Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Robert E. Howard’s Reefer Madness
By Bobby Derie

When he was a suckling child
He laughed at the marihuana weed
For he said that it was too mild.
- Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, Nov 1928, CL1.269

Within his lifetime Robert E. Howard experienced two great prohibitions: that of alcohol, which went into effect with the Wartime Prohibition Act of 1919 and the Volstead Act of 1920, and that of cannabis. Prohibition of alcohol would end in 1933, though many counties in Texas would choose to remain dry; the prohibition of cannabis was and remains more complicated.

When Howard was born in 1906, the possession, sale, and use of cannabis sativa from various regions (cannabis indica from India, cannabis mexicana from Mexico, cannabis americana from the United States, etc.) was legal in Texas. It was included in the annually published United States Pharmacopeia, and was advertised among other drugs by pharmacists. Recreational use is harder to track, but was evidently rife along the Mexican border. El Paso is widely credited with passing the first local ordinance against the sale or possession of cannabis in Texas. (“Marihuana Sale Now Prohibited,” 3 Jun 1915, El Paso Herald, 6) State-level restrictions were slow, but steady:

The Texas Legislature included marihuana when it passed a general narcotics statute in 1919, prohibiting transfer of listed narcotics except for medical purposes (Texas, 1919: 278). In 1923, the statute was tightened to prohibit possession with intent to sell (Texas, 1923: 156-157). [...] By 1931, the Texas Legislature finally got around to prohibiting possession of marihuana.
(MSM 482-483)

While the Texas statutes largely ended legal sale of cannabis for recreational purposes within the state, it remained available by prescription for medicinal use. Dr. Isaac M. Howard as a country doctor may have written such prescriptions from time to time, to be filled at the local pharmacy; Robert E. Howard might have gotten his first look at addicts when he worked as a soda-jerk at a drug store during Cross Plains’ oil boom, as would have “wrangle with bellicose customers who wanted drink or dope and took refusal as an insult”—although this could refer to any number of drugs, not merely cannabis. (CL2.396)

There is no reference in Robert E. Howard’s letters to trying cannabis himself, and his general ignorance of certain specifics with regard to cannabis can probably be attributed to that lack of personal experience. Yet cannabis in its various forms formed a part of the backdrop to his life in Texas, and it appears in a small way in several of his stories.

Cannabis as an herbal recreational drug appears almost solely in Howard’s letters, and the descriptions of the effects of marijuana may seem a bit strange compared to how it is understood today:

In that very town, not so terribly long ago, a powerfully built youth, maddened by liquor and marihuana weed, nearly killed a policeman. In this case, my sympathies were wholly with the officer. As near as I could learn, he was trying to lead the boy out of a cafe, when the youth struck him down from behind with a chair, and then nearly stamped the life out him.
- Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Dec 1932, CL2.510

I’m strikingly reminded of a case which occurred in San Antonio a week or so ago, when a special policeman, gone insane or maddened by marijuana, opened fire on a crowd in a cafe, without warning.
- Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Dec 1934, CL3.276

Howard’s statements smack of Texas tall tales, but may well have their origin in small newspaper articles, as marijuana in the Texas press was often connected with violent crimes and insanity, in no small part because the marijuana-smoking was seen as a foreign habit, and the villainization of it was part of the ongoing nativist tendencies of the United States. The El Paso Herald ran a first page article titled “Crazed By Weed, Man Murders” on 2 Jan 1913 which begins:

Marihuana, that native Mexican herb which causes the smoker to crave murder, is held accountable for two deaths and a bloody affray on the streets of Juarez Wednesday afternoon. Crazed by continual use of the drug, an unidentified Mexican, killed a policeman, wounded another, stabbed two horses and pursued an El Paso woman and her escort, branding a huge knife in the air. The man finally was shot and pounded into insensibility.

Despite the relative prevalence of marijuana as a medicinal drug, and recreational use of it in places like New Orleans and the Mexican border, information on its origins, effects, and even appearance were not always clear to the public. The El Paso Herald article ended with the short paragraph:

It is an American form of canibus indica, commonly used as a drug in the United States, and akin to the "hashish" of Turkey and Syria. "Marihuana" has a more dreadful effect than opium, creating in its victim hallucinations which frequently result in violent crimes.

