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:
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!
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.
Published 6:31 am Thu, Oct 8, 2009
Book, Happy Mutants, Old school, science fiction