Good news: Stewart Lee's published an article on Robert E. Howard.
Bad news: Stewart Lee's published an article on Robert E. Howard.
So, Lee's article is called Happy Birthday Conan The Existentialist. First thing that came to mind for me, of course, is the recent anniversary of Charles Hoffman's seminal essay "Conan the Existentialist," but I think I was giving Lee a bit too much credit in this case, since Hoffman's name never comes up - in fact, aside from the eternally controversial de Camp, no major Howard scholar's name is mentioned, the lone arguable exception being John Clute, who has - shall we say - a troubled history in regards to REH. Indeed, for all Lee's obvious and genuine enthusiasm about Howard and his work, he's remarkably behind the times and even quite inaccurate in several key areas.
The Phoenix On The Sword, which appeared in the monthly pulp anthology Weird Tales eighty years ago this week, was the first of Robert E Howard’s twenty-two canonical Conan stories to be published, establishing the ground rules of the sword and sorcery genre, and it opened with the above quote.
Twenty... two? Howard wrote twenty-one Conan stories. What's the twenty-second Lee refers to? Perhaps he's including "The Hyborian Age" as a story? Maybe he's considering "Wolves Beyond the Border," which is quite clearly a draft that dwindled into a synopsis by the end, as seen in several of Howard's extant drafts? Already we're off to an iffy start, before Lee muddies the facts not just in regards to Howard, but to the 1982 film:
Fifty years later, a garbled version of the same epically functional introduction was intoned by a growling character actor in the opening moments of the 1982 movie Conan The Barbarian. It followed a flash of the Nietzsche epigram, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”, an appropriate thought to bear in mind while enduring Schwarzenegger’s titular performance, and the high camp Nazism of screen-writer Oliver Stone’s script.
"The high camp Nazism of screen-writer Oliver Stone's script?" Oh drat, did my tortoise accidentally transport me to that mirror universe again? As far as I can glean from the 1979 Stone script and the 1980 Milius re-write, I think just about all the elements which certain folk have compared to Nazism were introduced by Milius. But then, would you even need to read the original script to know who out of Oliver Stone and John Milius introduced fascistic elements? Then again, Paul Verhoeven did direct his version of Starship Troopers...
But it was Schwarzenegger’s reading of the character that sealed Conan in the global consciousness as a kind of sentient Wagnerian super-ape, a tragedy from which neither the fictional barbarian himself, nor the reputation of his creator Robert E Howard, has ever quite recovered. Howard, a Texan loner who rarely left the Lone Star State and lived with his parents, committed suicide in 1936 at the age of 30, having contributed 160 or so serialised stories and novellas to the popular pulp magazines of the day, unloved in his lifetime, his fame growing incrementally in the ensuing decades.
I know some of you might be tightening your medula oblongatas at this (rarely left the Lone Star state? Mention the published stories and novellas but none of the hundreds of unpublished stories and near 800 poems?* Unloved in his lifetime? My capillaries, they're vasoconstricting!) but dammit, he's trying. He can't help the backhanded compliments, given what we're about to learn.
Returning, at the request of The Quietus, to the works of a once favorite writer I’ve read little in the last thirty years, I was relieved that my high estimation of Howard’s abilities wasn’t entirely the result of youthful ignorance. But to understand my relationship with Robert E Howard, and that of a whole generation of readers, you have to make a long journey, to another age undreamed of, before polytechnic media studies courses dissolved the barriers between high and low culture, before Wikipedia gave seekers the tools to tie together the disparate strands of forgotten writers’ work, and before Amazon made every lost book a mere tax-avoiding mouse click away - the 1970s.
