Vision, Gryphons, Nothing and the Night


"Here is the border-land — here reason lies —

There, vision, gryphons — Nothing, and the Night.

Down, down, red specters! Down! And rack me not!"


— Robert E. Howard (from "Out of the Deep" aka "Voices Waken Memory")


A Member Journal of Robert-E-Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association • Issue no. 3 • Summer Solstice 2002





By Steven Tompkins


The city we see is the one they have blocked out, stripped of illusions...treacherously constructed, in which the only order is the unnatural order; the fittest, by necessity, are the most devious. The only motivation is the criminal one. The only law, survival.


Nicholas Christopher, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City


It isn’t law-enforcement I resent, but the Vandals that parade under the cloak of law.


Robert E. Howard, in an October 1932 letter to H.P. Lovecraft


Well there’s a line that you must toe

And it will soon be time to go

But it’s darker than you knowin those

Complicated shadows


All you gangsters and rude clowns

Who were shooting up the town

When you should have found someone to put the blame on

Though the fury’s hot and hard

I still see a cold graveyard


Elvis Costello, "Complicated Shadows"


You’ve got no brains to know what is best for yourselves, so I’ll tell you.This busting the town open is no good for business. I won’t have it anymore.You be nice boys or I’ll make you


.Pete the Finn, in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest


In the final footnote to his essay "Robert E. Howard: Hard-boiled Heroic Fantasist," George Knight speculates that


doubtless, had Howard lived, his efforts with the Western story could haveled him to approach that form with the same tough attitude that characterizeshis fantasy. It is interesting to think that he might have taken the Westernalong a similar line of development as Hammett took the detective tale.


As evidenced by "The Vultures of Whapeton," Howard had begun doing exactly that: it is not very far at all from Whapeton to Poisonville, the former Personville of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. The Lone Star fictioneer himself thought "Whapeton," which appeared posthumously in the December 1936Smashing Novels, "one of the best stories I’ve ever written." Ben P. Indick, in "The Western Fiction of Robert E. Howard," singles it out as "the one story indicating the possi- bilities Howard might have discovered within the standard formula," and allows as how "the tragic ending rises over the triteness of the characters, the empty atmosphere, and the modest plot." The purpose of this article is to second-guess Indick by contending that the possibilities Howard discovered were not all within the standard Western formula, but did a cross-border sneak from another genre of pulp fiction, in which the 1929 Red Harvest stands like an "Abandon all naivete, ye who pass within"-legended gateway to the Thirties.


In his afterword to the Zebra ("Science Fantasy") paperback The Vultures of Whapeton, Glenn Lord states of Howard’s diversification in 1933 that "the detective stories were somewhat less than successful and were soon dropped, but the westerns were, for the most part, well received by the publishers." With "Vultures," we have a case where what reads suspiciously like a hardboiled detective story was indeed dropped into a well-received Western, which succeeds as such to the extent that it is also well on the way to being something else."Anybody that brings any ethics to Poisonville is going to get them all rusty," Hammett’s Continental Op observes, and it is apparent from the initial description of the city that even as readers we run the risk of corrosion, of sepsis; any promotion of tourism would need to be done by a Gas Chamber of Commerce:


The city wasn’t pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness.Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whosebrick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountainsthat had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy skythat looked as if it had come out of the smelter’s stacks.


By way of contrast, at first glance it seems to be morning in the earlier America of "The Vultures of Whapeton," with Manifest Destiny shining so brightly as to encourage the invention of sun-block in a hurry:


         An intense virility surged through the scene. What other qualities it might have lacked, it overflowed with a superabundance of vitality. Color, action, movement-growth and power! The atmosphere was alive with these elements, stinging andtingling. Here there were no delicate shadings or subtle contrasts. Life paintedhere in broad, raw colors, in bold vivid strokes. Men who came here left behindthe delicate nuances, the cultured tranquilities of life. An empire was being builton muscle and guts and audacity, and men dreamed gigantically and wroughtterrifically...


Howard introduces the mining town of Whapeton in words that describe themselves, words uncannily applicable to his writing as a whole-note in particular the anticipation of Fritz Leiber’s perceptions in his "Howard’s Fantasy." But this time the setting is being dreamed gigantically and wrought terrifically to different effect, for we soon learn that "hidden currents ran here, darkly and strongly." Nicholas Christopher, in his Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (The Free Press, 1997) identifies just such currents, which would run ever more darkly and strongly through a sector of popular culture in the Thirties:


Every American city is always a tale of two cities: the surface city, orderlyand functional, imbued with customs and routine, and its shadow, the nether-city, rife with darker impulses and forbidden currents, a world of violence andchaos. The one superimposed over the other.


         A world of violence and chaos; Whapeton is not a city, merely a cluster of mining camps with pretensions to town-hood, but through synecdochic sleight-of- hand it can be made to stand for a city, in the same way that Red Harvest’s Poisonville stands for an entire society:


Hammett unwaveringly represents the world of crime as a reproduction in bothstructure and detail of the modern capitalist society that it depends on, preys off,and is part of. (Stephen Marcus, in his Introduction to Vintage’s The ContinentalOp collection).


Native Americans are usually conspicuous by their absence from "modern capitalist society," and it is interesting that aside from a single remark by John Middleton ("Then there are Indians-Blackfeet and Crows; we may run into a war- party of them"), they are simply not a factor in Howard’s novella. But then "The Vultures of Whapeton" is one of the indoorsiest Westerns ever written. After some happy trailsmanship early on, deals are made to be broken in smoke-filled rooms and gunsmoke-filled dives. The story travels, and trust unravels, from the sheriff’s cabin to the Golden Garter dance hall to the Blackfoot Chief saloon to the King of Diamonds gambling hall to the jail to the Golden Eagle saloon back to Middleton’s cabin and then Corcoran’s, and then that of Colonel Hopkins and then Corcoran’s and finally Middleton’s. We hear about the faked holdup of the stage to Yankton, but do not witness same, and the rumored dry-gulching of Joe Brockman out in Jackrabbit Gorge by Grizzly Ridge clears not so much the air as a path for a lynchmob to Whapeton’s jail.


Christopher Frayling could be discussing "Vultures" when he notes in his study of Spaghetti Westerns that "Brutality in [Sergio] Leone’s films often has the quality of urban violence, of the film noir, rather than of pioneering violence in defense of a threatened rural existence." The Op burlesques that sort of circle-the-wagons West-winning in Hammett’s story "Corkscrew" with his mission statement "So hither I come to make this part of Arizona ladylike," and were any family values to show their freckled faces in Whapeton, they would go the way of the buffaloed.


Whapeton’s feverish vitality is the rouge on the face of a corpse. Howard cannot keep from telling us at one point that "Whapeton looked almost like a deserted town in the early morning light, foreshadowing its ultimate destiny." The fall of this empire built on muscle and guts and audacity will be an inside job, one pulled off by Vandals wearing their Sunday-go-to-meeting-best and badges of office. It is worth remembering that Vultures mostly feed on carrion, easy meat because already dead.          The closest Robert E. Howard ever came to a hardboiled hero is not the clueless detective Steve Harrison or "Skull-Face"s Stephen Costigan-like the Op an AEF alumnus but trapped in the (Fu) Manchu Dynasty decor of a Rohmer pa- stiche-but the Texas gunfighter Steve Corcoran. We meet him at his most generically-engineered, in the novella’s most Western scene, before it moves out of the heat-shimmer and into the shadows. The incident at Ogalala Spring occurs on the stage first set by Owen Wister in The Virginian: " A world of crystal light, a land without evil, a space across which Noah and Adam might come straight from Genesis," a tabula rasa rather than the rigged table of noir. A man at his campfire, frying venison and morning coffee, a trail crossing "a wide open space," a rider approaching, this is the sort of classicism of which Jane Tompkins (no relation) observes in her West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns (Oxford University Press, 1992) that:Each time the figure of a horseman appears against the horizon, it celebratesthe possibility of mastery, of self, of others, of the land, of circumstances.


Even the deceit is still out in the open at this point, and the score to be settled between the two Texans is personal, not business. But it is settled almost impersonally:


The man whose real name was Corcoran rose and looked down at his victimunemotionally.Things will be different when he looks down at his final victim at novella’s end.


