Monday, June 23, 2008

Robert E. Howard vs. the Desert of the Real

[Last year I was asked to provide an afterword for The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume I from Del Rey Books (available at Borders, Barnes & Noble, and all better bookstores; no home should be without one.) My humble contribution is entitled "Robert E. Howard: Twentieth Century Mythmaker." I knew that more people would be reading this essay than all my other Robert E. Howard stuff put together, so I wanted to repeat the most important points I made elsewhere. I drew on a variety of my other writings, but the main template is the essay that follows. The opening section is very similar to "Mythmaker," but it later goes off in different directions. This appeared in Spectrum Super Special #2. Copyright 2004 by Charles Hoffman.]

Robert E. Howard's most famould creation, the indomitable barbarian warrior Conan, was introduced in the December 1932 issue of the pulp magazine Weird Tales. For the first story in the series, Howard provided a brief preface that served to set the stage for Conan's debut:

Know, oh 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 -- Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. 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. [1]

Earlier, the editor of Weird Tales had requested some biographical information about the young author himself. Howard's response painted a very different picture:

Like the average man, the tale of my life would merely be a dull narration of drab monotony and toil, a grinding struggle against poverty. I have spent most of my time in the hard, barren semi-waste lands of Western Texas, and since infancy my memory holds a continuous grinding round of crop failures -- sandstorms -- drouths -- floods -- hot winds that withered the corn -- hailstorms that ripped the grain to pieces -- late blizzards that froze the fruit in the bud -- plagues of grasshoppers and boll weevils...

I've picked cotton, helped brand a few yearlings, hauled a little garbage, worked in a grocery store, ditto a dry-goods store, worked in a law office, jerked soda, worked up in a gas office, tried to be a public stenographer, packed a surveyor's rod, worked up oil field news for some Texas and Oklahoma papers, etc., etc., and also etc...[2]

Finally, Howard was moved to conclude, "And there I believe is about all the information I can give about a very humdrum and commonplace life." [3]

As Morpheus said to Neo in The Matrix, "Welcome to the desert of the real."

Many years later Mark Schultz, illustrator of a collection of the Conan tales, recalled:

I discovered Robert E. Howard's Conan in 1969. when I was 13 years old. I read the stories then for their incomparable high adventure and mind-blasting horror. It wasn't unitl much later that I realized they hit so hard and stayed so timeless because Howard's feverish, passionate writing was a crystal clear reflection of a young mind in turmoil, fighting to be free of the limitations of his physical surroundings. [4]

Howard often discussed his writing with a young school-teacher named Novalyne Price, who had literary ambitions of her own. Late in life, Price wrote a memoir of Howard entitled One Who Walked Alone. Her book was subsequently adapted into a touching motion picture, The Whole Wide World starring Vincent D'Onofrio and Renee Zellweger. In One Who Walked Alone, Price recalls mentioning to Howard that she wanted to write about "real people with real problems." [5] Howard's reaction is revealing:

"Not me. I don't want to write about men struggling along on a sandy farm, getting drunk, coming in the house at night and beating up a small, frail woman who can't fight back." [6]

In his view, Novalyne was a "dreamer" who had lived a "sheltered life" [7] and who assumed that her own background represented a kind of universal norm:

"You come from a good home. You don't know these people out here. I do. You think they're nice and sweet and loving. That's not true... Trying to dig out a living on the farm in spite of the hail, and the dust is hard...That fills men with hate." [8]

Defending his own fiction, Howard asserted:

"The people who read my stuff want to get away from this modern, complicated world world with it hypocrisy, it cruelty, its dog-eat-dog life...The civilization we live in is a lot more sinister than the time I write about. In those days, girl, men were men and women were women. They struggled to stay alive, but the struggle was worth it." [9]

H. P. Lovecraft, with whom Howard corresponded regularly, once noted a curious paradox. Lovecraft observed that a great deal of fiction that purports to be about real everyday life is actually quite often rife with sentimental distortions. Howard himself expressed a similar view: "Nobody really writes realistic realism, and if they did, nobody would read it. The writers who thing they write it just give their own ideas about things they think they see. The sort of man who could write realism is the fellow who never reads or writes anything." [10]

By way of contrast, Lovecraft defined fantasy as "an art based on the imaginary life of the human mind, frankly recognized as such; & in its way as natural & scientific --as truly related to natural (even if uncommon & delicate) psychological processes as the starkest of photographic realism." [11] In other words, fantasy fiction makes no pretense of representing the physical world as it actually is. However, in the right hands it can vividly the most intensely felt yearnings of the human heart and soul, from the deepest longings and most dreadful anxieties to the loftiest aspirations. Therefore, it could be said that fantasy need have little to do with reality, yet have a great deal to do with truth, since these are not precisely the same thing.

