The Conan and Robert E. Howard Website
by Edward Waterman
Presented here in its entirety is Don Herron's famous essay, "The Dark Barbarian." This essay first appeared in the book of the same name, The Dark Barbarian, and was first published in 1984. This book, and the excellent essays within, were the first to take Robert E. Howard and his work seriously and to consider Robert E. Howard a major literary figure.
The essay, "The Dark Barbarian," sprung into existence as a continuation of an argument first begun by Don Herron in "Conan vs Conantics" (Two-Gun Raconteur #3, 1976) where he argues that there is an intrinsic, and unfortunate, difference between the conception of Howard's original Conan character and the conception of the character as portrayed in the imitations. The essay discusses the posthumous altering of Howard's Conan tales, the difference between Howard's Conan stories and other authors' versions of Conan, the characteristics necessary to capture the essence of Howard's Conan tales, and many other important -- nay, absolutely essential insights for Conan fans and would-be imitators alike. For those who wish to adapt Howard's work into another medium (such as television or film) and still retain what made Howard's work immortal, this essay is invaluable.
Don Herron sprung upon the REH scene with his article, "Conan vs Conantics" -- known as being the first knock-down, drag-out round in the battle against the imitations. In 1984 he published the seminal book, The Dark Barbarian. Articles by Mr. Herron have also appeared in The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies, numerous Robert E. Howard fanzines, and most recently in the July/August 2000 issue of Firsts magazine in which he wrote "Collecting Robert E. Howard." However, Mr. Herron is perhaps better known for doing the Dashiell Hammett Tour and Literary Walks in San Francisco, which he has done since 1977; and for his book, The Literary World of San Francisco and Its Environs. Recently, he wrote Willeford, a biography of crime writer Charles Willeford. In addition to authoring numerous books, he has been written up in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and hundreds of other publications. A short time ago, he shot a show with the BBC on Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett which has appeared on various PBS stations around the U.S.
Lastly, Robert E. Howard fans and scholars will be happy to know that The Dark Barbarian is now back in print as a trade paperback and The Barbaric Triumph, a sequel to the The Dark Barbarian, has just been published -- both from Wildside Press .
THE DARK BARBARIAN
Robert E. Howard of Cross Plains, Texas, created one of the great mythic figures in modern popular culture, the Dark Barbarian. The inherent appeal of this character has generated a major sub-genre of the fantastic, the Sword-and-Sorcery or heroic fantasy tale, and put Howard in the select ranks of the literary legend-makers: Ned Buntline, Alexander Dumas, Mary Shelley, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dashiell Hammett, H. P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Ian Fleming.
The characters and set pieces these writers created persist in the public imagination -- not only persist, in memory, in print and on the screen, but have assumed truly legendary stature in our culture. Buntline in his exaggerated accounts of Buffalo Bill and other personalities of the day created a West that never was, but one with more enduring appeal for its invention of quickdraw showdowns and other instant clichés than the plain facts about gunslingers and cowpokes. Dumas gave us the Swashbuckler in D’Artagnan and the three musketeers. Shelley in Frankenstein and Stoker in Dracula each embodied Horror forever in a name; while Lovecraft in his tales of Cthulhu, Arkham, and the Necronomicon later gave supernatural terror a knowing mythological authority that invoked all earlier horror fiction even as he looked aeons ahead to unimaginable terrors awaiting humankind in cosmic space. Although Edgar Allan Poe created the modern detective story, it was Doyle in Sherlock Holmes and Hammett in Sam Spade who defined the archetypal Detective, one for the classical English form and the other in the hard-boiled American idiom - with Fleming bringing the figure into the Space Age as the Spy, James Bond. Burroughs presented the definitive Jungle Hero, Tarzan. Tolkien took the epic sagas of man’s earliest written records and reworked these outmoded accounts in the Lord of the Rings for the modern reader, reviving the Epic Fantasy.
Of course before Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs in Tarzan and Rudyard Kipling in the earlier Mowgli, of The Jungle Books, created barbarian figures. When Lord Greystoke sheds the trappings of civilization to roam Africa in loincloth and knife as Tarzan of the Apes, a more barbaric image would be difficult to create. Mowgli, raised by wolves, trained by bear, panther, and snake, is equally stripped of the costumes and conventions of civilization in Kipling’s tales. These figures certainly set a precedent for Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian, but Howard carried the matter further, into a distinct literary type. The fact that he usurped the swordplay from Dumas and a good measure of supernatural horror from Lovecraft added to the distinction.
Yet the overriding difference is in mood and philosophy. Burroughs’ Tarzan is a respectable pillar of civilization as an English lord, and preserves the twentieth-century American sense of the status quo even when adventuring naked in time-lost cities and primeval forests. The thrust of the Mowgli stories is the jungle giving way before civilization’s inroads, and the man-child leaving the forest and his bestial comrades to live as a man, not as an animal. In Howard the unquiet surge of barbarism ever threatens to sweep the works of civilization under, the status quo is at best shaky -- even when Howard’s barbarians use their swords to put themselves on the thrones of the ruling class.
The Howardian mood and philosophy is not simply barbaric, it is a dark barbarism, a pessimistic view that holds the accomplishments of society of little account in the face of mankind’s darker nature. The famous lines at the end of the Conan story "Beyond the Black River" epigrammatize this philosophy:
Beyond the Black River the barbarians wait their chance to rush in. The fact that the river is "Black" is aptly symbolic of Howard’s underlying meaning. The words "black" and "dark" appear often in his fantasy titles, perhaps more because they represent Howard’s content than for any lack of inventiveness on his part.
This dark and brooding attitude was at the core of Howard’s creative impulse. His artistic leanings toward the poetic and the romantic, his compulsion for violence, his interests in history, myth and adventure all fell easily into this shadow of barbarism. As Howard wrote to Lovecraft early in 1931:
Howard’s barbarians are not the naive Noble Savages one associates with Rousseau, nor yet are the superhuman qualities one identifies with Conan truly realistic in terms of the way history records barbarians. E. Hoffmann Price, the only writer of the Weird Tales circle to visit Howard, has expressed admiration for Howard’s humorous westerns and an equal disdain for the Conan tales, finding them and the "action tale" in general an inferior product.(1) A great raconteur, Price illustrates the "superiority" of the barbarian by recalling an episode chronicled by Julius Caesar in The Gallic Wars: a Roman legion traveling in a remote region is set upon by a horde of barbarians numerically far greater -- the odds are something like thirty to one. The entrenched Romans hold their own, but realize they will succumb eventually to exhaustion in the face of the day-and-night assault. The officers of the legion decide to counterattack, storming with all troops out the sally ports and slaughtering one third of the barbarians. The remaining barbarians, Price observes, prove their superiority to the Romans by outrunning them and escaping with their lives. Conans all, they were not.
Respected fantasy and science fiction author Poul Anderson, pointing out many of the failings of the Sword-and-Sorcery tale, underlines Price’s observation about the professional soldier, as it were, in his essay "On Thud and Blunder" (Swords Against Darkness III, edited by Andrew Offutt, 1978):
Howard was of course a student of history; even when he wrote of a character in a fully barbaric role, raising arms against civilization, he did not permit himself to forget reality. In the "Foreword" to Bran Mak Morn (1969) Howard is quoted as saying that he "was an instinctive enemy of Rome," and that his hero Bran Mak Morn, king of the primitive Picts of Caledonia, was "merely the symbol of my own antagonism toward the empire."
However much he nurtured a dislike for the Romans, this hostility did not blind Howard to historical facts. Bran, as a fantasy hero, wins a couple of battles with Rome: in "Kings of the Night" with the aid of King Kull, summoned across the centuries by magic, he and a ragtag army of British barbarians roust the legions. In "Worms of the Earth" he destroys a Roman garrison, but only with the aid of the loathsome worms of the earth – a victory that rings quite hollow in the face of the inhuman horrors Mak Morn has loosed upon his world.
In the story "The Dark Man" which occurs centuries after Bran’s death, a Pict tells Turlogh O’Brien that the statue of the Dark Man that becomes a focus of the action "is the image of our greatest king, Bran Mak Morn, he who gathered the broken lines of the Pictish tribes into a single mighty nation, he who drove forth the Norsemen and Briton and shattered the legions of Rome. . . ." Obviously in the intervening years Bran’s legend has grown among his people, for there is no possibility that he actually bested the Roman tide. Howard portrayed the Pictish cause as doomed, and soon lets these words fall from the lips of the same Pict:
Howard’s fiction and verse, in fact, support Anderson’s contention that barbarians only conquer civilized nations that are rotting from within, as hyenas and wolves pull down the old and ill from the herd, not the strong. Poems like "A Song of the Naked Lands" and many others are warnings to civilized readers to look to their standards. In the essay "The Hyborian Age" Howard records the eventual triumphant invasion of the Picts into the civilized lands once roamed by Conan, after these nations have grown too soft to defend themselves.
