Most of my stories arise from an image I can’t get out of my head. The only relief is to transform that image into a story, and that process inevitably taps into deep-seated concerns. When I recently re-read H.P. Lovecraft’s classic Nyarlathotep, one vivid scene stuck in my imagination:
And where Nyarlathotep went, rest vanished; for the small hours were rent with the screams of nightmare. Never before had the screams of nightmare been such a public problem; now the wise men almost wished they could forbid sleep in the small hours, that the shrieks of cities might less horribly disturb the pale, pitying moon as it glimmered on green waters gliding under bridges, and old steeples crumbling against a sickly sky.
“Social Network“ imagines a malignant presence just as frightening as the one Lovecraft described, though in the form of a technological pandemic no vaccination can stop.
Stoicism has inspired many writers, including Matthew Arnold, Walker Percy, and Ambrose Bierce. I strongly suspect it also influenced Robert E. Howard, whose character Conan of Cimmeria exemplified Stoicism.
In fact, I’d say Conan was the very model of a Stoic. He could shrug off bad luck, pain, and looming disaster like no other fictional character, whatever the genre. Conan fumed at cowardice, punished betrayal, and battled opponents savagely, but he never complained, never felt sorry for himself. He accepted fate with a shrug.
“Stoicism, or Stoic philosophy, is a philosophy of personal ethics and a methodology for seeking practical wisdom in life. A key principle of the ancient Stoics was the belief that we don’t react to events; we react to our judgments about them, and the judgments are up to us. They also advised that we should not worry about things beyond our control as everything in life can be divided into two categories – things that are up to us and things that are not.”
Sounds like Conan to me.
I believe Robert E. Howard’s most famous character reflected his author’s courageous and clear-headed embrace of the human condition, from its brief, tenuous life span to its deep-seated connections to a rich, sprawling past. I like the way David Smith puts it in his magnificent Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography:
“His work is shot through with a relentless awareness of time, hurtfully so.This tragic appreciation is exhibited as powerfully in his writing as his acute awareness of the body — the weight of time, its passage and its cost to us. He grew up, of course, listening to recollections of the immediate past, frontier tales in which “the past is never past,” in Faulkner’s famous phrase.” p. 191.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca observed that an extensive and intimate relationship to the past broadens and deepens a person:
“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only they truly live. Not satisfied to merely keep good watch over their own days, they annex every age to their own. All the harvest of the past is added to their store. ”
Howard, a life-long and passionate student of history, appreciated the wealth of wisdom and adventure the past holds. That passion –and his unique worldview — supercharged his fiction.