Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pieces of D: Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard. The name is probably most known as belonging to the man who created the character Conan, and rightly so. Without Conan, the modern fantasy landscape wouldn't look the way it does (even if modern fantasy fans don't know it). But Conan only appeared in seventeen stories during Howard's lifetime (with only a few more after Howard's death in 1936).

I need to reorganize my bookshelves - that Frankenstein
novel was not written by Howard.
I knew about Conan thanks to the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian (dir. John Milius) and its 1984 follow-up Conan the Destroyer (dir. Richard Fleischer). The first film was something on TV (probably Showtime) at a friends house and us kids were told to look away by the parents when Conan was given a naked woman (I snuck a look anyway), and ...Destroyer seemed to run a lot on TBS. Conan appeared in some of the comics I'd read, but it wasn't until I hit high school that I learned who Robert E. Howard really was.

I took two classes from English teacher Bill Roberts - Creative Writing and Epic, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. (Mr. Roberts' influence on me as a creative and a consumer of creative works extends well beyond Howard, but - in my best Mako impression - "that is another story.") He was a fan of Conan, and relied on the Lancer Books from the late 1960s to inform his knowledge and opinion of Robert E. Howard.

There was a used bookstore in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and while I was already making regular trips there to go through their gaming section, once I learned about those Lancer books, I made sure to go through their Fantasy & Science Fiction shelves until I found copies of those editions for myself.

I still have them on my bookshelf today, despite learning that these books really don't represent the Conan stories as Howard wrote them. They were my gateway, however, into, the sword-and-sorcery work of REH.

It was through the rulebook of the roleplaying game The Call of Cthulhu that I learned that Howard's literary works extended beyond Conan and company. This drove me to learn more about Howard. That he had a connection to Lovecraft, that he had written more short stories in other genres (including Westerns? really?*), that there was even more Howard fiction out there waiting for me to discover . . .

photo by Angela Brown/
Not even Conan could keep me from going straight to the H's on the shelves in the Gold Room at Powell's City of Books every time I happen to be in or even near that bookstore.

Get me started talking about ANYTHING fantasy-related, and I'll ultimately bring up Robert E. Howard. Go through the archives of the Dread Media podcast, and you'll find an episode in which I joined the host Desmond Reddick to talk about Howard's horror stories (and one of his poems). Ask me about one of the greatest losses I still think about when I suffered a hard drive crash a few years ago, and I'll lament the loss of the short movie Casonetto's Last Song, a movie based on a Howard short story that I co-directed in 2003. I've collected REHupa mailings and Howard fanzines. Attending Robert E. Howard Days is on my bucket list.

January 22, 2014, would have been Howard's 108th birthday, and I spent a lot of it with the soundtrack from the film The Whole Wide World (dir. Dan Ireland) playing on my iPod. This moving film score (by Harry Gregson-Williams) stands alone as a beautiful piece of music, and as music that accompanies this film, it's stellar. The Whole Wide World is based on One Who Walked Alone by Novalyne Price Ellis, a woman who dated Robert E. Howard a few years before his death, so the film is almost exclusively about their relationship. Lovecraft's name is dropped once, and there's some talk of Conan, but overall, it's a movie about two people and their relationship (romantic and otherwise), and I adore it. I've owned it on DVD for years, but I was also fortunate enough to see the film on the big screen at a previous year's HP Lovecraft Film Festival & CthulhuCon. It brought tears to my eyes because that movie hits me just that hard.

Listening to that score throughout the day made me think about how much Howard has shaped how I create and how I consume certain types of entertainment. I can't honestly say I've read all of Howard's work, but I have seen every film adaptation, and I'm fairly sure I've seen every television REH adaptation. I know that in terms of actual adaptations, none of them have really nailed it, but they're part of the Howard Popular Culture. (Yes, even The Adventures of Conan: A Sword and Sorcery Spectacular stage show that ran at Universal Studios for a decade is part of it.) When I think sword-and-sorcery . . . when I think fantasy, I think Robert E. Howard. I think about how he constructed his stories and how he drove himself to be a successful writer in a small Texas town despite what the locals thought of him. He and I are several decades removed, but I still take lessons from what he did and how he did it.

And, of course, I love his writing.

* Back then, the Western was a genre in which I had no interest. I was a dumb kid.

No comments: