REH, Take 2

Yes, no post at 5:05 this morning, although I was out running (having put in at least a whole mile by then, by the way). Yesterday evening I did a little research on publication options and got fairly depressed thinking about acquiring agents one of these days, once a complete novel is in the can. Sorrowfully self-pitying, but true. I also think that a full day (mostly out and about) had gotten to me just a bit. Anyway, when Qwest interrupted service yet again (for the fourth time, and I hadnʼt been online until after 3:30), I just shut down about 6:00 and made Janetʼs lunch and yesterdayʼs supper. So now I get to churn out something this morning.

the old one, the Ace edition I read first, too many years ago

I wrote about Robert E. Howard a while back, reminiscing about early fantasy reading from my days in Olivet, before I got hacking on the November novel project. During November, having purchased a copy from back in May or June, I also reread my least favorite Howard book, Almuric, his only foray into the Burroughsian interplanetary-traveling-Earthman side of planetary romance, and a pretty noticeably bad book. I didnʼt hate it as much this year as when I first finally read the whole thing about twenty-five years ago, having bought the Ace edition back in the late Sixties or earliest Seventies — some time when my proprietorial signature was more legible than itʼs been in decades and I hadnʼt yet begun dating and locating my book purchases in the front.

the new edition from Planet Stories (thanks to whom I now own the complete Northwest Smith)

As Howardʼs only real venture into science fiction, Almuric is not the best, although I think it had an unconscious influence on my choice to strand Hunter on his own for a few months on Tsyriel (which is why I wanted to reread the book, to avoid unconscious thefts). All the Texanʼs flaws are on parade — including sketchy background detail, too much self-praise for the brawny muscles of the protagonist (itʼs also in first person, unlike Howardʼs best stuff) and unbelievable fights and heroic victories. The girl is even more sugary-lame and pathetic than usual (truly a thing to be rescued and thatʼs it). The book reads like an anti-intellectual tract (Esau Cairn, our brutal hero, knows he has no books, art or intellectual pursuits, and thatʼs the way it should be; the “humans” on Almruic are hairy beasts, whose women are supernaturally unhairy lovelies, every one, doting on the “protection” of their brutish male masters), as if Howard were trying to convince himself a lot too much. The book has bird-people, too, so that was another issue I wanted to avoid borrowing unintentionally. However, it was considerably more readable than I had thought the first time around (of course when last I reread the first three of Burroughsʼs Martian books, the three “good ones,” about ten years ago, I wasnʼt too enthralled, particularly with Princess, which I enjoyed a lot last month — moods and other interests determine so much).

my edition

Howard gets a lot of credit these days for his “realism.” I am not a scholar, although I have read just about every Howard story published in book form since 1967, including the boxing-sailor and Western tales, and realism is not a quality I have particularly noticed. Hammett, even Chandler, have it all over Howard in style and language, characterization and plot (and weʼre not even talking about actual realists here, like Twain, Howells, Crane, Dreiser or even London* — the last of whom, being one of Howardʼs literary heroes, leaves the pupil in the Texas dirt, realistically). Even in the boxing stories, and the author was a practiced combatant at the ungentle science, the level of realism is pretty bookish on settings (our writer had never been much farther than a couple of hundred miles from home, although massively well-read in a certain kind of second- and third-tier range of fiction and nonfic, a lot like me in that) and events; even the fights, though violently well described are generally narcissistic fantasies, which is what I enjoyed, I bet. The same goes for his historicals (personally some of my favorites — discovering Sowers of the Thunder in the mid-Seventies was wonderful in many ways, and reinvigorated my Howardolatry, me having dropped even rereading Conan for five or six years then), but even there the story lines are always improbable and glamorously self-aggrandizing — both for reader and author, I think. The perfect adolescent escapism.

The Howard-as-realist doctrine is probably trying to defend/exalt the writerʼs violence (and he is good at violent action, enviably and worthy of emulation). For the Thirties, Howard was as bloody and gory as they got, at least in my limited experience, and at least for me he did a fantastic (careful word choice there) job of making it real to my imagination. He also had a relatively stripped-down style, for all his sometimes paragraph-long passages of imaginative (or borrowed and “improved”) description and lapidary deployment of adjectives and adverbs (both parts of speech I think the Hemingway — now thereʼs a realist — school of critics has improperly made modern and contemporary writers coltish about wielding sufficiently). Howardʼs defenders intend realism to mean/substitute for juicy violence, which of course is nonsense — in that case every Hollywood action flick of the last several decades is a rough gem of realism in gritty and gore-splattering violence (but of course if that were actually true, as it is decidedly not, one could avoid injury in any massive explosion by simply leaping, as all action heroes always/invariably and totally unrealistically do). Howard splashed blood liberally and successfully, but not I think realistically.

His defenders also want to praise Howardʼs lushly teenaged “tragic vision.” Yes, the writer had and expressed a dark and brutal** view of life, but quite simply, boys, the heroes always survive to fight another day. Your author (that secretly self-deceiving mommaʼs boy) may have shot himself, tragically, but the story ainʼt a tragedy when the hero wins and wins and wins impossibly again. Howard was a better poet than my adolescent self, but the “darkness” expressed in his verse matches perfectly the stuff I imposed on the Mt. Pleasant High writing club meeting after meeting — itʼs teeenaged angst and not much more (which is secretive and self-deceiving, perhaps the origin of just that melancholy).

Howardʼs forte is improbability, romanticism, fast brutal action and escapism (pencil-armed, bespectacled nerds imagining themselves into the indomitable brawn of Conan, Kull, Kane or any other REH protagonist), which is what drew me to the stories in the first place, lured me back over the decades, and attracts me still. Realism has its own appeals, but they are not those of Conan. Or even Almuric.

