2010, Del Rey, NY, 559 pages, illustrated by Tim Bradstreet and Jim $ Ruth Keegan
The illustrations in this volume are of two complimentary types. I do not know how to describe the more haunting style, with the subject dark and the background starkly bright, but it is amazing.
In my youth I read Swords of Shahrazar, a paperback featuring Kirby O’Donnell, the less intense of Howard’s two desert adventurers, the other being El Borak, or Francis Xavier Gordon, a psychopathic Texas alpha male patterned loosely after Richard Francis Burton, that is if you crossed Burton with John Wesley Harding and Kit Carson. Of the two, the larger than life figure is. Gordon is of Scottish ancestry, with Howard placing an ancestor of his in one of his Middle Ages tales. O’Donnell is a more sympathetic, tough guy, fairly similar to Kirby Buckner of Black Canaan and Pigeons from Hell, but with a harder edge.
O’Donnell’s tales occupy the back of the book and were once a stand-alone paperback, two of the stories not published until the 1970s.
The Kirby O’Donnell stories are:
Gold from Tartary
Swords of Shahrazar
The Trail of the Blood-Stained God
The Fire of Asshurbanipal [also classified as a horror story]
There were three El Borak paperback which I read in the 1970s, Three Bladed Doom, The Lost Valley of Iskander and Son of the White Wolf. Gordon is a hard, hard man, a combination scout and gunfighter out of the old west, who would have been best played in film by Robert Conrad. He is the most confident of all Howard’s characters. His canon includes:
Swords of the Hills
The Daughter of Erlik Khan [an excellent story]
Three-Bladed Doom [Howard’s longest pure adventure yarn, in two lengths]
Hawk of the Hills
Blood of the Gods
Sons of the Hawk
Son of the White Wolf
In many ways Howard is at his best writing these desert adventures. Although he is known for his gloomy, dark fantastical, close settings, placed in jungles, on islands and in cities—living or dead—from Conan, Kull and Kane, he truly shines with his totemic imaginary, as evidenced by the El Borak title list. Where O’Donnell is plunged into pseudo-Lovecraftian gloom as often as battle and open peril, Gordon is featured in adventures so intense that the wide open expanses seem to draw in upon him, in a world where men are described as dogs, wolves and birds of prey, creatures famed for their tenacity, ferocity and swiftness.
Howard’s desert adventures are an overlooked gem. Perhaps we now live in times when Hollywood might field a Gordon film?
I highly recommend El Borak and shall focus on this aspect of Howard’s work in this, the third volume of A Well of Heroes.