Category Archives: Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography

Robert E. Howard Whether you’re a fan of fantasy fiction in general, or of Robert E. Howard in particular, or if you’re an aspiring writer who wants to learn what makes successful writers tick, you will enjoy David C. Smith’s Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography.

David C. Smith is a prolific writer himself. In his latest work, he focuses on the complex and rich relationship between Howard’s life and thought and the spell-binding tales he gave the world. One of the strengths of this literary biography is the fact-filled account of Howard’s inspirational, yet tragic, development as a young man and author. Note: This is not a pseudo-psychological analysis, but an insightful and sympathetic exploration of an important literary figure backed by thorough research and genuine understanding.

Smith draws upon his own experience as a writer to flesh out the intellectual and emotional forces that shaped Howard and his works. Of Howard, the man, Smith observes:

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. … Thus, what we get from Howard is not merely a story. Howard reports the facts. Right down to every bloody detail, each emotional pitch, all of the colors and moods — he reports the facts. Howard reminds us who we are. pp. 191-2

The portrait Smith creates sheds light on the enduring appeal of Howard’s most famous character, Conan:

Let enemies come, even demons and sorcerers; he will confront them and defeat them or go down trying. He is the natural man, ourselves begun again, reborn in a world as we secretly know our own world to be beneath its layers of hypocrisy and pretense. Conan is nothing if not honest in this regard and has no patience with the nonsense most of us accept as a matter of course. p. 134

The chapter examining the correspondence and resulting relationship between Howard and H.P. Lovecraft is itself worth the price of the book. Not only does it add to our understanding of Howard, it’s also a useful introduction to Lovecraft.

This is no hagiography. Smith does not close his eyes to Howard’s literary and personal stumbles. While Smith clearly admires Howard’s accomplishments, he constructs his case for a new appreciation of Howard out of a solid and broad body of research, with observations and critiques from friends, editors, and other writers who knew the man and the artist. The only fault I can detect in this otherwise remarkable and entertaining book is in the final chapter, “Legacy,” in which Smith slips into an over-the-top tone of wounded offense toward critics who dismiss Howard as a hack.

Having read Smith’s previous chapters, the reader will already be convinced how wrong those critics are.

Hither Came Conan: The Best Conan Story Written by REH Was….?

Robert E. Howard Whether you’re a long-time fan of Robert E. Howard or a newcomer, you’ll enjoy this series on Howard’s stories at Black Gate. I love the premise of this project:

Welcome to a brand new, Monday morning series here at Black Gate. Join us as a star-studded cast of contributors examine every original Conan story written by Robert E. Howard: and tell you why THAT is the best of the bunch. Read on!

Think Conan stories are for kids, or are little more than escapist fiction? Think again. Here’s a piece I wrote for the Abbeville Institute on the depth of meaning lurking in the shadows of Howard’s Conan tales. And the thought-provoking worldview Howard infused into these highly entertaining pieces are supercharged with forceful, visual writing reminiscent of Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, and Ernest Hemingway. As Stephen King put it, “Howard’s writing seems so highly charged with energy that it nearly gives off sparks.” Author James Scott Bell once said of Howard, “His writing was big and wild and full of action.” Enjoy!

Quotes of the day

heinlein and howard
“A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot.”
Robert A. Heinlein

“Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.”
Robert E. Howard

Chandler and Howard

Chandler and Howard

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.

The Real Conan

Robert E. Howard

What accounts for the enduring popularity of Robert E. Howard’s most famous creation, Conan of Cimmeria? Author John C. Wright offers this perceptive analysis:

Conan is somewhat more deep and complex than the cartoon image of a brute in a bearskin loincloth found the popular imagination, with a dancing girl clutching his brawny thigh and a devil-beast dying under his bloody ax. The theme and philosophy he represents is not the product of adolescent neurosis (as certain bitter critics would have us believe) but of somber, even cynical, reflection on the age of the world, the costs of civilization, and the frailty of man.

Howard, despite his lack of formal education, was well-read and intellectually curious. The worldview behind his Conan stories is broad, well-crafted, insightful, and still worthwhile for the modern reader. Wright’s introduction is an invaluable introduction to one of the great writers of our age.

