Seminal novels have a curious tendency of being very much unlike the genres they inspire. It's something I've explored before, in The Lord of the RinSeminal novels have a curious tendency of being very much unlike the genres they inspire. It's something I've explored before, in The Lord of the Rings (fantasy), The Virginian (western), and The Moonstone (mystery), and Scaramouche definitely resembles the latter two in how they stray from what we might expect.
Firstly, we have an unusually introspective, complex protagonist. Much less the dashing hero, we are shown a doubting cynic, a recluse who sees the cruel inequality of the world and does his best to avoid it. Yet it is a world he must live in, and so he finds himself thrust again and again into complications from which he strives to extricate himself.
The second similarity with those other formative works is the quirky, meandering plot. It is certainly not what we would expect; we bear witness to only two swordfights in the book, one at the beginning, and one near the end (though a few others are mentioned).
The very beginning of the book is concerned mainly with the political philosophies which lead to the French Revolution. But we dispense with that rather quickly, and spend the following two thirds of the book exploring the forms and history of the Commedia Dell'Arte.
But, of course, I don't have to explain about that vital and influential form to you. Like me, you probably grew up around Commedia actors, and over a hundred or so scattered performances, witnessing the infinite variations on the theme and marveling at the extemporaneous wit of its sprightly practitioners. Perhaps you, like me, had a little stuffed bear named for the old miser, Pantalone.
But even a cave-dweller who had never heard of the Commedia, and did not recognize it in Pagliacci, Punch, and Pantos could derive amusement from the ways Sabitini explores it. His is not precisely a scholarly analysis, but more of a playful jaunt through the style, relating its plots and characters to the overblown melodramas which politics and social status inevitably produce.
At length he leaves the Commedia behind, and we are treated to an amusing view of the different forms and schools of fencing, and of its vital place in a culture of duelists--the ideal culture for a swashbuckling tale. Like most young men, I spent my time as both student and tutor of swordsmanship, so this was another delightful moment of youthful nostalgia--though again, Sabitini merely plays on the surface of the art of fencing. I could have done with a more in-depth discussion of line, distance, and form, perhaps with some diagrams, but it was amusing, nonetheless.
I was able to quickly guess the two-part 'twist' ending, but that was hardly bothersome, since it was only a small part of the book. It did nothing to lessen the delightful verve with which it was written, the complexity of the characters (including a very sympathetic villain), the many and varied inspirations, and the concise structure of the plot. Scaramouche is lively, intelligent, and like most pulps, devoid of pretension, showing once again that the best way to promote skill and wit is simply to demonstrate them....more
While not quite a superhero, Doc Savage is as heroic and capable as a man could be. Savage was meant to combine the physical prowess of an athlete witWhile not quite a superhero, Doc Savage is as heroic and capable as a man could be. Savage was meant to combine the physical prowess of an athlete with the mind of Holmes and the conscience of Lincoln. He was the antithesis of The Shadow, bright instead of dark, merciful instead of brutal, and world-famous instead of mythical.
If The Shadow's masked alleyway justice was the prototype for Batman, then Savage is the righteous boy scout is the inspiration for Superman. Savage even has an antarctic island retreat called 'The Fortress of Solitude'.
The Pulps have made a recent resurgence, and Doc's influence is being felt yet again. Though many fans might not realize it, many movies, films, and comics hearken back to him. Johnny Quest, Indiana Jones, Duck Tales, Alan Moore's 'Tom Strong' and 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen', Warren Ellis' 'Planetary', and The Venture Bros all take cues from the brilliant adventurer and his band of loyal friends.
This book is a bit of a mess, as the earliest example of the hero, but pulp makes no apologies for its weaknesses, and claims to be nothing more than rip-snorting fun. With so many stories coming out every week (Upton Sinclar was known to write 8,000 words a day, seven days a week for the pulps), authors had to attract and keep readers.
The Doc Savage books are renowned for their wide-ranging creativity, where no idea was unwelcome. The author was told to write what was most exciting, most unexpected, and inspiring. Savage shows this tendency in droves of far-flung ideas, though a reader might not realize just how revolutionary they were, since every single one has since been cannibalized and adopted authors of adventures and comic books.
Beyond the remarkable creativity, the books are crammed with description, metaphor, and detail. Though often laughably ridiculous, this thick literary gumbo is certainly filling. There is an invigorating freedom in these books that one misses entirely even in many modern adventures.
The authors took themselves very lightly, they were making a product and making a living, and they would never have rights or fame from pulps. The stories, even Doc Savage, were written under pseudonyms shared by many different authors in the same publishing house. Though your boss might know who was the most capable writer, the fans couldn't know you if they wanted to.
However, fans did come to recognize and empathize with their favorites, like 'Good Duck Artist' Carl Barks, the fans could pick them out by style, if not by name. Though we now know the men behind the pens, there was no guarantee when they wrote their enduring stories that they would receive any recognition beyond a simple paycheck.