Oooooh. Well now it all makes perfect sense. Being a relative whippersnapper in the field of Howardom, there's this whole generation out there who have an entirely different history and exposure to Conan and Howard, one that's frankly a bit alien to me. Lee's perspective is moulded and shaped by the Lancers: mine is mostly formed by the Real McCoy.**
Back then, Howard was still racked and filed with rubbish and filth, in paperback editions stacked alongside James Hadley Chase sex thrillers and New English Library skinhead and biker exploitation books. The idea that thirty-five years later there’d be a respectable Penguin Modern Classics selection of Howard’s stories was an impossible pipe dream. Conan was an oddly moral mercenary who bestrode the globe in a fictional time-zone. Howard’s final and most fully-realised character was the result of a four year splurge yielding nearly two dozen stories, and he was now quietly popular. You could find the Sphere paperbacks in WHSmiths. But the barbarian was particularly poorly served by the anthologies that collected his adventures.
I'm sure some would object to Conan being singled out as Howard's "most fully-realised character" over, say, Steve Costigan or El Borak, though Conan is certainly up there. But again, Lee views Howard's Penguin Modern Classics volume as a positive thing - the fact that he even mentions that Howard has a Penguin Modern Classics volume is awesome on its own.
During the decades that Howard was forgotten, a pair of peculiar writer-fans, Lin Carter and L Sprague De Camp, tossed off their own tributes to Howard’s then largely unknown work (Thongor The Barbarian and The Tritonian Ring respectively) and, in the ‘60s, they set about ‘editing’ and improving Howard for public consumption. Bulking out the tales into substantial books, adorned with eye-catching and era-defining Heavy Metal Frank Frazetta cover paintings, doubtless helped to sell them, but to the detriment of the purity of Howard’s style and vision.
"Peculiar" is one of the kinder descriptors I've heard in relation to deCarter, though I've heard approximations of "tossed off" being applied to their work many a time. Lee also skips over the Gnome Press volumes - you know, the three hardback volumes that came out just before The Lord of the Rings took the fantasy market by storm - and the efforts of August Derleth, P. Schuyler Miller, John D. Clark and especially Glenn Lord in preserving his legacy through the '40s and '50s. Obviously they didn't see nearly the same success as the Lancers, but calling Howard's work forgotten does a pretty tremendous disservice to the people who paved the way for deCarter in the first place.
At the risk of over-stating the case, Howard remains the Robert Frost of the sword and sorcery genre he established, writing plainly and directly with incredible power, as if Conan, Howard wrote to Clark Ashton Smith in 1933, “had been standing at [his] shoulder directing [his] efforts.” But Howard’s 60s editors introduced faux-archaic turns of phrase into Howard’s perfectly serviceable prose, whilst their own unauthorised additions to Howard’s story cycle - justified as attempts to plug narrative gaps in the chronology - were marred by clichés Howard usually avoided, at least in his later years. (De Camp and Carter’s Black Tears, which besmirches the beginning of Sphere’s Conan The Wanderer collection, pictures the sun baking the desert sands ‘as in a giant oven’.)
I wouldn't worry about overstating the case: Stephen King's comparison of REH to Thomas Wolfe certainly didn't hurt, though I think Lee's onto something with Frost. Certainly Frank Coffman and others have made the comparison.
But somehow, even to my eight year old mind, the unadulterated Howard shone through, the shimmering battlefield aftermath vision of The Frost Giant’s Daughter, best enjoyed unedited in the Gollancz Conan Chronicles volume I, remaining especially vivid. Howard somehow intuited the ebb and flow of Norse Eddas and Anglo-Saxon verse, though culturally far removed from them; “The clangor of the swords had died away, the shouting of the slaughter was hushed; silence lay on the red-stained snow.”
If you take nothing else away from this post (well, apart from my nitpicking about details) it's this paragraph, which is a thing of beauty. Fellow S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L. agents Steve Tompkins, Brian Murphy and Leo Grin have written at length about The Northern Thing and REH, and this is a lovely encapsulisation of it.
Who knows what Howard read in the library of his Cross Plains home? Keats, Kipling and Jack London, certainly. Perhaps The Seafarer and The Wanderer also.