These two elements—the association of cannabis with the exotic locales of the Middle East and Asia, and the supposed propensity for opium-like visions—would inspire Robert E. Howard’s most extensive use of cannabis in his fiction.


The horror first took concrete form amid that most unconcrete of all things—a hashish dream. I was off on a timeless, spaceless journey through the strange lands that belong to this state of being, a million miles away from earth and all things earthly; yet I became cognizant that something was reaching across the unknown voids—something that tore ruthlessly at the separating curtains of my illusions and intruded itself into my visions.
I did not exactly return to ordinary waking life, yet I was conscious of a seeing and a recognizing that was unpleasant and seemed out of keeping with the dream I was at that time enjoying. To one who has never known the delights of hashish, my explanation must seem chaotic, and impossible. Still, I was aware of a rending of mists and then the Face intruded itself into my sight. I thought at first it was merely a skull; then I saw that it was a hideous yellow instead of white, and was endowed with some horrid form of life. Eyes glimmered deep in the sockets and the jaws moved as if in speech. The body, except for the high, thin shoulders, was vague and indistinct, but the hands, which floated in the mists before and below the skull, were horribly vivid and filled me crawling fears. They were like the hands of a mummy, long, lean and yellow, with knobby joints and cruel curving talons.
Then, to complete the vague horror which was swiftly taking possession of me, a voice spoke—imagine a man so long dead that his vocal organ had grown rusty and unaccustomed to speech. This was the thought which made my flesh crawl as I listened.

"A strong brute and one who might be useful somehow. See that he is given all the hashish he requires."
            - Robert E. Howard, “Skull-Face” (Weird Tales Oct 1929)

The protagonist of “Skull-Face” is a hashish-addict, and much of the first two chapters is devoted to the hazy lives more often associated with addicts in opium-dens than to cannabis, and bespeaks someone that lacks both personal experience with the drug and an unfamiliarity with is popular use—hashish in this story is simply an extension of the Yellow Peril—yet at the same time, it is not presented as the maddening marijuana weed mentioned in his letters to Lovecraft.

Hashish is cannabis resin, separated from the plant either mechanically or with the aid of chemical solvents. The resin concentrates the active ingredients, making it more potent than herbal marijuana on a per gram basis—and perhaps more suitable as an excuse for ecstatic hallucinations and visions. Drug literature of this sort was popularized in the 19th century by Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), with the cannabis-equivalent being Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater (1857) and Charles Baudelaire’s Les Paradis artificiels (1860). These works in turn inspired such contemporary fiction as Algernon Blackwood’s “A Psychical Invasion” (1908), Lord Dunsany’s “The Hashish Man” (1910), H. P. Lovecraft’s “Celephaïs” (1934), and Clark Ashton Smith’s long poem “The Hashish-Eater, or, The Apocalypse of Evil" (1922), which Robert E. Howard read:

I will not seek to express my appreciation of “The Hashish-Eater”. I lack the words. I have read it many times already; I hope to read it many more times.
- Robert E. Howard to Clark Ashton Smith, 22 Jul 1933, CL3.97

Robert E. Howard himself dabbled in hashish-vision literature with a piece titled “The Hashish Land,” first published Fantôme #1 (1978) by The Great Bhang Press, as a collection of fantastic cannabis-literature. The article is presaged by a note from the editor, Daffyd:

Although there was no date on the manuscript which follows, Glenn Lord tells us that it was found among other papers dated around the time of Howard’s writing his Epic, “Skull-Face,” which seems logical enough to us. At any rate, what follows is testament either to the effect of a strong dose on a highly imaginative mind or the decline in quality of Cannibis in the past forty years. (25)

“The Hashish Land” is described as an “article,” and is an almost scientific account of a dose of the medicinal cannabis and the visions that follow. It begins:

The key whereby I opened the door to hashish land consisted of twenty-five minums of Cannabis indica (fluid extract). Unlike Jack London, who during his hectic lifetime made two invasions of this peculiar realm, I found one experiment ample and never afterward had any desire to repeat it. (Dafydd 26)

The reference to a “key” in the first sentence may or may not suggest an influence from H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Silver Key” (WT Jan 1929), a story which struck Howard deeply, and which he still thought about frequently years later. (CL3.100) The effects of cannabis as described may be a little extreme, but the lassitude associated with taking the drug jives much better with the depiction in “Skull-Face” than Howard’s accounts of marihuana madness, so Lord may have been correct in his approximate dating, although it isn’t clear what this piece is intended for—it doesn’t neatly into any particular category, being too dry for a confession story, not quite weird enough for Weird Tales—possibly it was never intended for publication at all.

The introduction to Fantôme has a little fun as the authors try to work out the dose (a minim is 1/480th of a fluid ounce, so 25 minims would be ~0.05 fl. oz. (~1.5 ml or ~⅓ teaspoons))—accepted dosages for medicinal fluid extracts of cannabis varied depending on how much they were diluted with alcohol and water. Their assumption seems to be that this is a personal record of an experiment and while there is no record of Howard indulging in such a way, it is not impossible: his father likely had certain drugs available as part of his medical practice, and there is one account from Howard’s friend Tevis Clyde Smith:

Bob pulled out what he claimed to be some codeine pills which he had pilfered from his father’s handbag and took them. His conversation became slightly irrational for several minutes. Whether this was an act or not, I do not know. He stated he would do anything to become a successful writer. My guess is that he left the dope alone after that, and that he wrote while sober, reserving alcohol for off from work hours. (SFP 255)

The reference to Jack London is from his memoir John Barleycorn (1913):

Take Hasheesh Land, for instance, the land of enormous extensions of time and space. In past years I have made two memorable journeys into that far land. My adventures there are seared in sharpest detail on my brain. Yet I have tried vainly, with endless words, to describe any tiny particular phase to persons who have not travelled there. (London 303-304)

Howard was a great fan of London’s work, and mentioned John Barleycorn in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft in 1932. (CL2.395) Whether or not Howard actually followed in London’s footsteps by experimenting with cannabis, the brief account in London’s book certainly provided at least the title, if not the overall inspiration for “The Hashish Land,” which with “Skull-Face” marks his sole real efforts at hashish-vision literature.

Another book which Howard read that may have influenced his understanding and depiction of cannabis is Musk, Hashish and Blood (1899) by Hector France. Chapter XII, “In Hashish-Land” begins:

They were men possessed, it is true; but rejoicing in their possession, or rather unconscious of their degradation, slaves delivered over of their own will to a master more puissant than all the gods of Olympus, and all the genii of Eastern climes, and all the fairy-kinds of Western lands, and all the wizards and all the witch-wives,—the mighty monarch Hashish. (France 288)

It is not clear when Howard first read France’s book, although he mentions it in a letter to Lovecraft in 1936, and it was in his library at the time of his death. (CL3.444) It was one of many sources which depicted a popular context for hashish: as a popular drug of exotic lands such as North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia Minor, in settings both contemporary and ancient. Hashish was a part of these settings, a staple in the books of Harold Lamb and the pages of Adventure Stories and Oriental Stories. It is not surprising, then, that Howard makes mention of hashish in his own stories set in those far-off places.

Hashish is mentioned in stories set in Afghanistan and the Middle East such as “Hawks Over Egypt” (1979), “Hawks of Outremer” (Oriental Stories Apr 1931) “The Treasures of Tartary” (Thrilling Adventures Jan 1935), “The Road of the Eagles” (2005), and especially “Three-Bladed Doom” (1977), where appears the infamous sect of the assassins:

Long ago there was another city on a mountain, ruled by emirs who called themselves Shaykhs Al Jebal — the Old Men of the Mountain. Their followers were called Assassins. They were hemp-eaters, hashish addicts, and their terrorist methods made the Shaykhs feared all over Western Asia. [...] in hidden gardens where his followers were permitted to taste the joys of paradise where dancing girls fair as houris flitted among the blossoms and the dreams of hashish gilded all with rapture [...] Later he was drugged again and removed, and told that to regain this rapture he had only to obey the Shaykh to the death. (EB 119)