* If I really wanted to compose a thorough and effective lit-crit analysis/critique of Howardʼs unrealism, I would contrast him against the equally romantic (and sometimes equally escapist) but actually realistic Jack London.

** …the best word for Howardʼs writing, I think. “Brutality” is much preferable to the lie of “realism,” and much more adolescent, too.

most, but not all, of the Howard books (I really, truly, really own too many — a pity that the author got nothing from my investments); nice contrasts with what else is on these shelves, too

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A

4 thoughts on “REH, Take 2

  1. Yeah. And Qwest canned my connection twice in the hour it took me to compose this post, too. Itʼs their motto: “Service — not what we do.”

  2. Huh, first time I’ve come across this site, I believe.

    The important thing to remember about Almuric is that it was published post-mortem, and was actually incomplete at the time of his death. It wasn’t even named by Howard. Documents from Weird Tales from the 1930s talk of “Howard’s unfinished novel” and the like. It’s thus almost certain that an unknown “posthumous collaborator” had a hand in the writing of Almuric, most particularly the final chapters. Who this hand was is a matter of debate, but it’s easy to see that the final chapter reads incredibly differently from what has come before. We’ll likely never know the full extent, or who was responsible for completing Almuric: Farnsworth Wright had the original manuscripts of most of his stories destroyed.

    So Almuric is an interesting read from a speculative point of view, but it should absolutely not be judged on the same level or by the same criteria as stories Howard finished and intended for publication.

    Anyway, while I think you have some good points, I have to disagree on a few. For one thing, I cannot agree on sketchy background or “self-love” of describing the male physique as flaws of Howard’s, since Howard’s background descriptions are frequently evocative and powerful, while describing the hero’s physique never struck me as excessive in the slightest. The most extensive I can think of are the boxing yarns, and really, these are sports stories: it’s going to involve a lot of descriptions of striving muscles and straining thews.

    I also disagree that Almuric was truly an anti-intellectual screed: what I got from it was that Esau wasn’t bookish, arty or intellectual, but he lived in a world where you couldn’t amount to much. Too violent and undisciplined for the army, too independent for mob work. Esau could not exist on this modern world: Almuric was on a world he could exist and thrive in. Yes, Esau was “how he should be” – emphasis on he.

    I don’t exactly understand what you mean by Chandler and Hammett’s language, style, characterisation and plot has to do with being more “realistic.”

    I note you cite the boxing stories are examples of Howard’s “realism”: in fact, many of the boxing stories are about as realistic as Paul Bunyan, due to them being broad comedies. The Steve Costigan stories are over-the-top and wildly entertaining for it, but I also see a marked difference between them and a more serious tale like, say, “The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux” or “Double Cross.” They’re not a good example.

    For Howard’s “realism,” simply look to his westerns and historical adventures. They are surprisingly exacting and true to life. If you doubt the likelihood of some of the events, remember that real life is often even stranger than fiction: if someone wrote a story about Audie Murphy’s life, people would laugh it off as preposterous nonsense. Nothing I’ve read in Howard, comic tales aside, is remotely as audacious as some of the true war stories I’ve encountered.

    I guess I can’t really buy into the idea of the Conan stories – the good ones at least – as simply adolescent escapism. I’d hate to end up like Conan at the end of “Xuthal of the Dusk,” with pieces of skin hanging off his frame, lips mashed and bruised black, bleeding from gumbs, eyes, ears and dozens of scars. I also think having the bad guys win and the secondary protagonist die in “Beyond the Black River” is a bit more sobering than the average Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfillment fantasy.

    Finally, the representation that Howard’s defenders mean to substitute “realism” for “blood & guts” – well, in my experience, I tend to think of realism rather differently than that, though Howard’s bloodletting is more realistic. War and battle is an incredibly bloody business. Battlefields would become literal lakes of blood and entrails. Carrion birds would block out the sun in the aftermath. Comparing Howard’s treatment of violence to the gore-soaked action movie is not apt, in my opinion: if anything, it’s more like the true, horrific descriptions of violence that have only recently have been portrayed in cinema. Or are the likes of Saving Private Ryan simply “gore-spattering action movies”?

    Howard knew this, and knew it well. How did he know this? His father was a country doctor in a boom town in the great depression. There were too many people there, too many violent men. Howard saw the results of violence first-hand, and often had to help his father treat the victims of gunshots, stabbings, assaults, and other such traumas. You may think of excessively gory violence as unrealistic, but the sad fact is that real violence is drenched in blood. If anything, action movies are less violent than real fights are.

    Also, “the heroes live to fight another day”? Well, unless you’re the hero of “The Valley of the Worm,” “Beyond the Black River” (for there’s no way Conan was the main character of that story), “The People of the Black Coast,” “The Man on the Ground,” or dozens of other stories I can think of where the hero dies at the end. I could also point to the stories where the hero doesn’t save the day (“Wings in the Night,” “Queen of the Black Coast”), or actually makes things even worse (“Worms of the Earth”). You say you’ve read tons of Howard stories, yet apparently Howard’s heroes are all about winning?

    Your comparison to London is interesting, since I really cannot see London being appreciably less “adolescent” than Howard could be. Which is to say, not at all.

    Oh, and Howard travelled a lot more than just a few hundred miles from his home, in fact, it’s more likely in the thousands. He’s been as far afield as Galveston, Santa Fe and New Orleans: each of those destinations are over two hundred miles from Cross Plains. He regularly traveled to Brownwood, which is itself 30 miles away.

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