Tag Archives: Robert E. Howard

Swords & History

My last post mentioned a book called Desert Of Souls by Howard A. Jones. Thanks to eCLP, I was able to read Mr. Jones’ book shortly after that post went live, and I was not disappointed! Ostensibly historical fiction, if Desert Of Souls were ever made into a big-budget action movie, it would fall into the “buddy picture” category. Set in 8th century Baghdad, lead characters Asim and Dabir are devout Muslims in the employ of Jaffar, an important judge and close friend of the Caliph. As captain of Jaffar’s guard, Asim knows few equals when it comes to wielding a blade, and his companion Dabir possesses an unmatched level of scholarship and a perceptive eye Sherlock Holmes might envy. Together this formidable pair faces threats both mundane and magical–yes, Desert Of Souls includes supernatural elements that takes it out of the realm of pure historical fiction and into some nether region between it and pure fantasy.

Mr. Jones’ treatment of his Muslim protagonists offers a wonderfully full, real, and nuanced picture of Islamic culture and society in the 8th century, and his protagonists remain devout Muslims while also suffering the normal human foibles that make characters great. He even works in Sabirah, a strong female character who struggles with her role as a privileged royal daughter destined for a political marriage. Having devoured this tale in the span of less than a week (good time for a slow reader like me), I could not help comparing it to Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen Of The Road: A Tale Of Adventureanother “buddy-picture” historical fiction novel I wrote about a while back in this space. While Mr. Chabon’s novel is set in the 10th century and heels closer to pure historical fiction, it compares favorably to Desert Of Souls. Mr. Chabon is fond of calling the book “Jews With Swords,” and his lead characters, Amram and Zelikman, share similar traits of camaraderie won through action that Asim and Dabir possess.

While not historical fiction, if you try the two titles listed above and find “buddy picture” stories to your liking, you might also try some Fritz Leiber, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. If you want a print book for this CLP’s best option is Thieves’ House : Tales Of Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser.

If you just want some more sword-swinging historical action written in a classic pulp style, you can’t go far wrong reading Robert E. Howard’s amazing Gates Of Empire And Other Tales Of The Crusades. This phenomenal collection of pulp historical tales fails only in one capacity–it does not include a story entitled “Road of Azrael.” This tale would fit nicely into our newly coined “buddy picture” fiction category, as it pairs the Turkish sell-sword Kosru Malik and the Frankish knight Eric de Cogran in a desperate attempt to rescue a Frankish princess from slavery. This story directly influenced Mr. Jones, and he writes eloquently about it and his other sources of inspiration and research for Desert Of Souls here.

Reading this and the titles above has made me hungry for his second Asim and Dabir book, The Bones Of The Old Ones, a short story collection. Once I’ve knocked that one off, I will try one of Mr. Jones’ other inspirations, Howard Lamb’s Wolf Of The Steppes and Warriors Of The Steppes a bit of Cossack historical fiction!

In addition to the links above, you can click on any of the covers below to check out the library catalog record for that item!

Desert-of-Souls_cover   Gentlemen-of-the-road-cover Gates-of-empire-cover    Bones-of-the-old-ones-cover  Warriors-of-the-steppes-cover    Warriors-of-the-steppes2-cover


–Scott P.


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Three Halloween Horrors

Halloween goes hand-in-hand with great horror stories, so today I thought I might share the work of three of my own favorite scary scribes.  While three listings just scratches the surface, I hope the stuff you see below spurs you to consider some of your own favorites.  Feel free to share them in the comments section!

The Horror Stories Of Robert E. Howard / [editor, Rusty Burke] ; illustrated by Greg Staples — My two favorites from this collection include “The Touch of Death,” which I read at last year’s CLP Read to the People event to promote library awareness, and “Worms of the Earth,” a Bran Mak Morn tale that might just be the best thing Howard ever wrote.

Books Of Blood : Volumes One To Three / Clive Barker — English author Barker brings the pain in this collection of bloodcurdling tales, and “Midnight Meat Train” tops the list for this assemblage.  As an avowed proponent and user of public transit, this one really unsettled me.

At The Mountains Of Madness / H.P. Lovecraft — No tale better illustrates Lovecraft’s storytelling powers quite like this one.  The story is highlighted by this gorgeous Modern Library edition, whose cover features Michael Chabon’s ringing endorsement: “One of the greatest short novels in American literature, and a key text in my own understanding of what that literature can do.”

