Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “The Tower of the Elephant”

Monday, August 31st, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Art for "Tower of the Elephant" by Mark Schultz

Art for “Tower of the Elephant” by Mark Schultz

Over at Howard Andrew Jones’ blog, Bill Ward and Howard Andrew Jones continue their re-read of the first Del Rey Conan volume, The Coming of Conan, with the classic “The Tower of the Elephant,” originally published in the March 1933 issue of Weird Tales.

Howard: THIS is Robert E. Howard at his absolute best, in complete control of his narrative, knowing his character better than his closest friend. His Hyborian history article was written just prior to his penning of “The Tower of the Elephant,” which makes sense, because he knows the history and societies so well that he casually mentions cultures in such a way we can usually intuit what he’s talking about…

Bill: Here Conan is a “gray wolf among gutter rats,” to paraphrase just one of the great lines in the opener. From the first paragraph of this section that paints a vivid picture of The Maul, the thieves district of Zamora where the guards have been bribed with “stained coins” to leave the criminals alone, all the way to the conclusion… I think this opener, and this story in general, is one of the best introductions to Conan, and probably the one I would hand a novice that was interested in seeing what all the fuss is about…

Howard: And damn, there are giant spider fights, and then there’s the fight with the thing in the top room of the tower. The only giant spider fight I’ve read that’s on the same level is the one from the first Bard book by Keith Taylor. You can see this monster and its dripping venom, so virulent that it scars Conan for life… It’s just incredibly well written, so much so that even after reading this story multiple times I still find it thrilling. And unsettling.

Their previous posts on this topic have included discussions of Howard’s “The Hyborian Age,” and “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Read the complete exchange here.

Discovering Robert E. Howard: David Hardy on El Borak – The First and Last REH Hero

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

ElBorak_EarlyToday, our ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series talks about my favorite REH stories: those featuring El Borak. David Hardy wrote the introduction to the Robert E. Howard Foundation’s The Early Adventures of El Borak and he also contributed what is essentially the afterward to Del Rey’s El Borak and Other Desert Adventures.  There’s no one better suited to expound on Francis Xavier Gordon, so enough blathering from me. Let’s check out ‘The Swift.’

Francis Xavier Gordon, known from Stamboul to the China Sea as “El Borak”-the Swift-is perhaps the first of Robert E. Howard’s characters, and the last. El Borak is one of those distinctive characters that could only come from the fertile imagination of REH. He is a Texas gunslinger from El Paso, an adventurer, who has cast his lot in the deserts and mountains of Arabia and Afghanistan. There’s a little bit of John Wesley Hardin in his makeup, a bit of Lawrence of Arabia, and just a touch of Genghis Khan.

Howard described the origin of Gordon and other characters to Alvin Earl Perry: “The first character I ever created was Francis Xavier Gordon, El Borak, the hero of “The Daughter of Erlik Khan” (Top Notch), etc. I don’t remember his genesis. He came to life in my mind when I was about ten years old.”

That would put El Borak’s origins about 1915, the year Rafael Sabatini’s pirate novel The Sea Hawk appeared. The titular Sea Hawk is an Englishman who joins the corsairs of the Barbary Coast. There is also a supporting character named El Borak. Howard also noted that Bran Mak Morn, hero of “Worms of the Earth,” bore a resemblance to El Borak.

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Pigeons From Hell From Lovecraft by Don Herron

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Herron_DarkBarbarianBefore the Cumberbunnies took over and flooded the internet with “I heart Sherlock” memes, the term ‘Sherlockian’ referred to those who studied (and often wrote about) Arthur Conan Doyle’s sixty stories of Sherlock Holmes. Some  of it was dead serious, some was tongue in cheek and much was in between. Monsignor Ronald Knox’s 1921 “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” is the cornerstone of Holmes studies.

With that, I tell you that that Don Herron is THE Ronald Knox of Robert E. Howard. “Conan vs. Conantics” and the ensuing “The Dark Barbarian” showed that Howard could be analyzed and treated as literature. As well as something to stir up debate! If you haven’t read the over-600 page essay collection, “The Dark Barbarian That Towers Over All,” you need to pony up $4.99 and get the kindle version now.

And with that, Herron, who is also a noted expert on Dashiell Hammett (this man knows good writing) is going to treat you to a little Howardiana regarding REH’s most chilling horror story, “Pigeons From Hell.”

Recently I did a reread on H. P. Lovecraft’s Fungi from Yuggoth sonnet cycle and had a Hey, Wait a Minute moment. . .

Deep into his follow-up book to A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos, John D. Haefele had asked me to look the poems over. Haefele is surveying Lovecraft’s Great Tales — not just the top achievements, but how the fiction developed as it went along, leading to the break-out stories — not just Lovecraft’s own writing, but how his discoveries of authors such as Robert W. Chambers and Arthur Machen and the ongoing cross-influences of his fellow pulpsters such as Frank Belknap Long, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard display in the ongoing saga that would become known as the Cthulhu Mythos.