Examining Hammett’s masterpiece in his Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Atheneum, 1992) Richard Slotkin summarizes the events of Red Harvest as "a complexly interacting series of assassinations, jail-breaks, and shootouts that has crooked police chief Noonan muttering ÎEverybody’s killing everybody. Where’s it going to end?’" The events of "Vultures" differ from those of the Hammett novel only insofar as they are orchestrated by the crooked lawman rather than the interloping hero; it is Middleton, not Corcoran, who might paraphrase the Op with the words "Whapeton is ripe for the harvest. It’s a job I like, and I’m going to do it." Corcoran is quick on the draw and quick on the uptake, but he is no Op (although the Op is at least once a Corcoran, in "Corkscrew," in which he makes it his business to prevent the Old West from getting any older).


The Texan is suitably terse and spare, but his creator is not. Howard had not yet learned how to understate the (hard)case in his Westerns. We see Shane through the hero-worshipping eyes of a boy; Corcoran is all but obscured by an omniscient narrator whose omniscience does not extend to the realization that less can be more-is almost be required to be more in this genre. The predator/force of nature metaphors suitable for the berserkers and barbarians of heroic fantasy come across as tenderfooted rather than iron-thewed in a Western. A few short pages after Middleton discerns beneath Billy Glanton’s mask "the heart of a merciless gray wolf," Corcoran’s significance as a Texan outrider on the northern ranges is underscored with the words "here then was a lean grey wolf from that southern pack," and we begin to wonder if all shootists from Texas are also lycanthropes. And imagery along the lines of "like a somber figure of Fate he moved implacably against a background of blood and slaughter" yanks us away from Whapeton and deposits us on The Hour of the Dragon’s field of Tanasul.


Corcoran is also burdened by the sandwich-board he is made to wear to advertise his home state:


In Texas few innocent bystanders were ever hurt, for there men sent theirbullets straight to the mark intended.He came from a country where not even the worst of scoundrels would everdream of hurting a woman.


Sherman is supposed to have said that if he owned both Texas and Hell, he would rent out Texas and live in Hell. Conversely, on the basis of the Texatopianism in "Whapeton," one might expect God, as original and ultimate owner of both Texas and Heaven, renting out Heaven and living in Texas. And the boosterism is all the more comic for its juxtaposition to memories of "men falling like flies under the unerring drive of bullets on the open range and in the streets of Texas towns."


Several Howard scholars are convinced that he was writing his way toward a definitive Western hero. Corcoran is no such figure. At best he is a way station en route to that never-reached destination, at worst just a hitching post, a piece of lumber. Jason Robards’ Cheyenne reads the apparent aimlessness of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica near the climax of Once Upon a Time in the West thusly: He’s whittling on a piece of wood. I’ve got a feeling when he stops whittling, something’s going to happen. Howard whittles on the wooden Corcoran throughout "Vultures, " and sure enough, when he stops, something at last happens with the character.


The back-story of Red Harvest is as old as Vortigern’s recruitment of Hengist and Horsa:     

Old Elihu didn’t know his Italian history. He won the strike, but he lost his holdon the city and the state. To beat the miners, he had to let his hired thugs runwild. When the fight was over he couldn’t get rid of them. He had given his cityto them and he wasn’t strong enough to take it away from them. Personville lookedgood to them and they took it over.


So too does Whapeton look good to Middleton. He takes it over, with the added refinement of being both problem and supposed solution, disease and supposed cure. Of Poisonville’s sister-city in the film Yojimbo, Stephen Prince writes in The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa (Princeton University Press, 1991) "Violence, and the organized forces that maintain it for profit, is coextensive with space." Space itself has become vulpine in Whapeton Gulch.


The Vultures are a gang, not a totalitarian movement, but it is worth remembering that throughout the Thirties totalitarians were perceived and dreaded as gangsters. Jacques Barzun, in a piece entitled "The Illusion of the Real" (The World of Raymond Chandler, edited by Miriam Gross, A & W Publishers, Inc., 1978) stresses that "Actual crime seemed no longer beyond the pale but central to social existence-the disaster of the Prohibition law had helped make the point." As did the disaster of the Versailles treaty for the international community; writers as different as Hammett and Bertolt Brecht arrived at an understanding of Berlin in 1933 by way of 1920s Chicago. To quote Stephen Marcus again:


         One of Hammett’s obsessive imaginations was the notion of organizedcrime or gangs taking over an entire society and running it as if it werean ordinary society doing business as usual...It is a world of universalwarfare, the war of each against all, and of all against all. The only thingthat prevents the criminal ascendancy from turning into permanent tyrannyis that the crooks who take over society cannot cooperate with one another,repeatedly fall out with each other, and return to the Hobbesian anarchyout of which they have momentarily arisen.


