Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “Rogues in the House”

Monday, November 30th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Weird Tales August 1934-smallHoward Andrew Jones and Bill Ward wrap up their re-read of The Coming of Conan by Robert E. Howard, the first of the three Del Rey volumes, with “The Devil in Iron,” the last story in the collection, first published in the August 1934 issue of Weird Tales. Here’s Bill:

After an opening in which the supernatural juggernaut of the title is teased, we are treated to an outline of the plot to catch Conan on the very same island where we’ve just seen an ancient evil reborn. “The Devil in Iron” is heavily reminiscent of “Iron Shadows in the Moon” and “Xuthal of the Dusk,” but most especially the former… The story is a fitting capstone to this collection of the first Conan tales, being one more of the ‘formula’ stories, but also one of the best of those…

Overall “The Devil In Iron” feels in some ways like the remix of a favorite song, it’s old familiar territory that’s well worth traipsing through again, and a welcome return to form after last week’s “The Vale of Lost Women.” From this point on the stories get much longer, the plots more involved, and REH’s inspirations shift in new directions. It’s a fitting place to end the first of Del Rey’s Conan collections, The Coming of Conan.

Next up, Bill and Howard dive into the second Del Rey Robert E. Howard collection, The Bloody Crown of Conan, starting with the classic “The People of the Black Circle.” Stay tuned.

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Robert E. Howard, Exile of Cross Plains

Monday, November 16th, 2015 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

NOTE: The following article was first published on March 21, 2010. Thank you to John O’Neill for agreeing to reprint these early articles, so they are archived at Black Gate which has been my home for over 5 years and 250 articles now. Thank you to Deuce Richardson without whom I never would have found my way. Minor editorial changes have been made in some cases to the original text.

subterranean-kull-slipcasesubterranean-kull-limitedThe transformation of literary genres in the early twentieth century was marked by a series of intriguing parallels and recurrences. When Raymond Chandler, displaced as much in England as California, started down the mean streets of writing pulp fiction, he used an Erle Stanley Gardner story as his template. Chandler prepared a detailed synopsis of Gardner’s story and then re-wrote the story himself, comparing the results to the original.

Chandler’s first published pulp story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” (1933) introduced the prototype for the hardboiled private eye who emerged six years later in Chandler’s landmark first novel, The Big Sleep in the form of Philip Marlowe. Likewise Chandler’s literary heir, Ross Macdonald, displaced as much in Canada as California, would use The Big Sleep as the template for his own first novel, The Moving Target (1949) and, in the process, introduced Marlowe’s successor, Lew Archer who would arguably represent the hardboiled detective realized to its full potential.

When Robert E. Howard, an outcast in his native Cross Plains, started down the path that would eventually give the world the genre now known as Sword & Sorcery, he used Paul L. Anderson’s story, “En-ro of the Ta-an” as the template for his various “Am-ra of the Ta-an” story drafts. Anderson would likely be a completely forgotten literary figure but for the efforts of Howard scholar, Rusty Burke. Even without Anderson as a reference point, Howard’s first attempts at creating a noble savage are instantly familiar to the modern reader as being works that are highly derivative of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Pellucidar, and Caspak novels. Just as the seminal Black Mask writers took the western and successfully brought it to an urban setting creating modern detective fiction in the process, so Burroughs and those he influenced took Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli tales and laid the foundation for modern myth-making by cross-breeding jungle adventures with the lost worlds tales of Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and H. Rider Haggard.

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The Great Savage Sword Re-Read: Vol. 1

Saturday, November 14th, 2015 | Posted by John R. Fultz


The Savage Sword of Conan Vol. 1. Cover art by Boris Vallejo.

The Savage Sword of Conan is arguably the single greatest publication the Sword and Sorcery genre has ever seen. Spawned by the massive popularity of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian color comic which launched in 1970, Savage Sword was a black-and-white Marvel Magazine whose first issue appeared in 1974.

The new format freed creators from the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority, which constrained Conan’s full-color adventures to all-ages entertainment. The violence, gore, and lurid themes of Robert E. Howard’s original Conan tales would no longer be censored by enforced comic-book morality. Now readers of the Cimmerian’s adventures would get to know the real Conan and the real Hyborian Age — in all their blood-spattered, head-lopping, breast-heaving glory.

I was 8 years old when I bought my first issue.

It was early 1978 and my family had just moved from Fort Knox to Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Moving to that neighborhood changed my life for many reasons, but one of the most significant was the presence of the Blue Bird Foodmart at the bottom of the hill. For the first 7 years of my life I was a small-town kid who only got exposed to comics when my parents/grandparents took me to a store somewhere. Now I could walk down the hill to a store that sold comics, magazines, and novels. The problem was that as an 8-year-old comics fan I had barely any money to spend on all those great books.

On that day in ’78, I could have chosen the latest issue of Creepy, Eerie, Heavy Metal, or any number of Marvel or DC comics. But it was Savage Sword of Conan #28 that caught my eye. Comics went for 35 cents apiece in those days, but here was an extra-thick “comic” with an amazing Earl Norem painted cover. For one whole dollar, it offered four times as many pages and featured the most realistic sword-fights and battles I had ever seen, complete with beheadings, guttings, and stabs in the back. The interior art was by John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala, a legendary penciller-inker team, and I had never seen anything like it.

Needless to say, it blew my little mind and left me hungry for more tales of Conan…

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “Rogues in the House”

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Conan Rogues in the House-smallHoward Andrew Jones and Bill Ward have been reading their way through the Robert E. Howard collection The Coming of Conan, the first of the three Del Rey volumes, perhaps the definitive collection of Conan tales. They recently discussed “Rogues in the House,” first published in the January 1934 issue of Weird Tales.

Here’s Howard:

On re-reading it I was surprised that I haven’t visited this one more often. It gallops along. A lot happens in a short time because it’s told with such economy. And it’s very different from what has come before. I’ve been reading a lot of Conan pastiche in my downtime via The Savage Sword of Conan reprints recently, and so many of those writers model a Conan story off of the formula we saw in the last stories — monster, half-naked damsel, evil wizard/trap, escape. “Rogues in the House” breaks the formula and for this reason is even more of a pleasure.

Stepping back you can see how it’s a strange beast inspired from multiple sources — weird death traps out of Fu Manchu stories, a system of mirrors set to emulate a modern mastermind’s hidden cameras, and an ape servant who’s rebelled against his master. If someone had come and babbled the various story elements to me I would have rolled my eyes. Yet it works very well, in part because once it starts rolling it just never lets up.

You could say that about stories that catch you up and then realize upon re-examination that some of the elements didn’t make sense. That, however, can’t be said about “Rogues.” In retrospect it’s one fine scene after another, although my favorite moment may well be the conclusion.

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Morgan Holmes on Armies of the Hyborian Age: The Cimmerians

Sunday, October 11th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Morgan_AxBecause of REH’s broad diversity in writing, there are a multitude of areas to explore. And as you know from our ‘Discovering Robert Howard’ series, there are a lot of folks who write excellent stuff on so many different areas. Another example is today’s poster, Morgan Holmes. If you’re interested in what I think of as ‘military stuff and Conan,’ he’s writing what you want to read. Like this post!

The Cimmerians are one of the great barbarian peoples of the Hyborian Age. They are also off stage in the Conan stories, though they figure prominently in “The Hyborian Age” essay. Putting together an idea how the Cimmerians fought and perhaps how they looked is a bit of detective work and some supposition.

Robert E. Howard’s Cimmerians are descendents of refugees from Atlantis. From the Kull stories, the Atlanteans are a vigorous, warlike people. In a death grip with the Picts after the Cataclysm, they sink to apedom and then work their way back to barbarism from a sub-savage bestial existence. Tall, dark-haired, with blue or gray eyes, you can see the same type in Ireland today.

Cimmeria itself is described in the first version of “Phoenix on the Sword:” “It is all of hills, heavily wooded, and the trees are strangely dusky, so that even by day all the land looks dark and menacing.”

There is mention of cold winds and snow. Cimmeria is a hard land that breeds a hard people. Natural selection has produced a tough people inured to hardship. Names of Cimmerians given are all Gaelic. The Irish and Highland Scots are the pure blooded descendents of the Cimmerians thousands of years later according to “The Hyborian Age.”

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “Black Colossus”

Saturday, October 3rd, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Weird Tales Black Colossus-smallLate last week, while Howard Andrew Jones and I were discussing how hard it is to write great fight scenes, Howard gave me a piece of advice. “Read “Black Colossus,”” he said. “That will show you how it should be done.” So I pulled out my copy of the Del Rey’s The Coming of Conan, and started in… but not before reading the story that chronologically precedes it, “Queen of the Black Coast,” featuring the lovely and fatal pirate queen Bêlit. This Robert E. Howard fellow… his stories are a graduate school class in action writing, and no mistake. Not coincidentally, Howard and Bill Ward continued their fascinating Conan re-read with “Black Colossus” last month, originally published in the June 1933 issue of Weird Tales. Here’s Bill:

It’s wonderful stuff, as is the resultant exchange between Conan and his former mercenary commander, Amalric, who remarks that Thespides’ hot-headed charge is the sort of thing that Conan used to get up to. Conan agrees, but says that was when he was only worried about his own hide, now he’s responsible for others. Here Conan’s essential decency and honor feeds right into his maturation — this battle is his first command, and it’s really a freak of fortune that Conan is even in this position. But he’s smart, and he respects his fellow soldiers, having emerged just days before from their ranks himself, and all of that factors into him growing into a position of responsibility. Earlier, there is also reference to how kingly he looks all decked out in his new armor, something Conan would retain in the back of his mind for years.

Their previous Conan re-reads include:

The Hyborian Age
The Phoenix on the Sword
The Tower of the Elephant
Queen of the Black Coast

Read the complete exchange here.

Conan is My Spirit Guide

Friday, September 25th, 2015 | Posted by M Harold Page


What if Conan were your spirit guide?

What if Conan were your spirit guide?

It’s such a lovely high concept and the implicit conflict — modernity versus barbarity — gives it instant viral appeal for those in the know (a bit like, I hope, Swords Versus Tanks). It also pings that contrast we Blackgate folk all experience: reading heroic fantasy on the way to a desk job, pausing Halo to change a diaper, leaving off writing a fight scene to print off My Little Pony coloring in sheets.

hunk-raSo I clicked the link and found the tumblr (now mostly gone because the comic has been published). I was expecting the hilarity of Doonesbury’s Boopsie channelling Hunk Ra. Instead I got something different. Just as funny, but deeper laughs and some profound thoughts about modernity and why we still need Conan.

Rachel Kahn, the creator of Conan is My Spirit Guide, By Crom! is a real Conan fan and the joke is always on the modern character.

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “Queen of the Black Coast”

Sunday, September 20th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Art by Brom for "Queen of the Black Coast"

Art by Brom for “Queen of the Black Coast”

Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward continue their insightful re-read of the first Del Rey Conan volume, The Coming of Conan, with the classic “Queen of the Black Coast,” featuring the beautiful pirate queen Bêlit, originally published in the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales.

Here’s Bill:

There’s a wonderfully vivid moment of stillness at the heart of “Queen of the Black Coast;” Conan sits high on the ruined pyramid of a vanished race as night falls over a scene of slaughter, the “black colossus” (which becomes the title of the next story) of the jungle a vast sea of darkness that enfolds him. He is as far away from any aid or comfort as we’ve ever seen him and far beyond the bounds of civilization, his lover lies dead on the ship they shared for years while the corpses of her pirate crew are scattered among the ruins, and a malignant evil that Conan has only glimpsed in a vision bides its time, waiting just as the Cimmerian, too, waits. Here is the man of “gigantic melancholies,” the man whose mind does not break, and, when the moon finally rises and the beasts rush upon him, the man of action.

Their previous posts on this topic have included discussions of Howard’s “The Hyborian Age,” “The Phoenix on the Sword,” and “The Tower of the Elephant.”

Read the complete exchange here.

Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “The Tower of the Elephant”

Monday, August 31st, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Art for "Tower of the Elephant" by Mark Schultz

Art for “Tower of the Elephant” by Mark Schultz

Over at Howard Andrew Jones’ blog, Bill Ward and Howard Andrew Jones continue their re-read of the first Del Rey Conan volume, The Coming of Conan, with the classic “The Tower of the Elephant,” originally published in the March 1933 issue of Weird Tales.

Howard: THIS is Robert E. Howard at his absolute best, in complete control of his narrative, knowing his character better than his closest friend. His Hyborian history article was written just prior to his penning of “The Tower of the Elephant,” which makes sense, because he knows the history and societies so well that he casually mentions cultures in such a way we can usually intuit what he’s talking about…

Bill: Here Conan is a “gray wolf among gutter rats,” to paraphrase just one of the great lines in the opener. From the first paragraph of this section that paints a vivid picture of The Maul, the thieves district of Zamora where the guards have been bribed with “stained coins” to leave the criminals alone, all the way to the conclusion… I think this opener, and this story in general, is one of the best introductions to Conan, and probably the one I would hand a novice that was interested in seeing what all the fuss is about…

Howard: And damn, there are giant spider fights, and then there’s the fight with the thing in the top room of the tower. The only giant spider fight I’ve read that’s on the same level is the one from the first Bard book by Keith Taylor. You can see this monster and its dripping venom, so virulent that it scars Conan for life… It’s just incredibly well written, so much so that even after reading this story multiple times I still find it thrilling. And unsettling.

Their previous posts on this topic have included discussions of Howard’s “The Hyborian Age,” and “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Read the complete exchange here.

The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Ramblings on REH

Monday, August 10th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Ramblings_KullAxeIn a way, Robert E. Howard’s career is similar to that of Dashiell Hammett. Both men had huge impacts on their genres (Howard wrote many styles, but he’s best known for his sword and sorcery tales). Both were early practitioners in said genres. Both men wrote excellent stories for about a decade. And both men ended their careers on their own.

Hammett, who seemed more interested in a dissolute lifestyle than in writing, effectively walked away from his typewriter. He wrote his last novel in 1934 (The Thin Man) but produced literally nothing for the remaining twenty-five years of his life. He could have gone back to writing the hard-boiled stories that made his career, but he voluntarily ended his writing life.

In 1936, Howard’s mother was failing in a coma. He walked outside to his car, pulled out a gun and killed himself. His writing career was more effectively finished than Hammett’s would be.

Both were supremely skilled writers who chose to deprive the world of their talent and left decades of stories unwritten. But there was a key difference between the two. From the beginning, Hammett was acclaimed and recognized as the leader in his field. Though Carroll John Daly came first (barely), there is no comparison between the two in critical view.

Howard was not critically lauded. His first Conan tale, “The Phoenix on the Sword” (a rewriting of the Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!”), appeared in Weird Tales in December of 1932. The next two Conan tales were outright rejected!

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