Friday, January 21, 2011

In Memory of Robert E Howard -- Jan 22, 1906 to June 11, 1936

When I saw the first Conan movie (1982) I had never heard of Robert E Howard. Even after that movie inspired me to purchase a couple of Conan paperbacks at the local paperback exchange, the name of Conan's creator was unknown to me as the books I purchased were of the pastiche variety. It wasn't until the Christmas after I had seen the film when my parents bought me the Dungeon Master's Guide and I read Gary Gygax's famous "Appendix N" that I remember encountering the name. I quickly found copies of Conan stories that were written by Howard, though the editions also contained some "co-written" stories, and I could instantly see a difference between the dark prose of Howard and the more juvenile writing of the imitators. There was something more to the Howard stories (as I have written before). They weren't the immature wish fulfillment tales of a lusty and violent young man in a loincloth of some of the imitators. Contrary to the Schwarzenegger portrayal, Howard's Conan was cunning, quick witted, joyful and somber.

It wasn't long before I was hunting down everything I could find written by Howard. Eventually, I stumbled upon my favorite Howard character Solomon Kane. The wrathful puritan's tales combined horror and action in a way that sparked my imagination.

In recent years, I have read a good deal of Howard's fiction as more publishers release collections of his writings. Recently, I have been paging through Del Rey's The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard and came across a story that is wonderfully Poe-esque. In honor of Howard's 105th birthday, here is a sample of "The Touch of Death."

Old Adam Farrel lay dead in the house wherein he had lived alone for the last twenty years. A silent, churlish recluse, in his life he had known no friends, and only two men had watched his passing.

Dr. Stein rose and glanced out the window into the gathering dusk.
"You think you can spend the night here, then?" he asked his companion.
This man, Falred by name, assented.
"Yes, certainly. I guess it's up to me."
"Rather a useless and primitive custom, sitting up with the dead," commented the doctor, preparing to depart, "but I suppose in common decency we will have to bow to precedence. Maybe I can find some one who'll come over here and help you with your vigil."
Falred shrugged his shoulders. "I doubt it. Farrel wasn't liked -- wasn't known by many people. I scarcely knew him myself, but I don't mind sitting up with a corpse."
Dr. Stein was removing his rubber gloves and Falred watched the process with an interest that almost amounted to fascination. A slight, involuntary shudder shook him at the memory of touching these gloves -- slick, cold, clammy things, like the touch of death.

The story proceeds from this opening to a perfectly rewarding Twilight Zone style resolution. The tone has been set.

I often wonder at what tales Howard would have written had he lived beyond the age of 30. Sadly, we can only speculate.


Taranaich said...

The game of "what could have been" can be bitter and saddening: I thus prefer to ponder what we have left for us.

There are some absolute gems in his horror stories. I reread "The Man on the Ground" a few days ago: what a brilliantly written, concise horror story.

Dan Eastwood said...

Good stuff.

May I recommend "The Iron Man". I read these stories years ago, and that still stick with me.