How Wolves Change Rivers

Wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of wolves? With those nasty predators gone, nature would be perfect — the forests and grasslands would be serene homelands. Gentle herbivores wouldn’t have to worry about being eaten.

So in many areas, the wolf was hunted down almost to extinction. But over time, subtle, unhealthy changes took place in the wilderness no one could understand. The above video tells the story of what happened when wolves were reintroduced into the northern Rocky Mountains. Turns out the big, bad wolf is an essential part of the greater ecosystem. By killing off diseased elk, wolves forced the overall elk population to adapt, making the elk faster, stronger, and healthier. And without the elk fearlessly eating their way through valleys and gorges, plants that help maintain riverbank integrity flourished once again. This in turn enabled greater biodiversity as other animals returned.

What appears frightening and brutal can be the source of beauty and wonder. That’s the mystery nature continues to teach us. Growing up on a farm, I read Jack London and Robert E. Howard, whose severe yet captivating visions of nature made perfect sense to me. In college, I discovered Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and E. O. Wilson, who popularized the science that examined the role aggression plays in shaping animal behavior and ensuring the survival of the strong and beautiful. Without the yin and the yang, there is no viable whole. Each needs the other.

“Siberian Khatru,” a classic Yes song by Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman, and Steve Howe, could be the wolf’s theme song:

Sing, bird of prey;
Beauty begins at the foot of you. Do you believe the manner?

Where the Past Haunts the Present

roman-gladiator

At REH: Two-Gun Raconteur, Charles Gramlich argues that heroic fantasy, far from being merely “juvenile” entertainment, is literature that deserves our respect and attention. It continues to fascinate and entertain because it illuminates human nature:

Heroic fantasy is, and always has been, a literature of myth making and myth exploration. As such, it may well be the most important type of literature ever attempted. The tales in this genre are not about telling things the way they are, or even how they were. They’re about telling, or at least hinting at, the deepest mysteries and truths of human existence. …

But whether we speak of 200,000 year old sapiens or 50,000 year old ones, the fact remains that our mind is their mind, with a lot of culture and a little bit of rational science as icing on the cake. Both the roots and the trunks of our myths, and our realities, arise from the ways that early Homo sapiens tried to understand their mysterious and dangerous world.

Gramlich is right. Despite our veneer of civilization, we have scarcely changed since the Ice Age. Life remains a battle for survival, as well as a battle to uphold one’s code of honor. That’s why we can’t help but be fascinated by tales of a hero who bravely faces seemingly overwhelming odds and must dig down deep to tap hidden strength. The genre Robert E. Howard perfected has continued in new and surprising forms, such as Westerns and detective fiction.

Indeed, some of our greatest literature strips away our illusions about ourselves and confronts us with our true nature, which has not changed since mankind’s dawning. Some such works, even those set in the present day, uncover ancient ways we imagine we’ve outgrown. In African Genesis, screenwriter Robert Ardrey reflected on one such piece that may surprise you:

West Side Story is a supreme work of art for many reasons not the least of which is truthfulness. The authors treat the romantic fallacy is if it did not exist. On a stage laid bare, and in young hearts laid naked, we watch our animal legacy unfold its awful power. There is the timeless struggle over territory, as lunatic in the New York streets as it is logical in our animal heritage. There is the gang, our ancestral troupe. There is the rigid system of dominance among males within the gang, indistinguishable from that among baboons. There is the ceaseless individual defence of status… And there is the hunting primate contribution, a dedication to the switchblade knife as unswerving as to the antelope bone. p. 337

From the tension between the individual and his tribe arise self-realization and belonging, as well as individual competition and group cooperation. E. O. Wilson’s insights in Sociobiology tell us that loyalty and altruism are evolutionary adaptations that not only preserve the group, but give our lives meaning and purpose. The “mysterious and dangerous world” Gramlich talks about in his post has birthed a number of successful species, and we are among that number. That’s the hopeful message heroic fantasy makes real for us. In Robert Ardrey’s famous observation, we humans are “bad-weather animals, designed for storm and change.” We are fighters. We are survivors.