Eventually, adventure serials like this one would go out of favor, replaced by superheroes, science fiction, and cartoons. However, the tropes, plots, and characterization of the pulps carried through into the new stories, and even if most Superman and Batman fans have never heard of Savage, the adventures they read or watch each month are not new. The Man of Bronze was overcoming them before world wars had numbers....more
I must say, I was expecting more from this book. It takes inspiration from a wide array of very good adventure novels, but manages to be more bigotedI must say, I was expecting more from this book. It takes inspiration from a wide array of very good adventure novels, but manages to be more bigoted than the colonial literature that inspired it and less factual and forward-looking than books written thirty years before.
One of the major inspirations is H. Rider Haggard's early pulp adventure stories, including the tales of Allan Quatermain. Like Tarzan, these stories take place in the depths of colonial Africa, but the attitudes and portrayal of other races are far more insulting in Tarzan than in Haggard's books, despite the fact that Haggard was writing three decades before.
Of course, having actually visited Africa numerous times during the Colonial period, Haggard had a much better idea of what was going on there. African tribes are portrayed as noble savages in Haggard, which is a rather silly portrayal, but Tarzan's tribes are made up of ignorant, warlike, half-human cannibals.
Throughout Tarzan, one consistent theme is the popular colonial concept from the previous century that 'Blood Will Out'. This was a theory that genetic traits were responsible for social classes, and that if a prince were raised by pig farmers, he would instinctively know how to bow and pick out a salad fork.
Some stories even indicated that a nobleman could defeat any commoner in a sword duel, even if the commoner were a soldier and the noble had never held a sword before. While Tarzan does not stretch credulity quite that much, it does state that Tarzan naturally understands the concepts of honor, bowing, marriage, and social class.
This explanation is also meant to underscore how Tarzan could learn to read simply by looking at books. Though he might come to recognize some of the symbolism, Burroughs takes for granted that he could understand not only that the pictures represented people, but other complexities such as 'lights' and 'clothes'.
Even if he could decipher the pictures, coming to understand the text without a key is a nearly insurmountable task, as Burroughs should have known from the Rosetta Stone of popular Egyptology. Even if he could see that the symbols for 'Man' coincided with pictures of human beings, coming to understand the use of articles and copulas would be many degrees more difficult. Without training in linguistics or the scientific method, solving such problems is unlikely, especially alone.
Even if we take for granted that Tarzan could decipher the pictures and intuit the meaning of things he'd never seen before and break down the code of letters, words, sentences, tone, and symbolism (which his he does, in the letters he writes). Even so, there is no explanation how he could have known how to pronounce words, as he had no phonetic understanding of how English actually sounds. Yet he signs his letters 'Tarzan', his ape name.
There are also some errors in the portrayal of animal behaviors. For example, lions are depicted as solitary, and jaguars are unable to climb trees. While Natural History was still in its early stages at this point, there were plenty of accurate accounts (including Haggard's) from which to draw inspiration. Likely, Burroughs was more influenced by the sensationalist tales of 'Darkest Africa' than the experiences of actual travelers and experts, such as Haggard and Conrad.
The 'apes' in the series are particularly interesting, as they share little resemblance to any great ape, descending instead from evolutionary ideas about early humans. It is unsurprising that Burroughs would pick up on this popular contemporary idea. His 'apes' use tools, make music, communicate by spoken language, eat meat, perform social rituals, and commit war on one another.
Of course, any ape with these traits would have been driven to extinction by competition with humans. This helps to explain why Gorillas survived, since they are herbivores, and hence do not compete with humans for resources. Even then, the only remaining gorillas live in mountainous, jungle regions too remote for humans to settle.
If a warlike and omnivorous species of protohumans were to survive, they would have to be in an isolated pocket of jungle or perhaps an island, an idea which Burroughs later explored in 'The Land That Time Forgot'.
Verne portrays a similar group of proto-humans in 'The Village in the Treetops', but he actually refers to them as a species of homo sapiens, not as super-apes. Verne's depiction is a more thoughtful expansion of Darwin's ideas, showcasing his talent for extrapolating new ideas into interesting, forward-looking books.
If Burroughs had created some bridge between Verne and Haggard, then Tarzan would have been a book worthy of its reputation. Instead, it is a silly and naive adventure that fails to explore the most fertile ideas and instead relies on the least likely ones.
Burroughs is a creative and ingenious author, combining concepts from natural history with sci fi and adventure stories. However, his plots are often unfocused, simply leaping from one moment to the next without build or connection. He will sometimes squander good opportunities for plot or characterization, instead focusing on fragmentary bits of adventure. For example, the romance between Tarzan and Jane goes off without a hitch. This is despite an inability to communicate and the fact that Tarzan is a frighteningly powerful and alien figure. Pride and Prejudice creates an entire plot three times the length of Tarzan based on the fact that it's hard for two people to get along, even if they are both well-off, attractive nobles from the same culture.
