It’s January 22, which makes this HAPPY BIRTHDAY ROBERT E. HOWARD DAY! Happy Eleventy Second birthday, Mr. Pulp Grandmaster.
Howard was, it must be said, one of the greatest and most influential F&SF writers of all time, right up there with Edgar Rice Burroughs and A. Merritt. He wrote dozens of poems and hundreds of stories, and among his many creations are Conan the Barbarian and the Hyborean Age he inhabits. He’s a legend.
Listen to Benjamin Cheah. He knows. (Seriously. Click the link. I didn’t put it there for my health.)
Last week I had cause to hear a version of “Nemesis”, the H.P. Lovecraft poem, set to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”. (They share a common meter.) Now, not only was this a fun mashup, but it made me go and read the original Lovecraft poem. (Also, now I want an entire album of Pulp poems set to Pop Music.) It is brilliantly written. Lovecraft was incredible.
Howard (as you’d know if you read Cheah’s link above like I told you to) was both incredible and versatile. Howard wrote Heroic Fantasy, Western, Cosmic Horror, historical fiction, Low Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, and Sword & Sorcery. The last three of these Howard basically created out of whole cloth, casually, just by writing stories that interested him, leaving toys strewn in his wake, which later writers picked up and played with. The man was a bold pioneer of the imagination.
His tales hail from a lost time of wonder and awe, when ideology was not the sine qua non of fiction, when stories were not mere vehicles for an author’s sexual peccadilloes and personal political views, when fiction existed to thrill and enchant the audience, and were innocent of politics. (That is, when stories written to advance specific policies, parties, or candidates were rare and you could ignore them as the aberrant aberrations they are.) In this wise, they are a portal to a more honest time, when honor, virtue, and sexuality were more truthfully and accurately dealt with. But this was not his only strength.
H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard have the same talent: they INSPIRE. Rare the person who read of Conan or Cthulhu, but who wanted to write a pastiche, starring either the iconic barbarian or a creation of their own. Their talent was so immense, they made you want to emulate them and inspired you to try. This is something vanishingly rare.
Howard was one of the greats. And now, something great from the master.
Robert E. Howard
Eons before Atlantean days in the time of the world’s black dawn,
Strange were the kings and grim the deeds that the pallid moon looked on.
When the great black cities split the stars and strange prows broke the tide,
And smoke went up from ghastly shrines where writhing victims died.
Black magic raised its serpent head, and all things foul and banned,
Till an angry God hurled up the sea against the shuddering land.
And the grisly kings they read their doom in the wind and the rising brine,
And they set a pillar on a hill for a symbol and a sign.
Black shrine and hall and carven wall sank to eternal sleep,
And dawn looked down on a silent world and the blue unbroken deep.
Now men go forth in their daily ways and they reck not of the feel
Of the veil that crushed, so long ago, the world beneath its heel.
But deep in the seaweed-haunted halls in the green unlighted deep,
Inhuman kings await the day that shall break their chains of sleep.
And far in a grim untrodden land on a jungle-girded hill,
A pillar stands like a sign of Fate, in subtle warning still.
Carved in its blind black face of stone a fearful unknown rune
Leers in the glare of the tropic sun and the cold of the leprous moon.
And it shall stand for a symbol mute that men are weak and blind,
Till Hell roars up from the black abyss and horror swoops behind.
For this is the screed upon the shaft, oh, pallid sons of men:
“We that were lords of all the earth, shall rise and rule again.”
And dark is the doom of the tribes of earth, that hour wild and red,
When the ages give their secrets up and the sea gives up its dead.
Happy Birthday, Robert E. Howard. You left us too soon.