The Atomic Age Narrative: Broadswords and Cardboard Barbarians

Sunday , 16, April 2017 11 Comments

One of the strangest pieces of criticism on Robert E. Howard was an essay called “Broadswords and Cardboard Barbarians” by Gary Hoppenstand from a small press publication called Starwind (Spring 1976). Gary Hoppenstand edited the small press magazine, Midnight Sun in the middle 1970s. Hoppenstand published Karl Edward Wagner in Midnight Sun within the first two issues. Stories by H. H. Hollis made up all the contents of issue 3. Who is H. H. Hollis you ask? Exactly.

Gary Hoppenstand is a professor of American Studies teaching in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University.

                “Robert E. Howard was king! At least, that’s what any self-respecting heroic fantasy reader would admit. After all, he was the one who basically started this sub-genre. He was the one who constructed the type of story plots found in most or all of heroic fantasy since his time…Right? Wrong! Admittedly, Howard was the founding author, and he did create some fun characters, but to consider him the best-never…Taking away the bandwagon glitter that has arisen around this author in the past five for six years, it’s very easy to see that Howard was nothing more than a hack…Surely a pulp hack cannot possibly be considered the highest that any author in heroic fantasy can attain?”

The word “hack” is used as a shorthand method of dismissal without truly engaging to make the case. Sort of like when a teenage girl rolls her eyes and says “whatever.” The definition of a hack is someone hired to do routine writing. Robert E. Howard was not hired. I would say his writing is anything but routine. His writing style was unique for the time and to some degree still unique today. He created sword and sorcery fiction at the time. The stories are not routine but creative. People are still trying to figure out how to catch that lightning in a bottle.

The accusation of a pulp hack is used because he wrote for a commercial magazine instead of some small press artistic publication. He must have been considered the best in the 1930s as C. L. Moore, Clifford Ball, Henry Kuttner, Frederic Arnold Kummer, Jr., Leigh Brackett, Gardner F. Fox, and Poul Anderson all acknowledged their inspiration from Robert E. Howard within the pulp era.

The fact that multiple drafts of Howard stories exist show he put in real work to his fiction. Also Howard’s prose often has a poetic quality to it. Read some truly flat pulp prose from an issue of Thrilling Adventures for hackwork.

“Howard’s fictional characters were basically the reflection of an adolescent worldview. They were not workable, believable characters.”

Did not Robert E. Howard base Conan on various people he knew or met? I have met ex-Army Special Forces, Marines, and bikers among others who would not be out of place in a Howard story. Howard mentioned in a letter that he was trying to infuse “Red Nails” with a certain degree of realism.

“One of Howard’s weakest points as an author was that he could not write about mature relationships between men and women…Howard’s paranoid relationship with his mother may have some serious influences on his writing.”

At least half of people in this country can’t carry on mature relationships with the opposite sex. If you know the secret on how to, you can make a lot of money. How was Howard’s relationship with his mother “paranoid?” I know many people who are constant care givers to frail, elderly parents. Howard used his proceeds from his fiction to pay his mother’s medical bills. He was also a care giver. I think the country would benefit if people looked after their parents the way Howard did.

“With all this in mind, it’s easier to see some of the awful aspects that Howard introduced, and are still (in the vast majority of cases) with us today, some forty years later. Can you imagine what it would be like if science fiction as a literary form had remained stagnant at the quality level of its early stages? We’d still be reading stories about cardboard space heroes saving brainless, voluptuous females while bug-eyed monsters bubbled ‘ichor’ and jets blasted.”

Sword-and-sorcery fiction was in a near stasis from 1936-1966. Of course science fiction is going to change because technology changes. A sword remains a sword. This is a non-starter. Space Opera is still with us and alive and well. Rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated.

            “Since all of the Howard formula stories are the same, the settings are what differ from tale to tale…The Howardian formula dictates that the hero (usually a barbarian of some sorts) be strong, masculine, brave, dishonest, ambitious, and bloodthirsty…That guy can’t die! And the sheer idiocy of the whole thing is that Howard deliberately wrote his heroes that way.”

