01/12/2009. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy
pub: Del Rey/Ballantine Books. 506 page enlarged paperback. Price: $18.00 (US), $21.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-49020-9.
check out website: www.delreydigital.com
Just as Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke were the big three of Golden Age Science Fiction so Howard, Lovecraft and Smith were the big three of Golden Age horror and fantasy fiction, albeit a couple of decades earlier. Just as Paul McCartney is forever an 'ex-Beatle' so, too, will Robert E. Howard have 'creator of Conan' appended to his name until the stars grow cold. But he did loads of other stuff, too, in his short, productive career. This big volume 500 pages of small print which will took me ages to read, features his horror stories and some poems. I'm not sure if it's all of them but if it is not and does not claim to be, a selection of the best. The good stuff more than compensates for the few clunkers.
Furthermore, since the stories appear in the order in which they were written, the clunkers come early. The first tale 'In The Forests Of Vilefere' has a man encounter a stranger in a dark forest. The stranger turns into a wolf and attacks him. That's it. The second, 'Wolf's Head', is about another chap who turns into a wolf and kills people. It is set in Africa and has too large a cast for a short story. These are from 1925 and 1926 but Howard soon developed and started turning out good stuff and memorable characters. 'A Rattle Of Bones' is about an English Puritan called Solomon Kane who survives a bad night at a lonely inn.
Here and in several other tales, I was struck by the way Howard features three or more characters in conflict. This means that the hero can have an ally who turns out to be treacherous which complicates the plot nicely. It's a good device, frequently used in his famous stories about that big, long-haired Cimmerian chap.
Howard is no copycat but the influence of his idols can be seen. The sea stories and westerns are redolent of Jack London. The spirit of Arthur Machen gazes benignly on the tales of troll-like creatures who went underground thousands of years ago and sometimes come out to plague us. For a spell, Lovecraft looms large in first person narrations of occult scholars seeking mystical artefacts from long lost temples. I liked the historical stories. 'Delenda Est' is set in late Roman times, 'Worms Of The Earth' has Roman Britain with underground monsters, and 'The House Of Arabu' shows us a very familiar northern barbarian chap stalking the lands of southern softies and rising to prominence; but is set in ancient Mesopotamia. Howard's forte is sword and sorcery, a genre he practically invented, so it's great when the blades come out. Other memorable tales herein are 'Pigeons From Hell' and 'Black Canaan'.
Just to avoid the wrong sort of PC person buying the book and getting outraged, I had better mention the racism. Many of the stories make it clear, with language which might offend the modern reader, that the best chaps in the world are big, strong white men from Texas. Blacks are brave and noble sometimes and orientals are clever but big, strong white men from Texas are far better. Robert E. Howard was a big, strong white man from Texas so he was biased. The reader will just have to get used to it. In truth, 'racism' is a recent offence and, throughout human history, it was normal to think that your tribe was the best and all the others were scoundrels.
It would be unfair not to mention the excellent black and white images supplied by Greg Staples which perfectly fit the mood of the book. The pulps where the stories first appeared were illustrated, too, and this addition gives the book extra authenticity.
Here be werewolves, vampires, ghosts, monsters and walking corpses. To be sure, a lot of it is hackneyed now simply because it's been copied and re-hashed for the last seventy years. Stephen King has put these traditional values in a modern setting and he'd be the first to admit it. Lately, the gory images so carefully described have been served up as CGI on the big and small screen. But the good stories still stand up and nothing is quite like the pleasure of striking prose. Howard was not quite as poetic as Clark Ashton Smith and not quite as scary as Lovecraft but he was better than both at action and adventure.
Like most single author short story collections, this is best taken in small bites. Themes and even adjectives recur. A constant stream of horror can pall. Keep the tome by the bedside and read a story every few days for best effect. There is great pleasure to be had from it but sweet dreams are not likely.
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