That fear was in the Thirties air, like soot or smog from Poisonville’s smelters’ stacks. The jackbooted march of time had been such that the notion of a "Napoleon of crime" already seemed quaint and sepia-toned, and the inadequacy of a construct like "the Hitler of crime" could not be grasped by many until the newsreel footage of the camps being liberated in 1945, the transcripts of the war crimes tribunal, and 1984 taught Western civilization that there were worse things than gangsters.


For Raymond Chandler in "The Simple Art of Murder," macro and micro are both dark alleys in the bad part of town, which is the only part of town there is:


The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nationsand almost rule cities. A world where you may witness a holdup in broad daylightand see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tellanyone because the holdup men may have friends with long guns, or the policemay not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will beallowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons,without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.


Can rule nations and almost rule cities; here Chandler presides over a shotgun wedding of at home and abroad. The annexationist smash-and-grab, the invasion of a Manchuria or Ethiopia, is the holdup in broad daylight writ large. Howard’s 1934 letter about Hendry Brown, the historical inspiration for both Middleton and Corcoran, contains a reference to "the lawless element-which always works together better than the honest element." That was the ironclad, Pact of Steel truth that dared the liberal democracies to do something about it until September 1939. In Red Harvest, Dinah Brand asks the Op if he has been working, and he writes the diplomatic history of the interwar period with one mordant line: "Attending a peace conference out of which at least a dozen killings ought to grow."


Although his name suggests that he represents not an extreme but a very golden mean, Middleton himself identifies the advantage of extreme Left and extreme Right in stalking the cud-chewing Center:


We are organized; they are not. We know who to trust; they don’t.


With its very own show trials and Reichstag fires, Whapeton has apparently escaped Richard Slotkin’s notice when he asserts in Gunfighter Nation that:


The moral order in which the Op works is far more corrupt than that in theIndian-war romance or Western: greed and the evil it causes are so pervasiveand dangerous that none of the conventional symbols of good can be trusted.


As an untrustworthy symbol of good, Middleton anticipates Jim Thompson’s later sheriffs of Rottingham. His hapless deputy McNab is just one of the characters in ÎVultures" to sense "that he was beginning to be wound in a web he could not break," to deem himself "too tangled in a web of subtlety to know where or how or who to smite." While out at Ogalala Spring, Corcoran informs Middleton that "Billy Glanton always wanted the drop on his man. He always tried to get some advantage before he pulled his gun." Corcoran has no way of knowing that he is teaching his grandmother to suck eggs...


We have all heard Samuel Johnson’s dictum that nothing so wonderfully concentrates a man’s thoughts as the prospect of being hanged in the morning. The Thirties being the Thirties, they wonderfully concentrated thoughts about power: who had it, who wanted it, and what both haves and have-nots were prepared to do about it. Hence the famous passage, part revelation and part recantation, in Hemingway’s oh-so-Thirtiesishly-titled To Have and Have Not:


"A man," Harry Morgan said, looking at them both,"One man alone ain’t got.No man alone now." He stopped. "No matter how a man alone ain’t got nobloody fucking chance." He shut his eyes. It had taken him a long time to get it out and it had taken him all his life to learn it.


Hammett in Red Harvest achieves the epigrammatic forcefulness of Tacitus with a tommygun:


The strike lasted eight months. Both sides bled plenty. The Wobblies had todo their own bleeding. Old Elihu hired gunmen, strike-breakers, NationalGuardsmen and even parts of the Regular Army to do his.


And here is Robert E. Howard to H.P. Lovecraft in October of 1932, demonstrating a forthrightly American outlook that would have struck the House Commitee on Un-American Activities in the Fifties as having been too forth-leftly expressed:


...I see no reason why the dominant interests would be unable to coerce themasses by force. They have the Navy on their side and the regular Army, theyhave every flat-foot cop and detective in the country; they have money, power-the ability to fill their ranks with professional fighters, just as the companiesemploy strike breakers and private detectives to shoot down strikers. Themasses have only their empty hands and empty bellies.


