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Rogue Blades author: Kosru’s Road

Rogue Blades author: Kosru’s Road

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 Presents: What Would Your Hero Say to You?

Rogue Blades Presents: What Would Your Hero Say to You?

weird talesWhen I started out as a writer of fiction in the late 1980s, one of my favorite magazines was Weird Tales. Over the next decade or so, I submitted a half dozen stories to Weird Tales, none of which were ever accepted for publication. Still, even though none of my tales ever landed there, I learned a lot from the letters I received from one of the editors, George H. Scithers.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Mr. Scithers. If not, surely you’ve heard of some of his work. He was the first editor for Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, for which he won two Hugo awards. He was also editor at Amazing Stories, and of numerous anthologies. At Weird Tales, he won a World Fantasy Award along with Darrell Schweitzer. He was known among writers and readers and editors.

Unfortunately we lost Mr. Scithers a decade ago, but his legacy lives on in the work he produced and in fandom. Many of today’s readers probably don’t even realize how much they owe to this gentleman.

And “gentleman” is not a word I use lightly. I never knew Mr. Scithers personally. He and I never met. I can’t speak to his everyday attitudes and demeanor. Yet he was always kind and supportive in the reply letters he wrote back to me as a budding writer. He always had good things to say while not being afraid to point out where I needed to polish. He could be critical without being overbearing and negative, a trait that seems lost in today’s world. Also, I’ve met with or had correspondence with other people who actually did know or had at least met Mr. Scithers, and every single one of those individuals has had good things to say about George. So I feel my calling him a “gentleman” is most apt, especially as every correspondence I had with him was most friendly and congenial.

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Rogue Blades Presents: It’s a Time for Heroes

Rogue Blades Presents: It’s a Time for Heroes

the-lost-empire-of-sol-front-cover-smallIn a matter of weeks, months, it has become a different world. Even within the confines of speculative literature and what’s oft referred to as nerd or geek culture, there have been big changes. For instance, disappointing to those of us who had planned to attend this year, Howard Days in Cross Plains, Texas, has been canceled, as have hundreds of conventions and gatherings across the globe. Closer to home for me, a board member of Rogue Blades Foundation, a nonprofit publisher focusing on all things heroic, we have had to push back to 2021 publication of the book Robert E. Howard Changed My Life (though The Lost Empire of Sol is still expected to be published next month).

Now don’t think this is grousing, complaining. I’m merely pointing out how some of the world has changed of late. For that matter, some of the changes aren’t all bad.

As a writer and editor, I normally work from home, so all this isolation most of us are having to contend with of late isn’t new to me. What is new for me is that everybody else is home. Including all my online gaming buddies. And most of them don’t seem to be working at home. Which means they have lots of time for Dungeons & Dragons. Which means I have lots of time for Dungeons & Dragons. And other games. Which means I’m getting less work done than usual.

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

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

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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What I’ve Been Reading Lately: December/2019

What I’ve Been Reading Lately: December/2019

Oden_MenBronzeEDITED“What have I been reading lately, you ask?” Oh. You didn’t say that. Well, I’m going to tell you anyways.  When I ‘get into’ something, I jump in full-bore for a short time: up way past my elbows. That’s how most of my series’ here at Black Gate start. Fortunately, I can be reading a couple different books simultaneously, and I also listen to audiobooks to help cover more ground (though I ALWAYS prefer reading to listening).

SCOTT ODEN

And I recently went on a short Sword and Sandals kick. Scott Oden and I have become friends through our mutual love of Robert E. Howard: he did the “Devil in Iron” entry for Hither Came Conan. I grabbed the digital version of Men of Bronze (a STEAL at $3.99!). It’s historical fiction (non-fantasy) set in 529 BC in ancient Egypt. It’s near the end of the time of the Pharaohs and Egypt is trying to hold off the encroaching Persian Empire. As is often the case with faltering empires, it is relying heavily on mercenaries to keep order.

Hasdrabal Barca is the protagonist; the deadliest mercenary of them all, leading the fight to stop the betrayal of Greek mercenaries, and the ambitious Persians. I had trouble keeping the various names straight, but I very much liked this book. It’s got a grand sweep, and I love Scott’s depiction of Egypt. There’s a rough scene early on, but fortunately, that not the norm for the rest of the book. Much recommended. I also bought his Greek historical novel, Memnon, at the same time (same price). It’s on my massive To Read list.

