The Hardy Boys and adolescent/upper-elementary nonfiction (yes, Old Ironsides and The Swamp Fox!) got me started reading. (How about you?) My sister Margaret introduced me to preteen mysteries of all kinds and eventually to science fiction and fantasy (aka Edgar Rice Burroughs). Seventh grade, my tastes began to include more than just Burroughs, and that may have been the year I first read H.G. Wells — undoubtedly War of the Worlds, still my favorite. When we moved to Olivet for my eighth and ninth grades in school, at the drugstore downtown, often during lunchtimes around being roughed up by bigger guys I didnʼt even really know and eating crème horns with my gangling rural friend, I started acquiring some books of my own — Andre Norton, more Burroughs (best of all, the ten Martian novels as a Christmas gift), and some other sci fi, including The Girls from Planet 9, a couple Ace Doubles (which is how I quickly met Mack Reynolds), Counter-Clock World by Philip K. Dick (whom I did not appreciate) and gradually a whole lot more, including Delany, Moorcock and Vance (as I have definitely mentioned previously).
Maybe the odd one out was a peculiar Lancer paperback I hesitated over for perhaps several weeks before plunking down the cash. Moorcock had given me a (childish) taste for fantasy (as had Norton, although I was too inexperienced to recognize that quality in her writing, and I hadnʼt read any of the Witch World books yet). But something about the savage violence of that bookʼs cover struck my awareness. Hard. It still does. The cover art was by Frank Frazetta, whom all the fantasy/sci fi artists still would like to emulate or equal, and none of them can. (Back then, in the late Sixties, his astonishing realism — thereʼs no other word for it — was rivaled for my attention only by the soft-focus watercolors of Jeff Jones, whose work got me to buy the first Planet of Adventure book by Jack Vance as well as Delanyʼs The Jewels of Aptor, and the detailed but somehow unfocused oils of John Schoenherr, which explains my early love for Dune, still the only book in that series I have actually read — if I discount listening to one of son Herbertʼs newer volumes). Although I probably owe the Sixties masters of science fiction and fantasy art a post (and letʼs include Jack Gaughan in my growing list of acknowledgments here), I actually wanted to praise Robert E. Howard today. The book I forked out my hardearned sixty cents for was Conan the Warrior.
What I didnʼt realize with that first volume, which I want to emphasize was like nothing else I had read up until then, was just how richly enthralling the suicidal Texanʼs prose was. The book stunned me, and many of its images, especially from “Red Nails” and “Beyond the Black River” still live in my imagination, even popping up disconcertingly in my dreams, all out of context. My next book, I think, was Conan the Adventurer, more Frazetta artwork outside, which gave me my first inkling of Howardʼs mastery. Something about “Drums of Tombalku” (although I liked it a lot) didnʼt quite measure up to the original Warrior stories, and it took me years and dozens of rereadings to realize it was the contributions of other writers — de Camp and Carter. They just werenʼt as good, and the more of their contributions I read, the more I vaguely (at the time) realized Howardʼs greatness. But he was, I thought then, just a dumb fantasy pulp writer: I couldnʼt conceive that he was actually good (just low-and-dirtily, amazingly interesting). The Bjorn Nyberg book made me first glimpse that somehow the actual Howard stories were my preference, the most unclear of unclear glimmerings of critical appreciation.
Now I am not one of those Howard fans who thinks de Camp and Carter are the dark waste that wonʼt flush away in your stool. Without them, particularly de Camp I have realized, I would never have met Conan or Howard, whose republished stuff Iʼve bought narcotically right through to the present day. I read Carterʼs tepid pastiches right through high school and college, and he gave me my introduction to many more greats than Howard (and Lovecraft), thanks to Ballantineʼs Adult Fantasy series. L. Sprague de Camp wrote The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate, which still stands high in my personal pantheon of great reads, and his revisions of “Three-Bladed Doom” and “Hawks over Egypt” and “The Road of the Eagles” added a vast dimension to my Hyborian Age (and sadly or otherwise, I still love the Conanized versions of those stories the best, however much I enjoy being able now to read the originals, too). However, neither later writer could do what Howard could do. They truly were followers behind the huge original.
I need sometime to explore what I think makes Howardʼs fantasy so riveting and real. In these days of academic Howardiana — which still strikes this furtive nocturnal reader of the juicy material as humorous and perhaps wrongheaded, although helpful to me and my interest in his writing and life — I may have nothing original to say. But even my barely teenaged mind could appreciate uncritically and unconsciously (the way I pretty much thought all the time until fairly well into college or after) that there was something special to the Conan storytelling. And as I assay writing my own fantasies now (yep, “Mistakes by Moonlight” and its sequels have been percolating powerfully as I practice Picasso), I need to realize the immense power of the shadow in which I labor, seeking to tell my own tales my own way.
(more to come)