Burroughs overrides the development of a romance by the constant insistence that Tarzan's nobility is evident to Jane, mitigating any frightening elements of her animal attraction to him. Despite immediately recognizing his nobility in his every thought, step, word, and deed, she is unable to recognize that he actually is a noble, even when he gives her a picture of his father, Lord Greystoke. She responds how he looks exactly like Tarzan, but Burroughs tells us through third person narration that she never even imagines that they might be related.
So, Burroughs invents an implausible and difficult reason to maintain conflict by doubt of Tarzan's birthright, but squelches the opportunity to present a troubled love story, even though it would be the most likely result of the situation. It is almost as if he cannot bear to provide more than a moment of fleeting hardship to his characters, and when he needs a man's life threatened by the natives, instead of using an established character, he creates a new one on the spur of the moment.
Burroughs combines many sources of inspiration in his books, and creates vivid, fast-paced adventures. However, his brand of wild, free-wheeling adventure seems to work better on Mars, where there is no fact-checking or colonial philosophizing to strain his credibility. The romanticized idealism in Burroughs' high adventures cannot be sustained on a world as small and mean as Earth.
Perhaps Burroughs was simply more enamored of the John Carter series, since they are more imaginative and more well-written. In any case, Tarzan was his money-maker, so it's no wonder that he returned to it so often, but Tarzan lacks Carter's charm, and a nonsensical Martian world is more plausible than a nonsensical African one.
No doubt I'll pick up more of the Tarzan books in time, and will have to suspend my credulity about ant men, immortality, mad scientists, and talking gorillas. But really, as long as it's written well, I'm willing to extend my disbelief. Perhaps the problem with this book isn't that it's too strange, but that it's not strange enough. Burroughs tries to realize his world with facts, but only shows that he is not familiar enough to write about them....more
"There are my 'Poe' pieces and my 'Dunsany pieces' – but alas – where are any Lovecraft pieces?"
-H.P. Lovecraft, 1929
What really makes Lovecraft int
"There are my 'Poe' pieces and my 'Dunsany pieces' – but alas – where are any Lovecraft pieces?"
-H.P. Lovecraft, 1929
What really makes Lovecraft interesting is the degree to which he was a student of the Horror genre. As his influential essay Supernatural Horror in Literature shows, Lovecraft was a voracious reader who went far afield in his search for interesting Horror authors. If Lovecraft hadn't been such an odd recluse, and instead pursued an academic career, we might not have had to wait a century for scholar S.T. Joshi to drag the genre into the sphere of literary criticism.
Due to his vast knowledge, Lovecraft was able to pick through influences and styles when he wrote his stories, but instead of synthesizing all of those disparate inspirations into a new vision of his own, Lovecraft was more likely to work in bits and pieces, creating recognizable, sometimes formulaic story types in which we can easily trace the ideas he drew from Dunsany, Blackwood, Hodgson, Chambers, or Bierce.
Beyond that, his style was not always engaging, relying as he did on rather purple prose and extended explanations of his characters' innermost thoughts, instead of letting the actions and subtle cues speak for themselves. As such, his stories tended to lack the power and poetry of the great Horror authors who influenced him, but Lovecraft was such a prolific author, and so invested in his genre on a conceptual level that he did create a number of classics.
He also had a considerable influence on other writers through the vast correspondence which he kept up throughout his whole life with lasting, notable authors such as R.E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Derleth, Clarke Ashton Smith, and numerous others, not only introducing them to the many ideas and authors Lovecraft had collected, but opening himself up to the thoughts and experiences of all those young, up-and-coming authors.
Then there is the lasting effect of the 'Mythos' (sometimes called the 'Cthulhu Mythos'), that interconnected set of ideas and approaches that became a sort of 'shared world' for other authors to explore--whit are still being explored in an unabated string of short-story collections published every year despite the fact that all the stories in them tend to be terrible. But the Mythos was not quite Lovecraft's original invention, it was instead an attempt to take the worlds of the previous great Horror authors and combine them into one grand setting.
Probably the most unique aspect of Lovecraft's work was his combination of the chilling, aloof alienness of Dunsany's elves with the otherworldly, interdimensional terrors explored by Hodgson to produce that characteristic 'Cosmic Horror' which, while not invented by Lovecraft, was brought to a higher lustre in his works.
Though the Lovecraft stories that I find most interesting are not his 'Poe pieces', his straight Horror works--which should not be surprising, since I'm not especially fond of Poe--but his Dunsany-inspired Fantasies, such as The Silver Key and several other entries in his Dream Cycle, which tend to be rather less formulaic recreations of the styles and forms of earlier authors, than explorations of the mind, and of possibility. Beyond that, Lovecraft's very deliberate, thoughtful style seems to work better in a world of waking dreams than one of world-hopping adventure and monster attacks.
However, in the end, I would suggest that the most lasting effect of Lovecraft's work was born in his intense dislike of seafood, which gave his monsters and beasties their shapes, and proved a much more effective choice than Hodgson's odd distaste for pig. Indeed, Lovecraft's disgust must surely rank among the most influential gustatory preferences in the history of literature....more
This book predates Tarzan by a decade, and tackles very similar ideas about evolution and the dark heart of Africa. However, unlike Burroughs, Verne sThis book predates Tarzan by a decade, and tackles very similar ideas about evolution and the dark heart of Africa. However, unlike Burroughs, Verne shows here a keen understanding of both science and human nature. I will concede that the story itself is less inventive and more mundane, more along the lines of Haggard.
However, Verne's exploration of Darwinism, evolution, and the 'missing link' is much more informed and hence, as prescient as Verne is liable to be. If only there were some middle ground between the nonsensical setting of Tarzan and the 'straight adventure' Verne gives us.
Unfortunately for Burroughs, he clearly can't profit from the 'common ignorance of his age' defense when it comes to the concepts of science....more
Burroughs is at his best when he combines the impetus of pulp adventures with the unselfconsciously far flung. When he gets too tied down to an idea oBurroughs is at his best when he combines the impetus of pulp adventures with the unselfconsciously far flung. When he gets too tied down to an idea or progression, it tends to hinder his imagination somewhat.
The alien setting of the Mars books then proves a great boon to Burroughs, since it is unfettered by much need for suspension of disbelief. The series has its highs, but it also has lows, like this book.
In it, he explores many of the same things he has in the previous books, casting John Carter's son in his father's image, and giving him the same class of adventure. He fights an endless succession of monsters and soldiers, rescuing a standoffish princess, navigating war and politics, facing a sex-starved sadist, befriending a noble local warrior, and uncovering an ancient, mysterious culture.
Unfortunately, the story doesn't have quite the same punch the second time through, even if there is some enjoyable variance in the details. Carter had more character than his son, and Burroughs once again gets in the same trouble he did in Tarzan: trying to explain the main character's unusual powers.
John Carter was a mighty warrior on Mars because its lower gravity gave him the ability to leap further, hit harder, and carry more. Why his son has the same powers, Burroughs seems less sure, suggesting that Earthlings are merely mightier, despite the fact that all the creatures on Mars are huge and massively muscled.
Just as in Tarzan, his notion that 'blood will out' is poorly contrived, even by the scientific notions of the time. This book is a romp, but lacks the verve of the first book and the bizarre pseudospiritual metaphysics of the second....more
What it is that makes Howard so much more compelling than his many imitators? To the untrained eye, it may be hard to see differences, since his faultWhat it is that makes Howard so much more compelling than his many imitators? To the untrained eye, it may be hard to see differences, since his faults are sometimes more readily apparent than his virtues, though he has plenty of both. Some might try to 'salvage him' from his pulp origins, but despite all his literary aspirations, I'm happy to call him a pulp author, and one of the best.
I have a great deal of praise for this edition in particular, volume one of a three-part series which collects for the first time Howard's Conan stories as he originally wrote them, without the meddling of either magazine editors or De Camp (who shamelessly rewrote Howard's unfinished stories to match his own views, and released them as 'originals'). It is also first to publish them in pure chronological order, eschewing all and sundry attempts to produce an official 'internal chronology'.
Howard meant the order to be somewhat ambiguous, mimicking the epics and histories that inspired the names and events of his stories. Our delightful editor plays the old Lit Crit game of connecting all the dots from the Conan tales to their origins in Plutarch, Bullfinch's Mythology, Lovecraft, or Bierce. I'm indebted to her for helping me to see Conan with new eyes by lending me the perspective of the Howard scholar.
Seeing the way his world sprang up from notes, sketches, and maps is fascinating, and the critical essays try to get a little more mileage out of Lovecraft's misunderstanding of Howard's pseudo-historical names. They are meant to be evocative of a world that, while familiar, still holds surprises. We can recognize a type, a historic conflict, terrain, and temperament without being tied down to the specificity of true historical fiction.
Howard did not want so narrow a view, and was never a stickler for small details, as evidenced by the singular madness his chronologers develop trying to account for the appearance and disappearance of Conan's red cloak and horned helm throughout the stories. Howard liked an underpinning of consistency, but excitement and story always took precedence, which is why, despite drawing names and plots from history (much as Shakespeare did), he never let them bog down his stories, always aiming, above all, to entertain.
When I say that we get Howard without editorial meddling, we must still understand that he was writing for an audience, and that much of the excitement and titillation in his tales was a sugaring of his pill for the lower denominator. Yet for all that, much of his psychology and sexual politics is deceptively complex. It is easy to dismiss him as a cliche strong man with an endless following of swooning women, but there is something more subtle at work.
Firstly, each story that shows Conan in a relationship is written from the point of view of the woman. Often, Conan does not even appear until after her character and situation are already developed. We rarely get an emotional insight into Conan, into his plans or emotions, but we do see into his heroines, which is the reverse of most fantasy romances.
