Conan the Centenarian

I missed seeing this announcement over the weekend, but Sunday would have been the 100th birthday of writer Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane, Sailor Steve Costigan, King Kull of Atlantis and others — and instigator of countless flights of fantasy in his readers.

His characters and stories were perfect for the pulp fiction era of the 1920s and 30s, yet timeless enough to still be incredibly popular today. When a friend lent me my first Conan book in college back in 1976 I had no idea that Howard had already been dead 40 years. Often credited (and/or dismissed) as the father of the Sword and Sorcery genre, Howard had a vivid imagination perfectly harnessed to his story-telling ability (believe me, these don’t always go together). He brought a brawny, blood-thirsty virility to heroic fiction that was new to his era but every bit in the tradition of Beowulf. His heroes had red helms, not white hats, got the girl (be she queen, priestess, goddess or demon) and broke more than a few laws and skulls in the process.

Some might denigrate the genre and therefore his skills but that is because so many of his imitators have been so poor. A contemporary of Louis L’Amour, had Howard lived (he committed suicide at age 30) I’m sure he would have been as prolific and celebrated as his range-riding counterpart. In fact, his later letters and outlines showed he was branching into Western, or Texian (Howard was a native Texan) stories. I enjoyed his stories, and had no difficulty fitting them into my skull with more prosaic authors.

As a blogger, I also respect Howard’s drive and discipline. His output was prolific and prodigious, writing in his own name and under pseudonyms, and populating the pages of then-thriving publications such as Weird Tales, Argosy, Strange Detective and more. The pulp fiction of the day, and the people who wrote for it, strike me as a similar type of community to today’s blogosphere. In both eras creative people threw themselves into the new media of the day, not necessarily expecting the words to last but reveling in the joy of creation and the chance to tell a story that a few others might appreciate. They wrote fiction, we’re more into facts, but we both communicate a vision of the world. And sometimes, it’s pretty fantastic. Happy birthday, REH.

One thought on “Conan the Centenarian

  1. Nice catch. In my mid-teens, I loved Howard’s books, particularly the early Conan stories. Well paced and vivid, they were great adventure stories for a pleasant escape.

    He put out an amazing volume of work for someone who died at 30. I knew he died young, but didn’t realize it was that young.

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