Part I - Tales told in the East

Best known for his tales of heroic fantasy, Robert E. Howard (1906-36) also wrote contemporary tales of adventure for the pulps. Howard was influenced by Talbot Mundy, a major writer for Adventure in the 1920’s. Mundy’s heroes were American and British adventurers roving around India and the Middle East. Utilizing Mundy’s settings, Howard fashioned his own band of protagonists. Among Howard’s soldiers of fortune, the most famous is Francis Xavier Gordon.

Howard initially created Gordon in a series of fragments penned in the early 1920’s. The author also manufactured a sidekick for Gordon, Steve Allison alias the Sonora Kid. Both Gordon and Allison were conceived as Texas gunmen who came to Asia in the early 1900’s. In the Orient, the pair discovered lost cities, priceless treasures and all manners of perils.

Howard endowed Gordon with the Arabic name of El Borak (“the Swift”). It was often implied that Gordon earned this sobriquet in Afghanistan. However, Howard had made a major blunder about the Afghans. As pointed out in Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard (Bluejay Books, 1983) by L. Sprague de Camp, Catherine de Camp and Jane Whittington Griffin, the Afghans speak Farsi rather than Arabic.

Upon becoming an established pulp writer in the 1930’s, Howard revived the characters of Gordon and Allison. Gordon changed very little, but the Sonora Kid was exiled back a generation to the 1870’s and the 1880’s, the time of the Chisholm Trail. The revised version of the Sonora Kid appeared in two stories, “Knife, Bullet and Noose,” and “The Devil’s Joker.” Howard was unable to sell either of these stories during his lifetime. Both can be found in The Last Ride (Berkley, 1978) and The End of the Trail: Western Stories (Bison Books, 2005). “Knife, Bullet and Noose” was published by itself in these Howard collections, The Book of Robert E. Howard (Zebra, 1976) and The Howard Collector (Ace, 1979).

The physical description of the Sonora Kid in these two complete stories is identical with that of his namesake in Howard’s early fragments. Chronological references prevent the two Sonora Kids from being the same individual. In order to reconcile the two versions of Steve Allison, the most likely explanation would be that they are father and son.

Unlike the Sonora Kid, Francis X. Gordon was able to break into the pages of the pulps. Five stories were published about El Borak in the 1930’s: “The Daughter of Erlik Khan” (Top-Notch, December 1934), “Blood of the Gods” (Top-Notch, July 1935), “The Country of the Knife” (Complete Stories, August 1936) and “Son of the White Wolf” (Thrilling Adventures, December 1936). Two complete adventures of El Borak, “Three-Bladed Doom” and “the Lost Valley of Iskander” (also called “Swords of the Hills”) remained unpublished for decades.

Three-Bladed Doom” has a very unusual literary history. Three different versions of this short novel exist. Howard’s original version of the novel was approximately 42,000 words. When this novel was rejected partially because of its length, Howard revised the story into a shorter form (24,000 words). Working with both these versions, L Sprague de Camp rewrote Gordon’s exploit into “The Flame Knife,” an adventure of Howard’s most famous character, Conan of Cimmeria. Names were changed, anachronisms removed and supernatural elements added. First published in Tales of Conan (Gnome Press, 1955), the story was reprinted in Conan the Wanderer (Lancer books, 1968).

Both of Howard’s unaltered versions were made available in the 1970’s. The shorter version was published in REH: Lone Star Fictioneer #4, a Howard fanzine. This short version was reprinted in The “New” Howard Reader #7 (2000). The long version was issued as a paperback novel by Zebra Books in 1977.

FAX Collector’s Editions collected the other adventures of El Borak in two handsome hardcovers: The Lost Valley of Iksander (1974, which included the title story plus “The Daughter of Erlik Khan” and “Hawk of the Hills”), and Son of the White Wolf (1977, which featured the title story plus “Blood of the Gods” and “The Country of the Knife”). “Son of the White Wolf” was also reprinted in Treasures of Tartary (Wildside Press, 2004) and The Exotic Writing of Robert E. Howard (Girasol Productions, 2006). “The Country of the Knife,” “Hawk of the Hills,” “The Daughter of Erlik Khan,” and “Blood of the Gods” were also published in Blood of the Gods and other stories (Girasol Collectables, 2005).

