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.