It is interesting to note that Howard’s most famous heroes Conan and Kull do not long remain warriors in anonymous barbarian hordes -- they strike out for mercenary service in civilized lands. They do not elect to become kings of barbaric peoples; instead they use their abilities to put themselves on the thrones of civilized lands. When they gain control they attempt to strengthen their countries -- against the inevitable onslaught of the barbarians. Conan in "Beyond the Black River" fights against the Picts, not with them. He is later king of Aquilonia, a nation that falls before Pictish invaders during that shadowy era imagined by Howard which comes between the end of his mythical Hyborian Age and the misty beginnings of recorded history. Howard in his picture of the Hero did not see a faceless barbarian; hence his heroes leave their people early on, sometimes -- in the case of Kull and Black Turlogh O’Brien -- as outcasts. They retain strongly barbaric virtues in civilized lands.(2)
Some find the image of even individual barbarians such as Conan rising to the top unconscionable, forgetting perhaps that most fiction is written for entertainment and that realism as such is not a firm requirement of fiction. As L. Sprague de Camp notes in his introduction to the anthology Warlocks and Warriors (1970), Sword-and-Sorcery stories
Fiction is in fact more dependent on internal consistency than on objective realism, but it is even more tied to how well it seizes the reader’s imagination for its success. Science fiction stories in the 1930s and earlier which depict rockets to the moon were patently ridiculous by realistic standards of the day. The fact that humankind has now achieved limited manned space flight makes these early tales no better or worse as fiction, though it does lend them considerable social interest. Robert Bloch has recalled that in his novel The Scarf (1947) his deranged lead character has a dream in which he barricades himself in a tower with guns and ammo -- and begins sniping at passersby below. The editors told Bloch that this image was ludicrous and unnecessarily violent; they cut the scene. Only later was it realized that Bloch had hit upon an obsessive, almost archetypal, desire of the modern psychopath.
In any case, with rough-hewn matinee idols like Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood still drawing in crowds around the world at the box office; with the recent cult of the redneck, expressed in country and western music, in the urban cowboy with the fancy ten gallon hat, in film, and in television;(3) and with Howard’s obvious commercial success, it is apparent that the simplistic, anti-intellectual, brutal sort of hero still has currency – pointing the way to recognizing Howard’s accomplishment.
L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter and others in the fantasy field typically place Howard’s Sword-and-Sorcery into the "imaginary world" tradition they say began with William Morris in the 1880s and 189Os, that has continued with Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison, J.R.R. Tolkien and many others -- the deliberate artistic construction of a secondary imaginary world, usually one where magic, dragons and other wonders are not unreal.(4) This literary movement, as they note, is in a sense a continuation of the folk epic such as Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Kalevala, the Cid, the Nibelungenlied, the Song of Roland, The Iliad, The Odyssey. Poet and critic Donald Sidney-Fryer, however, points out that the sort of "modern " imaginary world adventure de Camp and Carter credit Morris with inventing may be found in The Faerie Queene (1590-1596) of Edmund Spenser, a knowing art epic full of magic, with the sword-bearing Red Cross Knight. Yet whether Morris, Spenser, or another writer is credited with bringing the form from the misty past of legend and folklore into modern literary usage, the recounting of adventures of the Hero in a fantastical worldscape is obviously a long tradition, one which Howard may be placed within.
This tradition itself falls into the larger category of heroic adventure. The Hero in folk tales, ballads, dime novels, motion pictures, radio, and television has always been a necessary projection of man’s ideal image and ambitions. Ultimately there is very little need to distinguish Conan from Jack the Giant-Killer -- or even from Ian Fleming’s James Bond or Professor Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Why put Conan into one pigeonhole because he battles sorcerers and Bond into another because he battles superspys, when the imaginative substance -- adventure -- is the same?
The importance of the imaginary world tradition has been over-rated in defining Howard’s place in literature. As de Camp has indicated, the universes the more modern James Bond and Indiana Jones inhabit are as fantastic as Howard’s mythical Hyborian Age setting for the Conan tales. Their universes are closer to the reality of contemporary life, true, but the flamboyant international escapades of Bond and the rough-and-tumble pursuit of the Biblical Ark of the Covenant by Jones are no more believable than Conan, although they are easier for a modern reader to identify with. It is easier for most people, given the choice, to project themselves into a world of spys and Nazi plots than into a prehistoric age of red barbarism.
Yet consider for a moment an Elizabethan reading both Howard and Ian Fleming. Surely Howard would be the more believable, more realistic author for a person of that age.
It is this quality that makes Howard’s accomplishment interesting: his most popular creation, Conan the Barbarian, would seem to be essentially obsolete. Readers can find more modern heroes of the same savage ilk to follow, who adventure in worlds closer to the ones they know. Clint Eastwood’s magnum-packing "Dirty Harry" surely could do the job of entertaining as well for fans of action and violence. Paperback monger Lyle Kenyon Engle, who devised such best-sellers as John Jakes’ Bi-Centennial/Kent Family Chronicles series, cleverly created the Sword-and-Sorcery paperback series about Richard Blade, a modern spy along the lines of Bond who is transported into other dimensions where magic is reality and swordplay commonplace, very much as in Howard, but with more of a "handle" for a modern reader to grasp onto for rationalizing the idea, for identifying with the hero.
Even Tolkien, who is the closest fantasist to Howard in terms of his pervasive influence in the field, in his creation Middle Earth presents characters that are obviously more "modern" than Howard’s barbarian figures. The Hobbits of the Shire are easily pictured as English countryfolk of this century, and the evil Sauron and his minions invite comparison with Hitler and the Nazis -- whether or not this was Tolkien’s intent.
Here it may be noted that the imaginary world tradition, unimportant to Howard’s achievement, is quite important to Tolkien’s: a vital reason for reading Lord of tbe Rings is the mythic setting, with its invented languages -- which Tolkien could speak, which some of the more ardent fans learn to read and write -- and coherent history, legendry, genealogy. Tolkien’s reworking of legend and folklore archetypes into his narratives has made his work an effective modern substitute for actual legendry; as Tolkien remarked, his "typical response upon reading a medieval work was to desire not so much to make a . . . critical study of it as to write a modern work in the same tradition" (quoted in Jared Lobdell, England and Always, 1981, p. 5). The compelling richness of Tolkien’s imaginary world has created a readership large enough to make the incomplete, more academic compilation of tales from Middle Earth’s First Age, The Silmarillion, a commercial success. And where most fantasy critics rightly applaud Tolkien’s creation of a secondary world, a work of invention spanning decades, they typically sneer at Howard’s Hyborian Age, with its jumble of historic names and periods, thrown together in the course of the four years Howard wrote of Conan for Weird Tales.
Why then is Conan of such interest today, when more fully developed worlds of fantasy are to be found, when other heroes abound in the arts, when the entire concept of a sword-wielding barbarian seems so outmoded?
Answers suggest themselves when one notes that the boyish, prototypical film swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks, Senior, whose films reached more people and influenced more imaginations than did any writer of swashbuckling action before him, and his later sound film counterpart Errol Flynn are being replaced in current movies by darker incarnations -- such as Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, boyish and adventurous, but with a brutal murderous streak. Even the character Luke Skywalker of George Lucas’ Star Wars series (which has surpassed Tolkien for giving people a substitute for the old myths), a character who would seem at first glance to be an ultimate popular type of boyish adventurer, in The Empire Strikes Back is shown to be tainted with evil, with the "dark side" of the Force. And casual students of popular culture know that modern interpretations of such standard figures as Sherlock Holmes inject a strong dose of the modern perception of reality into the character -- from the Freudian analysis of Nicholas Meyers’ The Seven Per Cent Solution to the shaken Holmes who finds insanity and murder in the ruling family of England in Murder by Decree. One finds in comic books, a relative bastion of conservative values, staunch heroes such as Captain America who in the last decade or so have begun to question their values, to see the dark side of their warlike existence.(5)
Howard in his natural philosophic stance of dark barbarism was decades ahead of his time for a writer of popular fiction, especially fantasy, anticipating as it were this subjective dark mood of much modern American literature and art. He created heroes who anticipate and more than equal the modern macho anti-hero, who are as violent as Dirty Harry or Mike Hammer, and sometimes -- as in the case of Kull -- as questioning of their lives and values as any hero found in modern popular literature.