This is, of course, not to say that realistic fiction cannot portray weighty abstractions such as spiritual damnation and redemption, just that fantasy can often do so more excitingly and entertainingly. The Star Wars saga of Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader is a perfect example. For better or worse, more people have seen the Star Wars movies than have read Crime and Punishment. Also, interestingly enough, most people are more familiar with the story of Faust than of Crime and Punishment. Fantasy is an uncannily suitable vehicle for conveying powerful themes to a mass audience.

Novalyne Price Ellis recalled a subsequent conversation with Howard: "Bob began to talk about good and evil in life. He said that life was always a struggle between good and evil, and people like to read about that struggle...He wrote for readers who wanted evil to be something big, horrible, but still something a barbarian like Conan could overcome." [12]

Howard's remarks to Novalyne strongly suggest that he felt that his readers benefited in some way from seeing their struggles reflected on a higher level. To that end, Robert E. Howard took the oldest type of story --the tale of heroes, gods, and monsters-- and reinvented it as jolting pulp fiction. His prose, not unlike that of Raymond Chandler, was direct and hard-edged, yet lyrical. Howard's modern brand of fantasy has often been characterized as "sword and sorcery," but Lovecraft may have been more insightful when he deemed it "artificial legendry."

Howard wrote for the American working class of the early twentieth century. His readers were widely seperated by time, distance, and upheaval from the myths and legends that had enthralled their ancestors in the Old World. They lived in an era rocked by cataclysm, no less than the fictional Hyborian Age of Conan had been. In 1906, the year Howard was born, the world was ruled by kings, dukes, emperors, sultans, kaisers, and czars. Twenty years later, they were all gone. The slaughter of the First World War and the lawlessness of the Roaring Twenties were followed by the malaise of the Great Depression. The Depression was a humiliating ordeal for many Americans, and Howard's rousing tales of Conan helped to empower readers with flagging spirits. In a larger sense, however, Howard sought to resurrect the heroic saga where it had long been lost.

When America declared its independence from the Mother Country, it was also bidding farewell to Saint George and King Arthur. No comparable myths grew up to take their places. The new folk legends that appeared in the wake of the Industrial Revolution celebrated laborers and producers of goods. Today everyone has heard of Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Casey Jones, and yet no one really cares about them. One needn't marvel at the fact that no nineteenth century publisher ever attempted to use such characters to sell dime novels. Instead, stories of gunfighters and bank robbers were dime novel mainstays. "Tall tales" of how hard some guy worked were presumably less inspiring. After all, how popular would Horatio Alger's novels have been, had his protagonists simply worked but remained poor?

The dime novel was followed in the early twentieth century by the pulp magazines. At this time, radio and motion pictures were in their infancies, television yet unborn. As astonishing as it may seem today, print was the primary entertainment medium for the masses. Publishing empires were built on pulp fiction magazines that usually sold for ten cents. By the late twenties, scores of different titles were on sale at any given time. The pulp jungle proved fertile ground for a new crop of homegrown heroes: cowboys, sailors, detectives, aviators, and soldiers of fortune. Interestingly, however, such pre-eminent pulp heroes as The Shadow and Doc Savage were essentially supercops, maintainers of the status quo.

Robert E. Howard had something different in mind when he conceived of Conan. His giant barbarian is an outlaw, a sword-for-hire, basically out for himself, yet still retaining a certain knack for doing the right thing. Conan is not a preserver of order; he is a mover and shaker, the whirlwind at the center of momentous events. And though his author endowed him with a very modern hardboiled edge, Conan remains that most immemorial of heroes, the warrior. Writing before Carl Jung was well-known in America, before Joseph Campbell's work had appeared, Howard possessed an instinctive grasp of mythic, archetypal figures-- king, warrior, magician, femme fatale. He knew that the ancient figure of the warrior would resonate with readers on a deeper subconscious level than, for example, the detective, a hero figure in some ways emblematic of the Age of Reason.

