Cimmerian Collection

Cover by Ken KellySwords of Shahrazar (Kirby O'Donnell)
Copyright 1978, by Glenn Lord

Berkley Medallion edition/ March 1978
Ace edition/ November 1987

The Treasures of Tartary
Swords of Shahrazar
The Curse of the Crimson God
The Brazen Peacock
The Black Bear Bites

(out of 5)

Kirby O'Donnell is a Howard hero less familiar to most readers.  Howard only wrote three stories about O'Donnell's exploits, of which only two actually saw print during his lifetime -- "The Treasures of Tartary" and "Swords of Shahrazar" -- neither in Weird Tales.  A third story called "The Trail of the Bloodstained God" was discovered by L. Sprague de Camp among Howard's papers long after his death.  It was published first as "The Curse of the Crimson God" in 1975.  But it will be familiar to readers who have read a Conan yarn called "The Bloodstained God".  This is because De Camp rewrote it, changing the hero to Conan, the location and the time period, (and title) and included it in Conan of Cimmeria, part of the series of books ostensibly presenting the Conan tales in chronological order.

Kirby O'Donnell was a very close match for REH's other hero, El Borak, both of whom were Irish-Americans and both of whom operated in what was then modern day Afghanistan.  Fewer stories were written about O'Donnell and that's a shame, because in some ways he had more going for him.  O'Donnell favoured two blades, which he used simultaneously: a hawk-headed scimitar and a smaller knife called a "kindhjal".  He tended to travel in disguise, done up as a Kurdish trader named Ali el Ghazi.  El Borak, too, once appeared in eastern get-up, but he didn't make it a habit like O'Donnell.  Whereas El Borak was obviously modeled after Lawrence of Arabia, O'Donnell, I think, owed more to Richard Francis Burton, the explorer who (among other feats) entered the "forbidden" city of Harar disguised as an Arab.  (Actually, come to think of it, El Borak's real name was Francis Xavier Gordon, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Richard Francis Burton.  So he probably owes something to Burton as well.)

But, hawk-headed scimitar aside, I still somehow prefer El Borak to O'Donnell.  In spite of their similarities, El Borak seemed a little more real and fleshed out, his character adding to the story.  Kirby O'Donnell seems to exist just to keep the story moving.  He adds nothing to it.

"The Treasures of Tartary" finds Kirby O'Donnell, disguised as Ali el Ghazi, sneaking about the forbidden city of Shahrazar in quest of the treasure of Khuwarezm, a fabulous hoard hidden by Muhammad Shah, king of Khuwarezm, when his empire fell to the Mongols.  Shahrazar is lorded over by an Uzbek named Shaibar Khan who is himself interested in uncovering the treasure with which he plans to hire an army and go a-conquering.  O'Donnell finds himself involved in a brawl in a dark alley, where he manages to snatch a necklace off one of the attackers before they escape.  The necklace turns out to be a talsmin which allows the wearer to enter the sacred "Shining Palace".  Lucky boy -- the Shining Palace is where rumour says the treasure is hidden.  But, once in the palace, O'Donnell discovers there are other parties interested in the treasure, specifically European parties whose plans involve financing the overthrow of British rule in India...

Interestingly, although "The Treasures of Tartary" (originally called "Gold from Tartary") forms a complete story, it was followed by a sequel, "Swords of Shahrazar", set in the same forbidden city and directly linked to the first story.  This is the only time I recall REH doing this.  Sometimes his stories had references to previous stories (such as the Solomon Kane yarns), but I don't recall ever finding an actual sequel like this.  Stranger still, the two stories themselves were published in separate magazines, three months apart and...the second story was published first!  Obviously, as a working author, Howard took whatever slot he could get, but it must surely have confused many readers.

"The Treasures of Tartary" is an excellent tale, which makes nice use of the old sneaking-into-the-forbidden-palace-in-disguise ploy.  As usual, Howard wove his many characters together into a complex web, in which everyone seems to have different and conflicting agendas.  And the climax, in which the hero finds himself on the horns of a dilemma, is very memorable.

"Swords of Shahrazar" is a direct sequel to "The Treasures of Tartary", following Kirby O'Donnell only days later.  As I mentioned though, this second story was published first and in a different magazine.

