Sunday, March 2, 2014

Robert E. Howard, The Master of Action

My tale of becoming a fan of Robert E. Howard is actually a rather recent one. Yet it is one I don't regret in the least.
Almost everyone is familiar with his most famous character in passing; Conan. No matter who you are you've heard the name or seen a picture of him with a massive sword and swollen muscles. He is of course just a brainless brute that swings a sharp piece of metal around and nameless bad guys, right? Well, that's what I wanted to find out. I supposed that if he was so famous there might be a reason for it and decided to take a peek at some of his work. That was one of the smartest decisions I'd ever made.

It was perhaps seven months ago that I first began looking into the Conan stories. To my surprise most of these stories were rather short, being novelettes or short stories. Many people tend to turn their noses up at shorter works, which is a considerable pity, as they are often some of the most fun and creative writings I've seen.
I started off with the first Conan story The Tower of the Elephant. Folks, right from there I realized why the Conan stories had survived for so long. Robert E. Howard went from being an obscure figure to me to being one of my favorite authors in under a year. Not just with Conan either. REH was an wonderfully diverse writer, having astounding range and writing in a multitude of different styles. I found myself stunned when I went into some of his other works and saw just how versatile he was. But lets start off simple and work our way down.
Warning: There WILL be some spoilers, although I will try to keep them vague and to a minimum. If you are interested, then simply scroll down to the bottom to the links to the stories. I give my full endorsement to these stories.

Seeing as how Conan is the most famous REH character, it makes sense to start with him.
At first glance to the uninitiated Conan is a mindless brute with only four things on his mind: Blood, pretty women, treasure, and more blood. He just looks like the most basic personality deprived gore fest imaginable.
Yet a little bit more digging reveals that he actually does have character. Not super deep, but it is there. Conan fits very much in the same category as Tarzan. A simple but solid character.
Conan is a primitive man, raised in the cold heights of Cimmeria, a land within the fantastic world of Hyboria. Speaking of which, this is so far the only world building I've seen from REH, but darned if it isn't well done. Using inspiration from real traits throughout history he has been able to craft an astonishingly realistic world with all types of politics, kingdoms, tribes, and other elements working against each other. The realism here fits wonderfully and serves almost like a playground for Conan to work in.
Conan himself is a barbarian, in this context used as someone having grown up in a world of extraordinary hardship outside any form of civilization. Like Tarzan he was forged in the fires of an unforgiving environment, resulting in an absolute beast of a warrior with amazing physical capabilities. Conan is much more straightforward, letting nothing stand in his way. He is no scholar, but he's not stupid. His motivations are in fact painfully simple, but this is arguably his greatest asset.
In his upbringing of the Cimmerian tribes he has only a rudimentary understanding of civil interactions and religion. Where he comes from people are polite because if someone is rude they run the risk of getting an axe in the face. You can see why this might lead to him having problems inside cities, best shown in one of his first stories, The Tower of the Elephant.

Conan wishes for nothing more than enjoying the height of adventure in any way he can along with life's most base pleasures. He will go to forbidden places purely for the sake of braving what no one else will. His heart is often set on gleaming riches of all kind and is often the driving force of where he goes and what he does. He makes no bones over wanting to be rich and rising to power. While he does have a sense of honor, Conan is NOT what anyone would call chivalrous. He doesn't like to fight fair, he has no problem with stealing or flat out murder. Distinctly unlike Tarzan he is not hesitant about having gorgeous women fawn over him. He can be very dominating against some women, yet at other times he is strangely respectful, although he does little to hide his ideas. In some cases he has something resembling loyalty to specific women and actually goes out of his way to help or comfort those in need. A very curious code he has!
He is often impulsive and certainly has an anger problem which seems to make him inhumanely durable. He will bolt into unknown danger recklessly or cause destruction out of anger. Yet within his skull is a calculating, intelligent, if simple, mind. When in command of military forces he is a brilliant strategist. He takes into account everything from logistics to landscape, enemy thought processes and soldier capabilities, often making him a deadly foe even if outnumbered and outclassed.