Howard's vivid "artificial legendry" has often sadly been dismissed as "escapism." Yet if the lot of the average man is truly one of "drab monotony and toil," as Howard believed, it falls to the skald and the storyteller to furnish needed refreshment for tired minds. And in truth, the average working adult does endure his or her fair share of drudgery. The majority of people earn a living by means of tedious jobs, not rewarding careers.

Herein lies a clue to Howard's well-known resentment of "civilization," for which the author has taken so much flak. Youngsters are told they can become anything they want if they try hard enough; they are never told how many waiters the world needs for every archeologist it can support. The former notion is wishful thinking, the latter a dismal truth Howard knew only too well. Viewed this way, civilized society is like a big lottery in which most people have to lose. As one example, consider the monkey-suited doorman standing in front of a luxury hotel. To Howard, such an individual would be better off, spiritually if not materially, wearing a loincloth and carrying a spear, battling openly against man and nature.

Decades after Howard's death, the lot of the working class changed, but in an important sense it was not for the better. Previously, the laborer could at least derive some satisfaction from accomplishing enormous tasks and producing tangible goods. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, the workplace underwent a transformation. Countless American manufacturing jobs were sold overseas to the lowest bidder. America became a "service economy," a glib euphemism for a nation of flunkies.

The plight of the American working man at the turn of the twenty-first century is explored in Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 novel Fight Club. The novel and its subsequent film adaptation look at a generation of men who are increasingly marginalized. Most are relegated to menial jobs and inane tasks. Alienated from society, they begin to form underground "fight clubs" in the basements of bars and similar places. Here they engage in greuling fistfights, finding a renewed sense of meaning in raw physical strife. At one point a character remarks, "I see the strongest and the smartest men who have ever lived...and these men are pumping gas and waiting tables." [14] It is a statement with which Robert E. Howard would have nodded in somber agreement.

In 1928, before his professional writing career took off, Howard wrote a novel entitled Post Oaks and Sand Roughs. It is actually a thinly-veiled autobiography of Howard (herein called "Steve Costigan") between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. While crossing the threshold of adulthood, Howard at one point toiled at a tedious job in his town's drug store. At this time, Cross Plains, Texas, was in the midst of an oil boom. Oil workers swelled the town's population, and Howard had to work long hours for weeks on end. However, he was able to vent some of his frustration by taking part in amateur boxing matches held in an empty building at a local ice plant. One such episode is recounted in Chapter 9 of the novel. It is Fight Club seven decades early.

The chapter begins with Howard, or "Steve," humbled by his serf-like position:

A man who works all day or all night swinging heavy sledges, clambering about on an eighty foot rig, and in general doing work suitable for a giant, has scant respect for one who makes his living by doling out soft drinks.

Steve hated his job worse than he had ever hated any task, and the contempt and apprehension which he felt toward the mass of oil field workers grew to a fear and venomous hatred of dangerous and abnormal size. It grew to be an obsession with him to hate the blustering, powerful roughnecks who swaggered up to the fountain and domineeringly demanded attention. He served them in silence and with an immobile face, but all hell seethed in his brain. [15]

Reliving the experience as Steve, Howard recalls the physical toll the job took:

He did not read or write, scarcely had time to answer his correspondence. He had absolutely no time for recreation or even rest. All during the day he would dash back and forth behind the fountain which he had grown to hate, serving drinks and waiting on customers, doing many things he was not paid to do. At night he staggered home to fall into his bed and sleep the sodden sleep of utter exhaustion. He went to bed fatigued and he awoke fatigued. [16]

Emotionally drained by a job that's sucking the life out of him, Howard/Steve reaches the brink of despair:

Steve sighed as he walked beneath the cold silver moonlight and the gems of the stars. God, how clean and clear and high -- how far from all this sordid muck of living. Was there, anywhere in the world, such purity, such beauty? No --life was shoving Coca Colas and ice creams across the fountain top to unshaven roughnecks who swore at you --life was sordid and muck. Better that a man would never look at the stars, for they made him realize the terrible hopelessness and filth of his own existence. [17]

Redemption is found in a 1920s version of fight club. In Howard's recollections, the days and nights of toil at the drug store blend and blur together. However, when he recounts his alter ego's first battle, every detail stands out in remarkable clarity:

Steve reeled, the blood gushing from his mouth to mingle with the sweat on his chest. And in the fleeting instant before the fighting commenced again, Steve knew Life, fierce, red, and vibrant. God, but this was his element! To fight, to kill or be killed, here in this hell-hot, smoke-laden atmosphere, with a gang of roughnecks screaming oaths and shouting for his slaughter...

