One of the biggest influences in my enjoyment of both reading and writing short stories was the prolific pulp author Robert E Howard, who tragically committed suicide in 1936 at the age of just 30. While he wrote in a number of genres and crated some memorable characters – such as Solomon Kane, Kull of Atlantis and Bran Mak Morn – he is best remembered for Conan of Cimmeria. (Howard never referred to him as Conan the Barbarian – it was Conan the Cimmerian or Conan of Cimmeria if anything.) Howard is regarded by many as being the father of the sword and sorcery genre, much as Tolkien is of the high fantasy genre.
Conan is the most famous barbarian in fiction, and has been copied, parodied and de-constructed many times over the years. Other authors have taken up the Conan mantle and written of him, but they aren’t Howard and for the most are novels, which goes against the nature of the Conan stories. There have been comics and of course movies. Sadly, most people know of Conan through Arnold’s movies. Arnold’s Conan is a far cry from the Conan of the books – the movie Conan is a muscle bound generic Germanic barbarian. Jason Momoa in the 2011 Conan the Barbarian movie is far more true to the source material, but even then doesn’t capture completely Howard’s Conan. His Conan fought with brains and well as brawn, was a thief, a mercenary, pirate and king. His adventures are mainly for personal reason – an antihero in character. One trait that didn’t make it to the movies was Conan’s sense of humour. Conan can be summed up with a quote from The Queen of the Black Coast – ‘Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is an illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and I am content.’
My first encounter with Conan was back in high school – a friend collected the comics and I read them. Some years later I saw the Arnold version of the Conan movies. I was starting to write a few short stories at around the time the MMO ‘Age of Conan‘ came out, and to immerse myself in the lore I picked up The Complete Chronicles of Conan, which contained all of Howard’s Conan stories. Apart from one novel length story (Hour of the Dragon) the rest are novellas and novelettes. I devoured them all in a very short period of time and was blown away by them. It was at that time I decided that short stories were the direction I wanted to go, to write collections of them about various characters in the manner that Howard did.
The Conan stories follow the rough same formula – Conan gets involved in an adventure, usually up against some form of evil wizard, demon or monsters, and often having to save that week’s damsel in distress. In the end Conan emerges triumphant against odds that would have killed a lesser man, and the damsel, despite initially resisting, gives in to his magnetism. Howard has a way with words – he is amazingly descriptive without being overly descriptive. There is a minor warning though; he wrote these during the 30s so some of the language can be a bit archaic and his attitudes may be a little political incorrect for today’s standards – but in 80 years time they may be saying similar things about our values. There is no set order that they take place in – or where wirrten in – you can jump in anywhere in the Conan stories and get a good read.
The stories are pure sword and sorcery action and adventure – and if you like that kind of thing you will like Howard’s Conan. ‘The Tower of the Elephant‘, ‘Beyond the Black River‘ or ‘Queen of the Black Coast‘ are good places to start.