I first discovered the writings of my favourite author, Robert E. Howard, by accident. I knew of Conan The Barbarian initially through the choose-your-own-adventure book Deathtrap Dungeon. I was just a kid and those Fighting Fantasy books fascinated me, building a character to venture through the city of thieves, the caverns of the snow witch, the house of hell and then best of all the Deathtrap Dungeon.
These were the days before Dark Souls, Tomb Raider, and Assassins Creed Origins. If you wanted to sneak through musty monster-filled dungeons with only your broadsword, provisions and wit to protect you, you had to read those Fighting Fantasy books. I loved ’em.
One such character in Deathtrap Dungeon was a muscular barbarian who looked like Alice Cooper’s guitarist. Huge, square-jawed, and a thick black main. He carried a battleaxe and at towards the end of your adventure you had to fight him. I killed the cunt. Smashed the bastard. It wasn’t until watching the Conan The Barbarian movie a couple of years later (and also its Italian rip-offs such as Ator The Fighting Eagle) that I realised there was this original character. My early-teens years then soon turned to comics and the fantastic Savage Sword Of Conan, which is now reissued in graphic novel collections.
Fast forward to my late twenties and life in Tokyo, Japan. I found a couple of old Tor Conan paperbacks in an English language second-hand bookshop in Kichijoji. One written by Karl Edward Wagner and another by Wheel Of Time creator Robert Jordan. They were great and I read more. I soon realised these were attempts to recreate the original Conan stories on the 1930s that started it all.
These were, of course, written by Robert E. Howard. As good as the Tor paperbacks were, the REH stories actually pissed all over the imitations from a great height. We’re talking a Daygame-Mastery-to-Street-Hustle height. I quickly devoured all of REH’s stuff that I could get my hands on and when Wildside Press announced they would release all of REH’s Weird Tales stories in a ten-volume collection I started getting them . Wildside also re-released several other collections, of which Graveyard Rats And Others is one. So, that brings up to this review.
Howard lived in Cross Plains, Texas and seems to have never left the state. However, he was a voracious reader with a keen imagination so his writings span the globe. He is as comfortable writing historical fiction in Samarkand and Syria as he is cowboy stories in the Western US or Lovercraftian Cthulhu mythos stories on the East coast. He wrote whatever would sell in the 1930s pulp monthlies, writing well over a hundred stories before he topped himself in 1936. 
What holds his writings together, despite the wide-ranging genres, is his unbridled masculinity and the crackling of energy as the stories charge forwards. No-one has ever complained his writing is slow. We see this in Graveyard Rats And Others, a collection of six short stories. Here Howard tries his hands at hardboiled detectives, the wild west, swamp-country negroes, and Chinatown masterminds…. all with a brooding dark menace. I enjoyed them all, but perhaps Names In The Black Book was my favourite. It answered a question that has no doubt been playing on my readers’ minds for years:
What would happen if the creator of Conan wrote a Fu Manchu story?
Sax Rohmer, creator of the epic rivalry between detective Denis Nayland Smith and the Chinese criminal mastermind Dr Fu Manchu, was a Brit. His Englishness oozes out of every page. So Smith is an honorable agent of His Majesty’s government who follows the law in tracking down the scheming mandarin. Many times Smith is aware of Fu Manchu’s plans but unable to act through want of evidence to justify arrests. The stories play out like Sherlock Holmes mysteries as the English cop plays cat and mouse with the nefarious slant. Fu Manchu, though deadly, is an honorable man who never breaks his word and thus frequently lets Smith slip from his grasp if it’s required to repay an earlier debt of honor. The stories are also laconic and dripping in atmosphere from the lapping waves of misty London waterfronts to the (also misty) back-alleys and opium dens of Chinatown.
Robert E Howard is having none of that bullshit. None at all.
Names In The Black Book begins with hardboiled detective Steve Harrison invited to a mysterious girl’s apartment in River Street, the Chinatown of this unnamed American city. Three immigrants have been murdered  and a note was pushed under the girl’s door with their names crossed out and her’s and Harrison’s next on the list. It would appear Erlik Khan is back.
He’s REH’s Fu Manchu. He’s Mongolian and rather more of a rogue than Rohmer’s Chinaman.
The pair call up Khoda Khan, on Afghan assassin who rides the middle line between criminal and honorable man, to protect the dame in her rooms, while Harrison goes off to meet a stool pigeon to get the skinny on Erlik. Things rapidly spiral out of control with attempts to poison the frail’s cigarettes, a venomous scorpion introduced under her door, and then an all-out invasion by knife-wielding Mongols that Khoda Khan must repel.
That’s rather more action than in a Rohmer story. Just look at how Khoda makes his appearance:
In any costume it would have been equally evident that there was something wild and untamable about the man. His eyes blazed as no civilised man’s ever did, and his sinews were like coiled springs under his coat. Harrison felt much as he would have if a panther had padded into the room, for the moment placid but ready at an instant’s notice to go flying into flaming-eyed, red-taloned action.
