Sunday, November 17, 2019

El Borak the Swift & The Iron Terror by Todd B. Vick

"Listen while I tell you the secret of the Iron Terror." [ASF 232]

Vintage Robot
In a 1935 letter to Alvin Earl Perry, Robert E. Howard explained that Francis Xavier Gordon (a.k.a El Borak), was the first character he ever created. Howard admitted that he could not recall the character's genesis, but declared that the character came to his creative mind at the age of 10. It would be years later before the character would ever see the printed page. Though it wouldn't be due to a lack of trying.

Howard began submitting stories to magazine as early as 1921, at the age of 15. He mostly submitted stories to the pulps he was reading at the time: Adventure, Western Story, Argosy All-Story, and even Weird Tales (as early as 1922).  This was, to say the least, quite ambitious for a 15 year old. Especially considering that several of these magazines published seasoned writers like H. Rider Haggard, Arthur O. Friel, Harold Lamb, H. Bedford-Jones, Talbot Mundy, and Rafael Sabatini. But Howard didn't stop there. Shortly before "Spear and Fang was published in 1924, Howard sent a story titled "The Iron Terror," to Cosmopolitan, one of the well-known slick magazines of the day. The story was rejected, Howard couched it and, as far as we know, never submitting it again to another magazine.

This was the first El Borak story Howard submitted for publication. During this early stage of story submissions (and rejections), Howard really did not know what he was doing. He would write a story, place it in an envelope and mail it off. It's likely that he never considered the type of story that a magazine like Cosmopolitan considered for publication. In those early days, Howard's publication behavior was like a kid tossing wet paper towels against a wall and hoping one stuck. "The Iron Terror," was simply tossed at the wrong wall.

At this stage in his writing/publishing career, Howard was honing his writing skills in school newspapers. In fact, he was receiving a strong local following in those papers, along with much praise. And while I am speculating here, had "The Iron Terror" been submitted to Weird Tales, even under the watch of then hard-nosed editor, Edwin Baird, it's quite possible the story might have been picked up by the magazine. I suggest this because during this time the magazine's founder J. C. Henneberger was keeping a fairly close eye on what was being submitted. I find it difficult to imagine that even if Edwin Baird might have rejected the story because he did not care for science fiction, had Henneberger caught sight of it, it might have landed a spot in one of those early issues. Of course, we will never know.

"The Iron Terror" is a nice work of historical science fiction. In my estimation, it is one of Howard's more mature early stories. It is a much better story than "Spear & Fang." Closer examination of "The Iron Terror" reveals that Howard put a lot of thought into its contents and plot. Between 1922 and 1924, Howard was perfecting his ability to control the pace of his narrative. "The Iron Terror" is a wonderful example of this. Howard also sets the tone of the story by beginning the narrative in a storm. While this practice has become pedestrian in today's literature and is now frowned upon, back in 1922, almost 100 years ago, that was not the case. In the opening paragraph, Howard's use of imagery is fantastic.
"Outside the wind roared, snatching up the snow, whirling the flakes high in the air. The streets were deserted except for a few belated pedestrians hurrying home, heads bowed against the gale." [AFS 225]
The reader is drawn into the struggle of the weather, and understands that it is snowing without being told it is snowing. This is a nice demonstration of showing and not telling in the narrative. Moreover, whether this was deliberate on the part of Howard or not, he bookends this story with struggles: one is the weather, a common phenomena, the other a man-made inadvertent antagonist gone awry. The former helps serve to heighten the intensity the latter. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's jump back to the story's narrative and content.