Saturday, January 22, 2011

In Memoriam: Robert Ervin Howard

It is hard to sum up any man in but a few words, even moreso when the man in question is Robert Ervin Howard, who was born on this day in 1906. Rather than attempt to do so, I instead offer up this excerpt from H.P. Lovecraft's tribute to him, published in the September 1936 issue of Fantasy Magazine:
The character and attainments of Mr. Howard were wholly unique. He was, above everything else, a lover of the simpler, older world of barbarian and pioneer days, when courage and strength took the place of subtlety and stratagem, and when a hardy, fearless race battled and bled, and asked no quarter from heartless nature. All his stories reflect this philosophy, and derive from it a vitality found in few of his contemporaries. No one could write more convincingly of violence and gore than he, and his battle passages reveal an instinctive aptitude for military tactics which would have brought him distinction in times of war. His real gifts were even higher than the readers of his published works would suspect, and had he lived, would have helped him to make his mark in serious literature with some folk epic of his beloved southwest.

It is hard to describe precisely what made Mr. Howard's stories stand out so sharply, but the real secret is that he himself is in every one of them, whether they were ostensibly commercial or not. He was greater than any profit-making policy he could adopt -- for even when he outwardly made concessions to Mammon-guided editors and commercial critics, he had an internal force and sincerity which broke through the surface and put the imprint of his personality on everything he wrote. Seldom, if ever, did he set down a lifeless stock character or situation and leave it as such. Before he concluded with it, it always took on some tinge of vitality and reality in spite of popular editorial policy -- always drew something from his own experience and knowledge of life instead of from the sterile herbarium of dessicated pulpish standbys. Not only did he excel in pictures of strife and slaughter, but he was almost alone in his ability to create real emotions and spectral fear and dread suspense. No author -- even in the humblest fields -- can truly excel unless he takes his work very seriously, and Mr. Howard did just that in cases where he consciously thought he did not. That such an artist should perish while hundreds of insincere hacks continue to concoct spurious ghosts and vampires and space-ships and occult detectives is indeed a sorry piece of cosmic irony!
Well said, Mr Lovecraft, and happy 105th birthday, Mr Howard.

15 comments:

  1. I picked up an excellent book last summer from Chapters. It is called "And Their Memory Was a Bitter Tree" It is a collection of Conan stories with several pieces of art by frank frazetta and Brom. Lovecraft's tribute is in the forward.

    I think the final sentence is particularly relevant today in the twilight and Halo "novel" era.

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  2. "sterile herbarium of dessicated pulpish standbys"
    Now that's a good one.

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  3. Truly one of the all time greats and he was gone much too soon.

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  4. A fine obituary, for sure. I wonder if he implicates himself or is being gratuitously self-deprecating when he speaks of "insincere hacks" concocting spurious "occult detectives"? Seems like he finishes with that to undercut himself as an honorific for Howard.

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  5. I bet Seabury Quinn at least crossed his mind when he made the reference to occult detectives.

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  6. I too am a bit mournful this morning. If folks have time - the entire introduction to Don Herron's The Dark Barbarian is online. Brilliant summation of the man's life and legacy.
    http://www.barbariankeep.com/darkbarb2.html

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  7. I don't know much about his life, and I'm one of those people who saw the movie(s) and the Frazetta art and books ABOUT him, before reading his stories.

    But his tone, his word choice, and his impeccable characterization of Conan as a quintessential and genre-defining character, and so many other things that are worthy of study by anyone getting into writing...

    I wish I'd been able to follow this man's work in the way we can follow authors now in the modern web-powered era. I -- along with others -- would have learned so much more and he would have received far more recognition for his achievements than he did.

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  8. Truly a masterful writer. "Hour of the Dragon" is one of the best fantasy novels ever written.

    I love Howard's fast-paced, energetic style of action adventure. It's as out of style as horn-rimmed glasses now, but I think that fact reflects badly on our times, not on Howard.

    I do think Howard had flaws as an author, but his overall style is wonderful. I wish there was a venue in which that sort of writing could be published today. Anyone know of where???

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  9. Were 'occult detectives' a stock element of fantasy in those days, comparable to 'ghosts and vampires and space-ships'?

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  10. "Occult detectives" were pretty common in the pulps. The Shadow is probably the best known example, but there were many others.

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  11. Howard and Lovecraft are my favorites among the Pulp authors of the 20s and 30s. Indeed, Conan and the Hyborian world form one of the main supports for my vision of what a FRPG setting should look like. One of these days I'll run a game set there.

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  12. Over 70 years later, with countless tributes and dedications to Howard, and Lovecraft still did it best. "In Memoriam" is just a beautiful piece of work, top to bottom.

    Were 'occult detectives' a stock element of fantasy in those days, comparable to 'ghosts and vampires and space-ships'?

    Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin stories were occult detective stories, and the most successful series of Weird Tales during the Lovecraft Circle period. I can't help but view that as a jab at Quinn on Lovecraft's part.

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  13. Lovecraft's personal letters represent his best written works, this tribute no exception; it's marvelous. As for fiction, I've lauded Quinn and derided Lovecraft in this blog, so I won't go into those particulars now, not to mention the timing would be in bad taste given the subject. I will say that I can see on Lovecraft's part some frustration that Quinn's stories routinely garnered the cover illo from Weird Tales while his collected stories published by the mag garnered none.

    Nonetheless, a fine piece

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  14. It really is a pity he took his own life.

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  15. Thanks for the answers everyone.

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