Rogues and the Dark Horse They Rode In On

One drawback to the hardcovers in which Dark Horse collects the story-sequences of its Conan comic is that they look fatally attractive on one’s bookshelf, and therefore disincentivize the regular purchase of the monthly comic books themselves. Having belatedly caught up with Rogues in the House and Other Stories, the hardbound showcase for the talents of Timothy Truman, Cary Nord, and Tomàs Giorello, I’m feeling so sheepish as to be at risk, or even more at risk, for anthrax, to say nothing of how unable I would be to meet the disappointed gazes of Jim and Ruth Keegan. Mea culpa, mea maxima led-astray-by-laziness culpa.

The lengthy histories of Conan the Barbarian, The Savage Sword of Conan and other Howard-derived forays into the comics medium and their role in seducing and sustaining several generations of sword-and-sorcery fans deserve much more study than was devoted to the topic in Paul Sammon’s Conan the Phenomenon (In Conan: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Savage Hero, Roy Thomas elected to write from “within” the Thurian/Hyborian pseudohistorical continuum as a sort of post-Nemedian scholar, rather than as the key Marvel Comics figure that he was). I find sneers about “comic book dinks” as tiresome as “fanboy” self-hatred, and I’ve always thought that Roy Thomas was a better sword-and-sorcery writer than anyone in the Seventies except Karl Edward Wagner, Charles R. Saunders, and David C. Smith; witness “Devil-Wings Over Shadizar,” “The Hour of the Griffin,” “The Garden of Death and Life,” “The Last Ballad of Laza-Lanti,” and “The Citadel at the Center of Time.”

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Dossouye’s Sisters

Over at his blog, Charles Saunders has just added an interesting new post on the influences driving the protagonist of his latest book of stories, Dossouye. Just click on the link and then click on “Blog.”

Contra “Hyboria”; Or, Convenience Isn’t Everything

Readers who have shipped with Ahab on his voyage-of-the-damned pursuit of the great white whale might remember that Herman Melville has this to say of master harpooner Queequeg’s natal site: “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” I’m here today to inveigh against a false place that has elbowed its way onto maps and into gaming paraphernalia and goes unchallenged in a dismaying number of articles, reviews, and blog or forum posts: “Hyboria.”

Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age was a Cynara to whom Roy Thomas, L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Karl Edward Wagner and Robert Jordan all sought to be faithful in their fashion. Not one of them ever resorted to the ersatz term “Hyboria,” but recently this un-Howardian usage has been spreading like the invasive kudzu in Wagner’s Knoxville horror story “Where the Summer Ends.” Google “Hyboria” and it comes a-choogling at us with “Kings of Hyboria,” “Gods of Hyboria,” “Welcome to Hyboria,” “Living Hyboria,” “Images of Hyboria,” “Cities of Hyboria,” “The Women of Hyboria,” exhortations to “strap on your sword, it’s time to explore Hyboria,” and the especially irksome “Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria.” I don’t believe that either Kurt Busiek or Tim Truman has slipped and referred to “Hyboria” in one of their scripts for a Conan comic, but reams of Dark Horse promotional copy has demonstrated no such taste and discernment. The term is creeping into submissions to The Dark Man, and Richard Tierney, as well-versed in Howard as he is well-equipped to write weird verse, dignified it with title-status in his “The Doom of Hyboria” cycle for TC. On May 16 of this year the Entertainment Weekly website offered a slideshow of “18 Awesome Imaginary Worlds” and added Austrian-accented insult to injury by not only listing “Hyboria” but illustrating said “world” with a still of Arnold the Isshurian looking particularly learning-disabled.

