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.
Howard also saw that violence was the inevitable result of breakdowns in “civilized” societies. In his view, humans are really just apes who learned how to build things: when our societies begin to break down, we revert to our innate savagery. I’ve just been re-reading Leo Grin’s essay “The Reign of Blood” and I think he’s right that Howard sees man’s primal emotion as hate, and so when confronted with forces we see as hostile we see them as “something not only to be battled but to be hated.” I think anyone who has looked at what happens on the frontiers between societies in conflict would have to agree that Howard’s views were pretty dead-on. Even when the initial contacts are not hostile, man’s tendency to turn hatred on perceived threats frequently serves to escalate into conflict and ultimately violence. At the end of the Turlogh O’Brien story “The Dark Man,” a priest asks “Almighty God, when will the reign of blood cease?” “Turlogh shook his head. ‘Not so long as the race lasts.’” It seems a bleak and pessimistic view, but on the basis of our history to date, it also seems a realistic one.
I could go on and on, really, about the ideas in Howard, but much better critics than me have weighed in. The essays in the two Best of Howard volumes, by Charles Hoffman and Steven Tompkins, address some of them. The outstanding critical volumes edited by Don Herron, The Dark Barbarian and The Barbaric Triumph, only begin to hint at the richness those of a critical bent will find in Howard. I also think he’s long overdue for a good archetypal analysis, though Patrick Burger and I have both taken tentative steps in that direction. There is good material in the journals and fanzines, like The Cimmerian, The Dark Man, and REH: Two-Gun Raconteur.
MILLER: Squeamish people might say that Howard glorified violence.
BURKE: He did no such thing. There is no glory in Howardian violence. It’s a grim and bloody business, and when the fighting is over, generally his protagonists recognize the ultimate futility of it, that nothing is really won. The impermanence of man’s achievements in the face of an uncaring cosmos is a constant refrain throughout Howard’s work. But one of the things most critics notice is that Howard’s characters, even when they recognize the futility of the struggle, still refuse to give up. In a way, he’s the poet laureate of the Last Stand and the Doomed Cause.
MILLER: How did Conan become such an iconic figure?
BURKE: Well, if I knew the answer to that, I should be able to pick out the next big iconic figure and invest heavily. But I think the answer probably lies in a phrase you used in your Wall Street Journal article last year: he came along at just the right time and really captured something of the zeitgeist. Charles Hoffman first made the claim back in the 1970s that Conan was an existential hero: Conan’s story is not that of a boy who sets out on a quest to fulfill some noble destiny (as in the story of young Arthur, or Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings), nor to find some Grail, but is the story of a man who recognizes that there is no inherent meaning in the world, that we make of ourselves what we can, and who seizes opportunities to become what he wishes to become. He is fiercely independent, and that is certainly a characteristic that a great many Conan and Howard fans share. He does not recognize authority as superior simply by virtue of its being in authority. He was a perfect anti-establishment figure, as well as one who seemed to embody the ideal of self-reliance while possessing a strong sense of morality.
MILLER: Are the Conan stories better than the movies?
BURKE: Infinitely. I know that there are thousands of Conan fans out there who like — even love — the movies, but to me they entirely fail to capture Howard’s character. For one thing, Howard’s Conan was born and raised a barbarian, acquiring his muscle and skills in a fierce struggle for survival in a savage land. Howard’s Conan would have chewed his own leg off rather than be a slave pushing some stupid wheel around. And that’s only one of my many objections to the way the movies portrayed Conan. It’s hard for me to imagine how anyone who had actually read Howard could have so stupendously missed the point.
MILLER: If you could pick any actor to portray Conan, would you pick the current governor of California?
BURKE: No, I’d pick an actor. I’ve always imagined Conan as being something like Chuck Bronson with Clint Walker’s body. I’ve never quite understood why so many Conan fans keep bringing up body-builders and wrestlers to play Conan. The way I see it, Conan was born in a real “backward” part of his world, and by the time he was a teen was known as a fighter and a natural leader. He ventured out into “civilized” lands, first making his living as a thief, but finally finding his calling as a mercenary soldier. He pursued that line of work for quite a while, with interludes of pirating, before conditions fell into place making it possible for him to usurp a throne. But basically, your physical model for Conan should be big country boys who become mercenary soldiers, not bodybuilders or wrestlers. At least, such is my opinion.