HOWARD ANDREW JONES

Of course, I couldn’t just read one book of a type, and move on. That’s not me! Howard Andrew Jones was Black Gate’s first Managing Editor (a post recently assumed by Seth Lindberg) and is currently receiving rave reviews for his epic fantasy, The Ring-Sworn Trilogy. I had not yet read his two fantasy Sword and Sorcery novels, featuring the wise and learned scholar Dabir and the brave man of action, Asim (I was not totally unfamiliar with them – more on that below).

So, I got the audiobook for Desert of Souls, the first novel. The adventures take place in a fantasy-real version of Arabia, with sorcery and monsters. And there’s a Robert E. Howard Easter Egg near the end. I like the main characters, and their world, so I have started on the audio book of Bones of the Old Ones.

I had already read The Waters of Eternity; a collection of six short stories featuring the two men. I re-read it, and I actually prefer it to the novels. They are really mysteries, set in that fantasy Arabia. I like the mix of fantasy and detective work, and also the shorter length. You should check them out.

NORBERT DAVIS

For months, I have been listening repeatedly, to an audiobook of the five Max Latin short stories. I simply never get tired of them. The woefully under-appreciated Davis, who I wrote about last week, as well as last year, is on my Harboiled Mt. Rushmore. And the stories about the not-as-crooked-as-he-pretends Latin are the best of the bunch. I listen and read them throughout the year.

I also picked up volumes one and two of The Complete Cases of Bail Bond Dodd, the first series character that Davis created for Dime Detective Magazine. The Dodd and Latin collections are from Steeger Books. You should be reading some Davis.

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Hither Came Conan: Fred Adams on “The Black Stranger”

Hither Came Conan: Fred Adams on “The Black Stranger”

Gary Gianni
Gary Gianni

Welcome 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. Fred Adams talks about “The Black Stranger.” Which was a story that Howard failed to get published, was rewritten without Conan, and still rejected. Fred takes a brand new look at the story. Read on!

Conan as Picaro in “The Black Stranger”

There are days when I ask myself whether Robert E. Howard didn’t sneak away for four years and earn a degree in English Letters when I encounter his facility with literary tropes and conventions. Many would suggest that the influence of the great western writers rubbed off on him from his omnivorous reading, others simply that he labored past mediocrity to instinctively hone his considerable skills at writing, recognizing what worked and what did not.

Whichever the case, he made good use of a variety of literary conventions and techniques, as David C. Smith elaborates in his Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography. One that I have noticed specifically is his use of the picaresque mode of the novel. A good example is his experimentation with the form in the Conan story “The Black Stranger.”

Harmon and Holman’s A Handbook to Literature, Seventh Edition defines “Picaresque Novel” at great length:

“A chronicle, usually autobiographical, presenting the life story of a rascal of low degree engaged in menial tasks and making his living more through his wits than his industry. The picaresque novel tends to be episodic and structureless. The picaro, or central figure, through various pranks and predicaments and by his associations with people of varying degree, affords the author an opportunity for satire of the social classes. Romantic in the sense of being an adventure story, the picaresque novel nevertheless is strongly marked by realism in petty detail and by uninhibited expression.” (389)

To call Conan a “rascal of low degree” is mild at best, but to say that he lives “more through his wits than his industry” seems close to his nature. Conan is a barbarian with no social standing whatsoever who lives by his wits as a thief, a reaver, and a warrior. True to the form, he begins the story in a loincloth running for his life from a tribe of savages. By the time the tale ends, Conan has attained the kingly position of leader of the Red Brotherhood, and possessed of enough wealth that he gives a bag of rubies worth a fortune to Belesa saying, “What are a handful of gems to me, when all the loot of the southern seas will be mine for the grasping?”

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Hither Came Conan: Keith West on “Beyond the Black River”

Hither Came Conan: Keith West on “Beyond the Black River”

Gregory Manchess for Del Rey's 'The Conquering Sword of Conan'
Gregory Manchess for Del Rey’s ‘The Conquering Sword of Conan’

Welcome 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. Keith West (love his Adventures Fantastic blog) landed one of my favorites, “Beyond the Black River.”

