If you read fantasy and don’t at least know the name “Robert E. Howard” then I have to wonder if you’ve been living under a rock. For a detailed biography of Howard, go here. The quick version is that he was a pulp writer in the 1920s and 1930s whose life ended in suicide at a young age. He was insanely prolific as a writer and wrote across many genres including westerns, sports, sailing adventures, and comedy. However, he is famous for his fantasy writing (which is what I’ve mostly read) and created the iconic characters of Bran Mak Morn, Kull, Solomon Kane and, of course, Conan.
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.
~ H. P. Lovecraft, "Robert Ervin Howard: A Memorium", Fantasy Magazine, 1936 (Reprinted in The Last Celt, Glenn Lord ed., p. 69, 1976

Although he had his faults as a writer, Howard was a natural storyteller, whose narratives are unmatched for vivid, gripping, headlong action. His heroes – King Kull, Conan, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane are larger than life: men of mighty thews., hot passions, and indomitable will, who easily dominate the stories through which they stride. In fiction, the difference between a writer who is a natural storyteller and one who is not is like the difference between a boat that will float and one that will not. If the writer has this quality, we can forgive many other faults; if not, no other virtue can make up for the lack, any more than gleaming paint and sparkling brass on a boat make up for the fact that it will not float. 
~ L. Sprague de Camp, Conan of the Isles, "Introduction", 1968

Howard’s writing will always have a special place in my heart because his works, especially Conan, are the reason I became interested in fantasy. I was a huge fan of the 1980s Conan movies (which I later found out were little like the original stories). When I finally finished college, got a job and my life slowed down a bit, I used the extra cash to buy those collected Conan stories. I devoured the books and then moved on to his other fantasy characters Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane and Kull. Kull was great and similar to Conan. Kane was a pleasant surprise since the time and feel of those stories were so radically different than Conan. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten around to reading Howard’s writings in other genres, specifically the horror stories, though I plan to one day do so.

Those Conan stories not only made me want to read more of Howard’s works but also more of fantasy in general. And to this day, Conan is still my favorite character in fantasy.

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 jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.

"... you speak of Venarium familiarly. Perhaps you were there?" - "I was," grunted [Conan]. "I was one of the horde that swarmed over the hills. I hadn't yet seen fifteen snows, but already my name was repeated about the council fires."

Conan is larger than life and someone who cherished every moment afforded to him. He did what he wanted, when he wanted: thief, pirate, bandit, mercenary, common soldier, king, and so on. Many who haven’t read the original stories assume Conan is a mindless barbarian but such an assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, one of the attributes that makes the character so great to me is that he is just as much of a thinker as he ever was a warrior/fighter.

"I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content."

"Barbarianism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is the whim of circumstance. And barbarianism must ultimately triumph."

A strong part of Howard’s writing was his world-building. I know many refer to Tolkien as the grandmaster and originator of building a fully realized world (and he was great). However, I much prefer Howard’s method. He never beats you over the head with Hyborea’s characteristics, history, and climate. He gives you just enough information as the story needs. In one paragraph he paints an image that many fantasy writers will take pages to do the same with. What is even more impressive is how all the details of his world seem to tie in together despite the fact that his writings were much shorter and less planned than many of the sprawling epics today. The best compliment I can give to Howard’s world is that I can almost believe that the place really existed in some lost, long-forgotten time.

Then suddenly the borealis, the snow-clad hills and the blazing heavens reeled drunkenly to Conan's sight; thousands of fire-balls burst with showers of sparks, and the sky itself became a titanic wheel which rained stars as it spun. Under his feet the snowy hills heaved up like a wave, and the Cimmerian crumpled into the snows to lie motionless.

The blare of the trumpets grew louder, like a deep golden tide surge, like the soft booming of the evening tides against the silver beaches of Valusia. The throng shouted, women flung roses from the roofs as the rhythmic chiming of silver hoofs came clearer and the first of the mighty array swung into view in the broad white street that curved round the golden-spired Tower of Splendor. 

Here are a couple more from the Solomon Kane stories:

Kane gazed, awed. This was truly a hell on earth. As in a nightmare he looked into the roaring red cauldron where black insects fought against their doom and perished. The flames leaped a hundred feet in the air, and suddenly above their roar sounded one bestial, inhuman scream like a shriek from across nameless gulfs of cosmic space, as one vampire, dying, broke the chains of silence which had held him for untold centuries. High and haunting it rose, the death cry of a vanishing race. 

Slowly he rose, mechanically wiping his hands upon his cloak. A dark scowl had settled on his somber brow. Yet he made no wild, reckless vow, swore no oath by saints or devils. "Men shall die for this," he said coldly. 

Now, was Howard’s work without fault? No. Even among the Conan stories, there’s some weak writing. And at times his dialog can be cringe-worthy (although on some level, I still find it awesome).

"Lift that scimitar against me, you Hyrkanian pig and I'll gut you where you stand!"   

"You cannot escape me!" he roared. "Lead me into a trap and I'll pile the heads of your kinsmen at your feet! Hide from me and I'll tear apart the mountains to find you! I'll follow you to hell!" 

But once you understand his background…self taught, lived in isolation, and worked under intense deadlines in which he could rarely afford time to rewrite/edit like many writers do today, you can understand some of his shortcomings.

I had neither expert aid nor advice. I studied no courses in writing; until a year or so ago, I never read a book by anybody advising writers how to write.
~Robert E. Howard

Howard once said, “I have not been a success, and probably never will be.” It’s a shame that he never got to see how wrong he was.

I know that without his stories, I probably wouldn’t be writing today.

, ,

2 Responses so far.

  1. Mike says:

    I enjoyed reading that. I remember a few years ago you just seemed to be suddenly engulfed by a love for fantasy. It's nice to see how that came about. I don't know much about Howard, but I will say that I've tried reading The Lord of the Rings and I'll agree that Tolkien went on for way too long when he was describing Middle Earth. Some people like that about him and like that about the stories - how descriptive they can be, but when I was reading them I would just think, "C'mon man, get to the action, stop describing Middle-Earth!"

    And if I had a blog, I'd write an entry titled, "Influences - Todd Snider" His influence on my life is immeasurable.

  2. Thanks. I think you'd probably like a lot of the fantasy I've read. You have to remember that like Howard, Tolkien also wrote in a different time and the authors who came after them were able to learn and improve on their mistakes.

    You should start a blog titled "How to successfully stalk Todd Snider." Ha.

Leave a Reply