Sunday, November 22, 2015

Untrodden Fields: Robert E. Howard’s Sex Library, Part 1 by Bobby Derie

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.

William J. Robinson
Birth Control, or, The Limitation of Offspring by the Prevention of Conception by William J. Robinson was originally published as Fewer and Better Babies in 1915 by Robinson’s Critic and Guide company, later reprinted in many editions. Dr. Robinson was the author of numerous sexological tracts, serious and devoid of commercialized smut, aimed at educating the public about contraceptive devices. (Gertzman 186) The bulk of this book deals more with the moral and philosophical questions of birth control than the practical matters of condoms, diaphragms, and spermicides, which were actually eliminated by censors (and otherwise technically illegal under Comstock laws). For Howard, his interest in the subject may or may not have been due to speculative encounters with prostitutes; given the period it is not surprising that the subject does not come up in his published fiction. The only mention of abortion I have yet found in his writings is a reference in his play “Song of Bastards” in a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith (CL1.344). The subject seems to have formed at least an occasional subject of conversation with Howard’s intimate friends, as in the copy of The Leather Pushers that Truett Vinson gifted to Robert E. Howard, Vinson inscribed to his friend:
Also don’t
forget our opinions on
other subjects ranging
from prize-fighting to
birth control!

Black Lust (1931) by Jean de Villiot (Hughes Rebell), translated by Lawrence Ecker was published in a limited edition of 2000 copies by the Panurge Press of New York and was located by L. Sprague de Camp. (Burke) An erotic novel set during the siege of Khartoum, where the white woman Grace was enslaved to the black emir Abu-Anga, with themes of flagellation and racial stereotypes; one brochure advertising it claimed it showed “the ruthless savagery of the dark continent” and:
A major selling point in advertisements of this type was the white woman’s attraction to the black man, often characterized as emerging after the man forced himself on a woman he had captured and brutalized. (Getzman 8, 310)
The main interest in Black Lust is the possible influence that the novel had on Robert E. Howard’s “Guns of Khartum,” submitted to but not accepted by Spicy Adventure Stories in 1936. (CL3.400), though Patrice Louinet suggests the chapter on Chinese Gordon in Khartoum in Achmet Abdullah’s Dreamers of Empire as another possibility. (Howard viii, cf. CL3.421-422) Either or both might have been consulted by Howard for the story, certainly some incidental details of “Guns of Khartum” recall Black Lust, such as when Howard wrote:
He had taught her many things, including the sting of a rhino-hide kourbash on her naked body. (Howard 130)
The kourbash features many times in Black Lust, but there it is said to be made of hippopotamus hide.

Curiosa of Flagellants | History of Flagellation (c.1930) is a compilation of two anonymously-authored short books in one volume; even many copies not even the publisher or date of publication are included, so specifics on which edition Howard might have owned are difficult to ascertain. (Burke) The first book, Curiosa of Flagellants, is a Victorian-style collection of brief erotic episodes, extracts from other books (including the Rodiad), and deal almost exclusively with scenes of domestic spanking with a birch rod or stick. Book two, History of Flagellation, is a pseudo-academic historical work concerning flagellation, focusing first on Classical history, then on religious flagellation, before descending into anecdotal tales, including a highly corrupted tale supposedly recalled from the Arabian Nights. None of the anecdotes or material in these books can be directly tied to any material of Howard’s though the birch discipline tales bear gross similarities to “Daughters of Feud,” another spicy that proved too hot to handle. (CL3.419)

It’s difficult to discern where Howard’s love of history ended and the sexual attraction of flagellation began, as most of his books on the subject pander to both interests to some extent, though it’s equally difficult to see how the volume could satisfy either taste. Many of the historical episodes of flagellation such as described in this double-volume bear little direct comparison to episodes in Howard’s fiction, except in broad outlines such as a woman lashing another woman. However, it should be noted that flagellation and historical works were often considered borderline cases in the 1930s, and so could be openly sold. Such was the case with another of Howard’s books, Experiences of Flagellation (1885). (Gertzman 75-76, Burke) This book is actually identical in most respects to Curiosa of Flagellants in content, despite the different title and title-page, and if Howard did buy both books probably felt ill-used by the experience.