Jacques Barzun calls our attention to the fact that "The tough story was born in the Thirties and shows the Marxist colouring of its birth years." Are there Reds if not redskins under the bed in "The Vultures of Whapeton" ? In the throes of a goldrush, the Gulch is something of a caricature of the robust unrestrained capitalism Franklin Roosevelt saved from itself: a welter of getting and spending, gouging and fleecing:


Gamblers and bartenders were swamped with business, and merchants weregetting rich with all commodities selling at unheard of prices....Corcoran swung across the road, and headed for the camp’s most pre-tentious restaurant, whose proprietor was growing rich, in spite of the terrificprices he had to pay for vegetables and food of all kinds-prices he passed onto his customers.


As that champion redistributor of wealth John Middleton puts it, "You know how a gold camp is; everybody so greedy blind they don’t want to do anything but grab for the yellow dust." All of this is of course vulgar Marxism, but then vulgar Marxism is the only kind that has ever been useful:


Millions of dollars in virgin gold was being taken out of the claims up and downthe gulch. But the finders frequently found it a golden weight hung to theirnecks to drag them down to a bloody death.


Geoffrey O’Brien assigns to hardboiledness the function of speaking truth to power in slang:


It represented an antidote to an equally prevalent American penchant forbombast and self-glorification, as evident in the earliest effusions of patrioticoratory as in the latest brand of hype for oil companies or television networks.One of the primary services of the hardboiled novel has been the deflation ofsuch rhetoric. From Hammett to Ross MacDonald, we have been cautioned againand again to beware of the forked tongues of politicians, preachers, lawyers,and movie producers, as we would beware of a vacuum-cleaner salesman. (Hard-boiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir -expanded editionDa Capo Press, 1997)


Bombast, self-glorification, oratory, hype, and rhetoric are consistently shot full of holes in "The Vultures of Whapeton;" to adapt the Sonora Kid, big lie or little, it’s all the same to a .45. The character to whom Howard awards the visionary, building-a-better-tomorrow speech-"It’s a great country...Fine ranges. Towns springin’ up wherever the railroad touches"-is revealed to have been a stone cold killer once he is stone cold dead. "Vultures" is strikingly sardonic for a Western of its time, which is another reason for regarding it as more than just a Western of its time. The vulture-black humor on display is less town-drunk-falls- in-the-horse-trough and more akin to that described by Raymond Chandler:


It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization. ("The Simple Art of Murder")


Middleton is quite affecting as wolf in little lost lamb’s clothing:



            No man’s life or property is safe. I can’t get anyone to identify a criminal, though I know that robbers andmurderers are walking the streets, and rubbing elbows with me along the bars. The town’s honeycombed with their spies. But it’s blind going, working the dark, not knowing who to trust.


And when we are told of the "freehearted and openhanded ways" of the merchant Joe Willoughby, we immediately sense the vultures (lower-case "v" for once) circling overhead, and that if Willoughby does sleep it off in Corcoran’s cabin, it is liable to be a, well, bigger sleep than he bargained for.


The first lynchmob sequence could be a civics lesson as taught by the Op while moonlighting in Poisonville’s Continuing Education program. The "roar of sardonic laughter" when McNab is reminded that he is an upholder of law and order never quite dies away throughout the novella:


"We aim to try your prisoner!" shouted the leader. "We come in the due processof law. We’ve app’inted a judge and panelled a jury, and we demands that youhand over the prisoner to be tried in miners’ court, accordin’ to legal precedent!"

"All right, go ahead with the trial. But you do it over my protests. I don’t believe this is a representative assembly."

"Yes it is, averred the leader, and then his voice thickened with blood-lust.It is the blood-lust that makes the mob a representative assembly.


Best of all is Colonel Hopkins, "formerly of Tennessee," and quite possibly driven forth to raise the state’s aggregate intelligence. In a story swarming with criminals, the Colonel is merely criminally stupid:


"John, don’t ever talk resignation to me again!" exclaimed Hopkins, grabbinghis hat and buckling on his gunbelt."A man like you ought to be in the Senate."


"I’m a girl who knows her Poisonville," Dinah Brand claims in Red Harvest. Her counterpart Glory Bland is equally convinced that she knows her Whapeton:


"I know things that some people don’t." Her eyes became shadowed as ifby an unpleasant memory in which, though her companion could not know it,was limned the handsome, sinister face of Ace Brent. "Or may be people do.Maybe they guess things, but are afraid to say anything."


