Friday, October 21, 2011
All the Robert E. Howard you can stand
This year marked what would have been the 105th birthday of Robert E. Howard, arguably the single most important literary figure in the evolution of heroic fantasy. He took his own life on June 11, 1936, leaving behind a staggeringly huge body of work, published and unpublished.
In a span of ten years, Howard wrote something like 800 stories, in every market conceivable, and in almost every story he wore his own darkest dreams and desires on his sleeve.
He was a man half in love with death, and completely under the thrall of entropy. Civilization teetering on the brink, rotting from within, seemed to be a recurring theme in his work. The corrupted Hyborian world of the Conan tales, the decayed lost cities encountered by Solomon Kane, the vanished kingdom of Atlantis that Kull once called home… these images of dying empire were a backdrop and a commentary on how Howard viewed the so-called march of progress.
His work has gone in and out of print countless times over the years, but ’06 saw the first attempts to catalogue and organize his writings in various projects from a variety of publishers. Following is a sort of guide to the available volumes; read these, and you will have read just about everything you need to read from REH. Fantasy, horror, Westerns, and historical adventure… it’s all here.
Dell Rey Ballantine Books
--THE COMING OF CONAN THE CIMMERIAN
The first of three volumes that make up the complete stories of everyone’s favorite barbarian. The publishers wisely chose to present them not in chronological order but in the order in which Howard wrote them. There’s plenty of bloodshed and swordplay; just look to some of the highlights here for evidence of that. “The Phoenix on the Sword”, “Queen of the Black Coast” and “Black Colossus” are stories set at different periods in Conan’s life, but all are creepy and action-packed.
--THE BLOODY CROWN OF CONAN
This second volume finds Howard truly hitting his stride as a storyteller and expanding on the strange world Conan occupies. It includes three longish stories, novellas really: “People of the Black Circle”, “Hour of the Dragon”, and “A Witch Shall Be Born”.
--THE CONQUERING SWORD OF CONAN
Wrapping up the complete stories of Conan with a bang, not a whimper, this volume, like the others, also includes fragments and summaries for the tales that Howard sadly never wrote. It includes the classic stories “Red Nails”, “The Black Stranger”, and “Beyond the Black River”.
--THE SAVAGE TALES OF SOLOMON KANE
Before he ever wrote a Conan tale, Howard honed his craft for this series of stories featuring Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane. Kane is a grim, dour man who views himself as a sort of ‘sword of God’, meting out justice and retribution wherever he goes… and he goes everywhere. The bulk of the stories, however, take place in darkest Africa, and are still some of the most exciting stories ever written. Some of the best: “Red Shadows”, “The Moon of Skulls”, and “The Hills of the Dead”.
--BRAN MAK MORN: THE LAST KING
Every story, published and unpublished, about Howard’s warrior Pict hero, fighting to rescue his heritage from Roman and Celtic invaders. Great battle sequences and bloody action. Highlights: “Kings of the Night”, and “Worms of the Earth”.
--KULL: EXILE OF ATLANTIS
King Kull is seen as a sort of proto-Conan, but these fast-paced stories reveal that he is a unique character, quite apart from the traits he would share with the Cimmerian later in Howard’s career. Best stories? The only two that were actually published during Howard’s lifetime: “The Shadow Kingdom” and “The Mirrors of Tuzun”.
University of Nebraska Press
(This publisher has performed the great service of putting out a wealth of Howard material, much of it out of print for decades, that is unrelated for the most part to his more famous series characters. Thanks, U of N!)
--LORD OF SAMARCAND & OTHER ADVENTURE TALES OF THE OLD ORIENT
These are some of the best and most memorable of Howard’s stories. He was a tremendous reader of history, and it shows in this collection of adventures that take place in “the Orient”—the Near East, really, in the time of the Crusades. Christians battle Saracens in a series of wars that no one can win, and Howard’s cynicism about civilization is readily apparent here. Also, as in the Bran Mak Morn tales, he displays very admirably a gift for huge, vivid battle sequences. Favorites: the title story, “Lords of Samarcand”, as well as “Red Blades of Black Cathay” and “Shadow of the Vulture”.
--THE BLACK STRANGER & OTHER AMERICAN TALES
Terrific stories, tied together by the American setting they all have in common. Atmospheric horror is the main theme here, something that Howard did every bit as well—perhaps better—than Lovecraft. Stand-out stories: “Pigeons From Hell”, “Black Canaan” and “The Horror from the Mound”.
--END OF THE TRAIL: WESTERN STORIES
Howard wrote some of his darkest, grimmest work for Western pulps like Cowboy Stories. This volume collects the very best of them, and a bleaker collection of stories would be harder to find. Some of the more outstanding tales: “The Vultures of Whapeton”, “The Man on the Ground” and “Judgment of the Desert”.
--THE RIOT AT BUCKSNORT & OTHER WESTERN TALES
And the flip side of those grim Western stories: Howard displays his sense of humor. The stories in this volume are tall tales in the tradition of Pecos Bill, the majority of them featuring the tank-like Breckinridge Elkins, a hero who isn’t very bright but doesn’t really need to be. Funny, violent, and over-the-top. Most hysterical: “A Gent From Bear Creek”.
Aside from history, Howard’s one other great passion was boxing, and he made a point of writing as much as he could for the sports pulps. These were adventure stories with many different ports of call, but the boxing theme ran through all of them. Sailor Steve Costigan is the central character in most of the stories, a rowdy roughneck who never finds himself in any jam that his fists can’t get him out of. Manliest stories: “Fists of the Desert”, “The Bull Dog Breed”, and “Iron Man” (that last being a pretty somber little story).
THE WEIRD WORKS OF ROBERT E. HOWARD
(Probably the most ambitious Howard-related project ever, Wildside Press is in the process of publishing every single story Howard ever wrote for Weird Tales magazine, and a few for some related mags as well. Ten volumes when all is said and done. As of this writing, seven are available in very handsome hardcover editions, and the first three are out in affordable trade paperback.
There is some overlap from the collections described above, but not as much as you might think).
The available volumes are as follows:
--Moon of Skulls
--People of the Dark
--Wings in the Night
--Valley of the Worm
--The Garden of Fear
--Beyond the Black River
And that’s probably enough REH to keep even the most die-hard fans busy for quite some time, don’t you think? So until our civilization begins to crumble and decay (or am I too late?), enjoy this nearly comprehensive selection of stories by the great Robert E. Howard.