In addition, Conan is often painted as the object of desire. The author's vision rests equally on the desirability of Conan and of the women, showing how and why feeling might develop between them. Conan, having been raised outside of civil society, cannot charm the women, bargain with them for favors, or fool them. His appeal is not that he has wealth, prestige, or grooming, but that he is attractive, confident, physically powerful, guileless, and does not mingle his desires with ulterior motive. He is part 'bad boy', but he is also attractive because he lies outside the arena of sexual politics--something like dating someone outside your high school to avoid the judgment, name-calling, in groups, and jealousy that would otherwise result.
The women are often the victims of civilization; that is to say, they have been carefully bred to be beautiful, desirable, and controlled. They rarely have power in their own cultures, often finding themselves at the whims of powerful men, and so it makes sense that they would seek out Conan, who is not a part of this unbalanced social system, and who has the physical and mental strength to protect them from reprisal when she abandons that culture.
On the surface, "The Vale of Lost Women" is the story which most condemns Howard as a chauvinist (and racist), but there is a subtle subversion within the tale that shows Howard as a much more canny student of the human condition than most give him credit for. The premise of the story doesn't do Howard any favors, and certainly hasn't aged well: a well-bred white woman has been captured by a barbaric pseudo-African tribe by whom Conan has found himself employed.
He finds the woman accidentally, during a revel, chained up in a tent, and she begs him to release her, saying that surely not even a barbarian like him would leave a white woman in the hands of the cruel black chief. It's hard to read without feeling a lump of political correctness rise in our throats--but socially and historically, it's neither and absurd statement, nor an insulting one.
'Odalisques' or white, virgin girls were the most valuable in trade for Barbary pirates to Moorish harems. Even today, Black women get fewer responses in online dating than any other race/sex group. Just because it's unpleasant doesn't mean that it isn't socially true, and just because it is a current social fact doesn't mean that it is an ultimate, universal truth.
We can say it is a social fact that women have been historically controlled and judged by the slut/virgin dichotomy, but that doesn't mean that they desire to be controlled, or to be sluts or virgins. It also doesn't mean that stories which portray this unfortunate dynamic necessarily support it. As students of Nietzsche and Machiavelli know, saying 'this is how the world is' is not the same as saying 'this is how it ought to be'.
Let me say that again: just because a writer presents white women as more culturally valuable doesn't mean that they are any more attractive, intelligent, or worthwhile than any other person. Cultural values are funny things, and don't necessarily align with real values. Just because someone is willing to pay $500 for a rare Beanie Baby doesn't mean that a Beanie Baby is somehow intrinsically better than a comparatively cheaper encyclopedia or road atlas.
It's easy to get hung up on what the author is specifically saying, and hard to step beyond it and look at how and why it's being said. A character's statement is different from an author's, and Howard is surprisingly careful to keep social observations in the mouths of characters, and out of the omniscient narrative voice. After her appeal to racial loyalty, the woman offers herself to Conan in exchange for being freed from the tribe--aghast at the lengths to which she must go. But Conan laughs.
He laughs and tells her that she is sadly mistaken if she assumes that she can merely trade sex for favors, as she has been taught to do in civilized society. It's this simple observation that shows that Howard (and Conan) are better students of the human condition than they get credit for. For Conan, sex does not have this connotation of a social trade, it is an act engaged in out of desire, not coercion. He scorns the 'civilized' notion that women are property to be bargained for. This separation is the same conclusion Angela Carter makes about De Sade in her incomparable Sadeian Woman: that the trade value of sex must be unveiled and demystified in order to approach any kind of sexual equality.
We must recall that this understanding of sex is enforced on both sides, and that if women have an artificially increased value in sexual social trade, it will eclipse any other value they have, or that they might wish to have, and few will consider them as anything else.
But Conan, being outside of that system, values women differently. After his moment of insight, he shocks us back with his barbarism, saying he really couldn't leave a white girl like her in the hands of the chief, and that he's tired of 'black sluts', which is unpleasant and unsympathetic enough to clamp our minds shut again, though whether it might be true to the world or the character (who has hang-ups with his own racial identity), I leave up to you. After all, it is rare that a person raised under one set of signifiers for attractiveness learns in later life how to appreciate a completely different idea of beauty.
He does decide to save her, but not in trade for sexual favor, which once again separates Howard from the thud and blunder writers who followed him. Again and again, if we look at Conan's scattered romantic relationships, we see that he is only interested in the fulfillment of mutual desire, and that the woman's side of the relationship is often the one Howard chooses to explore. Conan rejects the notion of coercing women, let alone forcing them, as beneath him.
