The sketch made by H.P. Lovecraft, of a statue of the Great Cthulhu, and sent to his correspondent R.H. Barlow in May 1934, always amuses me. Far from the fearsome Old One (first written about in The Call of Cthulhu, 1928), it seems to me a middle-aged man, sitting on the toilet, upon whom it suddenly dawns that there’s no more loo paper. Existential dread indeed, but it’s hardly the sort of creature to inspire madness and a quick demise, as so often happens to Lovecraft’s protagonists.
Robert E. Howard’s heroes are made of sterner stuff than Lovecraft’s. When confronted with the supernatural, they may be afraid or disgusted, but it seldom heralds the end of the story. More often, it’s an opportunity to kick the tale into a higher gear. In The Tower of the Elephant (Weird Tales, March 1933), in which Conan gets confronted with a cosmic being:
Smoke and exotic scent of incense floated up from a brazier on a golden tripod, and behind it sat an idol on a sort of marble couch. Conan stared aghast; the image had the body of a man, naked, and green in color; but the head was one of nightmare and madness. Too large for the human body, it had no attributes of humanity. Conan stared at the wide flaring ears, the curling proboscis, on either side of which stood white tusks tipped with round golden balls. The eyes were closed, as if in sleep.
This then, was the reason for the name, the Tower of the Elephant, for the head of the thing was much like that of the beasts described by the Shemitish wanderer. This was Yara’s god; where then should the gem be, but concealed in the idol, since the stone was called the Elephant’s Heart? (…)
Tears rolled from the sightless eyes, and Conan’s gaze strayed to the limbs stretched on the marble couch. And he knew the monster would not rise to attack him. He knew the marks of the rack, and the searing brand of the flame, and tough-souled as he was, he stood aghast at the ruined deformities which his reason told him had once been limbs as comely as his own.
Not only is an encounter with a Great Old One an opportunity for more action for Robert E. Howard, he goes one better, completely reversing the reader’s expectations. Yag-kosha is a victim, not the threat, in this story, and it’s the sorcerer Yara who is the real monster. Howard takes Lovecraft’s theme of cosmic horror and subverts it. But I wonder: did Lovecraft send him a similar drawing to the one he sent Barlow, before The Tower of the Elephant was written? Was it Sad Cthulhu, hunched on his perch, which inspired the image of the tortured Yag-kosha?
It’s all there – the humanoid body, the wings, the head’s not dissimilar when you think of it. Perhaps Howard simply ‘filed off the serial numbers’ by replacing the octopus-like head with an elephant’s. Or, perhaps, the evil sorcerer’s mutilation of the Great Old One went further than his body and eyes alone? Could Yag-kosha have had a multitude of tentacles around his mouth, of which only one survived Yara’s torture? Were the debased Yag-kosha and Great Cthulhu kinfolk?…
Content warning throughout, for discussion of sexual violence and racism, including examples of racist language.
A few weeks ago we literally had to extend our Billy bookcases, as this year’s Christmas haul had joined last year’s unshelved presents. So, the question came up: why would we give shelf space to writers we really don’t want there? Whose works are you willing to be in dialogue with, even when they and their authors are not perfect? Whose works do reflect who you are? And which works and authors cause embarrassing silences at the table?
Death of the Author, in short, is the theory that argues that creation and creator are unrelated. There are many facets to this, and your personal mileage may vary: what one puts up with, another will not. Emotions may come into play here, but principles too. For me, death of the author doesn’t wash, as what an author says and does is of influence on how I perceive their work. This extends to writers, filmmakers, musicians and visual artists. Critics may say that this is Cancel Culture, yet as a consumer I have the right to choose what I consume, just as publishers have the right to choose what they publish, and can choose whether or not to listen to calls from the public to publish – or not – a writer/artist. And if they are published, we can choose whether or not to financially support that work.
These choices are not always based on what’s legal. Material proof of Marilyn Manson’s abuse of Evan Rachel Wood has yet to be produced. Yet, her testimony is powerful and convincing, as are the reports of others who have experienced similar abuse. I believe her. But what to make of the hordes of men (mainly men) in the comments sections of entertainment websites, with their cries of “pics or it didn’t happen”? What climate does this create for any woman who suffers sexual or other abuse, when the default setting at coming forward is not being believed?
When will the Didn’t happen crowd be satisfied? Amber Heard did come with the pictures, yet it was easily spun as “self inflicted” and “she abused Johnny Depp first”. What proof will men be satisfied with, when in the UK less than 5% of rape cases reported to the police are referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, and of these, only three quarters make it to court? And what chance do women stand in court, when the defence attacks their morality and underwear, whereas the promising future of young men must not be compromised? And as for Marilyn Manson, if his own words are explained away as “That’s just his media persona talking,” can I understand why women feel embattled and a #metoo movement sprung up? Yes, I can. Does it affect how I listen to Manson’s music? Oh, yes!
Likewise, could I re-read the “feminist masterpiece” Mists of Avalon knowing how she sexually abused her daughter from the age 3-12 (should I add “allegedly” here?) and how she remained silent about the child molestation by her husband, for which he received multiple convictions? No, when finding that out, Avalon and other stray MZBs left our house. I wouldn’t be able to read them without adding a mental “yes, but you abused your daughter,” after each “strong female protagonist” bit of writing. This, also because she’s so very present in her books: the author may be dead to me, but it’s not a case of Death of the Author. Less clear-cut, of course, are films, the products of many hands and many talents: auteur films from the likes of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen may have lost their gloss, but films produced by Harvey Weinstein, not so much.
Then there are films that I can enjoy, though I won’t support the author. Don’t @ me; the first Twilight film isn’t bad. However, as I will not support the Mormon church and their wacky and homophobic beliefs, and knowing that Stephenie Meyer is a member of the church and will pay 10% tithe of all money she earns, I’ll not see a single penny of mine go towards her. Likewise for noted transphobe J.K. Rowling. And sometimes I’m just petty: a noted horror writer was rude to me in a Facebook group, so his books went from my shelf to the charity box.