Why is this happening? I haven’t seen anyone champion the rightness or needfulness of “Hyboria” yet; maybe this post will provoke some such defense. My suspicion is that the spurious term is flourishing out of a vague sense that the Hyborian Age, Howard’s formulation, doesn’t work due to being by definition a when rather than a where, a time rather than a place. So a perceived necessity is the mother of this misbegotten invention: we have to call Conan’s world, the kingdoms that dominate human history from the fall of Acheron to the equally uncushioned fall of imperial Aquilonia, something, don’t we? “Hyboria” is. . .convenient, almost like an abbreviation or acronym in that respect, and why shouldn’t authorial intentions join so much else as burnt offerings on the altar of our modern Moloch Convenience? Thus the Entertainment Weekly feature lumps ‘Hyboria” (described as “vaguely Eurasian,” like some Macao chanteuse seducing sailors in a pulp story) in with Narnia, Oz, Terabithia, and, amusingly, Liberty City from Grand Theft Auto IV.

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Superman on a Psychotic Bender No More

It’s easy to be a morning person when one happens upon pleasant surprises like the following in the New York Times:

In May 1934, two years before he killed himself in the driveway of his home in Cross Plains, Tex., Robert E. Howard published one of the finest adventures of his most famous character: the warrior, thief, swashbuckler and king called Conan the Cimmerian.

In the story, “Queen of the Black Coast,” Conan lounges in moonlit reverie on the deck of a galley beside the pirate queen Bêlit and reveals his elemental, live-for-the-moment spirit.

“Let me live deep while I live,” he says. “Let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

Conan is no hero. The best Conan stories end not in triumph but in an ambiguous, almost melancholy recognition that righteousness is scarce, perhaps even irrelevant. Conan’s world is not one of grand struggles between good and evil. Rather it is a world of avarice, of treachery, of raw power, slavery, embraced passions and ancient secrets best kept from man.

That’s from “At Play in a World of Savagery, but not This One,” by Seth Schiesel. Mr. Schiesel’s piece is ostensibly a review of Funcom’s Age of Conan, and yet he chooses to lead with four accurate and insightful paragraphs about Robert E. Howard and Howard’s Conan (“Conan the Barbarian,” may his fur diaper chafe him, is nowhere to be found). Manna from heaven (Mitra or perhaps Ishtar, certainly not Crom) made all the tastier because one of the most notorious of all hatchet jobs on the reason we blog here, “Superman on a Psychotic Bender” by H. R. Hays, appeared in the New York Times back in 1946. We’ll accept Schiesel’s review as a first step toward atonement.

Regrettably, he sees fit to include a facile comparison between Tolkien and Howard: “While Conan hacked and slashed his way through a decaying, darkening world, Bilbo, Aragorn, Frodo and Gandalf became paragons of virtue…” Seems to me the Middle-earth of the late Third Age, caught between Isengard and Barad-dûr, is decaying and darkening up a storm. Mr. Schiesel might also be gobsmacked by what the late First Age was like, and it’s now easier than ever before to learn, by reading The Children of Hà¹rin.

Still, at the moment I’m a delighted Howardist, not a touchy Tolkienist, and the review is further sweetened by several quotes from game designer Gaute Godager, who likens Conan to the archangel Gabriel marching into Sodom and Gomorrah (a Biblical precedent that just so happens to have also been very much on Sergio Leone’s mind in A Fistful of Dollars). Godager also says “Howard put Genghis Khan and the Mongolians in with the Romans and the Greeks, some Celts, and the sense of Africa pouring in a lot of this sense of darkness and put it on the stove, put the lid on and let it brew and simmer.” My only quibble with that would be that much of the darkness is Stygian, Acheronian, “Eastern” (the Master of Yimsha), or pre-human rather than “African.”

What really matters, though, is a signature passage from “Queen of the Black Coast” turning up in what still has a claim, albeit a somewhat shaky one, to being the newspaper of record. Very cool.

REH Days and V5n3

The next issue of The Cimmerian, V5n3 (June 2008), will debut at Howard Days on June 13, and will ship to subscribers soon after.

If you are a subscriber who is attending REH Days, and you intend to buy your issues there (so you can get them signed at the event, etc.), pop me an email and let me know and I’ll make sure not to send you your regular subscription.