Steve plunged in without waiting for Bill's attack, expecting to be knocked cold, revelling in the fact that he was carrying the fight to his antagonist...They were fighting rough-house style now, with no attempt at science. Blow followed blow as fast as four frantic arms could drive them in, and the gloves, heavy with sweat and blood, flashed past each other in a never ending stream...

Bill was beginning to weaken. Forced into a corner, he gathered his waning strength and leaped forward with the ferocity of an attacking tiger. And Steve met him with a left-handed smash which struck Bill squarely in the mouth; something cracked like a twig. Bill went down. [18]

Howard/Steve comes away from the bout having experienced a kind of epiphany:

Steve felt jubilant in a strange manner. His mind was clear now, and the blood raced through his veins...He sighed deeply and with relish and glanced up at the stars which somehow seemed less cold and more friendly. [19]

Howard initially asserts that "life was shoving Coca Colas and ice creams across the fountain top to unshaven roughnecks who swore at you," but changes his tune once the fight is underway: "Steve knew Life, fierce, red, and vibrant." To put that capital "L" on "Life," one must seek out extreme experiences seldom encountered in the normal course of everyday living. Restless within the folds of a safe, comfortable civilization, adventurous spirits search for ways to test and challenge themselves. Examples can be found at every level of society, from the mountaineer scaling a peak "because it is there" to the teenage street racer.

Howard once told Lovecraft, "Despite the tinsel and show, the artificial adjuncts, and the sometimes disgusting advertisements, ballyhoo and exploitation attendant upon such sports as boxing and football, there is, in the actual contexts, something vital and real and deep-rooted in the very life-springs of the race...Football, for instance, is nothing less than war in miniature, and provides an excellent way of working off pugnacious and combative instincts, without bloodshed." [20] One can experience a fleeting taste of glory through some form of athletic striving, either first-hand or vicariously as a spectator. One can also experience a heightened sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment vicariously through art.

Whatever the case, a transcendental experience is sought. There is a yearning to transcend the coarseness and banality of everyday life. Championship football and soccer games are often followed by racous partying and even rioting, owing to the fact that most of the spectators lead exceedingly humdrum lives. Howard deemed his autobiographical a failure because it was "too vague, too disconnected, too full of unexplained and trivial incidents -- too much like life in a word." [21]

Ordinary everyday life consists of slogging through a morass of stifling worries and squabbles. A week's worth of listings for a courtroom television program like Judge Judy reads like a series of postcards from the desert of the real: "A dispute involving a VCR, a TV, and clothing. / A woman sues her beautician after her hair extensions fall out. / A woman sues her ex over unpaid bills. / A case involving a damaged TV set; an alleged break-in. / A dispute over an unpaid loan. / A dispute over a TV. Also: a fight is sparked by damaged bicycles." [22] The sheer pettiness of it all seems almost suffocating. Even so, there are people who watch such programs religiously, presumably for the dubious satisfaction of seeing others chided and punished. It is a peculiar form of spiritual tunnel vision.

Howard endeavored to offer his readers a wider vista. He knew that working at the counter of a drug store, or pumping gas, or selling shoes, or digging holes, was not enough to fill a man's heart. That is one reason he so excelled at depicting struggles that were epic, against evils that were truly horrific. Such is the essence of adventure, and Howard has been widely lauded as a great adventure writer. The path of the adventurer leads either to glory or doom, but it skirts commonplace tedium and transcends the gradual grinding down of the human spirit by the weight of the world. In its way, the adventure story is a subversive art form in the sense that it carries within it the implicit suggestion that everyday life is inadequate. No author has been more militant in conveying this message than Robert E. Howard.

There is little of adventure or glory to be found in the desert of the real, save in the form of a mirage. To invest common events like holidays, weddings, and graduations with an atmosphere of pomp and grandeur involves the use of the creative imagination in a manner not unlike the way the storyteller weaves his tales. "[T]here was pagentry and high illusion and vanity, and the beloved tinsel of glory without which life is not worth living," wrote Howard to a correspondent concerning times gone by, "All empty show and the smoke of conceit and arrogance, but what a drab thing life would be without them." [23] For him, there is no meaning or beauty in life other than what we dream into it. In this respect, and in other respects, Howard could be considered as early existential writer.

