D.M. Ritzlin on the Ten Greatest Sword-and-Sorcery Stories by Robert E. Howard

Saturday, September 26th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Renegade+Swords-small The+Gods+of+Bal-Sagoth-small Weird Tales Red+Nails-small

Covers by Brian LeBlanc, Sanjulian, and Margaret Brundage

Dave Ritzlin is the mastermind behind DMR books, publishers of the Swords of Steel anthologies, The Infernal Bargain and Other Stories,  the 2020 anthology Renegade Swords, and many other volumes of adventure and weird fantasy. He’s also a fine blogger and Robert E. Howard enthusiast, and this month he produced one of the most interesting articles on REH I’ve read in many years — The Ten Greatest Sword-and-Sorcery Stories by Robert E. Howard.

This lengthy and entertaining piece features all of Howard’s most famous creations, including Kull, Solomon Kane, and of course Conan the Cimmerian. Here’s Dave on “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth.”

The heroes of “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” are two renegades: Irishman Turlogh O’Brien, outlawed from his clan, and the Saxon Athelstane, who has thrown in with a group of Norse Vikings. The two have a history together, but they meet again when the Vikings attack a ship on which Turlogh is a passenger. The Saxon recognizes Turlogh in the stormy sea battle and takes him alive. Shortly thereafter the Vikings’ ship in blown off course and destroyed by a tempest. Athelstane is knocked unconscious, but Turlogh manages to save him. The two are the only survivors, and they wash up on a mysterious island (a classic sword and sorcery set-up!)…

In addition to being a spectacular sword and sorcery tale, “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” also inspired the name of one of the most amazing metal bands of all time. Byron A. Roberts, vocalist of Bal-Sagoth, is a talented sword-and-sorcery author as well.

Read the entire thing at The DMR Blog — a fine place to learn about new and classic fantasy of interest to REH fans old and new.


Rogue Blades author: Kosru’s Road

Friday, August 7th, 2020 | Posted by Ty Johnston

Howard changed my lifeThe following is an an excerpt from Howard Andrew Jones’ essay for the upcoming book from the Rogue Blades Foundation, Robert E. Howard Changed My Life.

I kept missing Conan. He was all over the place in the 1970s as I was growing up. I couldn’t help but be drawn to the covers of the Marvel comic books that featured him, but I was a little kid and embarrassed to be seen reading anything with such scantily clad beauties in it.

Maybe if I’d been a little less shy I’d have read those comics anyway, but I simply didn’t dare. I stayed mostly with prose, devouring the Heinlein juvenile science fiction adventures, Ray Bradbury collections, the Prydain Chronicles, The Dark is Rising sequence, and anything that was Star Trek or remotely like it.

By the mid- to late-’70s, when I had discovered Dungeons & Dragons and its now famous recommended reading list, Appendix N, I hit the library, the bookstore, and the used bookstore in search of everything on it and, unfortunately, came up woefully short. This time, pure bad luck kept me from reading Robert E. Howard. When it came to Appendix N, the library held only the last few Amber books. I didn’t want to read them out of order, and I couldn’t find much of anything from the list at the bookstore.

By chance, the used bookstore had not a single Conan paperback. Instead it stocked the best of the Lankhmar books, the first three Corum books by Michael Moorcock, and a friend had the Amber novels the library lacked. Mostly because of these books I was transformed from a devoted science fiction fan who occasionally tried fantasy into a dedicated reader of fantasy, but the glories of Howard’s writings were still undiscovered territory.

In the years that followed, I saw the rows of Conan pastiche and was rightfully dubious.

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Rogue Blades author: Robert E. Howard Changed My Life and Continues to Inspire Me

Friday, December 13th, 2019 | Posted by Ty Johnston

Howard changed my lifeRecently publisher Rogue Blades Foundation announced the release next year of the title Robert E. Howard Changed My Life. Award-winning author Adrian Cole will appear in that book. Below he offers some of his memories of discovering Howard and how such affected his writing career.

Having been a big fan of Robert E. Howard’s work since I first discovered it back in the 1970s (when like many others I got hold of those wonderful Lancer paperback editions of King Kull and then Conan), I was very easily persuaded to join the contributors to the Rogue Blades Foundation project, Robert E. Howard Changed My Life.

Okay, as a title, that’s a quite dramatic statement, but in all honesty it’s certainly true in my case. At the time I first read REH I hadn’t much of an idea about what I wanted to do with my life as far as a “career” went, although I’d already started to write, my initial work inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tolkien and others. Writing was far more interesting to me than any day job could ever have been and REH added an ingredient to the heady cocktail that ensured my determination and zest to channel my creative energy didn’t fade. Inspiration added to imagination, the ultimate mix. At the time REH was enjoying not only a revival, but an explosion of interest that eventually went world wide, and I found myself swept along by it at a critical time in my own development as a writer. I knew that, whatever else happened to me, good times and bad, REH would go on being an inspiration to me for the rest of my days.

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Hither Came Conan: Gabe Dybing on “The People of the Black Circle”

Monday, July 22nd, 2019 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

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Fellow Black Gater Gabe Dybing loaded his entry directly into the website and it fell off my radar. My fault. HERE is the final entry in our Hither Came Conan series, as he tackles “The People of the Black Circle,” which I’ve always felt, story-wise, was one of REH’s more unique Conan tales. Read on! 

Robert E. Howard’s novella “The People of the Black Circle,” first published in the September, October and November 1934 issues of Weird Tales, contains all of the elements that, in retrospect, entail an ultimate Conan tale. As an exemplar of what was to become known as the Sword & Sorcery subgenre of fantasy literature, “Black Circle” exhibits Conan as a swordsmen at the height of his career in brigandry: the tale commences with Conan negotiating for the release of seven of his hillmen chieftains who are being held by the Devi of Vendhya for ransom or execution.

But Conan has not lost any of his more youthful thiefly abilities; his introduction in this story has him climbing through a window after sneaking over a barbican and single-handedly dispatching of the guards there. The “sorcery” portion of the Sword & Sorcery subgenre is supplied here by not just one but by an entire Circle of magic-users. Most notable of these are Khemsa (who even is a perspective character!) and the Master of Yimsha, who ultimately is the chief adversary of the novella. To further exemplify the Sword & Sorcery genre, the narrative contains ample doses of the weird—monstrous antagonists, an adventure locale worthy of a Dungeons & Dragons module, and even one secret passage! But that’s not all!

Other Conan stories contain these things, too, but this story is the very best Conan story because it has what no other does — the Devi of Vendhya. “Black Circle” exhibits all the things that we love about Conan, but, unlike any other, it also details the making of a lover and a heroine to complement Conan in every way.

What? Isn’t that heroine supposed to be Red Sonja (to confuse the Conan “canon”) or one of Conan’s two great “loves” (Belit or Zenobia)? Perhaps, perhaps not. Conan had many women throughout his varied careers, and if he never came to actually “love” Yasmina, the Devi of Vendhya, then he at least recognized in her, at the end of this tale, all of the qualities that he most valued in a woman. A major aspect of “Black Circle” is just who Conan is at this time of his life and what characteristics could counterbalance this hero as a satisfying lover, if not a full mate. Through her experiences in this tale, Yasmina transforms — at least in Conan’s eyes — from an artificial and unattainable Devi into a true “elemental” woman of passion and desire.

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Hither Came Conan: Patrice Louinet on “Queen of the Black Coast”

Monday, July 8th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_QueenWTCoverEDITEDRobert E. Howard wrote twenty-one tales of Conan, the mighty-thewed Cimmerian. And with today’s entry from Patrice Louinet, Hither Came Conan has looked at all of them: plus, we tossed in “Wolves Beyond the Border” as a bonus! We’ll wrap things up with a summary post. But read on as we close out our examination of the Conan Canon with  story that is generally considered to be in the top two or three – when it’s not ranked number one.

Robert E. Howard’s best Conan tale? Well, it’s a toss between “Beyond the Black River” and “Red Nails,” with a definite leaning for the latter. No way I can say otherwise: I have repeated this over and over, and it’s in print in many places.

And here I am today having to explain why “Queen of the Black Coast” is the best of the Conan tales. Had I been allotted “Vale of the Lost Women,” you would have known I was lying to you, but “Queen”? Luckily for me, “Queen of the Black Coast” is obviously one of the best Conan tales (general consensus), and it also happens to be one of my personal favorites. It contains some very memorable scenes – Conan and Bêlit’s discussion of the afterlife and the gods, most noteworthily – and it addresses in a powerful manner Howard’s theme of the cycle of civilizations:

Conan’s flight from the city to live a barbaric life of piracy only to sail right into the poisonous river that leads to the heart of darkness and the last degenerate survivor of a once-powerful civilization. Powerful stuff in a story that is replete with exquisite – if dark – imagery, and a tragic ending that no one can ever forget. So yes, easily one of the best Conan stories. But not “the best.”

I have been mulling this problem for a while now, and of course, I had the answer all along: “Queen of the Black Coast” is the best Conan tale to read if you have never read any before. In other words, it is the perfect story to discover the character, the Hyborian setting, and of course Howard’s talent.

One of the numerous problems that have plagued the perception of the Cimmerian by the general public is this idea that the tales represent as many steps in Conan’s so-called “biography,” though nothing in the series supports that notion. So, how do you understand a character and his motivations if you have no real biographical background? Well, think James Bond or Dirty Harry and read on.

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Convention Report: Robert E. Howard Days 2019

Thursday, July 4th, 2019 | Posted by James McGlothlin

Howard Days 2019 Cross Plains sign-small

Robert E. Howard (1906–1936) is most famously known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian. But he was a very prolific pulp writer of various genres who created several other memorable characters including Solomon Kane and Kull, gracing the pages of Weird Tales and various other pulp magazines of the 1920s and 30s.

To celebrate the importance of this writer, Robert E. Howard Days exists as an annual event (first weekend of every June) that brings together Robert E. Howard (REH) fans and scholars to celebrate the life of this great pulp writer. This event takes place every year in the small town of Cross Plains, Texas, the hometown of REH. The primary locus of events takes place at the Robert E. Howard Museum, which was actually the home of REH and his parents, and the place where most of his greatest stories were written.

After years of planning to attend Howard Days, I finally bit the bullet and made the road trip to Cross Plains (from Minnesota!) After arriving in Abilene late Wednesday, I got up early Thursday morning in order to drive to Brownwood (30 minutes or so south of Cross Plains) to go to Greenleaf Cemetery where REH’s grave resides.

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Hither Came Conan: Deuce Richardson on “Black Colossus”

Monday, July 1st, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_BlackRedPicEDITEDIt’s our second-to-last story essay here at Hither Came Conan. Deuce Richardson, who I’ve talked a lot of REH with, looks at “Black Colossus.” And he digs deep on this one. You absolutely should read on!

Robert E. Howard’s “Black Colossus” is the greatest Conan yarn ever written. Within it, Howard distilled–for the first and best time–nearly all the elements that Conan fans have loved over the course of the last nine decades. Saddle up, REH fans. This is going to be one wild and bloody ride.

The tale begins in the deserts of eastern Shem, a hundred miles northeast of Stygia. There we find Kuthchemes, the ruined and shunned city once ruled by the wizard-king, Thugra Khotan, in the days when the Stygian dominion marched all the way to the rugged uplands of eastern Koth.

Shevatas, master-thief of Zamora–itself the City of Thieves in a nation of thieves–has spent long years preparing to plunder the tomb of Thugra Khotan. Robert E. Howard describes him thus:

“This was Shevatas, a thief among thieves, whose name was spoken with awe in the dives of the Maul and the dim shadowy recesses beneath the temples of Bel, and who lived in songs and myths for a thousand years.”

Shevatas penetrates the ivory-domed sepulchre, achieving his life-long dream…and then dies “as no man has died in three thousand years.”

Here lies the first bit of genius within “Black Colossus.” Namely, REH gives his readers the last chapter of a fine sword-and-sorcery tale as the first chapter of his Conan yarn. The tale of Shevatas is a mini-epic in itself and it makes a perfect blood n’ thunder intro to the main story.

Not only does it serve up great action–mortal combat against that archetypical Howardian antagonist, a giant serpent–but it also introduces eldritch, Lovecraftian horror from the git-go, which is a well-nigh essential ingredient in great sword-and-sorcery tales.

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Ramblings on REH (Encore Appearance)

Monday, June 24th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Ramblings_KullAxeDue to some difficulties, I do not have a Hither Came Conan essay ready to run today. I hope to have one next week. And, work is brutal at the moment. Also, as this post goes live, I am on day three of a four-day camping trip with my son. So I did not have time for an original Conan essay — or even a new A (Black) Gat in the Hand post, either. So, from waaay back on August 10, 2015, here’s one of the very first REH-related posts I wrote here at Black Gate. I think the first was a review of Harry Turtledove’s middling Conan of Venarium.

I was an REH neophyte at the time: I’ve learned a LOT since then. I do plan on expanding on the Howard/Hammet similarity some day. I saw that from the very beginning. Since you probably missed this post the first time around, read on!


In 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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Tor.com on Robert E. Howard’s First (and Best?) Barbarian

Friday, June 21st, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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Kull the Fabulous Warrior King (Bantam, 1978). Art by Lou Feck

Rogue Blades Entertainment mastermind Jason M Waltz tipped me off to this article at Tor.com this morning, saying,

A decent article, even well-argued, but I disagree Kull is the better barbarian. Kull is the precursor to the culmination that is Conan; without Kull, Conan would be a lesser creation. Yet I enjoyed the article.

The piece itself, by Alan Brown, is a thoughtful look at one of Robert E. Howard’s early creations, and a great intro to a fascinating character, especially for those chiefly familiar with Howard through his later Conan tales.

The Kull stories marked the first time that Howard created an entire quasi-medieval world from whole cloth. While the various races and tribes bear some resemblance to peoples who inhabit the world today, he portrayed a time before the great cataclysm that caused Atlantis to sink, when even the shape of the land was different, a time when pre-human races still walked the Earth. Kull is an Atlantean barbarian who from his earliest days harbored an ambition that set him apart from his fellow tribesmen. A large, quick man, often compared to a tiger, he is powerful yet lithe, with dark hair and grey eyes, and a complexion bronzed from a life in the sun. He had been a warrior, galley slave, pirate, mercenary, and general before seizing the throne of Valusia from the corrupt King Borna. While a mighty warrior, Kull also has a whimsical and inquisitive side. He could be kind and sensitive, and is fascinated by the metaphysical.

Read the entire piece here.


Hither Came Conan: Jeffrey Shanks on “A Witch Shall Be Born”

Monday, June 17th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_WitchTreeofWoeEDITEDThree stories to go! This week, Robert E Howard Foundation multiple time award winner, Jeffrey Shanks, takes on “A Witch Shall Be Born.” That ain’t exactly an easy task. See what he’s got to say about this one.

Thou Shalt Not Suffer “A Witch Shall Be Born” — Or Maybe You Should?

“A Witch Shall Be Born” is not usually on anyone’s list of the top tier Conan stories – despite containing what could arguably be the most powerful and iconic scene in the entire series. The tepid reception to “Witch” is not entirely unfounded – the novella-length yarn is heavy on exposition, awkwardly constructed, poorly paced at times, and somewhat anticlimactic in its dénouement. And yet it has moments in which Howard’s powerful vision shines through the flaws. Howard Jones and Bill Ward noted in their recent REH Re-Read series  that it feels a bit like a draft, and I tend to agree. The story was written hastily in just a few days as Patrice Louinet has noted, and feels a little like a piece of choice meat that is a bit undercooked – It could have used another minute on the grill, but it’s still pretty damn tasty.

“Witch” was published in Weird Tales in the December1934 issue. As with “Black Colossus, it is a Hyborian version of one of Howard’s blood and thunder, Harold Lamb-style “Oriental” tales, in the same vein as the Crusades yarns he had been writing a few years earlier. The small kingdom of Khauran in which much of the story is set is something of analog to the historical Crusader kingdom of Outremer, a Western (Hyborian) polity precariously set on the fringes of the Eastern steppes.

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