Saturday, 22 January 2011

Robert E Howard - 105 Today!

Today, January 22, is the anniversary of the birth of Robert Ervin Howard. If Howard had lived – which given how bright he burned during his young, short life is unlikely – this would have been his 105 birthday and to celebrate this anniversary I have spent the last week re-reading and enjoying my favourite REH stories.
The impact of Howard’s work on me, and by extension my recordings with TenHornedBeast, has been profound. In various interviews in recent years I have spoken at length of how Howard’s anti-modern, anti-urban, anti-intellectual themes act as a lodestar by which I steer. Which is not to say that Howard was a fine writer, he was a hack who wrote for money and to order but although he may have lacked the lyrical finesse of Clark Ashton Smith or the sheer mastery of Arthur Machen his writings pulse and throb with a living sense of action and a gritty, hardboiled realism even when they are swooping over fantastic tans-mundane planets or describing impossibly wonderful palaces lost in the depths of ancient dust.
It is this link back to the real world that is Howard’s strength. Growing up in the tough boom towns of Texas he mixed with those who still remembered the frontier with its wars and skirmishes, old men who were young when the South fought the North. He absorbed this lore of blood and bone and used it to flavour his writing in a way that Lovecraft, for instance, did not. There is nothing pallid about Howard’s fiction, nothing effete or unnatural. When Howard describes violence, or struggle or fear it is written with a realism that convinces us of the veracity of his words. In this regard I feel that Howard is unique among his circle and perhaps even among those who have followed in the last century; not enough writers of fantasy and weird fiction have been punched in the face, if they had we would have more of the vivid, blood-red tales that Howard was so good at and less of the claptrap that litters the shelves of charity shops.
These are my five favourite Robert E Howard stories. I make no special pleading for them to be his best, although I certainly feel they are in the front rank, but they are the ones that gain the most pleasure from reading. It has been a difficult task selecting only five and the list of honourable mentions of those that could have made the final cut is long and wide but speaking as somebody who has read an uncommonly large amount of Howard’s cannon I feel that those who wish to know why readers are still seeking out and enthusing about a long dead writer from a small town in rural Texas will find the answer in these five stories.

5: Pigeons From Hell

Despite being cursed with one of the worst titles in weird fiction Pigeons From Hell succeeds in being amongst the most eerie and evocative haunted house stories you will ever read. Written by Howard in late 1934 and published postumously in Weird Tales in 1938 the story has many of the stock tropes of the type – strangers lost in a weird deserted landscape, a delapidated and eerie house, bloody murder at the hands of a spectral presence but casts these traditonal elements against a backdrop of sinister local colour that raises what could have been merely another pulp horror story to the level of a genre masterpiece.
Both sides of Howard’s family had roots throughout the south, with various ancestors owning plantations and fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War and Pigeons From Hell captures this mood of lost splendour and forgotten brutality beautifully; the decaying plantation mansion of the sadistic slave-owning Blassenville’s harbouring the dark secrets of sexual sadism, black magic and zuvembies. If one can park the reservations around the pulpy title and sink into the stiffling atmosphere Pigeons From Hell is as good a piece of Southern Gothic as you will find.

4: Wings In The Night

Howard had no difficulty creating new characters to populate his fantastic imagined worlds, that many of them are the same character in a different loin-cloth is something that the seasoned Howardian comes to accept and, perhaps, enjoy but with Solomon Kane REH found a vein of something deeper and more weighty with which to work. Kane may share some of Howards other characters propensity for violence but he is a much more complex human being that Conan or even Kull ever apear to be. As a dark, dour Puritan wandering the known and semi-known byways of late 16th century Europe and Africa Kane is driven by a seemingly philanthropic desire to combat evil and help the helpless. Kane is the sword arm of God and seems to know the burden that this role brings.
Howard set several of the Kane stories in sub-Saharan Africa, then just being penetrated by European merchants and slavers. This exotic setting allows Howard a fine broad stage to play his characters – dense steaming jungles, rumours of ancient Atlantean sorceries and wicked, forgotten cities that were old before the stones of Rome were laid. Wings In The Night sees Kane travelling through this wilderness of equatoria, discovering a deserted village that appears to have been attacked from above and setting out with all his grim purpose to rid the world of the blasphemy that ruin it, a blasphemy of winged bestial terrors that will be familiar to those who know their Howard.
Kane may appear to be more philanthropic than Conan, who’s constant wenching and reiving are done for simple personal pleasure but in the silent, violent Puritan the modern reader can readily detect a vehicle for Howard’s views on race and civilisation, views that have been split and examined with the diamond cutter zeal only found with internet nerd of fantasy fandom. Howard’s views, wether his own or those placed in the mouth of his characters, will not sit easy with many modern readers and whilst they may be distasteful and ignorant they are not nearly as unpalatable as those of his apologists or detractors who seek to either exhonerate or condemn a man who died in 1936 using the moral standards of today. That said Wings In The Night contains a paragraph that is the purest Howard, and one that is most often cited for his prosecution.
Kane stood, an unconscious statue of triumph - the ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth, whether he be clad in wolf-hide and horned helmet, or boots and doublet - whether he bear in his hand battle-ax or rapier - whether he be called Dorian, Saxon or Englishman - whether his name is Jason, Hengist or Solomon Kane.
For Howard violence spoke louder than words, and although popular culture may know his Barbarians better than his Puritans the Solomon Kane stories are at the very heart of understanding this complex writer.

