Sunday, April 04, 2004

Robert E. Howard - the Plath of the Pulps

In the early years of my adolescence our family made preparations to leave the small town for the big, bad city. One evening, after a day of house hunting, my mother unpacked the usual suppertime bucket of chicken and declared, "I don't want you reading Conan, or listening to heavy metal music." The year was 1978, and she had clearly seen too many bedrooms of my pimply-faced contemporaries.

But as with any parental decree, there were nuances to be exploited. Regarding the latter aspect, music, my parents had just passed down to me the green plastic solid-state hi-fi stereo that once sat in our living room. I had no records to play, so I listened to FM radio. My parents weren't deaf - they knew I listened to rock & roll - so they were definitely practicing some degree of compromise. With this awareness, I quickly developed a sophisticated attitude toward secular culture which, I suspect, informs most cultural criticism: feel free to enjoy something, just so long as you don't approve of it.

In practice, this meant if you were lying on your bed, grooving to the relatively innocent stylings of BTO or April Wine, and the DJ chose to slip a little Judas Priest into the mix, it was no big deal to stay put and enjoy, erm, endure the rest of the song. Regarding Conan The Barbarian, you might need to tweak the principle a little, but you could probably borrow the odd book or two from the library - just to build up your intellectual resistance. In either case, buying the material amounted to a clear transgression.

A quarter century later, my CD collection contains a few purchases that I enjoy, but in no way approve of. And I see Dark Horse Comics has resurrected the Conan title, to coincide with a Del Rey print run of the original stories by Robert E. Howard. Unsheathe your credit cards, you dogs, and dive into the fray!

I didn’t really “take” to Conan, originally. I borrowed a couple of the short story collections, but couldn’t make it past the first few pages. Even as a teen wildly adrift in a tidal wave of hormones, I thought the prose histrionic. I was steadily graduating from the riotous rabble of Tarzan and Doc Savage to the more cultured pleasures of Louis L'amour, and Alistair MacLean.

In hindsight, I wonder if it wasn't the prosaic meddling of Lin Carter and L. Sprague DeCamp that turned me off the Conan stories. I had friends who were Conan fanatics, and they scoffed at the revisionists, including those responsible for the movie, insisting that Howard, Conan's creator, was the only one who "got" the character. They remained adamant about this, so in my late teens I went back to the local library and signed out The Hour Of The Dragon, the only Conan novel written by Howard.

To this day, I can easily recall lines I last read over 20 years ago. My favorite: "At a glance, the Captain knew what he had found: an empty purse, and a ready blade." I could recite a half-dozen more, but that one encapsulates what is so endearing about Howard's point of view. What the reader understands is a) the foreign Captain is observing a recently deposed king (Conan) and b) this "empty purse/ready blade" mode is one Conan is entirely comfortable with. This evocation of willful independence and cheerful volatility had considerable cache at the time, not just with me but also with America. We were nostril-deep in the Reagan/Rambo bluster – it seemed everyone was caught up in adolescent hormonal fury. I recall Oprah asking Sylvester Stallone what sort of love he aspired to, and without a moment's pause he said, "The love of a teen-ager. Man, back then all you needed was your girl and the T-shirt on your back." In THOTD these are precisely the straits Conan has been shipwrecked upon: no kingdom, no shirt, just a sword and a girl waiting - and he couldn't be happier! Rambo had nothing on this cat.

I savored Howard's lusty depictions of physical strength and personal freedom, but these stereotypes were common to L'Amour and Edgar Rice Burroughs, as well. It was Howard's treatment of the supernatural that set him apart. Conan's foes resorted to the occult in an effort to undo the man, but were foiled by the barbarian's personal code: be forthright, shun conspirators, and choose confrontation over cowardice. If fantasy is a metaphorical method of dealing with the animus from within and without, Howard's Conan stories are a worthy, if rudimentary, first step.

Of course, you want an adolescent reader to be selective about what he takes from such stuff. And things get complicated with Howard, because it's almost impossible to separate the stories from the man who wrote them. He claimed the man and the work were the same, which raises some thorny problems. I doubt a single Howard title has been printed without mention of his suicide at the age of 30, and the lines he left behind in his typewriter:

All fled - all done, so lift me on the pyre -
The feast is over and the lamps expire.

And there we have it, America’s surest moneymaker: the hoary myth of the doomed romantic writer. The girls get Sylvia Plath; the boys get Robert E. Howard.

Like Plath, Howard was a character with innate appeal to his own gender, of a certain age. He appears to have been a momma's boy in the extreme, not just keeping house for the old gal, but diligently attending to her most intimate needs as her health deteriorated from TB. His father, a small-town doctor, disappeared for days or weeks at a time, returning to pay the bills and hector Robert into making something of himself. Robert lifted weights, boxed behind the local watering holes, and wrote pulp. His few friends express an undeniable fondness for the man, but quickly admit his behavior was often outrageous. His neighbors complained of his writing routine: not only was he given to pounding the typewriter for 18 hours at a stretch, but Howard also liked to shout his prose as he laid it down. You can't help but feel for the beleaguered neighbor who overhears the 28-year-old fella next-door bellow, "Oh, tiger of the North, you are as cold as the snowy mountains which bred you. Take me and crush me with your fierce love!" while his bed-ridden mother down the hall coughs out a lung.

An enlightened soul might point out the disconnect between a housekept momma's boy and his buccaneering fiction, but Howard would protest. He was among the pre-Depression writers who declared their fiction aspired to a "terrible honesty" (to quote Dashiell Hammett). Thus, Conan and The Hyborian Age weren't just entertaining fictional constructs, or even a representation of the author's point of view - they were The Way Things Really Are. It’s all fine and dandy if a fictional ubermensch conquers all, but it’s not so good if a scrawny reader with greasy hair gets to thinking he lives in a paranoid universe determined to annihilate him.

So, should we be concerned for today’s adolescent? When I asked my local Comic Book Guy if kids were buying Conan, he shrugged and said, “Nah - not really. Mostly geezers your age.” Ouch. Checking the stats on I see The Coming of Conan The Cimmerian has broken the top 1000 (758, as of this posting), thanks largely to a promotional boost from Men’s Health magazine. That’s right: the issue with The Rock on the cover. Again, my demographic, and again … ouch! “Read Howard,” entreats MH, “and ask again, Who dies first? Thankfully, our plump, overcoddled sensitivities.”

Yes, indeed - we ought to be very concerned for today’s adolescent. Because their fathers are reading Conan, and they’re listening to heavy metal music.

1 comment:

bookpublishers said...

Good to see 'The coming of conan' is still under 1000 in amazon rankings -it's a great book and deserves success.