Opposing this viewpoint is Dr. John D. Clark, editor of the first book collections of Conan stories published by Gnome Press in the 1950s. He states in his introduction to Conan the Conqueror (1950), "Don’t look for hidden philosophical meanings or intellectual puzzles in the yarns -- they aren’t there" (p. 12). L. Sprague de Camp, editor of the current uniform Conan series, agrees with Clark.(6)
Yet strong cases may be made for a philosophical stance by Howard. Charles Hoffman, in the essay "Conan the Existentialist" (Ariel, Autumn 1976), presents one of the best supported arguments, noting:
Hoffman makes the point that
A quote Hoffman uses from Howard’s "The Shadow Kingdom" certainly illustrates existential thought:
With all deference to Dr. Clark and those who agree with him, it is apparent that Howard did have philosophical notions which he put into his fiction. But if Clark missed seeing the possible motivating urges behind Conan’s actions, he caught another of Howard’s accomplishments, and summed it up very well in the introduction to the 1950 Conan the Conqueror:
Michael Moorcock, himself one of the most prolific Sword-and-Sorcery writers with his series about Elric, the Eternal Champion and other heroes, in the essay "The Heroes in Heroic Fantasy" (Dragonfields Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer 1980) also notes this quality in Howard. "It is as if Conan is trapped in a movie studio," Moorcock writes, "or a movie library of old clips, shifting from Seventeenth century Russia, to Rome in the first century B.C., to Nineteenth century Afghanistan, to the Spanish Main of the Eighteenth century, to the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent, all the way back to the Stone Age. This melange of influences was scarcely digested before Howard was, as it were, pouring it back onto the page" (p. 53).
A major part of Howard’s appeal is that he saw history as a wonderland -- and set his Dark Barbarian swashbuckling his way through it. Here is not the tidy, self-consistent "imaginary world" fantasy critics typically demand -- in the Hyborian Age you find this melange of history, in Howard’s other Sword-and-Sorcery tales you see the fluid movement from prehistory, as in the James Allison series, to the remote age of King Kull, to the Hyborian Age, to the Crusades, barbaric Britain, and up to the world of Howard’s day -- history invested with a Romantic sweep of super-charged imagination, darkened by cynicism and a brutal lust for battle. Through this wonderland wander the incarnations of Howard’s barbaric hero: Kull, Conan, Cormac Mac Art, Turlogh O’Brien, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, Kirby O’Donnell, and many others -- all springing from the same dark, violent mold.
Many people think of history in neat blocks of eras, ages, royal lines. This approach sometimes leads to literary explorations such as de Camp’s fine and very popular novel, Lest Darkness Fall, a classic in science fiction, wherein a modern man is hit by a lightning bolt and kicked back in time to sixth-century Rome. The debunking of modern conceptions about life in ancient Rome makes amusing reading. De Camp’s exposure of the flaws in our thinking about olden times has made him famous in science fiction as a satirist, since his observations about the ancients may be applied to the moderns as well. But this approach is based upon what is known about history.
A great deal is unknown. Immanuel Velikovsky in Ages in Chaos suggests that six centuries of the history of dynastic Egypt have been misplaced. More reputable figures than Velikovsky disagree on whether or not Cro-Magnon Man came along and displaced Neanderthal Man, or whether they co-existed for ages. No one can explain with certainty how the dinosaurs met their deaths after untold ages of biological supremacy. No one has proven whether Shakespeare wrote any or all of Shakespeare’s plays. People still disagree over the details of John F. Kennedy’s assassination -- which was broadcast live over national television. History, even recent history, is being constantly revised as scholars find more sophisticated methods of dating and probing, as new discoveries are made, or as investigative reporters uncover suppressed information.
Today, with greater means of exploring, excavating, and dating than science has yet known, with the advent of television bringing visually meaningful information into a majority of homes -- via news broadcasts, programs on science and history, reruns of old films set in historical periods -- we have a culture quite accustomed to (if perhaps confused by) a melange of dates, places, costumes, customs, and names all instantly available to the public mind by turning on the television set. This mishmash of history may be noted in the current state of our world, a world with moon-landings now commonplace but with pirates sacking refugee boats off the coast of Cambodia, with stone age savages living in remote areas of the earth, as their ancestors lived thousands of years ago, while the idle rich of western culture are able to jet from one corner of the world to another for social events.
Howard, writing in the 1920s and 1930s, long before television became generally available, at a time when scientific researchers were just achieving atomic age capabilities, put this feeling of the scattered wonder of history on paper as a battleground for his very modern-minded heroes.
His style is as modern as his encompassing grasp of the ages. Howard’s feeling for poetry, for sharp-edged words that cut instantly across with meaning even as they resonate in the imagination, gives his prose the quality of fantasy writing though he usually avoids the lush passages of a Lord Dunsany and the imitation archaic style of an E. R. Eddison. His sentences are clipped, more in the Hemingway school; his use of decorative words is sparing, especially when compared to H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith and other of his fantasy-writing contemporaries.
Howard’s style is clean but evocative, as in the opening paragraph of "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth":
He has some good dialogue, as in "Queen of the Black Coast" when Belít asks Conan, "Do you fear the gods? " and he answers "I would not tread on their shadow." In the Conan adventure "Black Colossus" are such images as "Shevatas had seen this likeness, on coins stolen from under the tongues of the dead . . . ," and "Through their tales ran the name of Natohk like a crawling serpent. " Typical of Howard’s simple style, with his unobtrusive use of poetic devices, is this line from "Shadows in Zamboula": "Conan’s low laugh was merciless as the ring of steel."
Even in a blatantly poetic passage Howard is clear and sharp of meaning, as demonstrated by the opening paragraph of the Kull story "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune":
Such extracts consider Howard at his best; writing for a living in the pulp jungle he often hit far lower. The remarkable thing is that he wrote so much that is good. Ultimately, a writer is judged more on his or her good work than on the poor.
Yet Howard even at his worst has a singular drive, a sense of conviction, an intensity, that usually grips the reader for a moment, propelling him through a scene of murderous frenzy as the barbaric hero lashes out at his foes. All commentators, pro and con, note Howard’s unrivaled intensity. Anyone can feature a sword-wielding barbarian lumbering about lopping off limbs, but Howard is almost alone in his ability to make such a scene grimly believable, to sweep the reader pell-mell across the battleground through a flurry of swords and falling forms.(7)
In "Red Nails" Conan is rushing to the rescue of Valeria, the pirate, when he catches his foot in a trap -- for a convincing instant he raises his sword to cut off his foot and crawl on. Anyone caught up in the sheer force of Howard’s narrative can picture Conan hacking away his foot in a certainly suicidal effort to save the girl. Gahan Wilson in his introduction to Black Canaan (1978) notes that Howard put himself into his fiction, which set him "apart from the contemporary hacks of his day and which continues to set him apart from those hacks contemporary with ourselves who, despite repeated and painful exertions, fail so dismally to reachieve something of his spell." The Howard "stories have a livingness about them impossible to fake. . . ," Wilson continues, ". . . subtle vitalities and dreads and dark urgings which disturb and haunt" (p. 1).
The fact that Howard committed suicide underlines this intensity, this impulsive drive through personal destruction. He acted in life: his dark urgings were real. This powerful chord is reflected in Howard’s art, and many people find it appalling. But it surely gives the reader an impression that Howard was sincere as an artist, and for those who like his writing, a conviction that here is something new, something with grim vitality, something -- at its best -- that is great.
Howard and H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith are considered the three great writers of Weird Tales in the late 1920s and early 1930s. More popular writers than these three appeared in the magazine -- Seabury Quinn, who served as editor for the mortuary journal Caskets and Sunnyside, was the readers’ vocal favorite for years with his long-running series about Jules de Grandin, psychic detective. But Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith have a reputation for greatness and a near-legendary stature that no other writer from that era of the magazine approaches.
It has been my contention for some years now that these three achieved this reputation simply because they each wrote a larger number of stories fully displaying a unique artistic vision than did their contemporaries. They wrote stories -- many stories -- that took readers from the commonplace into new and exciting worlds of imagination. Virtually every major writer for the pulps wrote at least a few stories that were considered great then and still may be considered great. Most tales turned out for publication were serviceable enough; some were bad then and seem even worse with age. Certainly, Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith wrote some terrible stories -- such as Howard’s irredeemably bad "The Moon of Zambabwei," the Conan stories "The Slithering Shadow" and "The Vale of Lost Women," many of his boxing and most of his detective tales. The point is that while some of their stories were bad, and many were only good, a large number of their works place in the front ranks of imaginative fiction. In the Conan series alone one can name "Beyond the Black River, " "The People of the Black Circle," "Red Nails," and "The Scarlet Citadel" as among the best stories of their kind -- with "Queen of the Black Coast," "Rogues in the House," The Hour of the Dragon, "The Devil in Iron," "Black Colossus," and "Shadows in Zamboula" far better than most fiction regularly seen in Weird Tales or in fantasy magazines today. When you bring into the count "Pigeons from Hell," "The Shadow Kingdom, " "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune," "Worms of the Earth," " Wings in the Night," and some other Howard fantasies, as well as his best westerns, you are dealing with a sizable body of fiction. You would be hard pressed to find half this number of even reasonably good stories in the output of Seabury Quinn or most other pulp writers of the day.
