Everyone is voting early and often for the 2007 Cimmerian Awards, right? In honor of the ongoing event, I’m here to hand out the Lemurian Awards for the 12 all-time best essays about Howard’s work. Why “Lemurian”? Well, TC‘s annual Awards for the 3 best essays are called the Hyrkanians, and as we know from “The Hyborian Age,” the Lemurians were the ancestors of the Hyrkanians (“Now the Lemurians enter history again, as the Hyrkanians…”) In honor of that prominent Lemurian and patron of the black arts Rotath, the actual awards will be skulls, like those we’ve come to know and lust after these past 3 years, only golden this time. (Our thanks to Auric Enterprises for the generous donation of the gold that went into the sculptings, and if you can’t place Auric Enterprises it’s time to reread Goldfinger). Given their model, I can’t guarantee that these Rotath-derived golden skulls will be curse-free, but faint heart ne’er toted trophy homeward.
Is there something fishy about the Lemurians? Damn straight, and why not; after all, there was something fishy about the (pseudo)historical Lemurians. “Men of the Shadows” describes them as “the half-human Men of the Sea. Perhaps from some strange sea-monster had those sprang, for they were scaly like unto a shark, and they could swim for hours under the water.” (There’s another hint in “The Cat and the Skull’ when Howard assures us that Kull is as at home in the water as any Lemurian). Wherein lies the fishiness? These choices are litcrit-intensive. I may be in the minority in Howard fandom in that I had some decent experiences as well as some appalling ones in English classes, but to me all litcrit really means is, articles that engage with Howard’s work. Yes, I find Howard the man fascinating, but I find him fascinating because he wrote the stories and the poems. Articles dealing with his life come a distant second, and articles dealing with his impact on the lives of fans come an even more distant third. My 12 Lemurian picks are ludicrously subjective and self-indulgent, and I’m sure Leo would be willing to extend his hospitality to guest-bloggers bristling with counter-lists. Lastly, the numerical sequence implies no hierarchy or qualitative ranking whatsoever; #1 is not necessarily superior to #12. It was hard enough selecting what I deem the dozen best without also trying to arrange them in order of merit. Save for the lone whippersnapper, these essays have not only stood the test of time but been granted tenured teaching positions by time.
1. Don Herron, “The Dark Barbarian,” in The Dark Barbarian. The consensus is that “Robert E. Howard: Hard-Boiled Heroic Fantasist” is the more significant, and the more disciplined, of Herron’s two contributions as essayist rather than editor to his 1984 critical anthology, but me, I like essay-sprawl better than exurban sprawl. Here we have the work of a Road Warrior for whom “Conan Vs. Conantics” is no longer even a speck in his rearview mirror, a critic who is ready to pit “history as a grim, shadowy wonderland” and a “colossal march of the races of man” against the cosmicism of HPL and CAS. Interestingly, Herron anticipated a persistent complaint about this essay: “Now all this talk of comic book and movie adaptations, authorized imitations and corporations may well seem beside the point to understanding Howard as a writer.” But in our current era of Paradox Entertainment, Age of Conan novels, Dark Horse comic books, a scripted “origin story” for Solomon Kane and a stalled-out animated “Red Nails,” the pop culture panoptics of “The Dark Barbarian” no longer seem like sidetrackings at all. The article does contain one un-Herronian blooper, the statement that JFK’s murder “was broadcast live over national television,” perhaps a conflation of the Zapruder film and the rough “justice” Jack Ruby doled out to designated patsy Lee Harvey Oswald, but what does that matter compared to footnotes that are not a chore but a reward, the print equivalent of bonus featurettes on a “special edition” DVD?
2. Fritz Leiber, “Howard’s Fantasy,” in The Dark Barbarian. In which one of Howard’s few rivals as an American heroic fantasist finalizes what he’d been revealing in a series of jottings and reviews–that he was more of an admirer, and an astute critic, than a rival (At one time Leiber planned to write his own version of Literary Swordsmen & Sorcerers or Imaginary Worlds, and the non-fruition of that project never ceases to hurt). Where would Howard studies be without Leiber’s comments on Howard’s ready recourse to “the words and phrases of power,” or his enlisting of Marlowe and Macbeth on the Texan’s behalf? An aside about “Red Shadows”–that “the Giant Ape (which appears so often as a stock menace in Howard’s subsequent work) is handled with sympathy as well as power” shows what close attention Leiber was paying, and his suggestion that “Beyond the Black River” bestrides the New and Old Worlds by partaking of “two very different yet hauntingly similar historical phenomena,” namely “the long Roman watch on the Rhine and in Britain against the barbarian hordes who ultimately ravaged the Western Empire” and the “long war along forest trails and around blockhouses of the American colonists and pioneers against the Amerinds,” is invaluable. Amusingly, the assertion that “spicy scenes fit as naturally into the swordplay-and-sorcery story as they do into the related, larger category of the picaresque” has some applicability to the later Fafhrd and the Mouser stories, wherein the amatory antics are decreasingly vanilla and increasingly exotic in flavor. “Howard’s Fantasy” is something of a fix-up, but Don told me recently that Leiber himself made a point of adding the crucial insistence “Anything I like as well as I do some of the Conan stories, I do the courtesy of taking seriously when I write about them,” which must have caused de Camp’s Tritonian ring to burn the finger it encircled black.
