Summer of Conan: Robert E. Howard Wrote Like Hank Williams Sang

The Bloody Crown of Conan is the second of Del Rey’s three-volume collection of Robert E. Howard’s Conan yarns.  Including Howard’s only Conan novel, it has the fewest stories of any volume in the collection.  The Bloody Crown of Conan is also heavily illustrated, this time by Gary Gianni.  Gianni did excellent work for George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms collection.  I don’t like his Conan artwork quite as much (the art in my paperback copy is black and white).  There is a foreword by Gianni, an introduction by Howard scholar and series editor Rusty Burke, several synopses, drafts, and notes, and the second part of editor Patrice Louinet’s long essay on the Genesis of the Hyborian Age.

The stories in this volume are longer than those in the first volume.  Conan is well served by stories running more in the novelette range.  The novel, The Hour of the Dragon, can’t help but feel a bit conventional, even with its breakneck pace.  The other two stories, The People of the Black Circle and A Witch Shall Be Born, are two of my favorite of all the Conan stories.  This volume might be a better introduction to Conan than The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.

Hank Williams famously said, “You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.”  Conan’s version is “It takes oppression and hardship to stiffen men’s guts and put the fire of hell into their thews.”

Like Hank Williams, Robert E. Howard hailed from a rural area deep in the hinterlands.  Like Hank Williams, Robert E. Howard lived a short, tortured life.  Like Hank Williams, Robert E. Howard’s writing is raw and full of truth.  It’s rough around the edges and occasionally a little stilted.  But don’t let anyone tell you he wasn’t a great stylist.  It’s just that Howard is just the sort of writer that today’s would-be literati don’t appreciate.  For one, he wrote bloody, visceral action scenes.  I’ll take the below passage from the first volume over R.A. Salvatore’s over-choreographed, antiseptic action scenes any day.

Details stood out briefly, like black etchings on a background of blood.  She saw a Zingaran sailor, blinded by a great flap of skin torn loose and hanging over his eyes, brace his straddling legs and drive his sword to the hilt in a black belly.  She distinctly heard the buccaneer grunt as he struck, and saw the victim’s tawny eyes roll up in sudden agony; blood and entrails gushed out over the driven blade.  The dying black caught the blade with his naked hands, and the sailor tugged blindly and stupidly; then a black arm hooked about the Zingaran’s head, a black knee was planted with cruel force in the middle of his back.  His head was jerked back at a terrible angle, and something cracked above the noise of the fray, like the breaking of a thick branch.  The conqueror dashed his victim’s body to the earth—and as he did, something like a beam of light flashed across his shoulders from behind, from right to left.  He staggered, his head toppled forward on his breast, and thence, hideously, to the earth.

He also didn’t hew to the stylistic dogmas of our day.  Howard really wanted to be a poet, and it shows in his prose.  He also had a strong command of rhetorical devices.  He tended to tell, then show, but that’s a small bug for a deep reader and a feature for a shallow reader.  Similarly, he uses a lot of repetition, especially when describing Conan.  Definitely a feature when you’re reading stories in a magazine months apart, mildly annoying when reading the stories in rapid succession.  And despite the modern obsession with reaching for the thesaurus every time you might repeat a word, repetition can be used to powerful effect.

Preening, would-be intellectuals will never know the joy of Howard for the same reason they will never know the joy of Hank Williams.  It’s not just their bias against certain aspects of storytelling.  And it’s not just their stylistic dogmatism.  Robert E. Howard and Hank Williams spoke from a place those people have never been nor care to go.


Table of Stories

The People of the Black Circle, first published Weird Tales, September, October, and November 1934

The Hour of the Dragon, first published Weird Tales, December 1935 and January, February, March, and April 1936

A Witch Shall Be Born, first published Weird Tales, December 1934


You can find all of my Summer of Conan posts here.


About H.P.

Blogs on speculative fiction books at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Fantasy, Throwback SF Thursday and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Summer of Conan: Robert E. Howard Wrote Like Hank Williams Sang

  1. Pingback: Announcing a Summer of Conan – Index | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

  2. pcbushi says:

    Another great post, HP. Keep the Conan coming.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Awesome post! I am loving these Conan reviews! Keep them coming!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: THROWBACK SF THURSDAY: Robert E. Howard Was the Texan Tolkien –

  5. Pingback: THROWBACK SF THURSDAY: Robert E. Howard Was the Texan Tolkien - Top

  6. Can never get enough of Conan. Along with Tarzan, he was one of my earliest heroes and it is amazingly satisfying to read posts I actually enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Bookstooge says:

    Thews. One of the best words I learned from reading Conan 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • H.P. says:

      I used to think thews was eldritch, one of those words the pastiches use to look authentic, but that wasn’t really used all that often in the original. L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter certainly use the word a lot. But Howard uses it plenty.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. John E. Boyle says:

    “Howard really wanted to be a poet,”

    I take issue with that statement. Howard WAS a poet; you see more of his verse in his other works, but I consider Howard to be in the same league as Tolkien and Kipling. He was a two-fisted writer, one who wrote both prose and poetry.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Summer of Conan: Robert E. Howard Was the Texan Tolkien | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s