In their best material Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith displayed a vision that lifted them above the pulp hack grinding out a living on penny-a-word rates. Lovecraft’s mechanistic-materialistic philosophy has come to be discussed much of late in connection with his artistic ambitions. The essays of Professor Dirk Mosig, Barton Levi St. Armand’s The Roots of Horror in the Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and H. P. Lovecraft New England Decadent, and the anthology Four Decades of Lovecraft Criticism edited by S. T. Joshi are among many surveys concerning Lovecraft’s fiction. Smith is more difficult for critics to deal with; he was possessed of a unique, mordant cosmic viewpoint that Lovecraft himself considered "unexcelled." It is this "cosmic" quality that distinguishes Lovecraft and Smith from their peers, a quality which Lovecraft in a letter to Smith, October 17, 1930, defined as the "capacity to feel profoundly regarding the cosmos and the disturbing and fascinating quality of the extraterrestrial and perpetually unknown." Fine examples of this quality are the Smith story "Ubbo-Sathla" and Lovecraft’s "The Shadow Out of Time" -- tales covering kalpas of time, portraying humanity as an insignificant episode in the cosmic whirl. The cosmic story serves well as a vehicle for Lovecraft’s mechanistic philosophy and nicely suited Smith’s sense of irony.
Some say that Howard was not part of this intellectual artistic community; Howard himself disclaimed such pretensions. Yet he admired the work of Lovecraft and Smith and did think about their efforts toward cosmicism. Of Smith’s "Ubbo-Sathla" he commented in a July 22, 1933, letter to the author: "That is a fine story you have in the current Weird Tales. I mean ‘Ubbo-Sathla’ short as it is, it has a really epochal sweep that is almost dizzying in the vistas it opens of awful and incredible antiquity." That same month he also wrote to Lovecraft:
Howard was not able in his fiction to share the unearthly cosmic perspective of Lovecraft and Smith, though occasional touches of interest in the cosmic-astronomic appear here and there in his work, especially in the prose-poems collected in Etchings in Ivory. Howard was far too interested in humanity, in his heroes and their red-blooded struggle to survive, to make a concerted effort at portraying "the extra-terrestrial and perpetually unknown."
Yet Howard did create an intellectual artistic counterpart to cosmicism, a quality that lifts his tales above the run-of-the-mill spectres and swashbucklers of his time and ours. Howard’s imaginative sweep is not based in cosmic space, but in humanity itself.(8) In his work one sees a colossal march of the races of man, a subject that clearly obsessed Howard. The rise of Celtic peoples was a favorite subject, but he also portrayed the history of the Picts over many ages. His concept of the Hyborian Age is most interesting for its interpretation of the rise and fall of tribes, the migration of races, not for "imaginary world" gimmicks like invented languages or dragons or evil lords. History was a passion with Howard, and he put his interests forth in a unique presentation of man's history, following his Dark Barbarian from the dawn of man, through the waxing and waning of civilized ages, from the foundering of the Atlantis and Valusia known to Kull to the birth of the Hyborian Age and the slow melding into known history.
This quality of his work is most clearly presented in Howard's tales of ancestral memory, putatively narrated by James Allison. In "The Garden of Fear" this passage occurs:
This passage evokes a feeling very much like Smith's "Ubbo-Sathla," but shows Howard's clear sympathy with man, with the individual -- with an apprehensive note about man's darker urges, "the beast so shades into Man. . . . "
Howard's great accomplishment in his fantasy stories was that he made a grim, shadowy wonderland out of human history and set his Dark Barbarian striding through the ages, sword drawn. This brutal presence sounds a warning knell about the dark side of humanity -- a sober note that is as true in today's violent world as it was in Howard's day -- and at the same time stands as a grand symbol of adventure, of human courage and determination.
Few writers create a distinct genre of literature as Howard did with the Sword-and-Sorcery story -- or as Hammett effectively did with the hard-boiled detective tale. It can be said, and supported, that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spawned another sub-group of the mystery -- that is, the many stories and novels written in emulation or parody of his Sherlock Holmes. A similar argument could be raised in behalf of Bram Stoker, whose character Dracula subsequently has appeared in enough imitations to fill several library shelves. Whether you count the hundreds of Holmes imitations, the many detective novels that ape Hammett's narrative voice and plotting, the dozens of fantasy trilogies inspired by Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the numerous spy capers à la Fleming, or the waves of Sword-and-Sorcery novels that saw publication in the wake of Conan, it is obvious that a measure of a writer such as Howard is the number of imitative works based upon his concepts. To create a pop culture myth, a writer has to have set characters and a strong narrative that are picked up and imitated by other writers, that carry over into other media, that create a symbol which becomes recognizable in the culture. The motives of the imitators ultimately do not matter, be they the fan-oriented impulse to "create more of the same" or the mercenary instinct to cash in on a popular formula.
In the case of Howard and some other writers, such as Lovecraft, the imitations have created a number of problems for the critic and the unwary reader. In many books Howard's stories are collected side-by-side with those of his imitators; sometimes these other tales are the type called "posthumous collaborations" -- that is, a living writer completing a story left in fragmentary form at the time of Howard's death. Sometimes the stories are completely by the other writers.
The whole idea of "posthumous collaboration" leads to confusion, as witness the case of Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in their A Catalogue of Crime (1971). In this standard reference work describing books of mystery fiction, Barzun and Taylor cover titles in the related field of supernatural horror. Speaking of the anthology Travellers by Night (1967), edited by August Derleth, they state:
"The Horror from the Middle Span" -- it so happens -- was written by Derleth himself, not by Lovecraft.
The entire recent obsession with the "posthumous collaboration" in the fantasy field may be traced to Derleth, a well-rounded literary man: novelist, essayist, poet, editor, publisher. Derleth (1909-1971) worked in mainstream fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, and science fiction, turning out over one hundred books in his lifetime. As publisher of Arkham House books he was the first to bring the weird tales of such authors as Howard, Lovecraft, Smith, Henry S. Whitehead, Carl Jacobi, and others into hardcover collections, and had the distinction of publishing the first books by Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, and Fritz Leiber. He founded Arkham House in 1939 with Donald Wandrei to collect in permanent form the work of Lovecraft, but soon expanded operations to become one of the major fantasy presses of the 194Os, 195Os, and early 1960s. During this period Derleth was a very influential figure in the genre.
The first Arkham House book, The Outsider and Others (1939), gathered much of Lovecraft; a second omnibus, Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943), collected the remainder of his important writing. Other titles such as Marginalia (1944) hosted minor pieces, as well as memoirs and essays about Lovecraft. But in 1945 Derleth found a way to keep Lovecraft's name before the public, issuing the novel The Lurker at the Threshold under the by-line "H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth." The first so-named "posthumous collaboration," this novel contained only a few lines by Lovecraft, extracted from his story notes, and of course he had no say in the manner in which these lines were used in the finished work.
As noted, Derleth was a full-fledged literary man, and undoubtedly knew of the several precedents for this novel. Famous unfinished works have been left by many writers -- Stevenson's St. Ives, Jack London's The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood (perhaps the most famous of the incomplete works, Drood has seen many hands attempt a solution, most recently Leon Garfield in a Pantheon edition, 1981). Secondly, he also was aware of the pastiche, a story written in the style of another author, often using the first writer's characters -- a form of homage, at least in the case of the best known pastiche, The Unique Hamlet by Vincent Starrett.(9)
Third, Derleth delighted in the literary hoax. Hoaxes have been commonplace throughout literary history; the sale of the non-existent Fortsas Library is one among dozens. Derleth himself wrote and sold a story as being "by J. Sheridan Le Fanu" to Weird Tales; it is collected in the Arkham House edition of Le Fanu's The Purcell Papers (1975), with a footnote explaining the hoax. In The Dark Brotherhood (1966) Derleth contributed the short essay "The Making of a Hoax," noting:
Lovecraft mentioned in an October 17, 1930, letter to Clark Ashton Smith that "My own attitude in writing is always that of the hoax-weaver. One part of my mind tries to concoct something realistic and coherent enough to fool the rest of my mind. " Derleth details the careful "history" of the suppressed arcane volume which Lovecraft developed in his stories, and concludes: "Such elaborate spoofing is bound to make its impression upon the uninitiated." So, apparently, did the hoax Lovecraft tale "The Horror from the Middle Span" fool Barzun and Taylor – but it did appear under Lovecraft's sole by-line its first time in print; their confusion is understandable.
