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Crimson Shadows: The Best Of Robert E. Howard Volume One

01/04/2010. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy

Buy Crimson Shadows: The Best Of Robert E. Howard Volume One in the USA - or Buy Crimson Shadows: The Best Of Robert E. Howard Volume One in the UK

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pub: Subterranean Press. 503 page 750 numbered limited edition illustrared (and signed by illustrators) hardback (I presume. Price: $150.00 (US. ISBN: 978-1-59606-263-4.

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There seem to be a lot of Robert E Howard collections coming out lately so they're getting easier to review because they often have stories in common. This means less reading time for the reviewer but the purchaser has to be wary he's not wasting his hard-earned loot on stories he already owns. There are a few straight adventure stories here that I've not seen before and a lot of fantasy that I have. This volume contains the oft anthologized 'Worms Of The Earth', 'The Dark Man', 'The Grey God Passes' and 'The Black Stone' as well as two long Conan stories, 'The People Of The Black Circle' and 'Beyond The Black River' that any Howard fan will probably have already. Of course, many readers come to Howard via the Conan/Marvel Comics route and may have seen a few of the above stories done as Conan tales by Roy Thomas. I'm sure Roy would agree that the originals are still worth a look.

'The Grey God Passes', for example, is actually a historical fantasy set in Ireland. It tells the story of Brian Boru's last battle and features many real life characters of the time. It also eatures a few fantasy trimmings, not least the God of the title. And it's great! 'The Dark Man' also has an Irish hero and viking villains who steal a girl and take her away to an island to wed their ruffian chief. Howard identified strongly with the Celts and describes the plundering murderous Northmen in terms that could bring accusations of racism from Scandinavian readers, were they so minded. Of course, his other stories could bring accusations of racism from Orientals, Arabs and so forth. Racism is the wrong word really because it inevitably conjures up images of concentration camps and nowhere does Howard remotely advocate the extermination of other ethnic groups. Rather he indulges, as was common at the time, in racial stereotypes. Chinamen are clever but treacherous, blacks are brave but savage and so on. This stereotyping features in nearly every story but in a low key way that should upset only the most sensitive Guardian reader. However, if the words 'totally unacceptable' are often on your tongue - and for some they pop up in every conversation - you'd better buy a different book.

Along with race, reincarnation is a recurring theme in Howard's tales, so much so that I'm starting to think he may have believed in it. Perhaps he committed suicide when Mum was on her deathbed in the belief that by dying near her in time and space he would reincarnate in close proximity. Who knows? In 'Lord Of The Dead', a mad Arab hunts down a New York detective in the belief that they were enemies in a previous life. In 'For the Love Of Barbara Allen', a western chap gets bopped on the head and remembers his previous life as his own great-uncle. 'The Valley Of The Worm' starts with drab James Allison remembering his long ago life as worm-slayer Niord. I should point out that worms in fantasy-land are big, dangerous things with gaping maws and sharp teeth, not little brown chaps beneficial to topsoil. This reincarnation stuff rings very true though. I myself was recently felled by a falling apple and remembered my former existence as Brian Boru, King of all Ireland, from whom I am descended.

The two Conan stories mentioned above certainly deserve inclusion in any 'Best Of' collection but Conan fans trying out other Howard tales will not be disappointed by his heroes. They are not all as mighty as the Cimmerian but they tend to be broad-shouldered, strong, muscular, tough, brave men battling against insurmountable odds. Like our Hyborian idol, they prevail by might and a bit of luck rather than by cunning. These are fast-paced adventure tales written for pulp magazines. Howard does not write of weedy clerks having relationship difficulties but you can read that sort of thing elsewhere. In your diary, perhaps.

There is a poem after every short story, often on the same theme as the preceding tale. Howard's poems are very dark and gloomy, possibly more revealing of his character than the prose, but they rhyme and demonstrate a rich vocabulary. I like them. The book also has a useful introduction by Rusty Burke, a short biography of Robert E. Howard by the same man and a good essay titled 'Robert E. Howard: Twentieth Century Mythmaker' by Charles Hoffman. There are nice illustrations by Jim and Ruth Keegan. My advance uncorrected proof copy didn't have a price on it but surely money is no object when it comes to acquiring high art such as this! Unless, of course, the price is very silly and you've already read most of the stories.

Eamonn Murphy

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