Robert E Howard collection, HEROES IN THE WIND: revisit your heroic past

I was literally raised on Conan stories. My dad was a Conan fan, and when I was a kid, he would spin out half-remembered Conan tales for me on long car trips, changing Conan into a gender-diverse trio called Harry, Larry and Mary, who would vanquish evil rulers and then create a dictatorship of the proletariat in their wake (Dad was, and is, a Trotskyist, after all).

When I was old enough to start reading on my own, I fell in love with heroic fantasy and with RPGs, and I went out and devoured the whole Conan canon on my own, buying stacks of used paperbacks from Bakka in Toronto, reading and re-reading them indiscriminately -- the Robert E Howard originals, the L Sprague De Camp books, all of it. The first book I ever attempted to write, at the age of 12, was a blood-soaked homage to Conan, in which the phrase "mighty thews" appeared in practically every paragraph. (As I recall, I also talked my mom into reading some of the Conan stories aloud for bedtime and when I was sick, which speaks volumes about her patience!).

But I haven't read any Conan in, oh, decades. Nevertheless, when legendary science fiction and fantasy scholar John Clute told me that he'd just finished editing Heroes in the Wind: From Kull to Conan a new collection of hand-picked Robert E Howard stories, spanning Howard's astonishingly prolific career as a pulp adventure writer of everything from westerns and boxing stories to the legendary Conan tales, I found that I was overcome with an urge to revisit the heroic tales of my boyhood.

I did, and I am every bit as delighted by them as I was when I was 10 years old.

Somehow, I never knew much about Howard. I had a dim recollection that he had killed himself, but that was about it. So it was with incredulity and a little bit of awe that I read Clute's superb introduction to the collection, and acquainted myself with the biographical facts of Howard's life. He was a driven, small-town Texas boy, a boy who loved his wasting, tubercular mother and applied himself to literary hackdom like no other in order to support her. Howard wrote and sold more than 160 pulp adventure stories between 1928 (when he was 22) and 1935 (when he was 29). He typed these stories in a fury all night long, screaming the words aloud as he pounded them into the keyboard (to the horror and bemusement of his neighbors). He had few friends and only one short romance. When his mother died, he stopped writing. Not long after, he blew his brains out.

Clute's analysis of Howard's work and life (drawing on Howard's extensive correspondence with HP Lovecraft) is a fascinating read, and it sets up the stories wonderfully. The stories themselves sample some of Howard's most iconic creations -- Kull the Conqueror and Solomon Kane -- and span many genres, including a wonderfully brutal short western novel, Vultures of Wahpeton.

The final third is given over to Conan stories: "The Tower of the Elephant," a tense dungeon-crawl; "Queen of the Black Coast," a smouldering, sexy pirate epic; "A Witch Shall Be Born," a blood-soaked revenge-play; and the novel-length "Red Nails," a story of decadent fallen tribes waging war on one another in a dead walled city.

Howard's writing is muscular, unapologetically dramatic, and, for all that, innocent and genuine, without a hint of self-reflexive hesitation or doubt. Just look at this:

In an instant he was the center of a hurricane of stabbing spears and lashing clubs. But he moved in a blinding blur of steel. Spears bent on his armor and swished empty air, and his sword sang its death-song. The fighting-madness of his race was upon him, and with a red mist of unreasoning fury wavering before his blazing eyes, he cleft skulls, smashed breasts, severed limbs, ripped out entrails, and littered the deck like a shambles with a ghastly harvest of brains and blood.

Invulnerable in his armor, his back against the mast, he heaped mangled corpses at his feet until his enemies gave back panting in rage and fear. Then as they lifted their spears to cast them, and he tensed himself to leap and die in the midst of them, a shrill cry froze the lifted arms.

Imagine a haunted Texas lad in his crappy apartment in the middle of the night, screaming those words at the wall as his fingers tortured the keys! What romance! What adventure!

Robert E. Howard, Heroes in the Wind: From Kull to Conan


  1. Thank you for posting this! I will purchase this forthwith, and woe be upon those who would stand in my way!!

  2. Looks awesome!

    Howard’s works are also well suited to the comic format. I particularly enjoy Dark Horse’s Conan and Kull series. Gore, action, and just the right amount of T&A. Yeah, baby!

  3. The film “The Whole Wide World” (1996) is a well done bio-pic of Howard, focussing on his later years, his relationship with his mother, his demons and passions, etc. Really well done and not widely seen flick – Vincent D’Onofrio starred as Howard (and produced); Renee Zellweger played the school teacher who had a friendship with him – the movie is based on her memoir of this time in her life.