Derleth wrote other stories as "by HPL and August Derleth." They are collected in The Survivor and Others (1957) and The Shuttered Room (1959). Derleth was working on another "posthumous collaboration" at the time of his death. In Lovecraft: A Biography (1975) L. Sprague de Camp notes that Lovecraft's contribution to the collaborations "was merely some of the notes in 'The Commonplace Book.' Derleth did all the real work, elaborating and systematizing the Cthulhu Mythos" (p. 434).
As a way to keep Lovecraft's name before the public or as a commercial enterprise, these "posthumous collaborations" may have merit. But obviously the critic and reader should not judge Lovecraft by something Derleth wrote, though in the confusion they as obviously do so. Fundamental differences exist: Lovecraft was an atheist-materialist, Derleth was Catholic. Richard L. Tierney in "The Derleth Mythos" (found in Essays Lovecraftian, edited by Darrell Schweitzer, 1976) points out this huge philosophical difference. Derleth, trying to systematize the various alien entities in Lovecraft's fiction, saw in them "a parallel of the 'Christian Mythos,' " states Tierney, "with its bad against good, and with humanity the focal point of it all. . . I grant Derleth the right to his view of the cosmos, but the sad thing is that he has made all too many believe that his view is that of Lovecraft also. This is simply not true. . . Lovecraft actually regarded the cosmos as basically indifferent to anthropocentric outlooks such as good and evil" (pp. 57-58).
Derleth perpetuated Lovecraft's most popular creation, the "Cthulhu Mythos." A strikingly similar line of continuations occurred in the case of Howard, most revolving around his most popular creation, Conan the barbarian. Derleth almost certainly wrote his imitations in order to promote Lovecraft's name rather than for any great commercial gain. Those first "Lovecraft and Derleth" books simply could not have made that much money, and they have never been as salable in mass market paperback form as Lovecraft's solo work.
Less fannishness and more commerce was involved in the Conan continuations. Glenn Lord detailed the history of the first Conan imitations in his amateur press publication Ultima Thule #3, July 1976, issued in the fourth mailing of The Hyperborian League amateur press association: "On February 19, 1954, Oscar J. Friend, then the agent for the Robert E. Howard heirs, wrote to his client, Dr. P. M. Kuykendall, that the end of the Conan series is in sight, but that he feels, as does publisher Martin Greenberg, that the Conan character is too valuable to let die, and proposes that he, Friend, look around for an author to carry on the character."
At that time the first four Gnome Press Conan books had appeared from publisher Martin Greenberg and the last of the original Howard story collections was due later that year. Kuykendall was the doctor who nursed Howard's father during his last years, and when Isaac Howard died he left his estate, which included his son's copyrights, to Kuykendall. On March 8, 1954, Lord notes that Kuykendall replied to Friend's suggestion, and quotes from his letter: "We would prefer selling all rights, and releasing the entire thing to you or to a purchaser whom you think might be interested. We would consider a sale price of three thousand dollars for all rights, and a complete release of any claim to future royalties that might accrue."
Friend replied, to quote Lord, "that continuation of the Conan series is strictly a gamble which would involve the agent's time and energies with no guarantee that it ever would pay off" and counter-offered $1250 for all rights to all of Howard's literary property.
On March 23 Kuykendall declined, stating, "I do realize that there is a possibility that over the years his characterizations will exhaust themselves, nevertheless we think it would be better for the estate to gamble on this, rather than take the amount offered."
L. Sprague de Camp, who would serve in a Derlethian capacity on Conan, notes in "Conan's Ghost" (The Spell of Conan) that he read his first Conan story in 1950 and became an enthusiast. He heard that Oscar Friend had some unpublished Howard tales; he visited Friend November 30, 1951, and discovered three complete Conan adventures: "The Frost Giant's Daughter," "The God in the Bowl," and "The Black Stranger." He edited these tales for publication and subsequently rewrote four Howard historical stories, turning them into Conan episodes. These four were published as Tales of Conan in 1955. De Camp next revised a Conan novel which the Swedish fan Björn Nyberg submitted to Gnome Press; it was published in 1957 as The Return of Conan. In 1964 de Camp began editing the Conan material into a uniform set for Lancer paperbacks, to which he and Lin Carter contributed additional stories. Of this standard twelve volume set one novel and twenty stories are by Howard; three novels and ten stories are by de Camp, Carter and Nyberg, and nine Howard fragments are completed by either de Camp or Carter. More than half the stories are by other hands than Howard's.
As in the case of Lovecraft and Derleth, fundamental differences exist. In his editorial capacity de Camp sees the Conan stories as an integrated saga, picturing Conan's life from youth to old age, beginning with Conan as a vagrant barbarian thief, ending with him as king of a mighty nation. In his introduction to Conan of Cimmeria (1969) de Camp mentions that he is in the process of seeing into print "the complete Conan saga -- Howard's original stories, the stories begun by him and finished by other hands, and the pastiches -- all in chronological order to give a coherent biography of our hero" (p. 11). Howard had no such pattern in mind. Writing to P. Schuyler Miller, March 10, 1936 -- about four months before his death -- Howard stated:
Howard, like Lovecraft, is the great creative talent; de Camp, like Derleth, is the systematizer. Just as Derleth tied up the alien beings in the Lovecraft tales into a "Mythos," so does de Camp, for example, use the Stygian sorcerer Thoth-Amon as Conan's arch-villain. Howard used Thoth-Amon in only one story -- just as Doyle made casual use of Professor Moriarity in two of the Sherlock Holmes tales. But more recent writers in print and for the screen have drawn Moriarity out as the arch-nemesis, as de Camp has done with Thoth-Amon -- or as comic book heroes each have their major foes, from the Fantastic Four versus Dr. Doom, to Superman versus Lex Luthor, to the X-Men versus Magneto.
All told, the systemization process forces too great a sense of the status quo on Conan and burdens the wild Howardian action. At the end of Howard's only Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon, the barbarian king says he will make the girl who has rescued him from a dungeon his queen. The imitators of course have Conan marry the girl, but Karl Edward Wagner in his afterword to the Berkley-Putnam edition of the novel muses, "One wonders if Conan made good on his professed intention to make her his queen. Conan was a great one for making promises to his girl friends at the close of an adventure" (p. 283) -- and at the beginning of the next adventure, there would be no girl in sight.
Some critics like the imitations. The respected science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, writing in Twilight Zone Vol. 1, No. 2, May 1981, calls the recent novel Conan and the Spider God by de Camp (a book written for publication outside of the standard twelve volume set): ". . . another of L. Sprague de Camp's heroics. Nobody writes better Conan than de Camp, not even Howard."
Others disagree, such as Michael Moorcock in his essay "The Heroes of Heroic Fantasy," who calls the novel Conan of the Isles by de Camp and Carter " . . .mindless, silly, heartless stuff which would disgrace even a schoolboy imitator of Conan, let alone one of the most careful writers in the sf world. The work is almost certainly Carter's (being pretty typical) but de Camp surely owes it to the Howard he admires to ensure better editing, for Conan was never more dead than he is in these travesties of the original stories" (Dragonfields No. 3, p. 56).
The imitators seem to fail on a number of major points of artistry. First, they simply cannot equal Howard's powerful narrative drive. De Camp, interviewed in the fan magazine REH: Lone Star Fictioneer #4, Spring 1976, explained this by saying " . . .we are not crazy the way he was, and hence we find his emotional intensity hard to imitate."
Second, they do not have Howard's feel for the supernatural, which lends the sorcery in his stories convincingness. Lin Carter in his introduction to Conan the Buccaneer (1971) notes that he had read Conan years before de Camp (despite the fact that de Camp is the older of the two) because de Camp did not read Weird Tales, for he " . . . got the impression from glimpses of the covers on the newsstand that Weird Tales consisted of ghost stories, a genre towards which he has always been able to restrain his enthusiasm." Certainly neither de Camp nor Carter has yet written a weird tale as chilling as "Pigeons from Hell" or "Worms of the Earth."
Third, they lack Howard's savagery and corresponding sense of despair. Carter, writing in "The Hand of Nergal," gives the antithesis of a Howardian style in this passage:
As Robert Weinberg observed in his The Annotated Guide to Robert E. Howard's Sword and Sorcery (1976), "Grimness is the word. . . . The best of the Conan stories have an undercurrent of moody despair that makes them more than a mere sword and sorcery adventure. Howard believed in this philosophy, this dark and despondent outlook on life, and anyone not using this background as a basis for Conan stories can never achieve the results that made Howard's work great" (p. 83).
The manner in which the imitators usually present Conan has little to do with the Howard stories, certainly not with the best Howard stories. Disregarding the points in which the imitators seriously diverge from the original, (10) one of the worst aspects of the new stories added in with the Howard work is the fact that they dilute and trivialize the Conan character. Howard himself, it is apparent, was running out of ideas for the series. He repeated plot lines occurring in lost cities, reused giant snakes and man-like apes a number of times, and for his Conan novel actually cannibalized earlier stories. It adds nothing of true value to the series to have other writers, who lack Howard's drive, who do not have the intensity required to spark life into tired situations, contribute more of the same.
