Robert E. Howard’s “Red Blades of Black Cathay” (1931) was the first of six historical adventures he published in Oriental Stories, a pulp magazine later renamed as The Magic Carpet Magazine. The magazine, an offshoot of Weird Tales, was also edited by Farnsworth Wright and featured several of the same authors, among them Clark Ashton Smith, Otis Adelbert Kline, and E. Hoffmann Price. Readers may recall that Price collaborated with H.P. Lovecraft on the oddball 1934 story “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”, which depicts the eventual fate of Randolph Carter—a story that is similar in some respects to much of the content of Oriental Stories. Edmond Hamilton, Hugh B. Cave, and Seabury Quinn also appeared in the magazine from time to time.
“Red Blades of Black Cathay” was published in the February-March 1931 issue, along with Frank Belknap Long’s “The Rajah’s Grandmother”, “The Dragoman’s Revenge” by Otis Adelbert Kline, and E. Hoffman Price’s “The Slave of Justice”, among others. Oriental Stories, despite its later name change, struggled financially for several years. It appeared on newsstands only a year after the start of the Great Depression, which likely was a factor in its demise. Oriental Stories only remained in publication from 1930 to 1934.
Regarding historical adventure stories, Robert E. Howard once wrote:
There is no literary work, to me, half as zestful as writing history in the guise of fiction. I wish I was able to devote the rest of my life to that kind of work. I could write a hundred years and still there would be stories clamoring to be written, by the scores…I could never make a living writing such things, though; the markets are too scanty, with requirements too narrow, and it takes so long to complete one.
“Red Blades of Black Cathay” is actually a collaboration with Tevis Clyde Smith, who did the historical research while Robert E. Howard conceptualized and wrote the story. Smith was a fellow Texan and had gone to high school with Howard. A couple years younger, he was friends with Howard and worked together on stories until the latter committed suicide in 1936. Smith passed away in 1984.
The hero of “Red Blades of Black Cathay” is Godric de Villehard, an ambitious Crusader in search of the fabled land of Prester John, far to the east of Christendom. The legend of Prester John arose during the time of the Crusades, in the late eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. He was reputed to be a priest and king of an independent Christian nation thriving in the Far East, beyond Persia and Armenia. At the time, the Europeans were eager to regain the Holy Land from Muslim control, and hoped that an alliance with Prester John—if he in fact existed—would expedite this. This is the historical backdrop to “Red Blades of Black Cathay”, and a source of Godric’s early motivation in the story.
However, Godric is not as committed to “Christ and the Cross” as he is to war and plunder. In terms of physical strength and military prowess, Godric superficially resembles Howard’s other larger-than-life characters like Kull, Conan, and Solomon Kane. But it is interesting to see how Howard parcels out slightly different attributes and motivations to his various heroes. While Kull and Conan tend to act instinctually towards looming threats, (Kull being the more philosophical precursor to the barbarian), Kane is driven by a powerful religious calling to vanquish evil and administer rough justice. Steve Costigan, the protagonist in several of Howard’s “fight stories”, seems to be a contemporary version of Conan.
Though an earlier creation of Howard, Godric seems to combine elements from the personalities of the others, embodying a love of battle and carnage with consummate skill and cynical world-weariness. He is also smarter and more cunning, more tactically minded than the others. Granted, his more theologically inclined cousin Solomon Kane can actually read—it’s just one book, though. It seems that in Godric the author managed to combine and consolidate disparate character traits from his other heroes into a more complex and nuanced protagonist. The story shows early evidence of increasing sophistication with characterization and narrative structure.
“Red Blades of Black Cathay” is markedly different from Howard’s other heroic tales. There is an absence of supernaturalism as well as his familiar serpentine imagery—the author’s code for the presence of primordial evil. There is especial attention to details about armor, weapons, and period battle techniques, probably the contribution of Howard’s collaborator, Tevis Clyde Smith. Here is an example of the level of description:
The heavy mail was reinforced with solid plates of steel on breast, back and shoulders and the sword belt was of joined steel plates a hand’s breadth wide. The helmet, instead of being a merely a steel cap with a long nasal, worn over a mail hood, as was the case of most Crusaders, was made with a vizor and fitted firmly into the steel shoulder-pieces. The whole armor showed the trend of the times—chain and scale mail giving way gradually to plate armor.
The battle scenes receive a similar level of attention with respect to preparations, fighting technique, deployment of troops and use of period weaponry. There is ample battlefield carnage, lovingly depicted, as well as stirring vignettes written in an epic style reminiscent of Homer’s Iliad or the Odyssey. Godric and Genghis Kahn have an amusing interaction near the end of the story. Remarkably for a Howard adventure, there is a happy ending—of sorts—when fierce combatants put down their weapons after a gruesome battle and consider the possibility of an alliance.
The Princess Yulita is the nominal damsel in distress. “Nominal” because she is the voice of reason, practicality and stability amid the tumultuous geopolitics of the time. She nurses Godric back to health after a disastrous fight with Hian bandits, just in time for him to help her tiny kingdom fend off the Mongol hordes led by the infamous Genghis Kahn. After she demolishes Godric’s fantasy of finding wealth and aid from the legendary Prester John, she admonishes him at the close of the scene:
Godric fell back and his eyes went dull.
“My dream is vanished,” he muttered. “You should have let me die.”
“Dream again, man,” she answered; “only dream something more attainable.”
“Red Blades of Black Cathay” is an entertaining novella that offers a broader perspective on how Howard developed his skill and sophistication as an author. Among his colleagues, Robert E. Howard was a versatile and prolific author, and had he lived a full life, he undoubtedly would have left behind even more accomplished works in a variety of genres.