Lamps Expire, and Return: Ruminations on Robert E. Howard and the Modern Writer

My earliest memories of Robert E. Howard and his work were the Savage Swords of Conan at the local convenience store that were big enough to hide a copy of Playboy’s Playmate Review.  These black and white comics were tales of a sword wielding bad ass killing monsters. Add a few naked girls, both real and imagined, an you had the wonderful greasy kid adventure mana that I loved to read on Sundays before we headed back to school.

Of course, there was also the movie, with Arnie, which also became epic in my childhood. For a kid playing a lot of Dungeons and Dragons, Conan in any form was something you had to know.

But the actual stories, like the author, were mysterious. When I became a teenager and scavenged in used book stores with older friends, you’d find stacks of ripped and battle worn collections of Robert E. Howard. Almost always Conan books, but sometimes other ones. His name was spoke of amongst my circle of friends with a sort of hip reverence. Like, sure, hippies liked Lord of the Rings, but the works of Robert E. Howard were much more dangerous. Violent. Sexual. Intense.  The kind of stories that would scare Frodo of the Nine Fingers shitless.

How odd that we all thought he was British. There was something about his presence that made us all assume this pulp writer from Texas was somehow related to the literary world of JRR Tolkien.

Howard vanished from my life as music became my obsession. But when I got the writing bug in 1999, his name began to surface again. He was a major influence on many writers whose work I was starting to enjoy, like Stephen King and Joe R. Lansdale.

And while working at a bookstore, I saw we had a copy of THE SAVAGE TALES OF SOLOMON KANE. I had no idea Howard had another character, one to warrant a collection. So I bought it, and, while in the wake of a personal trauma, devoured all of it.  I loved every overdone adverb and other tag of purple prose because it was such a wild ride, a weird world, a commanding character, intense as a searing hot shot to the kidney.

Then I read about his life, growing up in the dirty thirties, working rough jobs and trying to make it as a writer of short fiction, his self education and dedication, his weird relationship with his mother, and his one true love, Novalyn Price, and his tragic succumbing to depression and suicide. I was astounded to discover that Howard’s life had been the subject of an independent film with Vince D’Nofrino and Rene Zellwigger in her first major film debut.

THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD knocked me out. One of my favorite films, even if the ending is tragic and sad (though with a note of hope). The man’s life as a writer was as dramatic as his fiction, or so it would seem. His ostricization from the locals, his friendship with other mainstays of Weird Tales such as HP Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. His love of boxing and history.

Like a lot of young writers who love the fantastic, love history, and dream of making a career out fiction by dint of talent and a savage work ethic, I related to Robert E. Howard. I still do.  And even if his sad end to his life is tragic, I find him inspiring still. The poetry of his fast paced stories, his relentless momentum, his colorful worlds. I loved Lord of the Rings, but I never pined to visit Middle Earth. But Howard’s less comprehensive but endlessly more colorful Hyborian age captivates me still. His horror stories, his boxing tales, his sea adventures, his historical. Howard was a relentless writer. One who’s vast body of work continues to engage and inspire me.

Not all of this work was grand, though. Like all working writers of the pulp era, much of it was journeyman work, some of it even less so. And weaved within the tales are also outdated and occasional biased or racial attitudes that make you wince, though such attitudes were not nearly as prevelant in the mind of Howard as those of other writers of this era (Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack London, and Lovecraft come to mind). But even in his lesser works, where he is clearly singing below his range, one feels that Howard is actually trying his damndest to entertain, to evoke a reaction, to make a connection.

As the world of publishing continues to change, I often wonder if the e-book frontier has much in common with the pulp days of old. Not the business model. But the work model. Successes seem to be coming from a lot of those with a Howardian work ethic, though perhaps not with as deep a pool of talent: Howard’s work has been with us for eighty years and infiltrated pop culture so that generations who never knew his name would know Conan or Solomon Kane. Time will tell if folks hammering the keys in the neo pulp frontier will be able to last that long. Perhaps not. Howard, by dint of his relentless imagination and work ethic, was a pioneer. He reconfigured myth, historical, and tales of the fantastic into the genre we call “sword and sorcery”. The two-fisted tale spinner from Cross Plains has boots too big to fill. So whem thinking of Howard’s influence and inspiration on me, I recall the famous words of Basho: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought.”

Perhaps my very own Conan, or Kane, or Kull or Red Sonja or Hyboria is lurking  around the corner. We shall see, true believers. We shall see.

JSR

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About ridlerville

Jason S. Ridler is a historian, writer, and improv actor. He is the author of A TRIUMPH FOR SAKURA, BLOOD AND SAWDUST, the Spar Battersea thrillers and has published over sixty stories in such magazines and anthologies as The Big Click, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Out of the Gutter, and more. He also writes the column FXXK WRITING! for Flash Fiction Online. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He lives in Richmond, CA. Visit him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/jason.ridler.56
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