Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Howard, Robert E

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(1906-1936) US writer who began publishing work of genre interest with "Spear and Fang" for Weird Tales in 1925. He published about 160 stories in various genres, and remains of central interest in the field of fantasy for his Sword and Sorcery; the Templates he established for that mode have remained influential for most of the 20th century. REH did not invent S&S: a tale like H Rider Haggard's Eric Brighteyes (1891) works as an effective bridge between the Nordic Saga and its 20th-century offshoot, while writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lord Dunsany, Abraham Merritt, William Morris and Talbot Mundy clearly wrote tales which prefigured REH's work. But from the publication of "The Shadow Kingdom" (1929 WT), the novella which began the brief King Kull sequence, it was clear that REH was combining old ingredients into a new form.

Though one of his patchy novels – Almuric (1939 WT; 1964) – is a Planetary Romance, the typical REH S&S tale is set on Earth, long ago (see Time Abyss), in venues running from the clearly named Land of Fable of Erin in the Turlogh Dubh tales to vaguer fabled lands (mostly forgotten kingdoms and lost continents like Atlantis) in the King Kull and Conan sequences, whose various episodes traverse much of the prehistoric world, from Kull's aeons-deep Valusia to Conan's final kingdom of Aquilonia, which bears some resemblance to France. This setting is normally divided into empires (usually tyrannies) along with many small kingdoms and principalities, generally riven by dynastic strife. Supernatural entities proliferate, though distinctions between mundane and other Realities are not made with sufficient point to justify calling the tales Supernatural Fictions. There is a great deal of Magic in the air, though often under a threat of eventual Thinning.

Finally, and centrally, there is the Hero: the mighty-thewed, panther-swift barbarian warrior, whose senses are preternaturally acute, who responds to almost any challenge with sword or axe, who frequently turns berserker when the odds seem insuperable. The barbarian is extremely rough on women, though without malice. He is ruthless to traitors, profoundly loyal to any worthy Companion; though he may be found dominating a Duo, he is essentially a loner. He seems impossible to kill, but is not a supernatural hero, nor immortal. In REH's hands – though not in the hands of writers like L Sprague de Camp or Lin Carter, who revised or completed many of his abandoned manuscripts – the barbarian's shrugging contempt for effete civilization is married to a wintry fatalism clearly reminiscent of the doom-laden worldview expressed by heroes of Nordic saga. REH's huge appeal to later readers may well spring from a sense that he successfully married violent external action to this inner fatalism; and that his tales, however adolescent plot summaries may seem, do ring true.

In a career lasting only a decade (he committed suicide at 30), REH wrote prolifically, and with considerable invention. His first sequence of fantasy interest, the Solomon Kane tales – assembled, after some of the stories appeared in WT 1928-1932, as Red Shadows (coll 1968; vt in 3 vols as The Moon of Skulls 1969, The Hand of Kane 1970 and Solomon Kane 1971), and reassembled as Skulls in the Stars (coll 1978) and The Hills of the Dead (coll 1979) – feature a saturnine and vengeful 16th-century Pirate. Kane's experiences in Africa and Elizabethan England tend to be incorporated in supernatural fictions involving Black Magic, Vampires and Witches.

The King Kull sequence is clearly S&S. It includes two fine adventures, "The Shadow Kingdom" (as cited above) – in which Kull is impersonated by Serpents who become Shadow versions of humans – and "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune" (1929 WT), plus several tales left unpublished until they appeared, sometimes with undesignated revisions, in King Kull (coll 1967) with Lin Carter; some of the stories in the volume are by Carter alone, and are inferior. A later recension, Robert E. Howard's Kull (coll 1985), sticks to REH's own words, and is definitive. The sequence is set sometime circa 100,000BC. Kull, an exile from Atlantis, usurps the throne of Valusia and maintains a harsh but just rule, countering his serpent enemies and other threats. He is a violent brooder, and a man of action.

The Bran Mak Morn sequence is also S&S, and also comprises work published either in WT (1927-1932) or brought together and edited posthumously; it is assembled as Bran Mak Morn (coll 1969; cut vt Worms of the Earth 1973). Set in a Land-of-Fable Britain, the sequence once again concentrates upon a tall, lithe, sinewy hero, whose response to the threat of Rome is extremely violent. Of greatest interest is "Worms of the Earth" (1932 WT), in which Bran must live through a stifling bargain with the Underground "Worms of the Earth" – in fact, devolved humans – in order to enact revenge against a Roman villain. A similar figure, Turlogh Dubh, pursues his outlaw course in a Britain some centuries later; he appears in The Grey God Passes (in Dark Mind, Dark Heart anth 1962; 1975 chap), in "The Dark Man" (1931 WT) and in "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" (1931 WT), which appears in The Gods of Bal-Sagoth (coll 1979): all have been variously reprinted.