And then you’ve got authors whose attitudes where, perhaps, “of their time”. How do you deal with sexism and racism in works from an era where these were the standard? Firstly, there is the work itself: is it unreadable? H. Rider Haggard is at times patronising about Black people and too often falls into the Mighty Whitey or White Man’s Burden tropes, but you can read he’s sympathetic towards his major Black characters. You feel he’s trying at least, as opposed to for example Edgar Wallace in his Sanders of the Riverstories. Rider Haggard I’ll happily read – She, for all its faults, is a powerful work, in which the Mighty Whitey’s rule is not at portrayed as entirely benevolent. Wallace’s “gunboat diplomacy”, however, I can do without. Then over to the people “behind the page”; what of H.P. Lovecraft, for instance? It’s pretty well known that the Weird Tales stalwart and Call of Cthulhu writer was racist. But, which white man in the 1920s and ’30s wasn’t? To answer this, I’m aided by the question: “How would they vote, now?”
I believe that HPL would’ve voted Trump, would’ve been very much in favour of The Wall, and I’d dare go as far as to say that he’d be liable to adhere to some QAnon trappings. He was a learned man, had ample opportunity to create a broader worldview, but stubbornly and unapologetically refused to do so. That racism is part and parcel of stories like Shadow Over Innsmouth is extensively documented.Now, Lovecraft scholar Bobby Derie, in his Deep Cuts, has chronicled some of HPL’s real life encounters with Black people. It’s worse than I imagined. In 1933 he wrote of Hitler: I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas—giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears ….. & the same goes for the dago slums!)
Compare this with what Robert E. Howard wrote on Nazi Germany, in a 1933 letter to Lovecraft: I might also point out that no one has ever been hanged in Texas for a witch, and that we have never persecuted any class or race because of its religious beliefs or chance of birth; nor have we ever banned or burned any books, as the “civilized” Nazis are now doing in “civilized” Germany.
Both letters are from 1933; before the concentration camps, before the worst excesses of the Reich, yet the writing was already on the wall, and with his “poison gas” comment, Lovecraft of course hearkens back to World War I gas attacks, so we’re not talking abstracts here. What (finally) did it for me was Derie’s quoting of a letter Lovecraft wrote in 1922. To colleagues and others further removed he could be polite, even to a Black editor, but writing to close family we get the unfiltered HPL, not only drawing a link between apes and Black people, but also using a slur frequently used by slave holders for Black men: Before the chimpanzee cage; gazing with rapt interest, & unconscious of the time, we noted two huge, jet-black buck niggers; one of them—curiously enough—in army uniform with a very businesslike trench helmet.
But how about Robert E. Howard then? Yes, he was racist too. However, his is a more tangled web where very bad portrayals of Black people go hand in hand with sympathetic descriptions of non-white characters. In his article Bran Mak Morn: Social Justice Warrior Jason Ray Carney writes about the story Worms of the Earth as a story about oppression, yet recognises that it is also written against a theoretical background of inter-war racist pseudoscience. While Lovecraft travelled and lived in New York for a spell, Howard pretty much stayed in Texas, and his literary influences go back decades, so there seems to be an element of ignorance too, less wilful than Lovecraft’s.
Howard’s ambivalence and confusion regarding race is can be illustrated with a 1932 letter to Lovecraft: I am not yet able to understand my own preference for these so-called Picts. Bran Mak Morn has not changed in the years; he is exactly as he leaped full-grown into my mind – a pantherish man of medium height with inscrutable black eyes, black hair and dark skin. This was not my own type; I was blond and rather above medium size than below. Most of my friends were of the same mold. Pronounced brunet types such as this were mainly represented by Mexicans and Indians, whom I disliked.
Howard’s more blatant racism (and sexism) seem to mainly occur in the more cliché Conan stories, which makes me wonder whether he wrote them pandering to a market which he knew was receptive to such tropes, much like he got the coveted cover spot by including lesbian flogging. This doesn’t excuse racism but implies a similar cultural landscape to today, in which it was a choice to act, or not, on principles of equality; in Howard’s case, earning his daily bread seems to have won out in the end. What for me is important is that Howard shows the capacity to grow and learn. Had he lived, I think he’d have enlisted to punch Nazis in WWII, shoulder to shoulder with Black soldiers. Lovecraft, I think, would merely bemoan the loss of American, Aryan, life and prudently keep his deeper thoughts from polite society.
With Derie’s work, and in particular discussions around the television series Lovecraft Country, a taking stock of sorts is underway. The Mythos, stories based on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and other cosmic horrors, is not to be scrapped completely, but conversations like this make it easier to discern which implicit and explicit elements to get rid of, and which to keep and foster. I am not convinced that a similar consensus has been reached around Howard’s work. Due to its more ambiguous nature, fans roughly fall into the camps of, “I like it, though it’s flawed, and we need to talk about it,” and “I like it just as it is. No SJW in my books!” Howard’s Conan stories, and the Sword & Sorcery genre in general, were discovered by many in their teens, and it’s hard for some to reconcile their undeveloped teenage views and nostalgia with a more adult, critical view. One publisher of a recent S&S anthology states, amongst other dog whistles: No political correctness and No social justice warriors.