MILLER: Do grown-ups sometimes give you funny looks when they learn you’re a Conan expert?
BURKE: Not really, though I have to admit that the subject does not generally appear to hold much fascination for more than a few. But actually I don’t think of myself as a Conan expert, I’m a Robert E. Howard expert. There are guys who are much more knowledgeable about all the details of the Conan stories, Conan comics, Conan the pop-culture icon, etc., than I am. I’m interested in Conan as a literary production of Robert E. Howard.
MILLER: What’s your all-time favorite story by Howard?
BURKE: I don’t really have a single all-time favorite. Consistently at the top of my list are the Conan stories “Red Nails” and “Beyond the Black River”; heroic fantasies “Worms of the Earth” and “The Dark Man”; the adventures set in the Near East between the 12th and 16th centuries, particularly “Lord of Samarcand,” “The Shadow of the Vulture,” “The Lion of Tiberias,” and “The Sowers of the Thunder”; the El Borak adventure tale “Hawk of the Hills”; and the horror story “Pigeons From Hell.” I’m probably failing to mention a story or two that should be on that list.
MILLER: Are you a fan of the Conan comics?
BURKE: Yes, the old Marvel comics written by Roy Thomas and superbly illustrated by Barry Smith got me started on Howard. I’d somehow missed the Conan books when they came out in the 1960s, though I was a big fan of Tarzan and The Lord of the Rings: I guess I just never saw the Conans, which did get pretty spotty distribution back then. But a friend and I were talking about comics and I offhandedly dismissed them as “kid stuff,” so he gave me a copy of Conan the Barbarian. I still have the issue, it was #4, an adaptation of “The Tower of the Elephant.” I was hooked. For people who missed out on these comics the first time around, Dark Horse has been reprinting them in trade paperback as The Chronicles of Conan: the first four volumes cover the issues that Barry Smith (now Barry Windsor-Smith) did, my personal favorites of the series, but the next few volumes, featuring the artwork primarily of John Buscema, are good and there are many fans who prefer him to Smith. I eventually lost interest when, after Roy Thomas left the title, it seemed to devolve into aimlessness and a monster-of-the-month, but I have kept all the issues from the 1970s that adapted Howard material. And I have been enjoying the new series from Dark Horse: it’s been a bit uneven but on the whole I’ve been having a good time with it. I enjoy seeing different people’s interpretations, particularly in adapting Howard’s own stories. That’s why I was happy that Marcelo Anciano, who was the man behind the Wandering Star books, decided to go with a different artist in each of the three Conan volumes. I think Howard really lends himself to all sorts of artistic interpretations. Artists tend to love working with his stories.
MILLER: It seems like we’re in the midst of a Howard renaissance — definitive editions of his books are coming out, a new foundation is publishing his lesser-known writings, there are great blogs such as The Cimmerian and REHupa. Why is this happening now?
BURKE: There are probably a lot of reasons, but of course the fundamental one is that Howard’s work is so damn good. Even during periods when most of his stuff was out of print, you had a core of really enthusiastic fans who would tell anybody who’d listen that they should be checking this guy out, thereby creating new fans. The pop-culture phenomenon of Conan — the movies, comics, role-playing games, and so on — helped keep at least that part of his work in the public eye, while in the background there was a slowly growing body of critical work. I think that in American culture generally there has been a growing acceptance that popular forms of literature are no less literature for being popular: the New York Times even reviews graphic novels now, and Michael Chabon won a Pulitzer for a novel about a couple of Golden Age comic book creators; the Library of America published its first volume of Raymond Chandler in 1995, and has followed with volumes of Crime Noir, Dashiell Hammett, and most recently H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick; Stephen King was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003. People like stories: we’ve been telling them since we became human, it is probably part of what makes us human. Howard is one of those writers who comes along and not only tells great stories, but timeless ones, stories that can be enjoyed by readers long after the period in which they were written. The ideas in his work still resonate with the zeitgeist, arguably even more than they did in the 1960s. We’ve finally gotten together a critical mass of active scholars, critics, publishers, organizers and fans to help push the work along. But I’ll always come back to the fundamental reason being Howard’s work itself: it is just too good, too powerful, to be neglected for long. All we can do is tell people they should try it for themselves instead of making assumptions about it based on inaccurate representations in movies and other media. It is the stories themselves that will create new Howard fans.