Though REH's earlier series contained some of his finest work, the Conan sequence – the writing of which dominated his later years – remains central to his reputation (see Conan). Given the fact that something like 200 story fragments were found in his papers, and that his style was very much heavier on heroic action than on the delineation of character, it is not perhaps surprising that many of these fragments were recast and "finished" as Conan tales: in some cases, a simple substitution of Conan's name as the avenging hero probably sufficed. As a result, the Conan bibliography is quite extraordinarily jumbled. It is possible, nevertheless, to trace two broad publishing patterns. There are (a) sequences of stories REH wrote more or less solo, and (b) "collaborations" and continuations (see Sequels by Other Hands).

These assortments of exfoliating texts constitute a genuine assault upon the perception of the reader, and the original figure of Conan tends to become obscure; but he can be recovered from the original material. REH's treatment of his new S&S hero did not materially differ from that accorded to Conan's predecessors, except for the fact that in Conan he created a figure – claiming to have based him upon prize-fighters and bootleggers he knew personally – whose exuberance is almost irresistible; and whose life story (REH takes him through adolescence to middle age) is sufficiently intriguing to engage the reader. Conan begins as a naive but extremely dangerous bumpkin from Cimmeria (probably Ireland), sometime around 10,000BC; travels back and forth through the Hyborian lands (roughly delimited as being those which, sometime after the sinking of Atlantis, surround what would become the Mediterranean Sea), and even further into a wide world chock-a-block with the fabulous. He is in no sense a Hidden Monarch, as he probably comes into his kingdom (the process is never actually described by REH) by usurping the throne. As a ruler, he is a slightly uncomfortable figure, for he is not a healer, or maintainer of Law: as REH describes him, he is a fomenter, a shaker of the world. But, like almost all early S&S tales, the Conan sequence is essentially Genre Fantasy; and Hyborea – for which REH composed an elaborate description and history as early as 1932 – is a fixed arena (see Agon) on the fragile cusp which divides the Land of Fable from Fantasyland, and which manages safely to cup within its vast compass the Chaos-inducing berserker antics of the hero.

REH wrote 17 solo stories in the sequence, all but one being published in WT 1932-1936; four posthumous stories underwent revisions by other hands. All appeared in book form, interlaced with some additional material, in the first posthumous set of titles: Conan the Conqueror (1935-1936 WT; 1950; rev [following magazine text] vt The Hour of the Dragon 1977), The Sword of Conan (coll 1952), King Conan (coll 1953), The Coming of Conan (coll 1953), Conan the Barbarian (coll 1954) and Tales of Conan (coll 1955; vt The Flame Knife 1981) with L Sprague de Camp; The Return of Conan (1957; vt Conan the Avenger 1968) was by de Camp and Bjorn Nyberg. The second set to contain REH stories, this time shorn of accretions, comprises The People of the Black Circle (1934 WT; 1974), A Witch Shall be Born (1934 WT; 1975), Red Nails (1935 WT; 1975), The Tower of the Elephant (coll 1975 chap), The Devil in Iron (coll 1976), Rogues in the House (coll 1976 chap), The Hour of the Dragon (1989) – an edited version of the 1977 vt of Conan the ConquerorQueen of the Black Coast (coll 1978) and The Pool of the Black One (coll 1986). A third, but incomplete, sequence, ed Karl Edward Wagner, comprises The Hour of the Dragon (1977; see above), The People of the Black Circle (coll 1977) and Red Nails (coll 1979); all differ from similar titles in the second set.

There are two later sequences devoted to Conan, with or without material by REH himself. The first was put together by de Camp and Carter, and (in terms of internal chronology, as the editors' revisions and contributions – in view of REH's failure to tell his tales in order – were designed to argue a sequence) comprises: Conan (coll 1967), Conan of Cimmeria (coll 1969) and Conan the Freebooter (coll 1968), all three assembled as The Conan Chronicles (omni 1989 UK); Conan the Wanderer (coll 1968), Conan the Adventurer (coll 1966) and Conan the Buccaneer (coll 1971), all three assembled as The Conan Chronicles 2 (omni 1989 UK); Conan the Warrior (coll 1967); Conan the Usurper (coll 1967); the original Conan the Conqueror (1967) as ed L Sprague de Camp; the original The Return of Conan in its 1968 vt, Conan the Avenger; and Conan of the Isles (coll 1968). Further volumes by this team included Conan of Aquilonia (coll 1977), Conan the Swordsman (coll 1978), Conan the Liberator (1979), The Blade of Conan (anth 1979) non-fiction, The Spell of Conan (anth 1980), Conan and the Spider God (1980), Treasure of Tranicos (1980) and Conan the Barbarian * (1982) (see Conan Movies).

