Robert E. Howard as a Writer of Consequence

David C. Smith was born on August 10, 1952, in Youngstown, Ohio. In addition to many essays and short stories, he is the author or coauthor of 22 published novels, primarily in the sword-and-sorcery, horror, and suspense genres.

In addition, Smith is the author of the screenplay Seasons of the Moon, based on his novel; has coauthored the play Coven House; and coauthored the screenplay Magicians, based on the David Trevisan novels. Smith is also author of the postsecondary English grammar textbook Understanding English: How Sentences Work.

Aside from writing fiction, Smith has worked as an advertising copyeditor and English teacher and for more than twenty years as a scholarly medical editor.


The merits of Robert E. Howard’s fiction have long been overshadowed by public perception of him as a one-dimensional writer of simple-minded adventure and fantasy stories. This is particularly the case when recognition of him is conflated with the image of “Conan the Barbarian”: in some minds, the two are virtually indistinguishable. (I recall reading a reference to Howard some time ago in which he was referred to as “a Texas bodybuilder,” which is true as far as it goes but is on par with identifying the Pope as a bachelor—also literally true, as far as it goes, but not quite the whole story.) Despite the fact that Howard’s work was roundly praised by readers during his lifetime, postwar awareness of the man and his works consisted of faintly damning praise of him as a writer of “well-wrought tales” and little else—and this despite the efforts of Glenn Lord to make the wealth of Howard material available to fans and scholars worldwide. Was it Twain who said something along the order of bad news traveling quickly while good news is still putting its shoes on? I paraphrase, but that is the gist of it. One result of such shenanigans is that we have writers and critics who ought to know better, such as Stephen King and S. T. Joshi, dismissing Howard’s work as “puerile” (King) and as “crude, slipshod, and unwieldly” (Joshi). Criticism always tells us at least as much about the critic as it does about whatever is being criticized, and approaching Howard with preconceived ideas about him and his work is sure to lead to underappreciation of how much the man got right and how good his best work is.

Thus, when I agreed to write Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography for Bob McLain at Pulp Hero Press, he and I quickly agreed on the approach to take in reaching a general audience who almost certainly would have heard of “Conan the Barbarian,” may in fact have heard of Robert E. Howard himself, and might appreciate reading about the life of a young man who, despite the limitations of his circumstances, became a self-taught, successful working writer during the Jazz Age and the Great Depression—and thus a writer of consequence alongside other popular writers of that time who now belong in the American canon of important mid-twentieth century fiction, a period so rich in popular storytelling that it continues to be mined today for enjoyment and inspiration.

By crafting a “literary biography,” I meant to approach Howard as one writer looking over the shoulder of another writer, albeit one gone from us now for nearly a century. There is a great deal for writers today to glean from the lessons Howard learned as he improved behind the typewriter. For one thing, Howard very early on appreciated Story—capitalized, as Rusty Burke has styled it, to emphasize that dimension or state of mind that all fiction writers visit and in which Howard seems to have spent most of his waking hours, consistently reading fiction for his own benefit or working out ideas for his own next effort. In his time, writing popular fiction meant selling stories to the editors of pulp fiction magazines, any of the many titles on the newsstands or the drugstore shelves, and Howard did so by dint of hours behind the typewriter, learning his craft, and educating himself about the audiences for the magazines he wrote for. This is fundamental for any writer hoping to ascend to the level of professionalism, but it’s worth recognizing that Howard planned, wrote, and rewrote his stories. Writing is rewriting; it is as simple as that; and he learned how to polish his work by following that dictum.


He also played to his strengths. He grew up on stories of the Texas frontier and the settling of the West—our American Iliad. However, he had not, of course, himself led an adventurous life of danger or intrigue in the remote corners of the world, so his chances of succeeding with the editors of Adventure, for instance, who preferred their authors to have gotten their hands dirty in that way, were always slim and finally eluded him. Howard’s strengths lay in his abilities as a poet: honest emotion, immediacy of the moment, and sounds and rhythms and words chosen to reflect perfectly what he wished his readers to feel. As Richter has noted, Howard often sets up a real train wreck when he opens a story, “then works with what survives.” This is as true during his early period, with the romantic characters Solomon Kane and King Kull, as it is during his mature period. Starting with a train wreck pulls his readers right in; we are emotionally invested from the opening line and quickly pulled along the danger trail both by Howard’s disciplined writing and by virtue of his story’s twists and turns.

We might call them plot twists and turns, but Howard was uncomfortable plotting stories. He learned to do it toward the end of his life, writing acceptable mystery stories that still relied more on brawn and emotion than anything else, but his real strength was in throwing the dice and seeing what came up. This, I feel, resulted from his deep interest in history and his appreciation of such historical fiction writers as Harold Lamb. Historical events do not give us plots; historical events are very much train wrecks or throws of the dice. Howard, always ambivalent about what the hell life is for anyway, understood this in his soul. So if he could not manufacture well-designed, plotted tales drawing upon real life, as the writers for Adventure did, he wound up doing them one better, although only a minority of readers in his day felt it as they read his work: he wrote the facts as we know them from the broad perspective of time and events. He understood the universality of historical events, their power and the raw emotions suffered by the people who lived them. Reading one of his “Crusader” stories is such a punch in the gut that we’re surprised to learn that he actually wasn’t there in the twelfth century, taking notes as the horrors of that period ensued. The emotional power of these narratives is that strong.

Stories of the frontier, Howard’s appreciation of historical events, and particularly his experience with the roughnecks and other lowlifes he encountered during the oil boom in Cross Plains, further rounded out his perception of life—and of history. Thus, his well-known observation that barbarism is the natural state of mankind. On the wheel of history, barbarism for Howard means that juncture superseding pure primitivism or degeneracy but preceding civilization, which brings with it art, culture, science—all of the advances we claim to cherish, but all of which will vanish as a civilization inevitably succumbs to weakness from within or danger from without. The most natural way of life, then, is that of the barbarian: simple, direct, unpretentious. Thus, Howard’s Crusader protagonists and, later, Conan (once we get past the earliest stories) reflect a morally ambiguous or transgressive attitude, a wariness of civilization and its affections and social codes. It is good to have a code, and Conan has one: he won’t rat on a friend, for example, or go back on his word. But anything more than that could lead to being caught up in duplicity, unfairness, corruption: all Howard and his readers had to do was look out a window to see the catastrophic events of the Depression, brought down on them by just such clever, duplicitous, and corrupt bankers and Wall Street tycoons. Treat those characters fairly in a socially conscious manner when they haven’t played fair with us? Thus, there is a deep thrum of appreciation and recognition toward Conan from those of us who also do not quite trust the genial larceny and shifty dealing that society rewards so handsomely. Depression-era audiences were not alone in responding to this ambiguous or what I call a transgressive attitude; later, it was reflected in the disenchanted postwar period of crime fiction and film noir, as well as in the Vietnam era’s distrust of and disaffection with authority.

The surest way to damn an artist, Mencken once said (again, I paraphrase) is to blame him for not doing what the reader or critic wished he had done. Just so. Howard played by the rules of his day and in the shortest amount of time imaginable rose from writing eerily effective Gothic fiction to branching out into all of the many genres that reflected his varied talents—even his own comical self-deprecation, comfortably shared with his friends and on display in his Western burlesques. We don’t read a lot of the mainstream or conventional writers of Howard’s time because they were writing for their time; I can’t recall when I last read a piece by Irvin S. Cobb—who was not a bad writer at all, by the way, and influenced H. P. Lovecraft. Yet Howard sticks with us, as do others in the American canon of his time—Hammett and Chandler, Lovecraft and Bradbury, Brackett and Woolrich. Why?

Because they told the truth.

Not the literal truth.

Story truth.

The truth that lasts.


Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography, by David C. Smith, is now available from Pulp Hero Press.