East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Robert E. Howard, 80 years after


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.

carried away

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

The Tower of the Elephant
Beyond the Black River
A Witch Shall Be Born
Queen of the Black Coast


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.
No, sorry.
It does not work like that.

tower of the elephant

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!

  1. put down those flame-throwers… I simply consider Frank Frazetta to be off-scale, ok? 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

27 thoughts on “Robert E. Howard, 80 years after

  1. Looks like we have the same favorite REH character, El Borak! My favorite El Borak story was Hawk of the Hills, and my favorite Conan stories are Red Nails, Beyond the Black River, A Witch Shall Be Born, People of the Black Circle, and Black Colossus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah! A Witch Shall Be Born!
      I’ll have to add that to my list, too.
      And El Borak was a hapy find in a bookstore long gone, when I was in high-school. I was captured from the start – and my fave story is probably The Lost Valley of Iskander.


  2. I would not say that Howard “at his worst was not very good”. His is one of those rare instances where, whilst not being terribly original or even slap-dash written, his worst was STILL more readable than a lot of some pulp writer’s best. Anyway, here is my top ten. You might find an incredible dearth of Conan stories in this list, the reason for that being that they stand in a whole separate field of their own.
    So, in no particular order-
    1- The sowers of the thunder
    2- A gent from Bear Creek (novel)
    3- Pigeons from hell
    4- The shadow kingdom
    5- The grey god passes
    6- Worms of the earth
    7-By this ax I rule!
    8- Hawks of Outremer
    9- The lion of Tiberias
    10- Sword woman.

    [This list will inevitably change next week].


    • Thanks, Steven.
      Great selection of stories. Sword Woman is wonderful – and a pity Howard did not continue the character.
      And as I said, Howard at his worst was still highly enjoyable and fun – only, as you mention, the writing was not up to his standards as shown in his best works. We are basically on the same wavelength 🙂


    • I forgot to mention ALMURIC. Despite the controversy surrounding who fleshed out and wrote the ending (not something that bothers me to any great degree) it’s still a great read.


      • I always felt Almuric was a missed opportunity – Howard doing a planetary romance series would have been great, and who knows, might have turned his fortunes about.
        I read it a million years ago in the Italian language version, which was adapted and (I think) completed by Italian s&s pioneer Gianluigi Zuddas
        It would be nice, now that I think of it, to check out the original and do a comparison of the two.
        Stuff for a post to come.


  3. REH was the first writer who, when I was young, made me think “I want to do THAT!” Favorites are:
    Beyond the Black River
    People of the Black Circle
    Black Colossus
    Hour of the Dragon
    The full El Borak collection

    Like the blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think I had the same reaction – “I want to tell stories like these!”
      Thanks for posting your selection (Black Colossus! … some smart publisher might think about doing a collecgtion of all the REH stories with “Black” in the title)
      And thank you for liking my blog!


  4. We have some simpatico interests. You might want to check out http://www.frontierpartisans.com


  5. Pigeons from Hell– a little gem of atmosphere…


    • Agree with Dennis Weiler. “Pigeons From Hell” is a classic. Part of its appeal is the sense of region and place that imbues it, the dark sinister piney woods of western Louisiana and the ruined mansion with its dark secrets and the memories of the corrupt, cruel family that once lived there. (The last of the Blassenville family, in Howard’s story, may well be partly based on the real life monster Cecile LaLaurie, whose cruelty to her slaves was such that even in early 19th century New Orleans it brought an outraged response from society and the law at last.)


  6. Who am I to say no to a list and to spread the words of Howard?
    The Tower of the Elephant
    The Thing in the Crypt
    The Garden of Fear
    Apparition in the Prize Ring
    The Fire of Asshurbanipal

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Beyond the Black River


    • Certainly one of Howard’s best written pieces, and one that breaks the rules of some typical pulp fare – the drama and tension are incredible, and there’s no happy ending, only the grim march of history.
      Love it.


  8. Yup, Pigeons from Hell is my fave REH horror piece. Specially since I first got to read it during … a dark and stormy night!

    I’m going to sound like a heretic to Mythos fans here, but I’ll have to confess that I liked the horror stories of Howard and Clark Ashton Smith more than Lovecraft’s. 🙂


    • Hmmm… I share your heresy, at least in part – should I decide to go for a horror story, I’d probably choose CAS over HPL.
      And with this I do not want to deny HPL’s role as a master of the genre… but for my tastes, CAS Zothique (for instance) is much more satisfying.


    • Robert E. Howard contributed some excellent stories to the Mythos, as did Smith. They both helped develop it. REH’s short stories “The Black Stone” and “The Thing on the Roof” (I’ve just finished a novel-length sequel to the latter) are the best known and also the best, but his “Worms of the Earth”, “The Hoofed Thing” and the Solomon Kane yarn “The Footfalls Within”, which at least touches the mystique of the Mythos, are all worth a look.


  9. I’ve always been a fan of the Kull stories and the heavy atmosphere that overlays them, in particular in The Shadow Kingdom, I wish Howard had spent more time exploring its 100,000 years of history. Having said that though, Solomon Kane is my favourite character, God’s crazy mysterious avenger (which the movie ruined by trying to give him an unneeded backstory). Pigeons From Hell, Worms of the Earth and The Dark Man are another trio with great atmosphere, and Kings of the Night is one of the best big battle stories I’ve read.


    • I agree on the athmosphere in the Kull stories, but sometimes I find Kull himself a little too brooding for my tastes. Solomon Kane I discovered through two old Bantam (I think) paperbacks with gorgeous covers.
      And I actually did translate “Worms of Earth” for an Italian anthology, a few years back. Great story.


  10. Frost Giants Daughter
    Queen of the Black Coast
    Rogues in the House


  11. One of the best and only Conan novel by Hauard, that all who get interest in his writing must read, is “The Hour of the Dragon” a.k.a. Conan the Conqueror. Read it, felows. You’ll be thriled by it. Also, Black Collosus, A Witch shall be born, Beyound the Black River, People of the Black circle, Red Nails are best of the best that REH ever wrote.
    P.S. There are others characters that Robert created, and so: Shadow Kingdom – story of Atlantean born barbarian named Kull, later king of great Valusia; Red Shadows – superbe story of puritan avenger Solomon Kane; Worms of the Earth – about Bran MacMorn, last Pictish king, one of the best works in last century; Kings of the Night – basicaly a story of Bran but there also apeared Kull of Atlantis, came from the time before 100 millenia!
    Search them, read them, and welcome to the club. You’ll fall in love with them!


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