"Swords of Shahrazar" begins with a recap of "The Treasures of Tartary", then brings us up to date.  The city of Shahrazar has fallen to the Turkomans under Orkhan Bahadur.  Since O'Donnell -- still disguised as the Kurd, Ali el Ghazi -- once saved Orkhan's life, he has become the Turkoman's "cup-companion", Orkhan little knowing that it was O'Donnell who disposed of the treasure of Khuwarezm.  But then, O'Donnell is found out by the (possibly) disguised European, Suleiman Pasha, and Suleiman decides to use that knowledge to force O'Donnell to be his agent.  It seems the tribesmen of Kuruk discovered an Englishman dying in the Afghan hills and carrying secret papers, papers which Suleiman wants to get his grimy mits on.  He convinces Orkhan Bahadur to send O'Donnell with some men to recover the papers, intending that, in reality, O'Donnell will be working for him (Suleiman).  But when O'Donnell reaches the Pass of Akbar, he discovers the Kurukzai have been run out and replaced by a motley crew of rogues led by the notorious Yusufzai, Afzal Khan, who men call "The Butcher"...

In spite of the machinations which form the first half of the story, this tale is really about how O'Donnell deals with the rogue Afzal Khan.  Howard does a nice job of creating tension and a feeling that O'Donnell really has gotten himself into a pretty pickle, from which even his hawk-headed scimitar may not save him.  As usual, REH has a nice grip on his Afghan supporting players, particularly Yar Muhammad, an Afghan who owes O'Donnell his life and means to repay that debt.  He is at once a source of humour and heroism.  Particularly memorable is the scene where Yar Muhammad, thinking O'Donnell has been fatally shot, tries to drag him to shelter, all the while O'Donnell is simply trying to regain his footing, but can't because he is being dragged!  (Well, you had to be there.)

"The Curse of the Crimson God" was an unpublished Kirby O'Donnell story entitled "The Trail of the Bloodstained God" which was found among REH's papers long after his death.  L. Sprague de Camp rewrote it as a Conan yarn entitled "The Bloodstained God" and published that version in the Lancer edition Conan of Cimmeria (later by Ace).  Strangely, just as the various titles can't seem to decide what the god should be called, in the story itself Howard seems confused, calling it variously "the crimson god", "the bloodstained god" and "the red god".  Perhaps he needed another rewrite?

In "The Curse of the Crimson God" we find Kirby O'Donnell still in disguise as the Kurd, Ali el Ghazi, this time in Medina el Harami, the "city of thieves".  He is hot on the trail of an Englishman named Hawklin and a disinherited Afghan prince named Jehungir Khan, the two having stolen a treasure map given to O'Donnell by a friend named Pembroke, shortly before that man died.  The map points the way to a fabulous ruby-encrusted idol called "the bloodstained god".  O'Donnell happens upon the two ruffians busily engaged torturing a local tribesman to make him reveal the secret trails through the mountains.  O'Donnell is knocked unconscious in the resulting throw-down and, when he recovers, he finds Hawklin and Jehungir Khan have already vamoosed into the mountains following his map.  He learns this from a mysterious stranger, named Hassan, who offers to form a temporary alliance, the two of them following the tracks left by the thieves which will, presumably, lead them to the idol.  But before they can reach the idol, they must first pass through land claimed by the Jowaki leader, Yakub Khan.  And Yakub Khan hates Kurds...

"The Curse of the Bloodstained God" isn't quite as good as the other two Kirby O'Donnell stories, but it is still a lot of fun.  The main tension is created through the uneasy alliance formed between O'Donnell, Hassan and (later) Hawklin, since we know someone is going to turn on our hero, we just don't know when...or who.  Of course, Howard was a master at keeping things interesting by throwing in multiple factions with differing agendas and here we have four -- O'Donnell, Hassan, Hawklin/Jehungir Khan, and Yakub Khan.  My only complaint is that the climax seems a little weak, too abrupt.  It would have been nice if there had been one final surprise.

A final booby-trap, perhaps?

"The Brazen Peacock" isn't even a Kirby O'Donnell story but rather features John Mulcahy who tells the story in the first person.  (Strangely, we don't even find out the hero's name until more than halfway through the story.)  It is a very thin tale, whose main purpose seems to have been to allow Howard to show off his knowledge regarding the Yezidees and the cult of Melek Taus.

In the Arabian city of Djibouti, Mulcahy and his Arab companion Ali encounter an old (and unscrupulous) friend named Erich Girtmann who has stolen a gold idol, called the Brazen Peacock, from an Asian cult of devil worshipers, and is now on the run, with the cult hard on his heels.  From Mulcahy, Girtmann wants only fresh clothes and a horse, so he can ride to a nearby fortress to hide until he can escape on a British steamer.   The plan however fails miserably and Mulcahy has to ride to the rescue, but in vain, barely escaping with his and Ali's lives...