Even so, with a recent flux of podcasts like The Cromcast (their episode on The Moon of Skulls, on racism in the Solomon Kane stories, is a must), Rogues in the House and Appendix N, all looking at the genre from a critical perspective, as well as a host of magazines who aim to make the genre about more than Manly White Men, the genre is slowly emerging from its unreconstructed ghetto. Robert E. Howard himself can yet be redeemed too; I just finished rereading the Kull stories, and found little racism or sexism in them: women are written with agency and personality, and I got the feeling that Kull’s Pictish, and non-white, brother in arms Brule is far wiser and hardly less skilled a fighter than Kull is. Then, as was pointed out by commenter Cora Buhlert: Yes, he was prejudiced and yes, there are racist bits in his fiction, but he also had Kull smash Valusia’s miscegenation laws with his battle axe.
Adaptations too need not be uncritical, and can be transformative. The Dark Horse Conan comics were generally well received, though Becky Cloonan’s portrayal of Conan was derided as “too thin.” Aside from this being a younger Conan and previous Conans perhaps having been drawn “too muscular,” I also wonder how much misogyny against a female artist has played a part in its reception. Cloonan drew the adaptation of Howard’s Queen of the Black Coast, as scripted by Brian Wood. Wood has a history of harassing women, and is a good example of Death of the Author. The adaptation, despite Wood’s interpolations, is still predominantly Howard’s story, and Cloonan’s art is worth sticking around for, so I don’t feel that urge to throw it out; Wood did lose his gig at Dark Horse when word got out, which I feel is just.
What strikes me on reading, and in particularly viewing, the comic is how it deals with its crew of Black pirates. When Conan first encounters them, they are (in Howard’s prose) “painted and plumed, and mostly naked, brandishing spears and spotted shields” with their white queen Bêlit forming “a dazzling contrast to the glossy ebon hides about it.” Cloonan depicts them as anonymous, almost black shapes with empty eyes and a suggestion of sharpened teeth; the idea of the savage as a 1930s reader, and a young Conan, would have it.
Conan joins the pirate queen on the Tigress and becomes the Mighty Whitey himself next to her. But as the story goes on, we get to know some of the crew better, like old N’Yaga and sub-Chief N’Gora. The language gets toned down a bit to blacks, black warriors, with huge muscles coiling and straining under their ebon skin when they try to shift a stone altar; terms which, aside from the words black and ebon were used to describe Conan. Later still, it’s N’Gora and his comrades. Cloonan’s pirates too morph into recognisable individuals, away from stereotypical depictions.
So, this is what we can do with what we don’t like; certain writers and artists we can take off our shelves, and not spend our coin on. Genres with a history of racism and sexism we can investigate and then transform and subvert. Inclusivity, in 2021, is a must, yet it involves excluding or changing that which is toxic. Because – who needs the presence of a writer who (“but think of the children!”) would want women barred from female toilets? Who’d want a Mythos that espouses fear of strangers, when those “strangers” are our neighbours and colleagues? What is a Heroic Fantasy fandom which cannot imagine heroes who are different but equal to the white, heterosexual male?
The prologue of Conan the Barbarian immediately makes clear what sort of hero we must make do with. According to the voice-over it’s ‘between the years that the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the Sons of Aryas’. On a battlefield we find a woman clutching her belly with one hand and a sword with the other. She’s in labour, but only by being cut from her womb will the baby deign to emerge, as her dying lips whisper his name-to-be.
A teenage Conan pays no heed when his father, the tribe’s blacksmith (Ron Perlman), tries to teach him the riddle of steel whilst forging him his first sword. In Celtic tradition a smith was half village elder, half shaman, but what should be a key scene of the film is understated, the mythological quality lost. This is typical of a film that turns out to be about an obnoxious murderer instead of a hero.
The torturously unpleasant violence from the movie’s opening continues when the village is invaded. Every bone-crunch of teenage Conan’s counter-attack is amplified, while the powerful character moments between son and soon-to-die father are lost, the filmmakers assuming we’re only interested in seeing Perlman get molten metal full in the face.
This tone persists. The adult Conan does unspeakably nasty things to captive baddies, and frees female sex slaves only to leer at them himself, then get them re-employed as tavern sluts. It’s a far cry from John Milius’ 1982 Conan the Barbarian, of which the current film is ostentatiously not a remake, despite the many recurring tropes.
Both films are about a man who seeks out and ultimately destroys the wizard-king who wiped out his tribe. But where the old Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) had innocence to balance his inherently thuggish life, the sum of his years spent at the Wheel of Pain and in the arena, new Conan is no better than the villains he dispatches in endless sword fights.
Lead actor Jason Momoa definitely shows a certain charisma and would be perfect in the role, particularly after playing the similar, but more nuanced, Drogo in Game of Thrones, were he not let down by the unimaginative direction and the shoddy script. It’s all stuff an adolescent’s dreams are made of: flashy gore and nastiness, grotesque villains and buxom damsels, but the film is light on the truly mythic, interesting character dilemmas and narrative logic.
The action sequences are cut too fast, disorientating rather than immersive, and quickly become repetitive and dull. The script, meanwhile, seems to have been cut to less than the bare minimum to get from one fight to the next. Character motivation is as scarce.
Indeed, about the women: Tamara (Rachel Nichols), goes from being an implausibly good fighter to a helpless puppet when the script requires it. When Conan claims her as his slave and gags her, it’s played as funny, not as a violation.
‘I live, I love, I slay… I am content,’ Conan mumbles halfway through the movie. As a motto it really holds no candle to his former incarnation’s answer to what’s best in life: ‘to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women’.
The producers have already blamed the failing box office figures on insufficient brand recognition, even though Robert E Howard’s pulp hero is doing well in every other medium, from comic book to video game. More likely, audiences aren’t fooled by ‘product’ slapped together for the lowest common denominator.
We’re on the cusp of the 50th anniversary of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comic, first written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Barry Smith. “How it came to pass” has been written about often, and while I’m definitely a fan, and have my fond memories (though not stretching back half a century), I also think that its legacy could have been handled with a lot more care.