3: Worms Of The Earth

Howard’s Pictish King Bran Mak Morn is the crowning achievement of his long running Celtophilia and Worms Of The Earth is without doubt one of the finiest stories Howard committed to paper. Here is everything the reader demands from Howard – a fast pace, a just cause, a hero who will stick at nothing to seek his vengeance. Bran is an Iron Age Hamlet, brooding on this and other worlds, obsessed by the decline of his race, wearing his barbaric crown heavily.
Originally published in Weird Tales in November 1932 the plot see Bran Mak Morn vow revenge on the Roman governor of Britain, Titus Sulla after witnessing the crucifixion of a fellow Pict, having penetrate colonial Eboracum in disguise. To conquer the might of Rome Bran seeks help from the Worms of the Earth, a race of creatures who the aboriginal inhabitants of Britain had driven underground. In doing this Bran must seek the aid of a fey witch woman, swim in a lake guarded by a shadowy gaurdian and descend to the underworld to summon the Worms of the Earth.
Twice in Worms of the Earth Howard mentions the "black gods" of R’lyeh, a working of the now over-familiar Cthulhu Mythos into this very British landscape of burial mounds and wight-haunted mountains. That Bran finally slays his enemy in mercy rather than vengeance adds a sophistication to this savage, supersticious barbarian that some critics of Howard fail to credit. I have spent too long reading for improvement rather than pleasure and it is a joy and a delight to return to Worms Of The Earth.

2: Queen Of The Black Coast

For most people Robert E Howard means Conan so if we are to have a Conan story we may as well have the best. Queen Of The Black Coast was first in Weird Tales in May 1934, earning Howard $115 and was accompanied with a suitably spicy cover illustration by Margaret Brundage. This is an epic story, unrivalled in the Conan series, setting our hero in the context of lover and warrior and containing some of Howard’s best writing.
The plot of the story recalls Conrad’s “Heart Of Darkness”, published in 1902, with it’s journey up the black jungle river and the threatening unknown that lies all around. In Queen Of The Black Coast Howard succeeds in drawing a female character worthy of her consort, a beuatiful and wilful pirate queen who’s name is feared along the coast. Conan and Belit talk as lovers, the describe their desire and fears as the ship sails into the horror of the ancient jungle.
Howard takes time time to explore the relationship between Conan and Belit, something that few of his other stories attempt but readers of Sword & Sorcery demand an equal helping of both and in this Howard does not disappoint, turning his pen to some of the bloodiest and most violent prose. There is a dark, sinister heart to this story – ancient blasphemous magicks, greed and avarice, sadomaschoistic love and raw, lustful desire. For a small town boy who seems to have been awkward around women Bob seems to have got to grips with the darker side of love in a very deep way.
Queen Of The Black Coast also contains one of my favourite Howard passages, in it’s description of the horror that has made the jungle it’s home -
They who had been winged gods became pinioned demons, with all that remained of their ancestors' vast knowledge distorted and perverted and twisted into ghastly paths. As they had risen higher than mankind might dream, so they sank lower than man's maddest nightmares reach. They died fast, by cannibalism, and horrible feuds fought out in the murk of the midnight jungle. And at last among the lichen-grown ruins of their city only a single shape lurked, a stunted abhorrent perversion of nature.
This is the apogee of Howard’s art.

1: Black Canaan

This may be a controversial choice, many will feel that Conan is the where Howard excelled and whilst I can agree with some of the sentiment that elevates the Cimmerian to the height of pop-culture icon I feel as strongly that his bloated, muscle-bound physique had done more harm than good to Howard’s reputation.
More harm than good – that may well be an apt description of Black Canaan because if modern readers balk at the casual tone of white supremacy that permeates much of Howard’s early writing they will have some difficulty with this story. Published in the June 1936 issue of Weird Tales, the month of Howard’s death, this is a regional horror story in the Southern Gothic mode, one of several such tales that Howard set in the piney woods and swamps of a mythical, supernatural south.
The story is one of voodoo and violence that must have been familiar to readers of the pulps but placed into a gritty, realistic context of poor white farmers cowering in their homes in fear of a bloody, genocidal uprising by freed slaves. Fear runs throughout this story like a wide dark river; the whites fear the blacks, the blacks fear Saul Stark the strange African conjur man who has enslaved them with his magick. The hero, Kirby Buckner - an upstanding land-owning white man, fears the sexual desire he feels for the Bride of Shamballah, a licentious and semi-naked black woman who appears – as if by magick – to mock and murder him. This says as much about race relations in 1930s America as any other work of fiction.
There is high adventure here, and deep unnatural horrors. In this story REH lets the matter of race ride at the head of the team but this is not the crude Aryanist polemic we find in the earlier Solomon Kane stories. There may well be more use of the term “swamp nigger” than the modern reader can easily stomach but it would be wrong to read a racist message from this most complex of Howard’s stories. Instead the hero fulfils all the ancient conditions of that role – he places himself in danger, risking death and un-death to save his community from a menace that is beyond his ken. The question we need to ask of this story is who are the members of Buckner’s community and for whom does he risk his life and sanity? I feel that the answer is very much more inclusive than many of Howard’s detractors would admit.