I. Introduction

“Beyond the Black River” is the best Conan story. There are several reasons why.  First, there is plenty of action.  It’s well choreographed and the pacing is superb.  Unlike some of the Conan stories, which are simply adventures stories (not that there’s anything wrong with simple adventure stories), this one contains quite a bit of philosophizing.  Finally, the structure of the story is such that not only do we see Conan through the eyes of the supporting cast, Howard gives us enough information to place the Conan of this story in the context of the rest of the stories. We’ll look at each of these strengths. And just so you know, there will be spoilers.

 

II. The Action

The story opens with a young man named Balthus heading through the region known as Conajohara towards a fort on the Black River.  He’s not sure if he wants to join the garrison there as a recruit or try to clear some land and build a cabin. Although a competent woodsman by the standards of the Bossonian Marches, he’s out of his league in the wilderness, as he soon learns. Conan saves his life from a Pict who’s been watching him.

Balthus was completely unaware of both Conan and the Pict. On their way back to the fort, they come across the headless body of a merchant. Hearing something in the forest, Conan throws his ax at it but misses. Conan tells Balthus that the commander of the fort had recently imprisoned a Pict sorcerer named Zogar Sag who had stolen some liquor and drank enough that he passed out before he made it back across the Black River. They should have either killed him or let him go with gifts since imprisoning a Pict is a mortal insult.

Now Zogar Sag has summoned some type of demon. It has been killing men one by one and removing their heads. Conan and Balthus reach the fort and learn that Zogar Sag has managed to unite the quarreling Pict into a massive army. He plans to wipe out all the Aquilonian settlements from the Black River all the way back to Thunder River and beyond. Conan leads a small group across the Black River to reconnoiter.  All but Conan and Balthus are wiped out.

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Hither Came Conan: James McGlothlin on “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”

Hither Came Conan: James McGlothlin on “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”

Manuel Perez Clemente (Sanjulian)
Manuel Perez Clemente (Sanjulian)

Welcome 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. James McGlothlin drew “The Servants of Bit Yakin” in our Hyborian lottery.

“The Servants of Bit-Yakin” is the best Conan story ever written by Robert E. Howard!

Or at least that’s my assignment (given to me by Bob Byrne) to convince you of such.

Here we go!

If you are familiar with the Conan canon, you will probably think my task quite a challenge. Case in point: The late Fritz Leiber, one of the greatest sword and sorcery writers of all time, and someone who clearly admired Howard’s Conan tales, rated “The Servants of Bit-Yakin” among the worst of the Conan stories ever written calling it “repetitious and childish, a self-vitiating brew of pseudo-science, stage illusions, and the ‘genuine’ supernatural” (“Fantasy Books”, Fantastic, May 1968, p. 143). Oh boy! With such an authoritative voice weighing in on the supposed poor quality of “Bit Yakin”, I have quite the task set before me. But before getting on to my attempt to convince you that this story is the best Conan story ever written by Howard, let’s get a little background on the tale first.

Though originally titled by Robert E. Howard as “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”, it first appeared in Weird Tales, March 1935 as “Jewels of Gwahlur”. The story was later reprinted in King Conan (Gnome Press, 1953), Conan the Warrior (Lancer Books, 1967), as well as various other later collections. Also, Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano famously adapted it for Marvel Comic’s Savage Sword of Conan #25 in 1977 and the story also later appeared in Dark Horse comics in 2005. This story has some legs; so perhaps it’s better than Leiber thought!

It’s hard to quickly summarize “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”. But I will try to be as brief as I can with the following.

We begin the story with Conan heroically climbing a rock face. In typical Howard fashion, it is clearly communicated how impossible this would be for any normal human being to do the same. But for Conan, with his panther-like strength, it seems not much harder than a jog in the park. While climbing though, Conan comes across a small cave with a mummy holding an inscribed parchment. Conan grabs this ancient document and then completes his climb (the parchment comes into play later). At the top Conan finds on the other side of the cliffs the ancient ruins of the city of Alkmeenon.

