery and studied cruelty about the whole affair.
"You are very soft and pretty, Mara," Nakari murmured lazily, "much prettier than the other girls who serve me.[“] (SK 129)

Later on in the story, Nakari claims: “[...] she shall be punished as I have punished her before—hung up by her wrists, naked, and whipped until she swoons!” (SK 137) Marilyn later confirms: “And in spite of my pleas she took me across her knees and whipped me until I swooned.” (SK 165) In “The Slithering Shadow” (WT Sep 1933, also published as “Xuthal of the Dust”) the Stygian Thalis who has lived in the decadent city of Xuthal and is attracted to Conan, dishes out punishment to her prospective rival Natala:

Seizing her by the hair, Thalis dragged her down the corridor a short distance, to the edge of the circle of light. A metal ring showed in the wall, above the level of a man’s head. From it depended a silken cord. As in a nightmare Natala felt her tunic being stripped from her, and the next instant Thalis had jerked up her wrists and bound them to the ring, where she hung, naked as the day she was born, her feet barely touching the floor. Twisting her head, Natala saw Thalis unhook a jewel-handled whip from where it hung on the wall, near the ring. The lashes consisted of seven round silk ords, harder yet more pliant than leather things.
            With a hiss of vindictive gratification, Thalis drew back her arm, and Natala shrieked as the cords curled across her loins. The tortured girl writhed, twisted and tore agonizedly at the thongs which imprisoned her wrists. She had forgotten the lurking menace her cries might summon, and so apparently had Thalis. Every stroke evoked screams of anguish. The whippings Natala had received in the Shemite slave-markets paled to insignificance before this. She had never guessed the punishing power of hard-woven silk cords. Their caress was more exquisitely painful than any birch twigs or leather thongs. (COC 237)

This scene was depicted on the cover by Brundage, lovingly described by one critic:

[...] a bound woman leans back away from her captor, the retreating body language serving only to emphasize her pointed, bare breasts and her naked legs. Her captor, another woman, wears a kind of skirt, but her torso is almost entirely naked as well. And she holds a whip, which she clearly intends to use on the other woman. (Elliot 57)

Margaret Brundage recalled in a 1973 interview:

We had one issue that sold out! It was the story of a very vicious female, getting a-hold of the heroine and tying her up and beating her. Well, the public apparently thought it was flagellation, and the entire issue sold out. They could have used a couple thousand extra. [...] Having read the story, the thought of flagellation never entered my head. I don’t think it had theirs, either. But it turned out that way. (Korshack & Spurlock 29)

It is worth noting that “The Slithering Shadow” with Brundage’s cover appeared in the September 1933 Weird Tales. One month later would see the debut of Dime Mystery, the first of the “weird menace” or “shudder pulps” which would focus largely on torture, sadism, Grand Guignol-style grue and contes cruels, where stories of women, nude or near-nude, being threatened would be much more common. While there are many proto-weird menace stories in the pulps, “The Slithering Shadow” may have been a marker that there was an audience for this new pulp genre.

Also in 1933, Howard wrote “The Vale of Lost Women,” although it was never published during Howard’s lifetime. (COC 451) The beginning of the story includes an unnamed female character whose actions toward the slave Livia are at best ambiguous:

The young black woman laughed evilly, with a flash of dark eyes and white teeth, and with a hiss of spiteful obscenity and a mocking caress that was more gross than her language, she turned and swaggered out of the hut, expressing more taunting insolence with the motions of her hips than any civilized woman could with spoken insults. (COC 304)

While not a product of decadent civilization, this female character still uses her dominant position to sexually torment an unwilling captive. Livia manages to escape, thanks to Conan, but flees into the eponymous vale, and its inhabitants:

The lithe brown women were all about her. One, lovelier than the rest, came silently up to the trembling girl, and enfolded her with supple brown arms. Her breath was scented with the same perfume that stole from the great white blossoms that waved in the starshine. Her lips pressed Livia’s in a long terrible kiss. The Ophirean felt coldness running through her veins; her limbs turned brittle; like a white statue of marble she lay in the arms of her captress, incapable of speech or movement. (COC 313-314)

