Sunday, October 22, 2017

Queen by Fire and Steel and Slaughter: Bêlit’s Hymn By Karen Joan Kohoutek

Robert E. Howard’s short story “Queen of the Black Coast” introduced Conan’s first love, Bêlit, a passionate, ruthless pirate queen full of “the urge of creation and the urge of death” (128). Her name comes from the same storehouse of Canaanite/Assyrian legends that brought deities like Ishtar and Derketo into Howard’s Hyborian Age fiction. In real-life legend, Bêlit belonged to the same pantheon, often associated with Ishtar and Derketo, although it’s hard now to know whether the goddesses were popularly connected at the time of their active worship, or whether the association happened when the sources were later compiled out of varied lore.

            In either case, Howard’s Bêlit namechecks two goddesses with whom her namesake was syncretized (Ishtar and Derketo), and also mentions Bel, who was her counterpart’s father in some legends and her husband in others, saying, “Above all are the gods of the Shemites – Ishtar and Ashtoreth and Derketo and Adonis. Bel, too, is Shemitish…” (Howard 247).

            The following tidbits are taken from The Story of Assyria, by Zénaïde  Ragozin, known to have been one of Howard’s sources:

            “As to the female deity of the Canaanites, ASHTORETH (whom the Greeks have called ASTARTE), she is the ISHTAR and MYLITTA and BÊLIT (“BAALATH,” “Lady,”) of the Assyro-Babylonian cycle of gods, scarcely changed either in name or nature; the goddess both of love and war, of incessant production and laborious motherhood, and of voluptuous, idle enjoyment , the greatest difference being that Ashtoreth is identified with the moon and wears the sign of the crescent, while the Babylonian goddess rules he planet Venus, the Morning and Evening Star of the poets” (107 – 108).

            “The planet Venus appearing in the evening, soon after sunset, and then again in the early morning, just before dawn, it was called Ishtar at night and Bêlit at dawn, as a small tablet expressly informs us; a distinction which, apparently confusing, rather tends to confirm the fundamental identity between the two, -- Ishtar, ‘the goddess,’ and Bêlit, ‘the lady’” (19).

            “In ASCALON, where the goddess was worshipped under the name DERKETO, she was represented under the form of a woman ending, from the hips, in the body of a fish” (111). This is of particular interest to Howard readers, since we know that Bêlit’s “fathers were kings of Askalon!” (Howard 243).

            Ragozin also states, “To the Canaanites, the Sun and Moon – the masculine and feminine principles, as represented by the elements of fire and moisture, the great Father and Mother of beings – were husband and wife. … in Ascalon and the other cities of the Philistine confederation they both assumed the peculiarity noted above, together with other names, and became, she, the fish-goddess Derketo, and he, the fish-god Dagon (from dag, fish, in the Semitic languages)” (114).

            Of course, Derketo is mentioned as a goddess in Howard’s stories; Dagon is well-known, especially from the work of H.P. Lovecraft, but also appearing, connected with Derketo, in Howard’s story “The Servants of Bit-Yakin.”

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Weird Talers: Robert E. Howard and Seabury Quinn by Bobby Derie

Weird Tales Oct. 1925
Seabury Grandin Quinn got his start at Weird Tales with “The Phantom Farmhouse” and an article on Bluebeard, the first in a series of “Weird Crimes” in October 1923. The “Weird Crimes” ran through 1924, and in 1925 he began another article series “Servants of Satan,” regarding the Salem Witch Trials. In October 1925, Weird Tales would publish “The Horror on the Links”—the debut for what would become Quinn’s star character, Jules de Grandin. Over a run of 26 years, de Grandin would star in 93 episodes spread over 100 issues (including the six-part serial “The Devil’s Bride” and reprints), and have the cover 35 times; the character and the author were routinely voted favorites in “The Eyrie,” Weird Tales’ readers page.

Also in 1925, a new writer appeared in the Unique Magazine: Robert E.
Weird Tales July 1925
Howard’s “Spear and Fang” appeared in the July issue, which it shared with one of Quinn’s “Servants of Satan” articles; so did “In the Forest of Villefere” which appeared in the August Weird Tales. The two men never met, nor is there any record of their correspondence, yet it was impossible for them not to have noticed and formed an opinion of one another. Quinn, writing from Brooklyn, and Howard, writing from Cross Plains, were from that moment on in constant, if polite competition—for sales, for the cover spot, and for first place among the affections of Weird Tales readers. Yet Quinn would also, in many ways, be a formative influence on Howard. Lovecraft, who was one of the few to correspond with both men, compared them once:
It is, therefore, piquant & enjoyable to exchange ideas with Two-Gun or to read his stories. He is of about the same intelligence as Seabury Quinn—but Yuggoth, what a difference! (LRB 256-257)
Seabury Quinn was born in Washington, D.C. in 1889, attended Washington National University, and had graduated with a degree in law. He practiced law only for a short time, and joined the army for World War I. After his discharge he returned to practicing law and handled a libel case involving mortuary jurisprudence. He won the case, and they took him on as legal advisor—and so he got his start for The Casket, a trade journal for morticians. Quinn was given progressively more work with The Casket until he became its managing editor; and in 1921 Quinn married his first wife, Mary Helen Molster. In January 1925, The Casket merged with the mortuary journal Sunnyside, and Quinn became editor of the combined magazine The Casket & Sunnyside, which job necessitated moving to New York. (Schwartz & Weisinger 1-2, Ruber 336, Ruber & Wyrzos ix)