Who knows? Rusty Burke knows. And through his Robert E. Howard bookshelf, now you can know too! Lee has good instincts, since we know Howard definitely read Kipling and London. I presume The Seafarer and The Wanderer to which Lee refers are the Old English poems, in which case it isn't definite: Howard did write a poem called "The Return of the Sea-Farer," though. In any case, I wouldn't rule out the possibility that Howard read the Exeter Book, or at least one or both of those poems at some point in his life. Keats, though? I can't find much data on that - Keats isn't mentioned in his letters - but it's an educated guess, at least.
Beyond the Conan collections, Howard’s other work was harder to find, but I remember long Seventies school holidays sat on a beach at Budleigh Salterton, where my dad’s parents lived in South Devon, outside a breezeblock hut that sold cans of Coke and heavily discounted paperbacks with curled corners. I supposed the Conan tales, their hero utterly free to pursue his own desires, may have appealed especially to an only child stranded at the seaside between divorced parents, and I remember with particular pride how the lurid prose on the back of Sphere's third Conan collection - “furious dreams of danger and power and unending adventure, of combative and sexual prowess, or hot impulses instantly followed” - sparked an argument in which my grandparents accused my mother of neglecting my moral development. What better way to encourage voracious reading than to make it appear forbidden?
Never have I come across a more agreeable variation of the Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfillment meme. Still hate it, though.
In the Budleigh beach shop Howard obscurities would peak out between Howard rip-offs, like John Jakes’ Brak The Barbarian, and the full extent of his oeuvre became clear. The stories of Brak Mak Morn, Cormac Mac Art, Francis Xavier Gordon and Solomon Kane, the latter recently adapted into an abysmal film, cut swathes through identifiable historical eras; Panther books’ Skull-Face series and Granada books’ Dark Man Omnibuses compiled Howard’s horror fiction; and there were westerns, hard boiled detective tales and even a boxing series. I read them all. But as I moved into my teens, to my great regret and shame, I think I began to feel I was too good for Howard.
I know that feel, bro,*** though in my case it was Tolkien. Oh, the regret! Oh, the shame!
Those same seaside paperback stashes led me into the sophisticated science-fiction of Ray Bradbury. And reading The Hobbit drew me into Tolkien. In retrospect, I think I found Tolkien’s fantasy respectable in some way, which appealed to my vain sense of my own maturity. I knew he was a professor so presumably he wrote of dwarves and dragons by choice, from a position of strength, informed by his undoubtedly sweeping knowledge of myth and fable. Howard, I assumed, snobbishly, was an uneducated American auto-didact, who wrote of barbarians and beasts because he knew no better. And I turned my back on him. (Today, Howard seems infinitely preferable to Tolkien in whose bloodless and sexless books females, for example, are all but invisible. Far more preferable the passionate, if implausibly pliable, she-warriors of Howard’s realms.) And when I was thirteen or so, our English teacher Mr Melhuish, operating off-piste and beyond the official curriculum as teachers could thirty years ago, read us the whole of Albert Camus’ The Outsider over the course of two double English lessons and I left fantasy behind for French existentialism. And beyond.
Still, I have to say I disagree with his take on Tolkien too. Tolkien's fairly sexless, true, but bloodless? The same Tolkien who had orcs using human heads as catapult ammunition, the Witch-King purposely trampling over a hill of dead Gondorians, and Pippin disembowelling a Troll? Obviously Tolkien didn't dwell upon that side of battle (most likely because he'd had his fill of the visceral horrors of war in his own life), but I'd say he just left it to the imagination for the most part, assuming that people would just know that a battlefield was essentially an ocean of blood without having it spelled out. And as for the women, well: Galadriel, Éowyn, Lúthien, Morwen, Idril, and the very under-represented Lobelia - all but invisible? Fie, I say, fie! I also object to the description of Howard's she-warriors as "implausibly pliable," but you knew I'd say fie to that too.
