East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Two-Guns Bob at 114: on the need to start reading Robert Howard again

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The first thing I ever read by Robert E. Howard was People of the Black Circle, the opener in Conan the Adventurer and still my favorite Conan story today. I bought the Italian edition in the early ’80s, the sturdy hardback with that gorgeous Karel Thole cover that gave me a lot of problems both at home and in school.

Indeed, the first thing I was asked when a schoolmate saw I was about one third into the book was…

“Has he already raped someone?”

That was when I learned that sword & sorcery was considered on a par with pornography by those that did not read it.
Forty years on, I sometimes get the impression that a lot of those that do not read sword & sorcery are still under that impression – but now they write it.
What is one to make of a writer of “fantasy of hard knocks” claiming to want to “emulate the violence, sex and foul language that are the core of Robert E. Howard’s Conan”?

Robert E Howard was born today, 114 years ago, and was to become one of the most influential fantasy writers of the 20th century – which is ironic, considering he lived in a small backwater town and struggled for most of his short life to make ends meet.
Also, the irony extends to the fact that his influence has become so widespread that a lot of people seem to have known him only through derivative work.

What made Howard great, at his best, was not the violence, the sex or the foul language (but, really?) but the sheer, raw power of his storytelling, coupled with a masterful economy in writing. A complex individual and a purveyor of what Stephen King called “tales of power for the powerless”, Howard put in his works the kind of honesty and intelligence that are the mark of the author, and elevate even the cheapest hackwork above the lowest common denominator to which some of Howard’s followers seem to cater even today.

Howard wrote because he was bursting with stories, and because he had something to say. He also did it because it was his job, his way to pay the bills, but the stories were there, and they screamed and roared to get out.
Some of his stereotypes have not aged well, and have been the subject of many attempts – the latest still going on as I write – to be appropriated by a specific political side eager to attract new followers. Such attempts are, to me, a lot more offensive than the damned clichés that Howard used: they are out of time, and they glaringly lack the honesty of Howard.
But if some of Howard’s bits and pieces have not aged well, his characters still tower tall in the genre, and his perpetual siding with the underdog in his stories still give his best work an edge, and resonates with the readers.
Howard’s heroes can be strong, fierce and competent in their fields, but they are always faced with overwhelming odds, and while these can be, certainly, fantasies of power for the powerless, there is a moment, in the life of an adolescent, when a character crawling out of a battle, as the bruised and battered sole survivor, still fiercely defiant, can be a life-saver.

Bringing it all down to violence and gore is vulgar, and unjust, and a sign that one has not gone beyond the cover illustration, not really.

It would be good, I think, should the fantasy fans out there that have met Conan only in the comics, or in the movies, to go back to Howard. Discover the Conan of the stories, but also Solomon Kane, El Borak, Steve Costigan, Dark Agnes and all the others. It would be good to read the stories, going beyond the swordplay and the fistfights, and listen to the rhythm of the dialogues, feel the darkness boiling underneath the surface, drink in the sizzling power of the prose.
Let’s read Robert E. Howard, let’s read him truly and not superficially.
It would be a nice gift for the birthday of Two-Guns Bob.

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.

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