Reading About Robert E. Howard
by Bill Ward
It’s safe to say Robert E. Howard has passionate fans. And this passion goes beyond buying stacks of books and old comics and limited edition resin sculptures, beyond pilgrimages to Cross Plains or Valeria cosplay, beyond, even, mimeographing ‘zines in their basement or writing fiction inspired by Howard’s example. For you see, Howard’s fans have dared to set their sandalled feet upon the tumbled jeweled thrones of literary criticism, and they’ve been trampling such thrones for decades. Here’s a look at just some of what they’ve been saying.
Don Herron’s The Dark Barbarian is both the logical and, thanks to its new availability as part of the Robert E. Howard LitCrit Megapack ebook, the easy place to start. It is the book that, according to Charles Hoffman’s introduction, “begat modern Howard scholarship.” Hoffman notes just how different preparing a bibliography for Howard material became after the 1984 publication of The Dark Barbarian, and indeed it seems as if the well of Howard scholarship has been overflowing ever since. Collecting standout essays from publications such as Amra, Cromlech, The Dark Man, REHupa and The Fantastic Worlds of Robert E. Howard, as well as offering some original pieces. Both The Dark Barbarian and its sequel from 20 years on, The Barbaric Triumph, offer a kaleidoscope of ideas, everything from analyzing the volumes in Howard’s library to speculating on what he may have written had he lived beyond 1936. The LitCrit Megapack includes even more essays, there is everything here from analysis of Conan pastiche, deep dives into Howard’s poetry or Western stories, to Nietzschian interpretations of an existentialist Conan. In terms of one stop shopping, it’s hard to imagine a better value of quality content to price than this ‘megapack’ collection.
Another collection worth checking out is Two-Gun Bob: A Centennial Study of Robert E. Howard, edited by Benjamin Szumskyj. As with The Dark Barbarian and related anthologies, Two-Gun Bob presents free-ranging scholarship of all things Howard, with focus on under-served characters like El Borak or Bran, or Howard’s boxing stories. For anyone who has read and enjoyed the above mentioned essay collections, Two-Gun Bob brings things further up to date.
Full blown biographies of Howard get their start with L. Sprague de Camp’s Dark Valley Destiny, an account that has been heavily criticized for its author’s straitjacketing of Howard’s persona into the ‘just-so story’ patness of Freudian theory. Thankfully, for a more level headed and respectful approach there is Mark Finn’s excellent 2006 biography Blood &Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard. Finn, himself part of the wave of ground-up Howard scholarship, gives us a look at Howard’s world, the surviving anecdotes of his life, and the highs and lows of his tumultuous publishing career in a book that manages to capture the personality of Howard and his times without resorting to false dramatics or shoehorned speculation. It’s the best place to look for anyone interested in reading about Howard’s life and times.
The other biographical account of note is Novalyne Price Ellis’ recollections of her time as Howard’s friend in One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard The Final Years. Adapted from her diary entries, One Who Walked Alone covers the final years of Howard’s life as seen from her perspective, and offers many first-hand recollections of Howard’s personality, opinions, and demeanor. Published just a few years after Dark Valley Destiny, One Who Walked Alone presents a different Howard, eccentric and troubled to be sure, but hardly the portrait given by de Camp. For a sense of Howard’s personality, and for a real feel of the small-town rural America of the 1930s, One Who Walked Alone is excellent. The film adaptation, The Whole Wide World, is also quite good even if one could quibble somewhat over Howard’s portrayal by Vincent D’Onofrio.
This just scratches the surface of publications about Robert E. Howard, but these represent some of the best places to start.