Thursday, April 22, 2010

FINALLY back in print

Pulp writer Robert E. Howard churned out a lot of stuff that never saw print in his lifetime--most of which were great stories that really deserved to be read.

Howard never achieved much popular success during his short life (though he certainly did have his fans) and it wasn't until a couple of decades went by that his work began to be re-discovered and build up a following.

And he appears to be as popular today as he ever was. A lot of his stuff is coming back into print, most notably through a superb series of anthologies being put out by Del Ray. All his Conan stuff is there, as well as Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, and  many of his non-series stories.

In fact, this past February saw the publication of El Borak and Other Desert Adventures. El Borak is the nick-name of Francis Xavier Gordon, a Texan who wanders around Afganistan and the Mid-East during the early 20th Century, getting into one violent adventure after another.All the short stories involving Gordon (and a few non-Gordon stories set in the same milieu) are here.

All the stories in this volume are slam-bang adventures, but one in particular is a favorite of mine. "Three-Bladed Doom" plops El Borak smack into a whole danged city of assassins, ruled by a man planning on using assassination and terror to set himself up as a behind-the-scenes ruler of much of Asia. There's political intrigue, treachery, escapes and captures, sword duels, a damsel in distress, a fight with a yeti (the closest thing to an overt fantasy element in any of these stories) and a full-scale battle at the climax.

It's amazing storytelling from start to finish--one of these "can't put it down" yarns that are a joy to read, combining compelling action sequences with clever plot construction and vivid characterizations.

The new Del Ray anthology actually contains two versions of the story. Howard originally wrote it as a 42,000-word novela. When that didn't sell, he re-wrote it as a 24,000-word short story.

Neither version found a market at the time. It wasn't until 1977 that the longer (and better) version saw print in a paperback. (It had, in the meantime, been re-written by L. Sprague de Camp into a Conan story, but this was a awkward and unsatisfying effort.)

That's where I first encountered this story. I've still got that paperback, in fact. But I'm glad that "Three-Bladed Doom" has found a back-in-print home. (Especially since it was offered in an electronic version as well--bringing my Kindle one step closer to being my perfect personal library.)  And it is interesting to compare both versions of the tale. I also appreciate the inclusion of "The Trail of the Blood-Stained God," another story that had been altered by de Camp into a Conan story. It was nice to finally read the original version of that one.

By the way, some of the El Borak stories have become public domain and are available online. Here's one that gives you a good idea of how much fun these stories are:  BLOOD OF THE GODS

Man, I only just re-read "Three-Bladed Doom," but now I want to read it again.

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