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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Ramblings on REH

Monday, August 10th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Ramblings_KullAxeIn a way, Robert E. Howard’s career is similar to that of Dashiell Hammett. Both men had huge impacts on their genres (Howard wrote many styles, but he’s best known for his sword and sorcery tales). Both were early practitioners in said genres. Both men wrote excellent stories for about a decade. And both men ended their careers on their own.

Hammett, who seemed more interested in a dissolute lifestyle than in writing, effectively walked away from his typewriter. He wrote his last novel in 1934 (The Thin Man) but produced literally nothing for the remaining twenty-five years of his life. He could have gone back to writing the hard-boiled stories that made his career, but he voluntarily ended his writing life.

In 1936, Howard’s mother was failing in a coma. He walked outside to his car, pulled out a gun and killed himself. His writing career was more effectively finished than Hammett’s would be.

Both were supremely skilled writers who chose to deprive the world of their talent and left decades of stories unwritten. But there was a key difference between the two. From the beginning, Hammett was acclaimed and recognized as the leader in his field. Though Carroll John Daly came first (barely), there is no comparison between the two in critical view.

Howard was not critically lauded. His first Conan tale, “The Phoenix on the Sword” (a rewriting of the Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!”), appeared in Weird Tales in December of 1932. The next two Conan tales were outright rejected!

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read “The Phoenix on the Sword”

Sunday, August 9th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

The Phoenix on the Sword Weird Tales-smallOver at Howard Andrew Jones’ blog, Bill Ward and Howard Andrew Jones continue their re-read of the first Del Rey Conan volume, The Coming of Conan, with the very first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” originally published in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales magazine. Here’s Howard:

Look at the story’s opening quote. That’s practically the gold standard of quotes from imaginary historical sources. That fabulous “Know, O Prince” and all that follows has been imitated but rarely, if ever, equalled. This, fellow fantasy fans, is the way it’s done. Admittedly, there are a few phrases in the middle of the paragraph that are less inspired. I’m looking at “Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem.” Most of the rest of the quote paints lovely word pictures, but those phrases don’t remotely approach the poetic majesty of the rest — what does Zingara look like? What does Koth look like? But the rest is lovely, and the quality picks right back up with “dreaming west” and powers on to that fantastic finish, “Hither came Conan…”

Look at the opening line of the story: “Over shadowy spires and gleaming towers lay the ghostly darkness and silence that runs before dawn.” Damn. Why doesn’t anyone write like that any more? Howard sets the scene with sharp, sensory laden description. He’s a film director guiding the camera with a fantastic establishing shot.

Their first post on this topic discussed Howard’s “The Hyborian Age.” Read the complete exchange here.

Discovering Robert E. Howard: Jeffrey Shanks on The Worldbuilding of REH

Friday, August 7th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Conan_WBHyboriaWe are trying to look at as broad a range of topics related to Robert E. Howard as we can in this series. Characters, genres, events, themes: Black Gate really wants to showcase the many facets of the man and his works.

Today’s guest post is such an example. Jeff Shanks wrote the introduction to the just published facsimile edition of Howard’s essay, The Hyborian Age and is the REH consultant on Modiphius’ upcoming Conan RPG  (we’re gonna have a post for that, too!). I can’t think of anyone better to write about one of my favorite subjects,  world-building.

While Robert E. Howard is known as the creator of a number of memorable heroic protagonists, such as Kull of Atlantis, Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, and, of course, Conan the Cimmerian, his efforts as a pioneer in fantasy world-building are often overlooked. When it is remarked upon at all, Howard’s creation of the Hyborian Age of Conan is generally described as a fairly impromptu effort — a hodge-podge of fictitious kingdoms based on thinly-disguised real world historical analogues, thrown together hastily in early 1932 after the first Conan story was accepted by Weird Tales.

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Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward Re-Read The Coming of Conan

Sunday, August 2nd, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian-smallBill Ward and Howard Andrew Jones have wrapped up their detailed and highly entertaining look at Fritz Leiber’s famous Lankhmar stories over at Howard Andrew Jones’ website. But without pausing for breath, they’ve leaped into a re-read of Robert E. Howard’s classic tales of Conan, starting with the Del Rey edition of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, and Howard’s essay on the world Conan adventured in, “The Hyborian Age.” Here’s Bill:

“The Hyborian Age” isn’t the place to start if you are new to Conan, in fact I’d say it’s really only interesting if you are already familiar with Conan’s world, as well as the enthusiasms of Conan’s creator. REH himself didn’t start with “The Hyborian Age,” either, he started with the character of Conan, only settling down to iron out his “world bible” once he had three Conan stories under his belt and realized he wanted to write many more… It’s the history of a lost age before the rise of the civilizations we are familiar with, but it’s also a way of getting around history. REH wrote fast and he wrote for publication and, though he loved history and writing historical fiction, he felt it took too much time to get the research just right. Enter the secondary world of his own slice of pre-history, a way of not only having a world he didn’t have to exhaustively research, but also a vehicle for bringing together the character and flavor of many different cultures and eras that would allow Conan to adventure in the equivalent of everything from the Ancient Near East to Medieval France. That may not be completely clear just from reading “The Hyborian Age,” but it is clear from the stories themselves, as well as by glancing at the two maps REH used when planning his world — his Hyborian Kingdoms superimposed over a map of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East is probably even more eloquent than his essay…

Join the discussion here.

