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‘The Silence of Death-Like Slumber’
A Kirby O’Donnell Fragment by Robert E. Howard

Reading from El Borak and Other Desert Adventures, 2010, Del Rey, pages 23-5

Kirby O’Donnell is a scrappy Irish-American hero, who seems to get drawn into dark and supernatural corners of the world, ever managing to maintain his sanity. He is the archetype of the stoic hero, without the dark cast of Kane or the hate of Mak Morn. Nor is he prone to joy and melancholy. Kirby is the man the reader wishes he was, physically accessible and emotionally stronger

In this pleasing fragment, apparently the starter chapter for a high energy yarn, Kirby wakes up in the palace of a friend, with three sinister assassins holding daggers to him and a cruel Khan, by the name of Baber snarling hideous some things in his ear.

Rare as it is for one of Howard’s characters to be captured in the body of the text, Howard seems to have resumed the gross powerlessness of an uncharacteristically bound hero as an author’s exercise in testing the character of his creation in a helpless situation. Most of Howard’s major heroes are put to this test, so that the reader might see their mental and emotional qualities stripped of their heroic artifice. Vulmea, Kull and Conan are at their most volcanic while in chains. Kane is the only character that spends relatively more time in bondage—and bondage runs all through his back story—which permits Howard to show Kane for the psychological hero he was. Only with the Kane character do we get such a reoccurrence of the bondage theme, and it works for that character.

In this fragment Kirby begins the adventure on a literal knife’s edge and is bodily carried in deep darkness out of a guarded place, lethal threats in his ears, knowledge in his heart that he would be killed as soon as the suspicions of these men were justified, and he stays cool and calm in horrific circumstances:

“It was an eery experience, ringed by bodies and knives he could not see, with menacing voices whispering out of the gloom like disembodied spirits.”

This brief fragment gives a glimpse of Howard’s most quintessentially American hero.

A Well of Heroes

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