3. Patrice Louinet, “Conan, Kull and Bran Mak Morn: The Kings of the Night,” in The Fantastic Worlds of Robert E. Howard. Patrice says of “The Scarlet Citadel” here that “too many events crowded on each other in what was, after all, a short story,” and the same is nearly true of the crush of ideas in this article. Still, no more effective advertisement for the at-the-time newfangled notion of drop-kicking “character chronologies” in favor of an overarching “Howard chronology” has ever been devised, and Lancer loyalists should not miss the paragraph on the insult to Howard’s concepts voiced by the pretend-Epimetreus in Conan of the Isles. Highlights like the Celticization of kingship in Howard’s work, entwined origins of ‘The Shadow Kingdom’ and “Isle of the Eons,” or the “Drums of Tombalku” fragment as an underlier-text of The Hour of the Dragon, are developed in Patrice’s later writings. The one sentence that always has me wanting to call in an airstrike is (apropos of the Saxon conquests that founded “England”) “History teaches us that the Norse penetration was quite smooth, and based mainly on commercial interests.” I would not be prepared to vouch for M. Louinet’s safety in many Welsh or Cornish pubs were word of this to spread…
4. Rusty Burke, “De Camp Vs. Howard: Rewriting Conan” (includes “An REH Purist Manifesto”, in The Fantastic Worlds of Robert E. Howard. This essay will be essential so long as some nominal Howard fans continue to suffer from Stockholm Syndrome due to a long de Campian captivity. I cherish it because Rusty freed me from a sentimental fondness for “The Treasure of Tranicos,” the first, albeit adulterated, Howard story I ever read. Watching his systematic, methodical demolition of “Tranicos” is like watching the safety-conscious implosion of one of those white elephant/eyesore structures from the postwar decades–the destruction opens up space for urban renewal, or “Black Stranger”-appreciation (unless you’re Bill Cavalier). Rusty eschews the supposed demonizing or vilifying of de Camp that the Lancer diehards are always caterwauling about, letting many, many words and deeds speak for themselves. As V4n1 of TC amply attests, the gentleman in question was favored with multiple gifts and graces, but he was as unsuited to write Conan as Schwarzenegger was to play Conan.
5. Steve Trout, “King Conan and the Aquilonian Dream,” in The Dark Man #1 (August 1990). I finally gave this one the nod over Steve’s razor-edged “Heritage of Steel” in The Barbaric Triumph. Part of achieving recognition for Howard as an American classic is to keep loudly but lucidly pointing out just how classically American he was, and Steve has been at it for many years. The ghosts of Frank Capra and FDR beam in approval as he makes a big, or a New, deal of Conan’s progressive, as-egalitarian-as-a-monarchy-can-hope-to-be stewardship of Aquilonia. Steve calls our attention to the possibly-conflicted-but-conclusively-anti-slaveholder Venturer sequence in The Hour of the Dragon, notes almost as a throwaway that “practically all of Howard’s adventure fiction takes place on a frontier of one kind or another,” and says what can’t be said often enough: “Howard did not write in a vacuum.”
6. Don Herron, “On Howardian Fairyland,” in The Dark Man #2 (July 1991). This single-pager is the work of a Don of few words–no doubt he was in a hurry to say his piece and get back to dreaming of the Lion’s Den and the viscera he would eventually strew so lavishly across its sands. Essentially he’s alerting us here to the fact that whenever the words “unreal” or “unreality” occur in Howard’s fantasy, we need to pay closer attention, because a Pegasus-flight into the wild blue yonder is preparing for departure. “Some of the prof types go crazy over the concept of fairyland,” he notes (his prose is dressed for a casual Friday), emphasizing that the “typically dark-hued Howardian version of fairyland” is always somewhere beyond the back of beyond. On-the-fly insights about the dragon as “a weird bridge” to Xuchotl and how pastichemongers “have overloaded the Hyborian Age with tamed weirdness” and the perfect illustration-in-words from “Queen of the Black Coast” reinforce my conviction that no one should ever drink deeply from “Hard-Boiled Heroic Fantasist” without this as a chaser.
