Robert E. Howard died eighty years ago today.
He was a troubled young man, and a writer – not necessarily in that order.
At his worst, he was not very good – but still enjoyable, and entertaining.
At his best, he was a master storyteller and had an extraordinary control over his prose. He infused such an energy in his stories, that it was impossible not to get caught and carried along, dragged along screaming, almost, by the plot, the action, the imagery.
Howard’s role in the development of imaginative fiction and of fantasy in particular cannot be summarized in a single post on a backwaters blog like this.
But I’m going to list a few good stories – because that’s what we always do, right, when we talk about an author we love?
We suggest a few good titles for the uninitiated to check out and see what it’s all about.
And please, do the same, in the comments, and list your favorite Robert Howard stories.
As for mine…
I remember perfectly the first story by Howard I read.
It’s a Conan story, it’s called The People of the Black Circle, and it begins like this…
THE KING OF VENDHYA was dying. Through the hot, stifling night the temple gongs boomed and the conchs roared. Their clamor was a faint echo in the gold- domed chamber where Bunda Chand struggled on the velvet-cushioned dais. Beads of sweat glistened on his dark skin; his fingers twisted the gold-worked fabric beneath him. He was young; no spear had touched him, no poison lurked in his wine. But his veins stood out like blue cords on his temples, and his eyes dilated with the nearness of death. Trembling slave-girls knelt at the foot of the dais, and leaning down to him, watching him with passionate intensity, was his sister, the Devi Yasmina. With her was the wazam, a noble grown old in the royal court.
You can find the whole story online here.
Other Conan stories I recommend to anyone that has not read Howard before are
And, for something not so completely different, but different nonetheless, The Tales of El Borak, probably my favorite Howard character.
Despite his short life span, Howard produced a huge volume of stories, most of which can be found on the Project Gutenberg of Australia archive page.
Howard has been one of the authors that has stayed with me the longest. His work has been an influence, certainly, on my writing and on my desire to write.
I find some of the current tendencies – pointing a finger at him as a sexist, politically incorrect hack on one side, or co-opting him posthumously into the so called Grimdark sub-genre on another – to be silly, poorly documented and basically the sort of things people that did not read Howard would say to try and ride this author’s long-lasting popularity.
Even at their most amoral, Howard’s characters were fighting on the good side – thinking about their own interests, cutting corners, maybe not always looking good, but they were never murderous sociopaths. General attitudes towards women, some ethnic groups (including the Italians!) have fortunately changed through the years – and so some of Howard’s stories may grate on our sensibilities.
And yet, historical perspective should be our guide in judging Howard’s stories.
As for that other long-lasting standard – that all readers of sword & sorcery and of Howard in particular, are sad adolescents of every age, looking for an escape route from their bleak everyday life and a release from the responsibilities of adulthood.
It does not work like that.
And before I close this piece – two things.
Thing the first – the images used to illustrate this post are by Mark Schultz, probably my favorite Conan artist1 (and one of my favorite artists in general).
Thing the second – please list your favorite Howard stories in the comments: let’s help the mundanes discover and appreciate Robert E. Howard. Thank you!
- put down those flame-throwers… I simply consider Frank Frazetta to be off-scale, ok? ↩