Introduction by Steven Tompkins from The Black Stranger and Other American Tales, Bison Books, 2005.
America . . . has a powerful disintegrative effect on the white psyche. It is full of grinning, unappeased aboriginal demons, too, ghosts, and it persecutes the white men, like some Eumenides, until the white men give up their absolute whiteness. America is tense with latent violence and resistance.
—D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature
Welcome to the New World: the prehistory and history of North America as dreamed by Robert E. Howard (1906-36), whose characters brawled and brooded their way through the pages of Weird Tales and a variety of other 1920s and 1930s pulp magazines. Howard’s gifts enabled him to lengthen perspective even as he heightened intensity, and this collection features stories that are linked not by a protagonist or a genre but by New World settings. The identification or idealization of America as Eden persists from Emerson’s “Here is man in the Garden of Eden” through Fitzgerald’s “fresh, green breast of the new world” in The Great Gatsby, but for Howard such dreams deepen and darken into nightmares commensurate with a continent as “lonely and gigantic and desolate as Eden, after man was cast forth.” The Eden of these stories is trampled by invasion after invasion; its Adam is also Cain, and its serpents tempt with crimson fruit from which only the knowledge of evil and worse evil can be had. All that interrupts man’s inhumanity to man is inhumanity’s inhumanity to man.
Leslie Fiedler has noted that “the Celts, the Irish in particular, . . . from their home on the very verge of the West, have dreamed most variously and convincingly of that other place,” a tradition that Howard, famously described as the “Last Celt,” did his part to continue. As a Texan, he was predisposed to think in terms of empires; as a Celt, he could also discern, as does Turlogh Dubh O’Brien in “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth,” that all empires were ultimately “dreams and ghosts and smoke.” The dreams and ghosts and smoke waft from the pages Howard devoted to Conan’s Hyborian Age, Kull’s Valusia, Solomon Kane’s Africa, and Bran Mak Morn’s Rome-resisting Caledonia. He resembles in this respect other American writers who made a place for themselves in fantasy by making up places: Poe’s Ulalume, Baum’s Oz, Burroughs’s Barsoom, Cabell’s Poictesme, Leiber’s Nehwon, Anderson’s Alfheim, LeGuin’s Earthsea, and the Elder Earth through whose ruins Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane stalks. But Howard also gradually wrote his way back to his own doorstep; by April of 1932 we find him informing H. P. Lovecraft that he was “trying to invest my native regions with spectral atmosphere,” and being much too hard on one of the stories in this collection, “The Horror from the Mound,” as “a feeble effort of the sort.”
America had loomed as the Uttermost West of Howard’s fantasy from the start. God’s angry swordsman, Solomon Kane, learns “somewhat of stealth and woodcraft and strategy” from “the red Indians of the new lands.” A farsighted wizard in the Bran Mak Morn story “Men of the Shadows” espies “red-skinned savages” who “roam the western lands, wandering o’er the valley of the Western River, befouling the entempled ramparts which the men of Lemuria reared in worship of the God of the Sea.” And if we remind ourselves that America has been conflated with Atlantis almost as often as with Eden in the Western imagination, the Atlantean Kull begins to seem like a New World naïf constricted by the coils of the oldest of Old Worlds.
But what about Conan? Howard’s best-known and often least-understood character is described by the heroic fantasy writer David C. Smith as “the archetypal American, full of gumption, restless, wandering, as cynical and knowledgeable, as predatory and deadly as an Indian fighter or gunslinger.” Such a character logically deserved an American backdrop, and in the spring of 1936, when Howard was bringing it all back home with the unfinished but unforgettable American heroic fantasies “The Thunder-Rider” and “Nekht Semerkeht,” Conan was no exception to the westering impulse. Replying to a fannish overture from P. Schuyler Miller on March 10, 1936, Howard confided that the Cimmerian had “even visited a nameless continent in the western hemisphere, and roamed among the islands adjacent to it.”
Unfortunately, that adventure was never committed to paper, but we do have “The Black Stranger,” the last and longest of the Pictish Wilderness stories in the Conan series. As the title of this collection implies, we hold the American-ness of “The Black Stranger” to be self-evident; the western edge of Pictland scarcely camouflages the eastern shore of North America. As we venture inland from Count Valenso’s beachhead, we meet D. H. Lawrence’s demons at their most grinning, unappeased, and aboriginal in a grandfather of all the old-growth forests that weighed and preyed on the minds of the European colonists in those first footholds of Plymouth, Jamestown, and St. Augustine.
The critic Alfred Kazin once described the Puritan enterprise as America’s Middle Ages, and, indeed, the Puritans were the only Americans ever to dwell in a sword-and-sorcery universe. Later frontiersmen called Indians savages, primitives, or even vermin, but only the Puritans could employ an apocalyptic terminology—devils, demons, fiends—and believe every word. “The Black Stranger” (and its more acclaimed and anthologized predecessor “Beyond the Black River”) are key texts in modern American fantasy because they recreate the literally be-wildered colonists’ mindset described by Richard Slotkin in Regeneration Through Violence: “The eternal presence of the native people of the woods, dark of skin and seemingly dark of mind, mysterious, bloody, cruel, ‘devil-worshipping:’ to these must be added the sense of exile—the psychological anxieties attendant upon the tearing up of home roots for wide wandering outward in space and, apparently, backward in time.”
For Belesa, the heroine of “The Black Stranger,” “the world of cities and courts and gaiety [seem] not only thousands of miles but long ages away,” and she is certain that the forests are “the logical hiding place for any evil thing, man or devil.” The story’s “black man” is on loan from classic American literature: “Art thou like the black man that haunts the forest round about us?” Hester Prynne asks Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter. Howard’s story is full of hints that he had recently encountered Hawthorne’s novel, whose crowd scenes are populated by “painted barbarians” and “rough-looking desperados from the Spanish Main.” In many ways “The Black Stranger” is The Scarlet Letter after a sex change, a blood transfusion, and some cutlass lessons. Howard’s fey girl child is all but cloned from Hawthorne’s: Tina appears “with the light patter of small bare feet across the sand,” while Pearl plays after “making bare her small white feet, pattering along the moist margin of the sea.” Howard’s “wild men of the sea” recall Hawthorne’s “swarthy-cheeked wild men of the ocean,” any of whom “might relinquish his calling, and become at once, if he chose, a man of probity and piety”—exactly the agenda of Howard’s Zarono, with his elegant bows and a “tread as stately as if he trod the polished crystal floor of the Kordava royal court.”
Conan, as Lawrence said of James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer, “seems to have been born under a hemlock tree out of a pine-cone.” The early colonists triangulated themselves against both Europeans and Indians and became Americans by taking to the woods and taking them away from their previous owners. Mastery of woodcraft has served as shorthand for Americanization from the Leatherstocking Tales through movies like Deliverance, Southern Comfort, First Blood, Red Dawn, and, as an example of how not to survive, The Blair Witch Project. Conan, who is at home even on the hunting grounds of his age-old enemies, the Picts, is self-authenticating, and his cultural credentials as a Cimmerian, a white barbarian, are a way around what for so long was perceived as the problem of renegades and runaways who wanted to join Indians rather than beat them.
Rejected by Weird Tales in May of 1932, “Marchers of Valhalla” did not see print until 1972. Craig Edward Clifford has written that “Europeans trace themselves back into layer after layer after layer of previous civilizations; Texans go back into a vast unforgiving land, a timeless sun, a silence.” Howard’s “Marchers” goes back into that land, sun, and silence and recovers unsuspected layers by way of James Allison’s yester-self, Hialmar, as when he and the other Æsir behold a heat-shimmery, chimerical anticipation of Cibola or Quivira: “Lurking in our minds had been the thought that it was a ghost city—one of the phantoms which had haunted us on our long march across the bitter dusty deserts to the west, where, in the burning skies we had seen mirrored, still lakes, bordered by palms, and winding rivers, and spacious cities, all of which vanished as we approached.”
Discussing what he terms “Southwestern Gothic,” Scott P. Sanders reminds us that “nowhere else in America do the crumbling walls of immense ruins look out from the deep shadows of caves. Nowhere else in America do stone towers mark the past tenure of an ancient civilization that has left those of us who remain uneasy successors to the land.” One way to assuage that unease is to postulate even more ancient civilizations, and “Marchers” would have us believe that it is not a pre-Columbian but a pre-pre-Columbian episode. With its premature proto-Norsemen pitted against citified Skraelings, “Marchers” transplants the Vinland Saga from the Northeast to the Southwest. For want of longships, the Æsir endure a long walk, their trek brazenly appropriating the trans-Beringian epic of the peopling of the Americas from Siberian originals. The only “actual” Indians in the story appear from an unexpected direction: “the wayward, painted people of the islands,” possibly the ancestors of the Caribs, who blacken the southern sea in their fleet of “skull-bedecked” war canoes.
Some readers have found it difficult to turn a blind eye to the emphatically blue eyes in “Marchers,” and on the surface the story is as much of a Thirties keepsake as would be a menu from the Hindenburg. But the golden hair and azure gazes disguise an inner darkness: Howard’s Æsir are peculiar wish-fulfillment figures at best, stunted and stinted as Conan never is, and at their frequent worst they become a meditation on the oldest and most terrible blue-eyed soul: “As we strode we clashed sword and shield in a crude thundering rhythm, and sang the slaying-song of Niord who ate the red smoking heart of Heimdul.” “Aryans were not made to coop themselves in walls,” Howard maintained to H. P. Lovecraft, and “Marchers” is a study of what befalls his fanciful Aryans within the walls of Khemu, with its necromancers, devil-worshippers, and “evil-eyed naked women” gliding “like dusky shadows among the purple gloom.” The Khemuri, “a subject race, speaking a mongrel tongue,” are pretenders to the throne of storied Lemuria, as were the Aztecs to that of the Toltecs, and the extent to which they are an echo-in-advance of the Aztecs (so often assigned the role of feathered serpent in the New World paradise) is clear if we consult Richard Slotkin: “At the end of the unslaked and savage desert, so like the wasteland of the Grail legends, they behold Mexico—great, white, castellated cities, heaped with greenery, floating in the midst of vast blue lakes. Within the enclosed luxuriant gardens of these enchanted cities live an exotic people, dressed in a fantastic garb of woven and many-colored feathers, intricately wrought gold, turquoise ornaments, and printed cotton. Yet these fair islands are rotten at the heart: within each towering white temple are chambers reeking of human blood from human sacrifice and human filth.”
The Æsir chieftain Asgrimm is a Cortez with no gunpowder, warhounds, horses, pandemics, or cultic masquerades up his sleeve, and “Marchers” hurtles toward a premonition of the noche triste of July 1, 1520, when the people of Tenochtitlan became a nation-in-arms and nearly ended New Spain before it began. Resonances of another conquest are also at work in the story. The Texas writer closest in outlook to Howard is historian T. R. Fehrenbach, who has explored the “vast residue of violence left over from the making of Texas,” and likened the Texans to “the Alemanni or the peoples who called themselves Englisc,” who “in the process of entering, taking, and holding a territory . . . made themselves into a distinct tribe.” If we read the Æsir as a sword-and-sorcery simplification of Texans at their deadliest and most driven, and the treacherous Khemuri as a combination of Aztec trappings and Mexican failings as seen unfairly through Texan eyes, we begin to realize that “Marchers of Valhalla” is a creation myth fit for a state that has spawned more mythology than some entire continents, a creation myth that, as is only to be expected with Howard, culminates in cataclysmic destruction.
“The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” provides a sanguinary twist on the Old World legends of the Isles of the Blest, the Hesperides, and Tir-nan-Og as Turlogh Dubh O’Brien, an outcast Gael who never loses sight of the skull beneath the skin, makes an unplanned landfall on Bal-Sagoth, an island-empire that has lingered too long. The premonitions of the conquistadorial epic to come are unmistakable, whether Quetzalcoatlan lore—”There is an old legend among this people—that men of iron will come out of the sea and the city of Bal-Sagoth will fall!”—or the vision vouchsafed to Turlogh and Athelstane, a reverie that can be glimpsed but never grasped: “Through the trees the warriors caught a glimmer, white and shimmery and apparently far away. There was an illusory impression of towering battlements, high in the air, with fleecy clouds hovering about them.” The Irish axeman will not be the last European, stranded in “a strange land in a strange sea,” to speculate that “mayhap Satan himself reigns here and it is the gate to Hell.”
