Now It Can Be Told: The Poignance of Subliterary Hackwork

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S.T. Joshi’s article “Bran Mak Morn and History” in Two-Gun Bob: A Centennial Study of Robert E. Howard comes trailing a backstory that originated with the author’s 1996 magnum opus H. P. Lovecraft: A Life. That book more than deserved its Bram Stoker and British Fantasy Awards, but phrases from the pages (502-503) on which Robert E. Howard is introduced as an untutored provincial-turned-pen pal were destined (and designed?) to live in infamy among even the least touchy Howardists: “Fanatical cadre of supporters,” “subliterary hackwork that does not even begin to approach genuine literature,” “[Howard’s] views are not of any great substance and profundity,” “Howard’s style is crude, slipshod, and unwieldy.” The artful dismissal-intensifier “does not even begin to approach” is surpassed a page later when Joshi quotes Lovecraft’s “There’s a bird whose basic mentality seems to me just about the good respectable citizen’s. . .” evaluation of REH in a December 14, 1935 letter to Kenneth Sterling and then editorializes “If Howard’s later devotees would adhere to this view, they would make themselves a little less ridiculous in proclaiming vast profundity and originality for his work.” Only a little less ridiculous, mind you — that might qualify as the unkindest cut of all, were there not many cuts yet to come.

In 2001 Howard occasioned what has to be the worst passage in one of Joshi’s very best books, Ramsey Campbell and Modern Horror Fiction. Here is as good a place as any to mention that when Joshi is writing about those like Campbell or Shirley Jackson or Thomas Ligotti who broadcast on his preferred frequencies and speak to his sensibilities, few genre critics repay reading as much as he does. Otherwise, however, he can be so condemnatory as to suggest a reflexively merciless, possibly infanticidal tribal deity casting the aesthetically or morally misshapen forth into the Outer Darkness. Let’s steel ourselves to gaze upon his expanded inventory of Howardian infractions (page 148 in the Campbell book):

Howard’s prodigious imagination in conceiving the life and actions of primitive peoples is certainly remarkable. It was probably derived from his own fascination with what he perceived to be the freedoms of barbarian life and his implacable hostility to civilization — attitudes fostered by his being the descendant of one of the original settlers of Texas and his lifelong residence in the remote village of Cross Plains. These provocative conceptions are, however, frequently offset by a lamentable crudity of expression and a yielding to the most hackneyed conceptions of pulp fiction: characters who are broad caricatures rather than living beings; lurid bloodletting and melodrama; implausibility of action, especially with regard to supernatural phenomena; and a general slovenliness in diction and plot development. Howard and his work have attracted a small but vocal band of cheerleaders who are determined to give him high rank as a writer and thinker, but it is unlikely that he will ever have as high a standing as, say, his friend H. P. Lovecraft in general literature.

Reprobates among us have had fun with the concept of Cross Plains as “a remote village” rather than a small town (“remote village” suggests Stregoicavar in “The Black Stone” and have wondered about the charge of “implausibility of action” when it comes to “supernatural phenomena’ that are, after all, supernatural. We’ve also asked ourselves if belonging to a small but vocal band of cheerleaders is a step up from belonging to a fanatical cadre of supporters (Much depends on whether the small but vocal band is required to wear actual cheerleader uniforms). And at the risk of being fanatical and ridiculous, entertainment can be found in the sentence in H.P. Lovecraft: A Life that mentions Howard’s major “recurring characters, including Bran Mak Morn (a Celtic chieftain in Roman Britain), King Kull (a warrior-king of the mythical prehistoric realm of Valusia, in central Europe), Solomon Kane (an English Puritan of the seventeenth century), and, most famously, Conan, a barbarian chieftain of the mythical land of Cimmeria.” In the Ramsey Campbell book this is amended to “. . .Bran Mak Morn, a British chieftain during the days of the Roman occupation of Britain; stories about Solomon Kane, a seventeenth century Puritan who roams the globe in the name of justice and religion; and, most famously, the tales of Conan, a barbarian living in the prehistoric realm of Cimmeria, of which he eventually becomes the king.”

Yikes. Conan kinging it up in Cimmeria rather than ruling Aquilonia would certainly have made life easier for Strabonus and Tsotha-lanti, or Tarascus and Xaltotun. And Solomon Kane, who straddles the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, is here restricted to the seventeenth century. As for how Valusia wound up in central Europe, best not to worry about it. Why bother faulting Joshi for not being a specialist in a writer he deems so manifestly undeserving of specialist attention?

