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Category: Robert E. Howard

IMHO: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF SWORD & SORCERY AND HEROIC FANTASY

IMHO: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF SWORD & SORCERY AND HEROIC FANTASY

Weird Tales featuring “Devil in Iron” by Robert E. Howard, art by Margaret Brundage (~1934); Conan the Conqueror by REH and Lyon Sprague de Camp, art by Frazetta (~1967);  The Road of Kings by Karl Edward Wagner art by Matt Stawicki (1979); Kothar of the Magic Sword by Gardner F. Fox, art by Jeff Jones (~1969)

The Evolving and Cloned Barbarian

Conan, King Kull, Cormac, Bran Mak Morn — names that conjure magic, characters often imitated, but never duplicated. These creations of Robert E. Howard (circa 1930) started the Sword and Sorcery boom of the 1960s and early 1970s. Then there are the barbarian warriors inspired by Howard — “Clonans,” as one writer recently referred to these sword-slinging, muscle-bound characters. A fair observation, but in some cases, not so true.

I prefer to think of these “Clonan” tales of wandering barbarian heroes as “Barbarian Solo” adventures because the majority of these characters are lone wolves, without sidekicks or even recurring companions. This is a big part of their appeal, in fact, and in their own way, they are reminiscent of many cinematic westerns. I’ve read many, if not most, of the early Conan pastiches, including the novels based on Howard’s other creations. Karl Edward Wagner’s, Poul Anderson’s, and Andy Offutt’s portrayals of the Cimmerian come within a sword’s stroke of Howard’s original vision. L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, in commodifying the character, arranged the long, informal saga of Conan in chronological order and, by extenuating these adventures with dozens more, made of Howard’s creation a long-form series similar to the episodic success of a television show on a prolonged run of diminishing returns. For some readers, however, the advantage of this development is that it provided a sort of character arc as Conan grows from a youth to an older man.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Porch Pulp #1

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Porch Pulp #1

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

I did six Back Deck Pulp installments. If you don’t know what that was – I had a great back deck at my former house. I would sit out there and read a lot. Mostly pulp stuff, but other things too. And I would take a pic of the book/or rarely, on my Kindle); trying to include some of my yard, or deck, and my leg or knee (hey – it was just a thing). And I’d talk about what I was reading. Usually sharing info about the author.

They were fun little things to share what I liked reading. And often it was a plug for an upcoming A (Black) Gat in the Hand post. I’m in an apartment now, with a small concrete slab back porch. With winter, and then the brutal heat of June, now behind us, I’m getting out there to read a little more. So, Back Porch Pulp makes its debut as Back Deck Pulp’s successor. Enjoy!

JACK HIGGINS

Back Deck Pulp has been re-branded. Back Porch Pulp. I read a $1.99 Jack Higgins ebook, “Comes the Dark Stranger.”

I have 49 Higgins books on the shelves: I’m a fan. That one was ‘meh.’ Predictable and not that exciting.

I’m a big fan of his WW II historical fiction stuff. And the first dozen Sean Dillon books.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thrilling Adventures from Robert E. Howard

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thrilling Adventures from Robert E. Howard

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

Two weeks ago, we followed Robert E. Howard out of our usual mean streets, and into the Shudder Pulps. Two-Gun Bob was our tour guide again last week, as we wandered into Spicy Adventures territory. Howard is a great guide through the pulps, and this week, Kirby O’Donnell takes us to the Adventure Pulps.

Robert E. Howard sold his first story in 1925, with “Spear and Fang” appearing in the July issue of Weird Tales. One of Howard’s first characters, written as a young teen, was a Texas gunslinger who roamed the wilds of Afghanistan and neighboring areas. Francis Xavier Gordon, who would be better known as El Borak (The Swift) was Howard’s attempt to get into the higher paying, prestigious pulps, like Argosy, and Adventure.

Unfortunately, that turned out to be an unassailable market for Howard, and he did not get his first adventure story published until late 1934. At the peak of his writing skill, he would, sadly, be dead in less than two years. And it wasn’t a more developed El Borak that got Howard into the market. It was a very similar, less complex character named Kirby O’Donnell.