Howard’s broadsword-wielding hero Conan would have had little time for the idle musings of post-war French intellectuals, being suspicious generally of the benefits of civilization. But I sometimes wonder if Conan hadn’t already prepared the pre-pubescent me for teenage consumption of Sartre and Camus. In Queen Of The Black Coast, the 1934 novella in which Conan loses his heart to a female pirate called Belit, his doomed lover asks him if he believes in life after death. Conan replies; “Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is an 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 I am content.” Oliver Stone’s movie script made the obvious choice of portraying Conan as a one-dimensional Nietzschean overman. Howard had already shown him to be a two-dimensional left bank existentialist.
Oh, I bet Conan would've spent at least a couple of hours listening to the idle musings of post-war French intellectuals: he spent hours eavesdropping on Zamorian philosophers in "The Tower of the Elephant," after all, even if he did come away without much care for what they were saying. The very reason Conan is this "left bank existentialist" is because he spent all this time listening to teachers and priests and philosophers, learning about religions and theories, before coming to the conclusion of existentialism. He doesn't dismiss them out of hand.
Cherry picking fragments from my old paperbacks again over the last month, I am surprised how much of Howard seems relevant. The Conan tales picture a world of supposedly civilised nations fighting with superstitious ones, in battles for territory and resources. Red Nails, which I think may have been Howard’s final Conan tale, shows two warring and dwindling tribes hiding at opposite ends of a sunless and sealed necropolis, hell bent on each other’s destruction. As a metaphor for the modern human condition it’s up there with William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies and unlike Golding’s celebrated 1954 effort, is also enlivened by a gratuitously Sapphic girl-on-girl whipping scene.
I guess Lee hasn't quite gotten the hang of Wikipedia or Google, since both those sources would surely lead him to confirmation of "Red Nails"' place in the Conan written chronology. Lee says the whipping scene "enlived" the story: frankly, it's my least favourite part of the story, since it's one of the most brazen intrusions of Howard's commercial considerations in his stories. At least the similar scene in "Xuthal of the Dusk" had a ritualistic pseudo-justification for its sadism.
Just as I'm turning against Lee, again he nails a saving throw by referencing "Vultures of Wahpeton," and discusses his connection with Lovecraft:
The Jacobean 1936 cowboy yarn The Vultures Of Whapeton is, as John Clute points out in the introduction to Penguin’s Heroes In The Wind selection, “ostensibly a Western tale but… we are left with a sense of the profound entrapping starkness of the world … the tale systematically strips every character of any pretence that their ‘civilisation’ is anything but a sham.” As with Oakley Hall’s McCarthy era western Warlock, Howard uses the old Zane Grey shoot-out template to tell a different story, and reading Howard again now it’s tempting to see other stories bubbling up through the translucent surface of his purple pulp.
Like H.P. Lovecraft, with whom Howard corresponded, and who allowed Howard to co-opt some of his ‘eldritch Gods’ into Conan’s cosmology, Howard’s tales sometimes seem to embody a palpable, physical disgust at the human capacity for cruelty. Lovecraft imagined we were but playthings of evil primordial deities. Howard leavened his horror with the savage nobility and essential morality of his heroes and heroines. Both envisioned the unspeakable in the form of crawling multi-tentacled pit-dwelling obscenities with ugly garbled names. Of course, less than a decade after the two writers’ deaths, came Hiroshima and the Holocaust. There were no eldritch forces determined to destroy us. The reality was far worse than that.
And just like that, he then goes backwards:
Howard still dwells in a hinterland of sorts, without the gate of the walled citadel of culture. Having been written by a 1930s Texan, his stories can often seem racist and sexist, probably because Howard himself was racist and sexist, by our standards. But Howard took issue with Lovecraft’s support for fascism, Conan has as many black and female equals as he does enemies, and at their worst, none of Howard’s heroes are as repellant as the state-sponsored rapist James Bond, who recently jumped out of a plane with the Queen at a British sports festival.
