The Weird Tales of Robert E. Howard, Volume 1.
Appearing exactly a decade ago, this was the opening salvo in what was to become the ten-volume definitive collection of every tale of the supernatural that the great writer Robert E. Howard (1906 – 1936) had published in both his lifetime and for several years afterwards. During a trip to London’s forever-mourned Fantasy Centre in Waterloo Road, I immediately picked up the initial six volumes. I can’t remember if the others were available at the time, but if they were, then please give my nuts a good hard kick for not grabbing them there and then.
Lovingly produced by Wildside Press, these were wonderfully, textually pure and with no ridiculous changes or additions from a de Camp or a Carter trying to create a copyright for themselves. This was as they appeared in Weird Tales and other magazines at the very time when Howard was dreaming his wonderful dreams and typing out his great yarns in the small town of Cross Plains, Texas.
This is a first volume, so how does it work as an introduction to Howard’s work? Well, in my completely biased opinion…it is just perfect.
And how does it work for the die-hard fan that knows what to expect but probably hasn’t read the tales in strict order of appearance before? Why, just read the above. It is perfect; it is a perfect volume. And does that mean that every story and poem is perfect? Hell, no. Far from it; some are pretty rough-and-ready. But as a chance to explore the astonishing speed with which this young writer developed both his storytelling powers and the early development of a philosophy, it would be hard to beat.
His first published story was written when he was fifteen and appeared in the pulp magazine Weird Tales for July, 1925. In fact, every one of the twelve short stories and all but one of the poems in this volume appeared in the self-proclaimed Unique Magazine.
Spear and Fang takes place in a prehistoric setting that is as fanciful as you can imagine and as basic as they come, with the collision between Cro-Magnon and Neandertal Man. Crude as it is, there is already in place many of the hallmarks of a typical Howard tale, especially in headlong action.
I place the next two together, despite the fact that they were published eight months apart: In the Forest of Villefére (August, 1925) and Wolfshead (April, 1926).
The former is an extremely slight tale about a traveler who encounters a werewolf in a French forest; however, with the longer, more involved second piece we really encounter for the first time the natural storyteller that Howard already was. Utilizing several deftly drawn characters and a vivid setting (a fort on the savage coast of Africa that anticipates the much-later Conan tale, The Black Stranger), it was deemed good enough for Howard to be given the coveted cover illustration only three stories into his Weird Tales career. Astonishingly, they had lost his copy and REH rewrote it from memory over one day and sent it on again!
The Lost Race (January, 1927) was the first time that Howard’s Picts – a lifelong fascination – appeared in print, although he had already created their chief, Bran Mak Morn. (Men of the Shadows, a somewhat similar but superior tale to this one was rejected by erratic editor Farnsworth Wright.) Again, it highlights the writer’s skill with clearly etched scenes and his preoccupation with the surge and tide of History.
I think of his next three appearances as a neat, concise triptych of horror stories by a young fantaisiste learning his trade: The Dream Snake, The Hyena and Sea Curse (February, March and May, 1928).
The Dream Snake is, intentionally or not, a Freudian tale which could also be seen as a precursor of REH’s James Allison reincarnation yarns:
“’You see, I remember thoughts and impressions of the dream itself, of the occurrences of the dream; it is the memories that the dream ‘I’ had, of that other dream existence that I cannot remember”.
Whatever Howard’s intentions, I’ve always found this a very atmospheric little number.
The Hyena, a shapeshifter tale again set in Africa, gives an amusing insight into the feelings of a 1920’s Texan towards a black man:
“Because I came from Virginia, race instinct and prejudice were strong in me, and doubtless the feeling of inferiority [my emphasis] which Senecoza constantly inspired in me had a great deal to do with my antipathy for him.”
Very interesting; then again, perhaps the writer was just speaking as the character.
Sea Curse is another small atmospheric beauty and with its skeleton crew always reminds me irresistibly of an EC Comic of the ‘50s.
This is a good point to mention the eleven poems that are scattered throughout this collection. Now, I’m no expert on poetry but it seems to me that just as he was a natural tale-spinner, so Howard was a natural when it came to exciting and powerful rhyme. God knows all off his stuff is intensely readable, which is more than could be said for his fellow artist H. P. Lovecraft. At a ridiculously young age he was able to paint vivid pictures that swept the reader along:
The riders of Babylon clatter forth
Like the hawk-winged scourgers of Azrael
To the meadow-lands of the South and North
And the strong-walled cities of Israel.
