Conan was a barbarian, not a librarian — but these days he’s a positively bookish figure. The author who created him, Robert E. Howard, is the subject of a new two-volume anthology. The first book, The Best of Robert E. Howard: Crimson Shadows, has just been published. The next one, The Best of Robert E. Howard: Grim Lands, comes out in November.
National Review Online’s John J. Miller recently talked with Rusty Burke, the editor of these books, about Conan and all things REH.
JOHN J. MILLER: Most people associate Robert E. Howard with Conan, but was there more to him than that?
RUSTY BURKE: Oh, yes, there is a great deal more to him than Conan. During his lifetime Howard wrote more than 300 stories, only 21 of which featured Conan. While it must be admitted that the best of the Conan stories stand among the best of Howard’s fiction, period, this is at least partly due to the fact that these stories were written at a later point in Howard’s career, when he was really maturing as a writer. One thing that surprises a lot of people is that Howard’s two most commercially successful series during his lifetime, in terms of number of stories sold, were humor: the Steve Costigan boxing tales and the Breckinridge Elkins western yarns. The Elkins series, in fact, provided Howard his entree into one of the better pulp magazines, when the editor of Action Stories moved over to Argosy and asked Howard for a series similar to Elkins. Howard’s first love was adventure, and even his fantasy and horror stories often have the basic structure of adventure stories. But he wrote for all kinds of markets: boxing, detective, western, general adventure, as well as weird fiction, and he wrote consistently well in all of them (though he famously disliked writing detective stories, and in fact most of his “mysteries” are really adventure stories).
MILLER: What makes Howard a great writer who merits a “best of” anthology?
BURKE: He’s a great storyteller. I think that’s really the first obligation of any great writer — to tell a good story. Howard generally grabs the reader in the first paragraph and then keeps the story moving along so quickly that you just get swept up in it. He perfected a number of techniques to keep things moving, one of which was providing just enough descriptive information that the reader could fill in the details with his own imagination: I think this makes for greater reader involvement in the story, letting you feel like you’re actually seeing what’s there rather than just having it described to you. Of course, this greater level of reader involvement also leads to some furious disagreements when different readers propose different visual interpretations. But that emotional investment we make in Howard’s fiction is part of his success. Most observers agree, though, that one of the reasons Howard could get by with minimal descriptions was that he was a natural poet, and could use just a few words to set a scene quite evocatively.
MILLER: What’s an example of a first-rate Howard scene?
BURKE: He was a master of the opening paragraph, and one of my favorites is the beginning of the Conan novel The Hour of the Dragon:
The long tapers flickered, sending the black shadows wavering along the walls, and the velvet tapestries rippled. Yet there was no wind in the chamber. Four men stood about the ebony table on which lay the green sarcophagus that gleamed like carven jade. In the upraised right hand of each man a curious black candle burned with a weird greenish light. Outside was night and a lost wind moaning among the black trees.”
That gives you just enough information to set the scene Howard wants, while letting you decide what the “long tapers” look like, what the walls are made of, what color the velvet tapestries are. And that last line gives me chills whenever I read it.
MILLER: So Howard told great stories, but did he traffic in ideas?
BURKE: The idea that is most often mentioned is his notion that civilizations always inevitably rise and fall: a young, vigorous race or nation of “barbarians” fights its way to civilization, sometimes building on the ruins of a decayed society it displaces; inevitably, though, when the people become comfortable, when they are no longer working constantly to build their society, they become first complacent, then indolent, and finally decadent, from which point the society decays to the point that a new young race of barbarians can overthrow or displace it.