Robert E. Howard Changed My Life (Rogue Blades Foundation, June 9, 2021). Cover by Didier Normand
Many of us “older folk” (I’m using that term very broadly) can attest to some experience in their early years — usually somewhere around 13-years old — where some individual, some book or books, some movie, some band or something similar made a huge impact upon our lives, an impact with a positive and profound, lasting influence.
For me, it was probably getting my first basic box set of Dungeons & Dragons (with the Erol Otus cover) for Christmas in 1981. I was only 12 at the time. Thereafter I immediately began to beg for, or scrap together any money I could to buy, any D&D books that I could get my hands on. And probably the most influential D&D book I got shortly thereabout was the hardback Deities & Demigods (again with an Erol Otus cover). This book had chapters on a host of traditional mythologies, each with its own heroes, gods and monsters — provided with D&D stats of course! But Deities & Demigods also contained other “mythologies” that were rooted in the books of authors like Michael Moorcock, H. P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber. This opened up a whole literary world for me that, I can fairly say, changed my life in integral ways.
Perhaps you’re old enough to relate to something similar happening to you. Evidently many can claim that the books of Texas writer Robert E. Howard (1906–1936) had such an impact. Rogue Blades Entertainment’s new book Robert E. Howard Changed My Life: Personal Essays about an Extraordinary Legacy gives a whole litany of testimonies to such. How did this interesting book come about?
Conan, King Kull, Cormac, Bran Mak Morn — names that conjure magic, characters often imitated, but never duplicated. These creations of Robert E. Howard (circa 1930) started the Sword and Sorcery boom of the 1960s and early 1970s. Then there are the barbarian warriors inspired by Howard — “Clonans,” as one writer recently referred to these sword-slinging, muscle-bound characters. A fair observation, but in some cases, not so true.
I prefer to think of these “Clonan” tales of wandering barbarian heroes as “Barbarian Solo” adventures because the majority of these characters are lone wolves, without sidekicks or even recurring companions. This is a big part of their appeal, in fact, and in their own way, they are reminiscent of many cinematic westerns. I’ve read many, if not most, of the early Conan pastiches, including the novels based on Howard’s other creations. Karl Edward Wagner’s, Poul Anderson’s, and Andy Offutt’s portrayals of the Cimmerian come within a sword’s stroke of Howard’s original vision. L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, in commodifying the character, arranged the long, informal saga of Conan in chronological order and, by extenuating these adventures with dozens more, made of Howard’s creation a long-form series similar to the episodic success of a television show on a prolonged run of diminishing returns. For some readers, however, the advantage of this development is that it provided a sort of character arc as Conan grows from a youth to an older man.
Today we corner John C. Hocking whose Conan pastiche we reviewed a few months ago.
John C. Hocking is an American fantasy writer who is the author of two well-acclaimed Conan novels and has also won the 2009 Harper’s Pen Award for Sword and Sorcery fiction for his story, “The Face In The Sea”. He lives in Michigan with his wife, son, and an alarming quantity of books. He is a nigh-obsessed reader and writer of lurid pulp fiction, the author of Conan and the Emerald Lotus, the “Black Starlight” Conan serial, and their time-lost companion, Conan and the Living Plague, and an obedient thrall of Tales From the Magician’s Skull.
For clarity, we’ll actually corner him twice. Firstly, here on Black Gate, we’ll cover his weird, pulpy muses & Conan pastiche; secondly, in a companion interview, we’ll cover his King’s Blade and Archivist series on the Tale from the Magician’s Skull Blog.
We all have our end-of-year rituals, those small ceremonies that prepare us to ring out the old year and ring in the new. For me, one of the most important is watching the current TCM Remembers, the annual short film with which Turner Classic Movies bids farewell to the film people that we’ve lost throughout the year. It’s always beautifully done, and it always makes me tear up, usually no more the thirty seconds in.
Some of its subjects — the more famous ones — come as no surprise, as I heard about their deaths when they occurred during the year. There will always be many people, though, that I only find out about when I watch the video, late in December. This year one of the people that I didn’t know was gone was William Smith, who died July 5th at the age of eighty-eight.
William Smith? Who was William Smith? Oh, you know him — I guarantee it. To say that he was a prolific actor is to greatly understate the case. He has two hundred and seventy-five movie and television credits listed on IMDB, the first a miniscule part in 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein when he was nine years old and the last in 2020, in the Steve Carell comedy Irresistible.
One Black Gate series which I have started, but is still for somewhere down the line, is a look at the first dozen-or-so issues of Roy Thomas’ Conan the Barbarian comic. And even before running that series, I’ll write one for the second dozen-ish, so I can tie together the various overlaps. This was prompted by a combination of the over-sized Marvel hardback Omnibuses, and Roy Thomas’ TERRIFIC (now) three-volume memoir about the series from Pulp Hero Press.
I never read the series, growing up. I bought some of the Dark Horse collections, which I liked. And when Marvel reacquired the rights and put out that first door-stopper compendium, I bought it. And I liked it enough to get the next three. I was buying them in conjunction with Roy Thomas’ Barbarian Life. The first Thomas volume covered the genesis of the comic, and the first fifty-one issues – which happened to be the same ones included in the first Omnibus.
Thomas helmed the series for 115 issues – which is how many are covered by the first four Omnibuses (both series’ talk about other issues as well). So, Thomas’ three books complement the Omnibuses perfectly. I read a story, and then I read Thomas’ insights. Along with the relevant commentary in the Omnibus itself. It’s a real Conan treat!
Thomas would write do other color Conans for Marvel. And he would also contribute to Dark Horse while they had the rights. But it’s that first run, when he was Stan Lee’s right hand, and he made Conan a best-selling property for Marvel, which fans revere.
Conan and the Emerald Lotus by John C. Hocking emerged from Tor in 1995 (Ciruelo Cabral cover artist), and was reprinted in 1999 (with a Ken Kelly cover); both paperbacks are insanely expensive now (i.e. $500+ on Amazon, 2021 price). In 2019 Hocking released a 12-part serialized novella “Black Starlight” published in the back of the recent Conan the Barbarian comic (the comic portion was written by Jason Aaron), a direct sequel to “Emerald Lotus” that tracks Conan’s adventures as he returns from Stygia.
An indirect sequel novel by Hocking called Conan and the Living Plague was pulled from publication in 2019 at the last minute. Its future is unknown (by certain graces, the author did provide me with a copy of the manuscript, and we plan to discuss it in an interview planned for 2022).
This post covers Hocking’s Conan pastiche as it evolves from Emerald Lotus in “Black Starlight,” with hints of more. …
This installment of the Weird Tales Deep Read continues our examination of 1936 with the February issue, which would have ranked among the best ever if not for a terrible cover story that dragged the rating down to a still very respectable 2.1, making it the year’s second best issue. We see some very familiar authors, including C. L. Moore, Paul Ernst, Robert E. Howard (who managed to appear in ten of the eleven ‘36 issues, largely because of two serials), and H.P. Lovecraft (with a reprint).
The best of issue once again comes down to Howard and Moore, and Howard again gets the nod by a hair. Of the 11 stories eight (73%) are set in the United States, and one each (9%) on Mars and an unnamed Jovian moon, China and other Asian territories, and in a fictitious realm. Eight (73%) are set in contemporary times, two in the past (18%) and one (9%) in the future.
Back in 2015, because I didn’t know any better, I thought I could reach out to Robert E. Howard experts and fans from around the world, and convince them to contribute essays about Robert E Howard, for a Black Gate series. Yeah, I know: “Who are you, Byrne? Why do you think you can pull this off?” Because I don’t have the common sense that God gave a rock. Also – I can’t even sing as well as a rock (Bible reference there). So, without a clue (GREAT movie!), I reached out to a few folks, got pointed to a few more, and with the Black Gate name behind me, rounded up a VERY knowledgeable and talented group.
Howard was much more than just the creator of Conan (who I LOVE). He, of course, wrote many other characters, and for many other markets and genres. He lived an interesting life as well. And some generous folks contributed some tremendous essays!
It was a fantastic series, nominated for a Robert E. Howard Foundation award. The Howard community loved it, to no one’s surprise. The wide-ranging look at REH, covering his life and his works, was a superb addition to REH scholarship. It also planted the seeds for a follow-up series at Black Gate, Hither Came Conan, which was an even bigger hit! And you fans of either series, it will be a trilogy, as we’ll be emulating Hither Came Conan with another Howard character. But I’ve got another non-Howard series to put together first.
Here below is the entire series (which included a blog series being done separately by Howard Andrew Jones & Bill Ward). I intentionally minimized the Conan content, as the goal was to paint a broad REH picture. And we covered Conan in depth with Hither Came Conan. Click on a few links and explore the amazing world of Robert E. Howard. Some tremendous stuff, which Black Gate was proud to bring together.
I’m going to change the focus of the Weird Tales deep read slightly, to hopefully give a somewhat more coherent view of the magazine by focusing on a particular year, while still maintaining the month-at-a time format. First up is January 1936, followed by the ten subsequent issues published that year. (One issue was bi-monthly, and I’ve already covered the July issue, so you can just check that particular installment in the link provided below if you’re so inclined).
The January ‘36 WT is full of familiar names. Seabury Quinn, August Derleth, Paul Ernst, C. L. Moore, Robert E. Howard, and H. P. Lovecraft (with a reprint) all appear in the line up. The issue grades out to a respectable 2.44, largely avoiding poor stories but also scoring only a few outstanding ones. The two vying for best of issue were Moore’s Jirel and Howard’s Conan, the second installment of the longest Conan tale he was to write. Howard gets the nod on a toss-up.
I think it was early in 2015, I decided I wanted to gather a bunch of folks who know more about Robert E. Howard than I did (THAT was an endless list!) and have them write about all kinds of different facets of Howard and his life. Sure, there would be a little Conan, but I wanted to minimize that. I wanted to introduce folks (and further teach others) about various aspects of this amazing writer. And so was born Discovering Robert E. Howard; almost three dozen essays by an All-Star cast of REH experts and fans. Here’s the final post in the series, with links all the prior ones.
It went over great, and I got to know the REH community a lot better than I did before. Inspired by an irregular series I was writing about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories (I’m a gargantuan fan), I thought it would be fun to ‘round up the usual – and unusual – suspects’ (if you know me, you know that’s from my favorite movie of all time) and tackle Conan. Each contributor would explain why that story was the best of REH’s original Conan tales (no pastiches here). The twist was, each story was randomly assigned! I used an Excel spreadsheet and did a blind assignment – the modern technology equivalent of names out of a hat.