Friday, April 15, 2022

Robert E. Howard Changed My Life

A window into the soul.

I'm glad I’m not the only one. 

I knew I wasn’t, of course, but it was nice hearing the voices of so many other passionate souls for whom the Texas writer made an impact, either on their reading habits, their journeys as writers, or in some cases, a decision to press on in dire personal circumstances.

Robert E. Howard Changed My Life (Rogue Blades Foundation, 2021) collects 33 essays, with additional foreword/afterword/and a fun “Appendix REH” for further reading. It has been nominated for The Atlantean (best book about the life and works of Robert E. Howard) by the Robert E. Howard Foundation and is deserving of the honor. I found it to be thoroughly enjoyable.

An essay by Charles Saunders is particularly poignant as it is likely the last published piece he ever wrote, prior to his death in early 2020. Several other “name” writers have contributed pieces, including the likes of Michael Moorcock, Joe Lansdale, Keith Taylor, Steven Erikson, Howard Andrew Jones, and Mark Finn. Some heavy hitters here.

Many of the essays were excellent, but I think the most powerful may have been Scott Oden’s (author of Men of Bronze and Twilight of the Gods). Certainly it was the most personal, along with Bill Cavalier’s, from whose 2018 Howard Days address the project was launched. Oden lays out his early failures as a writer, his bouts with self-doubt, heavy personal blows including an eviction and a divorce, and finally, after decades of struggle, breaking through with the publication of Men of Bronze. Only to have his career halted as he became caretaker with a father with dementia and a mother with Parkinson’s disease. His insights on Caregiver Stress Syndrome offer a glimpse into Howard’s well-documented struggles caring for a terminally ill mother. Years later Oden’s imagination and pen were rekindled after drawing inspiration from the Howard hero Turlogh Dubh, in the story “The Grey God Passes.”

Robert E. Howard certainly changed my life as well. I’ve documented my discovery of Howard here on the blog and in the introduction to Flame and Crimson. I discovered Howard in the pages of The Savage Sword of Conan in the early 80s and that cemented my love of this weirder, wilder, more muscular brand of fantasy fiction that I would later come to know as sword-and-sorcery. That led me to branch out to other like writers such as Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and Poul Anderson, write more about the subgenre here and in places like The Cimmerian, and finally decided to offer a full treatment in my book. Howard was a blessed refuge for me, who endured the usual maladies of a suburban kid (alienation, self-doubt, rejection, etc.)

It's a marvel, isn’t it? How did a pulp writer from rural Texas working largely in the pages of a defunct pulp magazine nearly a century ago alter the future courses of so many? The answer is the power of stirring writing, and the force of imagination of a writer who, as Patrice Louinet notes in his essay, is a true American original, “the definer of American fantasy.” I have not heard Howard’s case quite made like that, but, if you consider J.R.R. Tolkien the architect of British fantasy, Howard arguably deserves that moniker on this side of the Atlantic.

So too does Edgar Rice Burroughs. It struck me how many of the essay authors came to Burroughs first, pre-Howard, during the Burroughs Boom of the early 60s, before discovering REH in the purple-edged pages of the Lancer paperbacks. One essayist after the next—Cavalier, Jason Durall, Lansdale, Adrian Cole, on and on—all thrilled to the adventures of Burroughs first, Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, before finding REH. I think we need a companion volume on ERB.

In short, this one is worth picking up.


Matthew said...

Howard changed my life before I ever read him. I was a kid in Texas who wanted to be a fantasy writer but I did not know of any fantasy writers from Texas until my dad gave me a newspaper article on Howard. He had already blazed a trail. That was encouraging.

Years later I would pick up an old copy of a Howard collection of Conan stories and be blown away. (Well by the ones of Howard, the ones by De Camp and Carter not so much.)

Brian Murphy said...

Very cool Matthew. Howard blazed many trails, and I don't think we'll ever see his flame quenched.