Thursday, January 22, 2009

Libations for Two-Gun Bob

On this day, 103 years ago, Robert Ervin Howard was born in Peaster, Texas. Though he tragically took his own life at the age of 30, his boundless imagination, as exemplified by his greatest creation, Conan the Cimmerian, lives on. Indeed, if one were to take into account how widely-known the name of Conan has become, it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to claim that Howard was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

Quibbles on that score aside, there's no question that REH's writings are one primary of the wellsprings of the genre we now call "fantasy," making him a spiritual ancestor of the hobby of roleplaying. Howard is one of only a handful of writers mentioned by name in both OD&D and Empire of the Petal Throne as an inspiration for their creation; countless more gamers and game designers alike have looked to the stories of Conan, Kull, and Solomon Kane for the same.

For myself, Howard has long been a writer I admire. Like Lovecraft, his worldview is rather different than my own, but that has never prevented me from gleaning genuine insights from his writings. It's a shame that many people still dismiss REH as a hack pulp writer, never realizing how much they're missing by doing so. Howard has his flaws and falls too easily into a certain repetitiveness from time to time, but about what great writer could we not say the same, particularly ones whose writings formed the template for an entire genre?

If by some chance you read this blog and you haven't read a Robert E. Howard story lately, I urge you to do so; you won't be sorry. In the meantime, I raise my glass to the memory of the Last Celt.


  1. Can we really blame either Lovecraft or Howard for a certain repetitiveness? When you're churning out short story after short story, hoping to be sent a paycheck from your work--which often arrived weeks or months late--it's hard to keep things fresh.

    I own the "Coming of" and the "Conquering Sword" collections of his work. I must say, having only recently (within the past 3 years) been exposed to pulp hackery, it's very refreshing to read when compared to "epic" Tolkein derivative fantasy that permeates the local Borders and Barnes and Noble shelves.

    Because of my interest in trying to better understand D&D, in great part due to your blog, I've begun to amass quite a little collection of work by CAS, Lovecraft, Howard--among others. The local mom & pop book store liked my selections so much last time (A Princess of Mars & a big hardback set of Doc Savage books) they gave me a discount and didn't charge me sales tax.

  2. I've read all of his Conan stories twice, and several others as well. He's definitely in my top 10 of favorite authors!

  3. Like many other people, I read the paperback Conan collections in the '70s. These were by REH as well as others, who either completed fragments or wrote new stories to "fill in" the legend of Conan.

    Lately, I've gotten my hands on some pure, unadulterated Howard. He truly was a much better storyteller than I was led to believe, and totally deserves all the kudos we can heap on him.

  4. Loved Howard and Edgar Rice, but I read more Conan books than Tarzan or John Carter. Plus many a comic book adaptation of all.

    These three book series, with a generous helping of JRR, made loving D&D for the rest of my life a sure bet.

    Didn't Russel Crowe (or somebody or another) Play Robert E. in a dramatic movie about three or four years ago?

  5. Thanks for pointing this out - I didn't realize what day it was, and this is definitely going to motivate me to go home, have a couple of Irish Stouts, and read some REH.

    I've been in the middle of Bernard Cornwell's Sword Song - fitting material to be reading today - but I'll set it aside for an hour or two for a bit of Conan or Cormac Mac Art.

    Thanks very much again James for making a note of this day.

  6. Thanks for posting this. Fortunately, I have some beer at home. Tonight should be a good night to reread one of my favorites, Red Nails, and hoist a bottle or two. :)

  7. Ah Conan. I devoured Conan in HS. Good REH stuff. Bad LS DeCamp stuff..
    Didn't matter, I loved it all.

    Oddly enough I tend to have a higher opinion of the Conan movie than most Grognards.

    Now I wanna read some again... off to 1/2 price books!

  8. Brunomac, you may be thinking of Vincent D'Onofrio in "The Whole Wide World," which was not a bad attempt to tell his story.

  9. REH is pure awesome!!!

    If you cant afford to get the Del Rey books, then you can read them at Wikisource - a sub-site of Wikipedia:

    The first yarn I have read was Red Nails. I hate reading stories from the computer scrren, so I print it out - I even printed out the Weird Tales cover! It looked a bit shabby, but it was still awesome!

    Dont forget he is also a poet. His poetry is some of the ballsiest stuff that I had ever read! If you had to read any of his non-fiction, start with the essay The Beast from the Abyss. It a really good read, and you dont need to be a Conan fan to enjoy it!

