Under the Hood with Robert E. Howard
When I tell people what a great writer Robert E. Howard was, a lot of them don’t seem to believe me. If they only know him through depictions of Conan or, worse, rip-offs, then they think Howard’s writing is all about a dull guy in a loin cloth fighting monsters and lots of straining bosoms. It’s not that Robert E. Howard thought himself above describing a lithesome waist or a wilting beauty, especially if he needed to make a quick buck, it’s just that there’s a lot more going on in a Conan story than his imitators took away.
It’s easy to pull some samples of great action writing from Robert E. Howard. I’ve done it before, and I could easily do it again here. Only a handful of writers can approach him in that field, and almost none are his equal.
He was also a master of headlong, driving pace. That can be hard to showcase without insisting you read an entire story, so today I want to show readers who seem unaware of his work (or those who are uninterested) a few more reasons why those of us in the know revere him so highly.
Here in one of his historical stories, ”Lord of Samarcand,” is the Scotsman, or Frank, as the easterners call any from Europe, Donald MacDeesa, riding to the court of Tamarlane the Great. See how swiftly, how easily, Howard conjures the scene in all its splendor with just a few well-chosen words, as though he’s panning a camera as MacDeesa rides.
The Frank’s wonder grew; the cities of the West were hovels compared to this. Past academies, libraries, and pleasure-pavilions they rode, and Ak Boga turned into a wide gateway, guarded by silver lions. There they gave their steeds into the hands of silk-sashed grooms, and walked along a winding avenue paved with marble and lined with slim green trees. The Scotsman, looking between the slender trunks, saw shimmering expanses of roses, cherry trees and waving exotic blossoms unknown to him, where fountains jetted arches of silver spray. So they came to the palace, gleaming blue and gold in the sunlight, passed between tall marble columns and entered the chambers with their gilt-worked arched doorways, and walls decorated with delicate paintings of Persian and Cathayan artists, and the gold tissue and silver work of Indian artistry (Howard, 89).
Howard had far more range and depth than his detractors ever want to give him, and he created many compelling characters. But let’s turn our attention back to Howard’s most famous creation, Conan, because I mean to show you that he’s more than is assumed from the usual portrayals.
First, he’s not unstoppable and unchangeable, nor did he stride forward into his first adventures with the same skilled confidence he evidences in stories set later. He is powerful and courageous in “The Tower of the Elephant,” but he is new to cities, as these two excerpts show.
The Cimmerian glared about, embarrassed at the roar of mocking laughter that greeted this remark. He saw no particular humor in it, and was too new to civilization to understand its discourtesies. Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing (31).
He had entered the part of the city reserved for the temples. On all sides of him they glittered white in the starlight – snowy marble pillars and golden domes and silver arches, shrines of Zamora’s myriad strange gods. He did not trouble his head about them; he knew that Zamora’s religion, like all things of a civilized, long-settled people, was intricate and complex, and had lost most of the pristine essence in a maze of formula and rituals. He had squatted for hours in the courtyards of the philosophers, listening to the arguments of theologians and teachers, and come away in a haze of bewilderment, sure of only one thing, and that, that they were all touched in the head.
His gods were simple and understandable; Crom was their chief, and he lived on a great mountain, whence he sent forth dooms and death. It was useless to call on Crom, because he was a gloomy, savage god, and he hated weaklings. But he gave a man courage at birth, and the will and might to kill his enemies, which, in the Cimmerian’s mind, was all any god should be expected to do (32).
Here, later in the same story, Conan and the master thief Taurus are scaling a tower where they seek a fabulous treasure. Feast ye upon the glorious description:
The cord swayed and turned on itself, but the climbers were not hindered; both had made more difficult climbs before. The jeweled rim glittered high above them, jutting out from the perpendicular of the wall, so that the cord hung perhaps a foot from the side of the tower – a fact which added greatly to the ease of the ascent.