  4. I just purchased the audio book Conan: The Cimmerian a couple of weeks ago. I had to look up what “thews” meant because it came up so often.

  5. Cory, I love that your dad is a Trotskyist who put a Commie spin on Conan stories. Coming from a Red Jewish family myself, I can relate to that. My dad tells a hilarious story of my great-grandparents telling him a Marxist version of the Passover story.

  6. Conan was one those gateway drugs that we all hear about for me into fantasy. Oh and yes the quote is from QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST. That has always been my favorite Conan story from the moment he thundered down to the wharfs on the stolen horse and leaped onto the departing ship.

    It was the L. Sprague de Camp 12 book collection of Robert E. Howard and his own Conan stories that had me fall in love with Conan. I LOVED the 3 book collection that came out a couple years ago that had all the original Robert E. Howard CONAN stories in the order that they were published. I highly recommend those.

    I of course will buy this new collection too to give out to friends.

    Thanks Cory.

  7. Cory — You really need to write down those Trotskyite feminist Conan stories. That’s a genre mashup I don’t believe has been done before, and it has a lot of potential. (The “as told to me by my dad” angle could be worked into the narrative too, a la The Princess Bride…)

    If you use this idea I want 10% of the royalties KTHXBYE

  8. I had a similar phase with Kull and Conan. For better or for worse, it set me up for the Gor series…

  9. I’ve been chugging my way through the ‘Complete Conan’ that came out a few years ago, thoroughly enjoying the fact that they really are excellent stories. Howard lets his pre-history seep out from everywhere and Conan is a brilliant hero. Good times :)

  10. I’ll second the Kurt Busiek graphic novel of Conan, great stories told beautifully in comic form. Cory I’m surprised you didn’t go into the whole H.P. Lovecraft/ROH connection.

    /good stuff!

  11. Dammit, he wasn’t Conan the Proletarian! However, in the context of a pre-feudal agrarian society, initiatives towards an organized class society based upon the exploitation of the peasants is actually a progressive exemplification of the dialectic, leading inevitably to subsequent bougeoisification of the urbanized merchants, who are themselves contain the germ of the subsequent capitalist classes.

  12. There was an excellent film made of that short romance, with Renee Zellweger and Vincent D’Onofrio (as Howard) in 1996 called The Whole Wide World.

  13. Cory, I’m on to you. That entire post was simply an excuse to use the phrase, “Conan canon,” wasn’t it?

  14. Boy, do I relate. Robert E. Howard was my first favorite author, discovered at the age of 9, and his splendid Conan stories were my gateway drug to pulp — an addiction that persists to this day.

    Much thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  15. I’ve been a Howard fan since I happened on a used copy of CONAN THE ADVENTURER in 1966 or ’67–that incredible Frazetta cover made the sale, but after reading for about two minutes, Howard’s work spoke for itself. As it happens, REH shuffled himself off this mortal coil before his mother died; he knew she was in her final illness and could not bear the thought of going on without her, something he felt–and said–that his father would be able to do. It’s hard to say, but in some of his later work Howard did get more thoughtful and introspective, as witness his alter ego Esau Cairn’s confusion over his feelings for the girl Altha in the flawed-and-insufficiently-polished ALMURIC. Had REH lived another 30-40 years, he might well have done work to stand with the best writers of the Southwest and indeed the whole of America.

  16. You can not mention Robert E. Howard without mentioning the awesomeness of his poetry. The REH foundation recently published an 800 page book of all his works that you can’t find anywhere without collecting the hard to find out of print books; limited to just a few hundred…the third printing alone has just 75 copies.

  17. It’s a travesty that a collection of classic American pulp stories by a writer from Texas is only available via Amazon UK. I have no problem buying from another country, but the shipping is going to cost me as much as the book!

    1. Ugh, and it sucks even worse that only a British edition is available: a British edition with the usual horrible cover design and art. What happened, Penguin?

    2. Indigo/Chapters of Canada sells it also — the shipping might be cheaper than getting it from the UK.

      Anyway, most of these stories are currently available in new domestic collections.

      1. I know the stories are likely available in other collections, but I’m particularly interested in “Clute’s superb introduction to the collection” which isn’t going to be found anywhere else. But shipping from Canada is definitely cheaper, so thanks for the pointer, defacebook! Here’s the link to the Chapters listing for the book for anyone else who’s interested, though you should note it’s apparently still awaiting release in Canada:

  18. “When his mother died, he stopped writing. Not long after, he blew his brains out.”

    Actually, he committed suicide on the June 11th, his mother died the following day, June 12th. A double funeral was held on June 14th for both mother and son.