Howard wrote to August Derleth, May 9, 1936, that “I haven’t written a weird story for nearly a year, though I’ve been contemplating one dealing with Coronado’s expedition to the Staked Plains in 1541. A good theme if I can develop it.” On the evidence of the two drafts of “Nekht Semerkeht” that survive, it was a very good theme, albeit one Howard denied himself the chance to develop fully. The errant conquistador Hernando de Guzman, quixotic in appearance if otherwise grimly pragmatic, is much traveled in the realms of gold as a veteran of Pizarro’s Peruvian depredations and Cortez’s Mexican exploits but rich in experience rather than in retained loot. For de Guzman, Spain is “far away, a dream-like memory, a land of Cockaigne that had once been real, in the golden glow of youth and desire, but now had no more reality than a ghost-continent lost in a sea of mist,” and he himself, for all his armored solidity, might as well be “a phantom, drifting futilely across a sleeping, indifferent land,” his disorientation anticipating the comment of the historian Elliott West in his The Contested Plains: “When they looked at the land, the Spanish saw some trouble, but mostly they saw nothing at all.”
It is to be regretted that “Nekht Semerkeht” as we have it dims and dwindles to a synopsis, but Howard’s ability to telescope and streamline history is nowhere more dramatic than in the genuine war of the worlds with which the story opens. Nekht Semerkeht himself is an out-of-towner who does not quite manage to live up to his fantastic accessories, a silhouette that Howard would presumably have filled in and fleshed out in further drafts of the story. The richness here lies rather in the wealth of regional and historical detail (tizwin, Cajamarca, a teocalla, the Karankawas, a governing tlacatecatl), de Guzman’s “blind black urge to live,” and the enormities, equal parts Alexander of Macedon and Amadis of Gaul, that he has seen and committed: “the royal blood of Montezuma dripping from the parapets of Tenochtitlan—blood running ankle-deep in the plaza of Cajamarca, about the frantic feet of doomed Atahualpa.”
Africans join Norsemen, Gaels, and conquistadors as intruders in the New World in “Black Vulmea’s Vengeance,” and it must be said not only of this story but also of “Black Canaan” and “Pigeons from Hell” that, although Howard’s best work is timeless, he himself was not. He was a white Texan in a period when being one meant membership in a caste whose prerogatives and prejudices were unconstrained by the evolution of attitudes or the revolution in legal remedies achieved by the civil rights movement, which is to say that his vocabulary included what many of us might nominate as the ugliest word in American English. Fortunately for the sake of his fiction, Howard’s worst outbursts were mostly confined to his letters, especially when he sought to out-nightrider the equally unenlightened H. P. Lovecraft. But there was another side to him, one that compulsively identified with underdogs (especially lupine underdogs) and for which all other color considerations were eclipsed by a detestation of the yellow streak that so often signifies cruelty. That part of Howard created his African-American heavyweight champion Ace Jessel and related Conan’s axe-powered emancipation of black galley slaves in The Hour of the Dragon. In “Black Vulmea’s Vengeance,” Bigomba, the Cimarroon war-chief, is in the way but not necessarily in the wrong—he has reason for asserting that “the only devil is a white man”—nor should we overlook Howard’s word choice when the Caucasians Vulmea and Wentyard lurk “like phantoms of murder.”
In admiration or exasperation, the world continues to ponder the question that Hector St. John de Crevecouer first formulated in 1782: “What then is the American, this new man?” The answer, in “Black Vulmea’s Vengeance,” is Terence Vulmea, an Irish pirate who took over from Conan (to the extent that another character could) when Howard rewrote “The Black Stranger” as the semi-historical adventure “Swords of the Red Brotherhood,” which also failed to sell. Vulmea comes into his own in “Vengeance,” and his own is, like all revenger’s tales, a kind of ghost story, in which he is haunted by having been hanged back in Galway by the Royal Navy’s Wentyard. But as also occurred with Turlogh and Athelstane, the Old World quarrel of Gael and Saxon is overridden by the perils of the New World, not the least of which is the lordly snake, larger and hungrier than life, that lairs in the jungle-engulfed city. Has any other writer ever come close to Robert E. Howard’s scrupulous compliance with the pronouncement, after the Fall in Eden, of ceaseless enmity between the seed of Eve and the seed of the serpent?
Other ghosts also threaten to appear in “Vengeance” but never quite do. Here the lost civilization is not dying, as are Khemu and Bal-Sagoth, but is already long dead; yet something new is being born too. The sea-thieves of piracy’s Golden Age were amphibious frontiersmen on a waterworld that dissolved hierarchies, New World revolutionaries of sorts before there were New World revolutions. More rough-hewn declarations of independence in the Americas preceded that which Thomas Jefferson authored by decades. “Your English king is no more to me than rotten driftwood,” sneers Vulmea; could he but catch it afloat, he would sink the monarchy itself. On land Vulmea is a naturalized citizen of the wild, and having been schooled by North American Indians, he is better equipped to survive his South American predicament than Wentyard, who has much to learn and even more to unlearn.
The poet Kenneth Rexroth has argued that as literary devices Native Americans often play the parts of “nymphs and satyrs and dryads—the spirits of the places. They are our ecological link with our biota.” In modern American fantasy, Indians serve the same function as do elves in northern European fantasies such as The King of Elfland’s Daughter and The Lord of the Rings. They were here first and they were here better; Robert Frost’s line from “The Gift Outright”—”The land was ours before we were the land’s”—does not apply to them. “The Valley of the Lost” fascinates in this context because it opens another of Howard’s temporal trapdoors, through which we plummet into an age of such unfathomable antiquity that even the Indians are not indigenes but invaders. Skeptical about how manifest Manifest Destiny actually was, Howard constantly poked and prodded the newness of the New World; in these stories there are always ruins beneath the ruins and ghosts before the ghosts.
“The Valley of the Lost” is an American cousin of “Worms of the Earth,” and like the Roman occupiers of Britain in that masterpiece, the European conquerors of America are “a heavy-footed race,” mercifully unaware for the most part that the ground beneath them shudders and seethes with secrets. The feud between the Reynolds clan and the McCrills is “a red obstacle in the way of progress and development, a savage retrogression”—in short, a Fall or a consequence of the primal Fall. Another downward journey, that of John Reynolds to the Inferno beneath Lost Valley, is foreshadowed by the “inferno of hate” raging in his heart. The collapse of what passes for civilization is paralleled by the descent into the deep places of the earth and even deeper potentialities for diabolism of the Old People. Howard’s Southwest, like that of Cormac McCarthy in his harrowing Blood Meridian, is baked and blasted by hate as if by a second sun, and we learn with Reynolds that the elder race’s “arsenal of death in strange and grisly forms” failed long ago to overcome “the blind ferocity” of their pre-Toltec dispossessors. The story is noteworthy for what we might borrow from Herman Melville’s look at Hawthorne and call the “blackness ten times black” of its conclusion. The Old People need not be at the heels of “the last of the fighting Reynoldses,” for they are now in his head: “The earth seemed hideously alive under his feet, the sun foul and blasphemous over his head. The light was sickly, yellowish and evil, and all things were polluted by the unholy knowledge locked in his skull, like hidden drums beating ceaselessly in the blackness beneath the hills.”
In the same May 1936 letter in which he alluded to “Nekht Semerkeht,” Howard sought to distance himself from a story that would appear in the next month’s Weird Tales: “Ignore my forthcoming ‘Black Canaan.’ It started out as a good yarn, laid in the real Canaan, which lies between Tulip Creek and the Ouachita River in southwestern Arkansas, the homeland of the Howards, but I cut so much of the guts out of it, in response to editorial requirements, that in its published form it won’t resemble the original theme, woven about the mysterious form of Kelly the Conjureman.” Leading Howard experts now believe any evisceration that occurred was preemptive, that Howard cut in anticipation of, rather than in response to, editorial strictures. But the story remains what it intransigently is: a tour of what Richard Slotkin calls the South’s “own unique internal frontiers, [beyond whose] borders lay a primitive world, peopled (for the white southerner) with nightmares of vengeful savagery and bloodlust or with fever dreams of forbidden eroticism.” “Black Canaan” dispenses with the “or,” combining the nightmare savagery and the fevered eroticism.
“Black Canaan” is almost as entitled to the title “Beyond the Black River” as is the Conan classic of that name, and riverine metaphors course through the story and the kernel from which it grew, “Kelly, the Conjure-Man”: “In every community of whites and blacks, at least in the South, a deep, dark current flows forever, out of sight of the whites who but dimly suspect its existence. A dark current of colored folks’ thoughts, deeds, ambitions and aspirations, like a river flowing unseen through the jungle.” Howard was conflict-minded but also conflicted, and if the grandsires of Kirby Buckner and his compatriots were frontiersmen, they were also slaveholders whose rugged self-reliance relied upon coerced servitude. Buckner says of his “isolated, shut-mouthed breed” that they are “jealous of [their] seclusion and independence,” but as we read on we see that the seclusion is also an incarceration. The whites are locked up in a private hell, whose demons are their families’ former victims: “The fear of a black uprising lurked for ever in the depths of that forgotten back country; the very children absorbed it in their cradles.” Is it possible that in some mysterious way the back country has been remembered as well as forgotten? Howard permits himself one reference to “antebellum days” and another to a blood-drenched revolt “back in ’45,” but the wider world, the outside authorities and the backdrop of Reconstruction are missing. Instead, the actors might almost be performing some time-lost dramatization of Lincoln’s worst case scenario of retribution in his Second Inaugural: “until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ ”
In this sense Saul Stark and the Bride of Damballah are debt collectors, avenging angels, and they dominate the story as they seek to dominate Canaan; in contrast, the white settlers merely react, at times with dismal predictability, as when the vigilantes are eager to loosen the tongue of the hapless Tope Sorely with the lash. Neither “Grimesville” as a town name nor Tope’s surname requires much exegesis, but Saul Stark’s monickers deserve our attention. Saul the warrior-king was Howard’s favorite Old Testament figure, and the word “stark” and its variants mean “strong” in the Germanic languages. Stark is the “son of a Kongo witch-finder,” but he hails from South Carolina, notorious as the state that was too small to be a country and too large to be an insane asylum, the epicenter of nullification and secession.
Sinuous and insinuating, the Bride of Damballah is both the result of, and an incitement to, miscegenation, the true forbidden fruit of the American Eden. Her “barbaric fascination” quickens Howard’s already racing pulse, and her “heavy ornaments of crudely hammered gold,” as “African as her loftily piled coiffure,” provide clues to what kind of race war is being waged here, as does Stark’s plan to make of the rivers and creeks moats to defend his domain: “No one can cross the waters to come against them. He will rule his tribe as his fathers ruled their tribes in the Ancient Land.” This is a counter-secession, a separatism that will separate Canaan from America itself. Have the sins of the forefathers brought not just Africans but Africa itself to what should have been a New World? Buckner reflects that the essence of the Bride demands “a grimmer, more bestial background, a background of steaming jungle, reeking black swamps, flaring fires and cannibal feasts, and the bloody altars of abysmal tribal gods.” Of course this has little to do with any Africa that ever was, except in the projections of Europeans and European-Americans whose access to Dark Continents came from closing their eyes, or their minds. But the worry that not Europe but “Africa” will reshape America in its own image—the jungle-grown marshes of Tularoosa Creek stretch “inlets southward like groping fingers”—is balanced by the tacit admission that the fallout from slavery disfigures and degrades the doers as well as the done-to. Long before Saul Stark arrives, everyone in Canaan has already been “put in the swamp.”
Another view of the same process is on display in “Pigeons from Hell,” one of the finest American horror stories, and one of the most American. Here the swamp has moved indoors and upstairs, but the “reek and rot of decay” are still pervasive. Miss Celia, “the proudest and the cruelest” of the haughty de Blassenvilles, is reduced to a zuvembie clad in “the rags of an old ballroom gown,” like a hideous parody of Scarlett O’Hara. “Black Canaan” and “Pigeons from Hell” belong in any American library of burdened conscience and shadowed self-awareness, right next to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” and Absalom, Absalom! These stories know more than they tell, and they fear even more than that: “—God, what frightful, ancient terrors there are on this continent fools call ‘young’!”
