September 13, 2015
Robert E. Howard, Appendix N’s Top Dog Contender
I approach this entry with some trepidation. I knew I’d need to write about Robert Ervin Howard at some point. But I’ve been reluctant to do so because, really, what more is there to say about the man? More ink has been spilled critiquing REH than any other Appendix N author save J.R.R. Tolkien. There are dedicated Howard scholars contributing to journals. The late, lamented blog “The Cimmerian” curated years worth of commentary. The annual Howard Days in Cross Plains, Texas, offers panel discussions. The topic of Robert E. Howard has been covered.
But, I’ve taken on this labor of Appendix N commentary, and by Crom’s beard, I’m going to write about REH. Adding a few more drops of digital ink to the ocean.
This may be a minority view, but I’m underwhelmed by the world-building of the Conan stories. Constructed in ad hoc fashion from whatever historical time frame and location REH was interested in at the time, the whole does not cohere. But it hardly matters. When I re-read Conan, I read a story here, a story there. I don’t sit down and plow through them all like a novel. And as discrete story packets, the (in historical context) anachronistic disconnect between stories set in, say Stygia, with its ancient Egyptian theme, and Zingara, Spanish buccaneer-land (now I’m going to start looking for Captain Jack Sparrow cameos), is unapparent, and thus not a factor. So, screw it. The Conan stories are terrific fun. Whining that REH didn’t have a logically consistent fictional universe in place at the time he sat down to write the first story would be absurd, even churlish.
Count me as a Solomon Kane fan. When I re-read them, they are never quite as swashbuckling as I recall. But they leave that impression behind. And I’ll take that. ‘Evocative’ is a worthy legacy.
I’ve read several of REH’s boxing stories. They tend to the formulaic, but it’s a good formula. If you haven’t had the pleasure, get your paws on a collection, you mug.
The hard boiled detective pieces? If I’m allowed to judge based on only one example, steer clear. Not the man’s best work.
The westerns are fun. The horror stories competent, even quite good (“Pigeons From Hell.” The (then) contemporary adventure stories, and the historical adventure stories are rip-roaring.
None of these opinions are new. There are countless variations of them already filling that ocean of ink. But, they are mine, and honest. Honesty is, perversely, something we look for in the prevarications of fiction. Honesty and consolation.
I’ve been thinking about the consolations of literature recently. Life and pain are inevitabilities. But literature can grant solace. We age, we sicken. Yet we can turn the pages back, and King Conan is once again a young thief, daring the Tower of the Elephant. Death approaches, yet we can read of Frodo nearing the undying lands, and whether we believe in an afterlife or not, for the moment we enjoy surcease. It is only mitigation. Consolation can never return us to the status quo ante. Consolation is ever only second-best: think ‘consolation prize.’ But it’s what we have. And I’m grateful for it. If only it had been good enough for REH.