All of this prehistory, not so much red in tooth and claw as green in poison pen venom, understandably heightened curiosity about “Bran Mak Morn and History,” Joshi’s contribution to Two-Gun Bob. That anthology as a whole might have been the second biggest attraction at the World Fantasy Convention in Austin after favorite son Joe R. Lansdale, for reasons alluded to in Morgan Holmes’ October guest post to this blog. So what was going on? Had Joshi caught Centennial fever? Had an aggrieved ectoplasmic residue of Robert E. Howard visited him in the still watches of the night to discuss subliterary hackwork and lamentable crudity of expression? We may never know, but it is gratifying to note that Bran himself in the new article is at long last “a Pict who waged an ultimately futile struggle” and not a Celtic or British chieftain.

Growls have reached my ears to the effect that “Bran Mak Morn and History” is nothing more than de Campism without de Camp, very much in the tradition of the affronted erudition that prevented the posthumous-collaborator-to-be from getting back on the horse that threw him because that horse, a Roman cavalryman’s mount in “Kings of the Night,” was erroneously tricked out with stirrups. And although the article’s title warns us with the “. . .and History” part, to scrutinize Howard stories of the stature of “Kings” and “Worms of the Earth” for their “historicity” seems a little like watching the first three seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in order to determine Joss Whedon’s views on the quality of southern California’s public high schools.

But the news is not all bad or even indifferent. “Rarely in Howard’s work do we find the richness of historical setting, the struggle of barbarism against civilization, and the epic sweep of history portrayed so poignantly as in the Bran Mak Morn stories,” Joshi writes, and he returns to the adjective “poignant” to describe a visionary passage in “Men of the Shadows” (Recall that de Camp, in Dark Valley Destiny, forgot about this story altogether when he stated that “Kings of the Night” was the first Bran tale to be put on paper). Joshi also concludes that Bran renders Howard’s patented “grand sweep of history” “intimate and personal,” and gives the Texan credit for being quite aware “that the Romans were not easily beaten.” These are improvements when we think back to “crude, slipshod, and unwieldy” or “slovenliness in diction and plot development.”

On page 122 of Two-Gun Bob, Joshi, who knows his way around the Roman garrisons of Britannia from past work on Lovecraft, notes “a fourth legion, the IX Hispana, mysteriously disappeared around 119 C.E. — certainly a fruitful basis for a story by Howard or Lovecraft!” In fact said disappearance was a fruitful basis for the sinister story of Legio IX Infernalis in the finest of all Howard pastiches, Karl Edward Wagner’s 1976 Legion from the Shadows, but there’s no reason to fault Joshi, who is presumably not a sword-and-sorcery aficionado despite some generous comments about Fritz Leiber, for overlooking that fact.

Elsewhere in the article the notoriously premature Norsemen of the Bran stories are targeted as “Howard’s most egregious lapse in historical accuracy.” And yet a few pages earlier, Joshi himself reminds us that around the time of the Carausius episode “the south and east coasts of Britain were attacked by Saxons from northern Europe, and the emperor Diocletian ordered the construction of forts along the eastern, or Saxon, shore.” The Saxons may not have arrived in the longships of the later Vikings, but they came by water from northern Europe to make their fortunes and as much trouble as they could, so a case can be made for a Teutonic family resemblance. Is it so implausible that the future nemeses of Arthur might have been joined on the whale-road by a few forerunners of the future nemeses of Alfred, some of the wilder surplus young men from Scandinavia, the wolfsheads and baresarks of their time?

One other quibble is that Joshi takes the time to go after Joseph A. McCullough V’s online essay “Robert E. Howard, Christianity, and the Saga of Bran Mak Morn.” He needn’t have bothered; McCullough, although passionate about sword-and-sorcery, is no Howard expert. In his sister article at, “The Demarcation of Sword & Sorcery,” he misquotes Conan as having said of the gods “he would not stand in their shadow,” and makes the bizarre claims that when Kull usurped the Topaz Throne, “Atlantis had by this time fallen into the sea” and that “before [‘The Shadow Kingdom’] saw print, Robert E. Howard had already written and completed two story cycles about the characters Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn.”

So Howard emerges from ‘Bran Mak Morn and History” with fewer gloves laid on him than during the average icehouse session. One non-indignant way to approach the article is as a clash of cultures resulting in the shedding of ink rather than blood, with Joshi’s “Roman” virtues of historicist precision, orderliness, logic, and factuality still somewhat baffled by Howard’s “Celtic” traits of imagination, mysticism, and timeless truth.