7. Rusty Burke, “The Old Deserted House: Images of the South in Howard’s Fiction,” in The Dark Man #2 (July 1991). An examination of the “Piney Wood” stories and what REH termed the “dark, brooding old plantation house” as the “central image” of those stories, standing in as it does for “both the South, and the self.” Rusty looks at the symbolism inherent in night journeys and swamp forays and the resonance of the refrain of paradises and fortunes lost in terms of the Howard family’s own precarious finances. One comment–“If you hear sound, you’re alive; if you hear only silence, you’re dead. Our heroes have left the outer, conscious world, and entered the inner, unconscious realm”–cries out to be cross-referenced to “The Screaming Skull of Silence.” Some Howardists would rather recite the contents of Conan and the Spider God at graveside in Greenleaf Cemetery than even consider the possibility that Howard might indeed have thought as his upbringing and Umwelt taught him to think; Rusty, on the other hand, concedes “Robert E. Howard was a racist, and black villains or the threat of black uprisings constitute major threats in these stories,” the better to tease out the nuances, shadings, and complexities within that concession. He touches upon the sympathy (bordering on empathy and even attraction) that Howard sometimes felt for his characters of African descent, and positions voodoo, atavism, and at-homeness in the primordial mire as counterweights to the “political and economic” clout of their former masters and un-Reconstructed neighbors. Rusty includes some provocative thoughts about “white blood” as an undesirable/unforgivable attribute in some of the “black” characters–would Howard have been more freaked out by Hallie Berry or Barack Obama? In these stories the fruits of the South’s original sin are poisonous even when as sweet as The Bride of Damballah, here discussed as an anima figure capable of making the collected works of Jung beg out loud in Swiss German for mercy. Non-Howardian fiction as ambitious as Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom or as lubricious as the “Mandingo” subgenre of bodice-rippers come to mind throughout, and this essay will only grow in importance right alongside Howard’s stature–and the concomitant target he’ll be sporting.
8. Charles Hoffman, “Robert E. Howard vs. the Desert of the Real,” Spectrum Conan Super Special. In all honesty, Hoffman could easily have been put in a position of having to clear shelf-space for four or five Lemurians; from “Conan the Existential” in the Seventies on up through “Bitter Pleasures and Swinish Stupidity: Howard’s Take on Human Character” (which easily transcends the cataract-afflicted editorial vision of Two-Gun Bob) in 2006, he’s been required reading. Chuck is particularly proud of this “big theme” effort on Howard’s “art and aesthetics,” and has every reason to be. A major theme of his most recent REH work, that as is well-known human beings can’t bear too much reality and Howard offers an exceedingly realistic alternative to reality, is introduced here, and the use made of the aridly literal desert in “Xuthal of the Dusk” after so much about the (slightly) more figurative Desert of the Real is just wicked cool despite the heat and glare.
9. David Weber, Introduction to the 1995 Baen Books collection Bran Mak Morn. It’s a measure of what a welcome event this essay-disguised-as-an-intro was for Howardists during the lean times of the mid-Nineties that we were and still are prepared to overlook a disastrous sentence in the second paragraph: “Conan and Kull, the great kings of the Hyborean Age, pre-date the cataclysm which overwhelms Atlantis.” That’s 3 major errors in a single line, if the chronic misspelling of ‘Hyborian” bugs you the way it does me. But after that Weber doesn’t put a foot wrong, from his speculation that Howard named Bran “with malice aforethought” to his invocation of “the Nordic legends whose grimness played so great a part in evolving Howard’s world” to the generalization that REH swordslingers “might equally well be outriders of the darkness who contributed to its triumph, or warriors who took their stand against it.” Like another David (C. Smith, the author of the Oron novels and The Fall of the First World), Weber is alert to to the truth that “Howard’s heroes were descended from Odysseus, not Achilles. They were thinkers.” The texts of the Baen paperbacks were highly impure, but this essay is pure gold–like the skull Weber more than earned. Bravura finish: “Bran and Cormac and Kull are always ready to teach yet another generation of writers how to tell the high, old tales of doom and glory.”
10. Leo Grin, “The Reign of Blood,” in The Barbaric Triumph. This is one of the first and then, after beaucoup rereading, also one of the last essays that anyone serious about Howard studies should read. The heroes of REH stories hold more grudges than Angelina Jolie does Third World babies–Leo sharpened and weaponized a mostly passive awareness of this until he had a tour de force. An avalanche of examples of Howard putting “a human face on the struggles of life, one that his heroes could sneer at and spit upon” or [infusing] everything in his universe with hate, making it as common an element as carbon or hydrogen” sweeps away any reservations. As a bonus, the theme is so black-hearted and red-misted that some readers will find themselves wanting to know more about Howard’s approach to love, loyalty and laughter. Not to be missed: the discussion of the reconnaissance raven in The Hour of the Dragon, which gets what’s coming to it as gratifyingly as any bird in the Conan series other than the incautious vulture of “A Witch Shall Be Born.” I personally wish Leo had slammed Lovecraft’s batty consumption of stale-dated canned goods rather than “Lovecraft’s batty life philosophies,” but such Schlagfertigkeit is only to be expected from a young (this being before TC‘s 2006 publication schedule) critic writing about an always-young author.
