In an introduction to Frank Miller’s groundbreaking run on Batman, the nastiest version yet and the inspiration behind Christian Bale’s demonic portrayal, comic legend Alan Moore noted how new sensibilities exposed the politically incorrect flaws of superheroes.
James Bond, Moore wrote, was an alcoholic burn-out and obvious hater of women despite, or maybe because of, his bed-hopping.
Tarzan, according to Moore, was a white supremacist and by realistic standards would have no compunction about engaging in cannibalism.
Given today’s “cancel culture,” it’s odd that Robert E. Howard and his most famous creation, Conan the Barbarian, has largely been spared such politically correct treatment. For as depicted in Howard’s stories — beginning in 1932 and ending with Howard’s long-promised suicide in 1936 — the literary Conan is even more politically incorrect than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film portrayal in the unfaithful “Conan The Barbarian.” Conan isn’t just blood-thirsty (in one story he brains a jailer with a beef bone; his chosen form of killing is decapitation), he enjoys the carnage.
He’s also sexist. In one story, Conan drops an unfaithful lover from the roof into a cesspool. In two stories he even attempts rape. Indeed, women are viewed as little more than temporary distractions. And yet, despite all this, you root for this psycho. Much of this has to do with the genius of Robert E. Howard, a writer praised by no less than Stephen King for Howard’s “Pigeons From Hell,” which King calls the best horror short story of the 20th century.
Todd Vick’s “Renegades and Rogues” is the latest in a surprisingly long list of biographies about Howard, and it’s the worst. Vick doesn’t delve into Howard’s psychology as did L. Sprague De Camp, his biographer and the one most responsible for taking Howard’s works out of obscurity. Nor does Vick situate Howard in the Texas story-telling tradition as did biographer Mark Ellis.
Furthermore, while Vick does note Texans of that time considered being a writer to not be a “real man’s job,” Vick never really captures the zeitgeist of 1920s and 1930s era small-town livin’ in the Lonestar State, nor does Vick properly capture how odd Howard’s Cross Plain neighbors considered him (citizens routinely saw Howard shadow-boxing down the streets).
The context and attitudes of his surroundings could provide a nice segue into Howard’s most heroic achievement: of how this unhinged “momma’s boy,” in uncultured surroundings (Cross Plains didn’t even have a library) created, through sheer imagination the sword and sorcery genre via low-paying pulps.
This achievement came not only through Howard’s imaginative abilities but also through his literary gifts. As many pulp publishers only paid a penny a word, Howard could have been a hack by padding his stories to reach a word count capable of providing enough to live on, Howard always fulfilled the basic duty of a storyteller: getting the reader to turn the page. Even more impressively, Howard did this by writing passages that read like poetry.
Another aspect Vick fails to relay is how Howard’s high octane personality was poured into his writings. Much of Howard’s “magic” — what Stephen King called Howard’s “fierce and eldritch light of frenzied intensity” — came from Howard’s ability to create emotional sincerity through the hatreds and bloodlust of his characters.
To his credit, if only through the vehicle of a few stories, Vick does write about the racism in Howard’s work, and states the racism shouldn’t detract from the literary worth of Howard’s stories. Indeed, Vick dares to go so far as to say that one should be allowed to read them.
Vick doesn’t ever truly explain or understand why one cheers for Howard’s psychopathic characters — Howard’s obsession with individual freedom. Living at home, making more from his writings than even the mayor of Cross Plains, Howard did achieve freedom — albeit reigned-in to some extent by his obsession with his mother — but he lamented that true freedom was a casualty of settling the frontier. Thus, his desire was channeled into Conan.
Living in a Howard-constructed world that existed before recorded history, Conan answers to no authority, kills whenever he pleases, drinks, and “wenches” to excess. That is why the character endures; Howard transported readers to an age where all one needed was quick wits and a flashing blade.
Howard was indeed a genius, but one doesn’t really get a sense of that in Vick’s biography, which, sadly, comes across as a hasty first draft.