Sunday, July 12, 2009

The days of high adventure – The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

My first exposure to anything relating to Robert E. Howard’s creation, Conan the Cimmerian, came with the 1981 film staring Arnold Schwarzenegger. When I first saw it, oh about six or seven years after it had been released, I really enjoyed it. I didn’t know much about Conan other than the movie. Later on, I found out that there was a comic book series of his exploits, but again, nothing really seemed overly interesting about it.

It wasn’t until recently that I ran into Robert E. Howard’s name. I was reading a couple essays on H.P. Lovecraft and they both mentioned that Howard corresponded with Lovecraft frequently. The essays said that he wrote the original Conan stories and was a famous pulp writer in his day. When he is brought up with Lovecraft, it’s because he wrote some horror stories that occur in the same world as many of Lovecraft’s work.

Stephen King mentions Howard in “Dance Macabre”. King praised his writing style and his stories, saying that they were great examples of well-crafted adventure writing in the pulp style.

Finally, I was doing some research on the genre of fantasy. I found that Tolkien and his many disciples are often referred to as “High Fantasy”. While Howard and his disciples are considered part of the “Low Fantasy” crowd. This lead me to discover that Howard and his Conan stories are often considered the genesis of the Sword and Sorcery genre. I decided to pick up some Howard and see what all the fuss is about.

I got my hands on “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian” a Del Rey collection of Howard’s short stories restored to their original form (seems that a lot of Howards stories were reworked after his death and many of these stories have not been seen in their original form for decades). In addition to the stories the book contains a ton of useful information for writers, and I’ll get to that in a minute.

First thing first, I don’t know what my problem is, but whenever I pick up something from the pulp era, I expect it to be interesting, but archaic. I expect it to be a bit trashy and overall lacking in anything but basic escapism. To put it bluntly, I’m not expecting good writing. I don’t know why I get this way; maybe penguins tampered with my mind. Who knows?

The Conan stories blew me away. Howard does two things very well. First off, he keeps the story moving at a quick pace. He does it in such a way that you get a solid taste of the world you are in. At the same time you are never bored. There is always some kind of adventure right around the corner, and even if it seems like the set up is taking too long, he will throw in a moment of horror, blood or naked flesh to grab your attention. This is writing that is alive and bold. It’s going for jugular and it isn’t shy about catching your attention. Sure it does get a bit trashy, but it’s well written.

The second thing that Howard does in each story (and especially when you read a bunch of them together) is flesh out the world of Conan. This is especially impressive within the short story itself. His use of words, his balance of action and setting, and his characterization all add up to a vivid experience in Hyborian Age (the fictional time period Howard created for the Conan stories). Sure other writers have used Howard’s template since then, and that makes some of what you read a bit stale, but when you put into perspective that this was written in the 1930s and that it was brand new, it’s not surprising that a whole brand of fantasy was created based on these stories.

Of course there are some downsides to the stories. Since all of these are short stories, there isn’t a lot of character depth. Conan is pretty much the same guy in all the stories, but the fun in reading them comes from seeing what kind of crazy adventure he’ll end up in next. On top of that, the Conan of the films is not the man in the stories. Howard’s Conan is a barbarian, not a simpleton. He is grounded in the present and does things that will benefit him now. He doesn’t fear death because it comes to all men, but he doesn’t lie down and take what life throws at him. He fights with everything he has. The very first story establishes this character as one who is true to himself and doesn’t care what others think. He can be clever, but also deceived by others. He believes in his abilities but fears magic. He is honest and does what he says he will do. He has a temper and even a cruel streak in him, and seems to prefer to be a loner, even when he is a king.

Another fact that will bother some people is that these are stories about a very masculine world and written from a very masculine world view. Women are pretty much sex objects to be saved or that will try to destroy the good guys. There are exceptions, especially Belit, the Queen of the Black Coast, who is very much like Conan, but eventually becomes his willing consort. On the whole the women are presented as beautiful, kinda dumb and usually in need of rescue.

In addition Howard obviously has an issue with snakes, especially ones of the giant variety. Giant serpents appear in several of the stories, and there is usually an action scene where Conan faces them down. There is also a frequent appearance by apes that are closer to men than primates. Also present is some of the racism that was still very rampant in the 30’s. Most readers should be able to put this in context and not let it bother them.

For writers, Howard’s skills with storytelling are real reason to read the book. These short stories are great examples of how to make fast paced adventure stories work. The stories are simple, but there is always something going on or something looming just around the corner. Descriptions are short but potent (word selection is key here and it didn’t surprise me to learn that Howard had started out writing poetry before turning to prose). Above all there is a spark to the writing, something driving it that may be harder to capture, but should be alive in any storyteller who is serious about keeping an audience.

As I mentioned, this collection is especially interesting to writers because it includes a first draft of one of the stories, as well as synopses of a few others. There is an outline for a story and then a long fragment of a first draft for it. Also included is an essay of the Hyborian Age that Howard compiled to help ground the world of Conan. You also get notes on names used in the stories, maps drawn by Howard and a final essay that goes into the creation of the stories (taken from interviews, correspondence and gleaned from drafts) and how they were received. All told it’s a solid investment for anyone looking to find out more about the beginnings of Sword and Sorcery tales, as well as just learning more about a writer who is considered one of the best pulp writers of the 30’s. You also get some great stories to read, can’t say no to that.

Have you ever read any of Howard’s work? What did you think of the Conan stories? Ever find your conceptions of a certain genre or era of work challenged? What writer have you learned a great deal from just reading their work?

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