The Garfield of “Old Garfield’s Heart” was the first white settler in Howard’s part of Texas (Lost Knob is a Cross Plains Doppelganger) when “hills no white man ever set foot in before” still “swarmed with Comanches.” His elegy—that this was “good country before it filled up with cowmen and squatters”—echoes Howard’s own lament to Lovecraft in 1933: “What I want is impossible, as I’ve told you before; I want, in a word, the frontier—which is compassed in the phrase new land, open land, free land, swarming with game and laden with fresh forests and sweet cold streams.” Garfield owes his life to Ghost Man, “a witch doctor of the Lipans, who dwelt in this country before the Comanches came down from the Staked Plains and drove ’em south across the Rio Grande.” Were his name not portentous enough, we learn that Ghost Man is a worshipper of “somethin’ from away back and a long way off,” and the significance of this story’s fantastic heart transplant, from the perspective of a D. H. Lawrence or Leslie Fiedler, is fairly obvious.
Like “The Valley of the Lost,” “The Horror from the Mound” rebukes the overconfidence of the Anglo-come-lately, and the story within the story is something of a companion tale to “Nekht Semerkeht.” Here not all of the grinning, unappeased demons are aboriginal, for the caballero Hernando de Estrada and his armored pikemen have imported the epitome of Old World malevolence, an undead hidalgo in whom the doctrine of limpieza de sangre, pure-bloodedness, has become more sinister yet. As “black suspicion” eats at the heart of the expedition so also does suspicion of the only black among them, “a cannibal slave from Calabar.” Far from being black, the pursuing evil turns out to be whiter-than-white, and at the moment of crisis the suspect from Calabar is no longer regarded as a black man but simply as a man who accompanies his fellow men to beard the leech in his makeshift den.
“The Thunder-Rider” is Howard at his most modern in his aversion to modernity; the assimilated Comanche John Garfield can only resist “the most highly artificialized civilization the world has ever known” by recovering the oxymoronic “all-seeing blindness” that made possible the “dreams and visions and prophesy” of his tribal forbears. Garfield evades psychosis by resorting to metempsychosis; his memories of warriors past and warrior pasts are a still-unconquered hinterland: “My mind began turning red. . . . The shadow of a dripping tomahawk began to take shape, to hover over me.” The first, and more enthralling, half of “The Thunder-Rider” rewrites conventional American ethnography as Garfield in effect remembers too much: “I could tell you things that would shock you out of the amused tolerance with which you are reading this narrative of a race your ancestors crushed. I could tell you of long wanderings over a continent still teeming with prehuman terrors—but enough.”
Howard was still in the early stages of mapping that continent and imagining those prehuman terrors in this story, and admittedly the swords could be sharper and the sorcery more spellbinding as the second half tapers off. Still, he is on native ground and in native guise; at last the founding father of American sword-and-sorcery is writing about authentic American warriors. “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time,” as T. S. Eliot puts it in “Little Gidding.” And just as the blond berserkers of “Marchers” have been replaced by the Comanches, the barbarians at Howards’s very own gate, the incongruous extra-continental nomenclature of the earlier story, with its Poseidon, Ishtar, and Ymir, has disappeared. Instead the master of the Darkening Land is addressed by his servants as Tezcatlipoca: “the name of one of the sun god’s incarnations—taken, no doubt, in a spirit of blasphemy by the ruler of this evil castle.” Howard’s letter praising “Teotihuacan,” a poem by one Alice l’Anson, had appeared in Weird Tales in January 1931—”I believe that only one familiar with that ancient land could so reflect the slumbering soul of Aztec-land as she has done”—and the allusions in “The Thunder-Rider” to “mighty cities far in the serpent-haunted jungles of the dim South” and “the days of the Golden Kings” suggest that Howard had realized that the immensities of myth and memory symbolized in stone by Tenochtitlan, Tula, and Teotihuacan were available as a New World equivalent of Acheron and Stygia in the Conan series. Perhaps he would have gone on to give us a Mesoamerican fantasy to rank with Montezuma’s Daughter, Terra Nostra, and The Chalchiuhite Dragon.
Even L. Sprague de Camp mustered enough depth perception to see that “a reason for the ferocity of Howard’s barbarians is that the barbarians he knew the most about, the Comanche Indians of Texas, were one of the most warlike peoples on earth.” The derivation of the noun “Comanche” from a Ute term for fractious cousins, Koh-Mahts, “those who are always against us,” may remind those familiar with Howard of Khor-nah’s boast in “Exile of Atlantis”: “For Atlantis, thank Valka, is the foe of all men.” Something of the incorrigibility that so intrigued Howard is captured in T. R. Fehrenbach’s Comanches: The Destruction of a People: “The horse lifted them to riches as they understood riches and made them the most dangerous predators on the continent. These dark-eyed hunter-killers must be remembered as long as men remain men. For something in their lives—the hot thrill of the chase, the horses running in the wind, the lance and shield and war-whoop brandished against man’s fate, their defiance to the bitter end—will always pull at powerful blood memories buried in all of us.” Buried in all of us, but most easily unearthed by a Comanche like Garfield, who offers us a hint as to how Howard’s own mind might have reddened even more had it not gone dark instead: I see the dry grass waving under the southwest wind, and the tall white house of Quanah Parker looming against the steel-blue sky.
If we wish to champion this writer, it must be on the basis of what he wrote, not what it is possible that he would have written; but the excerpts from Howard’s correspondence presented at the end of this collection under the found title “The Classic Tale of the Southwest” can be regarded as appetizers from a withheld banquet. When Howard left the world in June of 1936, he surely left unwritten a Quanah Parker-centric Comanchiad in which nature and nurture, barbarism and civilization, would have circled each other before closing for the death-grapple. The result might have been more searching than The Searchers; to adapt Howard’s own words, a new star might have flashed redly across the frontier of serious Western fiction. But at least we have “The Thunder-Rider,” evidence that at the end of his life, in a state of mind bleaker than that of John Garfield in his skyscraping office, Howard came to much the same conclusion as Philip Deloria in his study Playing Indian: “In the end, Indian play was perhaps not so much about a desire to become Indian—or even to become American—as it was a longing for the utopian experience of being in between. . . . Americanness is perhaps not so much the product of a collision of European and Indian as it is a particular working out of a desire to preserve stability and truth while enjoying absolute, anarchic freedom.” If the inner-directed outlets available to John Garfield and James Allison in their quests for “absolute, anarchic freedom” are denied to us, there is some consolation in our abiding ability to draw upon classic American artists like Hawthorne, Melville, and Faulkner, Sam Peckinpah and Cormac McCarthy, and at his best, Robert E. Howard—none of them much good at choking down pablum and placebos, all of them subversive in ways that no Congressional committee could ever weed out.
Working wherever possible from original typescripts, the goal of this Bison Books project has been to release Howard’s imagination into its natural habitat, to stand back and let his Juggernauts of immediacy and momentum shake the purple mountains’ majesty.We hope that his words will resound across the decades as if chanted to accompany his hammering on the keys of that long-suffering Underwood, transforming readers into rapt listeners. If you believe that allusion is just a misspelling of illusion, if you object to strip-mining text in search of subtext, no worries; enough blood to glut an Ares—or the real Tezcatlipoca—and several Ragnaroks worth of thunder await you within these pages. But if you suspect that classic is as classic does, if you’re willing to grant a pulp prodigal the chance to crash the canon and penetrate the pantheon, we’re pulling for these stories to move you to a proclamation like that the poet Hart Crane made on behalf of his magnum opus The Bridge: “Here one is on the pure mythical and smoky ground at last!” Maybe we can no longer be born into even a desolate Eden, but we can be borne there by Robert E. Howard’s storytelling.
Steve Tompkins died eight years ago today. An incredibly well-read fan of Howard and other fantasy authors, he wrote some truly insightful stuff that blazed new trails. I worked with Steve on the Cimmerian blog and took over from him as Managing Editor after his death. A great guy whom we lost way too young.
Steve Tompkins, Barbarian at the Pantheon-Gates, p.475- 502, The Best of Robert E. Howard, volume 2, Grim Lands, Del Rey 2007.
In [Frederick Jackson] Turner’s intellectual scenario, the frontier was visualized as a terrain on which two kingdoms of force, “savagery and civilization,” stood toe to toe contending for supremacy. As long as neither held dominance there was danger, but there was also boundless freedom. Into this landscape came the archetypal American, an American who was free in a way that no American has been free since. Free to choose patterns of conduct from an infinity of choices, free to move easily back and forth across the line which separated savagery and civilization, free to take the best from the wilderness and the best that civilization had to offer, free to create his self from the materials of a totally unrestricted environment. Tom Pilkington, State of Mind: Texas Literature and Culture
That knocking you hear, polite but persistent, is the people who assembled Volumes I and II of The Best of Robert E. Howard, addressing themselves to the front door of the American literary pantheon. Let’s be upfront while we’re out front: not only do we put Howard’s finest work on a pedestal, we’ve even gone so far as to pick out a place of honor for that pedestal within the pantheon’s marmoreal recesses. These books are designed to be more than just a Petition for Admittance; our aim has been a show of force, an effort to rout derisive interdiction with a decisive intervention in a debate that’s been too non-evidentiary for too long. In a sense that debate has been underway since at least the fall of 1934, while Howard was still writing—let’s join a conversation already in progress back then between two cousins, both small-town schoolteachers in West Texas, as they discuss a writer dismissed by one as small-time. Enid Gwathmey refuses to accept “the pulp and confession magazines as legitimate starting places for writers. Good stories had stood the test of time. Examples of good writing were put into literature books.” That’s all Novalyne Price, to whose invaluable 1986 memoir One Who Walked Alone we owe the recap of this cousinly disagreement, needs in order to pounce: “You read Edgar Allan Poe, don’t you? I heard you talking about him to your class the other day.” She looked at me as if I had the measles. “Poe is a good writer,” she said. “I was pointing out what a wonderful choice of words he had; I was trying to get my students to enjoy using words carefully to improve their writing.” “Bob has a wonderful choice of words, too,” I insisted, “and as far as the content of his stories and of Poe’s, they write the same kind of nightmarish stuff. The main difference is that Poe’s works are in the literature books and Bob’s aren’t . . . yet. Someday, some English teacher will be telling kids to try and write like Bob.” “I will have to see that to believe it,” Enid said. “I will certainly have to see that to believe it.”
The Best of Robert E. Howard would enable Enid to see and believe, but handing the two volumes to her would require some time travel. More encouragingly, the readers of today and tomorrow now have the opportunity to verify the “wonderful choice of words” defended by Novalyne Price for themselves in the preceding pages. Those words do indeed deserve to be “in the literature books,” and are closer to getting there thanks to Del Rey’s Library of Robert E. Howard. And while only a few English teachers are telling their pupils to “try and write like Bob” as of yet, he is beginning to be thesis-fodder or a dissertation-magnet, a trend that the overdue-but-impending arrival of his Collected Letters and Complete Poems can only galvanize. Novalyne’s attribution of “the same kind of nightmarish stuff” to both Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Ervin Howard is a reminder that the Texan is already a redoubtable presence in one pantheon. We can’t be certain that she took her cue from her sometime boyfriend in measuring him against Poe, but we do know that years before Howard met her, in a December 1928 letter he alluded with a sort of self-deprecating bravado to “the school to which Poe contributed and I at present honor with my presence—literarily speaking—I mean the school of fantasy and horror writing.” That he was at the top of his class within that school has been confirmed by generations of fans and a generous entry in the 1997 Encyclopedia of Fantasy, in which John Clute deems him “of central interest in the field of fantasy” and attributes his “huge appeal to later readers” to “considerable invention” and “the feel of the wind of Story.” Heroic/epic fantasy authors and historical novelists specializing in the edged-weapon clashes of ancient or medieval warfare are often quick to tip their plumed, crested, or horned helmets to Howard. As David Weber recognized in an introduction to a 1995 collection of the Bran Mak Morn stories, “Bran and Cormac and Kull are always ready to teach yet another generation of writers how to tell the high, old tales of doom and glory.” Howard was more than just a fantasist, although there is no “just” about his achievements in the genre. While it would be silly to label him, or anyone, an American Tolkien, it is not at all silly to alter a few pronouns in one of leading Tolkienist Verlyn Flieger’s observations about the Englishman in order to render her insight applicable to both men: “By looking backward [their] fantasy reflected the present, the temporal dislocation of [their] escape mirrored the psychological disjunction and displacement of [their century].” Flieger goes on to emphasize that “the very act of escape acknowledges that which it flees, and nostalgia, like modernism, must have a ground from which to turn away.” In Howard’s case that ground was American, and therefore controlled by a dominant down-to-earth outlook given to shooting down flights of fancy; the national lore of settlers and strivers usually chased anything more outrageous and fact-flouting out of town.
