1930s pulp: Robert E. Howard and the rise of Conan

Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) created a sophisticated sword and sandal fantasy more than  decade before Tolkien published his stories. In novels like The Jungle Book (1894), the late victorian writer Rudyard Kipling stripped away the trappings of civilization from man. In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan (1912), man stripped of his culture became a realistic hero. But in Conan and the works of Robert E. Howard, this primordial force becomes a driver of history, affecting the rise and fall of civilizations.  Conan comes drenched in blood and gore.  Historyradio.org talked to Mark Finn, Howard’s biographer, in order to understand the continuing attraction of the muscular barbarian.

Mark Finn is the author of Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard, published by MonkeyBrain Books 2006

Historyradio.org: Robert E. Howard only lived till he was 30, yet he created a new genre before he committed suicide. Was he a very hard-working writer? 

Like most pulp writers, Howard was serious about his craft. He also needed the money. It wasn’t uncommon for him to put in a twelve-hour day at the typewriter, working on stories and poems. He also wrote letters to his friends and correspondents, including H.P. Lovecraft, and some of those letters are thirty pages long. Despite all of that, he wrote over 300 short stories and around 700 poems in a ten-year period.

Historyradio.org: He was a Texan. Do we know how and when he came up with this prehistoric character? It seems so remote from the kind of life he would have led?

Howard has a famous quote that Conan was an amalgam of various gambler, oil field roughnecks, boxers, etc. that he’d met. Remember, too, that Howard was a student of history, and he read about the subject extensively. So even though Howard had never killed a panther with a spear, it was easy for him to imagine what that would be like.

Historyradio.org: How was it that he ended up as a writer in the first place?

He had an early aptitude for words and language. When he was fifteen, he decided to try his hand writing stories. It took him three years to get published, in Weird Tales, no less. We should all be so lucky. After that it was a lot of long, hard hours writing at a breakneck pace.

Historyradio.org: He published his first work in magazines. How important were these magazines to literary culture at the time?

Pulps weren’t important to “literary culture” at the time, even though they sold tens of millions of copies and fostered generations of writers, and gave us so much in terms of American Literature. But at the time, pulps were considered trashy, beneath the notice of certain folks.  There wasn’t really anyone like Conan at the time. That’s not to say there weren’t other rough characters, but part of what makes Howard’s work so unique is that it straddles genres and slips out of any easy labels.

The cover of “Conan, The frost giant’s daughter” by Dark Horse Comics (2004)

Historyradio.org:  The Viking sagas may have had some influence on the creation of Conan. Yet, few of the Vikings looked like bodybuilders. Where do you think he found the inspiration for the physical look of Conan?

Howard himself mentions boxers and roughnecks and the like. The bodybuilding aspect is part of “pop culture Conan,” which includes the comics, the images of Frank Frazetta, and of course, the movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Historyradio.org:  Howard is known as one of the first great world builders. How particular was he about the details of the Conan universe?

His details were intended for the reader to picture clearly what was going on and when and with whom. His world itself was based on the idea of a forgotten epoch in recorded history, and so Howard wrote lots of indicators to the readers that this was supposed to be a precursor to, say, India, or Britain. Those choices he made were actually very deliberate.

Historyradio.org: Given that Conan is a violent, sometimes ruthless, killer, why do you think he is so attractive as a protagonist?

Conan is a killer, but not without reason. He keeps his own moral compass on who dies and when. This is something that grows throughout the Conan stories. But any character willing to do the right thing, apart from the popular or expected thing, will always be attractive to readers.

Historyradio.org:  What sort of literary style would you say Howard uses?

He was a muscular writer, to be sure, but his language was quite poetic, leading to a style that looks effortless, but is actually quite difficult to master. And no one has been able to do so since.

“Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars ………… Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.” (“The Phoenix on the Sword”, 1932)

Historyradio.org:  There was a psychological subtext to Tolkien’s Lord of the RingsDoes Howard’s writing have any literary qualities beyond entertainment? Is there a message in the Conan stories?  

Oh, yes. Lots of messages. Most of them relating to the arguments he was having with H.P. Lovecraft about Barbarism versus Civilization. The Conan stories are all about Howard’s concept of what a barbarian would be like in a civilized world. He felt that our world, in the 20th century, had peaked, and was due for a downward slide, so that the new barbarians could come over the walls and kill everyone. Then they would build their civilization up, up, up, until THEY became fat and lazy, and the new barbarians would come and tear them down. That was Howard’s view of history and it plays out in several Conan stories.

Historyradio.org: What, in your opinion, is the best Conan story that Howard wrote?

My all time favorite is “Beyond the Black River,” but I also love “Rogues in the House,” “The Tower of the Elephant,” “Red Nails,” and “The God in the Bowl.”

 

Robert E. Howard
(1906-1936)
Pulp refers to inexpensive fiction magazines that were published between 1896 and the late 1950s. They were printed on cheap wood pulp paper, hence the term pulp fiction. The publications were the successors to the penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and short-fiction magazines of the 19th century. Although many respected writers wrote for pulps, the magazines were best known for their lurid, exploitative, and sensational subject matter. Modern superhero comic books are sometimes considered descendants of “hero pulps”; pulp magazines that often featured illustrated novel-length stories of heroic characters (source: wiki)
 

 

Listen to “Gods of the North” (a.k.a “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”) by Robert E. Howard.

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