I found my first Conan the Barbarian comics when I was 15, not long after I’d discovered him in prose, and I was sold. These were the Dutch editions of the Barry Smith stories, packaged as two US issues for each Dutch issue. These pages held an age undreamt of, with shining kingdoms and jewelled thrones, and as life was disappointing at the time, I was happy to escape into them. Eventually, I replaced my Dutch copies with the ’90s US reprints and then, years later, I started buying the Dark Horse collections. However, I didn’t quite enjoy them the way I once had. Something felt off, and it didn’t take long to notice that the colouring had been redone.
When Dark Horse republished the complete Marvel Conan the Barbarian series, they didn’t give original comics (or the ’90s reprints) as reference to the colourists who, according to colourist Jim Zub “had to fly blind on choosing color palettes.” Tom Scioli in his article for Comics Alliance: “Color creates a reading rhythm. If applied incorrectly, the story you tell will be bad. For that Marvel Comics second generation (Barry Windsor Smith and Steranko) color was very important. There’s a reason those auteurs took an active hand in it as early as they could. If color creates a reading rhythm, color becomes a writing tool. Different color tells a different story.”
It’s worth quoting Tom Scioli fuller: The coloring on the right is going for the verisimilitude of a night scene. The colors are muted and secondary. This is the color you get when you lay a night time color layer over everything. It’s the comics equivalent of “day-for’night” filming. It flattens the whole scene. It creates a convincing illusion of night, of rods and cones kicking in, but it is not inviting. It makes you view this as a photo rather than a tableaux you can wander around in. The reader is less likely to linger, more likely to quickly scan over.
The placement of reds and yellows throughout the page add a rhythm in the original. Grays and dull browns dominate the page on the right. The dominant color, blue is huddled in the center, keeping the eye from spending time on the panels around the edges. When Conan enters the treasure room in panel 9, there is a sudden warmth from the variety of colors, the greens, reds and yellow. In the reprint, the cold night dominates that panel as well, keeping it from feeling like a new moment. No color is allowed to shine through without it’s complement mixed in, too. Blues become teals. The old color is far from perfect, often full of technical mistakes, but it reads beautifully.
We see the same in the first page of another story. Nothing is allowed to stand out, everything is of the same colour value. Originally, FEAR was made highly charged by colouring it red; I don’t see any reason to colour it grey in the new version except for a fear of standing out. Careful now! In the first panel, Conan and his horse, and the rock on which they ride, are perfectly visible against the black night. Repainted, horse and rider become mud against the sky, and the rocks have been given more texture, and prominence, than Conan himself.
The second panel isn’t too bad, though it shows perfectly the airbrush colours and shading that are too prevalent in bad colouring. Good colouring is about making choices, about knowing where to put your accents, where to direct the eye. It’s not about rendering everything photorealistically; especially not when you’re working on top of an artefact of the ’70s. Fully understandable that the colourist wasn’t provided with the original copies to work from, but he could have done an approximation of what colours of the ’70s would look like, or better: feel like. It lacks authenticity.
This is also the case with the last panel, which lacks excitement. All elements have the same heavy and murky colour values, and ironically, by shading elements and adding colour effects, the resulting image is strangely flat. In the original version those marauders towering over Conan stand clear against the sky, instead of being flattened by it. They’re verticals on the horizontals of the rocks.
Conan and his girlfriend and horse are diagonals; they’re moving in the world of these men, but are not of it. Their diagonal lines, upper right to lower left, are dynamic, giving speed and action. The hurled spears are fast too, coming from upper left, their lines antagonistic to those of Conan’s party. The colourist understands this lay-out; of course he would – it was Barry Smith himself – and uses colours (or the lack thereof) to separate the elements. He’s using a very limited palette, even more limited than was available at the time, but he uses it meaningfully; his sparse use of red makes the spears and the young woman pop right off the page.
From the later Conan the Barbarian and Conan the King comics either example copies or the actual colour separations were available, so that the colours of the trade paperbacks could be faithfully reconstructed. I had a couple of stray issues of Conan the King I’d once bought on holiday. I liked the storyline, or what I could follow of it, which was less “monster of the month” than I was used to. I loved the artwork too, showing an older Conan in a moodier, somewhat more realistic world.
The original colourist for Conan the King (George Roussos) was a comic book veteran who knew how to expertly use the limited palette. He understood colour and depth, and most importantly, what the colours would look like on the page. In the above example, you see Conan and his associates surrounded by soldiers. The anonymous soldiers are uniformly grey, roughly the same colour of the background, while the men closer to him have brighter colours. Conan himself, of course, stands out, in blue metal cuirass, red cape and yellow lion emblem and helmet.
And yet, despite Dark Horse having used the same colour separations, the result is not at all pleasing to me. This is because the original comics were printed cheaply on woodpulp paper, while the reprints are of better physical quality, with a higher ink density and glossy paper. The results however are clashing colours, garishness and colour mixes which worked for the Marvel press but not for Dark Horse’s. You can see it best in the horses: a glossy black horse, rendered as grey-blue, becomes green, a tan horse becomes orange. The brown horse brcomes a fiery brown-red.
I’ve got reprints of other archival comics, where the comicbook pages were scanned and printed, flaws and all. You see it often with archival comics where the publisher really wants to give you a feeling of what the original experience would’ve been like. That, or not invest in cleaning the pages up; Allan Harvey is doing wonderful things with colour restoration. Yet, even with a couple of simple tweaks the colours of the Conan comics could have been recalibrated.
Here I’ve taken the above image, but dialled the colours back. Cyan (“blue”) to 80%, magenta (“red”) to 90% and yellow to 60%. This gives me a result pretty close to the original comic. Of course, you can argue over the values; should cyan be 90% and magenta 80%? Should there be a smidge more yellow? Nonetheless, while the end result would undoubtedly give a much softer impression, it would also look, on glossy paper and with clearer linework in better printing quality, more like the grown-up comic that it is: the limitations that the previous generations of artists worked with do not always, and often didn’t, lead to a lesser artistry.