2. Serving Time in Disillusionment

Conan's world is one of exotic kingdoms, gleaming citadels, desolate wastelands, and mysterious ruins haunted by nightmarish spectres. Fabulous wealth in the form of gold and precious gemstones lies in heaps for the taking, if one is bold enough to dare the terrors that lurk in the nearby shadows. Monstrous fifty-foot serpents rear up, fangs dripping venom. Giant slavering apes snarl and lurch forward with taloned hands extended. Yet even these horrors can be overcome by the craft, sinew, and fighting prowess of a fierce barbarian warrior. And gold is not his only reward. Alluring women await; some are slave girls, some are princesses, some are warriors in their own right, but all are almost agonizing in their physical perfection.

For daring to conjure such fever dreams, Howard has at times been labelled an "arrested adolescent" by his harsher critics. However, such critics tend to be familiar with only a small portion of Howard's work. Howard lavished whatever exhuberance and love of life he possessed upon his most famous creation, leaving precious little for himself and his other characters. Thus Solomon Kane is driven by fanaticism, and Bran Mak Morn by wrath. King Kull broods on his throne, grappling with philosophical abstactions. The crusaders of Howard's historical tales are not knights in shining armor, but brutal men in dirty chain male vying for power over small medieval fiefdoms. Howard himself was buffeted by severe manic-depressive mood swings. He took his own life at the youthful age of thirty. While only in his early twenties he was writing poetry redolent of world-weariness, loss, and ennui. Far from being an "arrested adolescent," Robert E. Howard was, if anything, a premature middle-aged burnout.

For I rode the moon-mare's horses in the glory of my youth,
Wrestled with the hills at sunset --till I met brass-tinctured Truth.
Till I saw the temples topple, till I saw the idols reel,
Till my brain had turned to iron, and my heart had turned to steel. [24]

So wrote Howard in "Always Comes Evening," in which he concludes: road runs out in thistles and my dreams have turned to dust,
And my pinions fade and falter to the raven-wings of rust. [25]

Verse in a similar vein includes "Shadows on the Road," "Lines Written in the Realization That I Must Die," "The Years Are as a Knife," "Futility," and "Illusion." Howard wrote not one, but two poems called "Surrender." In the less somber of the two, the poet speaks of dropping out of society and drinking himself to death. The other lacks any sort of narrative and consists solely of a "let me die" wail:

My heart is hollow with endless pain, my temples are growing white,
Open the window against the rain and let me go into the night. [26]

More than once Howard speaks of the bone-crushing weight of age pressing upon him, even as he admits he is young in actual years: "I fling aside the cloak of Youth and limp / A withered man upon a broken staff." [27] In "Always Comes Evening" he exhorts the devil to "Feed with hearts of rose-white women ashes of my dead desire." [28] Surely a lament for one's "dead desire" is more appropriate for a man in late middle life than for a young poet of, perhaps, twenty-two years.

Howard gave considerable credence to the doctrine of reincarnation, and this undoubtedly contributed to his view of himself as an "old soul":

I cannot well recall what shapes I bore,
What spears have pierced me, or what axes have gashed,
Yet through my dreams there runs the endless roar
Of nameless battles where lost armies crashed.

Shape upon shape returning, land on land,
Loosed by the ripping axe, the arrow's tooth,
Through endless incarnations, till I stand,
A scarred old man, masked in the guise of youth. [29]

Possible former incarnations notwithstanding, however, Howard did not live out even a single normal life span. Even so, he experienced his share of strife and conflict. This was not in the form of physical combat, but rather resulting from his struggle with his surroundings.

"It seems to me that many writers, by virtue of environments of culture, art, and education, slip into writing because of their environments," he told Lovecraft:

I became a writer in spite of my environments. Understand I am not criticizing those environments. They were good, solid, and worthy. The fact that they were not inducive to literature and art is nothing in their disfavor. Nevertheless, it is no light thing to enter into a profession absolutely foreign and alien to the people among which one's lot is cast. [30]

As a child, Howard was introverted and the prey of bullies. This led him to undertake a rigorous bodybuilding program that gained him a powerful physique as an adult. He informed his father that "I entered in to build my body until when a scoundrel crosses me up, I can with my bare hands tear him to pieces, double him up, and break his back with my hands alone." [31] Growing up, he became increasingly resentful of authority: "I hated school as I hate the memory of school. It wasn't the work I minded...what I hated was the confinement --the clock-like regularity of everything; the regulation of my speech and actions; most of all the idea that someone considered himself or herself in authority over me, with the right to question my actions and interfere with my thoughts." [32] Howard took up writing as a profession in large part because it enabled him to be his own boss: "I worked a while in a gas office, but lost the job because I wouldn't kow-tow to my employer and 'yes' him from morning to night. That's one reason I was never very successful working for people. So many men think an employee is a kind of servant." [33]

All these things contributed to Howard's premature burnout. Possessed of a dominant personality, he was given to butting heads with people and situations with which he felt himself at odds. Essentially, he was fighting the whole damn world, and over time this took its toll. Hence his feelings of world-weariness and futility.

In a larger sense, however, Howard's disillusionment differs from that of the average person only in degree. Everyone experiences some form of unrequited longing or thwarted ambition. Disappointment is a fact of life, an inevitability known to all. For the more sensitive, disappointment is shadowed by disillusionment. There is a vague sense that life has somehow played one false. Often this is simply dismissed with the commonplace observation that things aren't always what they're cracked up to be. But in Howard's prose, as well as his poetry, disillusionment has a way of becoming magnified.

From time to time, Howard writes of some glorious dream that only serves to conceal a hideous underlying reality. In such passages, he feels moved to portray disillusionment on a grand, even cosmic, scale. All pervasive, it enfolds humanity like some form of original sin. Not even Conan can escape it. For Howard's heroes, disillusionment is a dragon no less formidable than a literal monster with fangs and claws. Typically it is the result of a sudden horrifying revelation, rather than the accumulation of minor disappointments. Portrayed in this manner, it is another example of Howard's penchant for depicting ordinary human struggle on a mythical level.

By way of illustration, we might consider a tawdry form of disillusionment common enough in the desert of the real, contrasted with a soul-searing encounter undergone by Conan. In a pair of poems, Howard recounts a youth's depressing visits to a seamy brothel:

My heart was the heart of a broken louse,
The jackal fired my eyes,
When I sought for peace in the bawdyhouse,
And the rest in a harlot's thighs. [34]

Youthful lust and frustration mingle with guilt and shame, and the poet is moved to conclude:

The girl I dreamed she might have been
Fades before she that is--
But I'll forget as do all men
In passion's barren bliss.

For she runs with Life a parallel --
The dream and its rotten core --
For Life's a harlot out of hell
With a red light over her door. [35]

A simple visit to a common prostitute proves so distasteful to Howard that all of life seems somehow tainted. In the saga of Conan, this experience is echoed in an episode in which the mighty Cimmerian confronts an immortal femme fatale. Chapter 18 of The Hour of the Dragon finds Conan deep within the underground tombs of Stygia. There he meets the Princess Akivasha, who lived ten thousand years earlier and is celebrated in myth the world over. According to her legend, she communed with dark forces to remain young and beautiful forever. When she attempts to seduce him, Conan learns that Akivasha is a vampire, an unclean thing. As he escapes her lair, he is nearly overwhelmed with despair:

The legend of Akivasha was so old, and among the evil tales told of her ran a thread of beauty and idealism, of everlasting youth. To so many dreamers and poets and lovers she was not alone the evil princess of Stygian legend, but the symbol of eternal youth and beauty, shining forever in some far realm of the gods. And this was the hideous reality. This foul perversion was the truth of that everlasting life. Through his physical revulsion ran the sense of a shattered dream of man's idolatry, it glittering gold proved slime and cosmic filth. A wave of futility swept over him, a dim fear of the falseness of all men's dreams and idolatries. [36]

Howard may or may not have known a loose woman or two, but he leaves it to Conan to confront the true harlot out of hell. Frequently Conan encounters beings whose capacity for evil or depravity exceeds that of mere mortals. It's all part of a heroic saga of ordeals and triumphs surpassing those to be found in the course of ordinary everyday life. And if there is no escaping disillusionment, Conan must experience disillusionment on an epic scale.

The fantasy of Robert E. Howard encompasses both high adventure and blood-chilling horror. In both prose and poetry, Howard sends the reader soaring to exhilerating summits or plummeting to the very depths of his despair. But in either case, he endeavors to avoid the tedium of what T. S. Eliot described as a life measured out in coffee spoons. This aspect of the storyteller's art is of no small importance.