They harry the men of the caravans,
They bring rare plunder across the sands
To deck the throne of the great god Baal.
But Babylon’s king is a broken shell
And Babylon’s queen is a sprite from Hell;
And men shall say, “Here Babylon fell,”
Ere Time has forgot the tale.
As Mark Finn puts it in his introduction:
“Many readers overlook Howard’s poetry and they do so at their own peril. Howard was an excellent poet; he wrote poetry throughout his career, in a variety of styles. Supernatural, macabre and otherworldly. Howard’s poems all tell fascinating stories. They are especially effective if read aloud.”
As someone who frequently does this, just to enjoy his cadenced rhythms (and because, as has so often been said, I like the sound of my own voice!), I can heartily concur.
Comes a Puritan…
Amongst Howard’s many and surprisingly varied hero or myth-figures I suppose that, if pushed to pick a favourite, it would be the doomed Pictish chieftain Bran Mak Morn that I would choose. A great many, however, prefer the gaunt and humorless figure who was introduced in Weird Tales for August, 1928 in Red Shadows.
In his longest and most ambitious piece to date, Howard has the Puritan Solomon Kane pursue a man over a span of many years – staggeringly single-minded, dour and unrelenting, even for a Howard hero. In fact, later in these volumes we may have to address the question of whether or not Kane could rightly be called a Puritan at all; but we’ll leave that for now. What he is (as are many of REH’s characters, contrary to popular belief) is an enormously complex man:
“A tall man…he was, clad in black from head to foot, in plain, close-fitting garments that somehow suited the somber face. Long arms and broad shoulders betokened the swordsman, as plainly as the long rapier in his hand. The features of the man were saturnine and gloomy. A kind of dark pallor lent him a ghostly appearance in the uncertain light, an effect heightened by the satanic darkness of his lowering brows. Eyes, large, deep-set and unblinking, fixed their gaze upon the bandit, and looking into them [the bandit] was unable to decide what colour they were. Strangely, the Mephistophelean trend of the lower features was offset by a high, broad forehead, though this was partly hidden by a featherless hat.”
OK, this description of him may not be on a par with Sax Rohmer’s celebrated portrait of Fu Manchu, but it’s quite a leap forward for a writer who had only a short time earlier been putting ‘thee’s’ and ‘thou’s’ into the mouths of prehistoric men!
Howard also pushes himself, within the pulpish range that he is working in, to present an atmospheric vision in sight and sound of the African setting; and overall Red Shadows is a triumph.
REH stayed with Kane for Skulls in the Stars (January, 1929) and Rattle of Bones (June, 1929). The former set in England and the latter in the German Black Forest, they are infinitely smaller in scope but effective little chillers for all that.
Exile of Atlantis
Bran Mak Morn may have been the first of the great heroes to be created by REH, and Solomon Kane the first to appear in print, but a real giant strode onto the stage of heroic fantasy in August, 1929 when Howard single-handedly gave a new genre to the world with The Shadow Kingdom— that of sword-and-sorcery.
It may seem all too familiar now, but this must have hit readers right between the eyes back then: here we had all the thrills of a historical romance in a purely fantastic setting, with its barbaric usurper and outcast of Atlantis– King Kull– seizing the throne of Valusia, mightiest of the Seven Empires in a time before recognised history began. We also have the fascinating Brule the Spear-slayer, a Pict from an unimaginably earlier era than that of The Lost Race.
Throw in a David Icke conspiracy come-to-life in the form of Serpent People with ambitions to build a New World Order and you have a perfect tale—exotic, romantic and creepily paranoid.
There were two more poems to go before Volume 1 ended; and when we think of how long-winded today’s fantasy writers have become it is astonishing to see that only two hundred pages have passed. Before them, however, the twelfth and final story is a beautiful little King Kull tale, far removed from that of the previous month. It may be less than ten pages long, but for my money The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune is one of the best things that Robert E. Howard ever wrote. As both a prose-poem and a gorgeous meditation on the nature of reality it is a thing of absolute beauty.
Once again, I am astonished at how far REH came in his craft over such a short period.
As I said at the beginning, Shadow Kingdoms is a perfect introduction to the stories, the poetry and the embryonic ideas of this great writer.