(This article appeared previously in Fortean Times, in January 2013, and was nominated for a Robert E Howard Foundation Award).
“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jewelled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.”
With these words, Texan writer Robert E Howard introduced his most famous hero to the readers of the now legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales, 80 years ago now. It would be difficult to find someone who has not heard of Conan, be it through the comics, films or abundant paperbacks. They’ll know he’s a barbarian, battles wizards and monsters, and that he has mighty thews, though not necessarily what thews are.
But if they’ve heard of Robert E Howard at all, chances are they’ll have the notion that he was a paranoid, gun-toting, redneck savant who locked himself up at night and typed up the stories dictated by his ghostly barbarian muse. They also know that he had an unsound relationship with his mother, and killed himself when she died. Until quite recently there wasn’t much decent biographical information available, and since nature abhors a vacuum this lead to much speculation and a distorted picture of the man who seemingly out of nowhere created the genre of Sword and Sorcery.
Few would consider that Howard’s main theme, barbarism versus civilisation, goes much deeper than the snarling brute of popular imagination, and that it is actually a reversal of that image. Few would readily accept that the Conan stories form but a small part of Howard’s output in many other genres. In fact, he was effectively done with the Fantasy genre, and might not have revisited it, even had he lived past the ripe young age of 30.
The truth, as always, is less prosaic than the myth, but also far more interesting. To really understand Robert E Howard, however, you have to know where he came from; and then the rural Texas of the early 20th Century seems less unlikely a place for the father of Sword and Sorcery.
Before the Howards settled down in Cross Plains in 1919, they’d wandered all over Texas. Isaac Howard was a doctor who chased the various oil, cattle, land and railroad booms. He practiced what was called frontier medicine, a heady mix of practicality and experiment, always trying to stay at the forefront of medical developments. He may have bought into quack schemes, but also used revolutionary techniques such as hypnosis, and read books on yoga and Eastern mysticism. Later, when his son looked for inspiration for one of his occult stories, he didn’t have to look further than his dad’s study. FT readers may be happy to know that Robert himself had Fort’s Lo! in his collection.
Easy to get along with, a bit rough around the edges but capable, Isaac Howard was the sort of man that thrived in the West. The Texans of that time saw their society in transition; old-timers still remembered the battles with the Native Americans, and the Mexican civil war was just a decade behind them. Predominantly agricultural communities found themselves overrun by industry and, whenever oil was found, an influx of transient workers. Not getting any younger, with a wife in bad health and a teenage son, Isaac hoped to get settled in Cross Plains before it hit a boom, before all the other speculators, and his gamble paid off.
Much is unclear about Isaac’s wife Hester prior to their marriage.Hester Ervin was from Irish stock, one of 16 children from her father’s two marriages. She had a hard life taking care of siblings with TB, contracting this dreaded disease herself in the process. In his correspondence, Robert described how the Ervins, a ‘race of wanderers’, conquered the West in the mid 19th century, but while the basic facts of this personal myth check out, Hester must have told him many a white lie: she was a proud woman, and a degrading existence of starvation and hardship did not offer heroic tales to pass on to her son.
She seemed destined to be an ‘old maid’, until she met Isaac Howard in 1904, when she was 34 and he 32. They married, as much for practicality as for love: it offered her an escape and him a travelling companion and valuable help. They really didn’t expect any children, and that suited them well; Isaac was busy with his practice, she in the early stages of TB, and they were constantly on the road. Then, she conceived and miraculously – pregnancy was dangerous at the best of times – she and her son both survived. Somehow, the birth certificate lists Robert’s birthday as 24 (instead of 22) January 1906, and reduces her age by five years. It was the first time, but definitely not the last, that the facts surrounding Robert E Howard would be twisted.
Wherever they went, Isaac found plenty of work and respect. With him often away from home and with no proper roots wherever they lived, Hester and her only child were dependant on each other’s company, and a strong bond formed between them. Robert was a precocious child and, having learned to read at the age of two, devoured the classics of Stevenson, Haggard and Jack London. Increasingly housebound, Hester recited poetry to her son and presented her tuberculosis as the disease of poets and thinkers. She taught him the history, lore and legends of Mother Ireland, which gave him the idea that they themselves were descended from Irish royalty.
Most of Howard’s heroes are of what he defined as the Gaelic type, and he could give them depth of character because he identified with them. He may not have believed in reincarnation, but frequently used it in his stories, and as Conan of Cimmeria is a far descendant of Kull of Valusia, Cormac of Connacht in turn is one of the Celts the Cimmerians evolved into.
All of them are loners and fighters, all of them in exile of sorts. The outlaw Turlogh O’Brien, the pirate Cormac MacArt and the crusader Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, Brian Boru’s warlord Red Cumal, Cormac of Connacht – these men come not to build or create, but rather to kill and destroy; at best maintain. Conan and Kull end up as kings, but sit uneasy on their stolen thrones. These are all men that Howard could identify with, and it can’t be coincidence that most of them are tall and dark-haired. Some had grey eyes, some blue, but all of them, including Howard, could have been siblings.
Then there was Isaac’s mother: “My grandmother was but one generation removed from south Ireland and she knew by heart all the tales and superstitions of the folks,” remembered Robert in a letter to H P Lovecraft, “All the gloominess and dark mysticism of the Gaelic nature was hers, and there was no light and mirth in her.” She, and the stories she told, made young Robert’s hair rise, and while he tried his hand at the cosmic horror of Lovecraft, it’s in stories like “Pigeons from Hell” that he’s at his best. Their horrors are on a more human scale, an air of authenticity created with off-hand details and bang-on characterisation, and it’s easy to imagine that he wrote them with his grandmother’s voice in mind.