Seabury Quinn (1889-1969)
By this point Quinn was already writing the serial character Major Sturdevant, who first appeared in Weird Tales’ sister magazine Real Detective Tales in December 1924, and continued to appear in every issue of that pulp (under editor Edwin Baird) through 1926—and writing two series characters simultaneously (Sturdevant and de Grandin) would be a major challenge for any pulpster, much less one with a day job. Sturdevant’s “Washington Nights’ Entertainment” petered out after a “measly” 27 stories. De Grandin would have a much more substantial run, though a much more modest beginning, in Quinn’s own words:

One evening in the spring of 1925, I was in that state that every writer knows and dreads; a story was due my publisher, and there didn’t seem to be a plot in the world. Accordingly, with nothing particular in mind, I picked up my pen and literally making it up as I went along—wrote the first story [...] As with The Horror on the Links, so with all other adventures of de Grandin. (CA 1.xxi)

Quinn may have been fudging a little; the French occult detective with his more incredulous counterpart Dr. Samuel Trowbridge probably owes something to Agatha Christie and her Belgian investigator Hercule Poirot and companion Arthur Hastings, who first appeared in The Murder on the Links (1923), but both were patently working in the same mold as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Watson & Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. Whatever the case, “The Horror on the Links” was quickly followed by “The Tenants of Broussac” (WT Dec 1925) and “The Isle of Missing Ships” (WT Feb 1926)...and a fan letter in “The Eyrie”:

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Weird Tales Tourist, New Orleans: Robert E. Howard by Karen Joan Kohoutek

Visitors to New Orleans can find plenty of information on the sites associated with authors like William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Anne Rice, and (that dude who wrote Confederacy of Dunces). Fewer people are aware of the city’s connections to the writers from the Weird Tales circle, but there are many, and easy enough to visit.

In 1919, Robert E. Howard’s father, Dr. Isaac Howard, attended seven weeks of medical training in New Orleans, bringing his wife and 13-year-old son (Finn 58). Howard wrote of his time there that “it was my fortune to be acquainted with some elderly maiden ladies by the name of Durell—gentlewomen of the old school living in semi-seclusion and striving to maintain the standards of a faded aristocracy, and reconcile their natures with the necessity which forced them to run a rooming-house” (A Means to Freedom 122).

New Orleans’ census records and property records steer us to “Durel” as the likely spelling. Howard scholar Rusty Burke has narrowed down Camille Durel as a good candidate for one of those gentlewomen, and at the time of the 1920 census (accessible through, she was the “keeper” of a rooming-house at 1904 Canal Street, where she lived with her younger sisters Delphine and Marie. If this is the correct family, then at the time of Howard’s visit, Camille would have been 49, Delphine 39, and Marie 37: only “elderly” to young eyes.

This address would fall in what is now about a three-block span of a recently reconstructed medical complex.

Given Howard’s remembered familiarity with a family of sisters named Durel, and the fact that the medical schools associated with Tulane were in the same area, the rooming-house at 1904 Canal seems like a plausible contender for the site of their stay.

Just before the passage where he introduces the Durells (sic), though, Howard refers to “my French landlady” in New Orleans, who “hated the Italians.” It’s hard to know whether it’s a result of the letter’s conversational style, but it almost sounds like “my French landlady” and the “elderly maiden ladies” aren’t the same people. In that case, the Durels could also been neighbors, running a rooming-house similar to wherever the Howards lived.

In 1932, Howard facilitated a meeting between his correspondents H. P.Lovecraft, who was visiting the city, and fellow Weird Tales writer E. Hoffmann Price, currently living there. According to Lovecraft’s letters, Price lived in the French Quarter at the time, and an address list of Howard’s correspondents shows Price living at 305 Royal (Derie 47-48). The building's main floor is currently home to the Mann Gallery.

This section of Royal is full of art galleries, expensive antique shops, and upscale boutiques, but it’s likely that the rooms on the upper stories were once affordable enough for a pulp writer to rent.

Talking about the Durel sisters, Howard described “the old Durell (sic) mansion in the heart of the French Quarter – now the Latin Quarter – once a stately, century-old residence, built with characteristic French style – now a hovel housing half a dozen squalid Italian families” (MTF 122). Rusty Burke’s research, based on New Orleans city directories, suggests 301 Royal as the location.

I’d like to believe this is true, because 301 Royal is next door to Price’s lodgings. In this corner view, 301 Royal is on the left, with 305 just on the right.