Category Archives: Robert E. Howard

Happy birthday, Ambrose Bierce!

Today is the birthday of Ambrose Gwinett Bierce, one of the great short story writers and satirists of the late nineteenth century. Bierce, a former Union officer in the War Between the States, gave the world the most vivid and brutally honest picture of war ever captured in prose. The war than nearly killed him taught him many grim lessons, chief of which was that noble ideals are the cheapest of lies, used to convince the naive to prop up insane projects that lead only to suffering and death for the many — and profit for the few.

My Master’s Thesis explored Bierce’s war stories, tales exposing the animal senselessness of war.

Fans of both Ambrose Bierce and Robert E. Howard will want to read John Bullard’s excellent post on the significant influence Bierce exerted over a young Robert E. Howard. It includes additional resources on each author, with a link to Bierce’s works.

Blood & Thunder: A Review

I’ve just finished Blood and Thunder, Mark Finn’s literary biography of Robert E. Howard. It’s one of those books I hated to see end. Blood & Thunder is an entertaining and inspired introduction to one of the greatest fantasy writers who ever lived.

Finn stresses throughout this biography that Texas was a life-long influence on Howard. Finn, also a native Texan, knows what he’s talking about.

Howard’s unique voice has been described as robust, vivid, and dark. The sizable Anglo-Celtic population throughout the South, including Texas, accounts for much of this. As Howard wrote in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft:

“But no Negro ghost-story ever gave me the horror as did the tales told by my grandmother. All the gloominess and dark mysticism of the Gaelic nature was hers, and there was no light and mirth in her. Her tales showed what a strange legion of folk-lore grew up in the Scotch-Irish settlements of the Southwest, where transplanted Celtic myths and fairy-tales met and mingled with a substratum of slave legends.”

Another major but often overlooked influence on the future writer was the Western tall tale. The young man listened intently to his father, a small town doctor, who spun entertaining yarns for patients, family members, and friends. The chapter dedicated to the fine Texan tradition of the tall tale is titled “Authentic Liars,” a perceptive acknowledgement of the writer’s most crucial talent, the ability to tell a believable lie the audience will happily swallow.

The Texas young Robert E. Howard grew up in was barely a generation removed from the Wild West, and the boy was spellbound by first-hand accounts of Comanche raids and attacks by the Mexican rebel Pancho Villa, undoubtedly the inspiration for the bandits, kozaki, and Picts who brawled and stormed throughout the Hyborian kingdoms. Even Texas-sized rattlesnakes found their way into Howard’s stories (“The Scarlet Citadel,” for example.) As Finn puts it, “Conan, then, is much closer to the American frontier tradition than epic fantasy.”

The Texas oil boom not only overturned the state’s once-agrarian economy, but jolted the culture, and not in a good way. In a letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Howard wrote:

“I’ve seen old farmers, bent with toil, and ignorant of the feel of ten dollars at a time, become millionaires in a week, by the way of oil gushers. And I’ve seen them blow in every cent of it and die paupers. I’ve seen whole towns debauched by an oil boom and boys and girls go to the devil whole-sale. I’ve seen promising youths turn from respectable citizens to dope-fiends, drunkards, gamblers, and gangsters in a matter of months.”

Howard’s recurring theme of civilizational rot and downfall were not abstract notions; he experienced these things first hand. Like his friend and fellow writer H. P. Lovecraft, Howard viewed industrialization as a destructive, de-humanizing force.

It’s impossible to discuss Robert E. Howard without considering H. P. Lovecraft. The two masters corresponded extensively, and clearly influenced each other’s work. Howard set Conan in a Lovecraftian universe, complete with a number of Cthulhu mythos deities. But it was a reciprocal – and beneficial – relationship. Finn points out how Howard’s action-oriented style inspired Lovecraft, whose fiction tended toward the psychological, to include the well-done nighttime chase scene in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” one of Lovecraft’s greatest tales.

I cannot agree with all of Finn’s conclusions. For example, I winced at his assertion that Yasmina from Howard’s novella “The People of the Black Circle” is a “more fully realized” character than Belit from “Queen of the Black Coast.” C’mon! I applaud Finn’s rejection of L. Sprague de Camp’s unfair and uninformed opinion that Howard was a suicidal paranoid with Oedipal tendencies. However, to rebut de Camp by asserting Howard had no choice but to commit suicide is simply ridiculous.

All in all, though, this is a well-researched, intelligent, and sympathetic evaluation of Robert E. Howard’s life and legacy, one I highly recommend for both newcomers and seasoned fans.

A Riddle Of Steel: The Definitive History of Conan the Barbarian

I’m really excited about FauxPop’s documentary on Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. The people interviewed in this preview, including writer Roy Thomas and fantasy artists Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell, share fascinating insights about the continuing appeal of Howard’s legacy.

It’s unfortunate that so many still believe the Conan stories are nothing but escapist fantasy, but I believe A Riddle Of Steel will help change that.

The Conan plotline tells the story of a man determined to survive in a corrupt and dying society while holding true to his personal code of honor. (A theme even more timely in our present age.) Howard was not only a craftsman and entertainer whose dynamic style continues to inspire writers, but also a shrewd and perceptive commentator on the human condition. Here’s my take on the worldview underlying Howard’s most intriguing character.

A Riddle Of Steel is a hopeful sign the time is ripe for a more serious understanding of one of the greatest series in fantasy fiction.

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.