But of course his greatest capabilities are in what he can do in person. Built like a gorilla used for testing steroids and having leopardish speed, Conan is a huge man with astounding physical prowess. His greatest skill is with the sword, and has thus far yet to meet any one who can match him. He has brutish strength, witty speed, unflinching endurance, deft dexterity, warrior cunning and animal ferocity. All of these make him an absolute horror in close quarters combat, allowing him to cut through heavily armed and armored enemies like a combine fueled by the blood of those who oppose him.
He is proficient with many other weapon types including axes, fists, knives, bows, and just about everything he can get his hands on. He has shown however that while an excellent archer he prefers not to use arrows, feeling it to be a cowardly weapon, revealing some of his preference to fight enemies head on. In fact, he can kill opponents with virtually any object handy, as he once slew a villain with merely a wooden stool and a stout swing!

While having few consistent friends Conan is loyal to those he does consider his allies, as proven best in one of his best stories, Queen of the Black Coast, while also revealing his innocence of "civilized" law. Having befriended a city guard he saw no problem when the man defended the honor of his sweetheart, who his captain attempted to sully. The guardsman ran the captain through and went into hiding. Conan felt that this just made sense, and was thus baffled when brought into a court and was then plied with questions, the judge insisting that the young guard had broken the law and that Conan reveal the location of his friend. Conan felt that the guard was well within his rights and that it would be most foul to betray him. When the judge ordered Conan arrested, things went about as well as you think they would. Mainly a lot of blood staining the carpet.
Crude, certainly, but it is telling that he has some sense of honor.
Another time in perhaps his best story, Beyond the Black River, one of my favorites, he reveals just how stealthy he actually is. In this one he makes a rough acquaintance with a young woodsman named Balthus and the two engage in a quest to apprehend a mysterious wizard of a primitive tribe of Picts and to forestall a brutal slaughter taking place along the frontier where the Picts and more organized empire, the Aquilonians are attempting to expand their territory and settle it. It's a very Wild West themed story, and beloved by many by its excellent parallels.
The mission goes awry, and while Conan goes off to slay a nightmare of a creature, Balthus and a grieving dog, Slasher, are left to hold back the raiding Picts and prevent them from murdering the many settlers ahead. Both Balthus and the dog are sadly killed, although not in vain, as they save many people in their efforts.
Conan grimly listens to what happened, and although he knew both for only a short time he vows to slay ten Picts for each, as both were exceptionally brave and gave their lives to protect others.

Conan even has rare examples of unusual respect for women he deals with. On one occasion he purchased a lovely women from a slave market, yet actively protected her. When stranded in the desert he tricked her into drinking all the water they had left and then proceeded to carry her in order to help her survive despite his own suffering. Later in the same story another women wishes to have Conan. Here he displays another strange form of loyalty. Although he doesn't love the woman he purchased, and the other obviously wants to get it on with him, he refuses, leading to conflict.
Perhaps his best relationship was in Queen of the Black Coast with the pirate queen Belit, who seemed to truly care for each other. Any who think that Conan cares only for treasure and hormones, let your doubts be dashed here, for when she dies Conan has an entire fortune at his feet. But he doesn't touch it, and instead strives to avenge Belit's death. Even after he is successful he is ever after remorseful of her passing and gives up pirating on the high seas, for they seem to have lost their luster with Belit gone.
In yet another example that surprised even me was in The Teeth of Gwahlur Conan is searching for a tiny chest of priceless gems and is interceded by a prostitute in a political game whom he only knew in passing. Yet in the final confrontation he has to make a choice of which he can have only one: Save the insanely valuable gems, or the prostitute that he barely knows? To even my surprise he saved the woman without hesitation.

The man can climb almost anything that can be climbed and fight anything that can be fought. He is wickedly ferocious and basic yet has traits of innocence and positive bravery. Although beholden to no country or person, only himself, he does show to care to some degree, and even makes a decent politician later on! Well, he basically avoids screwing things up royally by keeping his barons from taxing people into oblivion and smashing any threats with himself at the head of the attacks. Still better than many politicians currently in office.

