Monday, 22 January 2018

Robert E. Howard at 112

As I'd been branching out over the past few years, there are a few new friends & followers who might not know much about Robert E. Howard's work, and it never occurred to me to do something fairly simple: a wee list of my favourite stories. Not necessarily those I consider the best, just ones that have stayed with me, and that I found the most compelling & memorable.

Today, Howard's birthday, seems as good a day to do so as any.

starring Esau Cairn

It is an awesome sensation to be suddenly hurled from one’s native world into a new strange alien sphere. To say that I was not appalled at the prospect, that I did not shrink and shudder in spite of the peaceful quiet of my environs, would be hypocrisy. I, who had never known fear, was transformed into a mass of quivering, cowering nerves, starting at my own shadow. It was that man’s utter helplessness was borne in upon me, and my mighty frame and massive thews seemed frail and brittle as the body of a child. How could I pit them against an unknown world? In that instant I would gladly have returned to Earth and the gallows that awaited me, rather than face the nameless terrors with which imagination peopled my new-found world. But I was soon to learn that those thews I now despised were capable of carrying me through greater perils than I dreamed.
To describe Almuric as Robert E. Howard's John Carter is only half the story. Where Burroughs' method of transportation was spiritual, Howard's is scientific; Carter is a heroic and noble soldier who fights to unify the warring peoples of Mars, but Cairn is a fugitive mob heavy who leads a slave uprising; Burroughs' prose is earnest and dreamlike as a modern chivalric romance, while Howard's is powerful and bombastic as a pagan storyteller's saga. The tale is in the telling, after all.

While I hope I'll get around to my series on Almuric one of these days, Keith Taylor has a fantastic essay which hits most of the points I share. As he says, it's a wild, wild planet.

"Blood of the Gods"
Starring Francis Xavier Gordon, "El Borak"

The sun was swinging low over the desert, a tawny stretch of rocky soil and sand as far as Gordon could see in every direction. The solitary rider was the only visible sign of life, but Gordon's vigilance was keen. Days and nights of hard riding lay behind him; he was coming into the Ruweila country, now, and every step he took increased his danger by that much. The Ruweila, whom he believed to be kin to the powerful Roualla of El Hamad, were true sons of Ishmael—hawks of the desert, whose hands were against every man not of their clan. To avoid their country the regular caravan road to the west swung wide to the south. This was an easy route, with wells a day's march apart, and it passed within a day's ride of the Caves of El Khour, the catacombs which pit a low range of hills rising sheer out of the wastelands.
Few white men know of their existence, but evidently Hawkston knew of the ancient trail that turned northward from the Well of Khosru, on the caravan road. Hawkston was perforce approaching El Khour circuitously. Gordon was heading straight westward, across waterless wastes, cut by a trace so faint only an Arab or El Borak could have followed it. On that route there was but one watering place between the fringe of oases along the coast and the Caves —the half-mythical Well of Amir Khan, the existence of which was a secret jealously guarded by the Bedouins.
There was no fixed habitation at the oasis, which was but a clump of palms, watered by a small spring, but frequently bands of Ruweila camped there. That was a chance he must take. He hoped they were driving their camel herds somewhere far to the north, in the heart of their country; but like true hawks, they ranged far afield, striking at the caravans and the outlying villages.
The trail he was following was so slight that few would have recognized it as such. It stretched dimly away before him over a level expanse of stone- littered ground, broken on one hand by sand dunes, on the other by a succession of low ridges. He glanced at the sun, and tapped the water-bag that swung from the saddle. There was little left, though he had practised the grim economy of a Bedouin or a wolf. But within a few hours he would be at the Well of Amir Khan, where he would replenish his supply—though his nerves tightened at the thought of what might be waiting there for him.
Howard's historical adventures might owe a great debt to the works of Mundy, Lamb, Conan Doyle, Sabatini, and others, but just like his Sword-and-Sorcery, he brings his own style & sensibilities to the table. El Borak is T.E. Lawrence mixed with Indiana Jones: a soldier of fortune with a conscience and hatred of dogmatic tyrants, with a refreshingly cynical view of British Afghanistan and admirably varied cast of Afghan heroes & villains - perhaps typical for Howard, you get the sense that he's on the side of the barbarians, if not the despots who seek to replace British rule with something even worse.

