November 6, 2009


Robert E. Howard (Victor Gollancz)

by Pat Black

“What are you reading at the moment?”

It’s a question I never hide from. I have no shame about my reading habits, even when I probably should. Pseudy philosophy guides, sci-fi with disco laser guns, brain-splattery horror, fantasy and adventure with a variety of gnomic short-arses and pointy-eared elves, heaving-bosomed period romances, the classics, modernism and its bastard child. I couldn’t care less what people think. I like what I like, and I like a lot of stuff.

Certainly, I thought, I have no shame in letting my friend know that I’m reading this handsome, and you might say brawny, hardback collection of all of Conan The Cimmerian’s sword-swinging, monster-bashing fantasy adventures. The ones set down by his original creator, Robert E Howard, in the great pulp magazines such as Weird Tales. The stuff I loved to read when I was younger; the adventures of the indomitable, indefatigable Conan of the surprisingly faithful movie adaptation, the one that gave us Arnold the Great, such a titanic figure in my generation’s youth.

“Bit homoerotic, that stuff,” my friend smirked. “All those details of his mighty muscles. All oily.”

“Nonsense,” I said. “He’s just strong. It’s all about strength.”

“He fights a lot of snakes, does Conan,” my friend – he’s a psychologist, by the way –added. “Big glistening snakes. You should think about that.”

It did get me thinking. Conan does fight a hell of a lot of big shiny snakes. He usually stabs them to death with his very long sword. And it’s easy to make the same kind of reading as my mischievous friend, these days. The stories are dictionary-definition homoerotic, a quality the type of person who watched 300 without once raising an eyebrow might miss. Howard’s eye lingers over his great pulp hero’s Chippendale-ripped body, far moreso than it does on those of the quivering females who flesh out his stories. Conan has tigerish muscles - always tigerish, never leopardish or bobcattish. Conan has bronzed skin – through exposure to the sun, of course, and not because he’s got anything other than white genes. Conan has burning blue eyes. Conan has a coal-black square-cut mane (which for some reason makes me think of Courtney Cox in Scream 3). There’s not a woman he can’t ravish – willingly, on her part, of course – and there isn’t a man he can’t defeat in combat. Come to think of it, there aren’t too many super-men, evil wizards or monsters that don’t end up on the floor either. Not one, in all those hundreds of pages.

And ignoring shit-faced post-modernist interpretations of a beloved character, herein lies the appeal for boys of all ages. Ironically (don’t shoot!), he’s a precursor to The Terminator; the unkillable, physically formidable male, unperturbed by people, delicate feelings, the more complex moving parts of our natures, arguably a uniquely male fantasy. He has nothing to rely on but brute strength, feral cunning and the headwinds of his own desires. He blanches somewhat at supernatural elements, things not of flesh and blood, but he has absolutely no fear of anything else. He knows what he wants and how to get it, and he goes about his business with lethal intent. He is the ultimate existential hero, refreshingly untroubled by any issues outside his own predicament. He is honest. If we were to play a game of literary Top Trumps, Conan’s score for Guile would be 0. You would beat him on this category with a Bugs Bunny card.

He is at once incredibly silly and utterly compulsive. If there’s a problem, Conan has a solution that tends to work for him every time; he clobbers it over the head with a whacking great sword. There’s no intrigue, plotting or black magic he can’t silence with one blue-sheened swing of that mighty member. He quite simply takes no shit. Ever.

It’s ridiculous, laughable on occasion to a reader outside their teens, and yet somehow refreshing and uncluttered. It makes me think of the sigh of relief some grizzled critics uttered when Russell Crowe scowled and twitched his way through Gladiator, almost 10 years ago now; championing an increasingly lost cause, the alpha male, the simple man who follows his own path, the man who will not be derailed, the man who... well... it bears repeating... takes no shit. Ever.

But, gaah! I gnash my teeth, I wrinkle my brow; things aren’t as simple as all that, are they? Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.

Throughout the course of the stories there is a detailed history of Conan’s world, the races that inhabit it, the wars they fought and the kingdoms that rose and fell. It made me think of a TV show I once saw about a savant who could draw entire cities fashioned from his own imagination. Every building, square and alleyway penned in excruciating detail, a tale attached to every street corner, everything that had ever happened in this dreamscape fully-formed in the artist’s mind. The skill and the imaginative power involved in that enterprise are similar to what Howard displays here, and it’s worth mentioning that this was long before works of fantasy as densely detailed as Lord of the Rings saw print. Howard envisaged his universe, every minaret and brick of it, every empire and every great battle. This attention to detail in particular illuminates those stories which depict the young Conan as a thief, breaking into tombs and castles and defusing traps like an archaic Indiana Jones.