In a not very short summary, Conan is an extremely fun and diverse series with little coherent chronology, yet it doesn't seem to matter. The writing style is fantastically powerful and energetic. The charge REH delivers to his words reveals the extreme passion he felt. They leap off the page and drag you into the adventures with the barbarian.
REH somehow makes everything compelling, including what some consider to be a mortal sin within writing, exposition through dialogue. Yet he accomplishes this with deft skill while not slowing the story in the least. Here his writing has the momentum of a freight train loaded with lead going downhill with no breaks.
There's a darned good reason why Conan is still known today, and that's because the execution is absolutely awesome. Even today among the many authors I've read I've yet to find anyone who can write action with such glowing energy as Robert E. Howard does. Yet this is just the first in his lineup, so scroll down to see what other fantastic stories and characters he made!

Far lesser known than Conan but no less epic is Solomon Kane, a puritan swordsman of the 16/1700's who's main goal in life is to vanquish evil wherever he finds it and to rescue the innocent. Although no less grim in style than Conan, Kane is distinctly more heroic, as his motivations are quite selfless. But don't let the religious background of the character fool you: He doesn't go around burning innocent people as witches and getting people frothing with religious fervor. No, he goes about alone seeking out those who rob, murder, plunder, maim and destroy. Think of Judge Dread without the Law and replaced by a conscience. He doesn't ask for rewards, he doesn't look for wealth. He only sets extremely simple goals and seeks to finish them regardless of how long it takes or what obstacles he must overcome to accomplish them. He feels very much like a force of nature and has the type of determination that is comparable to Finnish sisu, which is darned impressive!

The gaunt Englishman is an epic warrior, a classic figure of pulp fiction. His weapon of choice is the saber which he uses with superb skill. This guy is a John Carter swordsman and boy does he feel amazing with his whirling blade. He is capable of using the musket although he uses them rarely, preferring to be accompanied by a pair of pistols which he can use quite well.

Grim but valiant he is pretty heroic and fun to follow. Sadly he hasn't had as many stories written about him as some of his other characters, but he is pretty darned good regardless.
The style is very much the same used in the Conan stories. Dripping with action and arcane civilizations set against the hero.

REH also wrote some wonderfully detailed horror stories, many taking clear influence from his fellow writer and friend, HP Lovecraft, dabbling in strange forbidden knowledge and ancient cities, one of my personal favorites being The Fire of Asshurbanipal. Even more he had other historical action adventure, again with the same style above. Those are often his most pulse-pounding action stints, but his styles can go beyond this trademark, which we shall get into now.

One of the settings REH went into most were actually boxing stories starring a grizzled sailor known as Steve Costigan. To be honest, when I heard that most of REH's writing was about boxing I was left scratching my head, wondering how he could wring so many stories out of people punching each other. I expected something like Rocky 1 through Rocky 17.  Deciding that it was professional to at least give them a chance, I jumped into a few of them. Boy, did I learn how narrow minded I was!
These are less about boxing and more about having a boxer be put into all kinds of fascinating fights in exotic locations. Steve is one of the sailors aboard the ship The Sea Girl which mostly travels around the Asian waters and the Pacific.

Steve himself is not terribly bright, often falling for obvious traps, being suckered into strange schemes and just in general getting himself into trouble. He has a distinct anger problem, is very impulsive, doesn't think things through which often results in him punching many different people and wrecking lots of places. Yet he's strangely likable. He's a good natured oaf with a conscience and always fights fair. While not the sharpest marshmallow in the group, his unflinching loyalty and basic sportsmanship makes him quite enjoyable and makes you want to root for him. He has a simpleton charm that I certainly can't help but like.

As mentioned before, he's a boxer, and a darned good one. He doesn't limit his fist flying to just the ring, as he'll plug anyone who gets him sufficiently riled. When he gets into life or death brawls you can definitely detect REH's voice in how durable and powerful he is. But unlike the grim, brutal sword slashing stories mentioned above, these stories are actually very lighthearted, comedic and curiously charming. It's done in a first person style which really started showing me how much range REH had.

It feels very much as if the grizzled sailor is sitting down at a table in some dank bar telling the story to you with his thick slang. I keep thinking that it'd be jarring for the slang to be juxtaposed with rather high-brow language, but somehow it never really bothers me, a testament to the skill it's written with. While the audience can see many of the twists and turns coming, Steve walks right into them without notice, yet at the same time his simple brand of valiance brings him through.