"Blood of the Gods" is my favourite of the El Borak tales for a few reasons. For one, the setting is the star: few stories describe the desolate wilderness of the setting with such detail & vivid life. For another, it's the story which skirts closest to the supernatural, with much talk of ancient evils and mystic terrors (which I won't spoil), almost placing it into the realm of Weird Tale. If nothing else, it's a concise story which shows the character, and his world, at its best.

"Hawks of Outremer"
starring Cormac Fitzgeoffrey
The big warrior strode to the tavern door and entered, treading lightly as a cat despite his heavy armor. The man-at-arms rubbed his arm and stared after him curiously, noting, in the dim light, that FitzGeoffrey bore a shield with the horrific emblem of his family - a white grinning skull. The guardsman knew him of old - a turbulent character, a savage fighter and the only man among the Crusaders who had been esteemed stronger than Richard the Lion-hearted. But FitzGeoffrey had taken ship for his native isle even before Richard had departed from the Holy Land. The Third Crusade had ended in failure and disgrace; most of the Frankish knights had followed their kings homeward. What was this grim Irish killer doing on the road to Antioch?

Cormac Fitzgeoffrey is Conan turned to 11. He's the Terminator of the Crusades, the Westworld Gunslinger of the Middle Ages, Marv with a sword. "Hawks of Outremer" is the first and the best of the three (well, two and a half) Cormac tales for sheer holy $#1% moments. Yet even placing the ludicrous badassery of Cormac aside, the tale is also full of colourful characters, as well as special guest appearances from some of history's greatest figures.

"Marchers of Valhalla"
starring James Allison

I could have loved life and lived deeply as a cowboy, even here, before the squatters turned the country from an open range to a drift of open farms. I could have lived deep as a buffalo hunter, an Indian fighter, or an explorer, even here. But I was born out of my time, and even the exploits of this weary age were denied me. It’s bitter beyond human telling to sit chained and helpless, and feel the hot blood drying in my veins, and the glittering dreams fading in my dream. I come of a restless, roving, fighting race. My great-grandfather died at the Alamo, shoulder to shoulder with David Crockett. My grandfather rode with Jack Hayes and Bigfoot Wallace, and fell with three-quarters of Hood’s brigade. My oldest brother fell at Vimy Ridge, fighting with the Canadians, and the other died at the Argonne. My father is a cripple, too; he sits drowsing in his chair all day, but his dreams are full of brave memories, for the bullet that broke his leg struck him as he charged up San Juan Hill. But what have I to feel or dream or think?

While "The Valley of the Worm" is preeminent among the James Allison stories as Howard's interpretation of the Man vs Dragon ur-legend, "Marchers" is just as amazing as a take on the migration mythology of so many peoples.

"The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune"
starring Kull of Atlantis

There comes, even to kings, the time of great weariness. Then the gold of the throne is brass, the silk of the palace becomes drab. The gems in the diadem sparkle drearily like the ice of the white seas; the speech of men is as the empty rattle of a jester's bell and the feel comes of things unreal; even the sun is copper in the sky, and the breath of the green ocean is no longer fresh.

Kull sat upon the throne of Valusia and the hour of weariness was upon him. They moved before him in an endless, meaningless panorama: men, women, priests, events and shadows of events; things seen and things to be attained. But like shadows they came and went, leaving no trace upon his consciousness, save that of a great mental fatigue. Yet Kull was not tired. There was a longing in him for things beyond himself and beyond the Valusian court. An unrest stirred in him, and strange, luminous dreams roamed his soul.

While I really enjoy all the Kull tales to varying degrees, I found myself really hard-pressed to pick a favourite. Do I go with "The Cat and the Skull" with its awesome cast of beasts and the debut of the original Thulsa Doom? Perhaps the conspiracy, courtly intrigue, & deeply cathartic ending of "By This Axe, I Rule!"? Or how about "The Shadow Kingdom," which I think could technically count as part of the obscure "Dinosaurs Protect The Earth From Aliens" subgenre?