Although with those words she encapsulates the noir syndrome, although she has been a gambler’s plaything, Glory has not made the crossover from one genre to the other, has not become, like Dinah, "a soiled dove, as the fellow says, a de luxe hustler, a big-league gold-digger"-the last of which might have stood her in good stead in the middle of a gold rush. Glory does not crack wise; she just cracks. Her "cry of bitter disillusionment" when Corcoran lays all his cards on the table and they turn out to be marked, "the poignant anguish of her enlightenment," confirm that she has lived, and will die, in a Western. Of course were she a Dinah Brand rather than Howard’s "primitive, elemental young animal like most of her profession of that age and place," she would most likely die the someone’s-in-the-kitchen-with -Dinah death of the Hammett character. The paths of Glory lead but to the grave:


Lights and bearded faces were like a nightmarish blur, in which nothing wasreal but the icy terror in her heart.


Her murder brings on the showdown between Corcoran and Middleton, a showdown singularly lacking in the "show," in the public ritual sense, of most Western confrontations:


He knew the time for argument was past. He did not think of his plans,or of the gold on the table, or that still back there in the cave. A manstanding face to face with Eternity sees only the naked elements of lifeand death.

"Draw!" A catamount might have spat the challenge, eyes flaming, teeth flashing

Middleton’s hand was a streak to his gun butt. Even in that flash he knew he was beaten-heard Corcoran’s gun roar just as he pulledtrigger. He swayed back, falling, and in a blind gust of passion Corcoran emptied both guns into him as he crumpled.


As Conan demonstrates with Shah Amurath in "Shadows in the Moonlight," and El Borak with Osman in "Son of the White Wolf," some enemies simply cannot be killed dead enough. Corcoran’s "blind gust of passion" tells us what we need to know, what Jane Tompkins wants us to know in West of Everything:


The Western hero’s silence symbolizes a massive suppression of the inner life,and my sense is that this determined shutting down of emotions, this cutting of the self off from contact with the interior well of feeling, exacts its price in the end. Its equivalent: the force of the bullets that spew forth from the guns in little orgasms of uncontained murderousness.


Just as we have previously seen Corcoran drinking himself into not a stupor but rather another genre of pulp fiction, when he returns to himself after passion- ately emptying his weaponry into the receptacle Middleton offers, that self has left the Dakota territories for a noir state of mind:


A sack had split, spilling a golden stream that glittered evilly in the candlelight.His eyes were no longer blinded by the yellow sheen. For the first time he sawthe blood on that gold, it was black with blood; the blood of innocent men; theblood of a woman. The mere thought of touching it nauseated him, made himfeel as if the slime that had covered John Middleton’s soul would befoul him.Sickly he realized that some of Middleton’s guilt was on his own head. He hadnot pulled the trigger that ripped a woman’s life from her body; but he hadworked hand-in-glove with the man destined to be her murderer-Corcoranshuddered and a clammy sweat broke out upon his flesh.


The nausea, the shuddering, the clammy sweat, the complicity settling about his shoulders like sackcloth; all part of getting acclimatized. The Western reveres control; noir is about the impossibility of control. The one clenches; the other thrashes. The deadeye squint yields to the wild-eyed stare. In hardboiled fiction and noir films, does the Western perhaps get the cities it deserves? Cities of the sort excavated by Norman O. Brown in Life Against Death (Vintage, 1959):


The city is a deposit of accumulated guilt. The temple buildings whichdominate the first cities are monuments of accumulated guilt and expiation..Hence a city is itself, like money, crystallized guilt.


The Op is more succinct in Red Harvest: "It’s this damned burg. You can’t go straight here." You can only go straight to hell, which always needs deputies.


"The Vultures of Whapeton" places the Howard hero in a situation, in a civilization, where he can no longer be the Howard hero. (Is it a stopover in a Whapeton, or a Poisonville, that will convince Corcoran’s colleague, Francis Xavier Gordon, to leave country and century behind?) As Corcoran rides off, the Vultures are being cleaned out, but has Whapeton Gulch been cleaned up? "Then you’ll have your city back, all nice and clean and ready to go to the dogs again," the Op congratulates Elihu Willson. Cleanups are beyond the capacity of most hard-boiled protagonists; the most they do is shift a few shovel-loads from one side of the Augean stable to the other.


He did not glance again at the gold, gleaming there where the honest people ofWhapeton would find it.