He doesn't pressure women, or conquer them, or trade for sex, and the women are constantly surprised at his lack of overture, his refusal to make a game out of the whole thing--or a schoolboy's lovesick obsession. But then, Conan is less interested in an 'erotic victory' than in mutually beneficial pleasure, even if that pleasure is not socially condoned, and is, instead transgressively focused on female desire. Conan's outsider status as a barbarian allows him to approach women on more-or-less equal terms, giving them an opportunity to reject the values which otherwise bind them and to choose for themselves.
Sure, the relationships and their consummation might be idealized and romantic--they're still pulp--and I'm not claiming Howard didn't harbor certain racist and sexist opinions, but the way these themes develop psychologically in his work is rarely so simple. Howard, like Conan, was a man of contradiction and surprising subtlety.
His language also makes his work stand out from the pack: high-energy, evocative, and well-paced, his world and characters are always alive and active on the page. He takes generously from his historical and literary influences, playing with vocabulary and style to evoke a far-off period without growing so distant that he risks losing the uninitiated, as an eccentric linguist like Eddison is liable to do.
One thing the reader must come to terms with in order to enjoy him is Howard's repetition. He has favored words, phrases, and descriptions that come up again and again throughout the stories, and sometimes they feel like crutches. Part of it is that these were to be consumed as single stories, so some repetition would not likely have been noticed--but it happens even within a story.
At these points, I am tempted to compare Howard to the deliberate repetition of the epic tradition of the 'Homeric Epithet', an oft-repeated poetic phrase that becomes part of the rhythm of the text, such as "wine dark sea" or "long-haired Acheans"--or the way every warrior in the Shahnameh is described as a lion, and every beautiful woman is a cypress. Howard knows that there is power in phrases, and by repeating them, he creates motifs, identities, and connections. But, as usual for Howard, it's a combination of highs and lows: we get glimpses of his powerful, poetic language intermixed with his less effective, florid attempts.
But more than even his most effective prose (and occasional, surprisingly unoffending poetry), what sets Howard apart is his pure storytelling. His sense of pacing is admirable, often cutting out unnecessary scenes that other writers would not have realized were redundant. The stories flow along, drawing equally from the verisimilitude of historic tales and the archetypal form of the adventure story.
He moves fluidly through themes and styles, combining romance, war stories, supernatural horror, political thriller, and treasure hunting all in one story, maintaining a lilting, surprising pace without losing the story's center. His stories as a whole also work to build a grander world, much of it left for the reader to complete between hints and loose threads. There is a definite sense of historical discovery in this style, and the first three Howard stories give us Conan as a king, as an untried youth, and as a wary reaver.
Read a hundred pages of Conan and you will get a picture of a whole life, a man in different stages, changed by the world. We also get a glimpse of that world, and understanding of its places and ways without being explicitly told what they are. Compare this to almost any other fantasy writer, and they will come up short.
A hundred pages of Tolkien, Jordan, Goodkind, or Wolfe, and you haven't even left the protagonist's home. You won't get a view of the world, nor character growth. You might read a thousand pages of a fantasy series and see less growth than you would in a few Conan stories.
My question has always been: what do we gain from those thousands of extra pages? A more exciting story? A more complex world? A deeper character? Sadly, the answer is often no. Few authors seem to have taken Howard's lesson that saying more isn't as easy as simply writing more.
But then, Howard set the bar pretty high. There's nothing wrong with pulp, because pulp is written for an audience. Too often, these days, one seems to find authors obsessed with a kind of 'pure' writing that refuses to bow to any audience, editor, or sense of fun, and all you're really left with is pretension.
Pulp often gets a bad rap--the unshy way that it approaches sex, race, and politics can make a modern reader feel awkward, but at least these stories are actually, in a very real way, confronting and exploring those issues--and forcing us to do so, as well. Though the next two volumes of Conan stories never quite reach the vivacious heights of these early outings, I have to say: for all his flaws, it's still hard to find a fantasy writer who can better Howard.
It's disappointing the way modern critics often fail to address issues of race as they are presented in books from earlier time periods. Sure, when wrIt's disappointing the way modern critics often fail to address issues of race as they are presented in books from earlier time periods. Sure, when writing of Howard and Lovecraft (or even Twain and Poe) critics will not fail to repeat some notion that their racism is 'an unfortunate artifact of that time and culture'--but that is not the same as actually meeting the issue of race head on and dealing with what it means in a text.
The way an author approaches race is an integral part of their worldview, of the philosophies they explore and the ideas they present. But, it is also an issue that continues to be contentious, and critics rightly fear the harsh response that often comes when we open up that Pandoran box. So instead, we excuse it, or condemn it (it amounts to the same thing), as if by merely pointing it out we can diffuse it, absolve ourselves of actually doing the dirty work of unpacking it: 'I acknowledge that the author was Racist, and that it was Bad--so having got that out of the way, let's move on to my real analysis ...'
But critics cannot be allowed to let themselves off so easily--we much be brave, and push on. In talking about Howard's racism, it's not with the notion that I should defend him , or repair him--or least meaningfully, condemn him--but that, in order to understand Howard, it is necessary to understand how he conceptualized race, how he used it, and what it means to his stories.
As ever, with Howard (not only with his presentation of race, but also sexuality and politics) the surface tends to be grim, resembling familiar forms of prejudice: dark-skinned, menacing foreigners, scanty-clad maidens to be rescued, all problems solvable by a combination of fascist force and Nietzschean will--but beneath that, there is always more subtlety, more awareness, and more irony than Howard tends to get credit for.
In this collection, the racist hypocrisy is actually laid bare in a single narrative moment:
“The Picts were a white race, though swarthy, but the border men never spoke of them as such.”
This is not race as some inescapable, god-given aspect of identity, an inherent piece of the human soul, but as self-identity, self-creation, an act undertaken by men to separate themselves from one another. Conan himself makes the same separation, both in his own words:
“... we can’t have the cursed devils making so free with white men’s heads”
and in the view of others:
“These barbarians live by their own particular code of honor, and Conan would never desert men of his own complection to be slaughtered by people of another race. He’ll help us against the Picts, even though he plans to murder us himself ...”
Yet again and again, Conan’s own cultural background is equated with that of the Picts: he is a barbarian, like them, a wild creature born in the wilderness. The events of Beyond the Black River show Pictish lands being colonized, the natives driven out and replaced by Aquilonian farms and forts--until finally, civilization pushes too far, and the Picts unite and fight back. The Picts are then compared to Conan’s people, the Cimmerians, who also eventually rose up and attacked the Aquilonian fort built in their own lands, destroying all the settlers--a battle where a young Conan fought against the White invaders.
So Conan shares a great deal with the Picts: he is wild like them, not tame like the Aquilonians, and yet he goes to great lengths to differentiate himself from them--using the tool of race to ally himself not with his fellow barbarians, but with ‘civilized men’--while at the same time scorning the softness and ineptitude of the city-born.
Though built in the same mold of ‘Mighty Whitey’ characters like Natty Bummpo or Tarzan--the White man who is both better at woodcraft than the natives and able to outsmart the civilized men--Conan is actually born to it, actually a tribesman who has ‘lifted himself up’. It is unfortunate that Howard does not do more to explore what is clearly a deep internal conflict for Conan, trapped between these worlds, competent in both, and yet unsure of his own racial and cultural loyalties.
The resolution of the story does provide a kind of resolution, and one which should surprise no fan of Howard's--in his work, it is always barbarism that wins, because barbarism is the more pure, the more natural state of man. For Conan, as much as the trappings of civilization might tempt him, as much as he lives off of it as a scavenger, as a predator, the civilizing influence is always tainted, always stagnating, rotting away at the core, unable to sustain itself against animal man.
It might seem an odd tack to take, for a modern White writer in post-Colonial America--in many ways, civilization had already won, and won big--but that's precisely the point, and Howard's portrayal of this romantic, somewhat tragic figure of the noble primitive adds another wrinkle altogether to his portrayal of race.
By the time of these later tales, Howard was having trouble keeping himself interested in Conan stories. This tended to happen with all his characters as he went on: he would gradually find himself more interested in supporting characters, or in the politics of the world, or just in telling a different kind of story altogether. Hence, these stories mark a deliberate change on Howard’s part. In his own words, he’d ‘abandoned the exotic settings of lost cities, decaying civilizations, golden domes, marble palaces, silk-clad dancing girls, etc., and thrown my story against a background of rivers, log cabins, frontier outposts, buckskin-clad settlers, and painted tribesmen’.
In short, he was trying to write stories of the American frontier, with the Picts and Cimmerians as the native tribes, and the Aquilonians and Zingarans as then English and Spanish, respectively. Of course, choosing the painted Picts is natural, since they were the rebellious natives whom the Romans pushed out, clearing the forests for lumber and building farms and forts in their place. There is certainly a place for such stories in the ancient world, but unfortunately, Howard’s attempts don’t draw on those earlier portrayals--they are too modern, too American, and the character and world of Conan seem to be a bit lost in this fresh setting.
The ancient empires, strange magics, cosmic horrors, crumbling temples, immortal priests, sensuous ports, and Atlantean curses of Ashton Smith are left behind, as are the stoic Norse sagas which mark Conan's origins--and along with them, the majority of the tone and depth of Hyboria also dissipates, until we’re left with Howardian versions of Hawthorn’s Leatherstocking tales or Sabatini's Captain Blood, inexplicably featuring Conan at their center--well, perhaps not inexplicably: after all, Howard knew that Conan stories would sell.
Indeed, The Black Stranger is actually written along the lines of a Gothic novel--a disgraced count in exile on a desolate island with his beautiful niece, a roguish courtier-turned-pirate after a lost treasure, a deadly and unseasonable storm, and that shadowy threat that looms over all in the stranger, himself. Conan himself barely shows up through the first half of the story--and when he does, he's dressed in full 17th Century pirate regalia. Perhaps sensing the ill fit, Howard later changed out Conan for a different lead character and updated the setting.