Brian Attebery’s The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature—essential reading, provided one avoids falling into the book’s Howard-shaped hole—begins with an examination of how fantasy was endangered before the genre could even acquire a tradition in “the country where pragmatism became a philosophy and ‘normalcy’ a point of faith.” Nor should we forget the ur-faith of Puritanism, which ensures that even today places exist in the United States where a burning eagerness to read, say, the Harry Potter novels is met with an eagerness to burn the Harry Potter novels. The Enlightenment so thoroughly incorporated in the Founders’ blueprints was hardly more encouraging; how, for example, is a model home like Monticello to be haunted? The fantastic survived, in Attebery’s words, “as a resistance movement, working to undermine the national faith in things-as-they-are,” one given to “hiding out in the nursery and periodically venturing out disguised as romance or satire or science fiction.” L. Frank Baum paved the yellow brick road for the fantasists that followed, but his Oz is arguably more of a proto-Disneyland than a fully functioning American fairyland, as disinviting to many adults, and adolescents aspiring to adulthood, as it is come-hitherish to children and those other adults who aspire to revisit childhood. Edgar Rice Burroughs afforded Howard his principal model of a dream-life gaudier and boasting the performances of more exotic megafauna than any three-ring circus, but told his most enduring stories on the far, the optimistic side of the First World War, before shell-shock and trench fever went to work on Victorian values. To us Barsoom and Amtor and Pellucidar seem to yield too quickly to empire-building and futures of cultural terraforming rather than terror swarming. Howard’s dark fantasy is more informed by history, as is his history by dark fantasy—witness the Suleyman-who-is-no-longer-quite-so-Magnificent of The Shadow of the Vulture, for whom imminent defeat appears as “a gray plain of the dead, where corpses dragged their lifeless bodies to an outworn task, animated only by the will of their master.” But Howard’s well-situated alcove in the fantasy pantheon isn’t enough for us; by hook or by crook, or rather by battering ram or skeleton key, we’re looking to get him into another pantheon as well, the one implicit in the argument Novalyne Price had with her cousin Enid: “Poe’s works are in the literature books and Bob’s aren’t . . . yet.” To highlight what makes Howard an American classic, we must agree on what makes a classic. Although science fiction writer Gordon R. Dickson, in his introduction to the 1980 Howard collection The Road of Azrael, defined a genuine classic as the “golden bell-sound” of a unique voice, that of an author “who has something to give which did not exist in the world before he came into it, and which disappeared forever when he went out of it,” we need credentials to sway those who feign deafness to, or genuinely cannot hear, the golden bell-sound. Howard’s own words to his friend Tevis Clyde Smith after he received the first of many missives from fellow Weird Tales contributor H. P. Lovecraft could be construed as a warning: “He’s out of my class. I’m game to go the limit with a man my weight, but me scrapping with him is like a palooka climbing into a ring with a champion.” He was wrong as can be about that—geography forced his sparring-partnership with Lovecraft (unlike, say, the bond between Tolkien and C. S. Lewis) to play itself out on paper, and most semi-impartial judges have awarded a majority of the rounds to Howard—but a few too many ill-considered comparisons and we might as well present his literary standing with a one-way ticket to Palookaville. Are we shoving him into the ring against opponents to whom he would be lucky to lose? Do even his most unforgettable stories belong in the same weight class as those of Poe and Hawthorne, Twain and Bierce, Hemingway and Faulkner? Are we being delusional if we borrow what D. H. Lawrence said of Herman Melville—“He was neither mad nor crazy. But he was over the border. He was half a water animal, like those terrible yellow-bearded Vikings who broke out of the waves in beaked ships. He was mad to look over our horizons. Anywhere, anywhere out of our world. To get away, out!”—and apply it to Howard? Well, as Sailor Steve Costigan says of himself and Mike, his throat-seeking missile of a bulldog, in this volume’s The Bulldog Breed, “Always outclassed in everything except guts and grip!” The American literary pantheon is not on any map (“True places never are,” Melville reminds us in Moby Dick) but just as baseball boasts Cooperstown and rock-and-roll its Hall of Fame in Cleveland, The Library of America is an approximation, a simulacrum, the earthly tabernacle or reliquary for “America’s best and most significant writing.” Like America itself, an American pantheon should be a work in progress, a movable—and expandable—feast. Room is being found for those who never asked to be Americans, or did indeed ask but were rejected, and if the Library of America’s seal of approval can be read as the functional equivalent of a pantheon induction, the hospitable welcomes recently extended to H. P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick should be cause for Howardist rejoicing. The Library’s blurbage for Lovecraft salutes his “classic stories of the strange and fantastic from the visionary master of cosmic horror” and “intensely personal vision.” The vision of his Texas correspondent was equally intense and personal; the word “impersonal” might as well be Etruscan in terms of its usefulness when examining Howard’s work. Far from being teacher’s pets, idealizations with ichor or ink in their veins instead of blood, the residents of the American pantheon fascinate as human beings, deeply flawed but even more deeply talented. Our inductee-in-waiting will fit right in; he is always going to be a controversial figure, one with not only his fair share of faults, but also an unfair share of alleged faults. Lovecraft somehow neglected to accuse him of complicity in the Lindbergh kidnapping, but sent so many other reproaches his way that Howard allowed himself a little fun in a July 1935 letter:
Recalling off-hand the charges you have made against me, I remember that at various times you have accused me of being: Exalter-of-the-Physical-Above-the-Mental; Enemy of Humanity; Foe of Mankind; Apostle of Prejudice; Distorter of Fact; Repudiater of Evolutionary Standards; Over-Emphasizer of Ethics; Sympathizer of Criminals (that one broke all altitude records); Egotist; Poseur; Emotionalist; Defender of Ignorance; Sentimentalist; Romanticist. If I were guilty of all the things of which you’ve accused me, I not only wouldn’t be fit to live; I wouldn’t have sense enough to live.
To which list of charges some pantheon-gatekeepers would hasten to add, Pulp Hack, Racist, Sexist, Suicide, Bully, Arrested Adolescent, and Creator of Conan. Yes, Conan, the Cimmerian, he of the gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, he who poses a gigantic problem in that his huge, but decidedly non-Schwarzeneggerian, shadow falls across the rest of Howard’s work. Stick up for Howard to her cousin Enid though she did, Novalyne Price herself seems to have regarded Conan as a deal-breakingly undesirable potential brother-in-law, a dependably bad influence on the writer she was dating. And down through the decades since then, the Cimmerian has gone the way of Tarzan and James Bond as a creation whose links to his creator have been repeatedly severed, so that in John Wayne’s America: The Politics of Celebrity we catch the otherwise staggeringly erudite Garry Wills referring to “Conan the Barbarian, created by John Milius.” “Conan the Barbarian,” as dumbed-down as he is pumped-up, is merely a multimedia reduction of Conan the Cimmerian, the character displayed to optimum effect in this volume’s The Tower of the Elephant and Red Nails, and in The People of the Black Circle and Beyond the Black River of its predecessor. The title of the present afterword, which positions Howard as a barbarian at the pantheon-gates, is intended as more than a rote invocation of his uncivilized-and-proud-of-it characters. For much of America’s cultural history, any homegrown writer who presented himself at the gates guarded by Europeans—and those Americans who, in the words of Ernest Hemingway, “wrote like exiled English colonials from an England of which they were never a part to a newer England that they were making”—was ipso facto a barbarian, an outlander. When we run a banner with the strange device “Barbarian” up the flagpole in an American context to see if anyone salutes, we get some historically and culturally freighted responses. Before Howard happened to “barbarism” and “barbarian,” European-Americans usually associated those words with the continent’s previous owners. Europeans for their part have reached for the adjective “barbaric” and the noun “barbarian” so often when considering Americans of any sort that it would be forgivable to conclude that the New World was named in honor of the navigator Barbario Vespucci. And Americans have been almost as quick to call each other barbarians; for New Yorker George Templeton Strong, that always-quotable diarist/onlooker of the antebellum and Civil War years, all Southerners bore the mark of Cain as soon as congressman Charles Sumner bore the marks of the hotheaded Preston Brooks’ cane, and were besides “a race of lazy, ignorant, coarse, sensual, swaggering, sordid beggarly barbarians.” The childhood adage is only half right: sticks and stones may break our bones, but names can hurt hellaciously as well. However, names are also like sticks and stones in that they can be picked up and thrown back in the face of tormentors. In recent decades epithets meant to identify and isolate the members of certain groups have been worn by those members as badges of affirmation, and before that a few Americans comfortable in their own figurative buckskins taught themselves to take pride in, rather than umbrage at, “barbarian” and its variants. Walt Whitman’s I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world in Song of Myself is only the most famous instance. American barbarians force their way in where they are least expected. Henry James was a writer so unlike Howard it is a wonder the English language was big enough for the two of them; and yet in his 1877 novel The American, protagonist Christopher Newman visits the Louvre, where he is perceived as “the great western barbarian stepping forth in his innocence and might, gazing a while at this poor effete old world, and then swooping down on it.” John Dos Passos’ explanation for his return to America after the Great War was that “for us barbarians, men from an unfinished ritual,” postwar Europe was once again overly “gentle.” And barbaric resolve of a sort that Howard might have found admirable is implicit in this Henry Miller exhortation in Tropic of Cancer: “It may be that we are doomed, that there is no hope for us, any of us; but if that is so let us set up a last, agonizing, blood-curdling howl, a screech of defiance, a war-whoop!” In his Seven Keys to Texas the historian T. R. Fehrenbach even frames the “eternal dilemma” of the Lone Star State writer in nigh-Howardian terms: “To go or not to go to Rome, and when in Rome, to try to become Roman, or make his living explaining his barbarian ways to Romans—who may find them greatly entertaining.” Howard was aware that his barbarians might be mistaken for Noble Savages. Writing to Lovecraft in late October 1932, he denied possessing an “idyllic view of barbarism,” and expressed impatience “with the depiction of the barbarian of any race as a stately, god-like child of Nature, endowed with strange wisdom and speaking in measured and sonorous phrases.” He freely admitted that the barbarian of history was subject to tabus like “sharp sword-edges, between which he walked shuddering,” and more often than not brutal, squalid, childish, treacherous, and unstable. And yet “The day and night were his book, wherein he read of all things that run or walk or crawl or fly. Trees and grass and moss-covered rocks and birds and beasts and clouds were alive to him, and partook of his kinship. The wind blew his hair and he looked with naked eyes into the sun. Often he starved, but when he feasted, it was with a mighty gusto.” The Howard barbarian might leave Eden, an Eden more unforgiving in different ways than the Genesis-garden, but he does so of his own accord, and when he ventures city-ward he functions as an x-factor, a reality principle, handwriting on the wall scrawled forebodingly before ever the wall was built. We might transfer to Conan what Paul Horgan said of the mountain man in his Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History: “He was an American original, as hard as the hardest thing that could happen to him,” but after that—and this is crucial—much would still need to be said. From the criminality of the City of Thieves’ Maul, The Tower of the Elephant scales the sheer, silvery cliff-face of cruelty, of a highly civilized barbarity exposure to which will move Conan, the nominal barbarian, to shoulder the guilt of the entire human race. The not-from-around-here thief or assassin, the off-limits temple or tower, the monstrous or demonic hench-being of a blackly renowned necromancer awaiting the intruder—these are the basic building blocks of a fantasy subgenre with which presumed familiarity easily breeds contempt. Yet Howard, decades before sword-and-sorcery was even dubbed sword-and-sorcery, used the blocks to construct something startlingly non-formulaic, so much so that when Tom Shippey, as perceptive an academic as has ever engaged with modern fantasy, picked Tower for his 1994 Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories, he remarked on the “unexpected” compassion of “Howard’s normally brutish hero.” And so we open the pages of one of the pivotal American heroic fantasy tales and find an outlander pitying a being who is infinitely more of an outsider, while the monster-killing imperative yields to the decision to assist the monster in its revenge-killing. We are told in The Tower of the Elephant that Conan recalls Yara to wakefulness “like a judge pronouncing doom,” and the barbarian as the feral Rhadamanthus by way of whom his creator pronounces the dooms of civilization’s sophistries and shibboleths, the certainty that those who live off the fat of the land will die from that same luxury in the blink of history’s eye—these concepts are epitomized and versified in that crucial Howard poem, A Song of the Naked Lands. The Howardisms of this parable-as-paradigm—“Grim was the barter, red the trade,” or “the prison of satin and gold” known as “Culture and Art”—should not distract us from realizing that the Texan was not the first to shoe and saddle this particular hobbyhorse. The cheerless tune of Song is audible in Henry David Thoreau’s observation “It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf, that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the northern forests who were,” and dates all the way back to Herodotus. The much-traveled Greek chose to end his Histories with a moral courtesy of Cyrus the Great. As translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and A. R. Burns, the hero-king is urged to help himself to a “better” country. He does not burst into song, but he does anticipate A Song of the Naked Lands:
“Soft countries breed soft men. It is not the property of any one soil to produce fine fruits and good soldiers too.” The Persians had to admit that this was true and Cyrus was wiser than they; so they left him, and chose rather to live in a rugged land and rule than to cultivate rich plains and be subject to others.