Now it’s your turn!  List a favorite scary novel or short story in the comments section–share the fear!

Thanks for reading!



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Reading Robert E. Howard: Is Conan a Lion or a Tiger or What?

Taking the advice of my fellow blogger, Scott, I am finally reading my first Conan book, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.

Why did I wait so long?  As one of the lyricists for a heavy metal band, I should long ago have been ripping off lines of Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) like this one:

…[he] drew back his mind from the nighted abysses where it had been questing… (p. 16)

If that language sounds a little excessive to you, then get a load of this.  In the short story “The Scarlet Citadel,” Howard so frequently assigns different characteristics to his protagonist that it becomes absurd:

“Who can take a man-eating tiger alive?” (p. 87)

“Take him up and fear not; the lion’s fangs are drawn.” (p. 87)

The kings reined in and gazed in awe at the fallen lion. (p. 87)

In one of these chariots lay Conan…weighted with chains, the tang of defeat in his mouth, the blind fury of a trapped tiger in his soul. (p. 88)

…his laughter sounded like the muttering of a rousing lion. (p. 89)

Conan’s laugh was like the deep short bark of a timber wolf. (p. 91)

…and Conan gave back the glare of a trapped wolf. (p. 95)

…gave Conan the name — Amra, the Lion — by which the Cimmerian had been known to the Kushites in his piratical days. (p. 96)

“Do you not remember the sack of Abombi, when your sea-wolves swarmed in?” (p. 96)

With a terrible curse Conan struck as a cobra strikes. (p. 97)

Conan paced the chamber like a caged lion. (p. 106)

With a lion-like roar the Cimmerian parried the whistling blade… (p. 110)

As a thunderbolt strikes, Conan struck, hurtling through the ranks by sheer power and velocity… (p. 116)

Lion, tiger, lion, tiger, wolf, wolf, snake, lightning, etc.  Whoa, that’s a lot of similes and metaphors.  It’s like Muhammad Ali saying, “Float like a butterfly, / Sting like a bee” and then a dozen other things.

But then again, this variegation is what makes Howard’s stories and Conan himself so darn fun.  The barbarian is sometimes a pirate, sometimes a mercenary, and sometimes a king.  The tales are set in any of the various kingdoms Howard invented (though, significantly, none  take place in Cimmeria and no other Cimmerians are ever written about).  Finally, one can’t expect a barbarian to have only one love interest so there are a number of female companions from slave girls to princesses to pirate queens.

Through it all, the language is gloriously excessive, the horrors of either savagery or civilization are laid bare, and the supernatural elements are exaggerated and over-excited.  In fact, one could say the same things about Howard’s friend, H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), another author that heavy metal lyricists like to imitate.

— Tim

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Howard’s Weird Tales

A colleague of mine who shares my interest in the old Pulps and in the work of Robert E. Howard kindly gave me his extra copy of an old paperback entitled Skull-Face and Other Tales. The dog-earred little book collected some of the most interesting stories Robert E. Howard wrote for Weird Tales magazine during his too-short career. The story entitled “Skull-Face” really weighs in as a novella of sorts, spanning some 127 pages and featuring dozens of characters and sinister locales in rundown sections of 1920’s London. Originally run in serial form in Weird Tales from October-December 1929, “Skull-Face” features a flawed protagonist named Steve Costigan, a man driven to hashish addiction by the horrors he witnessed serving as an infantryman in WWI. Costigan must overcome all manner of exotic villains from around the world, all serving under the titular madman himself, the enigmatic Skull-Face!

Despite some cultural insensitivity from Howard (a product of his time), the story stands up remarkably well to modern scrutiny, and will surely please Howard fans only used to reading his Conan material and its many pastiches. With the imminent release of the third Mummy movie, folks seeking some rip-roaring pulp adventure to complement the theme should look no further than this wonderful collection.

Howard wrote a number of other non-Conan tales across many genres, all in his highly descriptive, muscular style that packs maximum detail into an economy of words. Find some of the best listed below:


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Pulp Fiction: H. P. Lovecraft



Back in the day, libraries, like dictionaries, were prescriptive rather than descriptive.   Dictionaries, such as Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language and the Oxford English Dictionary, told you what words to use and how to use them.  Slang, when not excluded entirely, was largely discouraged, grammar just so, and obscenities were verboten.