Up and up they went, silently, the lights of the city spreading out further and further to their sight as they climbed, the stars above them more and more dimmed by the glitter of the jewels along the rim. Now Taurus reached up a hand and gripped the rim itself, pulling himself up and over. Conan paused a moment on the very edge, fascinated by the great frosty jewels whose gleams dazzled his eyes – diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, turquoises, moonstones, set thick as stars in the shimmering silver. At a distance their different gleams had seemed to merge into a pulsing white glare; but now, at close range, they shimmered with a million rainbow tints and lights, hypnotizing him with their scintillations (39).
In the sword-and-sorcery clonans that followed the Cimmerian’s footsteps, there was little variety and less depth. But Conan does not stride forward, unthinking, and hack everything before him. Here he comes upon a chamber where he hoped to find the treasure, and finds instead a frightening, humanoid monster. On the off chance you’ve never read this story — because you should, and I don’t want to spoil it for you — I’m cutting most of its description, and just showing you Conan as he realizes humans have blinded and imprisoned this being.
…and Conan’s gaze strayed to the limbs stretched on the marble couch. And he knew the monster would not rise to attack him. He knew the marks of the rack, and the searing brand of the flame, and tough-souled as he was, he stood aghast at the ruined deformities which his reason told him had once been limbs as comely as his own. And suddenly all fear and repulsion went from him, to be replaced by a great pity. What this monster was, Conan could not know, but the evidences of its sufferings were so terrible and pathetic that a strange aching sadness came over the Cimmerian, he knew not why. He only felt that he was looking upon a cosmic tragedy, and he shrank with shame, as if the guilt of a whole race were laid upon him (45).
Howard seldom failed to entertain, and at his best, he was not just good, he was great – he stands as one of the best adventure writers we’ve ever had. There is much to be gleaned from his craft, and much enjoyment to be found in his writing. If you’re exploring for the first time though, you’ll have to make allowances for conventions from Howard’s time, which means some sexism or racism – although, as Howard does not himself seem to have been racist or sexist, you’ll also come upon depictions of women and non-whites that defy stereotypes. Sometimes there are also the usual genre conventions you’ll encounter from magazine fiction of the period; shorter stories, for one, and the use sometimes of a villain monologue or an info dump through conversation to move the plot ahead. Yet even when these aspects are there, Howard’s strengths drive the story forward.
If you’re new to him, I’d suggest the new Del Rey trade paperback, The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume 2, Grim Lands, from which all these excerpts were taken, although if you want Conan alone, any one of the three Del Rey Conan volumes will see you in good stead.
Howard Andrew Jones is the author of the historical fantasy novels The Desert of Souls, and the forthcoming The Bones of the Old Ones, as well as the related short story collection The Waters of Eternity, and the Paizo Pathfinder novel Plague of Shadows. You can keep up with him at his website, www.howardandrewjones.com, and keep up with him on Twitter or follow his occasional meanderings on Facebook.
Well said. Robert E. Howard was a much better writer than many people give him credit for. What many folks don’t realize, including some of his supporters, is that he was an accomplished poet. I think that had a huge impact on his fiction. A successful poem uses an economy of words to set the tone and pull the reader in. He certainly brought that skill to his fiction, as the samples you’ve provided show.
Thanks — it’s interesting that you mention his poetry. One of the pics I almost used was of his complete poetry collection hardback, but I ended up dropping it because I thought REH’s poetry deserved more than a footnote in this article.
I happen to love his poetry, but I’ve never felt like I’m well-read enough in poetry to dissect it the way I do his prose. I am one of the proud owners of that poetry hardback, though. I’d been hoping for something like that to be printed for years.
To do Howard’s poetry justice, you would almost have to write a book. I’ve got the collected poetry as well, although I’ve not read all of it (yet). I do think the fact that he wrote so much poetry has to be taken into account sooner or later. I can certainly understand your reasons for not bringing it up in a blog post. I mentioned it because if you read some of Howard’s work aloud, you can hear the rhythm and cadence of a poem. For example, as you quoted, “Up and up they went, silently, the lights of the city spreading out further and further as they climbed, the stars above them more and more dimmed by the glitter of the jewels along the rim.” There aren’t many writers who have that sense of rhythm these days.
