Deflowering Dark Agnes

Most fans of TGR are familiar with a piece I did back in 2006 about the corruption of the text of “Three-Bladed Doom” (short version) by fanzine editor Byron Roark.  In the mid-1970s, Roark and his partner Arnie Fenner published a handful of previously unpublished Howard stories — “Sword Woman” was one of these stories. As was the case with “Three-Bladed Doom,” I’ve discovered while comparing Howard’s typescript to the version published in REH: Lone Star Fictioneer#2, that Roark could not leave Howard’s text well enough alone – he managed to mangle “Sword Woman” to the extent it is almost a crime.

“Sword Woman,” chronologically the first Dark Agnes story, appeared in print for the first time in LSF #2, which was published in the summer of 1975.  The story next appeared about a year later in The Second Book of Robert E. Howard.  Finally, in May 1977, the Sword Woman paperback collecting all the Dark Agnes tales appeared in book stores. The story last saw print in 1986, but is returning to print next January in Del Rey’s Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures.

So unlike the case of the short version of “Three-Bladed Doom,” which languished in only Roark’s corrupted version for 33 years before finally seeing print as Howard had written it in the Del Rey paperback El Borak and Other Desert Adventures, the flawed version of “Sword Woman” was only around for a year before the true and accurate text appeared in print.

That being said, the changes Roark made to the “Sword Woman” text are far more sweeping in scope than those made to the short version of “Three-Bladed Doom.”   In that case he re-wrote the beginning and the ending of the El Borak yarn and made right at 100 changes to the text in the body of the 24,000 word story.

For “Sword Woman” Roark made more than 400 changes to Howard’s original 15,000 word text, to the extent that virtually every paragraph has at least one word changed or added, and in a lot of cases, whole sentences added, deleted or drastically changed.

The changes are so numerous I would literally have to post both versions, side by side for you to see all the differences. The following two paragraphs feature samples of the type of changes made.  First up is Howard’s original text.

Howard’s Version

I must have been senseless for some time — long enough for my father to drag me through the forest and into the village by the hair of my head. Regaining consciousness after a beating was no new experience, but I was sick and weak and dizzy, and my limbs ached from the rough ground over which he had dragged me. I was lying in our wretched hut, and when I staggered up into a sitting position, I found that my plain woolen tunic had been taken from me, and I was decked in wedding finery. By Saint Denis, the feel of it was more loathsome than the slimy touch of a serpent, and a quick panic assailed me, so I would have torn it from me; but then a giddiness and a sickness overcame me, and I sank back with a groan. And blackness deeper than that of a bruised brain sank over me, in which I saw myself caught in a trap in which I struggled in vain. All strength flowed out of me, and I would have wept if I could. But I never could weep; and now I was too crushed to curse, and I lay staring dumbly at the rat-gnawed beams of the hut.

Then I was aware that some one had entered the room. From without sounded a noise of talking and laughter, as the people gathered. The one who had come into the hut was my sister Ysabel, bearing her youngest child on her hip. She looked down at me, and I noted how bent and stooped she was, and how gnarled from toil her hands, and how lined her features from weariness and pain. The holiday garments she wore seemed to bring these things out; I had not noticed them when she wore her usual peasant woman’s attire.

Now here is the text after it was worked over by Roark — his changes are shown in red.

Roark’s Version

I must have been senseless for some time — long enough for my father to drag me through the forest and into the village by the hair of my head. Regaining consciousness after a beating was no new experience for me, but I was sick, weak, and dizzymy limbs ached from the rough ground over which he had dragged me. I was lying on the floor of our wretched hut, and when I staggered up into a sitting position, I found that my plain woolen tunic had been taken from me, and that I was decked out in wedding finery. By Saint Denis, the feel of it was more loathsome than the slimy touch of a serpent. A quick panic assailed me, so that I would have torn the foul garments away; but then a giddiness and violent sickness overcame me, reluctantly I sank back with a groan. And blackness deeper than that of a bruised brain sank over me, in which I saw myself caught in a trap in which I struggled in vain to free myself.  All strength flowed from me, and I would have wept if I could. But as ever, I could not cry; and now I was too crushed to curse, and I lay dumbly staring up at the rat-gnawed beams of the hut.

Then I was aware that some one had entered the room. From without sounded a noise of talking and laughter, as the people gathered. The one who had come into the hut was my sister Ysabel, bearing her youngest squalling brat on her hip. She looked down at me, and I noted how bent and stooped she was, and how gnarled from toil were her hands how lined her features from weariness and pain. The holiday garments she wore seemed to bring these traits to the surface; I had not noticed them when she was clothed in her usual everyday garb.

Also, in his haste to re-engineer the text, Roark proceeds to horribly confuse things, creating a number of continuity issues.  I can’t recall if I noticed all of Roark’s screw ups when I read his version of “Sword Woman” (at the time I thought it was 100% Howard), but is just a shame what he did to this wonderful Howard story. 

It seems ludicrous to me that Roark felt the need to make such wholesale changes to Howard’s text — cavalier changes that are totally unnecessary.  I have no problem with an editor correcting misspellings, making punctuation changes or even replacing a word to clarify a sentence. But damn it, don’t rewrite the story and pass it off as being “pure Howard.” In closing, let me give you one more example of Roark’s butchery:

Howard’s Version

Presently I came upon a road which wound through the forest and was glad of it, because my wedding shoon, being shoddy things, were mostly worn out.  I was accustomed to going barefoot, but even so, the briars and twigs of the forest hurt my feet.

Roark’s Version

Presently, I came upon a road which wound through the forest, and I was proud of it; because my wedding gown, being shoddy things, were all but tattered rags, and completely worn out.  I was accustomed to going barefoot, but even so, the briars and twigs hurt my feet.

Apparently our incompetent editor was unaware that “shoon” is a term that refers to shoes, specfically a pair of shoes, and is not a wedding gown; thus his revised paragraph makes no sense whatsoever.

Since Roark has seemingly fallen off the face of the Earth, I can’t ask him: “what the hell were you thinking?”  But I suspect I already know the answer – he wasn’t.