Three-Bladed Doom: Howard’s only El Borak novel

Three-Bladed Doom by Robert E. HowardThree-Bladed Doom by Robert E. Howard fantasy book reviewsThree-Bladed Doom by Robert E. Howard

Even those readers who have previously thrilled to the exploits of such Robert E. Howard characters as Conan the Barbarian, King Kull of Valusia, the Puritan fighter of evil Solomon Kane, the Pictish king Bran Mak Morn, the piratical Cormac Mac Art, and boxer Steve Costigan might still be unfamiliar with the author’s El Borak. And, I suppose, there may be good reason for that. Howard only managed to sell five stories featuring the character before his suicide death, at age 30 in 1936, although 11 more would surface in later years. Of those 16 tales, only one was of a full novel length: Three-Bladed Doom. Like many other fans, this decades-long Howard buff had never run across this character before, and so, when I spotted the 1979 Ace edition of the Three-Bladed Doom novel at the (sadly now-defunct) Brooklyn sci-fi bookstore Singularity, I scooped it up forthwith.

Apparently, this El Borak tale was one of those that Howard never managed to sell during his lifetime. He’d written a short version of it (of 24,000 words) and the longer version (of 42,000), but it wasn’t until 1976, a full 40 years after Howard’s death, that the short version made its first appearance, in the pages of the fanzine called REH: Lone Star Fictioneer, with the story’s beginning and ending rewritten by editor Byron Roark, if a certain Wiki site is to be trusted. From what I can gather, Three-Bladed Doom is the only El Borak tale to contain anything even remotely resembling a fantasy element, the others being straightforward adventure stories. (And indeed, the first three El Borak yarns — “The Daughter of Erlik Khan,” “Hawk of the Hills” and “Blood of the Gods” — all appeared, from 12/34 to 7/35, in the pages of Top-Notch Magazine, a 10-cent, twice-monthly pulp that catered to lovers of adventure fiction.)

So just who, or what, you may be asking, is El Borak? To be succinct, El Borak is the modern-day Texan adventurer Francis Xavier Gordon, who, after cutting a path throughout Asia, now resides in Afghanistan; “El Borak,” in Afghani, means “the swift,” a reference to both the character’s swiftness of thought and motion, and perhaps his ability with the gun, saber and knife. As Howard’s novel begins, Gordon is mediating a dispute between the leader of Afghanistan, the Amir, and the chief of the nearby Ghilzai tribe, Baber Khan. It is a time of great unrest, as a secret society known as The Hidden Ones has recently slain the heads of Turkey, Persia and Hyderabad!

Three-Bladed Doom by Robert E. HowardWhen the Amir himself is attacked by one of these Assassins, using one of their telltale three-bladed knives, Gordon decides to investigate. With the aid of his cohorts — the Afridi cutthroat Yar Ali Khan, the Yusufzai Ahmed Shah, and the Sikh Lal Singh — El Borak discovers the secret hideout of the Assassins … an entire city, actually, called Shalizahr, which resides on top of a 500-foot-high plateau, itself hidden amongst the desolate Afghani mountains. Gordon decides to infiltrate the nest of vipers by himself, and so comes up against the Persian Shaykh Al Jerbal, a fanatic who claims to be the linear descendant of Hassan ibn Sabah, who had formed the original Assassins sect back in the 13th century. Ultimately, Gordon learns that the Shaykh, power hungry though he is, is not the actual person pulling the strings. And, before all is said and done, Gordon, his friends, and several hundred of Baber Khan’s Ghilzai tribesmen engage in one remarkably bloody battle against the hashish-fueled fanatics of Shalizahr, in what Howard tells us is “the most bizarre situation [El Borak] had ever found himself in, in the course of a life packed with wild adventures and bloody episodes…”

