So honored to be invited back to the DMR Books Blog. My latest post for them, The Riddle of Pulp, looks at my long-running love of pulp fiction, why it’s still being read, and why we need it more than ever.
I was pleasantly surprised and honored when D.M. Ritzlin of DMR Books asked if he could interview me as part of his series of author profiles. We covered my writing background, the literary and philosophical influences on my fiction, and works in progress.
It’s now online at Independent Author Spotlight: M.C. Tuggle.
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.
What is Stoicism? Here’s a short, useful definition from WhatIsStoicism.com:
“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.
I’ve been pondering the deterioration of public discourse. The occasion of Robert Heinlein’s birthday brings to mind this quote:
“An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.”
― Robert A. Heinlein
Which reminds me of this:
“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
A secret that fans of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft have known for years is that the works of these authors were much more than mere ghost and adventure stories. In the past couple of decades, a number of serious studies have confirmed that insightful and profound world views animated these tales, making them not only entertaining, but thought-provoking.
Jason Ray Carney is the latest scholar to analyze their enduring appeal. Carney, who teaches Literary Theory and Creative Writing at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, also writes speculative fiction, and is the chair of the Pulp Studies section of the Popular Culture Association.
Weird Tales of Modernity examines Howard and Lovecraft, as well as the lesser-known Clark Ashton Smith, and considers their stories as critical reactions to modern art and the transience of life. While this study rewards the reader with a number of well-argued insights into the mindset and artistry of the three authors, it is not aimed at the general reading public. It is instead a highly technical analysis aimed at academics. While it lacks the conversational tone of Mark Finn’s Blood and Thunder, or the rollicking wit of Michel Houellebecq’s H. P. Lovecraft, it marches along with forceful logic and a careful mobilization of facts, backed by citations of numerous works from sixty-four notable authors and critics, including Jose Ortega y Gasset, W. B. Yeats, and T. S. Eliot.
Carney argues that Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith were united not only by their frequent appearance in the speculative fiction magazine Weird Tales, but also shared a common vision of art and life. A common theme in their stories was their rejection of modernism, and specifically, modern art, with its abandonment of traditional forms and the classical view of man. All three authors contemplated with disgust the creeping conformity that erased both individual and regional personalities. Robert E. Howard, for example, feared that “in a few generations all the United States will present one uniform pattern, modeled on the mechanized fabric of New York.” Such conformity, they warned, would not lead to global democracy, but to a dehumanized, soulless world.
Pulp fiction offered the “Weird Tales Three” a vehicle for expressing, and perhaps reclaiming, basic human experiences that modern life had taken from them. Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith crafted fiction that was, in Carney’s words, “sensational, often ineloquent or excessively ornate in style, and concerned with inciting raw emotions in readers – such as wonder, joy, excitement, and cosmic dread.”
Differing somewhat in style and theme, all three sought to rediscover those fundamental, ancient, and human emotions. Howard evoked them in his energetic tales of action and danger; Lovecraft showed us protagonists whose pursuit of esoteric knowledge forced them to confront inescapable cosmic horror; and Clark Aston Smith described characters desperately seeking lost joy, innocence, or love. All three conjured the frightening and the fantastic to focus the reader’s imagination on the ephemeral beauty and wonder that live in the ordinary.
Carney’s evaluation of Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith as a distinct subgroup provides an eye-opening and challenging appraisal that will help their readers to further appreciate their unique vision and artistry.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!