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.

Vintage weapons
The reader of "The Iron Terror" is slowly lured into the plot by Howard's progressive development; he revealed what needed to be revealed without hurrying the reader along. The protagonist is finally named after several pages of narrative. This helps to stir the reader's curiosity, and keeps their sense of wonderment about the story. The reader is then guided through the narrative along with the protagonist, who through tumultuous weather, makes his way to a "bleak and dark" house in New York: a laboratory. An Asian (hired help) answers the door, the mysterious visitor hands over a card. Immediately, the visitor is told he is expected, and invited in. After this scene is presented, and the visitor begins perusing weapons on a large table, "an old, wrinkled man, small and withered, stooped with age, wearing a dressing gown, bedroom slippers and a red Turkish fez . . ." [226] appears in the room. The stranger rises and greets the old man and a dialogue ensues. Though the story was written in the early 1920s, the opening scene feels like it is from an early 1930s Universal motion picture. One can picture the stranger, the old man, and the room. The scene is verbally painted well. The ensuing dialogue, its brief and chopped sentences, quickens the pace of the narrative, pulling readers into the strange circumstances.

Gordon is finally revealed, and the reader now understands that he is at this old man's laboratory/home to examine weapons, one of which is the actual dagger carried by Genghis Khan. Over the table of weapons, the old man and Gordon chat about the vanity of life. The old man opines that people pass, but science does not. What man has created, especially through science, lives on. He points out that Genghis Khan has long since passed, but 1000 years later, here is his blade which still survives. Science is what matters, and through science this old man has created the ultimate weapon. This ultimate weapon is the real reason Gordon was invited and is one that the old man keeps well hidden, in a secret room.

The old man explains that he has perfected a machine that "makes all others seem as grains of sand to a mountain!" [ASF 229] He now has Gordon's attention. Howard now has his reader's attention. The old man takes Gordon into the secret room, which is enveloped in heavy steel. No one can enter or leave the room without knowing the secret to open the door, something only the old man knows. Gordon is now locked in this room with the old man. The suspense builds.

Finally, the old man reveals his invention, which is covered with a large cloth. Pulling away the cover, Gordon sees what looks like a massively large and tall metal statue. Initially, in terms of it being a "weapon," Gordon is unimpressed. However, he is impressed with the steel statue as a piece of art. The old man reveals that the steel used to create the metal statue is his own invention, stronger than Harvard Steel (the strongest known material back in the 1920s), and that his steel, which is radium folded a thousand times over, is actually indestructible.

Howard uses radium in the story, discovered in 1898 by Marie Sklodowska Curie. Radium is a brilliant silvery-white, luminescent, rare and highly radioactive metallic element. It wasn't until around a decade or so later that it was introduced to the rest of the world, and began to be used in watches, air crafts, etc. Howard cleverly uses it in this story, and the narrative explains that the old man used it to develop the strongest metal known, his own secret formula. A good example of science fiction using current scientific discoveries to bolster the fiction.

Another scientific element to this story is the statue itself. In the story, it is called an automaton. Automatons were early machines created to appear human and mimic human movement. Automatons were self-operating, usually by cranking a wind-up device built into the machine. These devices were imagined in early Greek mythology. They were discussed in print (but not yet invented) as early as circa 800 (e.g. Book of Ingenious Devices by the Banu Musa brothers). French engineer, Jacques de Vaucanson is believed to have created the first automaton in 1737, called The Flute Player. However, Howard's automaton may actually stem from Da Vincin's Knight. It is possible that Howard read Da Vinci's works in school or at a public library. Da Vinci's works are littered with descriptions of automatons and other mechanical devices. If not Da Vinci, there was certainly not a shortage of material written about automatons for Howard to read. Though Howard never reveals his inspiration for "The Iron Terror," the most promising source for the story (and its title) was likely a Harry Houdini film released in 1919.

Unlike other automatons, the one in Howard's story is massive and controlled wirelessly (remote control). It is here that Howard's story is decades ahead of its time. In fact, this idea is also 3 or so years prior to Tesla announcing the idea of wireless devices being used to connect the world. The advent of "wireless" occurred in the late 19th century. Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian inventor was the first to use radio to send a message. Telegraphs were eventually replaced by radios, but the actual use of a wireless (remote control) device to control a machine was still 40 plus years in the making. But here it is in Howard's story.