I haven’t read all of it myself, either. I think it’s hard to appreciate poetry when you try to sit down and read it straight through — and to do that with that large hardback would take a while.
As to your point, I think it’s very well said. His prose does have a fine sense of rhythm and poetry to it. I get tired of people complaining that his prose is purple. Yes, he uses adjectives. But he wields them beautifully and paints such stunning pictures that film versions can’t do them justice. And somehow he does that without slowing his narration. He never plods with scene setting descriptions. He maintains forward momentum AND vividly describes. It’s not easy, or more writers would have managed it over the years. Sometimes you sense that people have decided it can’t be done, so that they’re either in slow, descriptive mode, or fast choppy mode.
People really ought to pay more attention to his work.
Wonderful, Howard! An excellent article that echoes what I’ve been telling people for years. I’ve encountered quite a few who know Howard only through comics and films — they have no idea of his brilliance as a writer. I’m glad you used the term “clonan,” too. Can’t remember where I first encountered it but I’ve been using it for years.
Great job, my friend!
[…] second I just took live earlier today, and it is all about Robert E. Howard’s writing. I spend a little more time discussing the whys and wherefores, peaking under the hood, as it were, […]
Howard, great article on REH’s poetic prose. Even in his less noteworthy stories, I’m able to find phrases and words that are so incredibly well done, I stop to admire and savor them. I came to his poetry through the poem, “The Ride of Falume” in SHADOW KINGDOMS: THE WEIRD WORDS OF ROBERT E HOWARD VOL. 1. I became an immediate fan with the lines:
A league beyond the western wind
A mile beyond the moon
Where the dim seas roar on an unknown shore
And the drifting stars lie strewn.
I would also like to recommend another REH book. It’s pocket size and I carried around the first one I bought for months in my purse until it was so tattered, I bought another. They’re available on eBay for less than $10: THE BOOK OF ROBERT E. HOWARD VOL 1. It’s edited by Glenn Lord and has a wonderful selection.
Thanks Howard for posting this article on on another Howard. I agree with you regarding the quality of his work and I believe REH’s stories and poems would make wonderful examples in a class on creative writing or poetry. Talk about using just a few adjectives to set the tone for a whole poem! It’s amazing.
Barb, it’s through little snippets of his poetry that I became more and more interested in reading it, and why I jumped at the chance to own a complete collection without paying through the nose for those rare paperbacks.
I’ll second your The Book of Robert E. Howard rec. I’m surprised that it’s still so cheap. I recently got rid of a lot of my old Zebra and Berkley REH collections, what with the Del Rey reprints being so thorough and well edited, but I retained both volumes of The Book of REH.
Wow … I just love the way REH writes.
Can you even sell prose like that these days? Is anyone buying it, or reading it, or must everything now be worded and phrased for the lowest common denominator?
And look at that word usage … he used ‘scintillations’ … as a noun!!
I really must find and read more of his poetry. What little I’ve seen seems wonderful.
I like for poetry to have rhythm and meter, and even rhyme at the ends.
I absorbed what little I know of it from Dr. Seuss. 🙂
Scintillant — these and a few other words that REH used are stamped with an almost indelible imprint. Any time I come across them in someone else’s writing it’s like hearing a guitar hook played by another band. You can tell they’ve been reading some REH.
I think there are some out there who try to take cues from REH. Scott Oden does an excellent job of invoking him without sounding like an imitation (he’s still his own man).
I surely think he’s influenced me, but I gave up trying to write descriptions exactly like him, because it didn’t sound like him OR me.
But I keep learning every time I revisit one of his tales. I love how he uses verbs to help describe, not just adjectives. Fountains jet, rims jut, etc. And I love how he writes with a rhythm. Often, his sentences sound very good when read aloud, and that’s something I strive to emulate.