11. Karl Edward Wagner, Afterwords to Berkley collections The People of the Black Circle, Red Nails, and The Hour of the Dragon. It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want t– er, I mean I’ll bestow Lemurians as I see fit. If KEW’s 3 intros and 3 afterwords haven’t been spliced together into one-super-essay yet, something will have to be done about that. Being a brilliant heroic fantasist one’s own self doesn’t make one a lock to excel as a critic also, but it worked out that way with Wagner as well as Leiber. To move from the introductions to the Lancer paperbacks to these is to leapfrog all the grades from kindergarden to a grad school seminar, is in short to be educated. Sharing out a treasure trove of citations from then-unpublished letters, The Howard Collector, and The Last Celt, Wagner robustly defends Weird Tales while taking the reader behind-the-scenes and wincing at some of the decor; he declares that “Beyond the Black River” is, like its author, “Texas-born and Texas-bred,” and calls our attention to the fact that “the Hyborian Age” contains “the bones of an epic, in the history of Gorm’s conquests”–noteworthy in light of Donald Sidney-Fryer’s contribution to TC V3n12. The Berkleys were of course “Vultures Over Cross Plains” and “Conan Vs. Conantics” put into practice, and references to “the frustrations of a Howard fan in obtaining true text” and “a Conan who will sweep away all your previous conceptions of the Cimmerian” indicate just how hellbent Wagner was on exploiting the Death Star’s vulnerabilities (but as a Solo who was approximately as hairy as Chewbacca, not as a Skywalker).
And for readers who care about KEW as well as REH, poignance is mixed with the passion here; Wagner’s manifest delight in the “hero-villain” Khemsa prompts thoughts of an even greater hero-villain whose name also kicks off with a K, while his remark that “The Hyborian Age” and the “much earlier version of mankind’s unhistoried past” in “Men of the Shadows” offer “interesting contrasts and similarities” is that of someone who strove might and main to reconcile the twain in the most memorable passages of Legion from the Shadows. Among the many, many things we have to thank Glenn Lord for is bringing Wagner and Howard together.
12. Larry Richter, “The Least of Bob Howard,” in The Highwayman and North Texas Ballistics Review V1n2, REHupa Mailing #146, August 1997. Regrettably, this article has only ever been available to REHupans and those blessed with REHupan connections, because Larry, although prodigally generous with his time and insights online, has long been reluctant to formalize the contents of his zines and discussion group posts for publication. He can be self-deprecating here–“It is strictly seat of the pants and intuition so far, and I might believe in elves and fairies too”–but fledgling Howardists looking to think or write about the “how” of Howard, the engines that prevent his stories (“the fastest thing delivered by Alphabet”) from ever obeying anyone else’s speed limit, owe it to themselves to get hold of “The Least.” Larry reminds us that “a Howard story is built with a strong call to passion. These works are not meant to be read by a dispassionate observer, and they make use of devices intended to convert an observer into an emotional participant in the story.” He visualizes each story as “a corridor of doors,” observes “There is usually enough discarded material bypassed in Howard’s best to form extra careers for someone else,” and concludes by stressing that the techniques in question demand the mythic as both a launchpad and a splashdown site.
It kills me to bypass certain other essays, like the “Tower of the Elephant”-oriented magnum opus Rick McCollum started but never finished in REHupa, or Rusty’s “The Journey Inside,” which occasioned an immortal Don Herron comment in Mailing #101: “Rusty: Your essay is really a long essay, quite lengthy.” (At times the many extracts from Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye threaten to engulf Rusty’s own paragraphs, like Zulu impis charging British infantry squares, but the essay–monograph, really–is worth the effort for reader as well as writer). And I’m embarassed that the Boxer Rebellion that’s been the most important REHupa development of the 21st century thanks to Leo, [redacted], and Chris Gruber goes unrepresented, but my suspicion is that a masterpiece of claret-and-clarity will yet be painted by one of those guys. But, for now, there you have them, my Twelve That Delve, the essayists whose countenances should be carved Rushmore-style into the side of Mount Golamira, whose keyboards should be phoenix-inscribed by the real, accept-no-substitutes Epimetreus.