  19. I Love the Conan stories and I’m a purist who picked up the big Del Ray Trade paperbacks collecting the unexpurgated Howard stories in the order they were written rather than in a speculative timeline of Conan’s life. Most people don’t realize that Howard’s first Conan story was about Conan when he was a middle aged King of Aquilonia!

    It does have to be said, as in Lovecraft’s ouvre there’s some fairly shocking racism overtly present in Howard’s stories – sure this was a guy who was born and raised in turn of the last century Texas and judging attitudes without historical context is unfair, but even for the time they were written some of Howard’s disdain for non-whites was fairly blunt.

    A lot of the wackier racial mythology of the supremacist movement does seem to come straight out of Howard’s stories – pre-historical snake people and all.

    1. Your right about the racism — it isn’t in every story, but when it rears its ugly head you notice it. And, yes, it was quite common during that era and even later. I recently revisited Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die (from the ’50s) and found it very racist, but still immensely entertaining. Again, the reader needs to account for the context.

  20. One thing I’ve noticed is that just about every, if not every, Conan tale written by Howard has used the word “tiger” in it at least once to describe him in some way. “He leapt like a tiger”, “his tigerish gaze”, “silently like a tiger”, etc.

  21. I read all the Howard paperbacks and hardbacks I could find from the sixties on, and dug up a lot of obscure stuff, too. Now it’s all over the place. I liked a Turlogh O’Brien story, “The Dark Man”, a wonderful moody piece. His Solomon Kane stuff was brilliant, and some of his stories had a loopy humor to them. Not a happy man, but intense.

  22. Surprised you didn’t make any mention of this, Cory, but I wonder: Why isn’t Conan in the public domain? The character AND the stories. How can anyone own Conan at this point? Howard had no heirs, and he’s been dead for 70 years. At this point, it’s like someone owning Robin Hood.

  23. A lonely GAY Texas lad! I was still a kid who barely knew what homosexuality was when I first picked up on the not-that-deeply-buried homoeroticism of some of the Conan material–but, hey, I think it is 100% Complete Awesome that one of the idols of martial manliness was created by a gay guy. That’s just as awesome as the fact that the ultimate sports anthem, “We Will Rock You”/”We Are The Champions”–chanted by hundreds of thousands of manly rednecks at sporting games all over the country–was written by a very obviously gay fella.

    That said, Robert E. Howard rules, period.

    1. I am also applauded that when two men in the 80’s could not rent a one bedroom apartment . . . I don’t know if that law is gone. But I believe in Texas …it is still permissible for firing a person from work if they are reported, or suspected to be GAY.

    2. Um, Derek, I don’t want to rain on your parade, but there is absolutely no evidence that REH was homosexual. There is a lot of empirical evidence to suggest that he in fact was not gay. I mention this only in passing. You are correct, in that Howard indeed rules.

      Mark Finn
      Author, Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard

  24. I read the Conan books too as a kid, but don’t remeber much. That’s for to tip.

    Also read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian series books, I think every one.

  25. Like Cory and many of the commentators here, I discovered Howard as a preteen. I agree that his poetry was full of awesome yet mostly overlooked. Conan may have been what got me hooked, but it was Cormac MacArt that really got me digging for more of REH’s work!
    And Cory, I tried my hand at writing in Howard’s style – borrowing his Cormac characters (and gore and entrails and thews and loins) to pass as a 6th grade creative writing paper. It was not well received. Today that kind of thing would get a student expelled and questioned by authorities, no?

  26. Howard and Lovecraft were a strange couple who complimented each other well. Weary of nameless gibbering eldrich horrors? Pick up a broadsword and work off some of that anxiety.

  27. “The Whole Wide World” (mentioned by a couple of earlier posters) is an outstanding film — heartbreaking, life-affirming, ranging across many moods from bleak to beautiful. A must-see for cineastes and Howard fans alike.

  28. What? No mention of Breckinridge Elkins? That most Singular Gent from Bear Creek?

    By the time I read any Conan, I’d already read plenty of other authors of heroic fantasy and was prejudiced against Conan due to all the hype surrounding the stories. I don’t recall any Conan stories anymore, and certainly I don’t recall any differences between stories by REH and the other authors. In any event, I wasn’t impressed.

    However, the heroic fantasy I have read and enjoyed certainly has benefited from REH’s efforts.

    And I do enjoy my collection “A Gent from Bear Creek”. I re-read it every few years or so, and it never grows old.

