Thursday, October 1, 2009

Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume One (edited by Rusty Burke, illustrated by Jim and Ruth Keegan)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2009. Reprinted with permission.

Robert E. Howard wrote short stories during the heyday of the pulp era, mostly for Weird Tales, from 1924 until his death by suicide in 1936 at age 30. Howard wrote in various genres, but he is now best known for his stories popularizing the fantasy subgenre "sword and sorcery," and especially the Cimmerian hero popularly known as Conan the Barbarian. His range of talent, however, is becoming better known, as pulp-era fiction regains a modern readership. Subterranean Press and Del Rey Books are doing their part to keep Howard's name in front of book-buyers with, respectively, their limited-edition hardcover and affordable trade-paperback collections of his work. Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume One is the first of two "best of" retrospectives.

Compiler and editor Rusty Burke has done a great job selecting 16 stories and 12 poems that offer an idea of the range of Howard's output. Helping him in his selection was a poll of Robert E. Howard fans; 19 of the top 25 vote-getters are included. Everything from sword and sorcery to adventure to horror, from crime to boxing to Westerns, is showcased here. This does give the collection a scattered feel sometimes, but what holds them all together is the quality of the author's writing.

Both versions of Crimson Shadows are illustrated by Jim and Ruth Keegan. I find their art serviceable but too static for Howard's active prose. It probably would have been good enough had I not first read The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, illustrated by Greg Staples. His art in that collection is so emotionally and physically realistic, often seeming to glower or move on the page, that it makes the Keegans' work pale in comparison. Rarely do the couple choose to depict action scenes, and when they do, the positions feel posed, where Staples seems to catch his subjects in mid-motion.

For Keegan devotees, however, the Subterranean Press limited edition hardcover is a must have. It is not only signed by the artists but also has four new color plates (one of which also serves as new cover art) not included in the Del Rey trade paperback.

Opening the collection is "The Shadow Kingdom," featuring Kull from Atlantis, usurping king of Valusia. Kull meets his own attempted usurpers in the Serpent Men, a fascinating race of snake-headed individuals who deal in mesmerism and shape-shifting. Kull has to struggle with his own doubts to maintain the throne. Though similar in many ways to the later character of Conan (the first Conan story was a rewritten Kull story), I find Kull superior due to his tendency toward deeper thinking. (He appears twice more in this collection.)

"Red Shadows" introduces Howard's 17th-century Puritan hero Solomon Kane. Avenging the death of a young woman, Kane travels for years to find Le Loup ("the wolf"), meeting "good juju man" N'Longa — who later plays a larger role in Kane's life — for the first time. Howard doesn't shy away from the action here, putting Kane in peril no less than three times. Many consider this the beginning of the sword-and-sorcery genre — "The Shadow Kingdom" also has its supporters for that title — with the main difference being this one's use of a realistic setting (Kull lives around 100,000 years B.C.). I've experienced "Red Shadows" multiple times, in print and audio, and it never loses its power to entertain. Both Kane and Le Loup are indelible characters, and the action sets up Kane admirably well for his later stories. (The poem "One Black Stain," also included here, has Kane stand up to Francis Drake in the face of an execution.)

In "The Dark Man," Turlogh Dubh goes to save a girl from his family though his family no longer recognizes him. This story is a terrific adventure with a surprise that connects it to another Howard stalwart, Pict king Bran Mak Morn. "Kings of the Night" brings Bran and Kull together through an ancient lineage. A wizard conjures Kull up from the ancient past when Bran's potential fighters ask for "a king, neither Pict, Gael, nor Briton" to lead them against the invading Romans. This is truly one of the great battle stories, with realism, history, and myth blended in ideal measure.

Sailor Steve Costigan is confronted with the prospect of a dog fight involving Costigan's best pal Mike, a bull dog,in "The Fightin'est Pair." This story, one of Howard's famous boxing yarns, showcases in a surprisingly sensitive manner, without getting blubbery, the love of a man (who talks with his fists) for his dog. Those wondering if Howard had a more romantic side need only read "For the Love of Barbara Allen," a story of love across time, told in the style of a Southern folktale. I was so surprised at how moving it was, that it just may be a new favorite.

An unexpected highlight of this collection is a selection of Howard's Lovecraftian horror. H.P. Lovecraft was Howard's friend and mentor, and they corresponded by mail for years. Howard's confidence is astonishing, as he boldly makes his own additions to the Lovecraft canon (Von Junzt's Nameless Cults, poet Justin Geoffrey) that have become as much a part of the Mythos as Lovecraft's own works. But even as he adds to another author's world, he remains firmly in Robert E. Howard territory, and these tales are just as enjoyable with no prior appreciation for such "Yog-Sothothery" (what Lovecraft called the practice of Mythos-sharing, which he supported).

Having long been enthralled by tales of rare books and their supernatural effects on unassuming readers, I was deeply engaged by "The Black Stone," especially by the fact of its tangential relationship to "Worms of the Earth" (wherein Pict king Bran Mak Morn searches for the same Black Stone). Read together, they immerse the reader in a fascinating otherworld in a way that would be impossible encountering the pieces individually.

As you may surmise from the title, "Lord of the Dead" is less a mystery than an adventure tale, though it is up to oversized detective Steve Harrison to figure out why someone who died 30 years ago is trying to kill him right now. The confrontation with Erlik Khan was reminiscent of The Mask of Fu Manchu, but I'm still interested in reading more about this "big dick" (as the narration refers to him) because, unless I miss my guess, Harrison is the first detective to so deftly use an ancient axe against his enemies.

Though many Howard fans are bound to be appalled, I must state here that his most famous character, Conan the Cimmerian, is vastly overrated. I've read around half a dozen of the author's Conan stories and, apart from Howard's wonderful way with words, have found little to impress. Conan seems rather uncomplicated when compared to Solomon Kane or Bran Mak Morn, and Howard seems to run off at the pen writing of the barbarian in a way not seen in his other, more tightly written tales. (By far the longest, these two stories alone take up just under one-quarter of the book's 500 pages.) The result is I consistently found my mind wandering during "The People of the Black Circle" and "Beyond the Black River," something that never happens with his other work. Since I had not read these two before — and since they are considered the best of the best, so to speak — I was more than willing to let them convert me. But they did little but confirm my belief that Conan, while a source of great pleasure for many, is simply not for me.

But the Cimmerian has been popular from the beginning, and perhaps with good reason. Howard himself stated in a letter to Lovecraft that "his supernatural adventures aside — he is the most realistic character I ever evolved... he seemed to step full-grown into my consciousness when I wrote the first yarn of the series." So, Howard may have continued to write Conan's adventures if not for the convergence of two things: his steadily growing interest in the facts and legends of the West, and a steadily growing sum of money owed to him by Weird Tales. Both combined in such a way that Howard write primarily Westerns until his death.

"The Valley of the Worm" distinguishes itself from a plethora of sword-fighting stories by virtue of its unexpected conclusion. In most other ways, it is merely average Robert E. Howard, though any story that features the beheading of a giant snake (another mythos link?) is OK in my book. "The Grey God Passes" is the story of heroic Conn the kern and his role in the historic Battle of Clontarf. It contains a full-fledged epic story in just 30 pages.

"Hawk in the Hills" is the second of the five El Borak (Arabic for "the swift") tales published during Howard's lifetime. And the man who was born Francis X. Gordon is certainly fleet of foot, finger, and faculties, but he also talks too much, which often slows down the action in an otherwise fine story. This Texas gunfighter transplanted to the Middle East (Howard reportedly created the character when he was ten) gives the author the opportunity to write a Western character who confronts the same kind of exotic villains his other heroes did.

Breckinridge Elkins, Howard's most popular Western character by far, intends to bring a pretty schoolteacher from nearby Chawed Ear to Bear Creek by whatever means necessary in "Sharp's Gun Serenade" ("Bear Creek is goin' to have culture if I have to wade fetlock deep in gore to pervide it"). This was the last of the Elkins stories, and it is told, like the rest, in a "tall tale" style peppered with low-brow humor and Howard's deft touch with dialect.