The legends of the Celts weren’t the only ones he heard, though, and in the same letter to Lovecraft he recalled the stories told by the Howards’ cook in his early childhood, an ex-slave he called Aunt Mary Bohannon. The returning dead of her tales may have been imaginary, but the cruel slave-master and his whippings certainly were not. These stories were the first that really moved him, and though the world he lived in was inherently racist, segregation was never clear-cut to him.
H P Lovecraft may have been one of those middle class townies for whom it was easy to expound on the virtues of the white race, the Howards dealt more closely with their black neighbours and Hester especially knew how despised the Irish themselves had been. While she taught her son to be proud of his heritage, Robert usually wrote with sympathy about those who history gave the short end of the stick – the Native Americans, the black antagonists of his boxing stories and especially the wild, elusive Picts and their god-king Bran Mak Morn.
That Robert’s later stories are so eminently readable, and that each has its own strong narrative voice, can be traced to those stories told to him from his earliest days. From Aunt Mary, his mother and his grandmother he learned to tell a tale as if he himself believed it, no matter how tall or fanciful it was. His stories are on a human scale, “Poets are dangerous things,” he reveals in one King Kull tale, “because they believe what they sing, at the time“. But it wasn’t just the stories he heard that formed him and informed his own writing: with the blood and violence that we find there in such abundance he was all too familiar.
As son of a country doctor, Robert became familiar not just with the farming accidents you’d expect, but also with the legacy of the population explosion caused by the oil boom: knife and fist fights were common amongst the roughnecks, and as victims of violence and industrial accidents were dropped on the Howard’s porch to be patched up by his father, innocence was soon lost for the young observer. As he later confided in a letter to H P Lovecraft: “The average child of ten or twelve who’s lived through a boom or so, knows more vileness and bestial sinfulness than a man of thirty should know.” [Letter to HPL, December 1930]
But Robert also learned other lessons on the rounds with Isaac. Often, Robert would wait on the porch and listen to the old-timers as they exchanged stories. Tall tales had been a vital and daily part of life in the frontiering of the old West, and had both a social and psychological function. They invariably dealt with the life of hardship the pioneers led, but also celebrated their individualism, courage and resilience. In Robert’s lifetime these tales reflected nostalgia for an era before progress, keeping the frontier spirit that was so typical for the American character alive.
Often, such tales would have a core of truth, either in their main character or historical event, and they were told with humor or exaggeration. Bragging was a celebrated skill, with the audience complicit in the lie – as often as not, the narrator was the butt of the joke. In earlier times these settlers, cowboys and roughnecks would have created a Beowulf; in this more realistic age, the tales took a more comic, parodic, or ironic turn. Humour makes a hard life softer.
As a teenager, Robert had gone out with his friends to gather tales from the old people, not unlike what the Brothers Grimm had done a century earlier, and he’d become something of an expert, lecturing out-of-state correspondents on local history and lore. However, while he saw folklore and myth as the collective folk memory and part of the history and identity of a people, he couldn’t resist tweaking the stories to improve them, as he also ‘improved’ his own family’s history. In his work, too, he would rewrite history in the guise of fiction.
Especially the stories Robert wrote at the dawn of his career for local newspapers and magazines adhere closely to the form of traditional tall tale, with colourful language, local settings and a nostalgia for the old ways of the wild, wild West that were disappearing rapidly. This influence remained particularly strong in his boxing adventures and comedy westerns, with protagonists like the oafish Breckenridge Elkins recognised as parodies of Robert himself. To his later Westerns he brought realism: far less straightforward than the White Hat heroics of John Wayne, they foreshadow the violence and grit of Sergio Leone. At a time when the detectives of Hammett and Chandler exploded in the pulps, Howard wrote what could best be described as ‘Desert Noir’.
Though classified as a Fantasy tale, “Beyond the Black River” is as realistic as any of Howard’s stories. It’s one of the later Conan-stories, and with his hero at the height of his popularity, Howard found the freedom to infuse it with the concerns that kept him awake at night, firmly grounding it in his own native soil. Sure, it contains some magic, but not much of it, and what it is really about is life on the frontier. Written in 1935 it reaches back to when he first thought of Conan while visiting the town of Mission, near the border between Texas and Mexico.
Mission lies a mere 15 miles from the Alamo mission, where James Bowie, with the frontiersman-turned-congressman Davey Crocket, fought a losing battle in 1836 against invading Mexican troops. The Alamo passed into legend, ultimately culminating in the image of John Wayne wearing a raccoon on his head. In Howard’s story, the outpost is on the Pictish border, where Conan joins the young woodsman Baltus and tries to save the fort from a Pictish uprising, ignored as it is by an uncaring government.
The hero of tall tales is larger than life, distinguished by an extraordinary birth or childhood, and usually associated with an animal. It took five storks to deliver Paul Bunyan, and he adventured through the whole of America with his blue ox Babe. Calamity Jane apparently was on horseback before she could talk, Davey Crockett had “the ugliest dog in the district” and Pecos Bill was raised by coyotes. These animals are totems, like Odin’s ravens and the dog that gave Cuchulainn his name. Battlefield-born Conan is known as Amra, the Lion, while Baltus teams up with a vengeful half-wild dog.
In this Hyborean Alamo, Conan and Baltus stand in for the larger than life folk heroes Bowie and Crockett, and the story is built from the stuff that tall tales are made of, in which their heroes often find themselves fighting against ‘progress’, trying to preserve their way of life. Conan here is that hero, warning against the proverbial barbarians at the gate, but also using his own barbarian ways to preserve the status quo. And as so often in these tales, the fight is ultimately futile, and Baltus -as did Crockett- dies a heroic death. Conan survives by the skin of his teeth, and as the story concludes we find him in a pub, nursing his grudge against civilisation. The words spoken to him by a fellow survivor could have been those of Howard himself:
“‘Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,’ the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. ‘Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.'”
