Where to Start With Harold Lamb
by Howard Andrew Jones
It wasn’t so long ago that the fiction of Harold Lamb was best known only as a footnote in the old Lancer Conan books, mentioned in passing as being important and influential but almost completely unavailable. All that could be found of his prose were some late novels and his biographies, and, fine as those biographies are, neither were foundational works of sword-and-sorcery.
Today, though, most of Lamb’s fiction is in print once more,* and fairly easy to lay hands on, just like the histories, many of which are retained to this day by libraries across the United States. So much is out there now it can actually be difficult to know where to start. You need no longer scratch your head in wonder, however – this essay will show you the way.
First, to be clear, Lamb wrote some of the most engaging histories and biographies not just of his day but of all time. His non-fiction reads with the pacing of a skilled novelist and is the polar opposite of the stereotypical dry history book. His histories of The Crusades, Hannibal, Tamerlane, and, of course, Genghis Khan (particularly his March of the Barbarians, which is the history of the Mongolian Empire, not just the life of Genghis Khan) are all great reads, as are many of his other books. Some of them (for example, Charlemagne, Alexander the Great, and Cyrus the Great) are a peculiar hybrid of biography and historical novel that some people absolutely love, although I’ve always found them a little mismatched, as though he couldn’t quite decide if he were sewing up a garment to wear for a ball or a barbecue.
If you want to get to the influential fiction material, however, allow me to suggest two starting points.
If you’re already a fan of Robert E. Howard and have read and loved his historical fiction, then start with the tales collected in Swords From the West. Every tale within features Crusaders in one way or another, each culled from old Adventure magazine or the later so-called “slick” magazines (to distinguish them from the cheaper pulps). Those from the slicks tend to be more formulaic, though enjoyable, whereas those from Lamb’s pulp days are more inventive and surprising. All but two are standalone, and they overflow with scenes of battle and heroic action and brave deeds against impossible odds. Interestingly, while a few of the stories deal with the typical conflicts of the Crusades, most feature alliances between Christian and Moslem, or center upon a crusader protagonist journeying further east into different lands altogether. Some of the very best stories in the book are the longer novellas, including two very fine adventures of Niall O’Gordon as he travels into the empire of the Mongols. O’Gordon is such a great character it’s hard to believe Lamb only used him twice.
Speaking of great characters, though, earlier in his fiction writing career – almost fifteen years earlier, to be precise – Harold Lamb dreamed up a Cossack of the late 16th century. Though a fantastic swordsman, Khlit the Cossack’s sword arm is weakening as he approaches late middle age, and he must apply his considerable wiles to survive his constant challenges. For the first time since their appearance in the old pulps, the tales are collected in order (publication and sequential order are one in the same in this series) in Wolf of the Steppes and its succeeding volume. And while the prose isn’t quite as polished as it is in Swords From the West, Wolf may be the best place to start with Lamb.
In the first volume alone, Khlit infiltrates a hidden fortress of assassins, tracks down the tomb of Genghis Khan, flees the vengeance of a dead emperor, leads the Mongol horde against impossible odds, accompanies a stunning Mogul queen safely through the land of her enemies, and that’s just for starters. (Yeah, I stole some of the back cover copy from the book, but it’s okay, since I wrote it).
The older I get, the more impressed I become with these tales. Don’t get me wrong, it was evident to me as a kid that they were great stuff. It’s just that at the time I stumbled onto them I didn’t realize how very fine they were because I wasn’t well enough read to understand the rarity of such excellence.
Lamb was in his mid-twenties when he wrote them all, and the rate at which he improved is astonishing. The first two or three are rougher and simpler, and if you were to try them you might be amused but wonder what the fuss is about, although you’d probably see that each is a little better than its predecessor. And then, by the time you get to the fourth or fifth, you’re suddenly reading some of the finest adventure fiction put to paper.
Each tale slots into place after the one before it. Sure, each stands alone, but they build upon one another, and secondary characters return, and a situation at the conclusion of one tale leads to the next. The eighteen adventures form one ongoing cycle. Reading them is like experiencing a thrilling mini-series. And unlike so many other continuing adventure series, there aren’t a whole slew of weak ones. Once Lamb got going, he just kept up the excellence, as well as the surprises, because he didn’t tend to repeat himself.
The Cossack stories are divided over four books. The first volume features almost all of Khlit’s solo adventures, although volume two opens with the last of these. It then collects several standalone adventures of the heroic Moslem swordsman, Abdul Dost, prior to his team up with Khlit the Cossack in four adventures, the final of which reads as though it might have been intended to conclude the entire series.
Lamb then turned to writing of some younger Cossacks, the clever Demid and the strong-man Ayub. At first these tales stand apart (and they are collected in volume 3) but then, in their travels, Abyub and Demid come upon a young Cossack and his elderly grandfather. This is Khlit, some fifteen or so years older than he was in the prior adventures, now playing the part of the archetypal wise man in three more yarns. After them he appears briefly in a final tale of his grandson in book 4, and then is mentioned in passing in a final novel of Ayub (also in volume 4).
While we know that Robert E. Howard was reading the tales of Ayub and Demid (he was a regular reader of Adventure magazine and wrote a poem – now lost – titled “Ayub and Demid”) we can’t say definitively that he had read the earlier Khlit the Cossack stories. It’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have been thrilled by them.
You might think, since they hale from 1917, the adventures of Khlit the Cossack would be bogged down with old-fashioned prose or slow pacing, but Lamb’s pacing and honest multiculturalism, where heroes and villains could be found on either side of various cultural divides, were quite modern. Unlike so many “important, foundational works” they aren’t just interesting because of their influence upon the genre. They remain some of the most thrilling historical adventure stories ever put to paper, and are only one step removed from the sword-and-sorcery fiction that followed on their heels.
*thanks in no small part to the efforts of this article’s modest author and Tales From the Magician’s Skull Managing Editor, Howard Andrew Jones – ed.