Critics like Robert McKee have theorized that it is the structure of "the story" that enables us to see our own lives as something other than a chaotic jumble of trivial incidents. We learn to focus on what is important and edit out the mundane. Our lives center on our goals and loved ones, rather than being measured out in coffee spoons, or frozen dinners, or toothbrushes, or flea powder, or parking meters, or crossword puzzles. Bruce Lee once quoted a Zen aphorism about a finger pointing to the moon: concentrate on the finger, and you miss all that heavenly glory. We define our reality by determining what is important to us.

The true "desert of the real" is perhaps nothing more than the desert of the trivial. Narrowness and pettiness are withering wastelands to which we must not succumb. Consider Conan as depicted in the opening of "Xuthal of the Dusk." These are the passages that provided the basis for Frank Frazetta's iconic portrait of the barbarian:

The desert shimmered in the heat waves. Conan the Cimmerian stared out over the aching desolation and involuntarily drew the back of his powerful hand over his blackened lips. He stood like a bronze statue in the sand, apparently impervious to the murderous sun, though his only garment was a silk loin-cloth, girdled by a wide gold buckled belt from which hung a saber and a broad-bladed poniard. On his clean-cut limbs were evidences of scarcely healed wounds.

At his feet rested a girl, one white arm clasping his knee, against which her blond head drooped. Her white skin contrasted with his hard bronzed limbs; her short silken tunic, low-necked and sleeveless, girdled at the waist, emphasized rather than concealed her lithe figure...

The Cimmerian growled wordlessly, glaring truculently at the surrounding waste, with outthrust jaw, and blue eyes smoldering savagely from under his black tousled mane, as if the desert were a tangible enemy. [37]


[1] Robert E. Howard (hereafter REH), "The Phoenix on the Sword," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003), p. 7.

[2] REH to Farnsworth Wright in Glenn Lord, ed., The Last Celt (West Warwick, RI: Donald M. Grant, 1976), pp. 37-38.

[3] Ibid., p. 39

[4] Mark Schultz, Robert E. Howard's Conan of Cimmeria: A Sketchbook (Wandering Star, 2001), p. 2.

[5] Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone (West Kingston, RI: Donald M. Grant, 1986), p. 62.

[6] Ibid., p. 63.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] REH, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs (Hampton Falls, NH: Donald M. Grant, 1990), p. 157.

[11] H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, November 16, 1926, in Selected Letters II (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1968), p. 90.

[12] Ellis, p. 151.

[13] H. P. Lovecraft to Donald A. Wollheim, 1936.

[14] Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (New York: Owl Books, 1997), p. 149.

[15] REH, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, p. 141.

[16] Ibid., p. 95.

[17] Ibid., pp. 101-102.

[18] Ibid., pp. 104-105.

[19] Ibid., p. 106.

[20] REH to Lovecraft, January 1932.

[21] REH, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, p. 141.

[22] All from TV Guide for the week of December 8, 2001: Vol. 49, No. 49, Issue #2541.

[23] REH to Harold Preece, received October 20, 1978.

[24] REH, "Always Comes Evening," Always Comes Evening (San Francisco: Underwood-Miller, 1977), p. 73.

[25] Ibid.

[26] REH, "Surrender," Shadows of Dreams (Hampton Falls, NH: Donald M. Grant, 1989), p. 92.

[27] REH, "The Sands of Time," Echoes From an Iron Harp (West Kingston, RI: Donald M. Grant, 1972), p. 65.

[28] REH, "Always Comes Evening," p. 73.

[29] REH, "The Guise of Youth," The Second Book of Robert E. Howard (New York: Berkley Books, 1980), pp. 211-212.

[30] REH to Lovecraft, circa May/June 1933.

[31] Dr. I. M. Howard to E. Hoffman Price, June 21, 1944.

[32] REH to Lovecraft, March 6, 1933.

[33] REH to Wilfred B. Talman, September 1931.

[34] REH, "Song From an Ebony Heart," Shadows of Dreams, p. 85.

[35] REH, "Love's Young Dream," Shadows of Dreams, p. 88.

[36] REH, The Hour of the Dragon (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1977), pp. 220-221.

[37] REH, "Xuthal of the Dusk," The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, p. 219.

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