This belief was intimately rooted in Howard’s early experience of the world. The oil boom came to Cross Plains when he was a teenager, bringing with it a tide of speculators, roughnecks, criminality and disease. Robert grew up an impassioned critic of how oil booms destroyed the social, economic and moral structures of previously stable communities. As he wrote in the Argosy All-Story Weekly in the spring of 1929:
“I’ve seen towns leap into being overnight and become deserted almost as quick. I’ve seen old farmers, bent with toil, and ignorant of the feel of ten dollars at a time, become millionaires in a week, by the way of oil gushers. And I’ve seen them blow in every cent of it and die paupers. I’ve seen whole towns debauched by an oil boom and boys and girls go to the devil wholesale. I’ve seen promising youths turn from respectable citizens to dope-fiends, drunkards, gamblers and gangsters in a matter of months.”
In the intensely practical culture of Cross Plains in the ’20s, few people would regard Howard’s career as writer as a legitimate job or part of his family’s financial support. He had tried to fit in and taken various manual jobs, but he hated being told what to do by people he considered his intellectual inferiors. He slogged off his frustration in boxing matches and ironically gained respect as regional champion amongst the roughnecks he otherwise despised. When his father allowed him to focus on his writing, Robert increasingly withdrew from the community, and soon he felt he was seen as “Doc Howard’s crazy son Bob“.
Howard would spend the rest of his life shuttling between brain and brawn, and Novalyne Price, the on/off girlfriend of his late twenties, didn’t know which she’d be dating on any given day. He was quick to anger at perceived slights, and found plenty to criticise as the town experienced a second oil boom. Howard probably felt that his disdain was justified, and the bleak tone in which he described his world at the time to his correspondents bore all the signs of a bitter social detachment.
The photograph of him that is most often reproduced is also the least representative. “That damn fool hat bothers me,” he complained to Novalyne when she made him wear it for the photograph. For him it represented the hated sweep of modernity in rural Texas, and though he’d wear it for her, he would – or could – conform no further and eventually they broke up. Half a century later Price wrote about their time together in “One Who Walked Alone”. The book is required reading for any Howard scholar, and the film based on it, “The Whole Wide World”, should appeal to fan and layman alike.
While ill at ease with the people of Cross Plains, Howard found an ersatz family in the authors of Weird Tales. This brotherhood of authors like H P Lovecraft, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith and E Hoffman Price passionately argued their work and influences, and indulged in sneaking references to Lovecraft’s Old Ones in their stories. There was an enormous respect for each other, but also insurmountable differences. Lovecraft’s racism irked Howard, and when Hoffman Price visited Cross Plains he raised an eyebrow over Howard’s armed vigilance against highway robbers, not realising that he’d fallen victim to authentic, Texan showmanship; myth-making in progress.
Editor Farnsworth Wright, as Pater Famillias of Weird Tales, was a capricious figure who approved or rejected stories according to his own taste and instinct. He as much as Howard shaped what Conan would become. Left to himself, Howard would include few love interests and what women did appear could easily take care of themselves. Under Wright’s aegis, there was sex appeal, and floggings were abundant, with a chivalrous Conan rushing to the rescue.
In the latter cycle of Conan stories Howard had the opportunity to investigate the various themes that interested him, but it wasn’t always like this. While Wright liked much of the first of two Conan stories Howard submitted to him in 1932, “The Phoenix on the Sword”, his verdict on the other was brief: “I am returning ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ in a separate envelope, as I do not much care for it“. [Letter, 10 March1932].
Howard often described how Conan sprung up in his mind fully formed while on holiday, the combination of “various prize-fighters gunmen, bootleggers, oilfield bullies, gamblers and honest workmen,” but he confided in Novalyne Price that this was a stock answer and any character’s origins were a mystery to him. And while he might have had the initial idea for Conan at the Rio Grande, it took him quite a while to get a handle on the character and his world.
To help him get started he based “The Phoenix on the Sword” on an unsold Kull adventure, “By this Axe I rule”, with the romantic subplot removed and some magic inserted. Farnsworth Wright requested a rewrite, and Howard duly replaced a lengthy introduction with that now famous quote from the Nemedian Chronicles, starting “Know, O Prince,” then mentioning Atlantis and “an age undreamt of“. Hither came Conan, and Howard felt that he had a winner on his hands.
Though he disparaged himself as a hack and told others that the stories wrote themselves, Howard actually worked hard at both the craft of writing and the marketing of his stories. He outlined them in detail, then wrote multiple drafts and made careful revisions. Howard was not the idiot savant that fantasy fandom myths sometimes make him out to be. He drew a map of Conan’s world and gave it a pseudo-historical framework with his essay The Hyborean Age.
The second batch of Conan yarns Howard wrote yielded far from the best stories. Howard knew that he could get away with writing to a formula and sell just about every Conan story he did.”I had a splitting sick headache, too, when I wrote the first half,” he told Clark Ashton Smith about “Rogues in the House”, and stories like “Iron Shadows in the Moon” and “Black Colossus” are not any better. With their obligatory monsters and damsels in distress, though, they are among the most imitated precisely because their formula is easy to follow.
Howard wrote these stories at a gallop: the Depression has killed off some of the other magazines he sold to, and as his mother’s health was spiralling downwards he needed the money to cover her medical expenses. The Howards relied on the cheques that they received each month from Weird Tales, but then those cheques stopped too coming, with the not inconsiderable sum of $800 owed. Farnsworth Wright’s idiosyncratic approach to publishing also extended to the payroll administration.