The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: By Crom – Are Conan Pastiches Official?

Monday, July 27th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

ConaPas_Ace2Today’s post is actually about Robert E. Howard’s Conan, but (in a stunning surprise) it’s got some Sherlock Holmes at the foundation. No, Conan never met the great detective…

Hopefully you’ve been checking in on our summer series, Discovering Robert E. Howard. There are plenty more posts coming, so stay tuned. While I very much like Howard and his works, I came late to his stories and I’m certainly no expert.

There is one area I’ve found…curious, which relates to the “official” status that seems to be accorded to the authorized pastiches written since Howard’s death. It’s quite different in the Holmes world.

There are sixty official Sherlock Holmes tales. Period. Fifty-six short stories and four novels (more novellas, really), all penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and published during his lifetime. There are two Holmes short-shorts, “How Watson Learned the Trick” and “The Field Bazaar” and there is no disputing that they were written by Doyle. But they are not included (by anyone, I believe) in the official count.

You, oh enlightened one, know that the Doyle Estate tried to include a sixty-first story, found among ACD’s papers by a researcher, but it turned out to have been written by Arthur Whitaker.

To quote myself, from my first Solar Pons post here at Black Gate:

Parodies are stories that poke fun at Holmes. But the more serious Holmes tales, those that attempt to portray Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective to varying levels, are called pastiches. Just about the earliest ‘serious’ attempt at a Holmes copy was by Vincent Starrett, who wrote “The Adventure of the Unique Hamlet” in 1920.

Doyle’s son Adrian, sitting at his father’s very desk, produced The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (half of the stories were co-written with John Dickson Carr, who would quit mid-project).

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Wally Conger on “Rogues in the House”

Friday, July 24th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

BG_RoguesComicOne of the cool things about being an active member in the Sherlock Holmes community is that I run across a broad spectrum of people with other common interests outside of the world’s first private consulting detective. Wally Conger and I have had back and forth conversations on versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles and other topics.

We may not agree on season three of Sherlock, but we do both enjoy reading Conan. So, I asked him to review “Rogues in the House,” which I knew he had just read. He was kind enough to do just that…

By the time Robert E. Howard launched into writing “Rogues in the House” in January 1933, he already had 10 Conan tales under his belt. He was very comfortable with the character.

In fact, upon publication of the story in the January 1934 issue of Weird Tales, Howard wrote to fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith:

Glad you liked ‘Rogues in the House.’ That was one of those yarns which seemed to write itself. I didn’t rewrite it even once. As I remember I only erased and changed one word in it, and then sent it in just as it was written. I had a splitting sick headache, too, when I wrote the first half, but that didn’t seem to affect my work any.

I wish to thunder I could write with equal ease all the time. Ordinarily I revise even my Conan yarns once or twice, and the other stuff I hammer out by main strength.

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Discovering Robert E. Howard: Bobby Derie on REH in the Comics – Beyond Barbarians

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

REHComics_REHOur summer of Robert E. Howard is just rolling along here at Black Gate. The latest entry delves into the comic book/graphic novel world of Howard’s works. I don’t know much about this area, but even I’m aware of Roy Thomas.

Bobby Derie is going to take us on a tour focusing on the non-Conan adaptations of Howard’s works. You’re going to learn about a quite a few you’ve missed. So, on we go!

The Golden Age of Comics passed Robert E. Howard by completely. The Silver Age treated him almost as poorly, save for in Mexico, where La Reina de la Costa Negra spun out the fantastic adventures of a blond Conan as second-mate to the pirate-queen Bêlit, and “The Gods of the North” found a few pages in Star-Studded Comics #14 (Texas Trio, 1968), and Gardner F. Fox borrowed liberally from Conan in crafting “Crom the Barbarian” for Out of this World (Avon, 1950).

In an era when DC Comics and their contemporaries felt no qualms stealthily adapting the horror and science fiction stories of H. P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, and Ray Bradbury without permission or credit, they apparently did not touch the evocative weird tales of Robert E. Howard; neither did the sport comics or westerns or detectives.

In 1970 when Marvel Comics licensed the character of Conan the Barbarian from Glenn Lord, acting as the agent for the Howard estate, they were on unsure ground; up until this point, Marvel had mostly worked on their own characters and properties. Yet the barbarian proved an unexpected success as the issues wore on, with writer Roy Thomas receiving permission even to adapt some of Howard’s original Conan stories to the comics, including such classics as “The Tower of the Elephant” and the novel The Hour of the Dragon.

The success of Conan led Marvel to license additional of Howard’s characters for adaptation — Kull of Atlantis, the Pictish king Bran Mak Morn, and the Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane — as well as the creation of original spin-off characters, most notably Red Sonja, based in part on Howard’s Red Sonya of Rogatino.

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