Robert E. Howard Wrote a Police Procedural? With Conan?? Crom!!!

Monday, September 18th, 2017 | Posted by Bob Byrne

BG_GodBowlComicCoverReportedly, Ernest Hemingway bet Howard Hawks that the director couldn’t make a good movie out of his worst book. Hawks took the bet and we ended up with Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not (it’s not Bogie’s best, but I vote Hawks the winner of the bet). Suppose I told you I could show you that one of what’s commonly considered among the worst Conan stories isn’t really that bad – and that it’s a pre-genre police procedural? Ready to take on the challenge?

In 2015, Black Gate‘s Discovering Robert E. Howard series showcased the breadth and diversity of REH’s writings. Boxing stories, westerns, science fiction, Solomon Kane, El Borak: Howard was an immensely talented author who wrote in a variety of genres. My first entry in the series was about Steve Harrison, Howard’s take on the hardboiled private eye with a weird menace twist. As you can read in that essay, Howard didn’t care for the genre and he abandoned it almost as quickly as he entered it. Today, I’m going to look at his lone police procedural. Yep – Robert E. Howard wrote a police procedural before the term was even in use. And it features Conan!

The general consensus is that Howard hit the mark with his fourth Conan story, “The Tower of the Elephant,” published in March of 1933. His first was “The Phoenix on the Sword,” which appeared in Weird Tales in December of 1932 and was a rewrite of an unpublished Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule.” Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, rejected the second, “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” which to me, reads more like a chapter in a longer work than a self-contained story.

“The God in the Bowl” was probably written in early 1932 and was Howard’s third Conan story. Wright rejected this one as well and it did not see print in any form until an edited version by L. Sprague de Camp was published in 1952’s Space Science Fiction, Volume 1, Number 2 (the story has nothing to do with either space or science fiction…). De Camp did less chopping on this one than most of his Conan edits, but fans could finally read Howard’s original text in Donald Grant’s The Tower of the Elephant in 1975.

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The Top 50 Black Gate Posts in August

Sunday, September 10th, 2017 | Posted by John ONeill

Robert Jordan The Conan Chronicles-back-small Robert Jordan The Conan Chronicles-small

Our most popular blog post in July was M. Harold Page’s “Why isn’t Conan a Mary Sue?” Last month continued the Conan love: our top article for August was Bob Byrne’s survey of Tor’s years as a Conan pastiche publisher, including the popular series from Robert Jordan. Above — the first of multiple Jordan omnibus volumes from Tor, The Conan Chronicles (1995, art by Gary Ruddell).

Coming in second was our report on the Hugo Award winners, followed by Dominik Parisien’s announcement of the Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Kickstarter. Fourth was Fletcher Vredenburgh’s look back at Frank Herbert’s classic Dune.

Rounding out the Top Five was our Future Treasures piece on Grady Hendrix’s upcoming Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction. Close on its heels was Sean McLachlan’s photo essay on his visit to Minster Lovell Hall in Oxfordshire, England. Ryan Harvey’s obituary for Haruo Nakajima, The Man Who Was Godzilla, was number seven.

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By Crom: The Tor Conan – Quality May Vary…

Monday, August 7th, 2017 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Conan_RogueEvery so often, I get the hankering to read a tale of Conan the Cimmerian (better known as ‘The Barbarian’ thanks to Ah-nuld Schwarzenmuscles).

I usually grab one of the three excellent Del Rey volumes (which Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward entertainingly went through – here’s the first installment) and get a quick fix. For a little more reading, I snag one of the Ace/Lancer series edited by L Sprague De Camp (with some help from Lin Carter). And less often, I find one of the Tor paperbacks that I haven’t gotten around to yet and try one of them.

As I mentioned in this post on what qualifies as Conan Canon (say that five times fast!) back in 2015:

‘From 1982 through 2003, eight authors (though primarily four) cranked out 43 new Conan novels for Tor. At two per year, the quality varied wildly, as you can imagine. John M. Roberts’ Conan the Rogue is an homage to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and one of my favorite Conan books. Steve Perry’s Conan the Indomitable is one of the worst fantasy books I’ve ever read (even though it is a direct sequel to Perry’s Conan the Defiant, which I liked).’

I have maybe two-thirds of the Tor books and have read two-thirds of those (What: I’m channeling Yogi Berra now?). Some of the Tor titles give you at least a bit of an idea what the story is about, such as John M. Roberts’ Conan and the Treasure of the Python and Leonard Carpenter’s Conan of the Red Brotherhood.

But the majority are all titled Conan the (insert vague word here). It’s a litany of titles like Conan the Valorous, Conan the Defiant, Conan the Great, Conan the Formidable: you get the idea. You’ve got to read the back cover to get some clue what the story is about.

The Tor books, pushed out at a punishing pace, are very much a mixed bag. And my experience so far is that more often than not, they fall into the “meh” or worse category.

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A Tale of Two Robert E. Howard Biographies

Thursday, July 27th, 2017 | Posted by James McGlothlin

Dark Valley Destiny The Life of Robert E. Howard-small Blood & Thunder The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard-small

Not so long ago, in a galaxy really close by (in fact, our galaxy), there was a tale of two biographies of the same writer. This is how the story goes. Or at least, this is what I have gathered.

Once upon a time there was a Jedi-in-training (also known as a sci-fi writer) who, tempted by the Dark Side of the Force, figured out that he could make quite a bit of money in the fantasy genre. Tolkien was selling like gangbusters at the time, so why not? Robert E. Howard (REH), a long dead Golden Age pulp writer, had all of that Conan stuff just lying around begging to be exploited utilized. So off to work the Jedi went.

But, in pursuing this decades-long venture, said sci-fi writer unfortunately and eventually went completely over to the Dark Side — full Sith Lord territory. In time, by his own reckoning, he became the de facto spokesperson for what counted as canonical Conan. And further, as a self-made REH authority, he published his own biography of Howard. The Force was strong with this one.

Fortunately though, so the tale goes, the Force eventually balanced out. A small but growing band of Jedi — fully committed to the Light Side — fought vigorously against this Sith Lord, trying to demonstrate who the true REH actually was. In time, the evil Sith Lord was defeated, and died of natural causes. But the task of undoing his dark damage against REH’s legacy would take years. And eventually a very able Jedi warrior would come along and write a new REH biography that would, among other things, hopefully undo all the damage done by the first bio.

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Why isn’t Conan a Mary Sue?

Thursday, July 13th, 2017 | Posted by M Harold Page

Conan Rogues in the House-smallHow is Conan not a Mary Sue?

The barbarian is pretty obviously Robert E Howard’s authorial self-projection into the Hyborian Age. Big, bellicose and amoral, but honourable and never mean. He’s mighty-thewed death on two legs, women fall into his arms, kingdoms fall at his feet. He male bonds when he falls into good company, and despite being a barbarian fish out of civilised water, he commands the loyalty of his men and the respect of those nobles worthy of respect.

He’s everything Robert E Howard was and wasn’t and might have been had the big Texan lived long enough to fight in WWII. (Imagine Howard as a veteran of Iwo Jima, and the great literature he would have written…)

Really, how is he not a Mary Sue? (He certainly fails a Mary Sue test)

And yet, Conan survived the oh-so-ironic later 20th century. One whiff of Thrud should consigned him to the company of Captain Future and Doc Savage: The emperor barbarian has no clothes on! He even weathered Terry Pratchett’s slash and burn through the genre.

Was it just that Howard invented Sword and Sorcery?

No. Conan’s literary longevity is more than just about being first with sandals on the ground.

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The Great Savage Sword Re-Read: Vol 5

Saturday, May 27th, 2017 | Posted by John R. Fultz

-SSoC-Vol5This series explores the Savage Sword of Conan collections from Dark Horse reprinting Marvel Comics’ premiere black-and-white fantasy mag launched in the mid-70s. Previous installments: Vol 1 / Vol 2 / Vol 3 / Vol 4

Volume 5 collects issues #49 – 60 (1980 -’81), and it begins with the proverbial bang. Reigning art champs John Buscema and Tony DeZuniga return for a 4-issue adaptation of the L. Sprague DeCamp/Lin Carter novel CONAN THE LIBERATOR. These four issues are gorgeous–the Buscema/DeZuniga team is firing on all cylinders.

Story-wise this adaptation succeeds far better than the previous DeCamp/Carter adaptation, CONAN THE BUCCANEER (collected in Volume 4). Whereas BUCCANEER tended to meander and lack proper pacing, LIBERATOR moves at a brisk pace and gives us more classic Conan time.

LIBERATOR is basically a military fantasy with bit of sorcery thrown in to complicate the saga of Conan’s revolt against a mad tyrant. We have a beautiful spy, a scheming wizard, and a truly insane king who butchers his own subjects in a futile quest for immortality. Here is the story untold by Conan creator Robert E. Howard: The story of exactly how Conan became King of Aquilonia.

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The Great Savage Sword Re-Read: Vol 4

Sunday, May 7th, 2017 | Posted by John R. Fultz

SSoC-Vol4-CvrThis series explores the Savage Sword of Conan collections from Dark Horse reprinting Marvel Comics’ premiere black-and-white fantasy mag from the 1970s. Previous installments: Volume 1 / Volume 2 / Volume 3.

In volume 4 the superb team of John Buscema (pencils) and Tony DeZuniga (inks) continues to dominate the magazine’s “Golden Age” (i.e. the late 70s). However, this volume begins with John’s talented brother Sal Buscema stepping in for issue #37, ably inked by Rudy Nebres.

It’s a good issue, but things really take off when the regular (John) Buscema/DeZuniga team returns in #38 to adapt the story “Road of Eagles” by Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague DeCamp. This is a landmark issue: Conan has never looked more fierce, and his world hasn’t been this fully realized since Alfredo Alcala’s hyper-detailed inks in the mag’s early days.

I’ve read that Buscema didn’t care much for DeZuniga’s inks — but he didn’t really like anyone’s inks over his pencils except his own. That’s fairly common for the Great Pencillers of comics history — yet they were usually too busy with deadlines to do their own inks.

Personal taste aside, Roy Thomas obviously realized the greatness of the Buscema/DeZuniga pairing. He made sure this team worked together as often as possible: 7 out of these 12 issues feature John Buscema pencils with DeZuniga inks. Roy even tapped DeZuniga to ink two more great issues penciled by Sal Buscema (i.e. #39 and #44).

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Literary Wonder & Adventure Podcast Presents: Robert E. Howard, Master of Sword & Sorcery: A Conversation with Author Howard Andrew Jones

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017 | Posted by John ONeill

Literary Wonder & Adventure Show Howard Andrew Jones

I have thoroughly enjoyed the last two audio shows from Robert Zoltan’s Dream Tower Media, a lively conversation with Black Gate blogger Ryan Harvey on Edgar Rice Burroughs, and a fascinating discussion with Scott Oden on the history and writing of J.R.R. Tolkien. So I was very excited to see that for Episode #4 the subject was the distinguished Howard Andrew Jones, author of the beloved Dabir & Asim Arabian fantasy tales, and the future bestseller For the Killing of Kings, out next year from St. Martin’s Press. The topic this time was none other than Robert E. Howard, the legendary creator of Conan, and perhaps the greatest Sword & Sorcery author of all time.

As usual, calling this a podcast doesn’t do it justice, as it’s really a professionally-produced radio show set in the dimension-hopping Dream Tower (with a talking raven). I’ve had plenty of lengthy discussions with Howard — who is the Managing Editor of Black Gate — over the years, and here he’s at the peak of his form, entertaining and highly informative. The podcast opens with a animated discussion of life in small town Texas, Robert E. Howard’s substantial gifts as a storyteller, and why he added whipping scenes to so many pulp tales. It looks at REH’s enduring creations — including Conan, Solomon Kane, and Dark Agnes — before exploring our fascination with ruins, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and the influence of gaming on modern fantasy.

My only criticism is the host’s tendency to wander off topic, and repeatedly cut off his guests to talk about himself. Robert Zoltan is a fascinating guy, and I enjoy his opinions, but that doesn’t mean that a 1-hour podcast on Robert E. Howard is the right place for a 3 minute monologue on Van Gogh, or a 7-minute monologue on narcissism and how hard it is to make a living as a musician. Future podcasts should focus more on his guests, or maybe just do away with the pretense of an interview entirely. That might set better expectations with listeners.

Check out Literary Wonder & Adventure Podcast Presents: Robert E. Howard, Master of Sword & Sorcery: A Conversation with Author Howard Andrew Jones, and all the episodes of the Literary Wonder & Adventure Podcast, here.


Modular: Rethinking the OSR through Modiphius’s Conan – Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of

Thursday, February 9th, 2017 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

ConanRPGWell, many of you don’t need to be told that Mophidius’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of is out. Well, maybe it’s not quite out: for those of us who require a hard copy, word is it won’t be shipping until sometime in June. But backers and shoppers now have access to PDF copies of the Conan Core Book and a collection of adventures entitled Jeweled Thrones of the Earth.

I became a backer quite late in the game. Indeed, it couldn’t have been much more than a month ago. I’m not sure why I was late. I’m almost certain I looked at the Kickstarter when it was announced but probably initially passed it over because I assumed that so much of the Conan material probably was done “better” (as in open to additional literary inspirations) in the “conventional” rpgs (D&D and its clones) with which most of us already are familiar.

Curiosity is what made me change my mind. Modiphius was offering free “Quick Start” rules in PDF form. I downloaded them and read them all, including the introductory adventure. Contrary to what some others on this site have reported, I was absorbed and excited by the rules set. I didn’t run the adventure because, well, I write my own adventures. And, outside of egotism, the main reason I don’t run other people’s adventures is because I can’t see how most of them can work. At one point in the introductory “To Race the Thunder” adventure, it reads,

With no hope of joining or rescuing the forces inside the fort, the player characters’ only hope is to strike out to the settlements, to warn the settlers, gathering them and helping them across the Thunder River to safety. The banks of the Thunder River are their only hope at this point, else they will all end up as corpses, cooling as their life-blood sinks into the black and hungry earth.

Are you kidding me? If my players are told they can’t possibly get into the fort, you can be certain that that is the one and only thing they obsessively will try. And with me as GM, they very likely will succeed.

And with that observation, I have come to the thesis of this article: rethinking the OSR in light of what I have learned from reading the new Conan RPG. The OSR, as many of us need not be told, stands for Old-School Renaissance (or Revival, or Roleplaying). And I am fascinated and excited by it. For the few of us who don’t know already, broadly speaking the OSR names a movement in the tabletop rpg industry that is regressive, perhaps nostalgic, a return to iterations of D&D that were popular before the third edition (or d20 system) of the rules. This return was facilitated by “retroclones” made legal under the Open Game License. Examples of retroclones are Swords & Wizardry, Castles & Crusades, Dungeon Crawl Classics and a host of others that might be impossible to enumerate. And to add to this OSR, players no longer need “return” to revised versions of the old rules but can purchase the actual old rules outright from Wizards of the Coast, because the latest owner of the D&D property now has released virtually its entire back stock in PDF and print form.

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Modular: An Interview with Jeffrey Talanian, the Creator and Publisher of Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea

Friday, November 11th, 2016 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

hyperborea2ecoverThis November 3-5 I had the pleasure of attending the fourth iteration of Gamehole Con in lovely Madison, Wisconsin. At the con I had the additional pleasure of sitting down at Jeffrey Talanian’s table to play an Amazonian Fighter in Jeff’s Lovecraftian adventure “The Rats in the Walls”. I’m not going to give away spoilers here, but the creepy escapade had more to it than rats in walls! And, despite Jeff’s best attempts to kill us, our party overcame its antagonists in an epic last battle of first-level proportions! If you can’t tell from my exclamation points, it was great fun!

Jeff’s “The Rats in the Walls” takes place in the City-State of Khromarium. This is an area in Hyperborea, which is the official campaign setting for Jeff’s own roleplaying game that is published by North Wind Adventures. The second edition of Jeff’s game currently is 365% funded on Kickstarter with nine days left to go! After our game, Jeff graciously agreed to an interview with me. Here it is:

What is AS&SH?

AS&SH stands for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, a role-playing game of swords, sorcery, and weird fantasy. It is a tabletop RPG inspired by the fiction of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. Its rules are inspired by the works of Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. AS&SH was released in 2012 as a boxed set. In 2013, it was nominated for several ENnie awards (Best Game, Best Production Values, Product of the Year), and in 2017 it will be rereleased in Second Edition hardback format.

Why did you create a game specific to the flavor of these writers and these genres? Did this grow out of what they call a “homebrew” game? If so, please tell us about that game and exactly how it resulted in AS&SH?

Growing up, I greatly admired fantasy, science fiction, and horror. I started reading genre fiction at a very young age (most notably the Conan paperbacks, The Hobbit, and The Chronicles of Narnia). I also got into comic books and magazines; Savage Sword of Conan and The Mighty Thor were my favorites. I also devoured sword-and-sorcery themed cartoons and films. I never missed an episode of Thundarr the Barbarian, and films like Conan the Barbarian, The Beastmaster, Hawk the Slayer, and Krull really captured my imagination in those halcyon days. I loved Tolkien, and read Lord of the Rings in the sixth grade, but for me it was always the grittier, more personal tales that I’ve loved most: Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, Elric, Hawkmoon, Corum, Tarzan, John Carter, Carson Napier, Doc Savage, Gray Mouser, etc.

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