The Satanic Robert E. Howard, Part 1 Essay
Among the names that appear in the dedication to the first editions of The Satanic Bible (1969) is that of Robert E. Howard. It is the first of several mentions that Anton LaVey, would make regarding the Texan author, usually in a passing manner. H. P. Lovecraft has spawned an entire genre of contemporary occult material, literally decades worth of false Necronomicons and associated books of theory, ritual, and practice, but Robert E. Howard’s impact on the occult has been comparatively slight.
Even then, the Howardian occult has mostly come through his association with Lovecraft and his participation in the Cthulhu Mythos and the mythology of the Necronomicon, particularly “The Black Stone” (1931)—for example, one Necronomicon hoax cites “The Book of the Arab, by Justin Geoffrey” (NF 64)—and Howard still crops up occasionally in volumes of the Lovecraftian occult like Peter Levenda’s The Dark Lord (2013, Ibis Press). Aside from this, occult references to Howard are rather sparse, such as when Robert Anton Wilson echoed (knowingly or not) Kenneth Grant’s interpretation of Lovecraft in ascribing Howard the attributes of a mystic:
In the course of writing, I’m always drawing on my unconscious creativity, and I find things creeping into my writing that I wasn’t aware of at the time.
That’s part of the pleasure of writing. After you’ve written something, you say to yourself, “Where in the hell did that come from?” Faulkner called it the “demon” that directs the writer. The Kabalists call it the “holy guardian angel.” Every writer experiences this sensation. Robert E. Howard said he felt there was somebody dictating the Conan stories to him. There’s some deep level of the unconscious that knows a lot more than the conscious mind of the writer knows. (RAW)
Despite this general absence from occult circles, Robert E. Howard does have a small but consistent appearance in reference to Satanism, particularly the contemporary brand associated with the Church of Satan and its offshoots. Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco in 1966, not the sole Satanic organization, but perhaps the most widespread and influential. However, it was several years before LaVey began publishing the central texts of his new religion: The Satanic Bible (1969), The Satanic Witch (1971), and The Satanic Rituals (1972); during this time he associated with a number of writers, reportedly including August Derleth, Ben Hecht, Robert Barbour Johnson, Emil Petaja, Clark Ashton Smith, Forrest J. Ackermann, and Fritz Leiber, Jr. (SLAS 66) One such associate, science fiction writer Mike Resnick, made a suggestion regarding LaVey’s work:
I explained that the Malleus Malicifarum and the Compendium Malificarum were fine text books, but he was sitting on hundreds of wonderful (and occasionally Satanic) poems by Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft in his Arkham collection, poems that had beat and meter – and eventually he did incorporate some of them into his ceremonies. (AAF 297-298)
Resnick’s suggestion rings true with other evidence from LaVey’s life and writings. For example, Michael Aquino confirmed in a letter that “You will undoubtedly be pleased to know that Lovecraft and Howard are the High Priest’s favorites also!” (COS 105), and Blanche Barton in her biography of LaVey writes:
The Dunwich Horror of H. P. Lovecraft’s story comes through the angles of a trapezohedron. “The Lurker on the Threshold”, “The Haunter in the Dark” – the entire Cthulhu mythos and much of Lovecraft’s poetry makes references to the slavering beasts that find passage into our world through angles. Many of Robert E. Howard’s poems and horror stories, The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgeson, the supposedly apocryphal Emerald Table of Thoth (from which LaVey derived the text for Die elektrischen Vorspiele), and, one of the most terrifying stories ever written, Frank Belknap Long’s Hounds of TIndalos, all refer to the flux that angles induce. (SLAS 165)
The reference to the “Emerald Table of Thoth” (sic) might point to the influence of Maurice Doreal (sometimes given as Morris Doreal, real name apparently Claude Doggins), the founder of the Brotherhood of the White Temple. Doreal’s poem “The Emerald Tablets of Thoth the Atlantean” appeared in mimeographed form in the 1930s, and describes the secret history of a shape-changing Serpent Race which have strong parallels to Howard’s story “The Shadow Kingdom” (1929). (NC 112, ACOC 121)
In truth Lovecraft and his mythos inspired several sections of The Satanic Bible, and The Satanic Rituals contains several Lovecraftian rites crafted by Aquino. Howard came up less often, as in 1971 when LaVey wrote:
It is bad enough to hear of the “great teachings” of Aleister Crowley—who hypocritically called himself by the Christian devil’s number, yet steadfastly denied any Satanic connections, who wrote and had published millions of words of Kabbalistic mulligatawny, the distilled wisdom of which could have been contained in a single volume of once-popular E. Haldeman Julius’ Little Blue Books (which sold for a nickel). Strange, how seldom one hears plaudits for Crowley’s poetry, worthy of inclusion with the likes of James Thompson, Baudelaire, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard. If Crowley was a magician, it was the beauty of his creative art which made him so, not his drug-befuddled callings-up of Choronzon, et al. Unfortunately, his followers today have taken up his worst, while neglecting his best. (OOP)
And again in 1996:
Too often, “fans” want to keep their heroes pristine, especially where Satanic connection inconveniently surface. It has happened with many, from Benjamin Franklin to Mark Twain to Jayne Mansfield. One of the most flagrant sugar-coatings is contained in a biography of Robert E. Howard, in which the author of a chapter on “The Satanic Poetry” of Howard, opines those verses — to me the most powerful writing of his entire output — were scribbled for shock value and couldn’t be taken seriously. Mr. Howard at worst, had just gotten up on the wrong side of the bed when he wrote his most stirring and powerful litanies. (MIR 8)
It’s not clear what “biography” and chapter LaVey refers to; certainly not the de Camps’ Dark Valley Destiny (1983) or Marc A. Cerasini and Charles Hoffman’s Starmont Reader’s Guide 38: Robert E. Howard (1987). The nearest parallel seems to be Steve Eng’s essay “Barbarian Bard: The Poetry of Robert E. Howard,” where Eng writes:
Like Lovecraft, and probably nearly all pulp fiction writers of his day, Howard would have found real Satanism puerile or perverse, yet for dramatic effect Howard was unafraid of extremes. (DB 40)
Other mentions of Howard appear to be few, and despite LaVey’s professed enthusiasm, Howard’s fiction doesn’t doesn’t seem to have largely shaped any of the Church of Satan’s theology, rituals, or terminology (the Satanic magazine The Cloven Hoof shares a name with a poetry magazine mentioned in Howard’s “The Children of the Night,” but this appears to be a coincidence.)