In the introduction to the Howard collection Beyond the Borders (from Baen's Robert E. Howard library), Toni Weisskopf claims: "The cult of Malik Tous [sic], mentioned in several stories, is -- so far as my research can tell me -- one that only existed in the pages of Weird Tales."  In fact, Melek Taus, the Yezidees, the city of Lalesh, and everything else were (and are) quite real, albeit not quite as depicted by Howard, who took a real religion and turned it into a frightening cult of pulp-style devil worshipers.  Even the details about the Yezidees not speaking the name of Satan, the importance of the colour blue, and the sacredness of fire are all true.  The Yezidee (or Yezidi) are a Kurdish people living today in Iraq.  They don't really worship the devil, but, during the pulp era they were widely thought to, and so appeared in many stories as staple bad-guys.

"The Brazen Peacock" isn't a very good story, the bulk of it being taken up with Girtmann detailing information about the Yezidees and how he came by the Brazen Peacock.  Even the climax feels as if Howard couldn't find a way out for his hero and had to make do with this.  It wasn't published in Howard's lifetime but first saw print in 1975.

"The Black Bear Bites" is an odd choice to include in this collection, since it neither features Kirby O'Donnell nor is it even set in an Arabian/ Afghan milieu.  As with "The Brazen Peacock", the story is told in the first person by the hero -- this time, Black John O'Donnell, whose nickname is "The Black Bear".  Maybe the book's editor saw the name O'Donnell and figured there must be some sort of family connection to Kirby O'Donnell.  The title too seems a little misleading, the story being set in China.  True, the Chinese have panda bears, but still, I would have expected something with "dragon" in it.

When a friend, who was investigating the shady goings on at the mysterious home of a sinister figure named Yotai Yun, turns up floating in the Yangtze, John O'Donnell sets off on the vengeance trail, with something other than a song in his heart.  Sneaking into the "Dragon House" of Yotai Yun, O'Donnell finds his way into a secret passage from which he can spy on the inhabitants.  What he discovers is a cache of arms and a sizable gathering under the control of a hooded figure called the Hooded Lama, who is making big plans for a "yellow empire".  But then the alarm is sounded and O'Donnell finds himself fighting for his life...

This story is considered one of Robert E. Howard's "Cthulhu Mythos" stories.  The Cthulhu Mythos was a sort of pulp-writer's game initiated by H.P. Lovecraft in the pages of Weird Tales.  It began when Lovecraft introduced into his horror stories references to imaginary beings -- like the "Old Ones, "Yog-Sothoth" and the great "Cthulhu" himself -- and imaginary sources of eldritch lore -- like the sinister book, the "Necronomicon" -- but pretending that they were real.  Soon other authors, many of them Lovecraft's pen pals, took up the game and began using the same references or adding their own to the mix, all of which added to the apparent authenticity of the thing.  (I can remember for many years believing the Necronomicon must be real -- after all, it appeared in several different sources, didn't it?  I was only disillusioned upon reading Robert Bloch's introduction to his collection of Mythos stories, The Mysteries of the Worm.  It was like being told there is no Santa Claus.)  Here, "The Black Bear Bites" falls into the Cthulhu Mythos because the Hooded Lama claims to be a priest of an ancient religion, worshippers of Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth and the Old Ones.  (In fact, he is lying, merely posing as a priest.)

As with the name of the idol in "The Curse of the Crimson God", Howard seems a little confused about the name of his Lama.   He is called variously the Black Lama, the Hooded Lama, the Hooded Monk, and even the Masked Monk!  Since this story was first published in 1974, I would guess it was still awaiting a rewrite at the time of Howard's death.

While "The Black Bear Bites" isn't a terrible story, it isn't much to write home about either.  There isn't much story here and what mystery there is centers around the question, Who is the Hooded Lama?  Since there only is one possible suspect, the mystery is no mystery at all.  In fact, the story is very similar to the scene in "The Treasures of Tartary" where Kirby O'Donnell hides in the Shining Palace and spies on a meeting where plans of empire are also being discussed.  I would almost wonder if Howard wrote "The Black Bear Bites", then decided it wasn't working, abandoned it and incorporated that scene into "The Treasures of Tartary".  I guess we'll never know.

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