Harold Lamb’s Adventure Fiction

In discussion of my influences I always mention the writer Harold Lamb, but it’s a sad truth that he’s still little known today. That wasn’t always true. A few generations ago he was one of the most popular writers in one of the best (and most respected) of all pulp magazines, Adventure. Later in life his biographies and histories were award winning and well-regarded, and he was considered such an expert on the Middle-East that the state department sometimes consulted with him.

Once I discovered just how consistently excellent Lamb’s adventure fiction was it was my dream that it would be brought properly¬† into print, and I am extremely proud to have been intimately involved in making that happen through the Bison Books imprint of the University of Nebraska Press.

There are several things that drew me to Lamb’s fiction. When I was young it was the headlong pace and the exotic settings, so exotic, as L.¬† Sprague de Camp once wrote, Lamb might as well have been writing of Burroughs’ Mars. But Lamb wasn’t inventing his setting, he was enmeshed in a great deal of research at a time when detailed research meant mastering other languages and journeying to distant lands and libraries.

Upon first discovering Lamb I thought I had discovered that lots of old fiction might be excellent, but years of my own research proved that mostly false. Occasional old adventure fiction is worth a read, but most of it is mired in its time. Lamb isn’t a standout with just one or two works, as might be expected, but with a large canon of fiction that is consistently good to excellent. His plotting and pacing feels surprisingly modern. His heroes are drawn from the east and west, and villainy can be found on either side of the cultural divide.

Sure, I fell in love with the Arabian Nights, but I’m not sure I would have thought about writing any kind of stories with eastern protagonists if I hadn’t been immersed in Lamb’s work. I particularly loved the friendship between the two protagonists in his short story, “The Long Sword” (collected in Swords from the West). One is Sir John, a poor knight who owns a tiny tower in Palestine. His best friend is Khalil, a quick-witted Muslim warrior.

Here’s Khalil in a brief snippet of a scene, pretending to be Sir John to fool the pair’s enemies. Note the short, sharp way that Lamb sketches the scene and reveals character.

Khalil peered down uneasily. He did not know how many men might be awake down there in the gloom under the trees, and besides, he could see almost nothing at all because he had Sir John’s heavy battle casque on his head. And his left arm was already weary with the weight of Sir John’s long kite shield. From side to side he turned his head like an uneasy wolf, seeing only the red glimmer of campfires and the yellow points of stars overhead.

“May Allah confound this steel pot!” he swore.

We celebrate writers of other sorts of fiction here in the United States. Why don’t we celebrate one of our most gifted writers of historical adventure fiction? Anyway, it’s good stuff. Go read it, and tell your friends.

For a longer discussion of Lamb’s adventure fiction, including some lengthy excerpts demonstrating his excellence, visit my earlier essay about him, here.

For details about how I put the Harold Lamb books together for the University of Nebraska Press, visit here.

17 Comments on “Harold Lamb’s Adventure Fiction

  1. Hi, Howard.

    I’ve got most of the Lamb volumes from Bison to date, missing only two. I try to fit them in as often as possible. Thanks for helping get these books into print. Are there going to be any more?

    • Hey Keith,
      In an ideal world I would put two more fiction collections together. One would be a complete run of the Durandal stories featuring Sir Hugh of Taranto. So far Donald M. Grant and co. has the first two out, but has not yet printed the third, even though I supplied them with the text. I would LOVE to see it get a “complete in one volume plus extras” treatment with a cover by Darrel Stevens. The other would reprint his two historical fiction novels Nur Mahal and Omar Khayyam in a single book.

      I just haven’t had time to pursue any more Lamb reprinting. Perhaps in the next few years…

  2. If you (well, they) publish them, I will buy them. If not, well, I have the first two Grant Durandal books and an old Junior Literary Guild edition that includes the third part, plus I have both of the novels.

    And if I had to choose between Lamb reprints and new Dabir & Asim, well, as I said, I already have all of the Lamb in old editions . . .