For there’s a Conan to suit every occasion: brigand, pirate, thief, fighting man, gladiator, soldier, and ultimately, king. This perhaps owes something to the pulp milieu, where Howard could swap the odd name and scenario his characters inhabit in order to recycle basic templates and increase sales. Some of the great siege and battle stories could easily have featured his Pictish creation, Brann Mak Morn, and indeed some of his sea-faring adventures began life as pirate tales, reforged as Conan stories as his hero’s popularity grew in Weird Tales in the 1930s. It was a tough market for writers to crack, and it’s half-pleasing, half-tragic to think of Howard as this Conan-esque human writing machine back in the golden age of the pulps, battering out his stories day after day in 10,000-word piles of print to scrape a living. Like his friend and fellow pulp pathfinder HP Lovecraft, Howard was owed money by Weird Tales when he died.

The stories are told out of chronological order and there’s a pleasing variety in this; one minute you have a teenaged Conan breaking into an ancient fortress riddled with boobytraps to steal jewels, lopping the heads off lions standing guard, and in the next you have an older, wiser Conan, fighting off those in his kingdom plotting to kill him. This out-of-synch timeline gives us a bit of necessary variety as much of the storylines bleed into each other, with many elements repeated (another nod to the production-line manner of writing these guys employed... you get the feeling nothing was wasted, and in terms of story mechanics if it wasn’t broke, you were a fool to fix it). There are Lovecraftian menaces disturbed by men’s greed, ancient gods and monsters rearing up to rend and destroy. The sorcerer villains seem to be pretty much the same character in each story – crooked, robed figures, Machiavellian and wicked. There are – I’m sorry to return to this – a hell of a lot of giant snakes. You can count them off every second or third story, and it gets so that you find yourself pleasantly surprised when a giant spider or dragon is thrown in here and there as a monster break. In trying to explain this serpentine obsession (eschewing my friend’s cocktastic Freudian insinuations), I can only imagine Howard as the small-town little boy he was in Cross Plains, Texas, wandering the countryside alone except for his dreams of swords and battle and clanging armour. And I picture him perhaps being frightened back to reality by the sudden appearance of one of these nightmare beasts’ junior cousins, rattling its dread percussion at him, coiled to strike.

More controversially, the stories are worryingly preoccupied with race, bloodlines and racially-inherited characteristics. There are “negroes”, and no shade in between. The non-white races are never described pejoratively, but they are closely defined and demarcated. To be fair, Conan is never prejudiced against anyone who isn’t white, and happily joins forces with the black slaves aboard a pirate ship when he takes command for himself. But still, the focus is there.

And that’s separate from the always black-skinned monsters and demons that crop up, other-worldly creatures which almost – but not quite, of course – defeat Conan. Creatures who rise from the grave, demonic beings summoned by shamans and wizards. I thought a lot about this, how some of the pulp literature of the 1920s and 1930s had this sort of theme, that of the alien with non-white skin intent on harm; I’m thinking of lads like Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless in particular. With Conan there are racial divides, character types defined by skin colour and biological bases for history. A sense of purity, and nature travelling in a way it never does; in straight lines. It could have been an obsession of the age, and I can’t help but think of another mighty-whitey pulp hero who’s a little troubling to consider in this light: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan. The Second World War and the Nazis were a decade away when these tales first appeared. We can perhaps be guilty of examining these things too closely, but they are there. It’s less troubling to focus on fighting monsters and getting off with frequently-naked females.

Conan’s relationship with this latter bunch is unsurprisingly straightforward. They fall into two distinct types: vampish temptresses and virginal princesses. Either way works for Conan; all of them turn into a panting, quivering heap upon the sight of this proto-gym whore and his tigerish muscles, without fail. He’s forever crushing these ladies to his chest at the end of stories. A rather strange expression; it’s as if the schoolyard sex education the young barbarian got from his friends set his imagination off on a biologically flawed path.

In one of the stories, the Queen of the Black Coast, the pirate mistress of a ship suddenly decides to take Conan for a mate after she witnesses him slaughter wave after wave of her crew. As one would. There’s no complexity involved in these feelings, no fall-out from the wild lusts and rages, no guilt, and, God forbid, no love. There’s one difference in the novella Red Nails when Conan encounters Valeria. She’s an equal, a freebooting adventurer and thief just like him, and he respects her for it. She’s not someone he lusts after immediately… at least, not the same way as he does with other female characters. We know from Howard’s correspondence with the female poet Novalyne Price Ellis that he intended to explore new directions with Valeria (the dirty devil flirted with an archaic kind of lipstick lesbianism with this character), and we can sense that perhaps Conan the great adventurer would find a soulmate in her. Certainly the character was a great choice for screenwriter Oliver Stone to use as Conan’s love interest in the John Milius movie adaptation; although, disappointingly, even she gets a touch of the screaming hab-dabs when faced with a dragon and black magic-wielding priests in the story, requiring our boy to get his big old sword out again to save the day.