The old man, who calls his device an iron terror, demonstrates what this iron terror can do, and explains that an army with a thousand of these is invincible. Gordon, seeing the iron terror's abilities is impressed. The old man begins to taunt Gordon with the iron terror, and Gordon grows skeptical that the old man (or anyone else) could maintain control over it from the remote control device.  Balking at Gordon for doubting him, the old man assures he can maintain total control and starts to demonstrate how. Gordon's worst fears then become a reality. Reaching for a specific level, the old man accidentally activates a different lever and the automaton quickly shifts movements and smacks the old man in the head, knocking him out and over the controls. The automaton has killed the old man and is now out of control. Gordon is locked in a steel reinforced room with this iron terror and must save himself. The steel room becomes a trap and the iron terror moves like a storm around the room. Gordon must now use his combat and survival skills to save himself from the iron terror.

Submitted around late summer of 1923, "The Iron Terror" is a clever early 20th century science fiction story that utilizes a wonderful mixture of mystery, suspense and action. As we've seen, Howard utilizes cutting edge science and creates remarkable (for that time) tech ideas. However, a close examination of the story makes one understand why Cosmopolitan rejected it. The plot and narrative, while they show excellent promise for a story written by a then 17 year-old, were not of the caliber of an H.G. Wells story, a writer who had published in Cosmopolitan around that same time.

1910s Cosmopolitan
Cosmopolitan was launched in 1886 as a family literary magazine that published high quality fiction, children's stories, and homemaking tips. It struggled its first few years, and in 1889, entrepreneur John Brisben Walker, saved the magazine from bankruptcy. Walker introduced illustrations to the magazine and attracted writers like Mark Twain, Willa Cather, and H.G. Wells to its pages. By the 1920s, the magazine published fiction by leading writers such as Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and William Somerset Maugham. 17-year old Robert E. Howard barely stood a chance. However, during those early years, Weird Tales published a stack of poorly written and quite low brow fiction. Pound for pound, "The Iron Terror" was better than much of what Weird Tales was publishing in the early to mid 1920s.

Due to Howard's lack of experience, when Cosmopolitan rejected "The Iron Terror," he may have thought the story was not publishable. In the beginning of his publishing attempts, instead of re-writing and perfecting his stories, Howard developed a bad habit of couching them, especially if they were rejected by multiple magazines. There were exceptions to this, but Howard himself admitted this habit to several friends. Unfortunately, Howard never submitted "The Iron Terror" to any other magazine (according to his own letters anyway). And, had he worked on it a little longer, perfected its contents and narrative, it could have certainly been published in Weird Tales. Had that happened, it would have been a pristine example of early cutting-edge science fiction work by Howard. Instead, it was lost in the cracks of time.

As far as I can determine, the story never saw publication until 1987 when Robert M. Price edited a limited number of self-published copies of a 60-page chapbook titled, The Coming of El Borak. Of course, this chapbook had a very limited run and very few people other than perhaps hardcore fans knew about it. The story would not reappear again until The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press published The Early Adventures of El Borak. Another volume with a limited press run, and only a handful of fans buying it. Two years later, "The Iron Terror" appeared in a second REH Foundation anthology titled, Adventures in Science Fantasy. Once again, this work had a limited press run and a handful of hardcore Howard fans bought the book. In 2018, Bobby Derie (along with Chris Gruber) released a privately pressed anthology titled A Robert E. Howard Sampler that contained "The Iron Terror." This anthology was handed out at the 2018 Howard Days, once again to a very limited number of fans.

I mention all the above to declare that the "The Iron Terror" has suffered from publishing obscurity. Hardly anyone except for hardcore Howard fans knows about the story. And yet it is a wonderful early 20th century example of science fiction, decades ahead of its time. For this reason, the story warrants closer scholarly examination. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it.

Works Cited:

ASF     Adventures in Science Fiction (The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press. Plano: 2012)

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