“I thought you’d left the country,” he said.
The Afghan smiled, a glimmer of white amidst the dark tangle of his beard.
“Nay, sahib. That son of a dog I knifed did not die.”
“You’re lucky he didn’t,” commented Harrison. “If you kill him you’ll hang, sure.”
“Inshallah,” agreed Khoda Khan cheefully. “But it was a matter of izzat – honor. The dog fed me swine’s flesh. But no matter. The mensahib called me and I came.” 
No doubt reading that, you’d rather not mess with him. After a dozen cloven skulls and severed limbs, the Mongols learn that lesson too.
Meanwhile, Harrison has showed up at Shan Yang’s opium den for a rendezvous with his informant Johnny Kleck. He’s led through a scene reminiscent of Sax Rohmer’s descriptions of Chinatown:
A characteristic smell pervaded the dense atmosphere, in spite of the reek of dope and unwashed bodies – the dank odor of the river, which hangs over River Street dives or wells up from their floors like the black intangible spirit of the quarter itself. Shan Yang’s dive, like many others, was built on the very bank of the river. The back room projected out over the water on rotting piles, at which the black river lapped hungrily.
Lest you think such evocative dark description will give way to Sax Rohmer’s patient and peaceful investigations, REH turns it grisly. It’s a trap.
Harrison’s big blue pistol jumped into his hand. Johnny Kleck was dead, that grin was a contortion of horror and agony. He was crucified to the wall by skewer-like dagger blades through his wrists and ankle, his ears spiked to the wall to keep his head upright. But that was not what had killed him. The bosom of Johnny’s shirt was charred, and there was a round, blackened hole.
Erlik Khan had lured Harrison into an ambush and after a short violent fight, his thugs take the American detective prisoner and carry him off to his lair in a run-down house on a nearby island. Khan enters his prison cell to gloat, monologuing over his plan to assassinate city leaders and replace them with his own bought-off front men. He walks off to attend a ritual sacrifice of the captured girl, but Khoda rescues Harrison and they plan to gatecrash the ceremony. They arrive just as Erlik Khan is gloating over his bound victim:
“Why?” the girl whimpered bewilderedly.
“Because I did not wish you to die like a candle blown out in the dark, my beautiful white orchid. I wish you to be fully sane so as to taste to the last dregs the shame and agony of death, subtle and prolonged. For the exquisite, and exquisite death. For the coarse-fibered, the death of an ox, such as I have decreed for your friend Harrison.”
Fu Manchu doesn’t gloat. He wishes to control the world with the tentacles of his hidden society but he is far from a sadist and seeks no notoriety, nor sexual kicks. By contrast, Erlik Khan is a hot-blooded scumbag who will deserve an equally hot-blooded death. The intrepid pair, Harrison and Khoda burst in and sow mayhem, plunging a knife deep into Erlik’s breast. His mongol lackeys then pursue the (now) trio as they escape the building.
Would you get this pulse-pounding action in a Sax Rohmer story? I don’t think so:
The Mongols came on as if they too, were blood-mad. They jammed the door with square snarling faces and squat silk-clad bodies before he could slam it shut. Knives licked at him, and gripping the mace with both hands he wielded it like a flail, working awful havoc among the shapes that strove in the doorway, wedged by the pressure from behind. The lights, the upturned snarling faces that dissolved into crimson ruin beneath his flailing, all swam in a red mist. He was not aware of his individual identity. He was only a man with a club, transported back fifty thousand years, a hairy-breasted, red-eyed primitive, wholly possessed in the crimson instinct for slaughter.
He felt like howling his incoherent exultation with each swing of his bludgeon that crushed skulls and spattered blood in his face. He did not feel the knives that found him, hardly realising it when the men facing him gave back, daunted at the havoc he was wreaking. He did not close the door then; it was blocked and choked by a ghastly mass of crushed and red-dripping flesh. 
Makes you want to do fifty chin-ups doesn’t it? I love the muscularity of REH’s writing. He manages to squeeze this stuff into a Chinatown detective story. Imagine what he’s like when the subject is Conan of Cimmeria, a brash questing barbarian pitched against sorcerers, bandits, and monsters as he heads off towards Deathtrap Dungeon.
If you’d like pulse-pounding action featuring a strong, muscular, heroic figure then you’ll like my four-volume memoir series Balls Deep, A Deplorable Cad, Younger Hotter Tighter, and Adventure Sex. Available here.
 For reasons that completely escape me, the eighth volume is ludicrously expensive. I have all the others.
 Mummy issues.
 Usually I’d cheer that kind of thing, but for the purposes of this story it’s a bad omen.
 Yes, he murdered someone for serving him pork. Muslims have always been a problem for the civilised West.
 Don’t worry, they were all slants. No white people were hurt.