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

Kull Robert E Howard-back-small Kull Robert E Howard-small

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.


Vintage Treasures: The Weird Tales Anthologies

Monday, June 3rd, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Weird Tales Peter Haining-small More Weird Tales Peter Haining-small

Weird Tales and More Weird Tales (Sphere, 1978). Covers by Les Edwards

Weird Tales is unquestionably the most storied and respected American fantasy magazine. It first appeared in March 1923, and published its last issue in Spring 2014 — a nearly 91-year run. That’s impressive by any standard.

Of course, Weird Tales isn’t measured purely by its longevity. The three greatest pulp fantasy writers — Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith — did their most important work in its pages, and it also published classic fiction by Edmond Hamilton, C.L. Moore, Henry Kuttner, Algernon Blackwood, E. Hoffmann Price, Robert Bloch, Manly Wade Wellman, Seabury Quinn, Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Eric Frank Russell, Fredric Brown, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, Theodore Sturgeon, and hundreds of others. It remains the most collectible and desirable fantasy pulp, and individual issues sell for hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars.

There have been numerous anthologies and collections gathering much of the best work from Weird Tales over the years. Most were produced by Arkham House, the publishing house founded in 1939 by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei to preserve the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Arkham mined Weird Tales for decades, issuing many hardcover volumes, and in the process preserved the work of many fine writers. Many of their reprints are now highly collectible on their own, which doesn’t help those of us looking for an inexpensive introduction to the glories of Weird Tales.

Fortunately for folks like you and me, there are a number of affordable and highly readable books out there that can do the job. Here’s a dozen to get you started.

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Hither Came Conan: The Khoraja Saga

Monday, May 27th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_BlackColossusWTInterior1EDITEDDeuce Richardson will be looking into “Black Colossus” for Hither Came Conan. I wrote an essay last year for my friend James Schmidt’s Mighty Thor JR’s blog, looking at the expanded saga of the gem from that story. Surprisingly, it made the Preliminary List for the Robert E. Howard Foundation Awards! I’ve since read more Conan pastiches involving Khorajan affairs, and I expanded the original essay. So, here’s the updated version. My thanks to James for letting me appear over at his blog.

Robert E. Howard was a master worldbuilder, as Jeffery Shanks wrote about over at Black Gate for the Discovering Robert E. Howard series. The history of Hyboria is sprinkled throughout his Conan tales, creating a vast backdrop, in both time and place. Conan’s own Cimmeria, Set-worshipping Stygia, the jungles of the Picts, mighty Aquilonia, fallen Acheron: it’s really amazing the depth and breadth that Howard created in the short story format (there was one novel, Hour of the Dragon, which drew on existing short stories – an approach used by Raymond Chandler a few years later: he called it ‘repurposing.’)

Khoraja is a small nation southeast of Koth. It isn’t one of the great countries of Hyboria, but it sat front and center for “The Black Colossus.” “Colossus” was the fourth published story to feature the Cimmerian, and one of five to find its way to print in Weird Tales in 1933. Editor Farnsworth Wright had rejected two others (“The Frost Giant’s Daughter” and “The God in the Bowl“) that would have added to that total. But before Conan enters the story in Khoraja, we get a little history from Howard.

Shevatas the thief is exploring the ruins of Kutchemes, once a great city and part of Stygia when its borders extended far beyond their present state (‘present’ in the Conan stories, that is…). Prior to Shevatas actually doing anything, we get this from Howard:

Eastward, Shevatas knew, the desert shaded into steppes stretching to the Hyrkanian kingdom of Turan, rising in barbaric splendor on the shores of the great inland sea. A week’s ride northward the desert ran into a tangle of barren hills, beyond which lay the fertile uplands of Koth, the southernmost realm of the Hyborian races. Westward the desert merged into the meadowlands of Shem, which stretched away to the ocean.

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Back Deck Pulp Returns!

Saturday, May 25th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Deck_SetupEDITEDGood reader, we are, of course, friends. But some of you are closer friends than others. By that, I mean that in our social media-addicted culture, I am referring to Facebook, naturally. I was slow to join FB, and it can often be bad. Or, often for me, something to simply ignore. But as a writer (lower case ‘w’) and Reader (upper case ‘R’), I do discuss topics of interest with a wide range of knowledgeable folks. And naturally, I promote Black Gate and my blogging here. So, it has its uses.

Last year, from May 14th to December 31st, I wrote a hardboiled/pulp column, with a little help from some friends. It was called A (Black)  Gat in the Hand (if you don’t know the reference, go read some Raymond Chandler). And over on Facebook, I made a bunch of related posts under the moniker, Back Deck Pulp. I sat on my nice back deck and read pulp. Then I posted snippets of interesting (to me) info on said story, author, whatever.

I shared some neat info on pulp and hardboiled stuff worth reading. And I included a picture of the subject. There was so much great art with that old pulp stuff. I posted a LOT of Back Deck Pulp (which people did seem to like…). So much, that I collected the entries and came up with six whole A (Black) Gat in the Hand posts!

Well, A (Black) Gat in the Hand is making a return appearance this summer, while I continue to work on my next Robert E. Howard/Conan series. And once again, I’ve got some seriously talented guest posters lined up, so at least a few essays will be good. So, naturally, Back Deck Pulp is back in business! I’ve got the patio furniture out and I’ve started doing my research.

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The Triumphant Return of Fantomas

Thursday, May 23rd, 2019 | Posted by William Patrick Maynard

The Wrath Of Fantomas-smallThe Wrath of Fantomas is a book I approached with extreme prejudice. It’s a graphic novel that seeks to present a new version of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain’s Fantomas series, which proved so successful when it was introduced a scant 108 years ago. As a rule, I dislike the concept of rebooting a series.

When first discovering a book series as a kid, continuity was key. It made a property more meaningful if there were numerous volumes to find and devour. Scouring used bookstores for dogeared copies of the missing pieces in the narrative puzzle made such books far more valuable to me. It seemed there were always a half dozen series I was working on completing in those decades long before the internet. They form some of the happiest memories of my formative years.

The entire concept of rebooting a series as a jumping-on point for new readers (or viewers, in the case of films) is distasteful to me. It devalues the worth of the original works. It suggests a series can be boiled down to its lowest common denominator and elements juggled so that a name and basic concept are enough to move forward with renewed sense of purpose.

Generally, in these overly sensitive times of ours, it also means elements that are no longer fashionable or politically acceptable will be whitewashed, bowdlerized, and otherwise made acceptable for Stalin, Mao, or whomever else has the clout to say censorship is required when the past inconveniently reminds us people were always flawed, unfair, uncouth, or sometimes just bluntly honest.

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Hither Came Conan: Bob Byrne on “Rogues in the House”

Monday, May 20th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_RoguesMarvelEDITEDWhen I was pitching this series to folks, I was using the title, The Best of Conan. I didn’t come up with Hither Came Conan for about eight months, I think. Yeah, I know… The idea behind the series came from an essay in my first (and so far, only) Nero Wolfe Newsletter. The plan for 3 Good Reasons is to look at a story and list three reasons why it’s the ‘best’ Wolfe story. And I toss in one ‘bad’ reason why it’s not. And finish it off with some quotes. You’ll be reading more 3 Good Reasons here at Black Gate in 2020.

So, I’m going to take a somewhat different tack from those who have come before me (I doubt I could have measured up, anyways) and pick out two elements that make this story one of Howard’s best recountings of the mighty-thewed Cimmerian. Then, throw a curveball from the Wolfe approach and highlight a few items worthy of note.

OUR STORY

Obviously, you need to read this story, but here’s a Cliff’s Notes version: Nabonidus, the Red Priest, is the real power in this unnamed Corinthian city. He gives a golden cask to Murilo, a young aristocrat. And inside the cask is a human ear (remind you of Sherlock Holmes? It should.). We learn a little later on that Murillo has been selling state secrets, and the ear is from a clerk he had dealings with. The jig is up!

Given the choice of running away, waiting meekly for assured death, or finding a tool to escape his predicament, he chooses the latter. And Conan is that tool. Wait: that didn’t sound right…

Conan and a Gunderman deserter had been successful thieves until a fence, a Priest of Anu, betrayed them. The priest also happened to be a spy for the police. As a result, the unnamed Gunderman (more on that below) was captured and hung. Conan then cut off the priest’s head in revenge. A ‘faithless woman’ (presumably his current main squeeze) betrayed him to the police, who captured the Cimmerian as he hid out, drunk.

Murillo visits the cell and Conan agrees to kill Nabonidus in exchange for his freedom. Things go a bit awry and Murillo goes after Nabonidus himself but faints at the sight of the red priest in his house. Meanwhile, Conan, after casually killing his ex-girlfriend’s new lover and then dumping her in a cesspool, sneaks into the pits under Nabonidus’ house, where he encounters Murillo, who had been dumped down there.

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Hither Came Conan: Mark Finn on “The God in the Bowl”

Monday, May 13th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_BowlFrazettaDarkHorseEDITEDWelcome back to the latest installment of Hither Came Conan, where a leading Robert E. Howard expert examines one of the original Conan stories each week, highlighting what’s best in it. Today, it’s Howard biographer Mark Finn looking at one of the first stories, “The God in the Bowl.” And here we go!

The God Has a Long Neck

“The God in the Bowl” is part of the holy trinity of Conan stories. No, not “Tower of the Elephant,” “Red Nails,” and “Beyond the Black River” (though they are undoubtedly worthy of the appellation). I’m talking about the Original Trinity, the Big Three, the initial stories that Robert E. Howard wrote and submitted to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales back in 1932.

I consider these stories to be Ground Zero for the essence of Conan the Cimmerian as he was originally introduced. In “Phoenix on the Sword,” we meet Conan the King, an established old campaigner, with a whole lifetime of stories under his furrowed brow, struggling with his new role as a king. This was borne out of Howard’s desire to write fiction in the guise of history; tales of adventure and sweeping consequences, without having to fact-check and sideline his narrative vision. Using his unpublished Kull story, “By this Axe, I Rule!” as a jumping off point, Howard clearly had an idea of what he wanted to do.

But he had to sell it to the market that was buying, and since Oriental Stories, the magazine he’d been selling his historical adventures to, had shuttered its submission window, he turned to his old standby, Weird Tales. “The Unique Magazine” under the editorial direction of Farnsworth Wright enjoyed a kind of nebulous distinction as a kind of catch-all for any kind of story, so long as it was weird. This included anything with a spicy suggestion, such as ice maidens wearing gossamer robes and taunting a battle-exhausted youth. “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” was made for Wright, who would recognize its classical mythic underpinnings, but would also not mind the implied slap-and-tickle of the naked girl laughing at young Conan.

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Wildside Press MEGAPACKs for Under a Buck!

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Pic_MegpackPrice1The Black Gate staff loves the pulps. Science fiction, fantasy, weird menace, horror, hardboiled, adventure, westerns — the list goes on. So much that was long out of print has come back through the efforts of imprints like Mysterious Press, Altus Press, Black Dog, Crippin & Landru, Fedogan & Bremer, Haffner Press, and more.

Coupled with the advent of ebooks, it’s a veritable gold mine for pulp fans. John Betancourt, founder of Wildside Press, has a line of ebooks under the MEGAPACK moniker. Covering all genres, they offer a plethora of pulp stories. Yes, many of the books are a mix of the wheat and the chaff, but there’s plenty of good reading to be had. At an affordable price. How affordable? Below is a list of MEGAPACKS selling for either 55 or 99 cents at Amazon. I’m not sure if that’s the regular price (I’ve paid a bit more in the past).

This is NOT a comprehensive list. I simply got tired of typing entries (and the word, ‘MEGAPACK’). But this gives you a feel for how many different collections there are. In multiple genres, as well. Look for an author, or field, you like and spend less than a buck  a volume to pick up some stories (and even novels). I’m pretty sure you’ll find something that is more than worth your money!

E Hoffman Price’s Two-Fisted Detectives (19)

The Weird Fiction MEGAPACK (25)

The Talbot Mundy MEGAPACK (28)

The Second Science Fiction MEGAPACK (25)

The William Hope Hodgson MEGPACK (35)

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Hither Came Conan: Ryan Harvey on “Hour of the Dragon”

Monday, April 29th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_HourWTCoverEDITEDWelcome back to the latest installment of Hither Came Conan, where a leading Robert E. Howard expert examines one of the original Conan stories each week, highlighting what’s best in it. Today, it’s Ryan Harvey looking at the only Conan novel, Hour of the Dragon (not Conan the Conquerer!).  And here we go!

When Robert E. Howard’s twenty-one completed Conan stories are randomly distributed to twenty-one people, each challenged to argue that their assigned work is the finest of all, it brings up some interesting questions if you’re among the twenty-one.

The chances of getting your favorite? Approximately 4.8%. The chances of getting an excellent story, even if not your favorite? Quite high, I’d say. The chances of a mediocre one are low, but there’s certain to be something interesting to mine from those mid-tier works. And there’s only a 4.8% chance of getting stuck with the worst one, “The Vale of Lost Women,” or ending up with the longest one, The Hour of the Dragon.

So before I received my assignment, I felt safe I’d end up with something interesting, although not my favorite, and one that might be a novella, but still not the longest.

Then I got The Hour of the Dragon. Which is both.

I don’t know who else may have inadvertently gotten their true favorite Conan work and therefore end up effectively not participating in this experiment of trying to promote as the best something you don’t think is the best (there’s a 95.2% chance I’m the only one). But here I am. The Hour of the Dragon is the best Conan story and I don’t have to stretch to make that sound true, because it is true. At least to me.

The Hour of the Dragon is a gigantic work: the only Conan novel Howard wrote, twice as long as the second lengthiest Conan story and twenty-two times longer than the shortest. Even though 72,000 words, short for modern fantasy novels, it contains more incidence than novels three times its length. This is a monstrous mural of fantasy, crossing much of the Hyborian kingdoms and going as far south as Stygia.

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