Poor Robert Howard is hounded on all sides - derided by the masses and inelegantly canonized by those who love him too much. And, perhaps worst of all, his legacy is lumbered with the brawny albatross that is Conan the Barbarian.
Although Conan is certainly Mr. Howard's most famous creation, he's not necessarily his best. Conan's Brethren collects the other swordsmen and adventurers from Mr. Howard's many fantasy works. Solomon Kane, King Kull and Bran Mak Morn are all gathered together – a triumvirate of pouting manliness. Editor Stephen Jones has also diligently scrounged up others, such as Cormac FitzGeoffrey, Turlogh O’Brien and Esau Cairn (from the rarely-reprinted Almuric).
Behind this cacophony of Anglo-Saxon nomenclature is the real hero of this collection: the art of the short story. Mr. Howard was the king of the pulp story and, in Conan’s Brethren, demonstrates the full range of his talent.
From Gaul to Atlantis, there’s no setting that he couldn’t master – alternatively bringing savage wilderness or crumbling empire to life in a few, compact words. The heroes are defined equally swiftly – often brooding, rarely sullen; more driven than heroic. And, best of all, within the turn of the first page, the action invariably begins.
And, as far as action is concerned, Conan’s Brethren contains some of Mr. Howard’s very best. With almost thirty entries, it is impossible to detail every story, but a few of the classics are definitely worth special attention.
“Wings in the Night” sets Solomon Kane (my favourite of his creations) against winged reptile-men in the heart of Africa. The self-loathing Puritan is forced to wrestle not only with vicious dinosaur people but also with his own purity; resorting to pagan ritual to fight a demonic menace.
“Worms in the Earth” deals with a similar bargain – the Pict warchief Bran Mak Morn taps into an ancient power to avenge himself against Roman conquerors. In this case, it is the uncivilised hero who unleashes the unholy, with terrible consequences. “Worms in the Earth” is a horror story in the Lovecraftian vein, down to the merely-indicative description of the final evil and the fierce regret of the story’s “hero” for having released it.
“The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” features Athelstane and Turlogh O’Brien, good strapping adventuring sorts, find themselves capsized in a faraway place – an island populated by the “brown-skinned folk who knew many dark secrets of magic”. Half “lost race” story and all swashbuckling, the adventurers are caught in a power play between the wizened priests of Bal-Sagoth and the Machiavellian Brunhild, a lost Viking princess with great ambitions. Surrounded by collapsing idols and heaving bosoms, the two men follow the proper Howardian moral code – looking out for one another first, the loot second and the princess third.
“The Shadow Kingdom” is the first story of King Kull of Valusia, and probably the best adventure of this particular hero. King Kull is a precursor to Conan – a barbarian warlord who has worked his way up in the world. But whilst it takes Conan some time to gain his throne, Kull is introduced to the reader as royalty. In those Lemurian days, political leaders had worse problems than noisy backbenchers – in “The Shadow Kingdom”, King Kull is forced to battle a vicious coup on the part of the serpent priests – minions of a dark, reptilian god. Fortunately, the omnipresent Picts are nearby to help… (Diligent readers of Marvel’s Atlantis Attacks! will be familiar with this part of the story already – I suspect Mr. Howard would’ve been quite tickled by it, especially since Marvel's intepretation was neatly concluded with a whack by Thor’s hammer).
The whole package (again – almost thirty stories!) is neatly concluded by Stephen Jones’ afterword. If you don’t mind a few spoilers, I’d actually suggest reading this first. Mr. Jones deftly summarizes each of the major heroes and provides an overview of their continued presence in comic, book and film culture. He structures the characters’ stories around that of Robert Howard’s – a reminder of a man who, in just a few short years, penned whole universes of adventures. Conan’s Brethren is also illustrated by Les Edwards, who punctuates the book with black & white illustrations that seem straight out of the pages of Weird Tales. Finally, it is worth noting that this is also a massive tome of a book - faux leather and gilt. Conan has looted wizards' towers for less.
Mr. Howard has his critics. His stories are shamelessly, unselfconsciously pulp – flavoured with a heavy-handed nostalgia for times that simply never were. The women are conniving or vapid; non-white characters are feral or dumb. There’s a dangerous elision of strength and nobility that lends itself to a fascist interpretation. None of this is completely unfair, but, also, none of it should detract from some of the best storytelling that the Anglophone world has ever produced.
Even beyond the entertaining, face-value interpretation of Mr. Howard’s works, his stories conceal a curiously-pessimistic philosophy that is equal to H.P. Lovecraft’s when it comes to making compelling reading out of subtle horror. Mr. Howard’s heroes are sparks of light in an overwhelming darkness, and this is a rare chance to capture them all safely in a single volume.