Friday, 22 October 2004

Robert E. Howard

Much of the reason I have always gravitated to fantasy fiction has been the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, although he is not the only author to have influenced my taste for fantasy. As significant as Tolkien was determining my tastes, Robert E. Howard was perhaps just as significant.

I firat encountered the characters of Robert E. Howard in Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conqueror comic books published Marvel in the Seventies. From the Marvel Comics I moved onto the many short story anthologies featuring the works of Howard (often referred to by his initials--REH). Howard was a markedly different writer from Tolkien. While Tolkien a rich and complex world, Howard's focus was on action. That is not to say that Howard's stories are simple by any stretch of the imagination. He could and did deal with some very complex concepts in his works.

Robert E. Howard was born in Peaster, Texas in 1906, the son of a physician. They moved half way across Texas to Cross Plains in 1919, where REH spent the remainder of his years. Howard started writing as a teenager. He made his first sale in 1924--Weird Tales bought the story "Spear and Fang," detailing the encounter between a Neanderthal and a Cro-Magnon. He worked a number of odd jobs, although eventually he was able to make a living entirely off his writing.

It was in 1928 that the first of his many continuing characters saw publication. Solomon Kane was a 16th century Puritan and master swordsman who often found himself in bizarre adventures. In various short stories, Kane faced the legendary Aztec Feathered Serpent, aided a lost group of Vikings in Greenland against werewolves, fought ghosts in England, and faced many other opponents that combined swashbuckling adventure with supernatural horror. In some respects Kane was Howard's most complex character, not quite a Puritan but no quite a Cavalier either, sworn to destroy evil where he found it.

It was in 1929 that what is possibly Howard's second most famous character made his first appearance. In many ways Kull was a prototype for Conan. Like Conan he was a barbarian. In Kull's case, he was an Atlantean who would go on to sieze the throne of the kingdom of Valusia. While Kull resembles Conan in many respects, even down to his appearance, his adventures tended to be much more fantastic than those of Conan. In various short stories, Kull faced Serpent Men, conspiracies in his court, and his archnemesis Thulsa Doom, the world's most powerful necromancer. I always preferred Kull to Conan, particularly as his adventures had a stronger fantasy element and were often rife with some fairly sophisticated concepts. Indeed, Howard's explanation of how Kull could travel through time to meet Bran Mak Morn, another one of his characters, in the story "Kings of the Night," was very original and fairly complex.

Howard's next major character, Cormac Mac Art first appeared in 1930. Like Solomon Kane, Cormac was one of Howard's heroes who existed in an actual historical setting. Art was Gael in the Dark Ages who often fought alongside or against Saxons and Danes. Unlike many of Howard's other characters, Cormac was not successful. The fact that the stories were straight forward action adventure with little in the way of fantasy made them difficult to sell. Another character in a historical setting, Bran Mak Morn, would make his first appearance in 1932. Bran was a Pictish chieftain who fought the forces of Rome. Like Cormac, Bran was not quite as successful as some of Howard's characters and may well be the least known of his major characters.

Howard's most famous character, Conan the Barbarian, debuted only a month after Bran Mak Morn's first appearance. Conan was a Cimmerian babarian in the Hyborian Age, who had a number of adventures before becoming King of Aquilonia. The first Conan story was actually an unsold King Kull story, rewritten to fit the new character. What set Conan apart from Howard's other characters was that he existed in a much larger world (or at least he saw more of that world). This gave Howard much more flexibility in the sort of stories he could write about his Barbarian. A cross section of the genres of various Conan stories demonstrates this flexibility: pirate stories, oriental adventures, straight forward action adventure, outright fantasy, and even a detective story ("The God in the Bowl"). In fact, Conan was the only one of Howard's characters to whom he devoted an entire novel. It was perhaps because of the flexibility of Howard's Conan stories that he would become Howard's most popular character and one of the most popular characters featured in Weird Tales.

Howard was very prolific. Indeed, in addition to the large number of stories he wrote, Howard was also a prolific writer of letters. He corresponded with H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and many others.

Howard spent his entire life in Cross Plains. Despite his success, REH often felt that he was a misfit out of touch with the world. By his own admission, he was subject to dark moods. Perhaps the strongest influence on Howard's life was his mother, to whom he was very close. His mother was ill much of Howard's life and Howard often found himself in the role of her caretaker. Another strong influence on Howard was schoolteacher Novalyne Price. Novalyne was the closest Howard ever came to a romantic relationship in his life. The two shared many interests and at different times even entertained the thought of marriage. Unfortunately, the relationship was often stormy and eventually Novalyne would leave Cross Plains for Louisiana State Univesity. Novalyne was strong willed and independent and refused to accept the Depression Era stereotype of women as mere housewives. She may have even been the inspiration for some of Howard's female warriors (Dark Agnes de la Fere). She does seem to have had an impact on Howard's attitude towards women, as Howard often expresses nearly feminist attitudes in many of his letters.

By 1935, the health of Howard's mother took a severe turn for the worse. She was in and out of hospitals for much of the time. Howard found himself sinking into a deep depression. Howard had entertained thoughts of suicide for years. Prior to his death Howard arranged for his agent to handle his stories following his passing from this world. He also borrowed a handgun from a friend. In June of 1936 Howard's mother went into a coma. Howard bought a cememtary lot for his mother, his father, and himself. It was on June ll, when Howard discovered that his mother would not recover, that Howard got into his Chevy and shot himself in the head. Howard lived for nearly eight hours, never regaining uncosciousness, before passing on.

Robert E. Howard has had an enormous impact on my life. As much as I love Tolkien, in many respects it is Howard that has determined my tastes in fantasy fiction. Many of the authors I favour, from Philip Jose Farmer to Roger Zelazney to Michael Moorcock, show more influence from Robert E. Howard than they do Tolkien. My own writing style also owes more to Howard than Tolkien (although admittedly my strongest influence in style has been Doc Savage scribe Lester Dent). Howard's stories, featuring sword wielding Puritans, brawny barbarians, powerful wizards, and dangerous monsters, have always appealed to me in a way that Tolkien's rich world cannot. I think it safe to say that Howard will continue to be a strong influence on myself and other fantasy fans and writers.

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