Friday, January 19, 2007

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard

(Book Review)

Yet another entry in my quest to explore the classics of pulp fiction, following after “Sherlock Holmes”, “The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu” and “The Martian Tales Trilogy.”

But the tone and style of this book are so different than the other 3 that I hesitate even to compare. Burroughs, Sax Rhomer, and Doyle could spin an interesting tail, but their prose is almost non-existent as an art form. Robert E. Howard could actually write. He clearly stands out as the poet of the pulp fiction genre.

Not that his prose is without its flaws. I’ll get to that below.

First I’ll start with my first impressions:
This book is the first in the series by publisher Del-Ray to reprint the original Conan series. It contains the first 13 Conan stories IN THE ORDER THEY WERE WRITTEN. Apparently this is the first time the Conan stories are presented in the order they were written instead of in chronological order, and much is made out of this fact by the book’s publishers.

Aside from as a marketing gimmick, I don’t really see what the benefit of this is. There were often times going through this that I thought I would have preferred the chronological order. It might have made more sense.

The thing you have to understand is that Conan goes through several phases in his life: barbarian warrior, thief, outlaw, mercenary, pirate, and then finally (though events that are never made clear) king. But Robert Howard wrote all the stories out of order. So in the first story, he appears as King of the nation. In the next story, he’s a wandering thief. Once you clue into that, the book makes a lot more sense.

Aspects of Conan’s character, a shaggy haired muscle man with a sword who fights his way through all difficulties, reminded me of the He-Man character I grew up watching on TV. And then I found out that He-Man was actually based off of Conan, so the fact that I associated the two is not surprising, despite the fact that He-Man’s sanitized “after school special” type morality differs a lot from Conan’s barbarian code.

The plot of each of the short stories is not particular remarkable. And usually pretty predictable once you get about half way through it. Conan is confronted by overwhelming odds (usually with a bit of the supernatural thrown in as well) and is able to fight his way out just by sheer muscle, determination, and manliness.

So why even bother with Conan?
Like most fantasy books, the appeal isn’t really the story so much as the setting. And like any good fantasy author, Robert Howard does a good job of creating a world that you can get immersed in. As the appendices in the back indicate, he spent a lot of time planning out the different civilizations in Conan’s world. Conan himself wanders through several different countries, but his origins as a barbarian in the snowy Northern lands are always described with just the right amount of tantalizing mystery. This book is proof that the fantasy genre was alive and well in the 1930s, 20 years before Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”.

Also the imagery invoked in the Howard’s prose is very intriguing. Whisky Prajer has a great post on the Conan here, in which he likens Robert E. Howard as the Sylvia Plath for adolescent boys. He hits the nail so well on the head that I’m not even going to try and duplicate it. Just read his post.

Now, as to the problems:
In the same post linked to above, Whisky Prajer writes: “I didn’t really “take” to Conan, originally. I borrowed a couple of the short story collections, but couldn’t make it past the first few pages. Even as a teen wildly adrift in a tidal wave of hormones, I thought the prose histrionic.” I can definitely identify with that. It took me a while to get into Howard’s prose as well.

I remember my 8th grade English teacher was once trying to teach us that you needed to have a catchy beginning in a short story. To do this, we contrasted different story beginnings in our literature anthology. He tried to convince us that “Two men got shipwrecked on an island” was a terrible first sentence, but “A triumphant ‘Ha!’ issued from the skipping blond girl” was ideal. Years later, I still remember that sentence verbatim because I hated it so much. What kind of a beginning is that? All your doing is showing off your literary skills. You’re not drawing the reader in at all. Give me “Two men got shipwrecked on an island” anytime.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because my 8th grade English teacher would have loved Robert E. Howard. Well, actually he would have hated all the sex and violence in the Conan stories, but he would have loved Howard’s first sentences.
“The thunder of the drums and the great elephant tusk horns was deafening, but in Livia’s ears the clamor seemed but a confused muttering, dull and far away.”
Or
“A swift crashing of horses through the tall reeds; a heavy fall, a despairing cry.”
Or
“Hoof drummed down the street that sloped to the wharfs.”

I feel like with each new story in this collection, it always took me a couple of pages until I figured out what the hell Robert Howard was talking about. For someone like my English teacher, that would have been all part of the fun, but I’m a simple man who likes my prose straight forward.

Also several of the images and words in Howard’s repitour become repetitive. He appears, for instance, to have fallen in love with the word “supple.” Whenever a female character appears, you can bet she will be described as “supple”. Occasionally I caught Howard using “supple” several times on the same page to describe the same character. “Supple breasts”, “supple arms”, “supple legs”, etc.

There is a lot of sex and violence in these stories, which is surprising considering how old they are and that their primary audience is teenage boys. (Actually what am I saying? That’s not surprising at all). The sex is mostly implied, but the violence is very graphically described. I think there’s at least one disemboweling per story. I usually think of most stuff from the 1930s as pretty tame in comparison to today’s media, but I guess there was a lot of interesting stuff going on in the pulp magazines at the time.

Unfortunately, in many of these stories there are racist undertones, and in the story “The Vale of Lost Women” these racist elements come clear to the forefront, playing on the old fear of black tribes going around raping white women.
“You said I was a Barbarian,” he said harshly, “and that is true, Crom be thanked. If you had men of the outlands guarding you instead of soft-gutted civilized weaklings, you would not be the slave of a black pig this night. I am Conan, a Cimmerian, and I live by the sword’s edge. But I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man...If you were old and ugly as the devil’s pet vulture, I’d take you away from Bajujh simply because of the color of your hide. But you are young and beautiful, and I have looked at Black sluts until I am sick at the guts.”
And later, “What would be blackest treachery in another land, is wisdom here. I have not fought my way alone to the position of war chief of the Bamulas without learning all the lessons the black country teaches.”

Robert Howard was from the south. And these stories were written in the 1930s. So I guess it is understandable. Although perhaps sometimes we excuse racism too easily in old books. (And I probably am guilty of this as much as anyone else.) But even in the 1930s, there were plenty of people who used their talent to write against racism, not for it.

Useless Wikipeda Fact
Mountain Dew was originally marketed as "zero proof moonshine" and had pictures of hillbillies on the bottle until 1973. In the 1970s through the late 1980s Mountain Dew had the crude nickname of "hillbilly piss" due to the carry-over bottle art and yellow coloring, but that usage has since fallen out of favor.
Today's marketing target is radically different. The drink is mainly marketed to people in the 20-30 year old demographic group, creating a connection to extreme sports and video game culture. The name Mountain Dew was first trademarked by two brothers, Barney and Ally Hartman, who ran a bottling plant in Warner, South Dakota.

Link of the Day
Representative Ehlers Admits "Tens of Thousands" of Civilians Killed in Iraq

1 comment:

Whisky Prajer said...

Oooh - Conan! I'll certainly join you in your appalled chorus when it comes to Howard's racist rhetoric. And The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian was perhaps an unfortunate choice for re-introduction to the Barbarian: I didn't much care for most of the stories, either. I *did* enjoy the next supple volume in this supple series: The Bloody Crown of Conan. That's the book that had the two stories I remembered most vividly - The Hour of the Dragon (mentioned in my post) and A Witch Shall Be Born, which begins with Conan hanging on a cross, and ends with him crucifying the man who put him there. When I was a kid, I couldn't get over the thrill of having such a sacred scene turned on its head like that - and judging by how well the Left Behind books have done, I'm not alone. For my money, I'd rather Robert E. Howard indulge my darker impulses than the "squeaky clean" LaHaye-Jenkins team.