After LaVey’s death in 1997 and the subsequent splintering of the Church of Satan, there is a corresponding drop off in references to Robert E. Howard—not everyone, apparently, shared LaVey’s appreciation. Blanche Barton dedicated The Church of Satan (1990) to:
Ben Hecht, Robert E. Howard, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Knox Hammersly, and Walt Disney, who made their Pacts.
Later associations with Howard and Satanism appear to be slight. There are a number of Black metal bands inspired by Robert E. Howard, including Bal-Sagoth, Khrom, Arkham Witch, Thoth Amon, Assal, Damnation’s Hammer, Summoner’s Circle, The Sword, etc., but these bands are largely distinct from “Satanic metal,” and the imagery they borrow from Howard’s works is not particularly Satanic.
The most substantial Howard/Satanist connection in recent memory is Michael Rose’ Infernalia (2015, Underworld Amusements), which includes the brief chapter “Robert E. Howard: Satanic Skald” (96-98), which includes such epithets as “Robert E. Howard understood the Satanic spirit.” and “I do not weep for Howard, I rejoice in the poems he left us, poetry which stokes the black flame within.” (98)
For all this attention paid to the “Satanic spirit” of Robert E. Howard, the concept of real-world “Satanism” was a rather crudely developed concept in Howard’s time. Interest in survival of pagan religions and the medieval witchcraft trials increased, as evidenced by James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890) and Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921); the Black Mass in particular features in Montague Summers’ The History of Witchcraft and Demonology (1926), as well as Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel La-Bas (1891). Likewise, a desire for exoticism and interest in foreign religions fostered an interest in accounts of the “devil worship” of the Yazidis, such as William Seabrook’s Adventures in Arabia (1927), and promulgated fictional portrayals like Robert W. Chambers’ The Slayer of Souls (1920).
Whether for personal or professional interest, Howard appears to have sought out some material related to these matters, as evidence by an unsent letter to bookdealer Merlin Wand (“Also interested in devil worship, human sacrifice, anything unusual, grisly or strange.” CL4.6). However, there is little evidence of this in Howard’s library, aside from Robert W. Chambers’ novel The Slayer of Souls and possibly reference works like John William Wickwar’s The Black Art (1925). (DB 188, 199) Certainly too, Howard had access to various encyclopedias, and fellow-pulpsters with interests in the same subjects, such as H. P. Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price.
Given this disparity of material and approaches, it may be worthwhile to examine Mike Resnick’s assertion at its root—what are the Satanic works of Robert E. Howard, which have so inspired Satanists for more than forty years?
AAF …Always a Fan: True Stories from a Life in Science Fiction (Mike Resnick, Wildside Press, 2009)
ACOC A Culture of Conspiracy (Michael Barkun, University of California Press, 2006)
COS The Church of Satan (Michael Aquino, Hell’s Kitchen Press, 5th ed., 2002)
DB The Dark Barbarian (Greenwood Press, 1984)
MIR “Introduction” to Might is Right (Anton LaVey, Shane Bugby, 2014)
NF The Necronomicon Files (Dan Harms & John William Gonce III, Weiser Books, 2003)
OOP “On Occultism of the Past” (Aleister Crowley, http://www.churchofsatan.com/occultism-of-the-past.php)
RAW “Robert Anton Wilson: Searching for Cosmic Intelligence” (Jeffrey Elliot, https://web.archive.org/web/20120412051600/http://www.rawilsonfans.com/articles/Starship.htm)
SLAS The Secret Life of a Satanist (Blanche Barton, Feral House, 1990)
Read Part 2, Part 3