In the end, I went with "Mirrors" for the sheer joy of the prose. This is Howard painting with words, effortlessly spinning similes and metaphors with a flair that shows him truly at his best and most dreamlike. The story itself, featuring the solemn, contemplative Kull facing not usurping nobles or inhuman monsters, but existential annihilation is a wonderfully curious drama. A very short tale, but also one of the most enjoyable.

"The People of the Dark"
starring Conan the Gael

I came to Dagon's Cave to kill Richard Brent.

I am not by nature criminal. I was born and raised in a hard country, and have lived most of my life on the raw edges of the world, where a man took what he wanted, if he could, and mercy was a virtue little known. But it was a torment that racked me day and night that sent me out to take the life of Richard Brent. I have lived hard, and violently, perhaps. When love overtook me, it also was fierce and violent. Perhaps I was not wholly sane, what with my love for Eleanor Bland and my hatred for Richard Brent. Under any other circumstances, I would have been glad to call him friend--a fine, rangy, upstanding young fellow, clear-eyed and strong. But he stood in the way of my desire and he must die.

Can't really add more than I did in my review: a tragic Sword-and-Sorcery love story full of revenge, action, conflict, and weirdness.

"The Shadow of the Vulture"
starring Red Sonya

On a gun-turret on the threatened wall, leaning on his great sword and meditatively twisting his mustache, Gottfried von Kalmbach watched a Transylvanian gunner being carried off the wall, his brains oozing from a hole in his head; a Turkish matchlock had spoken too near the walls. The field- pieces of the Sultan were barking like deep-toned dogs, knocking chips off the battlements. The Janizaries were advancing, kneeling, firing, reloading as they came on. Bullets glanced from the crenelles and whined off venomously into space. One flattened against Gottfried's hauberk, bringing an outraged grunt from him. Turning toward the abandoned gun, he saw a colorful, incongruous figure bending over the massive breech.
It was a woman, dressed as von Kalmbach had not seen even the dandies of France dressed. She was tall, splendidly shaped, but lithe. From under a steel cap escaped rebellious tresses that rippled red gold in the sun over her compact shoulders. High boots of Cordovan leather came to her mid-thighs, which were cased in baggy breeches. She wore a shirt of fine Turkish mesh-mail tucked into her breeches. Her supple waist was confined by a flowing sash of green silk, into which were thrust a brace of pistols and a dagger, and from which depended a long Hungarian saber. Over all was carelessly thrown a scarlet cloak.
This surprising figure was bending over the cannon, sighting it in a manner betokening more than a passing familiarity, at a group of Turks who were wheeling a carriage-gun just within range.

While not the main protagonist of the story, Sonya is undoubtedly the most memorable in a cast of memorable characters, from the loveable braggart Gottfried Von Kalmbach, to the menacing Mikhail Oglu, and the refreshingly human representation of Suleiman the Magnificent. What's most cool is that, a few references to Sonya's physique aside, this never becomes a strained love story, so much as a medieval buddy cop adventure, with Sonya as simultaneously the unpredictable loose cannon (HA) and the "responsible" one that has to get her frequently drunken pal out of trouble.

"Sluggers on the Beach" 
starring Sailor Steve Costigan

The minute I seen the man which was going to referee my fight with Slip Harper in the Amusement Palace Fight Club, Shanghai, I takes a vi'lent dislike to him. His name was Hoolihan, a fighting sailor, same as me, and he was a big red-headed gorilla with hands like hairy hams, and he carried hisself with a swagger which put my teeth on edge. He looked like he thought he was king of the waterfront, and that there is a title I aspires to myself.
I detests these conceited jackasses. I'm glad that egotism ain't amongst my faults. Nobody'd ever know, from my conversation, that I was the bully of the toughest ship afloat, and the terror of bucko mates from Valparaiso to Singapore. I'm that modest I don't think I'm half as good as I really am.
But Red Hoolihan got under my hide with his struttings and giving instructions in that fog-horn beller of his'n. And when he discovered that Slip Harper was a old shipmate of his'n, his actions growed unbearable.
He made this discovery in the third round, whilst counting over Harper, who hadst stopped one of my man-killing left hooks with his chin.
"Seven! Eight! Nine!" said Hoolihan, and then he stopped counting and said: "By golly, ain't you the Johnny Harper that used to be bos'n aboard the old Saigon?"
"Yuh—yeah!" goggled Harper, groggily, getting his legs under him, whilst the crowd went hysterical.
"What's eatin' you, Hoolihan?" I roared indignantly. "G'wan countin'!"
He gives me a baleful glare.
"I'm refereein' this mill," he said. "You tend to your part of it. By golly, Johnny, I ain't seen you since I broke jail in Calcutta—"
I cannot truly convey the sheer pleasure it was for me to be in the presence of Robert E. Howard biographer Mark Finn as he read from this story aloud. Doubled up in tears of laughter, so I was: you might even hear a few hearty peals in this video! For a man most well known for his Sword-and-Sorcery yarns, some of Howard's absolute best work was funny boxing stories.

