Celebrating 103 Years of REH
Today (the 22nd) marks the 103rd anniversary of Robert E. Howard’s birth. Surely we all know his biography by now: born in the tiny Texas town of Peaster, the only child of Dr. and Mrs. Issac Howard, a voracious reader who grew into a formidable man — and a legendary writer. Like Tolkien with epic fantasy, REH is credited with the creation of the modern sub-genre of heroic fantasy — sometimes called sword-and-sorcery. His stories — action-adventure, sports, westerns, supernaturals, fantasy, and historical . . . well over a million words from his first sale in 1925 until his death in 1936 — have influenced a generation of writers. Whether it was his intent or not, REH has achieved the sort of immortality the ancient Egyptians craved: a man was accounted immortal if his name outlived the ages.
And so, in praise of Robert E. Howard’s life and work, let us each share our three favorite tales.
3.) The Country of the Knife
One of REH’s tales of Francis Xavier Gordon — known to friend and foe alike as El Borak, the Swift. One passage near the beginning of the story never fails to send a thrill of anticipation down my spine: “Outside, the fog curled and drifted, beading the pane. Pictures formed for him there-prophetic pictures of an East different from the colorful civilized East he had touched in his roamings. Pictures not at all like the European-dominated cities he remembered, exotic colors of veranda-shaded clubs, soft-footed servants laden with cooling drinks, languorous and beautiful women, white garments and sunhelmets. Shiveringly he sensed a wilder, older East; it had blown ascent of itself to him out of the fog, over a knife stained with human blood. An East not soft and warm and exotic-colored, but bleak and grim and savage, where peace was not and law was a mockery, and life hung on the tilt of a balanced blade.”
2.) Twilight of the Grey Gods
I love this story; it came close to being my all-time favorite. It chronicles the tale of the Battle of Clontarf as only REH could tell it — the cold facts of history woven with elements of fantasy and horror. Though the protagonist is a kern by the name of Conn, the character that made the most singular impression on me was Turlough Dubh O’Brien — Black Turlough — an outcast from Brian Boru’s own clan, and a recurring character of Howard’s. His axe must surely stand as one of the all-time coolest weapons in the annals of fantasy . . . despite not having one iota of magic in it.
1.) The Hour of the Dragon
Written in 1935 at the behest of a British publisher, this is REH’s only full-length novel featuring Conan, and is not only considered one of his best works but also a stellar example of the sword-and-sorcery genre. It never appeared in book-form during Howard’s lifetime; the British publisher folded, and The Hour of the Dragon was instead serialized over five issues of Weird Tales — from December 1935 to April 1936. It became the last Conan story REH would ever see in print.
Howard also wrote poetry, and one of his best (IMHO) served as the epigraph to The Hour of the Dragon:
The Lion banner sways and falls in the horror-haunted gloom;
A scarlet Dragon rustles by, borne on winds of doom.
In heaps the shining horsemen lie, where the thrusting lances break,
And deep in the haunted mountains, the lost, black gods awake.
Dead hands grope in the shadows, the stars turn pale with fright,
For this is the Dragon’s Hour, the triumph of Fear and Night.
A toast, then: to the shade of REH, who has probably set more aspiring authors on the road to publication than Hemingway ever did. I know this one owes him a tremendous debt of gratitude.
Can’t argue with The Hour Of the Dragon, so how about :-
3. Queen of the Black Coast
A pirate plundering team-up!
2. By This Axe I Rule
Kull cuts to the heart of politics and common sense, as some others take exception to his existence.
1. Red Nails
Perversion and bloody mayhem for Conan and Valeria of the Red Brotherhood to face.
I like Hemingway but he never inspired me to write like REH did and still does. Its actually pretty hard to come up with three favorites so I will go with just the 3 that come to my fingers first.
3.) Beyond the Black River
I love the imagery and taking colonial america back to the era of sword and socery. This one has some iconic REH maxims in it such as, the oft quoted “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.” But it also has a favorite of mine, I’m cutting midway into Conan’s paragraph here but I think it says it all. “I never planted wheat and never will, so long as there are other harvests to be reaped by the sword.”