  29. The house Howard lived in with his parents is now a museum in Cross Plains, TX.
    The museum isn’t open regular hours so you need to contact the Project Pride folks in Cross Plains to arrange a tour.
    Stop by the Staghorn Cafe & get a chicken fried steak while you’re in town.

  30. If there is an argument against suicide, Robert E. Howard is it. What a mind we lost.

    In Toronto, Canada BMV Books got hold of a vast lot of the new Del Rey Howard Trades and was selling them at $8-$9 each instead of the usual $25 or so. I picked up the collection and completed it with the Horror Stories off amazon.

    I’d say this was a golden age of Howard Publishing but for one thing, there is no fully competent author carrying on his work. I wish Wagner’d written a second novel. Corey – give it a shot!

  31. My personal fav was the short story “The Grey God Passes”. It had everything – romance, mythos, historical epicness, and of course, a mighty battle.

  32. I was able to get these from my library system [ClevNet OH] and recommend you all do the same, unless you really want to own the books:

    The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian
    Book One
    Written by Robert E. Howard
    Fiction – Fantasy; Fiction – Action; Fiction | Trade Paperback, 496 pages | December 2003 | $16.95 | 978-0-345-46151-3 (0-345-46151-7)

    The Bloody Crown of Conan

    Written by Robert E. Howard
    Fiction – Fantasy; Fiction – Action; Fiction | Trade Paperback, 384 pages | November 2004 | $16.95 | 978-0-345-46152-0 (0-345-46152-5)

    The Conquering Sword of Conan
    Written by Robert E. Howard
    Fiction – Fantasy; Fiction – Action; Fiction | Trade Paperback, 416 pages | November 2005 | $16.95 |

    ISBN-10: 0345461533
    ISBN-13: 978-0345461537

  33. Well it took over a week, but Penguin finally responded today to my query about whether “Heroes” would be available in the US. (It won’t).

    Dear Reader,

    Thank you for your inquiry. Many of our titles are under copyright which means that we have rights to sell particular books only in specific parts of the world. There are also different legal standards constituting when a work is in the public domain in Europe and America.

    You might see a Penguin Group or DK title on an international website or at an international bookstore that we cannot supply to you in America because we do not own the rights to do so, and vice versa.

    We’re sorry we could not be of assistance to you in this matter.

  34. If you’d like to see more of Howard himself, try Paul Malmont’s thriller “The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril”. Anyone who has HPL show up as an undead (actually a not-quite-dead) in a book earns points with me :-)

  35. That’s “The Complete Chronicles of CONAN” – Centenary Edition. 925 pages of cleaving swords and swooning princesses.

    I read a ton, and on my last two week vacation I brought this, plus “The Martian Tales Trilogy” by Burroughs( 614 pgs), and “The Collected Short Stories of Arthur C. Clarke” (966 pgs). God forbid I should run out of reading material in New Hampshire.

  36. That makes absolutely no sense. I was just at the Barnes and Noble Flagship bookstore in NYC, and they said they could only find this title available on (which I already knew). UGH! How freakin’ annoying! It’s not like the Library of America is clamoring to get a big, thick 1,000-paged edition of his collected works out any time soon. How is it possible that Europe and Canada have access to a brand new collection of Howard’s, w/ new criticism and biographical notes, yet America (the home and birthplace of this excellent American Author and Poet) can’t have access to it?!Jeez Louise! And I thought we were in the midst of a burning Howard renaissance in the 21st Century? I have the hardcover edition of Del Rey’s THE COMING OF CONAN THE CIMMERIAN — VOL.I in the three-part series, as well as Del Rey’s THE HORROR STORIES OF ROBERT E. HOWARD, and (probably my favorite of the three, though why be forced to choose?) The Robert E. Howard Foundation’s excellent tome, THE COLLECTED POETRY OF ROBERT E. HOWARD (a 4th reprinting is probably in the future); but this still would’ve been nice to have as a nifty paperback (and I like the cover art…I also love the title of this compilation…I’ll be using it in an epic prose poem I’m writing). Why does it seem that some of the best versions/editions of American art (be it literature, music, or art) are to be found outside of our own country? I wonder if the reverse is ever true for Europeans? Somehow, I think not. So, add on the additional international postage, folks. Canada, it is! Thanks for the info, fellow fans. Take care, and keep reading.

  37. Cory,
    I too wrote a barbarian homage about a character named Barak, way back in the day. One of my teachers sent it back with thews circled and told me it wasn’t a word. I brought Conan of Cimmeria in as proof and she wasn’t happy about being wrong. Long live the works of REH.

    I think Swordswoman just moved up my to-be-read pile. A little Dark Agnes to stir the blood.


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