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‘On Many a Dim Road’
The Daughter of Erlik Khan by Robert E. Howard

First published in Top-Notch Magazine, December 1934, reading from El Borak and Other Desert Adventures, 2010, Del Rey, pages 29-86

This hard driving novella may be one of Howard’s best-paced adventure yarns, which is saying something, for no writer other than Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote at such a breakneck pace. L. Ron Hubbard came close, but got bogged down in the egomaniacal scope of his work. Which—along with my own experience as a writer—leads me to believe that, to a large extent, the pace of a story reflects the pace at which it is written. Hubbard, for instance—and I spoke to a man that spoke with his assistant about this—wore out his typewriter so often that he used two of them, with one out for repairs as he punched away at the keys of the other.

The Daughter of Erlik Khan, is, like most yarns of its ilk an unlikely exercise in serendipity, featuring betrayal, more close calls in a few days than most adventurers have in a lifetime and a beautiful object of evil intention—the sultry Indian babe named in the title. Many of the elements of this tale are transferred in part and whole directly to The People of the Black Circle: ten chapters in length, a cult recluding on a mountain, a beautiful captive of the Indian plain named Yasmeena, foreign interlopers, a man in a camel hair robe, a foreign hero taking charge by force of will over a group of savage tribesmen., etc.

Francis Xavier Gordon is a Howardian version of the famed adventurer and orientalist Richard Francis Burton—composited with Chinese Gordon and given the hard edge of a gunfighter of the Old West, where Gordon, known as El Borak, is said to have come from. In the matter of willpower, El Borak exceeds all of Howard’s fictional creations. He is also among the rudest, most arrogant and psychopathic. He has the drive of Solomon Kane without the religious underpinning, a frantic, savage fellow who succeeds through bold action and a towering confidence in his own physical powers.

Yasmeena is another one of Howard’s insightfully wrought, introspective female characters, well aware of her bedeviled plight in the world and most concerned by her own spiritual path. It is shocking, after rereading over half of Howard’s collection, that the opinion of his writing as having cast women into a shallow physical mold, is still so commonly accepted. These opinions must stem from the comics and certain notable works of cover art, as they have zero grounding in Howard’s actual work, where women are more often than not, shown as more emotionally well-rounded than men [which is realistic, especially when compared with men of action] and that they appear as substantive personas throughout Howard’s work, with idiot bimbos appearing far less often among the women of Howard’s imaginary world than among those of this reader’s far more broadly experienced world. Indeed, at nearly twice his age and living in a teeming city, I have met hundreds more women than Howard could have, and his virtuous and intelligent character sketches by far outnumber those of real women with the same good character and ideals I have encountered.

I will not delve any further into this insanely driving story of high adventure out of respect for the hard work Howard put into it—as it is positively Burroughsian in pace and plot twist, reading like a Tarzan novel. The reader should have his own chance to be wowed. Howard used so many terms specific to the period and setting that no few than ten entries in the Robert E. Howard lexicon will be drawn from this one story. So we will leave the quotes for the illumination of Howard’s relentless diction in his own words—always the best.

By the Wine Dark Sea

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