Howard’s depiction of the assassins, and their use of hashish, is faithful to contemporary accounts, such as Harold Lamb’s The Flame of Islam (1930), which the Texan is known to have referred to (CL2.196, 440). Lamb would write:

They were young, and Hassan initiated them into the secrets of hemp eating and the virtue of opium mixed with wine until they became in reality the blind instruments of his will. He convinced  them that death was verily the door to an everlasting delight, of which the drug dreams gave them only a foretaste.
(Lamb 23)

Howard adds many details not covered by Lamb, evidence of the Texan’s research in the subject, regardless of how many liberties he might take. Another example of such research is the reference to charas, a form of hashish traditionally made in India and what is now Pakistan, in the story “Murderer’s Grog,” which is set in Peshawar. Yet the forms of cannabis in exotic lands is not limited to hashish.

Charas & Bhang

“Give the ferengi bhang, Musa.”
“It is the drink of murder,” expostulated MUsa. “It will drive him mad. He will belabor the man about him, and one of them will stab him, and the police will come and close my house and throw me in jail.”
“Nay, bhang makes a man remember old grudges! He will go forth in his madness and seek the deputy-commissioner. [...] With the madness of bhang on him, he will fall upon the deputy-commissioner and push him with his fists very hard in the face and make his foot go behind, as is the custom of the sahibs. So the British will take him and fine him and deport him.”
- Robert E. Howard, “Murderer’s Grog” (Spicy Adventure Stories Jan 1937)

Bhang is a cannabis paste made in India, often filtered and mixed with milk and flavorings as a drink. Howard would have run across the latter term in any number of places, including Otis Adelbert Kline’s stories “The Man Who Limped” (Oriental Stories Oct-Nov 1930) and “The Dragoman’s Secret” (Oriental Stories Spring 1931), or the Wyndham Martyn’s serial “The Return of Anthony Trent,” which ran in the Cross Plains Review in 1928, and mentioned bhang in the 3 Aug issue. While Howard was familiar with the term, however, and used it in the correct setting, the effects still show either how much he was still ignorant with the effects of cannabis towards the end of his life, or how much literary license he was willing to indulge in:

No man could have told that he was drunk, unless one looked at his eyes, which blazed in the light of the street lamps like those of a mad dog. Without knowing, he had drunk the most hellish mixture in the world—the stuff Oriental despots have fed to their bravoes since the days of the Shaykh-al-Jebal to enflame them to bloody deeds, the stuff professional murderers swig to nerve themselves up to the frenzy that ignores all possible consequences. (SA 114)

The intoxication of bhang as Howard describes in this story is qualitatively different from the visionary or soporific hashish. It is a return to the reefer madness of the Texas newspapers, different forms of cannabis mixed together outside of their historical, cultural, and geographic context—but then again, Frank Armer, the editor of Spicy Adventure Stories was far less critical about such things than Farnsworth Wright was at Oriental Stories.

Cannabis and the Lotus

Was it a dream the nighted lotus brought?
Then curst the dream that bought my sluggish life;
And curst each laggard hour that does not see
Hot blood drip blackly from the crimsoned knife.
—Robert E. Howard “The Song of Belit” (Weird Tales May 1934)

The effect of bhang, the eponymous “Murder’s Grog” in the story, is developed slowly from the first mention of its effects, to its (spurious) historical connections with the assassins, to description of the murderous drunkenness felt be the one under its effects—it is developed, not as a magic potion, but as an actual drug with onset time and symptoms, however erroneously developed they might be on a factual level. This recalls Robert Silverberg’s note on drug themes in science fiction:

A drug is a kind of magic wand; but it is a chemist’s magic wand, a laboratory product, carrying with it the cachet of science. By offering his characters a vial of green pills or a flask of mysterious blue fluid the author is able to work wonders as easily as a sorcerer; and by rigorously examining the consequences of his act of magic, he performs the exploration of speculative ideas which is the essence of science fiction. (Silverberg 3)

