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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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “The Phoenix on the Sword”

Sunday, August 9th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

The Phoenix on the Sword Weird Tales-smallOver 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 very first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” originally published in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales magazine. Here’s Howard:

Look at the story’s opening quote. That’s practically the gold standard of quotes from imaginary historical sources. That fabulous “Know, O Prince” and all that follows has been imitated but rarely, if ever, equalled. This, fellow fantasy fans, is the way it’s done. Admittedly, there are a few phrases in the middle of the paragraph that are less inspired. I’m looking at “Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem.” Most of the rest of the quote paints lovely word pictures, but those phrases don’t remotely approach the poetic majesty of the rest — what does Zingara look like? What does Koth look like? But the rest is lovely, and the quality picks right back up with “dreaming west” and powers on to that fantastic finish, “Hither came Conan…”

Look at the opening line of the story: “Over shadowy spires and gleaming towers lay the ghostly darkness and silence that runs before dawn.” Damn. Why doesn’t anyone write like that any more? Howard sets the scene with sharp, sensory laden description. He’s a film director guiding the camera with a fantastic establishing shot.

Their first post on this topic discussed Howard’s “The Hyborian Age.” Read the complete exchange here.

Discovering Robert E. Howard: Jeffrey Shanks on The Worldbuilding of REH

Friday, August 7th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Conan_WBHyboriaWe are trying to look at as broad a range of topics related to Robert E. Howard as we can in this series. Characters, genres, events, themes: Black Gate really wants to showcase the many facets of the man and his works.

Today’s guest post is such an example. Jeff Shanks wrote the introduction to the just published facsimile edition of Howard’s essay, The Hyborian Age and is the REH consultant on Modiphius’ upcoming Conan RPG  (we’re gonna have a post for that, too!). I can’t think of anyone better to write about one of my favorite subjects,  world-building.

While Robert E. Howard is known as the creator of a number of memorable heroic protagonists, such as Kull of Atlantis, Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, and, of course, Conan the Cimmerian, his efforts as a pioneer in fantasy world-building are often overlooked. When it is remarked upon at all, Howard’s creation of the Hyborian Age of Conan is generally described as a fairly impromptu effort — a hodge-podge of fictitious kingdoms based on thinly-disguised real world historical analogues, thrown together hastily in early 1932 after the first Conan story was accepted by Weird Tales.

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Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read The Coming of Conan

Sunday, August 2nd, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian-smallBill Ward and Howard Andrew Jones have wrapped up their detailed and highly entertaining look at Fritz Leiber’s famous Lankhmar stories over at Howard Andrew Jones’ website. But without pausing for breath, they’ve leaped into a re-read of Robert E. Howard’s classic tales of Conan, starting with the Del Rey edition of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, and Howard’s essay on the world Conan adventured in, “The Hyborian Age.” Here’s Bill:

“The Hyborian Age” isn’t the place to start if you are new to Conan, in fact I’d say it’s really only interesting if you are already familiar with Conan’s world, as well as the enthusiasms of Conan’s creator. REH himself didn’t start with “The Hyborian Age,” either, he started with the character of Conan, only settling down to iron out his “world bible” once he had three Conan stories under his belt and realized he wanted to write many more… It’s the history of a lost age before the rise of the civilizations we are familiar with, but it’s also a way of getting around history. REH wrote fast and he wrote for publication and, though he loved history and writing historical fiction, he felt it took too much time to get the research just right. Enter the secondary world of his own slice of pre-history, a way of not only having a world he didn’t have to exhaustively research, but also a vehicle for bringing together the character and flavor of many different cultures and eras that would allow Conan to adventure in the equivalent of everything from the Ancient Near East to Medieval France. That may not be completely clear just from reading “The Hyborian Age,” but it is clear from the stories themselves, as well as by glancing at the two maps REH used when planning his world — his Hyborian Kingdoms superimposed over a map of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East is probably even more eloquent than his essay…

Join the discussion here.

The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: By Crom – Are Conan Pastiches Official?

Monday, July 27th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

ConaPas_Ace2Today’s post is actually about Robert E. Howard’s Conan, but (in a stunning surprise) it’s got some Sherlock Holmes at the foundation. No, Conan never met the great detective…

Hopefully you’ve been checking in on our summer series, Discovering Robert E. Howard. There are plenty more posts coming, so stay tuned. While I very much like Howard and his works, I came late to his stories and I’m certainly no expert.

There is one area I’ve found…curious, which relates to the “official” status that seems to be accorded to the authorized pastiches written since Howard’s death. It’s quite different in the Holmes world.

There are sixty official Sherlock Holmes tales. Period. Fifty-six short stories and four novels (more novellas, really), all penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and published during his lifetime. There are two Holmes short-shorts, “How Watson Learned the Trick” and “The Field Bazaar” and there is no disputing that they were written by Doyle. But they are not included (by anyone, I believe) in the official count.

You, oh enlightened one, know that the Doyle Estate tried to include a sixty-first story, found among ACD’s papers by a researcher, but it turned out to have been written by Arthur Whitaker.

To quote myself, from my first Solar Pons post here at Black Gate:

Parodies are stories that poke fun at Holmes. But the more serious Holmes tales, those that attempt to portray Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective to varying levels, are called pastiches. Just about the earliest ‘serious’ attempt at a Holmes copy was by Vincent Starrett, who wrote “The Adventure of the Unique Hamlet” in 1920.

Doyle’s son Adrian, sitting at his father’s very desk, produced The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (half of the stories were co-written with John Dickson Carr, who would quit mid-project).

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Wally Conger on “Rogues in the House”

Friday, July 24th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

BG_RoguesComicOne of the cool things about being an active member in the Sherlock Holmes community is that I run across a broad spectrum of people with other common interests outside of the world’s first private consulting detective. Wally Conger and I have had back and forth conversations on versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles and other topics.

We may not agree on season three of Sherlock, but we do both enjoy reading Conan. So, I asked him to review “Rogues in the House,” which I knew he had just read. He was kind enough to do just that…

By the time Robert E. Howard launched into writing “Rogues in the House” in January 1933, he already had 10 Conan tales under his belt. He was very comfortable with the character.

In fact, upon publication of the story in the January 1934 issue of Weird Tales, Howard wrote to fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith:

Glad you liked ‘Rogues in the House.’ That was one of those yarns which seemed to write itself. I didn’t rewrite it even once. As I remember I only erased and changed one word in it, and then sent it in just as it was written. I had a splitting sick headache, too, when I wrote the first half, but that didn’t seem to affect my work any.

I wish to thunder I could write with equal ease all the time. Ordinarily I revise even my Conan yarns once or twice, and the other stuff I hammer out by main strength.

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