  10. Oddly enough I tend to have a higher opinion of the Conan movie than most Grognards.

    I have very mixed feelings about the film. Arnie is simply terrible as Conan and the plot makes a hash of Howard's work. On the other hand, I love the soundtrack, think James Earl Jones is awesome, and see a lot of Howard's spirit in the film, even if the specifics are often utterly, utterly wrong.

  11. Brunomac, you may be thinking of Vincent D'Onofrio in "The Whole Wide World," which was not a bad attempt to tell his story.

    No, it's not bad at all. There are lots of omitted or garbled details in the film, but I think there was a lot of good in it too, most particularly the attempt to portray Bob Howard as a real human being -- amazing how often such "little" details get forgotten by people.

  12. I did not know that today was his birthday. Robert E. Howard was a creative genius who died too young like a rock and roll star. His writing is great, but ultimately, it's the dream of another world and the power of the imagination to bring us there that was the gift he gave the world. May his spirit be rocking through those worlds (Hyboria, the docks of Shanghai, the deserts of Afghanistan and so on) today.

  13. "I must say, having only recently (within the past 3 years) been exposed to pulp hackery, it's very refreshing to read when compared to 'epic' Tolkein derivative fantasy that permeates the local Borders and Barnes and Noble shelves."

    Isn't this the truth, though? I can't count the number of times that I, while first reading Howard, actually had to stop and put the book down for a second to to reflect on just how *human* his protagonists are compared to the current mainstream of the genre. Sorcerers and giant snakes aside, their concerns and struggles are actually ones I can imagine myself having. It's almost shockingly refreshing the first time. Like jumping into icy cold water.

  14. Funny you should mention him. A few years back, I bought this three volume set of books that collect all of Howard's Conan stories. This includes the unfinished drafts that were later expanded upon and published (but only in the form that Howard left them in, and not the eventual published versions).

    I bought them because they looked interesting, and I realized I have never read Conan. I started reading them finally because of your blog. All this talk of the fiction that lead to D&D has put me in a mood to read the classics. So, i pulled out my unread Howard and Lovecraft to start reading them.

    Damn, but these are some great stories. Even the formulaic ones where it is obvious Howard is writing for his market as opposed to writing innovative stories, these are far more engaging and literary than I would have expected. Not at all the Conan we know in pop culture.

    Now I need to hunt down the Soloman Kane compilation book I saw a while back.

  15. The Solomon Kane stories are great. If you're familiar with WFRP, Kane is one of the models for the Witch Hunter career.

  16. When I first found Grognardia I dug around in my old sea chest and looked for my old Conan books...I was completely dismayed to find that not one of them were actually written by Robert E. Howard. I then immediately went out to Amazon and picked up the complete Conan series released on his 100th birthday by Del Rey.

    And THEN I really fell in love. Wow... I was flabbergasted. I had no idea what a fantastic writer he was and I'll not hesitate to suggest it to anyone willing to take the plunge.

    Happy Birthday R.E.H.!

  17. Yeah, those Del Rey editions are the ones I have. Didn't they also do Solomon Kane and Bran Mac Morn books at the same time?

  18. We salute you, Mr Howard, O Grand Master of Sword and Sorcery!

    The Spider-God's Bride and Other Tales

  19. My exposure to the film (CtB) predated my exposure to written Conan, which in turn predated my exposure to unsullied Howard work. So it's perhaps not surprising that I'm very fond of the movie, not so much because of Arnie but because Milius seemed to get the tone of the Hyborean Age about right. Plus the costumes are terrific and the soundtrack is awesome, and the supporting cast (well, James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow, anyway) are very capable.

    In a sense, though, The Sword & the Sorcerer is a better Conan movie than either actual Conan film - it lifts the opening necromancy scene and the bones of its plot right out of The Hour of the Dragon, and Talon as a character is, through much of the film, closer to Conan than Arnie's Conan was. It has a lot of goofiness and kitsch in it, admittedly.

  20. Didn't they also do Solomon Kane and Bran Mac Morn books at the same time?

    Yes. There's also a collection of Kull stories.

  21. The Sword and the Sorcerer will forever be remembered by me as the movie with "the grindstone scene," where a soldier is killed by having his face pushed into a grindstone -- that he's making turn with his own foot.

  22. Much of the acclaim Howard receives is of course due to the popularity of Conan. As others have mentioned, if you're a fan of the Conan stories, you should absolutely read some of about Howard's other characters, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, and especially Solomon Kane.

    In addition to that, Howard wrote boxing stories, oriental stories, westerns, comedies, and tons of other adventures and settings, and every one of them is worth reading.

    If you're limiting yourself to the Conan stories, for whatever reason, you're really missing out on some gems.