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Happy Birthday, Two-Gun Bob!

Posted in Pulps on January 22, 2015 @ 5:14 pm

On this day in 1906, in the small Texas town of Peaster, Robert Ervin Howard was born. Growing up in the Lone Star State, deeply attached to his sickly, possessive mother, he took his own life 30 years later as she lay on her deathbed. By that time he had become a modestly successful writer of pulp fiction. Today, nearly eight decades after his passing, Robert E. Howard is considered one of the form’s giants, his works most ardently championed by generations of readers not yet born when the last appeared in a rough-paper magazine.

The most frequently seen portrait of Robert E. Howard

Like so many of his present-day fans, I first encountered REH (as he is popularly known) in 1966 when Lancer Books, at the urging of fantasy/science-fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp, began reprinting the adventures of Howard’s most famous creation, Conan the Barbarian. At the time I was 13, just an eighth-grader, but already a voracious reader and an avid consumer of vintage pulp fiction via the medium of mass-market paperbacks. I’d already devoured the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs reissued by the publishing houses Ace and Ballantine, as well as the former’s reprints of pulp science fiction. I’d also read most of Sax Rohmer’s tales (reprinted by Pyramid), had recently consumed the book-length yarns of “hard-boiled” detective-fiction scribes Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and waited with breathless anticipation for each new Bantam reprint of a Doc Savage story.

But that first Lancer paperback, Conan the Adventurer, promised a reading experience unlike any I had enjoyed up to that time. The Frank Frazetta cover — showing Conan post-battle, surrounded by corpses and with a near-naked wench at his feet — promised something new and exciting. My classmates didn’t always share my taste in fiction (many of them didn’t read anything but comic books for enjoyment), but I remember several of them buying Adventurer after getting a glimpse of my copy. Howard’s extraordinarily vivid prose, especially his bone-crunching action sequences, really spoke to us. Especially since we 13-year-old boys were little more than barbarians ourselves, with our own fantasies of blood-thirsty adventures and nascent yearnings for those voluptuous wenches to be found loitering on battlefields after the defeats of evil wizards and power-mad monarchs.

Frank Frazetta's cover for CONAN THE ADVENTURER

I bought the subsequent Conan paperbacks as fast as they hit local bookstores, staying with the series after Lancer closed up shop and Ace assumed the responsibility of completing it. At the time I didn’t pay much attention to de Camp’s manipulation of the original material, and it didn’t particularly bother me that he and Lin Carter were adding their own entries to the canon. Frankly, by the time I’d finished the 12th and final volume, 1977’s Conan of Aquilonia, I’d had enough of the Cimmerian, the wizards, and the wenches. It was many years before I attempted to read anything else by Howard.

Later, after becoming obsessed with pulp fiction, I sought out much of the remaining REH material — not just his other fantasy and sword &  sorcery fiction for Weird Tales, but also his Westerns, spicy yarns, sport stories, and straight adventure fiction. I still haven’t read his entire output, but I’ve put quite a dent in it. Much of his stuff is appealing to me, although some of it is plainly hackwork that I’ll never revisit. But he’s one of the storytellers whose oeuvre is essential to an understanding of the blood-and-thunder tradition in American popular fiction. This evening, on the occasion of his 109th birthday, I plan on rereading one of his yarns. Many of you who follow this blog are doubtless Howard fans to a greater or lesser extent, so I imagine I won’t be alone.


One thought on “Happy Birthday, Two-Gun Bob!

  1. I’m like you, discovered Conan in the paperbacks with the Frazetta covers. Doc Savage was my main character back in those days but the Conan stories really grabbed me also.

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