Howard, Robert E

Tagged: Author

(1906-1936) US writer, along with H P Lovecraft the central fashioner of generic American fantastic fiction before 1940, excluding sf: in Howard's case, Sword and Sorcery, and in Lovecraft's case supernatural horror as such (but also Horror in SF). Howard's few contributions to Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos do not bring out the sf elements, and he did not himself write any full-scale sf – although Almuric (May-August 1939 Weird Tales; 1964) is a Planetary Romance in the manner of Edgar Rice Burroughs – but his association with Lovecraft and Weird Tales (where almost all his significant work first appeared) helped spur the sf community's interest in his extravagant Sword-and-Sorcery stories, initially through the publication by Arkham House of a full and well-edited selection from his Weird Tales work, Skull-Face and Others (coll 1946; vt in 3vols: Skull-Face and Others 1976 UK, The Valley of the Worms, and Others 1976 UK and The Shadow Kingdom 1976). From this point on, Howard was increasingly recognized as the real parent and inspiration of the sword-and-sorcery (or Heroic Fantasy) genre (although earlier writers have been retrospectively recruited to it by historians), which existed as an enclave of the sf marketplace until fantasy became a marketing category in the late 1960s, after which his work enjoyed a spectacular posthumous boom. This phenomenal posthumous elevation of his name, and proliferation of various editions of his works (and of sometimes excessively feeble reworkings of unpublished draft material into commercial fiction), is an important part of the history of American Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], but not of the history of American sf, and is not dealt with here. The Checklist below is very highly selected.

Howard's first professionally published story was "Spear and Fang" for Weird Tales in July 1925, and he quickly became an amazingly prolific writer of vigorous adventure fiction in several pulp genres, including the Solomon Kane tales of adventure, one of which, Red Shadows (August 1928 Weird Tales; 2010 chap), is a lurid example of the Apes as Human story. Very soon he began to specialize – lovingly, and with huge energy – in adventure tales featuring primordial Heroes, including Kull and Bran Mak Morn, both of whom now seem in hindsight to have been dress rehearsals for his most celebrated creation, Conan the Barbarian. Each one of these characters is a physically domineering figure (though Bran Mak Morn is comparatively slender); each of them, at one point or another, rules a kingdom or two. Kull's domains are the earliest, and his claim to eminence rests in part on a connection to the Matter of Atlantis; Bran Mak Morn is (in Howard's peculiar understanding of the term) a Celtic ruler, and his main foes are the perfidious Romans; Conan comes chronologically between the two, and is by far the most widely travelled of them all, so that his traversal of the lands of the Hyborian Age he dominates (including the Aquilonia he comes to rule) has sometimes the nature of a tour of a quasi-orientalized array of Lands of Fable [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. The Lost World atmosphere of these tales is never, in the case of the three pre-eminent heroes, made literal: they visit one another, by supernatural means; but they are not themselves, nor are their kingdoms, ever discovered by visitors from a time to come. Heroes in the Wind: From Kull to Conan: The Best of Robert E Howard (anth 2009) edited by John Clute focuses on these three central figures.

All the Conan stories were published in Weird Tales, seventeen of them between 1932 and 1936; four more were published posthumously. The subsequent exfoliation of the sequence (and its padding by L Sprague de Camp, Björn Nyberg and Lin Carter with tales extruded from Howard drafts and notes) is not a matter of direct concern for this encyclopedia [but see Checklist for early volumes from Gnome Press 1950-1955]. The only early title of interest here is probably Conan the Conqueror (December 1935-April 1936 Weird Tales as "The Hour of the Dragon"; 1950; vt The Hour of the Dragon 1977), the only novel in the sequence, and more redolent of the Lost World tale than some shorter works, though a novella like Red Nails (July-October 1936 Weird Tales; 1975) comes very close to that idiom with its savage depiction of the Arrested Development of warring cultures trapped in a vast edificial City over a huge span of years. Using the original magazine texts, Donald M Grant issued handsome illustrated editions of many of the Conan stories including The People of the Black Circle (1974), A Witch Shall Be Born (1975), The Tower of the Elephant (coll 1975), Red Nails (1975), Rogues in the House (coll 1976), The Devil in Iron (coll 1976), Queen of the Black Coast (coll 1978), The Pool of the Black One (coll 1986) and The Hour of the Dragon (1989). A useful recent assemblage of Howard's own Conan tales in their original versions (as established in the twenty-first century by the Robert E Howard Foundation) is The Complete Chronicles of Conan: Centenary Edition (coll 2007) edited by Stephen Jones (1953-    ). Most other Conan titles are unreliable for those who wish only to read what Howard wrote.

Howard wrote at high speed and his early work is unsophisticated, but the vigor and skill of his tales increased markedly over the short span of his career. There is no question that a sometimes querulous fatalism shadows the kinetic exhilaration of much of his oeuvre; a fact which feeds necessarily into the drama of his final years – a bioflick, The Whole Wide World (1996), sensitively depicts this period. It is certain that Howard had contemplated suicide for some time; and the news of his mother's imminent death – by relieving him of financial responsibility for her – provided him with the occasion. His suicide at the age of thirty brought to a premature end what had already been an extraordinarily productive career. [JC/MJE/BS]

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Robert Ervin Howard

born Peaster, Texas: 22 January 1906

died Cross Plains, Texas: 11 June 1936

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