The “Lost Women” do not meet all of the criteria for Howard’s typical “lesbians.” While of a different race, they are not the product of a decadent civilization. They are not forceful or violent, and do not seek to inflict pain or humiliation. They may no longer even be human, despite their outward form. They are exceptional among Howard’s lesbians in trying to seduce and entrap, rather than dominate, and are somewhat closer to the eponymous characters of Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Flower-Women” (WT May 1935). A more “typical” group of Howardian lesbians is depicted in “The Thunder-Rider”:

[...] cat-footed brown women, beautiful with a sinister beauty, and naked but for their golden ornaments, crowded close to stare at the prisoners, and especially the warrior-girl of the Pawness. And they laughed at her, sweet, soft, evil laughter, venomous as poisoned honey.
            “Giver her to us,” they begged mockingly, clustering around Xolotl. “She is a wild young thing—let us tame her! She shall be our sister! Let us take her into the Chamber of Maidens and play with her!” (WS 407)

 The women of “The Thunder-Rider” are apparently sadistic and bisexual (since they are interested in both male and female victims), the product of a decadent civilization, fulfilling several of Howard’s criteria. The witch Salome in “A Witch Shall Be Born” (WT Dec 1934) evinces the same bisexuality and violence, with the added twist of incestuous overtones. Her combination of sex & violence is revealed when she asks:

“You never had a sister?” came the sweet, poisonously mocking voice. “Never a twin sister whose flesh was as soft as yours to caress or hurt?” (BCC 258)

Later she speaks of “handsome men and soft women for my paramours and my slaves.” (BCC 260) Although there is no flagellation scene, there is an encounter between the sisters where it is evident that Salome has indulged in this pastime. She taunts as her sister shrinks from her touch:

“You do not love my caresses, sweet sister?” (BCC  277)

Lesbianism is also more implicit than graphic in the science fantasy novel Almuric, where the alien queen Yasmeena is described:

Ranged about her couch in attitudes of humility and servitude were twenty naked girls, white, yellow and copper-skinned. (ASF 145)

Although Howard goes into no great detail of Yasmeena’s actions, he emphasizes her cruelty, decadence, base desires, and the emphasis on the capture of female slaves, and includes flagellation, as when she declares “Her buttocks shall smart for her insolence.” (ASF 158)

Close Encounters of the LGBTQ Kind

Flagellation need not always be sadistic: spanking was sometimes portrayed as just and not necessarily sexual in the 1920s and 1930s. Corporal punishment was still very much the norm in American schools and homes. In the brief piece “Miss High Hat,” which takes the form of a letter to the editor, possibly for a confession pulp (although there are some thematic similarities with “The Sappious Few Menchew,” a parody in one of Howard’s letters to Tevis Clyde Smith), Howard wrote:

“Miss Sauciness,” said she grimly, “what you need is a good bottom-warming and here’s where you get it!”
            And she snatched that insolent flapper up, in spite of her protests and struggles, and turned her across her lap. And right there before us all, she jerked up the girl’s dress and took off her drawers. How that flapper screamed and wiggled and kicked! And the matron’s open hand going smack-smack-smack-smack! On her bare seat. And before she stopped Miss Sauciness was crying and begging for mercy and her behind was red as a rose. She apologized to the matron and you never saw such a change in a girl! One of the girls had brought a Kodak along and while the spanking was going on, she took a picture of the whole scene, unbeknownst to the matron.
            After that, whenever the girl would start getting high hat, someone would bring out that picture and hold it up where she could see it.
            Somehow there is nothing so humiliating and ridiculous as to be spanked before a crowd of the other girls and when she remembered how she looked lying across the matron’s lap exposed so immodestly, while her bare sitting place was being spanked, she realized that she wasn’t so much after all. (PF 422-423)

The emphasis on humiliation and baring of the buttocks shows definite overlap with Howard’s pulp flagellation, but the context is different. This is not depicted as a practice of “decadent” sexuality (however much it may be enjoyed as such). Miss Sauciness isn’t being spanked out of sadism, but for the purpose of punishment. The distinction is not necessarily an important one to the reader of flagellation literature however: a spanking is a spanking.