The point to this quick look at the backstories of terms like “barbarian” or “naked lands” is that Howard dealt himself into debates that were old before 1492 and did not embarrass himself—one of the reasons why he would not embarrass the pantheon either. But can that august-if-virtual institution be persuaded to take in a lowly pulpster? The Library of America allowed in Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, who made Black Mask a legend, years ago, but then allowances are easily made for the brass knucks and coshes of hardboiled detective fiction, thanks to that subgenre’s bruisingly unsparing reportorial function. Hammett and Chandler were also fortunate enough to have John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and Howard Hawks adeptly adapting their work for another, even more popular medium. With Lovecraft’s tentacles now snaking across the Library’s threshold, perhaps the pulpily fantastic will win itself more space. When he gave the title Pulp Fiction to one of the defining movies of the Nineties, Quentin Tarantino may or may not have intended to acknowledge the fact that the best pulps have aged well because they showcased work that turned out to be ageless, but Michael Chabon’s sincerity in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, where he calls the pulps “argosies of blood and wonder,” is incontrovertible. A democracy’s pantheon should be hospitable to those who achieve excellence in intrinsically democratic venues. Stephen King, who came along too late for the pulps, started out by selling to even less prestigious markets like Dude, Cavalier, Adam, and Swank, and now seems poised for induction in the aftermath of his 2003 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (an event that reduced Defender of the Canon Harold Bloom to weeping tears of blood). Paul Seydor’s “reconsideration” of Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns is deservedly admired for seeing those movies as if for the first time and with the clearest of eyes. While trying to find a niche in the pantheon for his artist, Seydor singles out American literature’s “fascination—bordering, some might argue, on the pathological—with the exotic, the foreign, the criminal, and the wild. This fascination in turn results in a fiction that rarely moves far from escapist genres. The reasons our artists give for this almost always reduce to the same one when we cut through the rhetoric of individualism and freedom: the insufficiency of mainstream American life to vitalize the imagination.” Sure enough, Howard’s imagination was vitalized by the exotic, the foreign, the criminal, the wild. With transatlantic voyages not yet an option, the only New World available to Donald MacDeesa in Lord of Samarcand, who hails from the uttermost West of his day, is the East; he is limited to crossing seas of sand and oceans of grass. Yet how well Leslie Fiedler’s summation of classic American tales in general, and Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym in particular—“And through it all the outcast wanderer, equally in love with death and distance, seeks some absolute elsewhere”—suits the wayward clansman as he looks back down “the bitter trail of his life” and hugs an isolation colder than the bones of the moon. If Seydor is correct, if the truest American writing is fringe writing, all edge and no center, then by working the genre fringe Robert E. Howard teleported himself smack-dab into the center, the dream-center, of our culture. When everything is margin, marginalization becomes moot. The title of one of the poems in this volume, Which Will Scarcely Be Understood, would do as well for a summary of Howard’s critical reception, such as it was, until the late Seventies at the earliest. And yet much of the cryptography needed to decode his meaningfulness had already been done. “During my last year in college, I’d read several of D. H. Lawrence’s books,” Novalyne Price tells us in One Who Walked Alone. “I could see they were sexy. I didn’t know whether to tell Bob about reading them or not.” Had she dipped into Lawrence’s nonfiction as well as his fiction, specifically 1923’s Studies in Classic American Literature, she would have bristled with a whole arsenal of talking points when making the case for Howard’s pantheon-readiness to cousin Enid. Lawrence’s survey is as eccentrically electric, or electrically eccentric, as any of the newly identified classics he was covering, and no better description of what he was up to exists than cultural historian Ann Douglas’ in her Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, which despite its title is about much, much more than Manhattan or the 1920s:
The “essential American soul,” [Lawrence] proclaimed, is “hard, isolate, stoic,” and a “killer.” America is full of “vampires,” the “terrible . . . ghosts” of the black and red men the white settlers had exterminated, exploited, and, unbeknownst to themselves, envied and assimilated. For Lawrence, America was a King Kong figure—King Kong’s cinematic debut was only a decade away—careening amid the wasteland of the West, and he was King Kong’s prophet.
 “Civilized” and “barbaric” have continued to glower at each other in post-Howardian popular culture. The 1971 film The Omega Man is unsatisfactory as an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic pandemic-of-vampirism novel I Am Legend, but Anthony Zerbe’s Matthias could be channeling Howard when he says to Charlton Heston’s Neville, “Barbarians? You call us barbarians? Well, it is an honorable name. We mean to cancel the world you civilized people made.”
 While abnormally dangerous, Conan is not “normally brutish”—a brutish hero would have been no hero at all to Howard. In his first-ever sale to Weird Tales, the Cro-Magnon versus Neanderthal grudge-match Spear and Fang, the protagonist Ga-nor is an artist, a “past master” of cave painting. Had Shippey had the chance to read the Conan stories in order of composition, as can now be done by way of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, The Bloody Crown of Conan, and The Conquering Sword of Conan, before seeing the Cimmerian in action he would have seen him in inaction, refusing to hang the seditious Rinaldo because “a great poet is greater than any king.”
 Howard seemingly takes direct aim at Cyrus in his only Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon. Squiring his readers through the “palm trees and orange groves” of the sun-and-soil-blessed province of Poitain, he writes, “It is not only the hard lands that breed hard men.”
 We can be sure that Howard would have scrambled to see King Kong, but he did not share his reaction to the film in any letter that has survived. What is known is that he “got a big whang out of [Eugene] O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape,” and in one of the poems included in this volume, “Never Beyond the Beast,” he warns of the inescapability of “the blind black brutish passion—the lust of the primal Ape.” Another poem cautions that “a strange shape comes to your faery mead/With a fixed black simian frown.”
Douglas goes on to stress that “Lawrence called the American literature he was writing about ‘classic’—recognized and revered, in other words, by those acknowledged to be best able to judge the matter—but next to no one knew it. Using the term was, in fact, a publicity stunt, Lawrence’s bold bid to canonize a group of authors who were largely ignored, forgotten, or misread.” Cooper, Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville were for him avatars of a shadow-side America, the “inner nature of brutality [of which was] more extreme and more at odds with its public mask and voice than was the case anywhere else.” When the mask slipped, when Kong broke his chains, as per Douglas paraphrasing Lawrence, “America might be the only nation capable, if uncensored and unchecked, of flooding the civilized world with what William Carlos Williams called in his self-consciously Lawrentian study In the American Grain (1925), ‘rich regenerative violence.’ ”
And flood the civilized world it did, with red harvests and blood meridians, wild bunches and magnum forces. Imagery that conjures a civilized world flooded, by forces at last unchecked, with rich regenerative violence is of course also ground zero for Howard studies. Lawrence’s “bold bid to canonize” leads straight to Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence trilogy about the mythology of the American frontier, and to Howard’s most powerful work. Those of us who’ve worked on The Best of Robert E. Howard are driven by a “self-consciously Lawrentian agenda” of our own—we too are partisans of a writer “largely ignored, forgotten, or misread,” and we’re sure that because his finest stories are classic, “though next to no one [knows] it,” they should be promoted as such in a repeat of Lawrence’s 1923 “publicity stunt.”
The slightest suggestion of Howard’s induction-potential will have some of the unconverted demanding the installation of a metal detector in the pantheon’s entrance. Is the violence that convulses Howard’s stories rich and regenerative, or just rote? “This young man has the power to feel. He knows nothing of war, yet he is drenched with blood,” Ambrose Bierce conceded of Stephen Crane. Similarly drenched if similarly unbaptized by fire, Howard too possessed a power to feel that his readers never cease to feel. Jack London was the authorial father-figure who taught the Texan the most about luring romanticism into the dark alleys where realism was waiting. George Orwell thought London “essentially a short-story writer,” conspicuous for “his love of brutality and physical violence and, in general, what is known as ‘adventure.’ ” Alfred Kazin for his part noted in his 1942 overview of modern American literature On Native Ground, “Nothing is so important about London as the fact that he came on the scene at a time when the shocked consciousness of a new epoch demanded the kind of heady violence that he was always so quick to provide.” Howard, who came of age in an even newer epoch, trafficked in even more unsparing violence; early in Lord of Samarcand a battlefield’s “shrieks of dire agony still [rise] to the shivering stars which [peer] palely out, as if frightened by man’s slaughter of man.”
Yes, his work is full of swords, but they are often double-edged, and a preoccupation with the survival of the fittest is shadowed by the certainty that both fitness and survival are fleeting. At his best, Howard was a purveyor not of cheap thrills but of frissons costly for both the writer and his more alert readers. “One problem in writing bloody literature,” he mused to HPL in 1932, “is to present it in such a manner as to avoid a suggestion of cheap blood-and-thunder melodrama—which is what some people will always call action, regardless of how realistic and true it is.” In an April 1932 letter Howard vented, “I’ll swear, I’ve written of Christian armies being defeated by Moslems until my blood fairly seethes with rage. Some day I must write of the success of the earlier Crusades to gratify my racial vanity.” He never did (and perhaps would not have been able to had he tried), but in Lord of Samarcand Donald MacDeesa topples both Bayazid the Thunderer and Timour the Lame—the pistol shot with which he redresses his grievance with the latter is anachronistic, but also precociously American.
Dirge-dire, Lord is enough of a revenge tragedy to frighten a Jacobean. If Howard the poet likens the nations Timour tramples underfoot to “lost women crying in the mountains at night,” Howard the dramaturge takes over when MacDeesa assures Bayazid, “I would go through greater hells to bring you to the dust!” The Texan blithely challenges both Christopher Marlowe and Edgar Allan Poe; indeed, by helping himself to several chapter epigraphs, Howard induces Poe to attend his somber feast even as Bayazid is forced to be present at Timour’s. This volume’s Son of the White Wolf, wherein the titular predator is a rough beast whose hour comes round again in one of the Great War’s only “glamorous” sideshows, also aspires to be “bloody literature.” Bloody, and prescient—cultures force-marching themselves into imagined pasts in pursuit of illusory purity and predestination are a regrettably familiar phenomenon to us in the twenty-first century.