Flagellation and the Flagellants: A History of the Rod (1868) by Reverend William M. Cooper (James Glass Bertram) is another example of the pseudo-historical work on flagellation, and one of the classics of the genre. As the name suggests, it is primarily concerned with historical episodes of flagellation, much in the vein of the History of Flagellation, but going into greater length and detail, with an expanded scope as well, discussing flagellation in Africa, Asia, and the Americas; the focus is often on physical discipline or punishment more than sexual excess, discussing flogging in military and judiciary contexts. Glenn Lord expressed the opinion (recorded by Steve Eng and repeated by Burke) that:
[...] this book and other flagellation erotica in REH's library may reflect his unsuccessful try at writing for such pulp magazines as Terror Tales and Thrilling Mysteries.
Those two titles being part of the so-called “weird menace” or “shudder pulps,” which were marked by a distinct sadistic element; though as Robert Kenneth Jones notes:
Actually, the pulps, of all story markets, displayed a diffidence and caution which was often exasperating. They just didn’t want to come to grips with raw passion. You would have to search assiduously to find undue amounts of prurience, salaciousness or obscenity, to borrow definitions popularized by our modern Supreme Court, although every once in awhile something sizzled. (Jones 123)
There is some material in the History of the Rod that might have proven inspiration for “The Moon of Zambebwei” (also as “The Grisly Horror,” rejected by Terror Tales, CL3.308n299), or  “Graveyard Rats” and “Black Wind Blowing” (sold to Thrilling Mysteries, CL3.373n353, 3.434)—though there does not seem to be any specific single anecdote that matches any of the scenes in these stories, and in truth Lord’s hypothesis falls a little flat when considered that Howard was writing flagellation scenes into his stories at least as early as “The Black Stone” (1931), long before he tried to splash the shudder pulps, though in many cases it is likely he was striving for the cover of Weird Tales, with editor Farnsworth Wright preferring scenes of nubile (and nude) females, often in some form of distress, for cover artist Margaret Brundage to illustrate. However, Howard’s interest in flagellation appeared in more than just his commercial fiction, but in his letters and poetry as well. As Charles Hoffmann noted: “This does seem to indicate something more than academic interest.” (Hoffman)
You ought to read Hector France’s Musk, Hashish and Blood and some of Seabrook’s travel books if you want to get a realistic view of French colonial policy.—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 13 May 1936 (CL3.444)
Musk, Hashish and Blood (1899) by Hector France is an erotic novel much along the lines of Black Lust, being the disparate adventurers of a soldier in Africa, mixing violence, sensuality,  historical detail and exotic settings with the more prurient content of flagellation and sexual escapades; lengthy footnotes contain various unrelated and quasi-scholarly anecdotes on matters of sexual or historical interest, and reference works like Untrodden Fields of Anthropology, which was also in Howard’s library. As with the other volumes, Musk went through multiple printings from various publishers, including Falstaff Press and Panurge Press, though it’s not clear which edition Howard owned. (Burke) France’s book was deemed obscene literature at the time (Gertzman 208, 216) and advertised in one brochure as displaying “the jungle morality of the African races, their extreme sexuality.” (Gertzman 8, 310n6) It has been notable that France’s book is mentioned by name in Sax Rohmer’s novel Dope (1919), and that Howard was an avowed fan of Rohmer (though Dope is not listed among Howard’s books or in his letters), so it could be he encountered the title there and inquired after it.

While it is impossible to pinpoint any particular story or passage inspired or informed by Musk, Hashish and Blood, it is indicative of the fetishization of racial relationships which was par for the period, and that sentiment does color Howard’s fiction. Certainly it is rarely more explicitly stated than in Howard’s unexpurgated spicy adventure “Ship in Mutiny”:
I learned that white women are—merely women. The holding of white women inviolate is merely a taboo which white men force on the men of other races, so that they alone may enjoy the women of their race. In general, they are strong enough to enforce this. But here there are no white men to make me obey their creed. (Howard 30)
 It is a matter of some debate how much this emphasis on sexually attractive and aggressive black women—and, by a consequence, of mixed-race characters in his fiction—was influenced by Howard’s experiences in real life, and a Southwestern culture that placed particular negative emphasis on half-breeds and mulattos. One particular episode in Ellis’s memoir stands out—an account of an argument which left Howard sputtering:

“Every man has to uphold his race and protect his women and children,” Bob said earnestly. “He has to build the best damn world he can. You mix and mingle the races, and what do you get? You get a mongrel race—a race that’s not white and not black.”
“It seemed to me that he was leaving out something important. “Very well then,” I said flatly. “If a man’s going to fight to keep his race pure, don’t let him go down to the flat and leave a half-white, half-black child down there.”
Bob jerked the steering wheel so abruptly that we almost ran off the road. “Well, damn it,” he groaned. “There’s something there that you don’t understand.”
He looked at me, ran his hand over his face, and glared. “Well, sometimes a man—Well, damn it. Sometimes a man has to—” (Ellis 96)

Poetica Erotica: A Collection of Rare and Curious Amatory Verse (1921) by T. R. Smith is an anthology of poems in three volumes; as Burke doesn’t mention volumes, probably Howard only owned the first. Readers expecting dirty limericks were to be disappointed, as the collection is primarily historical, culling items from Catullus and Sir Francis Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights, as well as François Villon who was favored by Robert E. Howard and Tevis Clyde Smith. (CL2.469, Burke) Interestingly, Clark Ashton Smith had submitted some work to T. R. Smith (presumably for this volume), but none of his work is included. (Smith 59-60n3) Like with the other items in Howard’s collection, claims of being published only to subscribers didn’t mean it was in any sense rare or even particularly racy and was likely easily available to Howard through mail-order. (Gertzwell 65-66)

As with his fellow pulpsters and correspondents Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth, Bob Howard considered himself a poet as well as a writer, and his letters contain reams of verse, some of it quite a bit more pornographic than anything that appeared in the Poetica Erotica. For all that, it could well be that these poetic verses fired his imagination or informed his imagery for some of his own poetry. The verses “To Lesbia” by Catullus (translated by George Lamb), for example, may have helped inspire Howard’s poem “Lesbia” (CL1.207-208), with which it shares a similar rhyme scheme as well as subject matter. Certainly some of his reading did inform those poems, in his notes to Tevis Clyde Smith on “A Roman Lady,” Howard writes:
This next is of a Roman dame whose name I can’t remember though I have read of her sadism—I’ll try to title it correctly when I bring out the book. One thing about mythological and historical rime, you don’t have to make up stuff. You just embellish the facts with a few musical words and rhymes. (CL1.208)
It’s tempting to identify the sadistic figure with one of the Roman matrons named in History of Flagellents or A History of the Rod, but if this is the case, Howard has embellished their sadistic proclivities beyond immediate recognition.

[To be continued . . .]


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).

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