Howard dabbled in this kind of work. His poem “The Harlot” has an irate wife invade a baudy-house and spank a prostitute. Another tale along the same lines is “A Matter of Age.” A fifteen year old nearly convinces a 40-year-old man to leave his wife for her, but the wife arrives at the rendezvous first.

She sat down on the couch, turned me across her lap, and tucked my dress up above my hips. Smack! Smack! Smack! Smack! Went her open hand on the seat of my scanty bloomers, and at every smack I yelled for mercy! Oh dear, what a spanking that was! I was crying long before Mrs. Perkins stopped [...] (SO 369)

When the bottom-warming is accomplished, Mrs. Perkins gives her a kiss—although this appears to be more of a motherly show of affection than lasciviousness. The tale follows the usual sin-and-regret cycle of confession stories. The unfinished story “The Grove of Lovers” also has a much-abridged spanking scene as an older woman punishes a younger one:

Señora Yonito was of better blood than most of the villagers, but in her rage the old dame resorte to extremely peasant tactics and jerking the frightened Carmencita across her capacious lap, she spanked her soundly. (SO 403)

 Individual elements like nudity and decadence also may not have been sufficient in and of themselves to count as “lesbianism” in Howard’s mind. For example, in “Marchers of Valhalla” a female victim is being sacrificed on an altar by “lesser priests and evil-eyed naked women” (SN 80) but this scene lacks the overt female-on-female sexual dynamic of “Red Nails” or “The Slithering Shadow.”

It seems likely that it is a personal synthesis of elements—sadism, nudity, powerful personal emotional connection—between two women which defined lesbianism to Robert E. Howard. In this regard Howard appears to have been a bit ahead of his time, as lesbian pulp and exploitation films would, decades after his death, make explicit what in the 1930s would be implicit. As Fritz Leiber put it:

The girl-whipping-girl scenes in several of the Conan stories remind me that Howard must have early discovered what a potent sexual stimulus this particular image is, along with the more or less veiled lesbianism that is frequently linked with it. [...] Howard seems to have known from the start: that mixed whipping is a less potent stimulus than girl-whipping-girl. There seem to be reasons for this that go quite deep (for instance, rituals in which women whipped women were part of the women’s mystery cult in ancient Rome) but I am not prepared to analyze them in scholarly fashion or any other—beyond the thought that girl-whipping-girl may appeal to the male voyeur because the scene involves no male actor of whom he might be jealous[.] (Leiber 6-7)

The flagellation angle is particularly emphatic in the literary and historical context of the American South. The whipping of black slaves is part of the history of racial conflict in the South. When the individuals are stripped naked, the cruel practice can obtain a sexual aspect, transforming from an inhumane legacy of black slavery to sadistic activity.  An example of this in Howard’s writing include the horror tale “Pigeons from Hell,” which takes place on and around an old plantation. One witness in the story “swore he saw Miss Celia tie this girl up to a tree, stark naked, and whip her with a horsewhip.” (HS 437) The character of Miss Celia may be inspired by stories Howard heard growing up:

The one to whom I listened most was the cook, old Aunt Mary Bohannon who was nearly white — about one sixteenth negro, I should say. Mistreatment of slaves is, and has been somewhat exaggerated, but old Aunt Mary had had the misfortune, in her youth, to belong to a man whose wife was a fiend from Hell. The young slave women were fine young animals, and barbarically handsome; her mistress was frenziedly jealous. You understand. Aunt Mary told tales of torture and unmistakable sadism that sickens me to this day when I think of them. (CL2.75-76)

Another example is the short tale “The Block,” which goes on at greater length and detail:

[“]Instead of tying their niggers up to a tree or across a barrel, my grandparents had a big wooden block they whipped them across. Well, the minute this wench saw the block she started screaming like a lost soul. She fought and howled like a wild woman and it was all the two big nigger women could do to strip her and get her across this block on her tummy. But they did at last and one of them held her feet and the other her hands, while a third laid on a strap under the direction of my grandmother.
            “Well, the minute they got this girl on the block, before she’d been struck a lick, she quit screaming and started moaning. She lay there shaking like she had a chill, and moaning; her skin was an ashy color. She’s gotten about three smacks when she jerked a hand away [...] every time the strap came down across her sitting place she yelled bloody murder!” (SO 480-481)

Are these examples of lesbianism, by Howard’s definition? Miss Celia in “Pigeons from Hell” is certainly cruel to the point of sadism, but the flagellation element toward another woman is limited to this single line. “The Block” is more explicitly a work of flagellation literature, but of a different nature—the whipping is directed by the grandmother rather than administered directly, and as punishment rather than for sadistic satisfaction.

Beginning in 1935, Robert E. Howard splashed the Spicy magazines, which were geared toward an adult audience and promised sex—though due to restrictions, always fell far short of explicit pornography. Howard’s own offerings were too spicy for the spicies, being heavily censored when they were published. (SA viii) Female-on-female action was absent from most of Howard’s spicy stories, probably by editorial fiat—“They have some definite taboos. No degeneracy, for instance. No sadism or masochism.” (CL3.418) There was one notable exception: “Daughters of Feud.” Set in the mountain town of Whiskey Run, the story features a vicious rivalry between two nineteen-year-old schoolgirls, Joan Kirby and Ann Prichard:

They came together in the aisle between the rude, hand-hewed desks, in a whirl of skirts and thrashing limbs. Garments disarrayed by their violence displayed the generous expanses of white flesh. Mountain girls fought like wildcats. (SA 139)

Again, many of the criteria are not present. Neither of the girls is in a position of authority over the other, the school-house brawl being a fair fight. Ann, the less sympathetic of the pair, does threaten Joan “I’ll tear off every stitch she’s got on!” (SA 140)—and later suggests gleefully to castrate a school teacher who spanked her—but this is the limit to her sadism in the story. The same general principle can probably be extended to the rest of Howard’s fiction: absent other context or qualifiers, woman-on-woman combat by itself would not be considered “lesbian.” The catfight in “Vultures of Whapeton” between Grace and Conchita, for example, results in shredded clothes, but shows none of the characteristic dominance, sadism, or sensuality of “Red Nails.”

Warrior Women & Third Sex

The criteria set for Howard’s “lesbians” as depicted above leaves out a great deal—including the complex possibilities of gender and sexual identities. Characters that would be considered transgender or homosexual today would have been identified as “sexual inverts” in the 1920s or 30s, and gender identity was largely assumed to follow sexual identity. Homosexual women would be expected to have masculine mannerisms; homosexual men would be expected to be effeminate. This was literally thought of at points as a female mind in a male body (urning, Uranian) or male mind in a female body (dioning, Dionian). Howard never directly mentions these concepts, but he has a few characters which fall outside the strict norms of male/female gender roles.

The most prominent of such characters Dark Agnès de Chastillion of “Sword Woman” and “Blades for France” (both unpublished during his lifetime.) Rejecting her traditional female role (by killing the groom in her arranged marriage and escaping the wedding), she is disguised in men’s clothes (“We’ll make a boy of you!” SW 338), which juxtaposition of apparent gender and dress cause much consternation. It is remarked that her decision is not entirely unprecedented, as there was the case of Black Margot of Avignon:

You remind me of a woman I once knew; she marched and fought like a man, and died of a pistol ball in the field of battle. (SW 349)

Agnès takes inspiration from this example, and proclaims “I am weary of being a woman.” but she is told “[...] it takes more than a pair of breeches to make a man.” Upset by the admonition to “Don thy petticoats and become a proper woman once more.” Agnès declares:

You deny me my place among men? By God, I’ll live as I please and die as God wills, but if I’m not fit to be a man’s comrade, at least I’ll be no man’s mistress. (SW 350)

In the sequel “Blades for France” she still struggles with sexism and prejudice:

Look ye! I wear these garments but as the garb and tools of my trade, not to catch the attention of men. I drink, fight and live like a man— (SW 366)

In the unfinished fragment “Mistress of Death” Agnès adds a point on female equality, also a subject during Howard’s lifetime:

I took naturally to the life of a man, and can drink, swear, march fight and boast with the best of them. (SW 508)

There is a great frisson in the character of Agnès, who while never denying her biological gender or her rejection of traditional gender roles, adopts masculine clothes and career. Yet she struggles to gain recognition of her new role. In this sense, Agnès agrees with the 1930s concept of sexual inversion: a man’s mind in a woman’s body (“I seemed to have been born into a new world, and yet a world for which I was intended from birth.” SW 355)—however, her characterisation does not fit neatly into any category. Which may be rather the point and the problem with the character. Weird Tales had seen a few gender-bending characters, but Agnès’ stories are straight historical adventures. A transgender swordsman may have been too much for pulp sensibilities.

Sword Woman
(art by Ken Kelly)
In terms of contemporaries, Agnès can be compared to C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry. Both are fiercely independent women bucking traditional gender roles by following a masculine pursuit (combat), and were conceived around the same period. The distinction between Jirel and Agnès is largely one of discovery: Jirel’s character is full-formed in “Black God’s Kiss” (WT Oct 1934), and does not change substantially in the handful of sequels. While many of her antagonists have designs on Jirel because of her gender, her role is never seriously questioned, and we get no hint of any social repercussions or pressures against her becoming a warrior, or led her into that career. As Lefanu put it: “women as protagonists do not necessarily interrogate the social and literary construction of women as gendered subjects.” (Lefanu 24) Jirel is a warrior and a woman, but never really reflects on this apparent contrast. She just is. But in “Sword Woman” Agnès becomes Dark Agnès. It is her origin story, the discarding of an old identity and the creation of a new one. With that transition in gender roles comes much pushback, which Jirel faces only in a very limited fashion. It is the transition that drives the plot of “Sword Woman.”

In both cases, Moore and Howard both emphasize that their characters are very definitely women, both physically and mentally or emotionally—but they are women who do not conform to societal expectations of docility, weakness, etc. Lefanu points out:

The problem with these role-reversal stories—as with role-reversal societies—is that they do not necessarily challenge the gender stereotypes that they have reversed. (Lefanu 35)

Howard’s Agnès does specifically challenge these preconceptions. She does not simply invert them by declaring that men are weak, or treat women as men once treated her. Agnès is driven to the change by her revolt from social norms, and has to continue fighting those preconceptions in subsequent adventures. Agnès bucks the stereotypes for women, but has to go on bucking them. Given that it was probably impossible to write an openly homosexual or transgender female character for the pulps in the early 1930s, even if Howard had so conceived Agnès as such, the degree to which he was playing with chauvinistic attitudes towards women, and the gender roles and sexual behavior expected of women, makes Agnès an interesting contrast to villainous “lesbians” of Howard’s fiction.

With regard to sexual identity, Agnès is depicted playing with some of the stereotypes of sexual inversion, portraying “masculine” attitudes, garb, and behavior, but is effectively asexual. She rejects the advances of men and shows no particular attraction to women. An exception is in “Blades of France,” where she is unexpectedly kissed by a woman, this appears to be more homosocial than homosexual:

With a sob she rose and threw both her soft arms about my neck and kissed me on the lips, so I was further ashamed. It was the first time I remembered anyone ever kissing me. (SW 379)

The voluntary celibacy that markes Agnès is important because she is:

[...] aware that even to share a bed with a man, in her society and ours, is to be bridled. Howard captures the essence of a politic few men dare realize—a concept usually dismissed by men as the madness of man-hating lesbians, or whoever else can be blamed for men’s own limited comprehension. (Salmonson 12)