Black Vulmea’s Vengeance demonstrates that Howard was potentially a pirate novelist capable of boarding the flagships of Stevenson and Sabatini, but also transcends “cheap blood-and-thunder melodrama” in its exploration of mercy as a form of revenge more devastating to its undeserving recipient than even the most massively retaliatory payback would be. Living with one’s own crimes can be more painful and more protracted than dying because of them. Elsewhere we find a vignette swollen into a metaphor in The Man on the Ground, as a feud-driven Texan’s hatred, “an almost tangible abstraction—a hate too strong for even death to destroy; a hate powerful enough to embody itself in itself, without the aid or necessity of material substance,” outlives him among dry-gulching-facilitating rocks “hotter than the hearthstones of hell.” D. H. Lawrence speaks in his chapter on The Scarlet Letter of “a black and complementary hatred, akin to love,” and Howard was no stranger to that perverse intimacy situated in the far regions of antipathy. Witness not only The Man on the Ground but also the final story in this volume, Red Nails, as remarkable an American treatment of the feudist cul-de-sac as there’s been since Huck Finn, caught up in the quarrel between the Shepherdson and Grangerford clans, was told “by-and-by everybody’s killed off, and there ain’t no more feud. But it’s kind of slow, and takes a long time.”
The story’s inspiration has little to do with the Hyborian Age and much to do with the Lincoln County War in which Billy the Kid shot to fame as a shootist. As Patrice Louinet explains in Hyborian Genesis Part III (see The Conquering Sword of Conan), a vacation that took Howard to the hyperbolically haunted site of Lincoln, New Mexico, left him speculating as to whether “the nature of the Bonito Valley determined the nature of the feud—narrow, concentrated, horrible.” What was for him local, or at least regional, color also appears in the story’s “cactus-dotted plain” and reference to “cliff-dwellings of the mysterious brown people”—we are not far from Brian Attebery’s description of Burroughs’ Barsoom, “a dream or fantasy vision of the American Southwest.” As Rusty Burke comments in his in-depth study Journey Inside: The Quest of the Hero in Red Nails, much of the story’s nomenclature—Olmec, Chicmec, Tezcoti, Xuchotl—“rings with the history of the Pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico and Central America, from whom Howard drew for the story’s proper names.” Pre-Columbian shadings may also have contributed to what the Texan teased to Clark Ashton Smith as being “the grimmest, bloodiest, and most merciless story of the series so far,” the elements of the Mesoamerican worldview that T. R. Fehrenbach, in his Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico, summarized as “magic and mystery, blood and horror,” all perceived through “a filter of darkest night, or in a violent blast of sun blaze.”
Another New World underpinning is disclosed when we learn that the “sinister crimson” city was founded on the enslavement and slaughter of black people. (Xuchotl does not seem to be haunted by these original victims, but maybe, just maybe, everything that befalls all subsequent citizens, whether Kosalan or Tlazitlan, can be traced to the founding atrocity.) Conan and Valeria, the two adventurers who tip the balance of the feud, are once and future Aquilonians respectively, and therefore, given the special significance of Aquilonia (which in the Conan series “reigns supreme in the dreaming West”), Americans of a sort. The Cimmerian grins “hardily” when he accepts an offer from the Tecuhltli—“We’re both penniless vagabonds. I’d as soon kill Xotalancas as anybody”—thereby expressing an unmistakably American attitude: the history behind other people’s feuds is of little importance, and space, the essential New World resource, heals the wounds that time turns gangrenous. But a December 1934 letter to Lovecraft in which Howard professes himself indifferent to European “squabbles and massacres,” describing the continent as “nothing but a rat-den where teeming, crowded rodents, jammed together in an unendurable mass, squeal and gnash and murder each other,” cautions us against too quickly single-sourcing the story. Europe had been a Xuchotl in 1916—note that the city has its own no-man’s-land, the Halls of Silence which lie between the feuding factions—and by 1935 looked to be one again, as the postwar years in which Howard grew up gave way to prewar years during which he and others grew aware that dictatorships were calling the tune to which democracies desperately danced. Neither entirely an Old World story nor entirely a New World story, Red Nails becomes an underworld story, a visit to a realm sealed off and trapped by the cave-in of Tlazitlan sanity. Murmurous with the ghosts of old murders, Xuchotl rises architecturally above several ossuaries’ worth of skeletons at its foundation but morally descends into “the black corridors and realms of the subterranean world.” D. H. Lawrence called Poe “an adventurer into vaults and cellars and horrible underground passages of the human soul,” and from those same passages in Red Nails the Crawler, the Burning Skull, and the pipes of madness emerge, while Tolkemec, Howard’s diabolus ex machina, returns from the vaults of the dead as memorably as anyone has since Madeline Usher. Xuchotl surpasses even the Blassenville Manor of Pigeons from Hell as a contender to be Howard’s equivalent of Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel, or Poe’s palace of Prince Prospero—“And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel” covers the people of Xuchotl as well as the masquers of the Red Death.
In the stories just mentioned our pantheon prospect asked rather than evaded questions about the vengeance-imperative that powers so much genre fiction; and although he could be as pulpy as the occasion warranted—“How long can you avoid the fangs of the Poison People?” an especially odious high priest taunts a cobra-beset dancer in one of the Conan stories—the truth is that we’re dealing with an overachiever, a better writer than he needed to be to succeed in the markets available to him. Lovecraft beat everyone else to this realization while grieving for his friend in print: “He was greater than any profit-making policy he could adopt—for even when he outwardly made concessions to Mammon-guided editors and commercial critics, he had an internal force and sincerity which broke the surface and put the imprint of his personality on everything he wrote.” The imagery here, “internal force and sincerity” breaking the surface and imprinting themselves, is precisely what D. H. Lawrence sought and found in his chosen American classics. And to Lovecraft’s tribute we can append the follow-up assertion that Howard was also greater than the profit-making policies adopted by too many of those who presumed to package his work in the decades after his death.
A natural, he possessed the unnatural degree of dedication and perseverance that getting the most out of being a natural entails. In her memoir How It Was, Mary Hemingway quoted her husband Ernest as having said, “The secret is that it is poetry written into prose and it is the hardest of all things to do”—in some ways it was a little easier for Howard, much more of a born poet if much less of a prose revolutionary than Hemingway, with a bardic knack for investing subjectivity and selectivity through the sheer rightness of word-choices with much of the irrefutability of objectivity. His style is rather like the second of the two gifts the Nemedian girl Zenobia gives the dungeon-immured Conan in The Hour of the Dragon (the first being his freedom): “It was no slender stiletto, selected because of a jeweled hilt or gold guard, fitted only for dainty murder in milady’s boudoir; it was a forthright poniard, a warrior’s weapon, broad-bladed, fifteen inches in length, tapering to a diamond-sharp point.” The forthright and undainty pointedness of Howard’s best prose is equally diamond-sharp. A character resents “the slow fading of the light as a miser begrudges the waning of his gold.” “All the sanity” goes out of another’s face “like a flame blown out by the wind.” The lightning-bolts of an epic storm are “veiled in the falling flood like fire shining through frosted glass, turning the world to frosty silver.”
The active voice usurps the passive like one of Howard’s pushful swordsmen ousting an enfeebled dynasty, and the pathetic fallacy could not work harder for him were it his indentured servant, as in one of this volume’s nerve-shredding crescendos, Wings in the Night: “A shuddering white-faced dawn crept back over the black hills to shiver above the red shambles that had been the village of Bogonda.” To describe the vitality that crackles through his paragraphs we can enlist the aid of the reborn, regenerated-through-violence Esau Cairn in Almuric, Howard’s unfinished roughing-up of the Burroughsian planetary romance: “I tingled and burned and stung with life to the finger tips and the ends of my toes. Every sinew, vein, and springy bone was vibrant with the dynamic flood of singing, pulsing, humming life.” Looking again to Ann Douglas’ Terrible Honesty, we read that “Vitality, not verisimilitude, is the criterion of classic American literature; it offers a portrait of energy itself, of the adrenaline of the psyche, a portrait in which the external landscape is never separate from the landscape within.” Howard specializes in portraits of energy itself and constantly injects his work with the adrenaline of his psyche—many of his opening paragraphs are not so much invitations to continue reading as forcible abductions. American exceptionalism is perhaps better suited to literature than geopolitics, and Howard’s immediacy and intensification combine for an exceptionalism like a Texas-accented emanation of Archibald MacLeish’s “continent where the heat was hotter and the cold was colder and the sun was brighter and the nights were blacker and the distances were farther and the faces were nearer and the rain was more like rain and the mornings were more like mornings than anywhere else on earth—sooner or sweeter and lovelier over unused hills.”
He is rarely given to stately symmetry, and if some of his work (though not supremely accomplished tales like Worms of the Earth or Lord of Samarcand) can be jagged, jittery, and joltingly uneven, we need only remember that the most influential writing about the American classics often considers not whether the glass is half empty or half full, but why it tends to be half cracked. Richard Chase in his The American Novel and Its Tradition stresses the “radical disunities and contradictions” and attraction to “extreme ranges of experience” of the best American novels, while the eminent critic George Steiner once observed that “the uncertainties of taste in Poe, Hawthorne and Melville and the obscuring idiosyncrasies of their manner point directly to the dilemmas of individual talent producing in relative isolation.” We don’t think the idiosyncrasies of Howard’s manner are obscuring, except perhaps to certain bouncers on the pantheon payroll, but as a later but arguably even more isolated individual talent, he too was making much of it up as he went along, which brings us to his claim that he “was the first to light a torch of literature in this part of the country, however small, frail, and easily extinguished that flame may be. I am, in my way, a pioneer.”
In his essay Southwestern Literature?, Larry McMurtry comments, “The tendency to practice symbolic frontiersmanship might almost be said to characterize the twentieth century Texan,” and that tendency is almost impossible to avoid when discussing the twentieth-century Texan who concerns us here. Howard’s self-identification as a torch-lighting trailblazer is not only symbolic frontiersmanship but a striking example of a well-known Leslie Fiedler generalization: “[The American writer] is forever beginning, saying for the first time (without real tradition there can never be a second time) what it is like to stand alone before nature, or in a city as appallingly lonely as any virgin forest.”
In Terrible Honesty Ann Douglas sketches the “culturally impoverished” Ernest Hemingway, “starting in some sense from scratch, less freighted with cultural baggage,” and therefore freed up to “fashion, with little resistance or waste, the new literary tools the modern experience demanded.” The culturally impoverished and isolated Howard labored long in a short life to fashion the new literary tools his startlingly modern varieties of heroic fantasy and historical adventure demanded. Being a literary fire-bringer and torchbearer in West Texas was the only way in which progress still permitted Howard to be a pioneer. “He should have lived his life a generation before, when men threw a wide loop and rode long trails,” he writes of his doomed hero in Wild Water, one of the stories we’re most excited about including in this collection, and although Howard himself could continue throwing wide loops and riding long trails at his typewriter, that wasn’t enough for him. “What I want is impossible, as I’ve told you before,” he emphasized in a 1933 letter to Lovecraft, “I want, in a word, the frontier—which is compassed in the phrase, new land, open land, free land—land rich and unbroken and virgin, swarming with game and laden with fresh forests and sweet cold streams, where a man could live by the sweat of his hands unharried by taxes, crowds, noise, unemployment, bank-failures, gang-extortions, laws, and all the other wearisome things of civilization.” The Howard heroes Francis Xavier Gordon and Esau Cairn, both born “in the Southwest, of old frontier stock,” light out for improbable territories where they need not try to pry open Frederick Jackson Turner’s closed frontier. Gordon, represented in The Best of Robert E. Howard by Hawk of the Hills and Son of the White Wolf, hurls himself into “howling adventures among the Indians,” only now the wild warriors are those of Afghanistan and Arabia. Cairn is hurled through space by one Professor Hildebrand’s teleportation device to a paradoxical interstellar homecoming:
I had neither companionship, books, clothing, nor any of the things which go to make up civilization. According to the cultural viewpoint, I should have been most miserable. I was not. I revelled in my existence. My being grew and expanded. I tell you, the natural life of mankind is a grim battle for existence against the forces of nature, and any other form of life is artificial and without realistic meaning.