These stories often end on very positive notes, such as him having made a new friend or having shown what kind of person he is at heart. In the story Breed of Battle we see just how grief-stricken he is when his faithful bulldog Mike is kidnapped. Even when he's caught up in a bitter fight with a man trying to punch his nose into the back of his head, he's far more worried about the well-being of his four legged friend. It was a story that actually touched me and felt very sweet in spite of his many blunderings and actions that would land him in prison with a huge list of crimes.

The humor involved is rather amusing, although it requires a bit of an appreciation for subtlety. I've not yet read all of his boxing stories, and some of my research indicates that he wrote boxing stories for other characters which I've not yet come across. There's an awful lot of good writing and only so much time to read up on them all!

Next to the boxing stories, REH's Western stories were the second most prolific. (Although I may be wrong on that, he did a heck of a lot of both) Howard grew up in Texas only a short time after it was tamed to some degree, and anyone can tell from his writing that the spirit of the West was strong in his blood. Like ERB he was an adventurous American type relegated to sifting through paper, something I find many great adventure writers have in common.

“To me the annals of the land pulse with blood and life,” he once said, revealing some of his skill with poetry which he dealt in as well. Most of his Westerns centered around the backwoods hillbilly Breckinridge Elkins, a bear of a young man with a thick skill, a monstrous constitution and a horrible streak of luck. Like the Steve Costigan stories these are written in first person with the characters telling us of their grand hyperbolic adventures with gross exaggerations that one can't help but be amused by. You again feel like the giant guy is sitting in front of you innocently telling you about the misfortunes that took place around him, in some cases almost as if he's venting about the injustices that took place, vividly displaying his perception of what happens around him.

Much like Costigan, Breckinridge is a generally ignorant and easily manipulated person that gets into trouble constantly. Although in these stories it's often more a case of the various Elkins relatives browbeating him into doing assignments for them outside of their literal nick of the woods, where he gets caught up in disproportionately dangerous situations the same way iron shavings are drawn to a magnet. The poor guy can't buy a plug of tobacco without being embroiled in some kind of bank heist, feud, civil uprising or the like. And you thought John McClane got into spots often!

Yet at the end of each backbreaking errand that usually results in more than a dozen bodies, four pounds of lead expelled at muzzle velocity, thirty laws broken per hour and several gallons of blood spilt he finds that he was sent on a fools errand over some minor mistake that was resolved shortly after he left to fix it! Poor old boy!

The stories have a distinct exaggerated tone that one expects to hear from the rural territories and really helps sucks you in. Breckinridge, if his word is to be taken at face value, is the human equivalent of a renegade tornado in a trailer park, as he often ends up rending entire buildings asunder with only his hands. Yet he's quite innocent in many respects, trying to actually stay out of the way of the law, with very little success. But boy is it amusing to read about!
We can again sense REH's voice in this writing as well if you know where to look.

Along with his other writing mentioned above and not even counting the many others I've not yet read but will speak of in later posts, the man had greater range and dexterity with the English language than any other man I've ever seen. During his short writing career he churned out dozens of well written short stories and a few novels of staggering diversity and magnetic engagement. It is thus that I believe the world was deprived of one of its greatest writers when Robert committed suicide shortly after the tragic death of his mother. It's a very sad tale in and of itself, which I prefer not to delve into here.

Yet the strength of his voice has carried on through the decades. His work still captivates the minds of readers even when in competition with movies, games, shows, comics, and all the other legions of entertainment. His writing still stands proud and has many fan dedicated to promoting his fantastic contributions.

Sadly, many literary people consider him to be a rather simple and crass writer, refusing to grant him a place in the annals of literature. Sure, his stuff still sells, but it's regarded by some as just being indulgent trash that shouldn't be considered anything special. I beg to differ. Although ERB was a simple entertainer and world builder, REH was a wizard of action and pacing. His magic was done with the typewriter and pen, yet achieved far greater affects than some of the magic users in his own stories! Never have I seen an author with the same level of diversity in writing styles and superb execution as this man.

It is thus that I write this tribute to him as being one of the greatest writers of the early 1900's, a man who's writing I encourage you to look into if you have an eye for adventure and appreciation for quality story telling.
I will put up information on some of his other work when the opportunity arises, but for now take a look at what you can find!

Next up, The Master of Horror: HP Lovecraft!

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