This is also explored with some of Howard’s other characters. Valeria and Helen Tavrel likewise avoid heterosexual relationships out of concern for their own position—to be taken seriously as pirates in their own right, rather than a captain’s mistress. Sexual freedom for all of these characters is more than the right to choose their partners, but the ability to say no. This denial of sex does not automatically equate with a denial of femininity, but for Agnès and her fictional sisters it is generally better to abstain from sex altogether than to lose the respect and identity they have fought so long to gain and maintain. Likewise, Agnès shows no sign of the “decadence” which is a normal prerequisite for his “lesbian” characters. Sadism is also completely absent, although once in exasperation Agnès threatens to turn the femme François de Foix across her knee (SW 381), and another time she threatens a woman to “turn up your petticoats and whip you as no beadle ever did.” (SW 510), she never carried out these threats.

Howard had other warrior-women in his stories, but none of them focused to the same degree on issues of gender. The closest to Agnès was the pirate Valeria in “Red Nails” who was described as: “She was all woman, in spite of her bearing and her garments.” (CSC 209), and bitterly swore: “Why won’t men let me live a man’s life?” (CSC 214). The pirate Helen Tavrel was mistaken for a man from a distance in “The Isle of Pirate’s Doom” and was said to have “traded petticoats for breeches” (PS 9) and claimed “though Fate made a woman of me, I have lived a man’s life” (PS 23). The mercenary Red Sonya of Rogatino in “The Shadow of the Vulture” (The Magic Carpet Magazine Jan 1934)  “Marches and fights like a man” (SW 405) and was described:

She stood as a man might stand, booted legs braced wide apart, thumbs hooked into her girdle, but she was all woman. (SW 402)

The phrase “she was all woman” repeated here for both Valeria and Sonya bespeaks a need to establish a certainty of gender—that this is not a feminine-looking man, hermaphrodite, or what today would be called a transexual, but a woman that identifies as a woman, even if she refuses to conform to expectations of dress or behavior. Strictly speaking, this term and similar physical descriptions are examples of sexual objectification; Howard has no unattractive warrior women. In exploring this theme a little, one critic notes:

[Howard] never conceived the nation of androgynous beauty, nor seemed to realize “beauty” itself is cultural. He felt compelled to establish that Agnes was traditionally beautiful in spite of herself, as if to say, “See—she is a woman despite her choices.” It adds nothing of character or realism, though it establishes, in the only way the author knew, that Agnes is not a warrior because she was too ugly or too stupid or too abnormal to be a wife or mother. (Salmonson 12, cf. Elliot 59)

Making a female pulp character beautiful needs not have a deeper consideration, from a sales standpoint. But the emphasis on feminine beauty confirms to the reader that these are women, and at that they are not women that are physically or mentally deficient, damaged, or flawed in some way. The over-emphasis on the female physical and mental self is a counterbalance to the social abandonment of female gender role and the taking-up of aspects of male gender roles and dress. Elliot would expand on Valeria in particular:

[...] Valeria’s pursuit of freedom against her society’s wishes marginalizes her, making her other, but it also forces Howard to go to extravagant lengths to substantiate her femininity, which he does by including not one, but two female bondage scenes. (Elliot 66)

The “othering” of such characters might today be taken as implying a genderqueer or third sex identity; but those are largely contemporary readings. In the context of the 1930s some might have classed these female warriors as transvestites. Readers more well-read in sexology or psychology who saw female characters portrayed in masculine dress and action might be forgiven for reading “sexual inversion” into the characterization. If so, the characters’ outward assumption of male gender roles would be matched with stereotypical male attraction to women. Howard’s phrasing, then, would possibly forestall readers assuming that these sword-women were lesbians, that their “masculine” behavior did not necessarily extend to a homosexual attraction to other women.