Blood of the Gods” makes reference to “the secret hoard of Shahrazar the Forbidden.” Robert E, Howard was alluding to another of his adventure series. Like El Borak, Kirby O’Donnell, was an American in Afghanistan. Two of O’Donnell’s exploits “Swords of Shahrazar” (Top-Notch, October 1934) and “The Treasures of Tartary” (Thrilling Adventures, January 1935) were set in Shahrazar, a fictional city in Turkestan 1The name Shahrazar is very similar to Shahazar, a fictional city mentioned in Howard’s “The Sowers of Thunders” (Oriental Stories, Winter 1932). Shahrazar and Shahazar can’t be the same city. The former was in Turkestan and the latter was near the Euphrates (in modern-day Iraq). “The Sowers of Thunder” was reprinted in The Sowers of Thunder (Donald M. Grant, 1973), Gates of Empire and Other Tales of the Crusades (Wildside Press, 2004), Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient (Bison Books, 2006) and The Exotic Writings of Robert E. Howard.. Even though “Swords of Shahrazar” was published first, it is a sequel to the “Treasures of Tartary.”

Swords of Shahrazar by Ken Kelly

A third tale in the O’Donnell cycle, “The Trail of the Blood-Stained God” was rewritten into “The Blood-Stained God,” a Conan story, by L. Sprague de Camp for Tales of Conan. “The Blood-Stained God” reappeared in Conan of Cimmeria (Lancer Books, 1969). Under the title of “The Curse of the Crimson God,” Howard’s unaltered version, together with the two other O’Donnell stories, was collected in Swords of Shahrazar (FAX Collector’s Editions, 1976). A 1978 Berkley paperback with the same title contained two extra stories that did not feature Kirby O’Donnell. Another difference between the hardcover and the paperback is that the former changed the title of the short story “Swords of Shahrazar” to “The Treasure of Shaibar Khan.”

A few supporting characters from Gordon’s adventures either appear elsewhere in Howard’s fiction, or at least have counterparts with the same name and physical attributes. El Borak was often accompanied by two Afghan warriors, Yar Ali Khan and Khoda Khan. “The Fire of Asshurbanipal” (Weird Tales, December 1936), a tale that combined Arabian adventure with the supernatural elements of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, features an Afghan named Yar Ali 2“The Fire of Asshurbanipal” was reprinted in Skull-Face and Others (Arkham House, 1946), Wolfshead (Lancer Books, 1968), Cthulhu: the Mythos and Kindred Horrors (Baen, 1987), Beyond the Borders (Baen, 1996) and Nameless Cults (Chaosium, 2001). A non-supernatural version of the story also appeared in Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos (Fedogan and Bremer, 1992).. “Names in the Black Book” (Super-Detective Stories, May 1934), which belongs to a mystery series about detective Steve Harrison, includes Khoda Khan among its entourage of characters 3“Names in the Black Book” was reprinted in Skull-Face (Berkley, 1978), Lord of the Dead (Donald M. Grant, 1981), Graveyard Rats and Others (Wildside Press, 2003) and The Exotic Writings of Robert E. Howard (Girasol Collectables, 2006)..

Cryptic Publications printed several chapbooks containing previously unavailable fiction by Robert E. Howard in the 1980’s. Bran Mak Morn: A Play and Others (1983) included “The Hand of the Black Goddess.” One of the villains in this tale was named Ditta Ram. A sinister individual with the same name and physical description appeared in the long version of “Three-Bladed Doom.” “The Hand of the Black Goddess” is one of two stories detailing the investigations of two private detectives, Brent Kirby and Butch Gorman. The other tale in the series, “Sons of Hate,” was printed by Cryptic Publications in Two-Fisted Detective Stories (May 1984),

Cryptic Publications also reprinted Howard’s early works that relate directly or indirectly to El Borak. The Adventures of Lal Singh (1985) contains three tales about a Sikh warrior who aided Gordon. The first of these stories, “The Tale of the Rajah’s Ring,” is apparently missing the middle of the narrative. The second, “The Further Adventures of Lal Singh,“ is just the brief beginning of a story, but the third, “Lal Singh, Oriental Gentleman,” is complete.

After collecting the solo efforts of one of Gordon’s comrades, Cryptic Publications then published the fragments about the American adventurer himself. An anthology of action stories, Pulse-Pounding Adventure Stories #1 (December 1986), featured “Intrigue in Kurdistan,” an unfinished story about El Borak. The remaining Gordon fragments were collected in chapbooks consisting solely of Howard’s works. The Coming of El Borak (1987) contained five unfinished narratives: “The Coming of El Borak, ”Khoda Khan’s Tale,” “The Iron Terror,” an untitled episode involving Tuareg warriors, and “El Borak” (a short fragment narrated by an unnamed American). North of Khyber (1987) included all the joint exploits of El Borak and the Sonora Kid. These included “North of Khyber,” “The Land of Mystery,” “El Borak” (a longer narrative distinct from its namesake in The Coming of El Borak), “The Shunned Castle,” and “A Power Among the Islands.” Since the long “El Borak” fragment is narrated by Steve Allison, it is possible that he was meant to be the narrator in the shorter “El Borak” fragment. Maybe Howard intended both fragments to be part of a larger work.

