The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume 1
When I was younger, I had a vague idea of Howard as a would-be tough guy, cranking out stories about barbarian hard men, militaristic and formulaic wish-fulfilment. There’s some truth to that image, but much that is wrong. And much that is left out; Howard seems to have suffered from clinical depression, for example, which shaped his life and his approach to the same. He knew and wrote about actual tough guys and guys who simply wanted to be tough; but although he believed the barbarian in humanity would ultimately triumph, he didn’t necessarily see it as a good thing. Howard, in short, was a much more fascinating figure, and fascinating writer, than I had supposed.
It helps, in reading this collection, that the key wrongness in the way I thought about Howard was the word “formulaic”. Howard occasionally wrote to formula, but he wasn’t formulaic that I can see; he made the formulas his own. And, frankly, much of the formula that we do see in his writings came about because he wrote material from which formulas were later derived; thus Kull, and Conan, and the barbarian swordsmen who followed. Howard wrote other kinds of fiction as well, much of it represented here — or, more precisely, he wrote in many different settings, though the adventure-fiction structure and tone was almost always the same, occasionally leavened by a greater sense of humour. But always there is a strong structure, always (even in the most comedic of stories) the almost homicidal sense of violence ready to burst out at any moment, always the swift relentless motion of the story ever onwards to bloody climax.
Technically, Howard could write taut, dramatic tales; often he didn’t reach this standard, but this book does a good job of selecting some of his most compelling work. You can feel the compulsions bubbling under the surface of the stories here, especially in his dark ages tales about Bran Mak Morn and the Picts. Howard researched his stories, and was strongly inspired by his sense of history — by the pseudo-Darwinian narratives of races rising and falling, of history as a tale of peoples climbing some evolutionary scale and then collapsing into nothingness. As I said, Howard believed the barbarian would triumph in the end; it’s a sort of historical nihilism, matching his Weird Tales companion H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic nihilism.
Like Lovecraft, Howard was a racist, but for the most part that’s not directly reflected in these stories. Howard’s framework for thinking about races and peoples is clearly here, and, as in the case of Lovecraft, clearly influencing the kinds of fantasies and stories he imagines. It’s sublimated racism, in other words, which in this volume does not, by and large, break the surface. Gender politics, of course, is something else, and that — no surprise — is where Howard is weakest.
The value of a book like this is in the way it makes a case for Howard, for all his flaws, as a writer worth taking seriously. That is, it presents Howard as somebody with a native sense for words; it makes a strong case for his ability to construct a sentence, to make it do what he wanted. The poems it presents are decent examples of what I mean — not vastly sophisticated, ballad-like, perhaps vaguely similar to Kipling or Chesterton (the latter of whom was a particular favourite of Howard’s), tremendously successful at stirring emotion or images in the mind of the reader. The point is not that Howard was a craftsman; he was, but my point is that he had something more than that.
This is not a perfect book, as Howard was not a perfect writer; but then he never had a chance to reach what for most writers would be considered maturity. It’s tempting to wonder whether it’s not time for a full-scale re-evaluation of Howard’s work. Lovecraft is, I think, becoming increasingly acceptable as a canonical writer; I think generally there’s a greater interest in American pulp writers. Could Howard be rescued as a writer worth studying? Maybe; maybe not; either way, he’ll be a writer worth reading, and a writer who will be read for a very long time. Books like this make the case that that’s a good thing.