The second sequence of Conan material does not claim any relationship to REH's original words: a sequence of ties, it comprises Conan and the Sorceror * (1978), The Sword of Skelos * (1979) and Conan the Mercenary * (1980), all by Andrew J Offutt; Conan the Defender * (1982), Conan the Invincible * (1982), Conan the Triumphant * (1983), Conan the Unconquered * (1983), Conan the Destroyer * (1984) (see Conan Movies), Conan the Magnificent * (1984) and Conan the Victorious * (1984), all by Robert Jordan; Conan the Undaunted * (1984) by James M Ward (1951-    ); Conan and the Prophecy * (1984) by Roger E Moore (1955-    ); Conan the Outlaw * (1984) by Moore; Conan the Valorous * (1985) by John Maddox Roberts; Conan the Fearless * (1986) by Steve Perry (1947-    ); Conan the Raider * (1986) and Conan the Renegade * (1986) by Leonard Carpenter (1948-    ); Conan the Champion * (1987) and Conan the Marauder * (1988) by Roberts; Conan the Valiant * (1988) by Roland Green; Conan the Warlord * (1988) by Carpenter; Conan the Bold * (1989) by Roberts; Conan the Hero * (1989) by Carpenter; Conan the Indomitable * (1989) by Perry; Conan the Great * (1990) by Carpenter; Conan the Formidable * (1990) and Conan the Free Lance * (1990) by Perry; Conan the Guardian * (1991) by Green; Conan the Outcast * (1991) by Carpenter; Conan the Rogue * (1991) by Roberts; Conan the Savage * (1992) by Carpenter; Conan the Relentless * (1992) by Green; Conan of the Red Brotherhood * (1993) by Carpenter; Conan and the Gods of the Mountain * (1993) by Green; and Conan the Hunter * (1994) by Sean A Hunter. Marvel Comics began their Conan the Barbarian comic in 1970; after some 300 issues, it continues.

That Conan represented a wish-fulfilment for REH has been generally assumed both by his advocates and by those who disdain the nearly insane violence of his S&S world; and there is no denying the pathos inherent in the gap between the world-bestriding Conan and his creator, who hardly left Cross Plains, Texas. Nor can it be denied that the REH vision of self-fulfilling action can result in unsavoury moments, or that his racism gives off a sense of hysterical intensity. But there is always the saving raw action, the exorbitant young world awaiting the blow, the feel of the wind of Story. In that, he remains nonpareil. [JC]

other works: A Gent from Bear Creek (coll 1937 UK), Western stories, with companion volumes The Pride of Bear Creek (coll 1966) and Mayhem on Bear Creek (coll 1979); Skull-Face and Others (coll 1946; vt Skull Face Omnibus 1974 UK; vt in 3 vols Skull-Face and Others 1976 UK, The Valley of the Worms, and Others 1976 UK, and The Shadow Kingdom 1976 UK); Always Comes Evening (coll 1957 chap), poetry (further poetry titles are not listed); The Dark Man and Others (coll 1963; cut vt Pigeons from Hell 1976; vt in 2 vols The Dark Man 1979 UK and The Dead Remember 1979 UK); Wolfshead (coll 1968); Red Blades of Black Cathay (coll 1971) with Tevis Clyde Smith (1908-1984); Marchers of Valhalla (coll 1972; exp 1977); The Vultures (coll 1973); The Incredible Adventures of Dennis Dorgan (coll 1974); The Lost Valley of Iskander (coll 1974); Tigers of the Sea (coll 1974); Valley of the Lost (1975 chap), short story; Black Vulmea's Vengeance & Other Tales of Pirates (coll 1976); The Grim Land and Others (coll 1976 chap); The Iron Man (coll 1976; vt The Iron Man & Other Tales of the Ring 1976), boxing tales; The Book of Robert E. Howard (coll 1976) and The Second Book of Robert E. Howard (coll 1976); The Swords of Shahrazar (coll 1976 UK); Son of the White Wolf (coll 1977); The Illustrated Gods of the North (1977 chap), short story; The Return of Skull-Face (1976 chap) with Richard A Lupoff; Three-Bladed Doom (1977); The Robert E. Howard Omnibus (coll 1977 UK); Black Canaan (coll 1978); Black Colossus (coll 1979); Jewels of Gwahlur (coll 1979); The Sowers of the Thunder (coll 1979); Hawks of Outremer (coll 1979); The Road of Azrael (coll 1979); Lord of the Dead (coll 1981); The Adventures of Lal Singh (coll 1985 chap); Cthulhu: The Mythos and Kindred Horrors (coll 1987) ed David Drake; Robert E. Howard's World of Heroes (coll 1989 UK) ed Mike Ashley; Post Oaks and Sand Roughs (coll 1990).

further reading: The Last Celt: A Bio-bibliography of Robert Ervin Howard (1976) by Glenn Lord (1931-2011); The Annotated Guide to Robert E. Howard's Sword & Sorcery (1976) by Robert Weinberg; A Gazeteer of the Hyborian World of Conan Including Also the World of Kull (1977) by Julian May, writing as Lee N Falconer; Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard (1983) by L Sprague de Camp, Catherine Crook de Camp and Jane Whittington Griffin (1916-1979).

see also: Red Sonja (1985).

Robert Ervin Howard


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.