Cryptic Publications also issued a collection of Steve Allison’s solo adventures, The Sonora Kid (1988). Because a number of these fragments wee untitled, names were assigned to them based on their respective starting sentences. The assembled fragments were “The West Tower,” “Brotherly Advice,” “Desert Rendezvous,” “Red Curls and Bobbed Hair,” “The Sonora Kid—Cowhand,” “The Sonora Kid’s Winning Hand,” “A Blazing Sun in a Blazing Sky,” “The Hades Saloon,” “The Hot Arizona Sun,” “Madge Meraldson,” “Steve Allison” and ”…The Mountains of Thibet.”

The Last of the Trunk (The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2007) correlated the last remaining prose fragments by the pulp writer. Two of them involved characters associated with El Borak. An untitled fragment briefly described Yar Ali Khan’s failed attempt to slay a bandit chief. “The White Jade Ring” is an intriguing fragment featuring Steve Allison in the Orient. Gordon is an offstage character in this unfinished tale. “The White Jade Ring” is noteworthy for mentioning that Gordon and Alison had an unrecorded adventure in which they had a “war with the Si-Fan.” This was a reference to the crime syndicate headed by Dr. Fu Manchu in the novels of Sax Rohmer.

Some of Howard’s poetry is connected to the Gordon series. “The Song of Yar Ali Khan” in The “New” Howard Reader #4 (January 1999) revealed the innermost thoughts of Gordon’s Afghan friend. “The Sword of Lal Singh” in A Rhyme of Salem Town and Other Poems (Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2006) concerned Gordon’s Indian comrade.

After reading Howard’s stories several times, I constructed a probable biography of Francis Xavier Gordon. This article is an attempt to arrange Gordon’s exploits in a coherent order. Chronological conclusions were based both historical facts and references within the stories themselves. For example, “Khoda Khan’s Tale” cited the events of “The Coming of El Borak.” “Khoda Khan’s Tale” also mentioned that Johannesburg was under British control. Therefore, “Khoda Khan’s Tale” had to have transpired after the conclusion of the Boer War.

In “North of Khyber,” there is a newspaper story about the Bolsheviks calling upon the Balkan nations for support. Normally, this reference would lead to the conclusion that “North of Khyber” occurred after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. On the other hand, references to Steve Allison’s age and the political situation in Afghanistan point to “North of Khyber” being set before World War I. Since the Bolshevik Party was in existence since 1903, it could be argued that the newspaper was describing a political position adopted by the Russian radicals before they achieved power.

Portions of my chronological reconstruction include elaborate speculation on my part. For example, I combined references to a Thuggee temple from “El Borak (the long fragment) and “The Fire of Asshurbanipal” to enlarge upon one of El Borak’s unrecorded exploits.

Part II Part III

About the author

Rick Lai, a retired computer programmer, is a writer of New Pulp fiction. An ardent fan of Science Fiction Grand Master Philip José Farmer, Rick greatly admired the author’s Wold Newton Universe, a fictional milieu where literary heroes such as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and Doc Savage coexist in the same reality.

During the 1980’s and 1990’s. Rick elaborated on the concepts of Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe in articles published in the pulp fanzines. Revised versions of these articles have been collected in Rick Lai’s Secret Histories: Daring Adventurers, Rick Lai’s Secret Histories: Criminal Masterminds, Chronology of Shadows: A Timeline of The Shadow’s Exploits and The Revised Complete Chronology of Bronze.

Rick is currently transforming his Wold Newton theories into fiction with an ongoing series of short story collections that include Shadows of the Opera, Shadows of the Opera: Retribution in Blood, Sisters of the Shadows: The Cagliostro Curse and Rick Lai’s Major Sabbath.

Rick also translated into English two French crime novels by Arthur Bernède and Louis Feuillade, Judex and The Return of Judex. Rick also regularly appears on the Lovecraft Ezine E podcast hosted by Mike Davis. In 2018, Rick received the Hyrkanian Award from The Robert E. Howard Foundation for his article, “Poseidon and the Gods of the Robert E. Howard Universe.”

At the Pulpfest Convention in 2022, he was given the Munsey Award in recognition of his contributions to pulp fandom. Rick lives with his wife in Bethpage, New York and currently enjoys visiting his grandchildren

Rick Lai
Pulp historian and Author

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This article was written by Rick Lai. This entry was posted on Used with permission.

Posted February 19th, 2023. Layout, small corrections (typos), images and links added by Ståle Gismervik.

Thanks to Ralph Grasso for providing me the article and getting til approval of Rick Lai.

Teaser image by Guillaume Sorel, several images by Ken Kelly.