No longer.   Today’s dictionaries are descriptive of all manner of words and how we use them.  Slang, obscenities, and incorrect grammar are all welcome.  They reflect the language as it is, ever changing, ever evolving, as is the culture from which it grows.

Similarly, libraries, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, recommended the best, and collected that which was considered of historical and cultural significance.  Today libraries, like dictionaries, act as virtual cultural mirrors; they reflect who we are, what we do, and what we like (and dislike).  Libraries and library collections describe the culture, they don’t dictate it.

Which brings us to the pulps.

Pulp fiction was largely ignored by libraries for the above stated reasons, and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh was certainly no exception.   As the culture changed, so did the libraries.  Like many other libraries across the country, the Carnegie has gone back retrospectively and filled in the gaps.  Welcome now, with open arms, are Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard, Philip K. Dick, Dashiell Hammett, Ray Bradbury, Clark Ashton Smith, Erle Stanley Gardner and many, many more.

And, of course, most welcome is the grandaddy of them all, H. P. Lovecraft.

I’ve been a huge Lovecraft fan since my teen years, which coincided with the first resurgance of interest in HPL in the early 60’s, via mass market paperback editions from Ballantine Books.  What could be better?  They were flat-out horror: lurid, forbidden, suggestive, and, most of all, great fun.  Here is a list of my personal top ten favorite stories by Lovecraft:

At the Mountains of Madness and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward are both novellas, both as close to writing a full-length novel as Lovecraft would ever get.  Prior to reading At the Mountains of Madness, I would suggest reading his literary mentor Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket .  If you do, you’ll be hard put to forget the phrase “Tekeli-li.”   The rest of the above list is comprised of short stories which vary only in degree of shock and explicitness; it goes without saying, that compared to today’s splatter horror, they are mild in execution.  However, the archetypal elements in Lovecraft’s stories provide a deeper strain of psychological horror that can be hard to shake long after the story is finished.

Ironically, after many years of being ignored, a few pulp authors, including Lovecraft, have found themselves accepted into the canon of contemporary literature by way of publication by The Library of America.  Besides Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick have received this cultural imprimatur.

Unlike many a trapped protagonist in their stories, this recognition of the lasting value of pulp fiction is better, much better, late, than never.

 – Don


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Notes from a Sick Room

During an ongoing, week-long battle with a virulent batch of Pennsylvania brand flu, my doctor’s advice was simple: plenty of liquids, bed rest, pain reliever of choice, sleep, soup, etc. In other words, exactly what Mom always said.

Which, of course, translates into: time to self-medicate!

There were three creative artists that got me through this week, standing as they did at the foot of my bed like the three angels in Procol Harum‘s ode to the near-death experience, Juicy John Pink: Marcel Proust, David Lynch, and Robert E. Howard.

Proust, a neurasthenic who makes hypochondria look like an Olympic sport, is the perfect sickbed companion. Currently in the thrall of the last volume, Finding Time Again, of his monumental In Search of Lost Time, I spent a great deal of my time in surreal reverie, floating freely among endless sentences and phrases modifying constructs seemingly chapters apart, as all time came together and drifted away, all threaded together with regulated doses of Tylenol and 55-gallon drums of chicken soup.

And surreal doesn’t even begin to describe the auteur David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: the Gold Box Edition; suffice to say that, for 29-plus episodes, a bedridden flu victim could put aside the chicken soup and, at least in one’s mind, dream of endless servings of huckleberry pie (and murder, intrigue, and Log Lady’s zen-like approach to early 90’s tv).

Finally, what would staying home sick be without the comfort of a comic or graphic novel when the printed word or surreal video becomes too overwhelming? Childlike, I retreated into the arms of the ultimate hero, Conan the Barbarian, and, yes, found much comfort there. There is nothing confusing for Robert E. Howard’s most famous hero; good and evil, wrong and right, all is as it should be, at least in the land of Aquilonia after the fall of Atlantis but before recorded history.

I spent a great deal more time than I should have thinking about the relationships between these 3 creative artists, aside from the obvious fact that they are all available at the library (and, at the time, were standing at the foot of my bed). I found my conclusions rather unsettling, and had only to remind myself that my illness-addled brain was obviously seeing things that weren’t there.

Or was it?

Let the self-medicating continue!


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