Regarded as a commercial endeavor, the Conan imitations and other derivative Sword-and-Sorcery novels seem like good business. If artistically they fail to approach Howard, it seems likely that no great attempt has been made to equal "Beyond the Black River" or "The People of the Black Circle." In fact, even the imitators could not possibly take the idea of their writing a unified "saga" too seriously anymore -- de Camp and Carter wrote Conan the Barbarian (1982), the novelization of the recent Conan film. It presents a completely different origin for Conan than the one they feature in the twelve volume set, but since it appears as a "Conan" novel under their byline, one could presume that it should fall into the pattern somewhere. It would be difficult to fit it into the series.
Possibly the only truly serious complaint one could make about the imitators is that in most instances they have chosen to follow the least of Howard; this accounts for the general disregard in which most critics and many readers hold the Sword-and-Sorcery tale. Instead of finding work deriving from "Beyond the Black River" you find most imitations traceable to such lame Conan adventures as "The Slithering Shadow."
In fact, most of the de Camp-Carter Conan tales may be traced to two "off" Howard stories: "The Vale of Lost Women" and "Shadows in the Moonlight, " stories which differ from the rest of the Howard originals in an interesting respect. Howard is quoted in The Last Celt (1976) as writing:
Howard, considering the speed at which he wrote and the fact that the Conan series is sizable, was amazingly consistent in presenting the barbarian's attitudes. But in "The Vale of Lost Women" and "Shadows in the Moonlight" one finds a different Conan, and it is the Conan of these two stories to which the de Camp-Carter "Conan" owes more allegiance.
These two tales are unusual in that both are told from the viewpoint of a female character throughout the story. Most Conan adventures are told in third person, with the omniscient narrator sometimes following Conan, sometimes the heroine of the story, sometimes another character -- as in the opening of "Black Colossus," where Howard portrays Shevatas the thief for an entire chapter. But these two tales are told completely from the heroine's viewpoint, and read as much like rape fantasies as adventure stories. In "The Vale of Lost Women" the woman's name is Livia; in "Shadows in the Moonlight" it is Olivia -- perhaps this name meant something to Howard.
"Shadows in the Moonlight" perhaps would attract little attention on this point without the presence of "The Vale of Lost Women" in the series. The first story is effective, and is pointed out in this connection only because of the viewpoint character Olivia, who actually is no more a victim than various other "weak" female supporting characters in such stories as "The Jewels of Gwahlur." The fact that her thoughts are the focus of the tale brings her presence forth more strongly, emphasizing her role as someone to be rescued by Conan, to find him overwhelmingly virile and consequently desirable -- even though his brutal appearance and savage actions tinge the notion of a sexual liaison with a hint of dread. In other words, it has strong elements of a rape fantasy, but enough of the true Howardian drive and inventiveness to make this abusive desire fade in with the action. The story was successful enough to sell to Weird Tales.
"The Vale of Lost Women" never sold in Howard's lifetime. The title indicates the direction of the story, perhaps the most blatantly indicative entry in the Conan series of Howard's darker urgings. A white woman is a prisoner of blacks in Hyborian Africa. "Her fingers twitched convulsively at the skirt of the scanty undertunic which constituted her only garment. Impersonally she remembered that once, it seemed long, long ago, rude hands had torn her other garments from her body, and she had wept with fright and shame. It seemed strange, now, that so small a wrong should have caused her so much woe." The caravan she traveled in had been attacked, she and her brother taken prisoner; her brother was "mutilated and butchered" before her. When Livia sees Conan enter the native camp, she decides she may be able to manipulate him to aid her in escaping:
"The Vale of Lost Women" is quite poor for Howard, and quite brief. Livia gets a chance to escape the village (even after Conan agrees to help her) and blunders into a vale of ghostly females, dominated by a winged being from cosmic space. Conan, of course, comes to the rescue and casually dispatches the monster.
His remark upon routing the brute is indicative of the direction de Camp and Carter have taken Conan: " 'A devil from the Outer Dark,' he grunted. 'Oh, they're nothing uncommon. They lurk as thick as fleas outside the belt of light which surrounds this world. . . . Some find their way to earth, but when they do they have to take on some earthly form and flesh of some sort. A man like myself, with a sword, is a match for any amount of fangs and talons, infernal or terrestrial. . .' " This is the most glib remark from the lips of Howard's Conan concerning demons. In "Beyond the Black River" he gets close to the same thought with the comment "There's nothing in the universe cold steel won't cut. . . ." But Howard's barbarians typically have a dread of the supernatural, so Conan adds this qualifier: "I'm not going out of my way looking for devils; but I wouldn't step out of my path to let one go by." More often Conan is thrown into fits of desperation by the entrance of the monster.
Since neither de Camp nor Carter shares Howard's strong interest in the supernatural, they naturally have gravitated away from his effective weird scenes and creatures toward this glib rationalization of the supernatural as just more meat for the butcher. In his completion of a Howard synopsis for a never written Conan tale, "The Hall of the Dead," de Camp writes: "Although the supernatural roused panicky, atavistic fears in his barbarian's soul, he hardened himself with the thought that, when a supernatural being took material form, it could be hurt or killed by earthly weapons, just like any earthly man or monster" (Conan, 1968, p. 88). In the de Camp-Carter original "The Curse of the Monolith" the imitation Conan states, "I fear neither god, man, nor devil, and least of all the ghost of a long-dead king" (Conan of Cimmeria, 1969, p. 20).
Despite the couple of precedents for this attitude in Howard, it is not as effective as Howard's usual treatment of Conan's reaction to the unearthly, as in "The Tower of the Elephant" where " . . . he hesitated at the thought of the strange perils which were said to await within" the tower. When Conan encounters the chained, elephant-like alien who is held prisoner in the tower, he freezes up -- "That he did not instantly explode in a burst of murderous frenzy is a fact that measured his horror. . ." In "Queen of the Black Coast" he is asked if he fears the gods. Conan replies: "I would not tread on their shadow."
The imitators have also followed the more pathetic female characterizations that may be found in Howard, rather than creating more women along the lines of Valeria or Belít. In "The Snout in the Dark," which de Camp and Carter finished from a brief Howard fragment, they have the following description: "In the few hours he had known Diana, Conan had become much taken with her. Sweet, gentle, and perhaps even a virgin, she contrasted in every way with the fiery, tempestuous, passionate, cruel, sensual Tanada." Diana could have stepped right out of "The Vale of Lost Women."
The ending of "The Vale of Lost Women" is likewise uncharacteristic of Howard, as Conan decides to free Livia; she falls and embraces his knees:
This attempt at humor is not particularly successful, but several counterparts may be found at the close of imitation Conan tales, such as "The City of Skulls" by de Camp-Carter, where we hear from Conan:
In "Black Tears" by de Camp-Carter the story ends as Conan " . . . grinned. Why squabble over a few shekels like a greasy tradesman? It does a man good, once in a while, to be virtuous. Even a Cimmerian" (Conan the Wanderer, 1968, p. 45).
That it is easier to imitate such inane scenes than to create stories as good as "The People of the Black Circle" goes without saying. But in all fairness Sword-and-Sorcery deservedly has drawn critical abuse by offering a ready market for schoolboyish sexism and "humor." That Howard contributed his share of objectionable material is not questioned, but he did transcend his worst level frequently. When one remembers Howard it will be easier to recall strong female characters such as Dark Agnes the Sword Woman than the asinine Livia/Olivia types. And if Howard spawned more than his share of poor imitations, his work has inspired some fine fiction as well: the Jirel of Joiry tales by Catherine L. Moore, the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series by Fritz Leiber, and more recently the violent adventures of Kane by Karl Edward Wagner, outstanding in the field. The Leiber story "Ill Met in Lankhmar" won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards as best short fiction of its year, which must have been disconcerting to those fantasy and science fiction critics who dismiss the Sword-and-Sorcery story out of hand because of the bad fiction in the genre.
As long as critics and readers realize that Howard cannot be faulted for the "Conan" stories he never wrote, any more than Lovecraft may be assessed by considering the Derleth imitations, no harm will be done to his reputation. The derivative material -- good or bad -- only underlines his position as creator of a form, and helps spread the Howardian image of the barbarian in the public mind.
Even more influential in perpetuating the Howard characters and story type are the visual imitations: comics and film. Undoubtedly the finest visual counterpart to Howard thus far are the paintings of Frank Frazetta, but many artists have tried their hands at portraying various Howard characters both on paperback covers and in comic books, and just recently Conan had his first screen incarnation in Conan the Barbarian.