My REH friend Dave Hardy has written two excellent articles on El Borak and Howard’s gunslingers of the Near East. The definitive essay on the topic is in the Del Rey El Borak and other Adventures collection. And you can find the other here at Black Gate, in our Discovering Robert E. Howard series.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Spicy Adventures from Robert E. Howard

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Spicy Adventures from Robert E. Howard

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

Last week, we followed Robert E. Howard out of our usual mean streets, and into the Shudder Pulps. Well, Two-Gun Bob is our tour guide again this week, as we wander into Spicy Adventures territory. I’m kinda liking this REH theme, and I’ll see if I can’t follow up with a story from the boxing pulps, and maybe an Oriental adventure (which is not what we think of from that title, today).

In the early Pulp days, girlie magazines were known as ‘smooshes.’ The Great Depression hit them hard – just as with all the other pulps. And, they were under attack from civic and morality groups, as well.

In April of 1934, pulp publisher Harry Donenfeld, with editor Frank Armer (Donenfeld had previously bought out that struggling publisher, then hired him) created the Spicy Pulp formula with Spicy Detective Stories. Under the Culture Publications masthead, it took the type of hardboiled crime stories in popular pulps like Black Mask, and Dime Detective, and added in the racy elements of the smoosh mags. Picture Sam Spade leaving no doubt that he bedded a scantily-clad Brigid O’Shaughnessyy in his apartment.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Weird Menace from Robert E. Howard

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Weird Menace from Robert E. Howard

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

My area of expertise is the hardboiled/Pi genre. But today, we’ll jump over to the ‘shudder pulps.’ In 1933, Popular Publications (Harry Steeger) switched the ailing Dime Mystery over to a new, weird menace format. This started a short fun of success for that pulp sub-genre. Popular jumped in with both feet, shortly after launching Terror Tales, and then Horror Stories. As the tone shifted from weird, eerie, menacing elements to torture, depravity and sadism, a public outcry arose against these shudder pulps and the sub-genre died in the early forties.

Robert E. Howard, always looking for new markets, succeeded in placing “Black Talons” in the December, 1933 issue of Strange Detective Stories. “Fangs of Gold” (a Steve Harrison tale) followed there in February of 1934. Another Harrison story, “The Tomb’s Secret, was in that same February issue, under the pseudonym, Patrick Ervin.

Assuming he was actually getting paid (something that happened with irregularity from Weird Tales), this was a good market for Howard. “Dead Man’s Doom,” the next Harrison story, was slated for the March, 1934 issue. And then, the magazine folded. The story wouldn’t see print until 1978 as “Lord of the Dead” in the Sukll-Face paperback.

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All My Robert E. Howard Essays

All My Robert E. Howard Essays

I am the in-house mystery guy (that’s how I hoodwinked John O’Neill into giving me a weekly column. Eight years later, he’s still trying to configure the Fire Wall to keep me from getting up my Monday morning post! I organized the Discovering Robert E. Howard, and Hither Came Conan series’ here at Black Gate. And contributed, of course. That’s the advantage of being in charge of them!

Robert E. Howard is my second-favorite writer (trailing only the terrific John D. MacDonald), and I’ve written quite a bit about him here at Black Gate. With more to come, of course. I’ve got part of a series written, in which I’ll look at the first dozen of Roy Thomas’ Conan the Barbarian comics; including how the series came about. And I’m pretty sure Solomon Kane will succeed Hither Came Conan in the all star contributor series.

I came late to Howard. I have loved mythology since grade school. The Iliad remains one of my all-time favorite stories, and I have a copy of Schleimann’s Ilios. That led me to Dungeons and Dragons in Middle School, and I know I was reading The Lord of the Rings somewhere around the 8th grade. I was a fantasy fan for life.

I bought the first Ace Conan paperback, but it sat on my shelf, unread. Not sure why. I know I read David C. Smith’s Oron, but not that one. As my son was playing with the Thomas the Train layout in the kids section of Barnes and Noble one day, I started reading the first Dely Rey Conan book. I read that the next time we were there. And I bought it. And Robert E. Howard would move up the ranks of my favorite writers, as I bought more Del Reys. Conan still holds the top REH spot, followed by El Borak, and then Solomon Kane. But I just continued to like Robert E. Howard, more and more.