Elliot Winter noted in discussing the gender dynamics of the Hyborian world:

In contrast, Howard’s world of free warriors, kings, and slaves seem to lack a clear place for the female characters that resist slavery, sexual or otherwise. Nonetheless, some of those women mirror Conan’s desire for individual agency and power. Like Conan, they navigate a line between social conformity and powerful corruption, but, for them, that line is much more uncertain. (58)

In broad strokes, this applies to much more than the Conan tales: Dark Agnès, Valeria, and Red Sonya of Rogatino among others struggle openly with a desire for agency and identity that is not based on their birth gender. And the struggle for agency among women was never restricted to the Hyborian Age or medieval France. The 1920s and 30s saw a rise against traditional perceptions of women as subservient to men, with the passage of Women’s Suffrage and the rise of flapper culture, and greater education and economic independence for women. This may be exemplified by his girlfriend Novalyne Ellis, a fiercely independent woman who sometimes struggled against the social expectations of a small Texas town. Howard also admired the fierce independence of her mother and grandmother. (Ellis 86-87)

It is tempting to consider that these women reflected, at least in part Howard’s thoughts on the “Battle of the Sexes” of his current day. The politics of the 1920s and 30s recast in a struggle against the patriarchal and sexist norms of a different age. By a similar token, the decadent “lesbians” of Howard’s fiction like Nakari, Salome, Thalis of “Xuthal of the Dust,” and others can be seen as a projection of the darker side of contemporary psychology (as filtered through Howard’s understanding) and “decadence” onto his mythic pasts. Howard’s “lesbians” were not exactly the flappers of the Hyborian Age. To use Winter’s description, these were women who had pushed individual agency and power-seeking too far, who abandoned social conformity and sexual norms altogether—and that level of freedom too may have held an attraction to Howard.

LGBTQ in Robert E. Howard: The Critical View

Robert E. Howard may never have knowingly met a lesbian during his lifetime, and gives no real indication of what his response would be if he had confronted a transwoman or genderqueer individual. The very ambivalence and quirkiness of his particular expression in fiction means that interpretation lies heavily on the reader. Critical interpretations are often colored by the syntax of their own era, and the biases of authors. For example Uranian Worlds: A Reader’s Guide to Alternative Sexualy in Science Fiction and Fantasy (1983) freely listed “Red Nails” and “The Vale of Lost Women” as lesbian stories—and perhaps did not read very closely, as the synopsis/summary for the latter states:

Rejecting the brutality of men, she flees to the Valley of Lost Women, an idyllic all-women society. She finds, to her dismay, that the valley is filled with lesbian natives who seduce her despite her fears. (Garber & Paleo 65)

Livia, The Vale of
Lost Women Illo by
Mark Schultz
 This is a rather bold re-interpretation of events that seems to miss the central conflicts of the story. But the writers were looking for “Uranian worlds” and so cast the Vale of Lost Women (where a group of soulless women entrap victims for a demon of the Outer Dark) as an idyllic lesbian society. Another example, from 1987:

By degeneracy, Howard was referring primarily to homosexuality, although “Red Nails” does contain incidents of bondage and flagellation. He instinctively realized what has been postulated by others: homosexuality is in some way related to urbanization. Broaching this subject was a courageous act on Howard’s part and also on the part of Farnsworth Wright who published the story. Still, rendered the subject commercially viable by presenting its more agreeable aspect, i.e., Sapphic relations between beautiful women. (Cerasini & Hoffman 88)

The focus on “urbanization” is telling as a marker of the period. Urbanization and homosexuality was a crux of research in the 1970s and 1980s, focusing on the emergence of homosexual subcultures in cities like New York, famous for the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Howard would probably not have understood it in such specific context: for him, decadence was largely a product of civilization; a characteristic of civilizations in his conception was the building of cities such as Xochitl in “Red Nails” and Xuthal in “The Slithering Shadow.” So cities could be a setting of homosexuality in Howard’s stories, but not because of the masses of people in close proximity that allowed subcultures to develop and flourish. Indeed, both Xuthal and Xochitl are dwindling in population.