Reading Three-Bladed Doom today, one can only wonder how in the world this novel failed to be sold during the Age of the Pulps. The book is tremendously tense and exciting, compact, action filled and, in all, quite gripping. And man, oh, man, is it ever violent; a red-blooded thrill ride if ever there was one, written by Howard a good five years before Gunga Din, with its own violent battles against the murderous Thugee cult, ever hit the screens. As is the case with much of Howard’s fiction, this is not a book for the lily-livered, the squeamish or the faint of heart. Just take a look at some of the author’s choice descriptions of various carnage and mayhem:

“There rose the ugly butcher-shop sound of keen blades cleaving flesh and bone, and men screamed or gasped death-gurgles from severed jugulars…”

 

“The Mongol dropped like an ox, his round skull split to the teeth…”

 

“…the Arab was lying in his own blood, his head all but severed from his body…”

 

“The Kurd’s head jumped from his shoulders on a spurt of crimson and thudded to the floor…”

 

“…his voice was silenced forever by a bullet that crashed through his mouth and blasted his brains…”

 

“Gordon shot one and brained another with his gun butt an instant after the Arab had drilled one of the Kurds through the heart…”

 

“The butt of his clubbed rifle was clotted with blood and brains…”

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. No fantasy tale of Conan the Barbarian was ever more sanguinary than this El Borak novel, and thus, the reader readily believes the author when he refers to Gordon as “the most dangerous man with any sort of weapon between Cairo and Peking”!

But Three-Bladed Doom is hardly a novel of mindless and gratuitous violence. It is evident from page 1 that Howard did an inordinate amount of background research before he sat down to write his only El Borak novel, and the reader will come away from the book not only entertained, but made aware of any number of Asian tidbits that he/she never knew before. (You didn’t really think I knew what an Afridi or Yusufzai was before I read this book, did you?) Actually, by my count, I needed to look up some 60+ foreign words, place names and historical references, using the Interwebs and my atlas, for a full appreciation of what Howard dishes out here. Do you need to know about the history of the Mongol victory in Persia in 1256? You’ll learn all about it here. This is hardly an empty-headed book, although most readers will be so busy being thrilled that they may not even realize that they’re learning something at the same time.

And as for those thrills, Howard supplies us with many, but two sequences stand out especially. In the first, Gordon is trapped in a maze of ravines outside Shalizahr, and must do battle with the monstrous creature that haunts the area. Revealing the nature of this creature would surely constitute a spoiler, so let’s just say that Conan himself might have been seen combating such a thing back in the dim Hyborean Age; it is this “Haunter of the Gulches” chapter, by the way, that constitutes the novel’s sole fantasy element. As for that other wonderful sequence, it makes up the entire final quarter of the book; namely, that remarkably exciting battle previously alluded to, on which Howard keeps a very firm hand, despite the complexity of the actions described. It is an absolutely bravura bit of writing from REH, in which pacing and suspense are masterfully handled, and all the villains and their henchmen get their just deserts.

Other than one or two instances of faulty grammar, actually (such as “…an arm whose force and accuracy was famed throughout the Hills…”), my only problem with Three-Bladed Doom was the fact that some of the geographical and palace descriptions are a bit difficult to follow. This is a novel, I feel, that might benefit from the inclusion of a good map. And you know what? To aid myself, particularly during that complex battle sequence, I did draw a rough map, and found that it helped immeasurably in following the complicated maneuvers as Gordon and his allies fight the Assassins of Shalizahr.

In all, though, Howard’s work here is simply dynamite; a real man’s man’s adventure (there is only one female character in the entire book, by the way … a slave girl whom Gordon rescues) that has left this reader wanting to learn more about Francis Xavier Gordon. Fortunately, there is now, from Del Rey books, the volume entitled El Borak and Other Desert Adventures, a big fat collection with any number of El Borak tales in it, and it is a book that I hope to be acquiring soon.


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. That cover…. so awful….

    • Sandy Ferber /

      I presume you’re talking about the top cover, Kat; the one I have at home is the lower one. The top cover is very misleading, making the character resemble a Conan-type of barbarian. El Borak is hardly that….

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