This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
So, at the start of this year I wrote a mammoth-sized article about Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories which attracted a certain amount of attention, including some posts by Howard’s defenders, and much earlier I wrote a review of the Solomon Kane stuff which got S.M. Stirling all hot and bothered. A few of these comments were broadly reasonable in their tone; others, well, ended up sounding a bit like this. I hadn’t really intended to return to Robert E. Howard’s work after this because I find it bigoted and amateurish and was sceptical that any of the other material out there would make me change my mind, but when I saw copies of Conan’s Brethren and The Haunter of the Ring and Other Stories going for £1 each at the sprawling used book shop in Notting Hill I swing by from time to time to hunt down rarities, I thought “hell with it, let’s go in for another round”.
A frequent complaint in the discussion on Ferretbrain provoked by my last article was that I was mischaracterising Howard based on only a limited set of his material, and I needed to read more widely if I was going to get a proper picture of his work. The complaint itself doesn’t really stand up as a counter to my criticism of the Conan stories because, well, I was criticising the Conan stories. What judgements I made about Howard’s worldview as an author and the racial theories he put forth there were based on how those stories present said subjects. If the views Howard presented in the Conan material did not accurately reflect his own views, then that doesn’t exonerate the stories at all, and it doesn’t really let Howard off the hook: writing an overtly racist story you don’t really believe in for the cash is just as odious, though in different ways, as writing an overtly racist story you actually believe in. I did, in fact, concede in the previous post that the market Howard was targeting with the Conan stories might have brought out the worst in him – a point at least one of his defenders also made – which is about as fair as I can be to the guy without saying stuff I don’t actually believe myself.
Still, I’ve got these tomes now, and I may as well put them to good use. By which I mean entertaining use. By which I mean waving them about and yelling “Look, look damn it! It’s not just the Conan and Solomon Kane stories that air these racist views! They’re not even the worst examples!”
A little word about the publications in question. Conan’s Brethren is a chunky hardback put out by Gollancz, and the selections within it are meant to be representative of Howard’s non-Conan sword and sorcery and historical adventure material – it’s part of that line of ostentatiously huge editions of Lovecraft and Howard and (inexplicably) Jack Vance they have with the ornate pseudo-leather covers so you can pretend you have the actual Necronomicon on your bookshelf (except they stopped naming the things after Mythos tomes after the first Lovecraft volume they did). Happily, my edition is a more compact normal-sized version made for Book Club Associates, so yay for not trying to read this ridiculously big thing on the train in the morning. The Haunter of the Ring is published by Wordsworth Editions and picks out stories to represent his horror output (including a cross-section of his Cthulhu Mythos stuff, written in honour of his dreamy penpal HP “Creepy Howie” Lovecraft), being part of their “Wait, we can totally do a Horror Masterworks series using solely out-of-copyright material” line.
Neither publisher fancied shelling out for the actual rights to any of this stuff, which meant that the collections are stuffed with out-of-copyright material. That means that there’s no collaborations (or at least no stories explicitly presented as collaborations) in the set, since the time limit for copyright expiry would run from the death of the last surviving collaborator and most of the folk who finished off Howard’s incomplete works after his suicide died long after him. The Howard material which is in the public domain for the purposes of UK law consists of everything he published when he was alive, plus any posthumously released works which were first made available to the general public 70 years ago (so, only posthumous releases from the first few years after his death are out of copyright). That represents a goodly chunk of his output, but it doesn’t actually include everything – for instance, none of the Dark Agnes stories saw print for decades after Howard’s death.
So, reader beware! It could be that Howard was actually an extremely progressively-minded sort with a passionate devotion to Minority Warrior causes, but due to the vicious market he was writing for this was never reflected the stories that were published in his lifetime; conversely, his posthumously published stories reveal an outlook distinctly at odds with the sexist, racist balderdash his editors lapped up when he was still with us.
Given that his in-copyright works include dreck like The Vale of Lost Women – yes, the one with the flappity space bat worshipped by a tribe of undomesticated African lesbians – I suspect that might not be the case.
In terms of how this is going to be arranged: I’m going to tackle the Conan’s Brethren stuff first and follow up with the horror material. This is a mildly artificial distinction in Howard’s work since there’s a substantial amount of crossover and overlap between the material, but the sword and sorcery tends to bleed into the horror more than the horror bleeds into the sword and sorcery, if you see what I mean, so by tackling the sword and sorcery material first and then moving on to the horror stuff I can better illustrate that. I’m also not necessarily going to tackle stories in the order they are presented in the collections or in the categories they’re offered up in the collections, instead bunching them together in a way which leads to a logical discussion that flows nicely. Lastly, I’m not going to cover the Solomon Kane stories because I already did ’em once.
Continue reading “Several Species of Bizarre Racial Theories Gathered Together In a Mythos and Grooving With a Pict”