Wednesday, July 1, 2009

My contribution to The Dark Man: Robert E. Howard as escapist writer

Although I have definite political and social leanings, I'm probably what most would consider a moderate. When I see something I feel passionately about going too far in any one direction, my tendency is to want to pull it back to the center.

This trait is the likely inspiration for my recently published piece in The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies (Volume 4, No. 2). There's been a trend in recent years to classify Howard as a hard-boiled realist, a product of Texas who wrote about his environment and the people he knew. Based on some letters he wrote late in his life, critics and observers have speculated that Howard was ready to abandon the literature of the fantastic entirely for the western.

These opinions are certainly valid and raise many fine points worthy of consideration. Howard's gritty realism infuses even his most fantastic stories of Conan and Kull. This quality is undoubtedly due to his keen powers of observation. Howard wrote about what he knew and used his surroundings and life experiences to lend an air of realism to the Hyborian Age. He also wrote in a broad range of genres, including boxing, historic fiction, and westerns.

However, I feel that this analysis of Howard has gone a bit too far. By focusing on the Howard that might-have-been (had he not taken his own life at age 30), aren't these voices undermining the great works of fantasy that he did leave behind? I think so. Howard was a complicated man who voiced many intentions and beliefs in his too short life, including a profound dissatisfaction with modern life and its banal realities. Through his massive imagination and talent as a writer he found a place to escape in his tales of the fantastic. More than 70 years after Howard's death, legions of loyal readers continue to revisit his tales for the refuge they offer us--and Howard himself.

In short, I believe that there's a reason why Conan and the fantastic Hyborian Age are Howard's most enduring and fully realized creations. I explain these reasons in full in "An Honorable Retreat: Robert E. Howard as Escapist Writer."

I'd like to thank editor Mark Hall and the review board of the Dark Man for the opportunity to publish this opinion piece, my first (and hopefully not last) contribution to this fine journal.


David J. West said...

I think I agree with you. I'll have to grab a copy of that issue for sure.

I think Howard would have come back to the Hyborean age, time permitting, one of those things like Arthur Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes where the creation could not possibly be avoided.

And being the creation it was I think he would have embraced it.

Pericles said...

When I was a kid, REH and his body of work sure seemed much simpler.

Then I got online...

I would not even begin to speculate on the direction his career might have gone, which makes you a braver and more intellectually curious man than me.

I kinda, sorta, maybe think your theory is the correct one, and I hope it is, since his fantasy stories were so good.

At any rate, you could stir up an interesting hornet's nest...which might be a lotta fun.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for commenting, David and Pericles. This piece may result in my suffering a few stings in the circle of Howard criticism, but that's okay.

I don't actually posit the claim that Howard was going to continue as a fantasy writer, only that I think that those who call him a hard-boiled realist and a product of his environment have swung the pendulum of criticism too far in one direction.

David J. West said...

Exactly. If he was simply a hard boiled realist and nothing more than a product of his times-and not the man of vision that I firmly believe he was- we wouldn't even have Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn etc etc.
His sheer scope of writing puts the lie to the simplistic answer.

Pericles said...

My apologies Brian. I read your post in a lazy and sloppy fashion.

Whatever his influences, and whatever REH had chosen to do, I'm certain the results would have been fascinating.