Monday, December 6, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Fire of Asshurbanipal

When it comes to "pulp fantasy," few can compare to Robert E. Howard. Between the characters of Conan, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, and Solomon Kane, Howard more or less established the pattern that later writers would, to varying degrees of success, follow and that would, in the process, serve as a seedbed out of which Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy RPGs would spring. Nevertheless, it's important to remember that Howard was a truly industrious writer, penning more than four hundred stories (and even more poems) in a little over a decade of professional writing. While the stories of Conan and Kane understandably loom large today, as they did during REH's lifetime, he wrote many more, many of which ought to be of interest to fantasy fans and roleplayers alike.

Take, for example, "The Fire of Asshurbanipal," which appeared in the December 1937 issue of Weird Tales. Astute readers will immediately notice that this date is after Howard's death in June 1936. "Fire" is one of three stories sent to Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright by Isaac Howard, Robert's father. Wright immediately recognized the value in being able to present original REH yarns to a readership still reeling from his death the year before. He even went so far as to give "Fire" the cover illustration – a formerly common occurrence for Howard, whose stories were regularly among the most well regarded in the pages of the Unique Magazine. 

"The Fire of Asshurbanipal" doesn't take place in a mythical past or even centuries ago. While the precise date of its action is unclear, it's likely sometime in the first decades of the 20th century, based on a couple of offhand references to things like the Lee-Enfield repeating rifle. Ultimately, its precise date is unimportant, as all the story's events take place in and around Central Asia, or Turkestan, as Howard calls it. Two-fisted American adventurer Steve Clarney and his Afghan friend Yar Ali are on the trail of a fabulous red gem, the titular Fire of Asshurbanipal. The pair had learned from a dying Turk that the gem was located in "a silent dead city of black stone set in the drifting sands" and could be found "clutched in the bony fingers of a skeleton on an ancient throne." Later investigation reveals that the city in question was

the ancient City of Evil spoken of in the Necronomicon of the mad Alhazred – the city of the dead on which an ancient curse rested. And the gem was an ancient and accursed jewel belonging to a king of long ago whom the Grecians called Sardanapalus and the Semitic peoples Asshurbanipal.

Lost cities in the sand and cursed gems are a dime a dozen in pulp stories, you might say and you'd be correct. What sets this tale apart is its reference to Lovecraft's Necronomicon and its author. This isn't a mere throwaway line, a bit of fan service for devotees of HPL's evolving Cthulhu Mythos. No, it's an early indication that there's more going on in this story than a rollicking adventure after the fashion of H. Rider Haggard. More than that, it's an indication that we're going to read Robert E. Howard's take on the concepts and themes of Lovecraft, which, to my mind, is pretty exciting. Later in the story, when Clarney and Ali are exploring the buried city they were seeking, we get an idea of just what I mean by this.

"Allaho akbar!" They had traversed the greatb shadowy hall and at its further end they came upon a hideous black stone altar, behind which loomed an ancient god, bestial and horrific. Steve shrugged his shoulders as he recognized the monstrous aspect of the image – aye, that was Baal, on whose black altar in other ages many a screaming, writhing naked victim had offered up the quivering soul. The idol embodied in its utter, abysmal and sullen bestiality the whole soul of this demoniac city. Surely, thought Steve, the builders of Nineveh and Kara-Shehr were cast in another mold than the people of today. Their art and their culture were too ponderous, too grimly barren of the lighter aspects of humanity, to be wholly human. Their architecture was of the highest skill, yet of a massive, sullen and brutish nature beyond the ken of modern man.

Lovecraft's tales often feature musings about the alien nature of the otherworldly beings who built some structure upon the earth or were engaged in some activity. The elder things of "At the Mountains of Madness," are a good example of this, as are the Mi-go of "The Whisperer in Darkness." Rather than ape the approach of his friend and correspondent, Howard instead muses about how alien the men of the past seem from the perspective of today – their art, culture, and architecture are impressive, yet also "barren of the lighter aspects of humanity" to the point that they can't even be called "wholly human." It's an interesting approach, I think, and one that surely differs from that of Lovecraft. Even if one does not agree with Howard's take on the matter, I don't think there can be any question that he's attempting something genuinely different, which is commendable.

All that said, make no mistake: "The Fire of Asshurbanipal" remains a rousing pulp story, in which Howard's protagonists not only find an ancient city buried in the sand and the treasure it holds, but also face off against enemies both human and inhuman. In many ways, it reads like a rather fun Call of Cthulhu scenario set in Central Asia, but with plenty of uniquely Howardian touches that it doesn't come across as a mere pastiche of Lovecraft's own work. It's not as well known a story as it should be and I recommend seeking out.


  1. it reads like a rather fun Call of Cthulhu scenario

    And yet, to my surprise, there seems to have been no attempt to adapt it for the game. The gem itself appears as a magic item in the FFG Call of Cthulhu card game, but nothing for the rpg.

  2. The gem appears to be the same one that appears in Blood of Belshazzar, one of Howard's historical adventures about the crusader-turned-adventurer Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, who is perhaps best described as a prototype for Conan. The story has the exact same description or vision of the gem clutched in the hands of a long-dead king in a lost city.

  3. "Fire of Ashurrbanipal" strikes me as an early case of "pulp cthulthu", where eldritch horror meets Indiana-Jones style two-fisted adventurers. I was just listening to this podcast (, where one of the commenters makes the point that sword-and-sorcery and weird horror were effectively genre siblings, being published in many of the same magazines and often written by many of the same people. Howard himself wrote at least two stories that I would describe as straight-up Lovecraftian pastiche, "The Thing on the Roof" and "People of the Black Stone". Personally, I think the most successful mix of Lovecraftian horror and more typically Howardian themes was "Worms of the Earth".

  4. I feel like I have read this article before, some years ago. I know I hunted down and read this story based on a blog entry and I thought it was yours. Perhaps you wrote about it back on G+?

    This will perplex me for a while.