“I always hate to write a letter like this, but dire necessity forces me to. It is, in short, an urgent plea for money. It is nothing new for me to need money, but the present circumstances are different from those in which I generally found myself in the past,” begins a letter Howard wrote to Wright in May 1935, followed by the eerily prophetic “If you cut off my monthly checks now, I don’t know what in God’s name we’ll do.“
The whole letter is worth reading and would wring tears from a stone, but Robert received reply nor money from Wright. While he finished some more Conan stories, they were works in transition. Increasingly he realised that his heart lay in the wild West, and “Black River” is already halfway there. The last was “Red Nails”, its crumbling of a decadent civilisation not merely the backdrop for the stor, but its meat and bones. With this, Howard was done with Conan and with Weird Tales.
As 1935 ended and 1936 began, a crisis seemed unavoidable. Isaac was seldom home, relentlessly doing the rounds amongst his poverty-stricken patients. Through his agent Robert found some success selling his Westerns to magazines that did pay, but he missed the stability that Weird Tales had offered. Hester’s health deteriorated further and as he now was her sole carer, Robert hardly found time to work. “Woman after woman we hired, and they quit, either worn out by the work or unwilling to do it,” he wrote in his last letter to Lovecraft, in May 1936, “I’ve gone for nearly a week at a time without even taking off my shoes, just snatching a nap as I could between times.“
Though Esther’s condition had stabilised when Robert wrote this, he knew it was temporary. Emotionally drained, he saw no prospect of earning a steady living from his writing, had no-one to love (and love him) and feared growing old or ill himself, and for him “the game was not worth the candle“. Isaac saw it coming, had hidden the household’s firearms, but had reckoned without the borrowed small gun that Robert kept in the glove compartment of his car. On the 11th of June 1936 Hester sank into a coma from which Robert was assured she would not awake. He walked out of the door, got into the car, and shot himself.
“Can you authenticate the story?” wrote Hoffman Price, “It seems so damn outrageous I can’t believe it.” Lovecraft had written him the bad news, taking it upon himself to write an obituary for Weird Tales in memory of Howard’s work. “To hell with the blow to literature,” bristled Hoffman Price, “the loss of the man is so damned incomparably greater than the loss of anything as stupid as literature.” He himself tried to sum up his friend, but found it impossible. “An overgrown boy–a brooding anachronism” he tried, “A man of strange, whimsical, bitter and utterly illogical resentments and hatreds and enmities and grudges.” Eventually gave up, concluding only that, “If you met Howard, I can not add; if you did not, I can not start.” – an undoubted truth that has tripped up Howard scholars and biographers ever since.
A heartbroken Isaac Howard buried his wife and son and began the consuming work of putting Robert’s affairs in order, amongst them the now legendary ‘trunk’ containing thousands of pages of unsorted typescripts, notes, drafts and letters. He tried to get the Weird Tales payments, by then over $1500, out of Farnsworth Wright but it only got him letters about the editor’s own ill health. Aged by both time and his circumstances, Isaac died in 1944. Lovecraft had already passed on in 1937 and Weird Tales went under in 1954 in the general collapse of the pulps.
In the 1950s, the Conan stories resurfaced in hardbacks after Weird Tales writer August Derleth successfully brought Lovecraft’s work to a small but dedicated audience. Where Lovecraft had a torch bearer in Derleth, Howard got science fiction writer L. Sprague deCamp who saw his own career on the wane and seized with both hands the opportunity to edit Howard’s work. He then dipped into ‘the trunk’, completing unfinished drafts and converting Howard’s other work into tales of Conan. “This did not prove difficult,” he wrote proudly, “I had merely to delete anachronisms and introduce a supernatural element.”
In the mid-60s Frank Frazetta fixed the definitive look of Conan with his cover paintings for mass market Lancer paperbacks, while deCamp as self-appointed biographer sketched the popular image of Robert E Howard as “maladjusted to the point of psychosis“. Many rewrites and ‘posthumous collaborations’ and pastiches by deCamp, Lin Carter and others followed; then the Marvel comics and finally John Milius’s 1982 film “Conan the Barbarian”. By now, Conan had become an oiled-up Muscle Beach hero, and Howard himself the subject of broad speculation. “He was convinced that the town wanted to exterminate him… and he would go home and board up his windows, load rifles…A complete nut!” director John Milius says in a documentary accompanying his film. He continues: “he’s alone one night, and he feels a shadow overtake him from behind, and he knows that Conan stand behind him with a large axe! And Conan tells him: ‘Stay there and write!’.”
Howard himself had now become a myth, a tall tale.
Ever since the early 50s, Robert E Howard has had a dedicated fan following, quickly centering around Glenn Lord, the literary agent for the Howard Estate. It was he who had tracked down ‘the trunk’, and published those letters, drafts and poems not picked up by other publishers in his fan magazine, The Howard Collector. If the adulterated Conan had always been a thorn in the side of these fans, the 21st century saw some light on the horizon, first with Dark Horse comics based solely on Howard’s writing, then with rumours of a new Conan movie, and finally with gorgeously illustrated reprints of pure Howard and several well-researched biographies.
But even now the urge to mythologise is difficult to overcome. Unable to come to terms with Howard’s suicide, the story of the fans’ literary hero, his depression and untimely death demands a clearly identifiable external cause, and the finger is often pointed at Hester and Isaac Howard: she portrayed as demanding and shackling her son with her apron strings; Isaac as absent and greedy. In the larger story of Howard scholarship meanwhile, deCamp is still seen as an usurper whose meddling did Conan more harm than good. There still is a lot to unpick and perhaps ignored: Howard was a complex man whose life does not obey the rules of drama.
Besides, rather than focus on his death, it may be more fruitful to focus on Howard’s writing. Underneath all the fantastic trappings, Howard wrote about a world he knew. The bulk of his work is written with skill and honesty, and is as fresh as when it first appeared a lifetime ago. “But the real secret“, wrote HP Lovecraft of Robert E Howard’s stories, “is that he himself is in each and every one of them“.