Robert E. Howard, “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian” (2003) – More genre homework. Lovecraft and Howard, Howard and Lovecraft, handing the torch (and a metric shittonne of baggage) down from the pulps to the nascent scifi/fantasy scene, subjects of adoration, exorciation, tribute, parody, pastiche, and endless imitation. They were friends, too! Penpals, natch- neither got out much. Howard killed himself when his mother died. People talk about the irony, this big, strong man, creator of rugged, devil-may-care heroes, living with his mother and unable to live without her. To me, it’s less ironic and more painfully sad. I’m close to my mom, too, though I think I can navigate the end of her life without terminal self-harm.
Anyway! Conan! He’s got thews, whatever those are (apparently it’s an old word for “strength” and not a weird word for “thighs” like I at first assumed) and he knows how to use them. This collection of Conan stories includes about half of the original Howard stories from the thirties, and nothing but Howard stories. This is somewhat rare- interlocutors, bearers of the torch (or handlers of the baggage), votaries of the cult, have interpolated their own work into the Conan mythos (and his other works, and Lovecraft’s stuff too), most notably fantasy writers L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter but plenty of others too. Other Conan collections mix them in like you couldn’t tell the difference.
You can tell the difference. I wasn’t wild about any of the Conan stories. But there’s a sense of mystery, limitlessness, and foreboding in Howard’s Conan stories that just isn’t there in the various imitators. They say that Conan is a male power fantasy, someone for the nerds reading the pulps to project onto, and that’s true enough in both Howard’s and DeCamp/Carter/whoever’s versions. But the element of escaping into a different kind of world stands out much more starkly in Howard than in the imitators. This is ironic, as later fantasy worldbuilds much more extensively and generally more rigorously than Howard ever did (there’s a similar disconnect between Tolkien and later fantasy, though it’s hard to say that Tolkien did not worldbuild with rigor).
Conan’s world is loosely-jointed history fan fiction, the creation of a young autodidact stringing together evocative words, names, and dynamics from the emerging fields of archival history, anthropology, and archaeology. It’s it’s “gigantism and ineptitude,” to use Borges’ phrase, it resembles mythology and draws us more closely in, to a feeling if not to a reality, than the more schematic, “logical” takes on worldbuilding that followed DeCamp and the others and that feel like maps for theme parks much of the time.
Theme parks work better than mythologies if you want a real plot to follow. Plots aren’t something Conan does in the story. Conan is just Conan. He finds himself in situations- plots are something others weave, and Conan bashes his way out of them with strength and courage. This is because Conan is a barbarian, and barbarians are simple, strong, straightforward, whereas the civilized are complicated, individually weak if collectively strong, and tricky. This is drawn from various old historical ideas, some of which gained new currency during the extended bourgeois freakout about “degeneration” that was in full swing by the time Howard was born.
The starkness of the divide, along with being a little laughable to people who know history better, also “works” on an atmospheric level. Howard clearly prefers barbarians but doesn’t skimp on what the way of life costs- Conan is always confused except in battle, and lives a bare and frustrating life. He comes from an impoverished people, unimaginative to the point where even their gods are dull, to whom the Viking-manques Conan fights amongst in some of the stories seem opulent. Civilization could solve some of these problems but brings up others. Life is basically bad.
There’s also the well-known racism in the stories. It’s probably less bad, anyway less hateful, than Lovecraft’s. Howard’s register was less Lovecraft’s terror, and more rage. To the extent that rage had a real target, it was sophistication- wizards piss Conan off, even when they’re helping him. People being uncivilized, as the black people in Conan invariably are, isn’t a problem to Conan, but presumably is to the reader. It’s also worth noting that “orientalism” wasn’t a critical term of abuse at the time, but a mode of entertainment (not unlike “minstrelsy”). It makes sense- living in a coal-smoke town or lonely plains shack, without movies, tv, or radio, hearing tales of the sumptuousness of some other part of the world, studded with intrigue where yours was dull and workaday, would be compelling. The Conan stories are orientalist to the hilt, in both that sense and the (degraded contemporary version of) Said’s sense. It doesn’t justify anything, necessarily, but the lines of superiority-inferiority aren’t always that clear (as they generally were in minstrelsy), and I think one could go into it with relatively good intentions… but yeah, it’s jarring to modern sensibilities.
All in all, these stories really aren’t great in and of themselves — the sameness of the plots, such as they are, the frequency of deus-ex-machina resolutions, the thinness of the characters and needless multiplicity of indistinguishable cultures (Koths! Hyboreans! Etc) — but it’s worth reading these to understand the shape of the genre more, maybe move on to other sword-swinging writers inspired by Howard, ala Charles Saunders, Fritz Leiber, etc. Maybe I’ll try out Solomon Kane one of these days, too. ***