Robert Ervin Howard was a Texan writer who is best known for his favorite hero Conan the barbarian.
Many people know Conan from comics and the 1980's movies and associate him with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger,
for whom the movies were a break-through.
But far less people know the original writings on which the above trash was based. Though Howard published mainly in pulp magazines like Adventure and especially Weird Tales, his prose chimed a skill and passion that lifted his work far above the level of the average pulp. Some people rank Howard, together with his friends and colleagues H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, as one of the founders of the Fantasy genre. Howard himself specialized in what is sometimes called 'Sword and Sorcery'.
His work stands out by virtue of a keen sense of sound and smell, exuberant passion, a chilling dark undertone and beautiful, almost poetic, use of language. An example from the short story Beyond the Black River:
Valannus shuddered. Turning, he walked to a casement and stared silently out over the river, black and shiny under the glint of the stars. Beyond the river the jungle rose like an ebony wall. The distant screech of a panther broke the stillness. The night pressed in, blurring the sounds of the soldiers outside the blockhouse, dimming the fires. A wind whispered through the black branches, rippling the dusky water. On its wings came a low, rhythmic pulsing, sinister as the pad of a leopard's foot.
Of course there is criticism too. A hero like Conan is often a dumb skulldugger who boringly tends to win every fight by muscle instead of brain and the women around him are always pretty and always tend to lose their garments early in the story. But hey, which writer is perfect? You should read Howard with a little 'suspension of disbelief'. Let the story take you and read the writer as he wrote: with passion and the eye of an artist.
Howard wrote both prose and poetry. His poetry is very different from mainstream work: eerie, menacing and full of horror and terror, though sometimes with a voice of defiant heroism in it that denies the dark. An example, named the "Road of Kings", from the short story "The Phoenix on the Sword":
Gleaming shell of an outworn lie; fable of Right divine-
You gained your crowns by heritage, but Blood was the price of mine.
The throne that I won by blood and sweat, by Crom, I will not sell
For promise of valleys filled with gold, or threat of the Halls of Hell!
When I was a fighting-man, the kettle-drums they beat,
The people scattered gold-dust before my horse's feet;
But now I am a great king, the people hound my track
With poison in my wine-cup, and daggers at my back.
What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs - I was a man before I was a king.
Doesn't that leap from the screen like a tiger with its fangs bared? While it has you by the throat, it drags you to the numerous short stories and few novels that Howard wrote. His prose carries the same sense of rhythm and rhyme that he displayed in his poems. Another example, from the novel The Hour of the Dragon:
Gardens and pleasure villas surrounded the walls of Belverus. Drowsy slaves, sleeping by their watchmen's pikes, did not see the swift and furtive figure that scaled walls, crossed alleys made by the arching branches of trees, and threaded a noiseless way through orchards and vineyards. Watchdogs woke and lifted their deep-booming clamor at a gliding shadow, half scented, half sensed, and then was gone.
Conan was not Howard's only hero; he was the synthesis of a number of predecessors,
including the Pictish king Bran Mak Morn, English puritan Solomon Kane, the brooding king Kull and many others.
Howard wrote not only fantasy, but also stories about boxers, ghost stories and westerns.
He was born in 1906, published his first story in 1925, lived through the Depression and after the death of his mother comitted suicide in 1936, only 30 years old. In this brief timespan he wrote many short stories, often published in pulp magazines for very low fees and he had to constantly juggle his talents to make ends meet.
Maybe the daily fight for survival and the steadily declining health of his mother drove him into his death, or maybe it was his melancholy nature. In his writing he expressed this sombre look on life, because as any good writer he poured his soul into his stories. This, together with his skill, puts his work far beyond simple hack-and-slash adventure. Many other writers have copied his example and some used the Conan character in stories of their own. But all fail to match Howards convincement, his language and his intensity.
My advice: Skip the comics, skip the movies, skip the imitators, read the original. Recommended entry points on the WWW:
- Robert Howard on Wikipedia
- Robert Howard's work on Wikisource
- Robert Howard's work on Project Gutenberg
'Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,' the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. 'Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'