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.