The Legacy of Legendary Characters
Exotic locations in a past beyond human memory. Strange magics that baffle the senses. Monstrous creatures that test the limit of human might. Seductive damsels and femme fatales. Sword-swinging heroes with bulging muscles and base desires. These all call to mind classic tales of heroic fantasy and sword and sorcery, from the pages of the pulps to the multitude of books printed thereafter. These are all elements of one man’s writing, as well. One man who created a new history, pioneered fantasy worldbuilding, and helped to give birth to new subgenres of fantasy. That man was Robert E. Howard.
The Birth of Inspiration
Born in Texas in 1906, Robert E. Howard is considered by many to be one of the quintessential pulp fiction authors of the early 20th century. Like many of his colleagues, he didn’t attain great success during his lifetime. It was not until after his untimely death by suicide in 1936 that his work became recognized as a staple of the fantasy genre. In fact, he is often credited alongside Fritz Lieber as one of the founders of the sword and sorcery subgenre.
Howard grew up in Texas during an oil boom. His family moved from one town to the next quite regularly, so he grew accustomed to change and new sights. His father was a doctor, and this afforded the young Howard an intimate view of the results of the violence that was so common during this time. Although Texas in the early 1900s wasn’t quite the wild west; brawls, gunfights, lynching, and tribal raids were still a reality. The young man also dealt regularly with bullying from his peers. Howard grew up surrounded by violence, and when old enough he took up the likely sport of boxing, which was very popular at the time.
His mother, Hester, distanced the young boy from his father, who’s regular get-rich-quick schemes kept the family in constant poverty. She supported his love of literature and writing, and encouraged him to develop his talent. Despite her efforts to protect and educate the young boy, she could not insulate him from the violence that permeated the culture of early 20th century Texas.
This familiarity with violence would seep into his writing. In 1924, after years of rejections, Howard finally sold a short story to Weird Tales magazine called “Spear and Fang” for $16. This caveman tale would be his foot in the door, and soon Weird Tales was accepting more stories from the budding young author. At the same time, he took a steady job writing a column for a newspaper about the local oil industry and was also working at a drug store. In 1926, he finally began making enough from his stories to quit the drug store job and focus on writing and furthering his education.
The true legacy of Robert E. Howard lies in the characters he created. A master of the serial character, he wrote stories where the protagonist had no arc. This was not unheard of at the time, but Howard quickly became a master of crafting plot-based stories around a single, iconic character. Kull of Atlantis was the first, a barbarian-like warrior from a past where the kingdom had not yet been lost beneath the waves. Kull, in addition to being popular in his own right, would later inspire the character that would cement Howard’s name in antiquity.
Next though came a seventeenth century English Puritan named Solomon Kane. The holy swashbuckler travelled the world hunting evil, avenging the wronged, and investigating mysterious happenings. This champion of the downtrodden quickly resonated with the readers of Weird Tales, as Howard channeled his memories of childhood bullying into a vengeful character that many could relate to.
Building upon the backstory of Kull and the recognition for having created Solomon Kane, Howard ventured next into writing stories of Conan the Cimmerian. Weird Tales magazine was eager to print the stories, tagging them as being written by the popular author of the Kane stories. Howard took his legends of Atlantis and went on to craft an entire world full of exotic cultures in a fictional distant past of our own Earth: The Hyborian Age. Central to this was Conan, a barbarian swordsman who took on one adventure after another.
Part warrior, part thief, and eventually a king; Conan was revealed to the world in 1932, and would go on to become a cultural phenomenon.
Howard continued to write tales of these iconic characters and branched out into other genres, spending much of his later years focusing on writing westerns.
The Legend Lives On
Howard had always been close to his mother, and it had been her who supported his education and creativity throughout the years. She spent much of her time caring for the ill, and in the process of this contracted Tuberculosis. Her health suffered a slow decline, and in the months leading up to his death Howard seemed to be planning to join her in death. He wrote out instructions for his estate, a will, and bought a family burial plot. In 1936, she slipped into a coma a nurse told him she would likely never wake from. Immediately following this news, Howard walked out to his car and shot himself.
While his work was never collected together while he was alive, his father took control of his estate and worked with his agent to keep his legacy alive. Control of his estate passed from his father to a family friend, and then through that family it has been handed down several times. The Robert E. Howard Foundation, a charity focused on studying his work and its continuing ramifications in the world of literature, was founded in 2006.
His first published novel—A Gent from Bear Creek—was released a year after he died. In 1946, a collection of his short stories was published under the title Skull-Face and Others. In 1950 Howard’s first and only Conan novel—Conan the Conqueror—was finally published.
L. Sprague de Camp was instrumental in reviving the character of Conan, working on editing and revising some of Howard’s unfinished manuscripts and getting them published. She brought others on board, and soon the world was graced by a flood of stories with the burly barbarian. Through the years, further stores of Conan would be written by L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Jordan, Michael A. Stackpole, Harry Turtledove, Poul Anderson, Leonard Carpenter, Lin Carter, Roland J. Green, John C. Hocking, Sean A. Moore, Björn Nyberg, Andrew J. Offutt, Steve Perry, John Maddox Roberts, Roy Thomas, and Karl Edward Wagner.
Conan the Cimmerian, Kull of Atlantis, and Solomon Kane would all live on in further works of prose, comic books, film adaptations, tabletop games, and electronic games. Conan remains the most popular of Robert E. Howard’s works though, and the legacy of what he created lives on to this day.
I’m proud to say that I’ve been a fan of Howard’s work for as long as I can remember. From the first time I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger on screen puzzling out the riddle of steel to the first time I read “The Tower of the Elephant,” Conan the Cimmerian has been one of my favorite fantasy characters. I’m excited to have finally channeled that inspiration into my own take on the genre and style pioneered by Robert E. Howard. I have unashamedly proclaimed that my new novella—Blood of the Desert—is essentially Conan with more sand.
I discovered along the way that Brego’s story became more than I expected, and I think readers will be both thrilled by the simple violent fun of the adventure and surprised by the subtle depth of character and theme that lies just beneath the surface. I’m proud of this story, and proud to say it wouldn’t exist if not for the work of Robert E. Howard to inspire me.