Not only does Howard write gripping tales, but he also uses the English language with a skill I've not yet seen in genre fiction. His vocabulary range is immensely impressive, and I've never seen so many semi-colons all in one place — and used with such skill. Howard picks his words with a master's touch, making unconventional choices that still retain easy readability, like in selection from "Beyond the Black River": "A heavy chopping crunch sounded behind the leaves. The bushes were shaken violently, and simultaneously with the sound, an arrow arched erratically from among them and vanished among the trees along the trail."

Not difficult language, by any means — merely the right word for the purpose. One never gets the sense that such and such a word was "good enough," but that only the perfect one would do to set the proper mood. Yet his descriptive narrative style flows smoothly even as it speaks poetically.

Readers who tend to eschew modern poetry need not skip Howard's verse. There's a lot here to appreciate. It is written in an older style that any student of literature will find familiar. This makes it highly approachable. "The Song of a Mad Minstrel" seems to be sung by a demonic entity. It is filled with Howard's wonderfully specific word choices, like "There were crimson gulfs unplumbed, there were black wings over a sea; / There were pits where mad things drummed, and foaming blasphemy." The selection of "The Dust Dance" included is particularly effective in illustrating the epic span of man, as told by one of the first. "The Tide" has much the same effect as "For the Love of Barbara Allen." And that's just three of the dozen poems that act as palate cleansers of a sort to Crimson Shadows. Interspersed throughout, they only add to the total effect.

For the Howard completists, the editors have included an exhaustive rundown of how the versions of the pieces published in Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume One are different from their original sources, from the placement of commas to the cleaning up of misspellings and further. I was for some reason enthralled by this information, mostly because it shows that Burke and company are fans and scholars who want nothing more than to present Howard in the best possible light. Their choice to use en-dashes instead of em-dashes throughout is mildly irritating, but the text is otherwise nearly pristine. Other extras include a foreword from the Keegans, an introduction and a short bio of Howard from editor Burke, and Charles Hoffman's "Robert E. Howard: Twentieth Century Mythmaker."

As a final note, I would just like to mention that, before being introduced to the work of Robert E. Howard, I was under the impression that fantasy was a tired genre with nothing to offer me. Also, short stories held no appeal. These two perceptions were turned on their ears upon entering Howard's world. After only one book, The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, I was an instant enthusiast, and Crimson Shadows has given me all the more reason to remain that way. It confirms my opinion (formed by the Horror Stories) that Robert E. Howard was a Great Writer and one who deserves to be reevaluated by those who feel that men who do their best communicating with swords, guns, and large fists are not to be taken seriously. This collection strongly suggests otherwise.


KentAllard said...

I love this series of books by Del Rey. I was particularly pleased they collected his horror stories - often overlooked - into one volume.

Craig Clarke said...

It's because of this series of books -- and The Horror Stories in particular -- that I am now an REH fan, though I'd never read his work before 2008.

Shaft said...

Though I don't have this "Crimson Shadows" collection, I did read many of the included stories in other publications.

"The Black Stone" is my second favorite REH's horror story; the #1 spot belongs to "Pigeons from Hell, of course.

While reading "Bran Mak Morn: The Last King", I was somewhat of a surprise even to myself that my favorite character out of the Bran stories was actually Turlogh Dubh - the character is brilliant, tough as nails and wonderfully grim. It was a shame that Bran, out of the six stories, only "Worms of the Earth" featured Bran as a central character.

Also, a great collection of rEH's horror and mystery tales is Wordsworth Editions' "Haunter of the Ring" - 21 classic REH's stories for a price of a few dollars.

Craig Clarke said...

"The Black Stone" is one of my REH favorites, too. I really like the Justin Geoffrey/Von Junzt tales involving either the black stone, the people of the monolith, or Nameless Cults.

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