104 years ago, the Muses set a thunderbolt down on this planet in a small town in Texas. His name was Robert E. Howard, and he was the greatest pulp fiction writer the world has ever known.
Here at Camp Clockwork we have spent many an hour talking about REH, and even penned a tribute issue of the old Clockwork Storybook web magazine to him. Howard invented the genre of Heroic Fantasy (less charitably called "Sword and Sorcery" by some) with the stories "Red Shadows," featuring Solomon Kane, and "The Shadow Kingdom," featuring King Kull. He wrote several successful series characters in a humorous vein, including my favorite, Sailor Steve Costigan, and the hillbilly man-child Breckenridge Elkins. Of course, he is best known as the creator of Conan the Cimmerian, who has become one of those universally recognized characters in the same camp as Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes.
Undoubtedly, Howard was an inspiration to so many writers, including myself, of course. But what exactly made him such a great writer? I think there are three major components to his "style" of writing, along with a host of other intangibles that vary from character to character, story to story, and series to series. But the three biggies are as follows.
Howard was a poet. His was a lifelong study of poetry, both as a reader and a writer. His mother read poety to him as a child, and he really took to it. He wrote reams, literally, of the stuff, and he wrote so much of it that it's very difficult to even try and sort it into classifications. Regardless, Howard was used to thinking poetically--that is, descriptively and with economy. There are no wasted words in his work. There are only the right words; the words that you key into and create the most vivid pictures in your mind as you read. Howard wrote that way, intuitively, whether he was laying out kingdoms in broad, swift strokes, or relentlessly pounding out a boxing story.
Howard was a tall liar. That's a Texas thing. The appropriate turn of phrase today is "Master bullshitter." And one of the best definitions of bullshit I ever heard is, "If it ain't true, it ought to be." A tall liar in Howard's day was the porch swing raconteur, the fellow who could walk into the general store and waste five minutes of everyone's time talking about "this old boy from over yonder" and the hi-jinx he got up to the other day. H.P. Lovecraft famously said of Howard that he "believed everything he wrote," and this has been mis-interpreted over the years to mean that Howard was crazy. In fact, he merely invested in his writing the same earnest verisimillitude of authenticy that a veteran tall liar would in his oral recitation. Howard may well have been the first Texas writer to ever write fiction from the precepts of oral tall tales. But it's why, in so many cases, his prose just rings true. Of course the sword would turn on the shield that way. Certainly the horse would throw the man just so. That sense of earnest bullshit is one of the most overlooked traits in Howard's writing.
Howard was trapped. In his personal life, Howard was the primary caregiver to his tubercular mother. His father was a doctor, back in the days when they made house calls, and he frequently traveled for days at a time to be with and tend to patients. Had their unique family situation not been what it was, Howard may well have pursued a more physical career, or at the very least, moved to a larger city to follow his passion. As it was, he was stuck, either by his own hand or others, in a small Texas town, surrounded by a number of people who didn't fully understand the situation in the Howard house. Thus corralled, Howard did the one thing that was available to him: he projected his imagination as far away as he could, moving through time, back into pre-history, and even to other worlds. His fierce imagination gave him the needed building blocks to create some of the most memorable characters in popular fiction and imbue them with the life he himself could never lead.
If you've got any Howard on your shelf, today is a great day to pull a book down and read something he wrote. You won't regret it.
Happy Birthday, Bob!