My preferences are not important. Just look at what I've read, note what's lacking, and tell me to read it posthaste.
So often a reader’s patience flags when wandering back and forth between the seemingly warring ethea of pulp writers and literary authors. The callowness and triviality attributed to the former sends a reader to the canon of the latter, only to retreat from its frequent pretentiousness and self-righteousness. Of course, only the most misguided writers ever consciously attempt to improve their stories by bowdlerizing either of these elements completely. Even so, the substance-biased and the entertainment-biased schools of writing seem to often compete with each other to see who can find the happy medium most often. In recent years, several notable artists in the entertainers’ camp have taken a turn in the winner’s circle. A vocal and sizable contingent of critics have dared to acclaim the 21st century television dramas of David Chase, David Simon, Vince Gilligan, and Jenji Kohan as nothing less than the great literature of our age; Dennis Lehane-- a personal favorite-- has won comparable critical acclaim, and even a seat on Harvard’s faculty teaching creative writing thanks to his fast-paced crime thrillers.
A smaller, but no less vocal, contingent of artists, critics, and fans have attributed similar success to the pulp writers of the early 20th century. Robert E. Howard-- along with H.P. Lovecraft-- stands as the reigning king of this community, and Conan the Barbarian universally heralded as his finest creation. Having now read the first of three volumes containing Howard’s original Conan stories, I cannot help but square Howard off against the entertainment-biased writers of more recent years. Overall, I have to say the Conan stories hold up pretty well. Though Howard often uses sex and violence, the staples of most popular fiction in any medium, for escapist ends, his best stories manage to offer an insightful take on the occasional usefulness and the eternal inescapability of violence, though he handles the sexual dynamics of his stories with overall less aplomb. And unfortunately, for every superior story he writes, Howard pens five to ten unremarkable yarns. Even Conan’s superior adventures still offer less intriguing explorations of survival, barbarism, civilization, and sexual politics than one can find in Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro novels or Chase’s The Sopranos.
Of the two elements, violence is, as I said, the most virile chamber in the heart driving the Conan stories. Whenever Howard is not pitting Conan against a supernatural horror or a gigantic snake, he transplants Conan into a civilized milieu, where the barbarian’s uncivilized and forthright nature draws him into conflict with individuals in whom civilization has bred perverse desires alien to Conan’s upbringing in the wilderness. Howard claimed that he found the cliché of the noble savage inaccurate, and tried to inject some biting realism into his portrait of Conan; sometimes he even succeeds. Conan’s adventures are exciting, but Patrice Louinet says quite rightly in his preface that great cataclysms both precede and succeed those adventures, consigning all Conan’s achievement back to dust, which the barbarian himself muses on in a fit of melancholy in the first draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword.”
However, in that little detail lies Howard’s frequent failing; this musing is all but expunged in the final version of “Phoenix,” and the inferior stories in this volume depict Conan as no more than “a stately, god-like child of Nature, endowed with strange wisdom,” the very cliché that Howard says he wants to combat. I had hoped that clear-eyed insight would present itself in every story to varying degrees, but so often Howard abandons it completely for a paycheck. The inferior version of Conan, which Louinet and other Howard fans insist is the sole responsibility of Howard’s imitators, seems in fact to be Howard’s own creation to which he resorted whenever greater inspiration failed him. Howard demonstrates far more insight in his essay, “The Hyborian Age” than he does in the first third of his Conan stories: Gorm, the Pictish warlord evinces greater moral complexity than Conan. His rise to power illustrates the “grim, bloody, ferocious, and loveless existence” that Howard knows barbarism to be, and that twisted machinations dwell just as often in the heart of a barbarian as they do in a civilized individual.
Howard’s occasionally cloying attraction to barbarism seems to lie in its ability to endow strength or toughness. Howard does not err in wedding this toughness to a naturally heroic and morally upright individual, but Conan never loses an opportunity to credit his upbringing in the wilds with not just with his strength but with his heroism as well, and every damsel he rescues inevitably thinks to herself how wrong she was to look to civilized men for nobility when it obviously comes more naturally to an untamed Cimmerian like Conan. Howard also takes a false step in only labeling societies separated from civilization as barbaric in a potentially ennobling way. What is truly barbaric is having to struggle, not to thrive, but to simply survive. This struggle is the lot not just of primitive hunter-gatherers, but also of people living in a major city right at the heart of civilization. Dennis Lehane endows Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro with the same toughness that characterizes Conan, and they too possess strident moral compasses that drive them to heroic accomplishments. However, the tough neighborhood badge of honor they wear has a cynical side far more in evidence in both Lehane’s narrative voice, and in the voices of the characters themselves than that of Howard or Conan.
For all the flaws in Howard’s depiction of violence in his actual stories, he at least proved himself capable of occasional inventiveness. The sexual aspect of his stories, unfortunately, rises above tasteless pandering even less than the violence. Never at any point in these stories, does a woman appear who does not succumb to Conan’s charms. There are touches of personality to differentiate each of Conan’s damsels from each other, and they have other motivations aside from sleeping with the musclebound hero. However, Howard tramples even these meager accomplishments by only ever depicting Conan as a positive force in the lives of his love-interests, despite the reality that even a good guy will makes mistakes in any relationship. The only story in which Howard gave himself the opportunity to correct this imbalance is “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” in which Conan shows himself capable of rape. Unfortunately, Howard saves himself from having to fully contend with this more violent aspect of Conan’s character by whisking the would-be victim into the heavens before Conan can catch her. While it makes for an interesting story to have Conan unwittingly cross paths with a goddess, he also gives his hero an awkwardly clean record by not deigning to portray such an exchange to its fullest implications.
Just as Lehane exceeded Howard in his portrayal of barbaric struggle for survival, David Chase offers a far more varied and realistic array of sexual dynamics in The Sopranos than Howard does in The Cumming of Conan. While the iconic HBO drama never loses the opportunity to parade tits and ass before the audience, the characters who possess them are fully fleshed out in more ways than bra size. Tony Soprano’s relationships with his wife, his goomars, and his therapist never insult the viewer by omitting a darker side. Tony is a protective and even affectionate husband, but he often fights Carmela when she tries to assert her independence by starting her own bank account, or considers getting a job. And of course he cheats on her to devastating effect in more ways than one. Then there is the sainted Dr. Melfi, who admits to seeing why Tony is attractive to so many women, but possesses enough intelligence and willpower to see what a bad partner he would make for her, not to mention the fact the she is his therapist. Even when she contemplates relying on Tony for the protection she knows he would give if asked, she soldiers through on her own steam.
Given the superior way in which Lehane and Chase have managed to write exciting and titillating stories without sacrificing their realism, I have to recommend them before Howard’s Conan tales. However, I would still recommend them. Howard has a masterful sense of pacing, and though there are eye-rolling moments, the action never flags. His disjointed, episodic delivery is great fun, and his influence on the sword and sorcery genre alone is enough excuse to give the stories a read.