I’m off to my first-ever Howard Days in a few days! It’s gonna be great!!  Here are all of my own Robert E. Howard-related essays here at Black Gate. A couple are pretty good, I think. Mostly in the first two sections below. Check out a couple, please. By Crom!

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Richard L. Tierney’s Sorcery Against Caeser; Review and Tour Guide of Simon of Gitta’s Sica & Sorcery!

Richard L. Tierney’s Sorcery Against Caeser; Review and Tour Guide of Simon of Gitta’s Sica & Sorcery!

Sorcery Against Caesar: The Complete Simon of Gitta Short Stories (cover art by Steven Gilberts) Pickman’s Press, 2020, 405pages.

Greg Mele recently paid tribute to Richard L. Tierney at Black Gate. That memorial post covers the author’s life and bibliography very well, so check that out; Tierney co-authored books with David C. Smith will be echoed here. The Goodreads S&S group is hosting a two-month group read of his work presently (March-April 2022), which spurred me to read Scroll of Thoth; Simon Magus and the Great Old Ones.

That book lingered way too long on my shelf. It was packaged as horror influenced by history, with a mage protagonist; however, having read it now, I argue that it is more Fantasy than Horror or Historical Fiction. If assigning genre categories floats your boat, then Sword & Sorcery is more accurate.

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Vintage Treasures: The Gods of Bal-Sagoth by Robert E. Howard

Vintage Treasures: The Gods of Bal-Sagoth by Robert E. Howard


The Gods of Bal-Sagoth (Ace, 1979). Cover by Sanjulian

I didn’t discover Robert E. Howard through Conan. In fact, it was decades after I started reading fantasy before I read my first Conan story (“The Tower of the Elephant,” for the record.)

No, it was Howard’s rich fiction collections from Ace Books in the late 70s and early 80s that really introduced me to the master of 20th Century sword & sorcery. They were filled with enthralling tales of blood-stained history, dark adventure, and unexpected horror, like “Worms of the Earth,” “Pigeons From Hell,” and “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth.”

And those gorgeous Sanjulian covers!

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Vintage Treasures: Swords Against Darkness edited by Andrew J. Offutt

Vintage Treasures: Swords Against Darkness edited by Andrew J. Offutt


Swords Against Darkness (Zebra Books, February 1977). Cover  by Frank Frazetta

Sword Against Darkness was a seminal five-volume sword & sorcery anthology series edited by Andrew J. Offutt in the late seventies (1977-79). It published original fantasy by some of the biggest names of the era, including Andre Norton, Tanith Lee, Keith Taylor, Charles de Lint, Charles R. Saunders, Orson Scott Card, Simon R. Green, David C. Smith, Robert E. Vardeman, Darrell Schweitzer, Diana L. Paxson, and many others.

The first volume appeared in early 1977, and it was one of the strongest original fantasy anthologies of the decade, packed full of tales of the haunted Roman frontier, a plague of giants, the wily goddess of Chance, the last survivor of Atlantis, Lovecraftian horrors, scheming demons, resourceful rogues facing evil spirits, and much more. It included a Simon of Gitta novelette by Richard L. Tierney, a powerful Robert E. Howard fragment completed by Andrew J. Offutt, plus Poul Anderson, Manly Wade Wellman, David Drake, Ramsey Campbell, and many others.

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Conan’s Father: William Smith, 1933-2021

Conan’s Father: William Smith, 1933-2021

William Smith

We all have our end-of-year rituals, those small ceremonies that prepare us to ring out the old year and ring in the new. For me, one of the most important is watching the current TCM Remembers, the annual short film with which Turner Classic Movies bids farewell to the film people that we’ve lost throughout the year. It’s always beautifully done, and it always makes me tear up, usually no more the thirty seconds in.

Some of its subjects — the more famous ones — come as no surprise, as I heard about their deaths when they occurred during the year. There will always be many people, though, that I only find out about when I watch the video, late in December. This year one of the people that I didn’t know was gone was William Smith, who died July 5th at the age of eighty-eight.

William Smith? Who was William Smith? Oh, you know him — I guarantee it. To say that he was a prolific actor is to greatly understate the case. He has two hundred and seventy-five movie and television credits listed on IMDB, the first a miniscule part in 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein when he was nine years old and the last in 2020, in the Steve Carell comedy Irresistible.

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