The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard

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This review was originally posted on my personal blog, BarbarianBookClub. I am a proponent of the idea that Grimdark is a direct descendent of 1930 style Sword & Sorcery. 

Robert E. Howard is the master of 1930s pulp action. One of my favorite writers. It was Conan that got me into Fantasy, and it was getting back into reading Conan that brought me back and excited about the Pulp Revolution happening right now.

But, I have to admit that I have not read very much of Howard’s non-Conan stories. So when I came across this beast for 4.99 in the Kindle store I picked it up. Holy shit it was awesome. When I get big ass short story collections I usually read a few in between novels, or I read one or two stories during my lunch breaks. Not this time. I read this collection all the way through.

This collection is massive, with 30 or so stories and a bunch of assorted poems. The stories span Howard’s entire career and are chock full of his usual bad-ass action. You get everything from ghost haunted sailors, voodoo zombies, cursed rings, desert explorers, and weird western.

Howard’s characters are not your usual pansies that populate modern horror. No, these guys are tough motherfuckers that when presented with tentacled horrors from the Stygian depths they go a killing with sword and pistol. In one of my favorite stories, The Horror from the Mound, when our cowboy protagonist accidentally digs up a 17th-century Spanish Vampire buried by Conquistadors who begins murdering the local Mexicans, he doesn’t run away. Hell no, he breaks its spine and sets the moldy motherfucker on fire.

One thing I want to mention that some of you readers might find sacrilegious. I think Howard writes Lovecraftian fiction better than Lovecraft. I like the idea of Lovecraftian more than I actually like Lovecraft’s writing. I find all his crap boring as all shit, filled with idiotic purple prose. Lovecraft’s characters are boring, unmemorable, wimps(I think Lovecraft was some loser recluse himself, either way, he looked like Pongos owner in 101 Dalmatians,) who are usually professors or tourists. The whole, “ohh muh god I saw something that made me go insane.. soo horrible, much tentacle,” nonsense bores me to tears. Howard’s characters respond to the Lovecraftian shit by going “da fuck is that, ok deep breath, I have to kill it.”

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My favorite stories in the collection are pieces well worth reading: Pigeons From Hell, a scary haunted house story featuring voodoo, slaves, and southern plantations, Black Cannan about a bunch of racists and a black revolt involving some terrifying swamp creatures, The Fire of Asshurbanipal where two treasure hunters end up in a haunted desert city, and one that really did it for me, Out of the Deep, where the washed ashore body of a sailor is really a fucked up sea creature.

Of course, like in all huge collections, some of the stories aren’t my kind of beer. There were a few stories, and this is a theme both Howard and Lovecraft share, focusing on some de-evolved proto-humans living beneath the earth. Not a huge fan of the whole racial memory, obsession with miscegenation these guys had, and the stories were mostly dudes going down into holes where indescribable shit was going on. Worth reading but not my favorite. Give me the voodoo zombie vampires.

So yeah, drop the 5 bucks and pick this collection up. If you like short stories, pulp fiction, and Conan, this one will not disappoint. I think my next Howard read will focus on Solomon Kane.

Addendum to the post: I hope much more knowledgeable pulp readers correct me if I am wrong. It seems that Howard is not only the father of Sword and Sorcery but also the Weird Western. The story I mention above, The Horror from the Mound, about a cowboy digging up a vampire on the Texas frontier, was written in 1932. My google-fu indicates that this is the first story mixing a realistic wild west setting with the supernatural in a modern fashion.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. shanonsinn says:

    This was an awesome post. I just became aware of the grimdark term. When the woman I heard it from listed a bunch of modern writers alongside Conan (not saying Howard’s name) I was intrigued. So I did a search and ended up here.

    I was introduced to Howard early — curiosity from Savage Sword of Conan — so have been ruined as far as most fantasy writing since I was a kid in the eighties. It is either too soft, tries too hard, or is poorly written. Drizzt was cool when I was a teen but then I grew up. Now I tend to read historical fiction like Gates of Fire or the Last Kingdom series because it’s hard to find good fiction in any genre. Elves and magic no thanks. People just sitting around and talking? Sorry George. Some people have good stories, some are good storytellers, but rarely can a person do both well and still be something I want to read.

    Anyways, I couldn’t agree with you more. Lovecraft is meh. Tolkien is for kids. I tell people every chance I get that Howard is the most underrated writer of all time. He has contributed as much as Tolkien or Lovecraft but never gets credit for it. Plus, he was a better and more prolific writer. Every cutpurse, barroom, wench, drunk, pirate, barbarian, killer chic, backstabber, mercenary, headhunter, amoral politician or world of subdued magic in fantasy is either thanks to him, or has followed in his footsteps unwittingly. Genre blending? They should name it after Howard.

    As for horror, the book you’ve reviewed is one of my favorites, and I agree that Pigeons From Hell is awesome. Little wonder Stephen King says Howard is one of his major influences. When it comes to horror, Howard nails it — as all of his writing contains elements (but again he isn’t recognized as a horror writer either). Howard’s horror would mostly come across as racist today, which is probably why he will never be as well known as he deserves to be in this genre either.

    Nice to come across someone with similar tastes and ideas about Howard. If you have never read the Last Kingdom series — Uhtred is pretty much a Saxon Conan (TV show is lame) — or Gates of Fire give them a go. They’re not grimdark but will fill the void big time.

    If you — or anyone else reading this comment — have any reading suggestions based on my rant I would appreciate it. No high magic or fake races though, just doesn’t do it.

    Thanks for the great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m with you on everything. Howard is my favorite. I do enjoy a lot of magic type stuff, as long as it’s classically magical as opposed to the modern obsession with “magic system” videogame powerups. I’m currently reading Fritz Leiber’s short stories and find them as good as Howards.

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