Howard’s stories are all the same? “Queen of the Black Coast” ends on a melancholy note, “Red Nails” is emotionally exhausting, “Beyond the Black River” has a philosophical bent, “The God in the Bowl” has Conan running like hell shrieking in fear etc. This argument does not hold up under closer scrutiny. Howard was a big strong guy so it stands to reason that his heroes would be big strong guys. His characters are not bloodthirsty. Typically, they mind their own business until someone starts causing problems for them. They live in a violent world and act accordingly to survive.

“Here are men’s sexual fantasies realized to the utmost. I wonder what Freud would have said about Howard’s stories?”

The obligatory de Campian half-baked psychoanalysis comment invoking the god Freud. Howard’s stories are sexual fantasies- I have never mistaken his stories for Penthouse’s Letters. There is an occasional kiss and a little innuendo but that is it. If there were no innuendo, critics would be blasting Howard for being afraid of sex.

“In addition, there is the spooky element within heroic fantasy. This spooky element is supposed to make us shiver, but more often than not it only elicits a few chuckles from the reader…Necrophilia has taken over, and where attention should be paid to a new author’s excellent works, it is instead paid to a dead author’s fragments and hack notes.”

The horror, especially cosmic horror and gothic touches are critical ingredient in sword-and-sorcery fiction. This is a major reason John Jakes and Lin Carter stories don’t push the same buttons. Read the opening to The Hour of the Dragon with the scene of Xaltotun’s resurrection. It will give shivers down the spine.

“Thus, here are simple-minded stories for the rapidly increasing number of simple-minded readers. And the sad thing is that success breeds imitation. Since Howard is so popular among the readers, and because he sells so well, other authors of the sub-genre attempt to imitate him.”

Insult the readers of this fiction. A good way to win someone over to your point of view. It cannot be helped if a dead hack’s fragments and notes are better than most living authors. Most of the new sword-and-sorcery put out during the two booms in the 1960’s and ’70’s should never have been published. I, and others I know are always looking for quality sword-and-sorcery. I can’t help it if editors and publishers are clueless and put out crap. It is not Robert E. Howard’s fault that many of his imitators are so bad. Aim the criticism at Belmont and Leisure Books.

This piece goes on to laud Karl Edward Wagner. Many fans of Howard are also fans of Wagner. This is what is so strange. There was a cult of Wagner for a while that has dwindled after Wagner’s death. He was viewed as the great hope of the genre. He also did not deliver. There is a whole shelf of imaginary Karl Edward Wagner books never written: Queen of the Night, Silver Dagger, In the Wake of the Night, The Fourth Seal, At First Just Ghostly, Satan’s Gun, The Day of the Lion.

Wagner had a couple of years in the middle 1970s of consistent fiction production. After 1977, his output was one or two stories a year. His output increased to three or four stories a year right before his death. No novels came forth after The Road of Kings in 1979. As it was, Richard L. Tierney and David C. Smith were hurriedly brought in to write a second Bran Mak Morn pastiche novel when Wager failed to deliver Queen of the Night. Wagner’s Bran Mak Morn novel Legion from the Shadows was a reusing of the plot of Hugh Cave’s “Murgunstrumm.”

Interestingly, Wagner admired high production pulp writers such as E. Hoffmann Price and Hugh B. Cave. Both could be described as hacks under Hoppenstand’s definition though Price and Cave also wrote some very fine stories.

Leo Grin, publisher/editor of The Cimmerian, pointed out to me that Wagner’s Kane novels all had the same plot. Kane schemes to take over, generally turning against someone or something worse than himself, and it all goes to excrement. Wagner is not the writer to contrast against Robert E. Howard with the claim the stories are all the same.

I had mentioned to Leo Grin about some viewing Joe Abercrombie as being the second coming of Karl Edward Wagner. Leo responded that Karl Edward Wagner was not the coming of Karl Edward Wagner.

The idea of an immortal Cain/Kane as a more believable character than Robert E. Howard’s barbarians? Come on.