Eh, I think Wild Bill Clanton has Bond's number there, Lee. Again, not going to comment on the race and sex issues, just going to link to Mark Finn and Barbara Barrett's pieces on the former, and Barbara Barrett and Amy Kerr's series on the latter.
Nonetheless, the presenter of a BBC2 arts show laughed openly when I chose Howard, in a spirit of full disclosure, as one of my ten favorite authors, and after the TV recording my editor at Faber "mistakenly" pocketed my treasured 1977 copy of Conan Of Cimmeria, as if to decontaminate me, and has only recently returned it.
Well, I guess I know who to blame for the snide and dismissive tone of The Today Show, Kirsty Wark. I should've realised from the beginning that Wark had a hand in this nonsense. I'm on to you, Wark.
Lee ends on an interesting note where he broadsides CPI for the current state of Howard's ouvre (much of his complaints are from the previous CPI, though the current CPI is not free from missteps by any means) as well as the prospect of Conan at the Gates of Academia:
Though ubiquitous across all media, from books to computer games, Howard’s oeuvre is in tatters. Comics writers and film producers continue to mash-up plots and characters from different eras with indecent enthusiasm (as did Howard himself, when jonesing for a sale); Howard-derived television projects so bad they barely even bruise YouTube continue to appear; and while, for example, the estate of Samuel Beckett ruthlessly polices the exploitation of his work, Howard’s properties have slipped uncared for into an uncharted wilderness between the deserts of disputed copyright and the oceans of public domain. But I’m happy that Howard isn’t part of the literary establishment.
Even so, he’s coming perilously close. Thanks to Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series, you can now read Conan as Howard wrote him, and see for yourself the gulf between the original stories, and their bastard offspring in the debased sword and sorcery genre they inspired. And, as I said earlier, with the collection Heroes In The Wind, Howard has now joined the broad church of Penguin Modern Classics, as has his inspiration, the once similarly maligned Welsh mystic and weird tale writer Arthur Machen. Prefiguring as he does the modern literary movement of psychogeography, it’s easy to make a case for Machen as Literature. With Howard, one suspects, such an elevated term will never quite stick. And though I like reading Howard in a posh modern edition with a respectable cover, I love those dubious Seventies paperbacks, from which I once sifted the wheat from the chaff. My wife just came in and saw a pile of them on the floor all around my desk. “Look at those beautiful old books,” she said.
I think there's a difference between an author being part of "the literary establishment," and an author's works being respected and well-considered. In the end, Lee seems to still hold on to a very outdated view of REH's work and legacy, with his final line being a paean to his lovely old paperbacks, as the prospect of REH becoming - gasp! - accepted by Academia somehow upsets his appeal. I've come across this sort of thing before, with people who think Howard being accepted into the Literary Canon means something is lost or taken away, that being accepted alongside other greats means surrendering your status as an outsider. To be frank, I think that's giving Academia too much credit, and just the other side of a coin - the other side being that Howard's acceptance into the Literary Canon would finally validate him as a Real Writer of Real Literature. I reject the coin entirely. If Academia wants to accept Howard, then let them: if they don't, their loss. What I want is for Howard to be appreciated.
You know, I've been going about this all wrong. In my haste to decry Lee for perpetuating hoary old misconceptions and inaccuracies, I forgot that, after cutting away the chaff, Lee is a fan of Robert E. Howard. Who am I to immediately assume the worst? Lee may have presented half-truths and misinterpretations, but he also namedropped him alongside the likes of Keats, Sappho (one of REH's favourite poets), Golding, Sartre, Camus, and others, while also never failing to inject his understated humour, and you're left with the feeling that, flawed as his analysis may be, he truly appreciates Howard. And that's all I can ask - though accuracy would be nice.
*This is the number de Camp gives in "Robert E. Howard's Fiction," but I'm endeavouring to find out if that's changed, given Howard's use of synonyms and thus identification of possible new Howard stories in the years since.
**And Conan the Adventurer, for which I will never forgive or forget.
*** I normally shy from internet memes, but it seemed appropriate here.