Raymond Chandler and Robert E. Howard had a lot in common, and I think acknowledging and appreciating their similarities help us to better understand and enjoy their thought-provoking works.
Both were successful pulp writers who are now viewed with much more respect than they were when they worked and lived. Chandler’s novels are now taught at the university level, and many writers cite Howard as a key influence. Stephen King, for example, once declared that “Howard was the Thomas Wolfe of fantasy.”
Chandler and Howard revolutionized their respective genres by energizing them with a stark, naturalistic picture of human nature and society. Not only were their stories more gritty and violent than what most of their predecessors wrote, they also injected grim views of society into their tales. Chandler’s Los Angeles is a hopeless, irredeemable jungle. In The Long Goodbye, he paints a bleak picture of the city’s upper class, which is just as prone to criminality as the lower classes. Howard, in Red Nails, imagines a dying city whose few survivors, despite their wealth and learning, wage an unrelenting and mutually destructive blood feud on each other.
The wild 1920s and desperate, corrupt 1930s shaped the world views of both writers. When Raymond Chandler moved to Los Angeles, it was a boom town whose explosive growth was fueled by Hollywood and the oil industry. He worked for the Dabney Oil Syndicate, where he got an eyeful of the dirty dealing and outright corruption in both the oil business and local politics. Robert E. Howard also witnessed the suffering and debauchery inflicted on men and women in oil boomtowns throughout Texas. He once confessed to one of his editors, “I’ll say one thing about an oil boom; it will teach a kid that Life’s a pretty rotten thing as quick as anything I can think of.”
Raymond Chandler’s most famous creation, detective Philip Marlowe, is a hardened, clear-eyed fighter who nevertheless will stick his neck out for the helpless. Marlowe repeatedly saves the drunkard Terry Lennox on several occasions in The Long Goodbye, despite the trouble Lennox always brings to those who get too close to him. Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian, though a ferocious brawler and swordsman out to make a fortune any way he can, including stealing and working as a mercenary, often risks his life to help others. While wandering lost in a deadly and perverted maze of demons and monsters in The Scarlet Citadel, Conan hears a piteous moaning, and “the suffering of the captive touched Conan’s wayward and impulsive heart.”
The tragic element in Conan and Marlowe is that both characters uphold a personal code of honor despite the hostility and unconcern of the outside world. That, plus crisp, forceful writing, makes their otherwise bleak adventures so endlessly fascinating and re-readable.