      • Hey Paul — considering all the years I was working on Lamb text I guess me having a little of his sound is perfectly natural. I had to scan every text, then carefully proofread each of them, sometimes multiple times, to make sure that optical character recognition hadn’t done anything weird in the transfer process. It’s a large catalog of work, and I probably read every story in it at least twice, not counting my many favorites, which got multiple readings.

        Of course some of my sound is probably deliberate, because I think, like any master, his craft is worthy of study. Particularly his character centric plotting and the way that the thoroughly researched details are worked seamlessly into the background. He never slows down the story to show off his knowledge. Plot comes before ego.

    • Joe, do you have Nur Mahal or Omar Khayyam yet? They read a lot like one of Lamb’s stories from Adventure magazine.

      I have the same Durandal cycle selections that you do. There are small differences between the two, above and beyond the linking sections. I hope, someday, to oversee a combined release.

      Heh, thanks for the vote of confidence. I think Harold Lamb would probably tell me the same thing about working on my own stuff before his. But I’d still like to “finish the job,” so to speak. I sincerely hope that 2013 will give me the chance to do it.

        • I’m impressed — you even got yourself a copy of The House of the Falcon. I own the only copy of that I ever found for sale, even after years of scouring.

          Even I don’t own White Falcon. I had to scan the text for the Bison Book editions via a copy I got through interlibrary loan! It was tricky getting it all scanned, proofed, and cleaned up in the narrow window of time when I had the book!

          • Well, my copy of House of the Falcon is actually a POD version I got from Amazon. But my Garden to the Eastward is autographed, so there’s that. (I think I mentioned it to you on Facebook a while back.)

            If I ever see White Falcon I may have to snag it, but as long as the text is in the Bison books, that’s the important thing.

  3. It was you who introduced me to Lamb, Howard, and he has become one of my favorite writers, so thanks. And I agree that his stuff seems amazingly modern. Some pulp writers work has a dated feel to it, but Lamb’s reads like it was written this year. And so much of his output is of high quality. A remarkable writer.

    • Hey Charles, glad I could introduce you to one of the greats. I’ll never forget how astonished I was when I realized his uncollected stuff was just as good as the material that had already been reprinted. It was then I started dreaming about seeing it all between covers.

  4. Like Charles, I also have you to thank for finally being able to read Lamb’s stories. For years I came across references here and there regarding Adventure magazine and Harold Lamb, along with Talbot Mundy. But unlike Mundy, who was represented pretty well on the newsstands of the 70’s, Lamb’s books were scarce and I don’t think that I ever came across them. And all I really knew about Lamb and his work was that he was a favorite writer of the likes of Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague De Camp, and James Steranko among others. So imagine my pleasant surprise a few years ago when I was perusing my local Borders and I came across the first two volumes of Lamb’s Cossack stories edited by yourself. So I bought the first book and took it home to read. I was back the next day to buy the second volume and to order the remaining two. Since then I’ve worked my way through the first two Swords books and have enjoyed every page. So thanks once again for making Lamb’s work more readily available to today’s readers.

    • Hi Randy — I’m thrilled that you found your way to Lamb. It was criminal that so many people talked about how important and influential and enjoyable his writing was, but that none of his best fiction could be found.

      Once I had the really rare stuff in hand and realized just how consistently excellent his writing was, I couldn’t believe no one had collected it. I was certain that if Lamb’s fiction was accessible again others would believe the same things, and it’s proven true. I keep hoping even more people will discover him and that he’ll regularly turn up in discussions of great heroic fiction, but I’m afraid he’s still a bit of a secret.

  5. Mr. Jones, I too would like to express my appreciation for getting Lamb’s work back into circulation. I have almost all the collections you edited, as well as a 1930-something copy of Durandal. His stories are a joy to read, and as a fan of historical fiction/fantasy, they are a godsend. Longsword is one of my favorites, as is Wolf Chaser. Thank you for your work in getting these stories back into print.

    • He’s consistently excellent, isn’t he? I started with the Khlit the Cossack stories. One of my most favorite finds was discovering that there were uncollected, unreprinted stories of Khlit the Cossack. They’re collected NOW, of course, but three of the Khlit the Cossack/Abdul Dost stories had never been reprinted, including “The Curved Saber,” which I think outstanding.

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