The reception and interpretation of Howard’s work both critically and popularly is shaped in part by other works that the readers would have read. Notably, Novalyne Price states in her memoir:

[...] I couldn’t see that the Conan yarns Bob had brought me to read had any sex in them. Gore, yes. Sex, no. (Ellis 201)

Charles Hoffman noted that this was because Novalyne, who shows no awareness of flagellant literature in her writing, did not recognize sadomasochism as sex. (Hoffman 2009, 50) Just as, possibly, Lovecraft and many other readers may not have recognized the female flagellation scenes in “Red Nails” and other stories as “lesbianism,” except that Howard took the time to point it out. While contemporary readers might balk at his particular conception and execution of lesbians in his poetry and fiction, there may be something to H. P. Lovecraft’s observation that the secret to his stories is that he was in every one of them. Howard’s fiction and poetry was not just hackwork, but something of his thought, attitude, and philosophy went into each one.

Howard’s understanding of sex and gender may have been flawed, but he strove to present an accurate characterization with regard to that understanding....and in so doing, tapped into the zeitgeist of the era. The flagellation literature which appealed to many readers as legal erotica was ripe to make the leap to the pulps. His “lesbians” like Queen Nekari followed his conception of what women would be like as products of decadent civilizations. Sometimes the editors and writers responded to that, as when the issue with “Red Nails” on the cover sold out. Howard’s understanding of contemporary psychology and culture is what developed the “theme” noted by Trout. If Howard’s “lesbian” characters today seem stilted or inaccurate portrayals of LGBTQ characters, that is in part because the basis for understanding where the Texan was coming from has fundamentally changed.


ASF     Adventures in Science Fantasy
BCC    The Bloody Crown of Conan
CL       Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index & Addenda)
COC    The Coming of Conan
CSC    The Conquering Sword of Conan
HS       The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
PF       Pictures in the Fire
PS       Pirate Stories
SA       Spicy Adventures
SK       The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane
SN       Swords of the North
SO       Sentiment: an Olio of Rarer Works
SW      Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures
WS      Western Stories

Other Works Cited

Cerasini, Marc A. & Hoffman, Charles (1987). Robert E. Howard Starmont Reader’s Guide 35. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House.
Elliot, Winter (2013). “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Women: Gender Dynamics in the Hyborian Age” in Jonas Prida (ed.) Conan Meets the Academy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & co.
Ellis, Novalyne Price (1998). One Who Walked Alone. Hampton Falls, NH: Donald M. Grant.
Freud, Sigmund (1920). Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex. trans. A. A. Brill. Retrieved from:
Garber, Eric & Paleo, Lyn (1983). Uranian Worlds: A Reader’s Guide to Alternative Sexuality in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & co.
Gertzman, Jay A. (2002). Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica 1920-1940. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Hoffman, Charles (2005). “Blood Lust: Robert E. Howard’s Spicy Adventures” in Leo Grin (ed.) The Cimmerian vol. 2, no. 5. Also available online at:
Hoffman, Charles (2009). “Elements of Sadomasochism in the Fiction and Poetry of Robert E. Howard” in Charles Gramlich, Mark Hall, & Jeffrey Kahan (eds.) The Dark Man vol. 4, no. 2. Also available online at:
Hoffman, Charles (2010). “Return to Xuthal” in Darrell Schweitzer (ed.) The Robert E. Howard Reader. The Borgo Press. Also available online at:
Lefanu, Sarah (1989). Feminism and Science Fiction. Indiana University Press.
Leiber, Fritz (1984). “Howard’s Fantasy” in Don Herron (ed.) The Dark Barbarian. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Korshak, Stephen D. and Spurlock, J. David. (2013). The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage. FL: Vanguard Publishing and Shasta-Phoenix Publishers.
Salmonson, Jessica Amanda (2006). “Dark Agnes: A Critical Overview of Robert E. Howard’s Sword Woman” in Damon Sasser (ed). Two-Gun Raconteur no. 9.
Trout, Steven R. (2004). “Heritage of Steel: Howard and the Frontier Myth” in Don Herron (ed.) The Barbarian Triumph. Wildside Press.

No comments: