John Bullard on Robert E. Howard’s “Beyond the Black River”

Sunday, March 29th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Beyond the Black River-smallKeith West dropped me a note this week to alert me to the publication of an intriguing 3-part article on his blog Adventures Fantastic.

“Beyond the Black River”: Is it Really “Beyond the Brazos River”? was written by Robert E. Howard scholar John Bullard, who’s been editing Howard’s correspondence for the next edition of his collected letters. The article examines Howard’s influences when writing the classic Conan tale “Beyond the Black River,” and particularly how he drew from a famous incident in Texas history to create the ending.

I’m not a Howard scholar myself, and generally leave these debates on Howard’s sources to the experts, but Bullard’s piece weaves together fascinating tidbits from letters to H.P. Lovecraft, Carl Jacobi, and others, plus an interview with Novalyne Price Ellis, to make a compelling case for his theory. Just as interesting to me was the intimate glimpse into Howard’s creative process, and his close friendships with his fellow pulp writers. Here’s a sample:

Robert E. Howard’s Conan story, “Beyond the Black River” is considered to be one of his best stories by his fans. It tells of an attack by Howard’s favorite historical peoples, the Picts, against the encroaching colonization of the Aquilonians on the Picts’ deeply forested land between the Thunder River to the East, and the Black River to the west in his fictional Hyborian world setting…

Howard’s recounting of Texas history and characters enthralled his pen pals, and in several of the surviving letters, they encouraged him to write about this history in his fiction…. Yet, prior to the second half of 1934, Howard was unsure of how to incorporate his knowledge of the settling of the Texas frontier into his stories….

Yet sometime after writing the letter to Jacobi, Howard seems to have had a breakthrough in how to incorporate his knowledge of Texas history into his stories and began writing what is generally considered to be one of his finest stories sometime during the Summer or possibly early Fall of 1934… In a December 1934 letter to Lovecraft, Howard wrote:

“My latest sales to Weird Tales have been a two-part Conan serial: “Beyond the Black River” — a frontier story; …in the Conan story I’ve attempted a new style and setting entirely — abandoned the exotic settings of lost cities, decaying civilizations, golden domes, marble palaces, silk-clad dancing girls, etc., and thrown my story against a background of forests and rivers, log cabins, frontier outposts, buckskin-clad settlers, and painted tribesmen. Some day I’m going to try my hand at a longer yarn of the same style, a serial of four or five parts.”(Lovecraft, Dec. 1934)

We’ve discussed “Beyond the Black River,” and its importance to the modern fantasy canon, previously at Black Gate. Recent coverage includes:

Hither Came Conan: Keith West on “Beyond the Black River”
Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “Beyond the Black River”

Read John Bullard’s complete 3-part article at Adventures Fantastic, starting here.


Rogue Blades author: Robert E. Howard, Conan and Me

Friday, March 20th, 2020 | Posted by Ty Johnston

Howard changed my lifeBelow is an excerpt from author John C. Hocking’s essay for the upcoming book, Robert E. Howard Changed My Life, from publisher Rogue Blades Foundation.

I was a precocious reader.  By the time I was seven years old, guided by the taste of my father, I was reading Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, E.R. Burroughs, E.E. Smith, and Lester Dent’s Doc Savage stories.  Around this time my father, an art and history teacher, a martial artist and collector of swords, became a little frustrated that my mother was less than keen to accompany him to see a new, supposedly pretty hardboiled, Western movie called A Fistful of Dollars, so he took me.

In addition to thrusting upon my youthful eyes an unimagined example of cinematic style, the film presented a powerful vision of a highly qualified good and a frighteningly believable evil in stark conflict beyond anything I’d encountered before.  Every aspect of the movie resonated with me, but the depiction of fearsome, believably dangerous villains being faced down by a hero who was actually dangerous enough to confront and destroy them instantly made most of the reading, TV and movies I’d known seem somehow inadequate, even false.

Then, in the summer of 1967, my Dad brought me a copy of Lancer’s Conan the Adventurer.  The Frazetta cover promised much, but I read the first story in that collection, Robert E. Howard’s “The People of the Black Circle,” on a quiet sunny morning and it blew my little mind.

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Rogue Blades Presents: Out There in the Wilds with Robert E. Howard

Friday, February 21st, 2020 | Posted by Ty Johnston

Howard changed my lifePublisher Rogue Blades Foundation recently announced the upcoming release of the book Robert E. Howard Changed My Life. Below is an excerpt from author Joe R. Lansdale’s essay for the book.

You can feel so lonely, out there in the wilds.

Oh, I had my parents’ support. They were great. But it isn’t quite the same. I wanted to know other writers, meet an editor or publisher. As for an agent, I thought they worked for the CIA.

I knew this, though.

I loved books, and I wanted to write them, and I had figured out when I saw names on comic books, Bob Kane and Gardner Fox, that real people came up with this stuff, but I was told, by someone who didn’t know his butt from a hole in the ground, that everyone who wrote comics, or novels, or stories, lived in New York or Los Angeles.

I had never been to either.

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Rogue Blades Presents: What Robert E. Howard Has Meant to Me

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

Howard changed my lifeI’m rather proud of the upcoming release of the book, Robert E. Howard Changed My Life, from the Rogue Blades Foundation (RBF), a non-profit publisher with a focus on all things heroic. I happen to be a board member of RBF, so my pride comes natural. However, a book title like that gets one to thinking. I can’t help but ask myself, as a writer and editor of fantasy fiction and as a member of the RBF board, how has Robert E. Howard changed my life? What has he meant to me over the years?

In the upcoming book, plenty of people better known and more experienced than myself will answer such questions, and I have to admit, for me these are not easy questions to answer.

I have an admission to make. Robert E. Howard wasn’t my gateway author into fantasy. He wasn’t even my gateway author into sword and sorcery literature.

I’ve read everything Robert E. Howard wrote, or at least everything that’s available to us today, including the formerly unpublished works and tidbits that have been printed in recent years. Back in the day I read nearly all the Howard-related comics from the 1970s. I’ve seen all the movies, even read the book by Novalyne Price, Howard’s one-time girlfriend. I’ve seen the TV shows, played the video games. I attended Howard Days two years ago and I’m planning another trip there this year.

Still, I feel like a phony, a Robert E. Howard phony. I feel like I can never read him enough, study him enough. It’s as if this man dead nearly a century is my teacher and I can never learn enough from him about the art and science of writing.

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An Ode to Robert E. Howard, from a Rogue Blades author

Friday, January 24th, 2020 | Posted by Ty Johnston

Howard changed my lifeThis excerpt from author Cecelia Holland is taken from her essay for the upcoming book, Robert E. Howard Changed My Life, from publisher Rogue Blades Foundation.

You have to understand, being a girl in the 1950s was a complete dead end. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t play Little League or football; I couldn’t even play full court basketball. I couldn’t take shop instead of home ec. I couldn’t ride in the rumble seat of my uncle’s new car because I was too young, although my male cousin who was a week older than I got to ride in it a lot. When I asked for an erector set for Christmas, they laughed and gave me a doll.

I was gently dissuaded from thinking about having a real life when I grew up, since I would of course find some nice man to marry me and take care of me and I would spend my life raising children and washing dishes (and probably drinking like a fish, as all my aunts did, drowning their personal ambitions), so why should I even bother with college?

I did have one aunt (I had many aunts) who did have a career, for which she was broadly pitied.

I escaped. Robert E. Howard helped me escape.

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Hither Came Conan – The (Almost) Final Post

Monday, July 15th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

HIther_RoguesVallejoEDITEDEDITOR (ME, BOB)  SCREW UP – Our own Gabe Dybing brought to my attention that I forgot to run his post. He is correct! Entirely an oversight on my part. It will run next Monday morning, and I’ll update this ‘final’ listing afterwards. My fault. Sorry about that.

And so, Hither Came Conan comes to an end. Every Monday morning, from January 7th through today, July 14th, Black Gate brought you story insights from some of the most knowledgeable Robert E.  Howard writers around. And me. We covered all twenty-one completed Conan tales written by Howard: and even tossed in “Wolves Beyond the Border” for good measure!

In case you forgot, each story was randomly assigned to one essayist.  The most common comment I heard was some variation of “Thank goodness I didn’t get “Vale of Lost Women.” Unfortunately for Dave Hardy, he didn’t get to say that…

But while it’s natural that some stories are better than others, what I think this series showed, is that even a ‘bad’ story, contained some worthwhile elements. Whether it was a character, or an exciting scene, or some of his excellent prose, there’s always something worth reading in a Howard story. Or in this case, a Conan tale. Because, while he did write some stories that weren’t particularly good (“The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” almost makes my eyes bleed) Robert E. Howard was an excellent writer.

I am a fan of William Bernhardt’s The Red Sneaker Writers Book Series. Bernhardt, author of the excellent Ben Kincaid legal thriller series, has written some terrific books to help writers. And one of them is Thinking Theme. Several writers mentioned Howard’s frequent depiction of the conflict between barbarism and civilization. That theme is a powerful engine for the Conan series. Decaying civilizations, and honor and justice, were also themes Howard used Conan to comment on. “Beyond the Black River,” “The Scarlet Citadel,” “Rogues in the House”: Howard’s strong belief in theme formed foundations for his tales.

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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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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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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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Hither Came Conan: Woelf Dietrich on “Wolves Beyond the Border”

Monday, June 3rd, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Hither_Wolves1EDITEDAnd with only four stories remaining, Hither Came Conan is winding down. Of course, this series has featured a different leading Robert E. Howard expert each week, examining one of the original Conan stories each week, highlighting what’s best in it. Author Woelf Dietrich looks at the ‘most complete, incomplete’ Conan tale from Howards, “Wolves Beyond the Border.” Read on!

I am to provide proof that “Wolves Beyond the Border” is the greatest Conan story ever told by Robert E. Howard. Except that Conan never appears in the story apart from a mention or two and Howard never completed the story nor was it published in his lifetime. L. Sprague de Camp finished the fragment relying on a one-page outline discovered with the unfinished manuscript that Howard had written in the 1930s. Lancer Books published it in 1967 along with three other stories in Conan the Usurper.

So, as you can see, I find myself in a peculiar situation. A potential dilemma given the awesome essays published so far in this series. The competition for the best Conan story is a fierce one. How, then, do I convince you that this story is the best despite the absence of Conan?

Let us start with the plot, shall we?

Plot

We are introduced to “Wolves Beyond the Border” with a mini-prologue:

“The revolution progresses with hurricane speed. While knights and sergeants in gleaming mail clash in charge and counter-charge on the Aquilonian plains, civil war rages along the Pictish frontier between the partisans of Conan and those of Numedides. The Picts, naturally, see their opportunity. Here is a tale of some of the events of that strife-torn land, as told by one of the survivors of the conflict; for the Hyborian Age was a time of stirring events in many times and places, not merely those in which Conan was present.’

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