"The Sword Woman"
starring Dark Agnes

“Ever the man in men!” I said between my teeth. “Let a woman know her proper place: let her milk and spin and sew and bake and bear children, not look beyond her threshold or the command of her lord and master!  Bah! I spit on you all!  There is no man alive who can face me with weapons and live, and before I die, I’ll prove it to the world. Women!  Cows!  Slaves! Whimpering, cringing serfs, crouching to blows, revenging themselves by taking their own lives, as my sister urged me to do. Ha! You deny me a place among men? By God, I’ll live as I please and die as God wills, but if I’m not fit to be a man’s comrade, at least I’ll be no man’s mistress.

Outside his comedies, Howard very rarely utilised the first person perspective. He also very rarely wrote stories with women as the point-of-view protagonist. "The Sword Woman" was both, and that perspective lends a great deal of power to this early sword woman in modern historical fiction.

I wrote this about Agnes many years ago, & I still think it's true:

I've often maintained that Dark Agnes is one of Howard's most important characters, not only because of how far ahead of his time they are, but because I feel Agnes is one of Howard's most personal creations.  Reading Agnes' frustration at her station, the resentment of men not allowing her to be who she is as she pleases, the application of rugged outdoors skills to deadly professions, the protestation against arbitrary social laws and rules and traditions - all in a character who isn't a mighty-thewed barbarian or shrewd gunslinger, but in a woman. She has none of the baggage of Howard's other heroes: none of the religious elements of Solomon Kane, none of the machismo alpha-male culture of his barbarian heroes, none of the political/cultural sensitivity implications of El Borak or Costigan.

If pushed, I'd probably still call Dark Agnes my favourite Howard character, even above Conan or Bran Mak Morn, simply because of this story.

"The Tower of the Elephant"
starring Conan of Cimmeria

The lurid lights and drunken revelry fell away behind the Cimmerian. He had discarded his torn tunic, and walked through the night naked except for a loin-cloth and his high-strapped sandals. He moved with the supple ease of a great tiger, his steely muscles rippling under his brown skin.
He had entered the part of the city reserved for the temples. On all sides of him they glittered white in the starlight—snowy marble pillars and golden domes and silver arches, shrines of Zamora's myriad strange gods. He did not trouble his head about them; he knew that Zamora's religion, like all things of a civilized, long-settled people, was intricate and complex, and had lost most of the pristine essence in a maze of formulas and rituals. He had squatted for hours in the courtyard of the philosophers, listening to the arguments of theologians and teachers, and come away in a haze of bewilderment, sure of only one thing, and that, that they were all touched in the head.
His gods were simple and understandable; Crom was their chief, and he lived on a great mountain, whence he sent forth dooms and death. It was useless to call on Crom, because he was a gloomy, savage god, and he hated weaklings. But he gave a man courage at birth, and the will and might to kill his enemies, which, in the Cimmerian's mind, was all any god should be expected to do.
While you'll likely never get any consensus on what the single greatest Conan story was from Howard fans, there are five stories which seem to exemplify Conan: "Beyond the Black River," "The People of the Black Circle," "Red Nails," "Queen of the Black Coast," and "The Tower of the Elephant." "Tower" was the first Conan story I read, which might go some way into explaining why it remains my favourite - not least because, as the above paragraph illustrates, it shows me just how little I really knew about Conan.