Someone living that vicariously through Cairn’s frontier-fresh start is unlikely to be either urbane or urban, although The Tower of the Elephant begins at the bottom, in a (mean)-street-level beggars’ banquet where only “watchmen, well paid with stained coins,” represent law and order. The setting of Vultures of Wahpeton is a cluster of mining camps with pretensions to townhood, not a city, but in its gold rush throes, Wahpeton effectively caricatures the unrestrained capitalism Franklin Delano Roosevelt was saving from itself while Howard worked on his novella: a welter of getting and spending, gouging and fleecing, wheeling and dealing in smoke-filled rooms and gunsmoke-filled dives. More typically dreamlike are Samarcand—when Donald MacDeesa looks upon that Central Asian capital for the first time, it “[shimmers] to his gaze, mingling with the blue of the distance,” like “a city of illusion and enchantment”—and the fireworks-bedecked Constantinople of The Shadow of the Vulture, a “realm of shimmering magic, with the minarets of its mosques like towers of fire in an ocean of golden foam.” The most mysterious of all cities for Howard is obviously domesticity, and although drawn to the Middle Ages, he had difficulty imagining middle age for himself or his characters. Still, if Conan in a standoff with Valeria and Gottfried von Kalmbach flummoxed by Red Sonya are mere skirmishes in the battle of the sexes, they are skirmishes fought zestfully by both combatants. And the “pastoral quietude” of a chance meeting between a disenchanted king and a distraught slave girl in By This Axe I Rule! should serve as a warning against underestimating this writer’s range.
What’s more, different kinds of range exist; Howard certainly ranged across recorded history and the invitingly blank pages of unrecorded history. In The Star Rover Jack London imagines a “rider full-panoplied and astride of time,” and his Texan admirer, for whom that novel was something of a sacred text, clung convincingly to bucking temporal broncos in his historical fiction, especially a set of stories from the early Thirties that pit Crusaders against Eastern conquerors. Here the contending supernatural forces are not Jehovah and Allah but Hubris and Nemesis. The Shadow of the Vulture features “the Armageddon of races, Asia against Europe,” but equally stupendous and far more exotic is the death-grapple between Asia and Asia when Bayazid and Timour meet in Lord of Samarcand, as “the thunder of cymbals and kettle-drums” contends with the “awesome trumpeting” of war-elephants, and “blasts of arrows and sheets of fire” wither “men in their mail like burnt grain.” To range we should also add reach, and a refusal to be intimidated by historical distances and distinctions. The English specialist in American literature Tony Tanner was struck by the brashness with which T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound availed themselves of “fragments of the world’s past and disparate cultures to build their own private worlds. This sort of relatively unfettered eclecticism when dealing with the past is peculiarly American and an utterly different thing from the European writer’s sense of the past. If anything it negates the historical sense. . . . The results and new juxtapositions can be brilliant, breathtakingly original and very un-European.” The Hyborian Age of the Conan stories also looms in Carl Van Doren’s comparison of James Branch Cabell’s fantasies to The Faerie Queen: “Geographical and chronological boundaries melt and flow, wherein fable encroaches upon history, and the creative mood of the poet re-cuts his shining fabrics as if they were whole cloth intended solely for his purposes.” And when Tanner says of Herman Melville’s prose that with “its vast assimilations, its seemingly opportunistic eclecticism, its pragmatic and improvisatory nonchalance, its capacious grandiloquence and demotic humour, it is indeed a style for America—the style of America,” he also captures many of the stylistic attributes of an American named Robert E. Howard. Opportunistic eclecticism and improvisatory nonchalance can’t help but improve a talented writer’s range.
Also pertinent to this issue is the fact that Howard spent much of his time at the typewriter trying to make editors and readers laugh. Sailor Steve Costigan, the “ordinary ham-an’-egger” who broke big for his creator in the pugilistically inclined pulp Fight Stories, is represented here by The Bull Dog Breed. Steve comes equipped with a concussion-proof skull and a repercussion-proof gullibility, and the stories about him focus on the ties that bind man and “Dublin gentleman” bulldog, and the inability of two-fistedness to keep up with two-facedness. A few years later Breckinridge Elkins, the first and most illustrious of Howard’s mountain man man-mountains, arrived as discreetly and understatedly as a rockslide, and he was soon joined by Pike Bearfield. Pragmatically cloned for a new market, Bearfield acquires his own, epistolary-narrative-shaking identity in this volume’s Gents on the Lynch, and also The Riot at Bucksnort and A Gent from the Pecos.
The farther west the English language got, the greater its Americanization, as Paul Horgan recognizes: “Its inflations and exaggerations were brandished in reply to the vastness of the West, the bulk of mountains, where man was so little. If there was vulgarity in its expression, there was also pathos, for what showed plain was the violent dancing of a spirit that must assert or be lost.” Only a generation or two removed from all of this, Howard knew what he wanted to recapture for Pike Bearfield and Breck Elkins; to Lovecraft in 1931 he admitted, “Western folkways and traditions are so impregnated with savagery, suffering and strife, that even Western humor is largely grim, and, to non-Westerners, often grotesque.” The savagery, suffering, and strife of Vultures of Wahpeton-esque elements like Mustang Stirling’s outlaws and a Vigilante Committee are reprised farcically in Gents, as Bearfield’s spirit dances violently in passages like “Folks is always wanting to lynch me, and quite a few has tried, as numerous tombstones on the boundless prairies testifies.” Gents also features Howard, who seethed over attempts by Easterners to impose their frames of reference on the Southwest, gleefully imposing a Southwesterner’s frame of reference on the most hallowed events of East Coast history: “He said the Britishers was going to sneak out of a town named Boston which I jedge must have been a right sizable cowtown or mining-camp or something, and was going to fall on the people unawares and confiscate their stills and weppins and steers and things.”
The man responsible for a story called By This Axe I Rule! is likely to disdain check-swings of that axe; not for Howard the hedging of bets and eying of exits found in earlier American fantastic fiction. He did not so much write his stories down or type them out as commit them—and commit to them. For Ann Douglas, Melville’s books “move forward when he is in close connection with himself, in the grip of his daemon.” That is also true of Howard, to the point where he abandoned several fan-favorite characters because the close connection had been lost; his daemon had shifted his grip. But the grip is searingly, serratedly tight in, for example, Wings of the Night; Melville’s Ahab, a Quaker, describes himself as “madness maddened” during his pursuit of the white whale, and the akaanas of Wings airlift Kane, the Puritan, to a similarly far gone state. Howard dwells upon their “fearful mirth to see men die wholesale,” their “strange and grisly sense of humor [that is] tickled by the suffering of a howling human.” We could be dealing with the “boys” of King Lear’s “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport,” although in this instance it is not the flies but the boys who are winged. While the akaanas are not divine or even supernatural, Howard does liken them to “demons flying back to hell through the dawn,” and they call to mind Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence comment on the forests of Nathaniel Hawthorne: “The man who enters the wilderness hunting for something he regards as truth or power is always led to a place where devils dance in a ring, inviting him to a black Eucharist.”
Having agreed with Lovecraft “that Puritanism provides a rich field for psychological study,” in an October 1930 letter, Howard exploits that rich field in Wings as nowhere else in his Solomon Kane series. America’s Puritan and African antecedents encounter each other in a “pre-American” setting: “the Dark Continent, land of shadows and horror, of bewitchment and sorcery, into which all evil things had been banished before the growing light of the western world.” And yet the supposedly Dark Continent illuminates Solomon Kane as he seeks out the shadows, becomes most fully himself, acquires a context that his birthplace Devon, as is evidenced by the hail-and-farewell of Solomon Kane’s Homecoming, can never hope to provide. In his 2004 essay Heritage of Steel: Howard and the Frontier Myth, Steven R. Trout memorably discusses the one-sided dialogue between Kane and the “shriveled, mummified head of Goru, whose eyes, strangely enough, did not change in the blaze of the sun or the haunt of the moon.” Goru is an eloquent if wordless accuser; the Englishman has failed in what might otherwise seem an objectionably paternalistic role—proved better at being a Kane than being a Solomon. He is a king whose kingdom is raptored away from him, and the akaanas, it should be noted, arrive from Europe to prey upon and despoil—in effect, colonize—Africans.
As Brian Attebery emphasizes, “The American writer must find some way of reentering the ancient storytelling guild: he must validate his claim to the archetypes that are the tools of the trade.” Howard’s modus operandi involved straightforward breaking and entering, after which he helped himself to whatever archetypes he needed. Thus the harpies of Wings, on loan from Jason and the Argonauts, and the advisory to readers at the start of The Valley of the Worm acknowledging that they “have heard the tale before in many guises wherein the hero was named Tyr, or Perseus, or Siegfried, or Beowulf, or Saint George”—and yet it is Niord/James Allison/Robert E. Howard who knows best, by dint of having known first. Such effrontery is a way for the American fantasist to plant his feet and his feats. Against the Conqueror Worm, Howard sets the worm-conqueror in not only The Valley of the Worm but also Red Nails.
In 1938 J. R. R. Tolkien, moonlighting as a draconologist not long after he had unleashed Smaug, “the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities,” in The Hobbit, assured an audience of children in an Oxford lecture that a dragon is “more terrible than any dinosaur” and “the final test of heroes,” so it is quite fitting that a dragon should test Conan the Cimmerian in his final adventure (final in the sense of last to be written). Howard’s hero brings, of course, a forthrightly American attitude to the confrontation: “There’s no law against killing a dragon, is there?” is his libertarian question to Olmec in an early draft of Red Nails. In his indispensable Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien makes the case that “there are in any case many heroes but very few good dragons,” and faults the Beowulf-dragon for “not being dragon enough,” due to trace elements of symbolism and allegory that threaten to dilute the effectiveness of “some vivid touches of the right kind.” His ideal is a “real worm, with a bestial life and thought of his own.” Howard’s dragon in Red Nails is nothing but vivid touches and bestial life, hungry, enraged, vengeful—woe betide any allegorical readings foolish enough to be caught downwind of him. He squats “watching [Conan and Valeria’s crag] with the frightful patience of the reptile folk. So might one of his brood have glared up at their troglodyte ancestors, treed on a high-flung rock, in the dim dawn ages.” Later he wallows on the ground “like a dog with pepper in its eyes,” and “a noisy gurgling and lapping” betrays his attempt to quench his poison-inflamed thirst.
Conan, who will soon be faced with the riotously unnatural Xuchotl, broad-jumps the abyss of ages and the great divide between mammal and reptile to accept the dragon as a fellow natural born killer: “He attributed to it characteristics similar to his own, and saw in its wrath a counterpart of his rages, in its roars and bellowings merely reptilian equivalents to the curses he had bestowed upon it.” Unlike Sigurd Fafnir’s-bane, he does not need to dine on dragon-heart to gain understanding, and that he feels “a kinship with all wild things, even dragons” makes Conan wilder and the dragon more real. Seldom exhibiting an appetite for fantasy of any sort, the American pantheon has never been motivated to seek out a definitive New World dragonslaying, but were it to do so, Red Nails would be waiting.
Like many Americans, some of whom are now pantheon residents, Howard preferred to skirt, or slink away from, certain of the misshapen menhirs and dolmens that stand out so starkly in our psychic landscape. Comforting though it would be to report that he was ahead of his time in his views on people who did not look like him, he was simply, even simplistically, of his time in his over-reliance on “race,” a construct both highly artificial and built with the shoddiest of materials, as an organizing principle. Howardists are fond of recalling one occasion on which Steven R. Trout, for whom the celebrating-in-the-endzone triumphalism of Wings in the Night about the “white-skinned conqueror” just got to be too much, remarked, “I don’t remember ever seeing such a clear indication that ol’ Bob would’ve lost money had he bet the Louis/Schmeling fight.”
Still, when considering a story like this volume’s Pigeons from Hell it is worth remembering that African-Americans stimulated Howard’s imagination when he was a child—witness one tale he recalled to Lovecraft, invariably set in “the ruins of a once thriving plantation,” in which “always, as [vagrants] approach the high-columned verandah through the high weeds that surround the house, great numbers of pigeons rise from their roosting places on the railing and fly away”—and, in ways that will not appease all readers nowadays, troubled his conscience when he was an adult. “I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” insists Quentin Compson when he is accused of hating the South at the end of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Howard, a Southwesterner rather than a Southerner, was never quite as much on the defensive as is Harvard student Quentin “in the iron New England dark.” And yet we should not lose sight of the fact that “South” comes before “west” in the word “Southwest,” so Southern pride goes before, or remains after, a fall, the possibility of which would never have occurred to the less history-burdened. Clark Edward Clifford acknowledges the complicated shadows in his In the Deep Heart’s Core: Reflections on Life, Letters, and Texas: “Even if we manage to kill Mexicans and Indians with John Wayne remorselessness, Southern-ness lurks in the shadows, ever ready to remind us that we too have done something wrong, have lost a war, have declined, have once been human.”
