I haven’t been the most reliable blogger on the Blog Gate lately–something like the least reliable, in fact: my day job and nightly visits from werewolves have conspired to keep me out of the blogosphere almost entirely, these days. But I wanted to show my virtual face here and raise a virtual glass of something intoxicating in honor of Robert E. Howard’s birthday–and in honor of someone who never existed, and probably wouldn’t approve of me toasting him even in non-existent liquor.
Robert E. Howard wrote a lot of stuff worth reading, but for me his central importance lies in the invention of sword-and-sorcery (as the genre was later named by Fritz Leiber). Not in the Conan stories, though: I go along with those who argue that sword-and-sorcery actually begins with the Solomon Kane stories (some of which are online, having battled their way past Mickey Mouse into the public domain; all of them have been collected into a wonderful Ballantine volume, The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane).
There is some racism in some of these stories, which are adventure fiction from the late 20s and 30s, and I don’t think that should be laughed off. But I don’t think that’s what the stories are about, either.
It’s harder to say what they are about, but Kane is a pretty interesting, if sometimes sinister, hero. He has his own fanatical beliefs, which REH clearly does not share, that drive him to do things and take risks beyond the rational. Magic and the supernatural horrors make as much sense in his world as anything does. His hotheaded pursuit of justice set the temperature for the perfect fusion of horror, historical fiction and fantasy which is sword-and-sorcery. And it makes him an outsider everywhere he goes, in Europe or Africa–another essential element of the s&s hero.
But it (sword-and-sorcery; the “sacred genre”; whatever you want to call it) all begins with the grim Puritan. So, in his honor and REH’s, I’m going off to do something insanely reckless in pursuit of justice. (Or maybe I’ll just take the swamp road home.)