In this story, we see Conan being philosophical, contemplative, compassionate - all things which the pop cultural zeitgeist insisted was anathema to the Big Dumb Barbarian. Sure, he was still a savage warrior, fearless adventurer, and pretty amazing dude, but there were facets and subtleties that I had no idea were present. We see bits and pieces of this Conan throughout the stories, especially "The Phoenix on the Sword," but seeing even a young Conan in what seems incongruous light was a revelation for me.

The story itself has a number of other memorable characters, from unnamed single-line characters to the wonderfully weird antagonist, as well as one of the most powerful and moving "monster" reveals in all of Sword-and-Sorcery. There's a lot to love in this strange, awesome tale.

"Wings in the Night"
starring Solomon Kane

Solomon Kane leaned on his strangely carved staff and gazed in scowling perplexity at the mystery which spread silently before him. Many a deserted village Kane had seen in the months that had passed since he turned his face east from the Slave Coast and lost himself in the mazes of jungle and river, but never one like this.
It was not famine that had driven away the inhabitants, for yonder the wild rice still grew rank and unkempt in the untilled fields. There were no Arab slave-raiders in this nameless land—it must have been a tribal war that devastated the village, Kane decided, as he gazed sombrely at the scattered bones and grinning skulls that littered the space among the rank weeds and grasses. These bones were shattered and splintered, and Kane saw jackals and a hyena furtively slinking among the ruined huts. But why had the slayers left the spoils? There lay war spears, their shafts crumbling before the attacks of the white ants. There lay shields, mouldering in the rains and sun. There lay the cooking pots, and about the neck-bones of a shattered skeleton glistened a necklace of gaudily painted pebbles and shells— surely rare loot for any savage conqueror.
He gazed at the huts, wondering why the thatch roofs of so many were torn and rent, as if by taloned things seeking entrance. Then something made his cold eyes narrow in startled unbelief. Just outside the mouldering mound that was once the village wall towered a gigantic baobab tree, branchless for sixty feet, its mighty bole too large to be gripped and scaled. Yet in the topmost branches dangled a skeleton, apparently impaled on a broken limb.
The cold hand of mystery touched the shoulder of Solomon Kane. How came those pitiful remains in that tree? Had some monstrous ogre's inhuman hand flung them there?
One of the best articles I've ever read regarding Solomon Kane was Michal Wojcek's analysis of this story, which deftly & bluntly subverts the Mighty Whitey expectation of lesser authors & conveys the humanity of Kane and those he sought to aid. But even putting aside that sobering context, this story exemplifies the bleak, relentless worldview of the Kane stories - one where the world is unfair, & it seems like those who seek to do good are constantly fighting a losing battle, but they keep fighting on regardless.

"Worms of the Earth"
starring Bran Mak Morn
He was dark, but he did not resemble the Latins around him. There was about him none of the warm, almost Oriental sensuality of the Mediterranean which colored their features. The blond barbarians behind Sulla's chair were less unlike the man in facial outline than were the Romans. Not his were the full curving red lips, nor the rich waving locks suggestive of the Greek. Nor was his dark complexion the rich olive of the south; rather it was the bleak darkness of the north. The whole aspect of the man vaguely suggested the shadowed mists, the gloom, the cold and the icy winds of the naked northern lands. Even his black eyes were savagely cold, like black fires burning through fathoms of ice.

His height was only medium but there was something about him which transcended mere physical bulk—a certain fierce innate vitality, comparable only to that of a wolf or a panther. In every line of his supple, compact body, as well as in his coarse straight hair and thin lips, this was evident—in the hawk-like set of the head on the corded neck, in the broad square shoulders, in the deep chest, the lean loins, the narrow feet. Built with the savage economy of a panther, he was an image of dynamic potentialities, pent in with iron self-control.

"Worms of the Earth" is a top contender for the very best Robert E. Howard story of them all: his prose at its very best, the atmosphere, the characterisation. Plus, it's set in Scotland during the age of the Roman conquest of Britain.

Most of these stories are easily available in the Del Reys: many are in the public domain in Europe. I highly recommend the Del Rey collections, as well as Gollancz's big leathbound collections.

Here's to another 112 years.

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