Today would've marked the 105th birthday of Robert E. Howard, a genre legend whose influence easily equals that of H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R. Tolkien.
As the years have gone by, poor Mr. Howard is increasingly remembered only for Conan. Not a shoddy legacy, to be fair. The Conan saga is well-written, entertaining and surprisingly deep. (A statement that will earn nods of recognition from those that have read the stories and immediate dismissal from those folk who have only watched the movies.)
But Howard is to Conan as Lovecraft is to Cthulhu - each author awkwardly burdened by their most famous creation to the exclusion of all their other contributions.
As well as his instrumental role in creating the "Sword and Sorcery" subgenre (we're happily seeing a resurgence of it now), Robert Howard also helped define an approach of "dark barbarism", a phrase coined by Don Herron in his excellent introduction to The Dark Barbarian, a collection of essays about Mr. Howard. As Mr. Herron defines it:
The Howardian mood and philosophy is not simply barbaric, it is a dark barbarism, a pessimistic view that holds the accomplishments of society of little account in the face of mankind’s darker nature.
Nowhere is this more succinctly summarised than in the conclusion to "Beyond the Black River", when Conan mumbles, "Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph." (Then barbarians attack. Har har.)
For those witnessing recent trends in fantasy - the legacy of this grim philosophy is thriving. Sam Sykes, Mark Charan Newton, Mike Wild, Jon Oliver, Joe Abercrombie... the fantasy of flawed heroes scrabbling to hold back the irresistible forces of savagery and decline. If J.R.R. Tolkien gave us the escapism of winning, Robert Howard can be credited for the fantasy of loss.
Perhaps most tragically, the bulk of Howard's creative work was produced in less than ten years - he became a professional writer at 23 and ended his own life at 30 - before his first novel was ever published. Had Mr. Howard had lived for another decade, or even another few birthdays, imagine how much richer the genre would have been.
Due to the vagaries of copyright and of trendiness, much of Robert Howard's work is currently available in your local bookstore. I'd heartily recommend spending a few hours with any of the following:
- The Complete Chronicles of Conan (Centenary Edition, edited by Stephen Jones).
- The Dark Barbarian: A Critical Anthology (edited by Don Herron, an amazing collection of essays on REH)
- The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard (collection spans most of REH's heroes and career, includes many of his best stories)
- Swords and Dark Magic (edited by Jonathan Strahan & Lou Anders. All new sword & sorcery tales - but the introduction does a very good - if sweeping - job tracking down the sub-genre's many progenitors, including, of course REH). (We reviewed it, if you want to know more.)
You won't regret any of them.