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A Hungarian, a Texan, and Alexander the Great?
Swords of the Hills by Robert E. Howard
© 2012 James LaFond
The first El Borak Story by Robert E. Howard
Written circa 1931
Originally published as The Lost Valley of Iskander in 1974
From El Borak and Other Desert Adventures by Del Rey, 2010
A Review from September 2012, updated 4/20/15
I originally read this as part of the 1974 paperback. At that age I loved ‘lost world’ stories, and actually preferred Edgar Rice Burroughs to Howard. The lead character for these western-style adventures set in the Middle East is Francis Xavier Gordon, a Texan like Howard, but largely inspired by the works of Kipling and Mundy and by the life of Richard Francis Burton and ‘Chinese’ Gordon; the famous British colonial adventurer who commanded the Ever Victorious Army during the Taiping Rebellion in China and died fighting to the last man against the Islamic Madi fanatics of the Sudan at the siege of Khartoum.
During the time Howard was writing weird fiction like Solomon Kane and fantasy like Conan, he aspired to breaking into the better selling short fiction market typified by Oriental Adventures, and devoted to adventures in exotic locales.
As with much of the 'lost world' genre, whose chief advocate in fiction was Edgar Rice Burroughs, this story features a lost valley in Afghanistan where a no doubt hopelessly inbred tribe of blonde men, who are descendants of one of Alexander the Great's army garrisons, have maintained an ancient Hellenic society in their tiny canyon enclave. Early and mid 20th Century literature of this kind—however implausible the premise—was very popular. Indeed, once the critical reader manages to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the tale, it becomes obvious that the story of an isolated outpost of a lost civilization appeals both to our sense of ancestry, and our sense of alienation, in the form of such fantastical xenophobic yarns. Rather than exploring the racial memory question that underlines much of his horror fiction, Howard, in writing The Lost Valley of Iskander, basically cashes in on the appeal of racial alienation as a story-telling device and cranks out a marketable adventure.
Some of the premise for this story is a little hard to swallow, and it lacks the creepy nuances and subtexts of his fantasy and horror, but the pace is fast. The action is written metaphorically, not bio-mechanically, and he manages, even at this great distance, to pull it off and keep you reading to the bloody end. I found the Hungarian soldier of fortune character to be an excellent villain for such a tale.
Slavery in Maryland, 1838
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