These stories are considered some of Howard's best by some critics, as the essays included in the Del Rey edition demonstrate, and they certainly do have some things going for them. As he enters his thirties, Howard's prose becomes tighter, his vocabulary both more varied and more specific--no longer do we see the same crutch words and repetitions that marked the earlier tales. But also gone is the tone and vibrance which set the Conan stories apart.
The actual structure of the stories also leaves something to be desired--they are somewhat piecemeal and meandering, the conflicts often solved by convenient interruptions, and with a general lack of interesting set pieces and stand-out scenes. In quite a few instances, characters act in ways that make little sense in context--in the last story, for example, Conan and others keep switching sides in the middle of combat.
That isn't to say that this new, crisp style of prose couldn't have worked for Howard, were he just writing pirate tales and frontier stories, but adding the additional layers of ancient Hyborea and Conan stretch them too thin, setting them tonally at odds with themselves. Certainly, there is much more of Howard the American in them--the stories are more personal to his experiences, but mixing them with the Conan mythos does them no favors.
Beyond that, the wild Picts, a 'White race who are not called White' become just another example of over-romanticized natives, that White-guilt urge to go 'back to nature', while at the same time painting the natives as both less and more than human, both pitied and put on a pedestal, but never actually considered as more than an image, a grand symbol for the spiritual enrichment of Whiteness.
The sexual politics are likewise troubled: though Valeria is in some ways a refreshing figure--she is actually competent, actually seeks her own equality, is skilled with a sword--in other ways she’s more constrained than many of the other female figures in Conan stories. Simply being strong of arm and having masculine traits does not make a female figure a strong character--and beyond that, it takes for granted that the only way to add strength to a female character is by making her more like a man.
What is missing in the romances of these stories is the woman’s point-of-view which made earlier Howard stories intriguing: that we got to see those women from the inside. They may have been constrained socially, they may not have been physically powerful, but they still chose to act out despite this--what made them strong was the fact that they were willing to question their society and to oppose it. What attracts them to Conan is that he is outside civilization, he is not simply another man who leers over them, controls them, and treats them as objects. He is interested in them in a more mutual way.
Unfortunately, with Valeria and dancing-girl Zabibi, we instead get only Conan’s point of view, and he leers and gropes after them unpleasantly as they try to avoid his advances--he even agrees to help Zabibi in exchange for sexual favors, thereby fulfilling the cliche which Howard earlier subverted in ‘The Vale of the Lost Women’ (though given the conclusion, it’s hinted that he never intended to collect on the bargain, and that it was likely just a ploy on his part to put her off guard). These later stories are less subversive and more cliche--the sort of thing you’d expect from a piece of unremarkable sword & sorcery.
It seems that, much like Leiber, the later, personal experiments Howard made with his best-known series were much less effective than his early outings. Perhaps it has something to do with the freshness, the wildness of an early writer being a better match for the rollicking adventures of Sword & Sorcery. With time comes polish and ponderousness, which do not match well with the genre, and even in the few examples where Howard does return to the earlier themes, the presentation is lacking--it just feels like old ground retread.
I guess that, for me, the earliest Conan stories are the best--perhaps because, like Conan himself, Howard was still finding his way, still discovering new places, still capable of surprising himself, of being delighted merely to be on the road, weapon in hand, unsure of what might be found over the next hill.
Reading Scaramouche is one of those odd experiences where a genre book really surprises you with its depth and complexity. It's a swashbuckling storyReading Scaramouche is one of those odd experiences where a genre book really surprises you with its depth and complexity. It's a swashbuckling story with only two swordfights, where political theory, masked theater forms, and the science of fencing all take center stage, and where the hero is strangely shy, introverted, and reluctant. But Captain Blood never strays as far from its genre boundaries.
We still have a somewhat quiet, humble, over-educated hero (Scarmouche is the lawyer-turned-actor, Blood the doctor-turned-pirate), but Blood is less complex, less conflicted. His depressive brooding is not as interesting as Scaramouche's wry frustration, in part because it's less active.
In both stories, the movements of the plot are dictated by misunderstandings, things left unsaid, assumptions made too quickly. For the audience, it's more satisfying to see a hero who is angered by these misunderstandings, and who wants to change them, rather than one who simply accepts them and gives into his woe, being saved in the end only by chance. It's more interesting to see a character win his love than to stumble upon it after a sufficient length of hardship.
The plot is made up of the expected parts: mutiny, sea battles, daring raids, swordfights, and rescues. The book is well-researched, and the pacing isn't bad, but it lacks a certain depth. The world is not complete, it is a single view, with few insights or surprises, which is the danger of any genre piece that never strays from the bare bones of its form.
It's an exciting enough bit of adventure, with some thoughtfulness and characters who are not simple cardboard cliches, but in the end, there isn't much to it....more