Have once been human—or, in some instances, inhuman. “Her past and her traditions are close to my heart, though I would be a stranger within her gates,” Howard once wrote of the South, and Griswell, the (Lovecraft-esque?) New Englander of Pigeons From Hell, permits the Texan to return as a stranger to the strangest of American lands. If not quite a first person narrator, Griswell is first among equals as a third person actor in the story; he’s the viewpoint character, and his viewpoint is that of “frantic abhorrence of these black woods, the ancient plantation houses that hid forgotten secrets of slavery and bloody pride.” Howard was capable of confiding, “I have often wished strongly that I had lived on the ancestral plantations in the Deep South in the days before the Civil War,” or maintaining that the horrors of slavery were frequently exaggerated, but we have evidence that he was not so much a loyal son as a transplanted grandson who knew a bit too much to be quite as loyal as he would have liked. In Pigeons he does not insult our intelligence with blameless Blassenvilles, social workers who happen to own a plantation, apostles of outreach and uplift victimized by their motivelessly malevolent maid Joan. But neither can he bring himself to insult regional pride by attributing to a rootedly Southern, irreproachably bloodlined family atrocious mismanagement of their human property. So the Blassenvilles turn out to be of European origin and Caribbean extremism, in Sheriff Buckner’s words a “French-English family. Came here from the West Indies before the Louisiana Purchase. The Civil War ruined them, like it did so many.” Quicker to apply the whip and slower to leave off because they “got their ideas in the West Indies,” as Buckner puts it, the family is convenient for Howard’s conflicted purposes, and it is only logical that Celia, “the last one of the family to come to these parts,” hence even less of an adoptive Southerner than her relatives, is the cruelest of the cruel.
While Celia is drawn to voodoo culture, Joan, her victim and subsequent victimizer, has “white blood in her,” and pride of her own. In a sense they are each other’s weird sisters, and instead of an American melting pot Pigeons posits a bubbling witches’ cauldron in which what should be the boundaries between Celia and Joan dissolve—the identities and fates of the two characters are not disentangled until the final paragraph. Howard’s dark American fantasy reflects multihued American reality in that the disentanglement of fates and identities is impossible.
In the quasi-autobiographical Post Oaks & Sand Roughs, Howard’s false start at a novel in the late Twenties, his alter ego announces, “Now, I wish for a fair craft, three-masted, full-sailed, with a fair wind and a clear sea path—to where? The Isles of Yesterday, mayhap, or the coasts of Romance, or the beaches of Adventure, or the turquoise sea of Dawn.” But by the time he wrote to fellow pulp pro E. Hoffmann Price on February 15, 1936, he lamented having “gone so far along the path of romantic-exotic writing that it’s devilish difficult to find my way back to common-place realism, and yet every urge in me is to write realism.” Realism nevertheless accompanied him on that romantic-exotic path; Post Oaks & Sand Roughs provides the too-much-too-soon observation, “A boom town drugstore is an ideal place to study humanity,” and in 1931 Howard told Farnsworth Wright, “My boyhood was spent in the oil country—or rather oil came into the country when I was still a young boy, and remained.” Oil came, oil remained—where others saw a windfall, a resource to be exploited, Howard saw an invading force, an occupying army. In many of his letters he stole a march on the distinguished historian Bernard DeVoto, who in works like 1947’s Across the Wide Missouri described the American West as “a plundered province,” one that was being “systematically looted.”
“The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization,” Roosevelt declared in his First Inaugural in 1933. The temples of Howard’s civilizations were frequently the haunts of horrors, so he presumably approved of FDR’s words. If, like the Thirties-redolent hard-boileds in the pages of Black Mask, certain Conan stories flirt with vulgar Marxism, vulgar Marxism has aged better than any other kind. “Aye, I’ve seen men fall and die of hunger against the walls of shops and storehouses crammed with food,” the Cimmerian marvels in The Black Stranger, and when a former fence protests that he is now “respectable” in The Hour of the Dragon, Conan’s derisive reply is, “Meaning you’re rich as hell.” Another story dispenses with “the long, long ago when another world lifted its jeweled spires to the stars” while retaining the low expectations of high finance. At the start of Wild Water a bankrupt farmer’s unspeaking but unyielding neighbors, who ensure by their “hard-eyed” auction attendance that his property is not snapped up but instead sold right back to him for a pittance, are familiar to us from Depression iconography. This story outdoes Vultures of Wahpeton in depositing the Howard hero in a situation, in a civilization, where he can no longer be the Howard hero. “Times is changed, can’t you understand?” another character says to Jim Reynolds, “a throwback, the personification of atavism.” Hailing from “the high ridge of the Lost Knob country” (Did Howard intend a joke about post-frontier emasculation when he fictionalized Cross Plains as Lost Knob?) Reynolds is both “dark as an Indian” and the owner of a Ford roadster. Although still a bit larger than life, he is smaller than the system at the center of which sits Saul Hopkins, the financier who pulls strings “to which were tied loans and mortgages and the subtle tricks of finance.” (As Howard saw fit to bestow “the hooked nose of a vulture” upon him, it comes as a relief that the character’s last name is Hopkins.)
“I am hemmed in by laws, laws, laws,” Kull roars in By This Axe I Rule!, but he ultimately shatters the most superannuated of those laws. Jim Reynolds, born into a different sort of Pre-Cataclysmic Age, is far more hemmed in. He can gun down the king of Locust Valley, but can never hope to declare himself “king, state, and law!” like Kull. State and Law are too much for him, or any man, as the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of the frontier in the more-than-meteorological storm of Wild Water. Like Harry Morgan, gutshot in Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, Reynolds dies cursing, done in not by the lawmen with whom he is hell-bent on shooting it out, but by a friend. That friend, Bill Emmett, has taken up residence where those wronged by modernity often relocate, in the Book of Revelations, from which he is eager to visit an “awful mountain of black water” on the low-lying town of Bisley and witness the “Locust and Mesquital rollin’ down like the rivers of Judgment.” Although “on the devil’s business,” Emmett can quote scripture, but he is also capable of summoning the authentic voice of the twentieth century: “You’re small stuff; you killed one enemy. I aim to kill thousands!”
Volume II of The Best of Robert E. Howard ends with one of his most memorable poems, which doubles as a prelude or overture to the Conan series. Cimmeria came to Howard just before the favorite son of that “land of Darkness and the Night” did, and the “I” who speaks throughout the poem, who effects the beautifully intuitive shift from “winds and clouds, and dreams that shun the sun” to “clouds and winds and ghosts that shun the sun” is not Conan but his creator. “I remember,” that “I” declares; one cannot remember the future, and the absolute power that not-always mournful but neverending remembrance exercised over Howard may help to explain both the brevity of his life and the longevity of his storytelling. Cimmeria may not be a state of the Union, but it is a state of mind, and as its creator stands before the pantheon-gates the fairminded should recognize the heritage that “wraps [him] in the grey apparel of ghosts.”
He was an American classic as early as The Shadow Kingdom and its follow-up The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune, which asks, “What worlds within what worlds [await] the bold explorer?” and cranes from the Siege Perilous of the Valusian throne to glimpse “some far country of [Kull’s] consciousness.” Assessing his body of work, such as it then was, to his friend Tevis Clyde Smith in February 1929, Howard poor-mouthed Mirrors as “vague and badly written; this is the deepest story I ever tried to write and I got out of my depth.” A good many classic American writers got to be classics by venturing out of their depth and diving instead of drowning, and in this story Howard discovered just how deep his depth truly was. The Hall of a Thousand Mirrors offers reflections that some who do not dream enough would never dream of encountering in a sword-and-sorcery story; Tuzun Thune’s glassy surfaces reflect W. H. Auden’s insight that most American stories “are parables; their settings, even when they pretend to be realistic, symbolic settings for a timeless and unlocated (because internal) psychomachia.”
The wizard’s mirrors also reflect Ann Douglas’ contention that an American trademark is the “[displacement of] mimesis . . . to what the critic Richard Poirier, speaking of American narrative and borrowing a term from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, has called ‘a world elsewhere.’ Forced into exile, Coriolanus turns the tables on those who exile him by telling them, ‘I’ll banish you. There is a world elsewhere.’ ” Douglas sees the “willful conversion of exile from the known and familiar world into an enhanced power of exploration and vision in another unknown but compelling world, this exchange of the recognizably real for a place or mode defined as more insistently real, a place where provincials are recognized as sovereigns” as the “central strategy of classic American literature.” Kull, already exiled from his native Atlantis and a provincial grudgingly recognized as a sovereign, in Mirrors reaches the point of susceptibility to exchanging the recognizably real for the at-first-phantasmal-but-then-more-insistently real: “Day by day had he seemed to lose touch with the world; all things had seemed each succeeding day more ghostly and unreal.” Pantheon, please note: neither wars nor women nor wealth are won in Mirrors or The Tower of the Elephant—these are not stories of wish fulfillment but rather perspective-enhancement, imagination-enlargement.
Howard might have lit his pioneering torch in an unpromising hinterland, but he kindled imaginations around the world. That he lived and died with no inkling of the passion that his passionate storytelling would eventually ignite, or the power with which artists would respond to his power, is intolerable. He has created many, many readers and not a few writers as well, the more conscientious of whom have been determined, not to write like Howard but rather to write, like Howard. Brian Attebery accords L. Frank Baum, imperfections and all, the status of “our Grimm and our Andersen, the man who introduced Americans to their own dreams.” Despite being an imperfect man and writer, Howard told perfectly wonderful stories that reintroduced twentieth-century Americans (and much of the world) to their own nightmares—but also to the chance of triumph, however hard-won and soon-lost, over those nightmares.
By now our confidence that Robert E. Howard could not help thinking or writing five classically American things before breakfast each morning must be apparent. “A writer who wishes to produce something both American and fantastic” is for Attebery compelled to “move against the currents, restoring what has been lost over the years or finding eddies of tradition that have resisted the general erosion of the marvelous.” It’s time to acknowledge that Howard, whose sense of loss was at least as keen as his other five senses, was eminently qualified to undertake such tasks. So here’s to a viable, meritocratic, and open-audition-offering pantheon, one into which this author will not have to fight his way once his ability to write his way in is better known. His induction will leave the pantheon more sensitive to the call of the wild and the pall of the mild; more tragic but also more comic; more fantastic but also more realistic; brawnier, but more poetic; more physical, but more haunted. No other country in the world could have produced a Robert E. Howard, and, regrettably, few other countries would have been as slow to realize his stature and significance. But as the afterlives of earlier classic writers’ work have taught us, late is still much, much better than never.
Katherine Anne Porter (1890—1980), who was born in Indian Creek, Texas, and grew up in Kyle, is best known for stories such as Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Noon Wine, and her late-in-life novel Ship of Fools. Porter’s first short story was published in 1922, so she beat Howard into print by three years. She also beat him out of Texas by a lifetime, and her relocations to Mexico, Greenwich Village, and Europe led McMurtry in Southwestern Literature? to draw a line in the dirt, like Travis at the Alamo, and pointedly exclude her: “Let those who are free of Texas enjoy their freedom.” Just how free of the state Porter ever was can be debated; in 1975 she insisted, “I happen to be the first native of Texas in its whole history to be a professional writer.” This claim to fame goes all the way back to Virgil’s primus ego in patriam mecum deducam musas (“for I shall be the first to bring the Muse into my country”), but it is disappointing that no one chronicling the history of Texas letters has ever juxtaposed Porter’s statement and Howard’s. Like his, her imagination was jump-started by a yarn-spinning grandmother, and like him, she compensated for the lack of a formal higher education by ferociously concentrated autodidacticism: both writers illustrate the celebrated “Root, hog, or die” ideology in action. Arrestingly for students of the Howard-Lovecraft correspondence, Porter devoted fifty years to a biography of Cotton Mather, even living in Salem during 1927 and 1928 to absorb some witch-hunting atmosphere, but never finished the book.
 Psychomachia: soul-strife, the mind warring on itself.