Frazetta is at least the artistic equal to Howard, inspiring dozens of imitators in his own right. The majority of covers for the first wave of Sword-and-Sorcery titles in the 1960s and early 1970s were drawn either by Frazetta himself or by his imitators. Just as Howard established the form Sword-and-Sorcery writers would work in-barbaric heroes, beautiful heroines, sorcerers, and demons -- so did Frazetta establish the visual style the genre should be portrayed in. Frazetta's paintings successfully capture the Howardian essence of violence and adventure, of dark barbaric heroes and sensual women, of arcane mages and grotesque monsters. Frazetta's art has become so popular that book collections of his paintings and pen and ink drawings sell very well in their own right. His art has been used on television commercials (to indicate his influence, and Howard's, in the public mind), and was the basis for the art direction of Conan the Barbarian. Recently his art also has become the basis for a feature length animated film.
Undoubtedly the Frazetta covers for the Conan paperbacks are a major reason for their initial success, luring readers into a literary world as rich and violent as the covers themselves, though it took the Howard fiction to keep the readers interested once they got past the art. Frazetta illustrated many Sword-and-Sorcery novels in the 1960s with covers far better than the contents. Most of these novels have long since faded from print.
After the Frazetta covers, the next major non-literary boost for Howard's works, one which certainly established Conan as a figure in popular culture, was the Marvel Comics Group taking up Conan, Kull, and other Howard creations for comic art adaptations in the 1970s. Under editor Roy Thomas, Marvel negotiated for the comic rights. The largest success they had was the Conan the Barbarian four color comic, originally written by Thomas and drawn by Barry Smith. For a year or two this magazine was the most popular comic book in the world, judging from sales figures. They also produced a Kull the Conqueror title, and a Kull and the Barbarians comic, and used Solomon Kane in a number of non-series anthology comics. They adapted some of Howard's horror stories for their horror titles, as well.
While in the monthly format the tendency to repetition becomes unavoidable, the use of oversized monsters too often becomes a crutch, nonetheless the people at Marvel have done some interesting stories with Howard characters. Since no one is going to confuse comic art versions with the original fiction, they have been free to experiment in a way that de Camp, Carter and other writers working in story form could not effectively do. For example, in the Conan the Barbarian comic Smith and Thomas once had a two-part adventure in which Conan met Michael Moorcock's Sword-and-Sorcery hero Elric. This scenario allowed them to explore the possibilities of what would occur at such a meeting without doing any permanent damage to either Conan or Elric. Undoubtedly if such a story were done in book form cries of anguish would go up from Howard fans and Moorcock fans -- but in comic form no one is going to worry too much about violating the integrity of such characters. Similarly, Marvel once did a story in which Solomon Kane fought Dracula in Transylvania -- an intriguing notion, possible in both the Howard concept of the Kane stories and in the literary universe Dracula inhabits, but obviously not the sort of story either Howard or Stoker would have written on his own.
The Howard characters have been subsumed into the "Marvel Universe." Essentially, any and all characters ever to appear in any Marvel comic all exist in one literary universe. Since Marvel has adapted Dracula and Solomon Kane, they "inhabit" the same world and could meet. If a typical costumed Marvel superhero traveled back in time, he or she could have an adventure in the Hyborian Age. More than simply being extra players in this grand design, Howard characters have provided another level of reality to the Marvel Universe, and certain Howardian concepts have infiltrated to the core of the Marvel mythology.
In the late 1970s a Marvel enthusiast named George Olshevsky conceived and began compiling The Marvel Comics Index in a number of volumes, each section covering different major characters such as Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers -- the entire Marvel superhero roster, including Conan and the Barbarians, Marvel's Monsters, and War Heroes. Olshevsky is doing a remarkable job in detailing each issue of a comic for writer, artist, and other production work, and at the same time chronicles the introduction of supporting characters and guest appearances by other heroes, as well as cross-referencing plot lines from comic to comic. (11)
In Vol. 1, No. 7B of the Index Olshevsky covers the history of the Sub-Mariner, one of the longest running Marvel characters -- he first appeared in April, 1939. Here you can see how certain Howardian concepts, such as the serpent men who fought King Kull in "The Shadow Kingdom," have wormed their way into the basic fabric of the Marvel Universe:
The Howardian concept of the Serpent Men has colored the Marvel artists' perceptions of their original characters. The "Serpent Crown" was created before Marvel bought rights to the Howard characters, but once they came onto the scene the Marvel writers took the origin of the crown back into the world of Kull and Conan. Olshevsky calls this sort of after-the-fact explanation a "continuity implant." The Serpent Crown has figured in adventures of the Avengers, the Thing, the Sub-Mariner -- and part of this concept of the Serpent Race and their power totem, the crown, formed the basis for a serial adventure of Dr. Strange, Marvel's "Master of the Mystic Arts."
Marvel also developed a character type Howard had in several of his stories into a major figure. In the Conan adventure "Red Nails" Howard featured Valeria, a sword-wielding she-pirate; in three stories he had the similar Dark Agnes de Chastillon; in the Crusader story "The Shadow of the Vulture" the Howard hero von Kalmbach is aided by Red Sonya of Rogatine, a tall redhead who carries a saber, dagger, and pistols. Roy Thomas at Marvel created an amalgam of these swashbuckling women in the person of Red Sonja of the Hyborian Age. She was introduced in the Conan the Barbarian four color comic, and later proved popular enough to win a comic of her own. Interestingly enough, the Sonja character has reversed the usual trend of a character being adapted from fiction into comic art by going from comic books to novels -- a series of six titles by David C. Smith and Richard L. Tierney which create new adventures for her in book form. A Red Sonja movie is also in the planning stage, indicating that Howard will in fact be remembered for his strong work, his independent females, and not for the fainting heroines who populate most pulp fiction.
The success of the comic book versions led to other notable publications, The Savage Sword of Conan magazine standing out as a major forum for Howardiana. During its peak years, the Conan comic also inspired a newspaper comic strip written by Thomas and drawn by John Buscema for the Des Moines Register and Tribune syndicate: it premiered September 4, 1978 and ran until April 13, 1981. And all this use of the name "Conan" -- in monthly comics, daily comic strips -- further developed the commercial viability of Howard characters. In Locus Vol. 9, No. 13, October 30, 1976, it was reported that Berkley paid "a reported $ 300,000" for reprint rights to fifteen Howard titles, six of them Conan books; this, according to Locus, the newspaper of the science fiction field, was "the largest sale of fantasy work so far" in publishing history. In Vol. 14, No. 6, July 1981, Locus announced that Ace Books "paid a reported $305,000 for rights to twenty-four Conan properties" – the standard twelve volume set, plus the various new novels by several different writers.
This widespread interest in Conan inevitably led to interest in the film world, finally resulting in the 1982 release of Conan the Barbarian from Universal, a Dino De Laurentiis presentation directed by John Milius, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan. As in the case of the written imitations and the comic books, the movie Conan is quite unlike Howard's original character -- instead of being a self-made man, he is captured and sold into slavery as a child; instead of killing his captors and escaping, as Howard's Conan certainly would have done, the film Conan is simply released and driven off into the wilderness. Other points of difference could be noted, but it may be enough to say that the Schwarzenegger Conan bears no more resemblance to Howard's barbarian than the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan bears to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Lord of the Jungle. A more interesting use of Conan by Hollywood is in the live-action "The Adventures of Conan-a Sword-and-Sorcery Spectacular" sequence in the Universal Studio Tour, featuring a man turned to stone, axe-wielding skeletons, and an eighteen-foot dragon as well as a sword-swinging Conan. It is indicative of Howard's contribution to pop culture that Universal would develop such a tour where in the past saloon brawls and western showdowns were standard live-action fare. Conan has arrived. Again, this commercial use of the character does not have any bearing on Howard's worth as a writer, but certainly is a good means of informing more potential readers that such stories exist.
Just as the Burroughs estate has formed Edgar Rice Burroughs, Incorporated, to handle book packaging and other merchandising, the various parties involved in carrying on Howard characters formed Conan Properties, Incorporated, in 1977. It may seem strange that a corporation is necessary to handle these estates, but on second thought this is only another indicator of the immense popularity of Burroughs and Howard, occasioned by their creation of modern myths.
Now all this talk of comic book and movie adaptations, authorized imitations and corporations may well seem beside the point to understanding Howard as a writer. Howard's works will be judged on their own ultimately, as each reader comes to the stories and renders his own verdict. But in a world that increasingly is turning away from the written word in favor of the visual image, where video has long since outstripped magazines and books as a means of entertaining and even educating the masses, the ability of an author's works to translate into other media cannot be underestimated in terms of that author's longevity in the literary world.
Today Dashiell Hammett is being recognized as a major American realistic writer, but who would deny the influence of the 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, in keeping his name and works in the public mind? The Thin Man films with William Powell and Myrna Loy also reap a good share of credit. The Johnny Weismuller Tarzan films, no matter that Burroughs himself did not like them, still have drawn succeeding generations of moviegoers and television watchers to Burroughs' original works.
