The following is an excerpt from David Hardy’s essay for Robert E. Howard Changed My Life, an upcoming book from the Rogue Blades Foundation.
Francis Xavier Gordon, better known as El Borak, “the Swift” — from his deadly speed with six-gun and sword — is the first and the last of Robert E. Howard’s iconic pulp fiction adventure heroes. El Borak is a uniquely Howardian character, a Western hero riding the trails of Central Asia, part John Wesley Hardin, part Lawrence of Arabia, and a little bit Tamerlane. Howard described the origin of Gordon to Alvin Earl Perry:
“The first character I ever created was Francis Xavier Gordon, El Borak, the hero of ‘The Daughter of Erlik Khan’ (Top Notch), etc. I don’t remember his genesis. He came to life in my mind when I was about ten years old.”
That would put El Borak’s origins about 1915, the year Rafael Sabatini’s pirate novel THE SEA HAWK appeared. THE SEA HAWK’s theme of English renegades among Barbary corsairs and the presence of a supporting character called Biskaine-el-Borak suggest it may well have influenced Howard, then or later.
Among other things, Howard also noted that Bran Mak Morn, hero of “Worms of the Earth,” bore a resemblance to El Borak. One might speculate Howard imagined the Scots-Irish Gordon as having Pictish ancestry, if not a direct relationship to the king. There’s a high degree of Howard’s personal mythology linking his many fictional characters across years of dreaming and writing.
The manner in which Howard’s fiction came to my attention is not unique, though perhaps it offers some interesting details and shows that my interest in Howard’s fiction goes a long way back.
I was in the fifth grade, about 1976, and experiencing a strange time in a strange place. My father was a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy and was working in Iran in support of the sale of F-14 fighters to the shah’s air force. My mother and I had traveled to Isfahan to be with him.
While there I got a copy of SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN with parts of two Howard stories adapted by Roy Thomas. The stories were the middle portion of “People of the Black Circle” with art by John Buscema and the second half of “Worms of the Earth” with art by Barry Windsor-Smith and Tim Conrad. It was the second half of the story, but it sufficed: I was a Robert E. Howard fan.
I was mesmerized by “Worms of the Earth.” The drama of Bran Mak Morn’s quest for vengeance, his hideous bargain with the witch-woman Atla, and the horrific fate of Titus Sulla were like a jolt of electricity to my ten-year old imagination. The dying Roman’s tale and Bran’s tender reaction to the man’s last words were completely unexpected. It was something almost beyond my comprehension in a story about hate and revenge.
The illustrations by Windsor-Smith and Conrad, swathes of gray shot through with shafts of light, conjured a mood of doom mingled with melancholy I didn’t even know was possible to create. The art was theirs, but the images and words were Howard’s, expertly interpreted and brought to life by the artists and Thomas. If I read that comic once, I read it a thousand times. I consider “Worms of the Earth” one of the best fantasy short stories ever written.
I certainly don’t mean to slight “People of the Black Circle,” but it was clearly a middle section. Yet there were images of stark horror and feminine allure that stuck with me. To this day I can recall Buscema’s rendering of Yar Afzal’s face as he grasps the fatal jewel, and the pert swing of the girl’s hips as she walks away after selling her clothes to Conan and Devi Yasmina. There have been many artists who have interpreted Howard’s words with ink and paint; Buscema is among the finest.
As I said, I was in a strange place and a strange time. We lived in a two-story duplex in a suburb entirely set aside for Americans. The men who lived next door were employees of various aircraft manufacturers. Among them was a retired CIA officer who couldn’t say much about what his job was, or had been, but he told me some of his past exploits involved Raul Castro. Another of our friends was an Air Force officer from the OSI, the Air Force’s military intelligence unit. He never wore a uniform, but he would carry a concealed pistol when meeting dignitaries.
We didn’t stay cooped up in the suburb. There were regular trips to town for shopping or sightseeing. We often visited the Isfahan bazaar, a rambling tunnel-like structure of mud bricks housing innumerable shops selling silverwork, handmade brassware, spices from open bags, luxurious carpets, and generally exotic merchandise. There was a mosque with a huge arched entrance covered with brightly colored tiles. It had been damaged, or perhaps re-built, by no less than Tamerlane, the last and most ferocious of the conquerors from Central Asia.
David Hardy is the author of “A Servant of the Protector,” BROTHERS BY THE GUN, BLOOD ON THE BORDER, PALMETTO EMPIRE, CRAZY GRETA, and many other Western, fantasy, and science fiction tales. He lives in Austin, Texas with his family. Check out David’s works at his Amazon page.