Oh, and as far as poetry, I’m with you. I love it when a poem rhymes and scans. I think it’s harder to create poetry to a form, although I’ve read some free verse that I like. I also enjoy a poem that tells a story, which Robert E. Howard frequently did. I also prefer poetry filled with imagery I can understand without having a dictionary beside me to understand the poet’s private metaphors.
Great post, Howard! REH is always lauded for his action and his “blood-and-thunder”, but it’s really his command of imagery and gift for effective, lyrical language that spellbinds the reader. A lot of people ignore the fact that he was also a fine poet, and you can see that lyrical quality in his descriptions–nobody can make you see the gleam of sunlight on steel, or the mossy marble of a lost city, as well as Howard could. And he did it with a much leaner style than Clark Ashton Smith, whose descriptive powers were amazing, but whose prose was so dense it could turn off some readers. Howard landed right in the middle of Smith/Dunsany and Hemingway/Chandler. For me, it’s all about the imagery.
I think both Howard and Burroughs are vastly underrated as prose stylists.
I think that the genre nearly died in the 80s and REH kept the pulse. I think sword and sorcery will gain a new life in the years to come.
REH was a master story teller. If I were a Hollywood mogul I’d make a story on his boxing stories like Steve Costigan or Dennis Dorgan. They would be cheap, easy, and fun for the fans. I read “The Iron Man” before Rocky was a movie. Rocky was the same story.
Howard’s poetry was easy to digest and his imagery was first rate. To think that he was so young when he died he hadn’t even reached his top stride. I think he would have been as famous as Hemingway or Poe or King of today. Whenever a genre’s well dried up he’d go to another magazine and turn out more. How many writers today can write across the genres?
Keep these posts coming!
John, you should do an “under the hood” with Clark Ashton Smith. I’ve read a lot of his work, but I don’t enjoy him in large doses (only small samples, like a rich dessert), and I don’t revisit him nearly as often as I do some others.
I’m thinking about making this a regular series. Or, at least, a mini-series. I could do this with any work I read, but I want to make sure that an article like this is well informed by careful study and consideration of the author’s techniques over multiple readings and multiple stories. If I hold myself to that standard, I’ll only be writing about a handful of writers.
Joe, I think that’s a fair point.
Hey Wild Ape,
Yeah, a lot of peoople don’t realize how young Robert E. Howard was when he was writing this stuff. All of his best work seems to have been composed when he was between 25 and 30. That’s ALL the time he had.
I should be so lucky to write so well, at 25, or 44, as I’ll be in just a few weeks…
Not only could he write well, REH was incredibly prolific. In the twelve years that he was writing and selling stories and poems, he wrote over 800 stories/drafts/synopses and almost 800 poems. That’s roughly about 130 a year! Reminds me of that old saying, “It may not be a record, but it’s not a bad average.”
It’s also interesting that you mention REH’s stories sound good when read aloud. In his “A Short Biography of Robert E. Howard,” Rusty Burke says, “In addition to his reading, Robert Howard had a passion for oral storytelling. It is well attested that he frequently told his stories aloud as he typed them, annoying his neighbors no end with the racket he often made right through the night.”
There are a lot of us who would consider ourselves lucky to be able to sit outside that window and just listen…..
Mark Finn emphasizes the influence the oral storytelling tradition had on Howard in his biography Blood and Thunder. I think he’s right. You can see the influence in the cadence of his work when read aloud. His humorous westerns have a different cadence than his sword and sorcery. How many writers can pull that off?
I’m actually wondering of the humorous westerns might not work better as audiobooks — we just need to get Sam Elliott to do the reading . . .
Howard: I’d love to do it (an “Under the Hood: Clark Ashton Smith”), but I’ll have to wait until I’m done with the Third Book of the Shaper (SEVEN SORCERERS). Not much time for other writing right now–this third book is the “biggie” of the series. However, I’d love to do this if someone doesn’t beat me to it!
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