Howard, like Hammett, like Burroughs, like most good writers, was a story-teller. The story he told will be able to be told in print, in comics, in film. Just as Hamlet has carried over successfully from generation to generation, surviving such experimental formats as stages with no props or with medieval props, actors in period costume, actors in business suits and actors in the nude, a good story will survive. One televised version of Shakespeare's play transmuted the setting from Denmark to an African village without losing the peculiar appeal of the tale, which is universal.
Howard, Burroughs, Hammett, Stoker, and the others all created universal figures, myth figures. Their characters and stories have survived good imitations, bad imitations, good film adaptions, and movies painful to watch. The strength of the original work cannot be underestimated -- as long as people come to Howard, Burroughs or Hammett, whether they come from comics, film or derivative fiction, they will find good stories and memorable characters. Howard and other writers of his class will survive where many a "finer" author falls to the side.
Howard's importance has occasioned the use of such blurbs as "In the tradition of Robert E. Howard" and "Not since Conan" on many, many books. Not infrequently the words "Howard" and "Conan" have appeared in a larger typeface than the name of the book's actual author. Oddly enough, Zebra paperbacks brought out a reissue of Talbot Mundy's Tros of Samothrace series in the late 197Os, with the declaration on the cover that they were "In the tradition of Robert E. Howard's Conan." Now Mundy was actually an influence on Howard, and if anything billing Howard as "in the tradition of' Mundy would be accurate.
Yet however inaccurate the blurb designer was as to historical sequence, in popular terms he hit the mark. Howard is by far a more important figure than Mundy or most of the other writers who influenced his own work. When the Tros of Samothrace novels were originally put into paperback by Avon Books in the 1960s, it was because Howard's works had created a market for them. They were commercially desirable because they were similar to Howard's works, and could be marketed with similar covers and a similar advertising program. When they were repackaged by Zebra, this point became obvious.
Howard is an important author in terms of his influence, in terms of sales and popularity, and also in terms of what he actually wrote. His Sword-and-Sorcery tales are unequaled for raw power, narrative drive, and visions of barbaric conflict in a primitive world. His Dark Barbarians are thoroughly modern heroes cutting their way through history, heroes created out of Howard's vision, out of his poetry, out of his obsessive nature.
The Dark Barbarian looms as a mythic figure over fantasy literature, over American popular culture-standing with sword drawn over a decadent civilization, such as our own.
1. I have long felt that Price is the only writer able to approach Howard when presenting scenes of headlong action -- his aversion to the action story cannot be construed as "sour grapes." Price, however much he may dislike the form, is at the top. The closest one will come to a Howard-like scene outside a Howard story is often in a story by Price, such as his tales of Pawang Ali, the "Left Hand of the Law," which appeared in the pulp Clues Detective.
2. The critic Thomas D. Clareson, writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs in Neil Barron's Anatomy of Wonder (198l), has called these values "neoprimitivism" -- which "condemns and rejects modern society because some of its industrial urbanization and its effete code of manners have deprived the male of some aspect of a masculinity" that looks back " . .to those times when he was a warrior-hunter and supposedly through his physical prowess and cunning controlled his own destiny" (p. 25). In the Conan story "The Tower of the Elephant" Howard commented on this point, as it were, when he noted: "Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing."
3. The blatant popularity of the redneck may be seen in films such as White Line Fever and Smokey and the Bandit, to name two of many, but an equally interesting reaction against the redneck has occurred at the same time, expressed in much the same sort of film (featuring good good old boys versus bad good old boys), and in many songs. Of the songs the most notable were Jackson Browne's "Redneck Friend" and Randy Neuman's "(We're) Rednecks"-the latter bit of satire was even taken up as an anthem, despite its proclamation that rednecks don't know their "ass from a hole in the ground."
4. If one wishes to place Howard in the imaginary world tradition, a better model than William Morris may be found in the person of James MacPherson and his famous Ossian hoax of the 1760s. In works like "Fingal" and "Gisbal, an Hyperborean Tale," MacPherson forged a series of supposedly "lost" poems from the ancient Celtic bard "Ossian." With Howard's obsessive interest in matters Celtic, it is natural that he would read MacPherson -- Howard's creation of a lost "Hyborian Age" and an imaginary history of the Celtic race (going from the Atlanteans to the Cimmerians to the wild Gaels of Ireland) certainly is more akin to MacPherson's work than to anything Morris ever wrote. Howard's friend Harold Preece in a letter to Lenore Preece, January 16, 1965 (The Howard Collector), says "His Ossian was Connaire, or Conan." Howard himself in an undated letter to Preece wrote: "So you've been reading MacPherson? Well, don't take him too seriously. He's a damned fraud. I like his stuff because of their beauty and imagery." In this fraud MacPherson created one of the earliest knowing "imaginary world" sagas, using Celtic history and legend for his background just as other fantasy writers have drawn on Norse mythology or on the history and folklore of Greece.
5. The best example of the superhero overcome with self-doubt, and trying to cope with real life problems such as drug abuse and political corruption (instead of simply batting around bad guys), may be found in issues 76-89 of Green Lantern/Green Arrow from DC Comics. Written by Dennis O'Neil, drawn by Neal Adams, these comics created a huge stir in the early 1970s and were the focus of a number of national newspaper and magazine articles. The sort of soul-searching these heroes did at that time, and that characters such as Spiderman were doing at Marvel Comics, has become commonplace in the field by now. No longer do even super-heroes fly about without the problems of the world in mind.
6. De Camp, while saying in his introductions to the Conan series and other Sword-and-Sorcery works that the genre is essentially "pure entertainment," in his own fantasy stories displays a definite philosophical bent. De Camp's heroes typically start from the bottom and work their way to a successful position in life, so his writing may be seen as supportive of the American work ethic. Read his Sword-and-Sorcery tale "Two Yards of Dragon," found in The Best of L. Sprague de Camp (1978), and you will see that his hero finds all the swashbuckling adventure a bit of a bother, and profits from setting up a business like one he encounters during his journey. I suspect de Camp is attracted to the Conan stories not simply for their color and historical background -- certainly de Camp is greatly interested in colorful adventure fiction and in history -- but because Conan works his way up from the bottom rung of barbarism to the head of the social and economic ladder as a king of a great nation.
. . .with a burst of fury that left a heap of mangled corpses along the gunwales, Conan was over the rail and on the deck of the Tigress. In an instant he was the center of a hurricane of stabbing spears and lashing clubs. But he moved in a blinding blur of steel. . . , littered the deck like a shambles with a ghastly harvest of brains and blood. Invulnerable in his armor, his back against the mast, he heaped mangled corpses at his feet until his enemies gave back panting in rage and fear.
Perhaps the closest artistic counterpart to this sort of scene is found in the kung fu films of Bruce Lee, especially Enter the Dragon. In the climactic battle scene the archvillain orders dozens of men to attack Lee, and he smashes them all -- until they draw back for a moment, afraid to renew the assault, though they outnumber him one hundred to one.
8. The idea that Howard developed in his epochal treatment of humanity a counterpart to the cosmic sweep of Lovecraft and Smith was conceived and worked out in conversation with Richard L. Tierney in 1975-76, during two years I lived in his neighborhood in St. Paul. Tierney is one of the most arresting critics in the fantasy field, and I regret that many of his thoughts on Howard and company have not yet been put on paper.
9. Starrett, as "The Needle" of "The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic) " – the Chicago scion of the Baker Street Irregulars, is a major figure in Sherlockian studies. His The Unique Hamlet opened a flood gate of "pastiches" of Holmes and Watson, and his The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1933) established the convention that Holmes and Watson are real.
10. My essay "Conan vs. Conantics," published in 1976, gives a more detailed comparison of points in which the imitation Conan tales contradict the original, noting especially that de Camp and Carter have followed Derleth in having forces of Good and Evil appear in the series. Howard, in one of his strong qualities as a writer, almost never employed the notion of Good versus Evil -- those stark Christian dualities -- in his fiction.
11. A similar critical apparatus which considers all Conan stories by any and all writers as "true" would be essential to a study of the Howard character as developed by de Camp, Carter, Nyberg and company. In such a case, as exemplified by the comics genre where literally hundreds of people work on a character through the years, only the character is real -- the role of the individual writers is negligible. The Baker Street Irregulars' treatment of Holmes and Watson as real people approaches this same idea, but they do not include the many pastiches in their assessments. Only the Doyle texts are "canonical" -- that is, genuine accounts of Holmes and Watson. One day the idea of approaching the Howard Conan stories as "Conanical" -- the genuine article -- and the imitations as simply imitations may well come into vogue.
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