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By Crom! Conan: Adventures In An Age Undreamed Of Q&A With Jason Durall

By Crom! Conan: Adventures In An Age Undreamed Of Q&A With Jason Durall

Conan_AdventuresPG[I’ve talked about Modiphius’ RPG, Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. Fellow Black Gater Gabe Dybing and I (with some help from Martin Page) were excited to attempt a series of posts, chronicling our online campaign, but, as is often the case, real life got in the way. Here’s the first post, which talks about the game

Even though we didn’t get beyond the first encounter, I’ve remained a fan of the Conan RPG and have read much of the material (I was a Kickstarter backer). Jason Durall, who wrote an excellent entry on “Xuthal of the Dusk” for Hither Came Conan, is the Line Editor for the game (he is also Line Editor for the venerable Runequest). He was kind enough to do a Q&A for Black Gate. Read on!]

Mongoose certainly produced a LOT of content for the two editions of its 3rd Edition Conan RPG line. What impelled Modiphius to bring out a new Conan RPG? And at this particular time?

Modiphius was already partnering with Cabinet Entertainment with Mutant Chronicles 3rd Edition and other properties, and when the opportunity for Conan was discussed, it was an obvious choice. To distinguish this new version, very early we made the decision that it should incorporate only REH context and new material derived from that, and be produced with deep involvement from leading REH scholars from the beginning. As for timing, it seemed right for a definitive Conan game.

(Editor – While I enjoy many of the pastiches, by various authors – some of which I discussed here – I admire their decision to work from Howard’s source material)

And it was a great bonus for the kickstarter that backers got PDFs of ALL the Mongoose Conan line. How did that come about?

Cabinet owns the rights to all part work done with the Conan IP, so they had the rights to the Mongoose catalog. We had many Kickstarters who were fans of that game, and it seemed a nice benefit to provide.

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Hither Came Conan: Scott Oden on “The Devil In Iron”

Hither Came Conan: Scott Oden on “The Devil In Iron”

Boris Vallejo for 'Conan the Wanderer'
Boris Vallejo for ‘Conan the Wanderer’

There is a weird synchronicity at work, here, Gentle Readers.  Between the time when Bob Byrne solicited a few of us for this series and him handing out our story assignments, I wrote a Conan novella for Marvel (currently being serialized in the pages of the renewed Savage Sword of Conan, over a span of twelve issues).  Specifically, it is a sequel to Robert E. Howard’s “The Devil in Iron”.  Then, a few days later, I received my randomly selected story assignment from the good Mr. Byrne.  My story?  “The Devil in Iron.”  Thus, the gods have spoken . . .

“The Devil in Iron” marked Howard’s return to the Hyborian Age after an absence of about six months.  Written in the autumn of 1933, it employs a technique common to pulp-era writers in that Howard cannibalized plot elements of his own previous stories – the eerie resurrected villain á la “Black Colossus” (also used in The Hour of the Dragon); the greenish stone ruins from “Xuthal of the Dusk” (AKA, “The Slithering Shadow”); the sentient iron statues from “Iron Shadows in the Moonlight”; and even stylistic echoes from “Queen of the Black Coast.”

Howard sent the story off to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales, who accepted it for publication on December 14, 1933.  It appeared in the August 1934 issue.  The story was lurid enough to take top billing, with Margaret Brundage providing one of her signature covers – this one depicting a rather anemic-looking Conan against a black background, struggling in the grips of a giant serpent while a gauzily-clad woman swooned at his feet.  Hugh Rankin illustrated the story itself.

It is a fairly straightforward tale, if a bit formulaic.  According to both Patrice Louinet and Howard Andrew Jones, who are scholars of Howard and his sources, it’s one of the few stories of the Conan canon that displays the clear and overt influence author Harold Lamb had over Howard.

Lamb wrote primarily for Adventure, his tales of Cossacks and crusaders fitting nicely with the works of Talbot Mundy, Rafael Sabatini, Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur and Farnham Bishop, and Arthur D. Howden-Smith.  These were Robert Howard’s inspirations – writers of what we’d call today pure historical fiction.  REH wrote what he knew he could sell, or what he believed had a good chance of selling; though he’d rather have spent his days writing the kinds of tales he loved from Adventure, it was proving a difficult market to break into. But, he knew by adding a splash of the Weird to the same rollicking adventure yarns, Weird Tales’ editor Farnsworth Wright would more than likely buy it.

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