It is worth noting that Howard did try to keep the effects of cannabis “realistic,” in his stories, however much historical or factual license he might have taken with its use and effects, and in this respect worth comparing to his most famous fantasy drug: the vari-colored lotuses in the Conan stories. The two share certain common effects—both are used as recreational drugs and to provide visions:

Yara the priest and sorcerer lay before him, his eyes open and dilated with the fumes of the yellow lotus, far-staring, as if fixed on gulfs and nighted abysses beyond human ken.
- Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant”, Weird Tales Mar 1933

You have heard of the black lotus? In certain pits of the city it grows. Through the ages they have cultivated it, until, instead of death, its juice induces dreams, gorgeous and fantastic. In these dreams they spend most of their time. Their lives are vague, erratic, and without plan. They dream, they wake, drink, love, eat and dream again. They seldom finish anything they begin, but leave it half completed and sink back again into the slumber of the black lotus.
- Robert E. Howard, “The Slithering Shadow”, Weird Tales Sep 1933

These narcotic uses derive more or less directly from ancient depictions of lotus-eaters in the 1,001 Nights, the Odyssey, and the Histories of Herodotus, but the capacities of the lotus-blossom varies with the needs of the plot; in one story it might be a deadly poison, while another it might be a potent medicine:

This contains the juice of the golden lotus. If your lover drank it he would be sane again.
- Robert E. Howard, “Shadows in Zamboula”, Weird Tales Nov 1935

Fluid extract of cannabis indica was no less a medicine, in Robert E. Howard’s Texas, as like the lotus of the Conan stories was alternately feared, reviled, and revered for its properties. How much the image of the real-life herb may have affected Howard’s portrayal of its fantasy counterpart is an open one: Howard never describes actual hemp plants, while he does describe such a field in “Queen of the Black Coast”; nor does Howard paint cannabis in any of its forms as inherently deadly, save through addiction, while deadly is the default for the black lotus.

If the lotus, in its many colors, is not exactly a fantasy equivalent to cannabis, then the visions it evokes at least partake of the vision-literature of hashish. The dark dreams of “Queen of the Black Coast” are of a part with those of “Skull-Face” and “The Hashish Land,” and tracing back to the same literary influences.

CL       The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols.)
EB       El Borak and Other Desert Adventures
MSM    Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding
SA       Spicy Adventures
SFP     “So Far The Poet…” & Other Writings

Works Cited
“Crazed By Weed, Man Murders” (2 Jan 1913). El Paso Herald. El Paso, TX. (1).
Dafydd (ed.) (1978). Fantôme #1. Great Bhang Theory Press.
France, Hector (1900). Musk, Hashish and Blood. London: No publisher listed.
Howard, Robert E. (2005-2007). The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard. Edited by Rob Roehm. Robert E. Howard Foundation Press.
Howard, Robert E. (2010). El Borak and Other Desert Adventures. NY: Del Rey.
Howard, Robert E. (2011). Spicy Adventures. Edited by Patrice Louinet & Rob Roehm. Robert E. Howard Foundation Press.
Lamb, Harold Albert (1930). The Flame of Islam. NY: Doubleday, Doran, & Co.
London, Jack (1981). John Barleycorn. Santa Cruz, CA: Western Tanaer Press.
National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (1972). Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Silverberg, Robert (1975). Research Issues 9: Drug Themes in Science Fiction. Los Angeles, CA: National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Smith, Tevis Clyde (2010). “So Far The Poet…” & Other Writings. Edited by Rob Roehm & Rusty Burke. Robert E. Howard Foundation Press.


  1. "Black lotus! Stygian, the best!"
    "This better not be Hagga."
    "I would sell hagga to a slayer such as you?"

  2. This was very interesting, and scholarly! Good job!

  3. Well done article. One source you miss is Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes writing which Howard had. The description of opium dens reminded me a lot of den in Skull-Face.