But, much like James Bond would never ignore ladies in trouble despite him having about as much respect for them as a furball from Blofeld’s cat, Conan never takes an unfair advantage of any of the women in his care. Indeed, there’s something comforting about this lumbering presence, standing guard over his girls whatever the situation, chivalric in his own unique way, brave, tough and as faithful as King Kong is to Fay Wray. Our barbarian’s pillaging and brawling skills are second nature, but rapine is something this ancient-world titan seems to shy away from, when such a thing would have been commonplace among men of arms in primitive, lawless times. It could be that underneath the flinty shell of the man, there’s a delicate soul hidden somewhere.

Indeed, for all the brawling and monsterage he depicts, Howard the artist sometimes allows himself to creep into proceedings. In The Phoenix On The Sword, King Conan of Aquilonia hesitates to kill Rinaldo the minstrel, a chief conspirator in a regicidal plot against him, on the basis that the man is a gifted and renowned poet. It’s hard to see this barely-reconstructed savage and great fighting man savouring the fine arts, but it hints at the writer’s respect for his own vocation and (though fans would argue of course) a yearning for some deeper aesthetic impulse that tales of bloodletting couldn’t fulfil. While Howard’s poetry isn’t great, the stories are often opened and closed with examples of the author’s surprisingly gloomy verse, a far cry from the cookie-cutter nature of many of these simple tales of military victory. Taking Conan’s philosophy on life as an existential treatise, there’s pleasure to be found in his stripped-down, robust world-view. Here, in Queen Of The Black Coast, Conan describes his spiritual beliefs with regard to his god, Crom:

“He dwells on a great mountain. What use to call on him? Little he cares if men live or die. Better to be silent than to call his attention to you. He will send you dooms, not fortune! He is grim and loveless, but at birth he breathes power to strive and slay into a man’s soul. What else shall men ask of the gods?”

It’s tempting to imagine Conan as simply a sublimated fantasy version of Robert E Howard, and this brings us to a fascinating paradox. Apparently a very physically tough young man who was a more than adequate boxer and body-builder, we can easily discern Conan’s single-mindedness and somewhat brutal self-confidence in his creator. The machismo on show here from Howard can be flat-out farcical. In Shadows In The Moonlight, Conan reassures a typical heroine, Olivia, that she may sleep soundly at the same time as Conan when they take rest in an ancient ruin on a demon-plagued island. “I sleep like the wolf,” he tells her. “Nothing can enter this chamber without awakening me.” And at the start of The Pool Of The Black One, Conan simply appears on the deck of a pirate ship, dripping wet, from the open sea. When his astonished hosts ask him how he got there, he mentions that he took to the waves with naught but his swimming abilities to propel him after his boat began taking on water, “the better to make time”. When informed that sharks patrol these waters, the big guy simply shrugs those tigerish shoulders. Why bother about such things as drowning, traversing impossible distances or man-eating creatures when you have unlimited physical strength and Brontosaurian balls?

But looking at a picture of the author at the back of this book gives me a different impression of him. Despite the Al Capone hat he favours, Howard looks almost baby-faced in this shot, the features rounded and cuddly rather than hard and square-jawed. He might be a favourite uncle, not a hard-headed, honed, lusty adventurer.

Robert E Howard killed himself at the age of 30. Apparently an advocate of suicide as an acceptable, even noble means of ending one’s life in some of his correspondence, he took himself out with a bullet to the head when it became apparent that his beloved mother was dying in 1936. Howard’s father was thusly bereft of his wife and only child in the space of 24 hours. All the teeth-gritted determination associated with Howard’s wonderful tales doesn’t square well with the fact that he appears to have simply given in when faced with one of life’s unpleasant inevitabilities.

Perhaps such a way out represents a means of choice and control for some, a method of cheating a fate or destiny laid down for us. But I just can’t imagine Conan having favoured this solution. I think the big guy would have taken up arms however dire the situation and met his enemies with that grim smile and a flash of those eyes. He would have done what he was born to do, rather than succumbing.

But that’s not the real world. What the conclusion of Howard’s personal story shows – and as Conan realises on more than one occasion – is that muscles and swords are useless against some foes. Some demons just can’t be defeated.

But away from that chilly outcome, what the Conan stories do for me – and what the best of them might do for you – is to help me rediscover a fairly innocent pleasure in reading, the reason I fell in love with books in the first place. This is the type of title that might cause your sniffy teacher to frown at you, if you told them you were reading it. Going through the tales again rekindled some of that feeling I had when my older brother introduced me to the sword-swinging berserker in the first place; me on a school holiday, him on a day off work, my parents both out, the battered VHS copy of Conan the Barbarian from the video shop, both of us cheering Arnie on. There was a sort of magic in discovering these worlds, and I feel glad that I can still experience something of that. A delight at the blood and boobs, the monsters and heroes, the villains and wild women; a curiously guilt-free pleasure.

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