Hoppenstand’s piece is a strange one in trashing the founder of sword and sorcery fiction to make the case at the time for a relatively new writer. The perspective is probably a case of baby boomer hubris against the old stuff. The Young Turks always seem to want to destroy the past. Hoppenstand co-wrote a piece in the same issue of Star Wind Magazine entitled “Tragic Heroes: The Worlds of Michael Moorcock” that I have not read.


  • John E. Boyle says:

    I’ve seen bits and pieces of this essay over the years, but I couldn’t remember the author’s name.


    Thanks for the heads up and your rebuttal to Hoppenstands’s hack job.

  • Vlad James says:

    Astonishing how irrelevant Hoppenstand’s criticism is, in the rare moments when it’s not self-satisfied insults.

    For instance, the whole “adolescent worldview”. So what? “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Treasure Island” (and really, most of Stevenson’s and Twain’s works) can be described this way. Does that make them any less excellent, memorable, and classic?

    Given what Hoppenstand was praising and promoting, your conclusion about his motives seems very likely.

    • Marc Cerasubu says:

      Read Love and Death In the American Novel. Leslie Fiedler believed that all American literature was adolescent and that was the point. We were not Europe. Our tales were new, and filled with new ideas and idealism–the full flush of youth.

  • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

    Also, if someone is going to engage in literary criticism, one should be able to actually write well.

    I’m struck by how awful Hoppenstrand’s writing actually is.


    • keith says:

      That was my own first reaction, too… Guy’s an academician, and that text of his was supposed to pass for a critical essay, and yet those excerpts read like they were taken from some kid’s angry forum post.

  • Martin A says:

    This article was published exactly at the time I was born and this is the first time I’ve heard of it. If that isn’t a clear indication of its insignificance, I don’t know what is.

  • caleb says:

    “Leo responded that Karl Edward Wagner was not the coming of Karl Edward Wagner.”

    David Drake has much the same opinion. You are surely familiar with his harsh but fair essay on his best friend’s demise. Others should google “The Truth Insofar As I Know It by David Drake”, as it is easily found online. It doesn’t make for pleasant reading, but it is certainly illuminating.

    • Morgan says:

      I was thinking of David Drake’s piece on Wagner when I wrote this up. He also had piece on the writing of KILLER which was not a pleasant experience for him. Those two articles did a lot to deflate the Cult of Wagner.

  • Andy says:

    I do like Wagner’s Kane stories but there is a certain feeling of one-upmanship to some of them. “My guy is the best swordsman. And he’s the best wizard. He’s bigger, stronger, and faster than everyone. And he’s immortal. He kills all the dudes and rapes all the chicks he wants, and…” Hell, he had that one story in which Kane basically slaughters a Conan stand-in, and another story in which Kane makes Elric (not a stand-in) look stupid (not that many of us don’t want to tell off Elric…).

  • Woelf says:

    Hoppenstand’s criticism seems rather light, even desperate.

    I’m currently rereading a collection of Conan stories and I tell you, REH’s mastery of words is phenomenal. One of the things that have always attracted me to his work, and specifically his Conan character, is the unique tone of the stories and the worldbuilding. I have never seen that replicated. Not exactly. It’s his voice, see, and while others have tried to mimic it, they could never recreate it. That alone sets REH apart.

    And then, of course, you have the character, Conan. As a kid, I wanted to be like him. He was awesome. Women, drinking, fighting, and adventure always calling from just beyond the horizon. But that was just the superficial bits. You still had the anger and fury that coursed through his veins and the wildness in his heart. He was intelligent and calculating and even subscribed to an honor code. A barbarian he may have been but one that was far from ordinary.

    Naw, REH was no hack. I consider him a Master of Sword & Sorcery.

  • john silence says:

    It’s kinda hard to dislike KEW, given his genuine love for genre fiction and his encyclopedic knowledge of it (rare traits, as seen both from stuff like this and from modern “experts”). Add his premature and tragic end to that, and he’s like his age’s mirror of Lovecraft and Howard. And Kane stuff is legit fantastic, even though it is leaking angst. But that is true of most of his work. When you read The Fourth Seal with the knowledge of his abandonment of medical profession, you see that he was powered by anger when he was writing it.

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