Saturday, March 5, 2011

Robert E. Howard: Bringing Brawn to The Weird... Completing The Triangle

I've always thought of the Big Three of Dark Pulp to be Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard.  I might be off in this supposition, but to me, those three stand elite from all others that blazed the trail in those heady, creative days before the Second Great War.
It was an era when books, magazines, comics, and radio filled up the space in one's brain now occupied by television, multi-media noise, and electronic clutter.  Fantasy entertainment had to be earned via active involvement (outside of the cinema, which wasn't doing much in the way of the fantastic and strange back then).  Imagination was crafted, not given, and was bolstered by such pulpy gems as Adventure, Amazing Stories, Black Mask, Dime Detective, Flying Aces, Horror Stories, Marvel Tales, Oriental Stories, Planet Stories, Spicy Detective (SPICY DETECTIVE?! YES!! I so love that this exists), Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Unknown and, of course, Weird Tales, which brought HPL, CAS, and REH to the masses (such as they were).
In terms of physical stature and creative scope, H.P. was the bookish outsider, the fragile and sickly New England gentleman who reached beyond the very conception of the cosmos through his startling imagination, taking him places he'd never dare go in person, and creating new vistas and entities of  horror rooted deeply in xenophobic, sexual, and social fears.  Cosmic terror.  Nameless dread from beyond rooted time and space.  A cold, disinterested universe, roiling with ageless creatures of chaos birthed before our reality blinked into existence.  Humanity as a fly speck upon the bleached desert of a billion strange realities.

Robert E. Howard - "Two-Gun Bob" - was the beer swigging southern brawler, as bold and gritty as the plains of west/central Texas, who seemed to relish crafting characters and lands based on his reverence for physical strength and primal violence.  Barbarism.  Battle.  Bloodshed.  Noble death.

While he also explored a few classically "Lovecraftian" tales, REH is best know for his hulking heroes, all ropey muscle and swinging blade. "Thews."  Conan the Cimmerian, Bran Mak Morn, Kull of Atlantis - smashing skulls, cleaving torsos, and bedding maidens, with a sort of brutish innocence found in a humanity unencumbered by civilizing laws.  A celebration of the steel inside human flesh.

Clark Ashton Smith always seemed to bridge the gap between the two disparate pen pals and admiring contemporaries, both stylistically and physically.  One part dipped in the squishy and squamous of Lovecraft, another part bathed in the blood, sweat, and iron of Howard's newly minted "sword and sorcery."  A third part pulpy, poetic sci-fi all his own.  CAS lived a frugal, yet rugged existence in the hill country of Auburn, California.  More Renaissance Man than Mountain Man (yet both just the same), who divided his time between sculpting, painting, poetry, dazzling wordsmithery, and other artistic pursuits.  He was refined, but also sturdy.  A deft creator of high fantasy and sword and sorcery, while also a master, in his own right, of true cosmic horror, sci-fi, and weird fiction.

I've discussed HPL and CAS a bit here at The Cosmicomicon already, but I haven't yet delved into Robert E. Howard.  Part of that is due to my creative focus at the moment, which is very much in the House of Lovecraft, buttressed (*snicker*) by Columns of Clark Ashton.  But the other reason is based on my own ignorance.  Sure, like any starry eyed 70's child with a rapid and searching imagination, deeply steeped in fertile and seemingly limitless womb of Dungeons& Dragons, comics, and Dragon Magazine, not to mention the genre-establishing art of His Highness Frank Frazetta, I've always grown up with an awareness and zeal for Conan the Cimmerian.  How could one not?  He was the epitome of the Invincible Noble Savage.  The non-super yet impossibly heroic SuperSavage who lived by basic principles of honor, strength, and deadly justice.  He was an Old West gunslinger who brandished a blade instead of a six shooter.  He was all I wanted to be as a kid, aside from a bit of book learning and some general standards relating to modesty and hygiene.  Conan was the pre-history Ultimate Warrior before the WWF was a glint in Vinnie McMahon's greed-bulged eye.
He was Conan, and he was all Robert E. Howard.  What an achievement.  What a contribution to fantasy.
The strangely (at the time) black 'n white artwork, magazine-size comic Savage Sword of Conan looms large in my mind during my comic frenzy years of teenage years.  This was in the days before the explosion of truly graphic "graphic novels," and the unbridled violence and blood lust of "comic book character" thrilled me to the marrow.
Soon came John Milius' gritty film Conan The Barbarian, starring a my state's current governor (and a Viking Jew Fro that will last throughout the ages), looms as one of the "biggest" films of my childhood, even though the production values became a bit suspect as I aged into adulthood, when magic dimmed in the face of cut-rate props and costuming).
But, I plan on changing all of that in the coming months.  I've heard the clarion call of the battle horn from beyond The Black River, and will attend to my deadly duty.  Digesting "The Hyborian Age" and "Almuric" in the last week has re-lit my fire to reacquaint myself with with this giant, pugilist of a writer, with a legacy of stellar work and legions of extremely loyal fans.

As we gear up for the coming new Conan movie, lets all remember to pay homage to the the Brainfather of it all - Robert E. Howard. He was respected and admired by all of the Pulp Masters, especially HPL, who carried on an extensive epistolary relationship with REH for years.  They were tight.  Tight in a way that is surprising to me, based on their individual personalities.  But nothing bonds the blood tighter than a shared love of the strange, the threatening... the Weird Horror.
So, I raise my froth rimmed goblet to you, Robert E. Howard.  Long may your words ring out, like the sound of clashing steel on the battle plain, till the last glint of human savagery is sucked from this mortal coil.  The time will come.  But in the mean time, let us remember the words of your best-born son:

Mongol General: What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.

Advice to live by, my fine feathered friends.

Okay... Off with you.  Jog on.

I'm reading... I'm remembering...


  1. The triumvirate of Weird fiction! I go back and forth arguing with myself which is my favorite. In the end I am not sure. I like each for different reasons. I love how they all had unique visions that somehow intersected every now and then. Lately I have had a Clark Ashton Smith sickness, and I am in love with his language and sardonic morbidity. I just can't seem to get enough. But Howard was a giant among men, and his influence on me has been monumental.

  2. I do too, Shane. Depending on my mood, all have seemed like the True Master (HPL always edges out the others in the end, though, but never by much).

    I love each for what they bring and how they bring it, and all share a Mythosy creative through-line that binds the Triumvirate together perfectly.

  3. Did you happen to get a chance to watch the REH film at 2010's HPLFF called The Whole Wide World (1996)? Rather interesting look into his life from the perspective of Novalyne Price.

  4. No, I didn't, Nicky. I think that might have only been at the Portland Festival, and not the debut fest in L.A. I'll look around the world wide spider web to see if I can find it. Sounds fantastic. I don't know nearly as much about REH as I do about HPL, but glean a bit more nearly every day. It's so fun to dig deeper into a beloved author from childhood, absorbing it all as a (barely) more fully realized adult.

    Speaking of Howardian Cinema, "Solomon Kane" is out on DVD, but don't know if I want to see Modern Hollywood's rapine treatment of REH at the moment. This week has been a rough one on me when it comes to Tinsel Town...

  5. The Whole Wide World is an excellent film. Vincent D'Onofrio delivers on so many levels. I believe I saw it on the Lifetime Network the first time I ever saw it, and I have watched it over a dozen times. From one Howard fan to another, get this movie and watch as soon as you possibly can. I loved it!

    Solomon Kane (the film) was a huge disappointment! James Purefoy was an inspired choice to portray Kane, but the film is very flawed and deviates too far off the pathway that REH blazed with his tales.

  6. Two trusted recommendations for "The Whole Wide World." Thanks, gents. I'll look for it presently.

    Purefoy will always be the lascivious Marcus Antonius to me. Both a blessing and a curse.