         Would we be wrong to suspect that Howard’s failure to convince with this sentence is deliberate? Many men are shouting at the end of "Vultures," but we know even better than Corcoran what this portends: the vigilantes of Whapeton are also walking into a trap laid for them by their leaders, and by history, and will soon wake up in Poisonville. A colonel of Hopkins will be supplanted by a captain of industry better able to see around the corners he is cutting.


Whapeton is not quite hell, but it does resemble the afterlife in that you "can’t take it with you." What can one take away from a Whapeton or a Poisonville?


The shooting was behind me, but not far enough. I did all I could to remedythat. I must have walked as many streets as I did in my dreams the night Dinahwas killed. (Red Harvest)


The lights of the camp, the roar of the distant voices fell away behind him, andbefore him lay what wild destiny he could not guess. But the night was full ofhaunting shadows, and within him grew a strange pain, like a revelation; perhapsit was his soul, at last awakening ("Vultures’)


The haunting shadows would seem to be period-specific to the Thirties, not the 1880s, and the strange pain, so much less straightforward than those inflicted by knife, bullet, and noose, is that most memorably diagnosed by the Thirties. Does Corcoran, who at last has a soul to call his own, have the option of seeking the cure recommended by a character in Louis L’Amour’s Galloway?


My pa used to say that when corruption is visted upon the cities of men, themountains and the deserts await him. The cities are for money but the high-uphills are purely for the soul.


There is no gold in them thar hills, which is a point in their favor after Whapeton. But though one can ride the high country, taking the high road is another matter altogether. Middleton is dead; Middletonism thrives


Is "Vultures" then allegorical? The very word should have us reaching for our revolvers with Corcoranesque speed. Like J.R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard preferred history, true or feigned, and its many-splendored applicability to allegory. Westerns are often considered ahistorical; in his essay "Killing Time," Geoffrey O’Brien describes the genre as "a field where ambiguity and dissension could flourish" because it "exists completely outside of history." However, he concedes that "what’s up for grabs is the story that will be told about America and by extension about the modern world." With "The Vultures of Whapeton," Howard told a story about America and a world too modern for comfort.


Popular culture has been defined as the mirror on the ceiling of a whore- house bedroom, and it is possible to observe much more than just vigorous commercial transactions in the ceiling mirrors of the particularly ill-reputed house of ill repute that is pulp culture. To vary the imagery, the skies of the decade during which Howard wrote his most memorable serious Western were black with Vultures long before the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion showed up over Guernica. He did not see the Thirties through, but he did see through the Thirties.




Stephen Spender’s verse play of the period Trial of a Judge concludes with these words:      


"And the aerial vultures fly/Over the deserts which were cities./Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!


Turnabout is fair play; in the "God" chapter of Hammett’s The Dain Curse, the Continental Op comes up against an opponent more Thog or Thaug than thug, an ectoplasmic entity that for the Howard student briefly transforms the novel’s Temple of the Holy Grail into Tsotha-lanti’s Scarlet Citadel: "The thing squirmed and writhed, shuddered and shivered, swirling wildly now, breaking apart, reuniting madly in the black air." As the Op sinks his teeth into the challenge literally and figuratively, his narration seems to be speaking Howardese with a Hammett accent:


I laughed and got strength to straighten my back against the monstrous weighton me, wrenching at the thing’s insides again, croaking "I’ll gut you plenty."


Genre-morphing of the Whapetonian sort is discussed in William Ruehlmann’s Saint with a Gun: The Unlawful American Private Eye (New York University Press, 1974), an essay by Joseph C. Porter, "The End of the Trail: The American West of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler," in the WESTERN HISTORICAL QUARTERLY, 6:4 1975, and Michael Denning’s Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working Class Culture in America (London, Verso, 1986), And as always Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation repays careful, or even careless, study.


A transitional figure whose acquaintance is worth making is Charles A. Siringo, half centaur, half weasel, a cowboy, an agent provocateur, and the man who gave Pinkertons’ unsleeping orb a bad case of pinkeye. While making the world safe for plutocracy he also found time to write A Texas Cowboy (1885), A Cowboy Detective (1912), Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism (1915), and Riata and Spurs: The Story of a Lifetime Spent in the Saddle as Cowboy and Ranger (1927). We know from Selected Letters 1931-1936 that Howard was aware of Siringo; in April 1932 he asked Tevis Clyde Smith about Riata and Spurs: "Where did you get the Siringo book, and how much did it cost? If not too much, I think I’ll get a copy."