2.) The Gods of Bal-Sagoth
Yes another Black Turlough tale, I really wish there were more of these but I suppose the Cormac Mac Art ones are close. I liked what REH had to say about all empires of the world, that they were all “Dreams and ghosts and smoke.”
1.) The Black Stranger
Yeah I like black, #2 was almost the Black Stone. This one is probably my favorite and I am not aware of it being anyone elses, REH couldn’t even get it published during his lifetime and there is an alternate for BLACK Vulmea without the magic but I think thats why I like this one so much, it has just about everything REH does. Conan, picts, pirates, sorcery and beautiful damsels that need rescueing. I mean who else but Conan would try, let alone make it all the way across the pictish wilderness, to get to the coast just knowing something would work out once they got there.
These are just 3 that came to me first, its so hard to pick and REH is truly one of the greats. I don’t think any other writer has influenced me as much as he has, the flavor and legacy he left behind are unparalled. If there was a shade I would like looking over my shoulder it would be his.
Well, it’s late at night and I can’t write long descriptions, so very quickly:
1. The Pigeons from Hell
One of the most genuinely frightening things I’ve ever read. Personally, I think it’s the best thing REH ever wrote–he tapped into an amazing folkloric zeitgeist here.
2. The Shadow Kingdom
Kull is my favorite REH character, and this is the best story in the series, so it gets the nod.
3. Beyond the Black River
REH seems the most at home with Conan when he’s got him wandering the American wilderness, even if it’s disguised as the Hyborian age. This shows that sword-and-sorcery can be both fantastic and realistic at the same time.
I’ll start with Sowers of the Thunder, an epic historical tale of clashing cultures and unconquerable defiance that builds to one of the most powerful conclusions REH put to paper.
My consideration of Howard’s better known characters resulted in Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn locked in a dire contest. Since the exceptionally well-crafted Worms of the Earth has already garnered enduring accolades from high places, I’ll take the road less travelled and pick the Solomon Kane story Wings in the Night. Inarguably less polished than the Bran tale, Wings takes flight on a red wind of passion and violence. REH was a master of prose conflict and combat, but he rarely rose to the level of frenzied intensity found in this tale.
In a feat of superhuman restraint I’ll restrict myself to a single Conan yarn, eschewing Queen of the Black Coast’s fever dream vividness, Red Nails savagely beautiful poetry of hatred, and People of the Black Circle’s masterpiece balancing of REH’s virtues in plot and prose, and choose instead the Tower of the Elephant. I’m sorry if this is a predictable choice, but I don’t believe any short story written in the modern era has captured such a timeless aura of myth.
1. The Lion of Tiberias.
“Zenghi threw aside the dripping scourge and turned to the silent Frank. But
when he met the burning eyes of his captive, the smile faded from the
prince’s lips and the taunts died unspoken. In those cold, terrible
eyes the Turk read hate beyond common conception–a monstrous,
burning, almost tangible thing, drawn up from the lower pits of Hell,
not to be dimmed by time or suffering.”
This is one of the greatest tales ever of long sought vengeance gained. The story was burned into my mind.
2. Lord of Samarcand
Howard could write historical tales better than anyone I know. This is a gem about an angry Scotsman, a murderous Turk called Bayazid the Thunderer and Tamerlane. The battles are fantastic.
3. Kings of the Night
Bran Mak Morn summons King Kull to help him slaughter arrogant Romans. The grim feel, the fights and battle… Howard was amazing.
I have a lot of favorites. But here’s three good ones.
1. Hour of the Dragon. The best Conan story ever. The gold standard for heroic fantasy, IMHO.
2. The Bull Dog Breed. I’m a sucker for Steve Costigan stories, and this was the best of the bunch.
3. Son of the White Wolf. El Borak at his brutal best.
1. The Devil in Iron
2. Man-Eaters of Zamboula
3. Rogues in the House
I pick these not because of the plots, but because these contain some of the best written fight scenes ever. Howard was a genius/artist/poet when it came to combat.
So tough to narrow down to three.. but I’d say:
1. The Dark Man
2. The Rattle of Bones
3. Beyond the Black River.
So many good choices. I guess I’d have to say:
The Tower of the Elephant
The Lion of Tiberias
The Valley of the Worm