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October 03, 2007

R.E. Howard Gets Definitive Two-Volume Complete Works Treatment; NRO Interview With Omnithology's Editor

Fun for geeks. I liked it a few years back when Raymond Chandler began to get the literary respect he so deserved (Dashiell Hammett had always had it, partly owing to his creation of the noir form, probably owing also to his politics and glamorous Hollywood connections). And so it is now, sort of, for Conan's creator.

There's something of a tale of our time here, if you look somewhat closely.

BURKE: He was a master of the opening paragraph, and one of my favorites is the beginning of the Conan novel The Hour of the Dragon:

"The long tapers flickered, sending the black shadows wavering along the walls, and the velvet tapestries rippled. Yet there was no wind in the chamber. Four men stood about the ebony table on which lay the green sarcophagus that gleamed like carven jade. In the upraised right hand of each man a curious black candle burned with a weird greenish light. Outside was night and a lost wind moaning among the black trees.”

That gives you just enough information to set the scene Howard wants, while letting you decide what the “long tapers” look like, what the walls are made of, what color the velvet tapestries are. And that last line gives me chills whenever I read it.

MILLER: So Howard told great stories, but did he traffic in ideas?

BURKE: The idea that is most often mentioned is his notion that civilizations always inevitably rise and fall: a young, vigorous race or nation of “barbarians” fights its way to civilization, sometimes building on the ruins of a decayed society it displaces; inevitably, though, when the people become comfortable, when they are no longer working constantly to build their society, they become first complacent, then indolent, and finally decadent, from which point the society decays to the point that a new young race of barbarians can overthrow or displace it.


Howard also saw that violence was the inevitable result of breakdowns in “civilized” societies. In his view, humans are really just apes who learned how to build things: when our societies begin to break down, we revert to our innate savagery. I’ve just been re-reading Leo Grin’s essay “The Reign of Blood” and I think he’s right that Howard sees man’s primal emotion as hate, and so when confronted with forces we see as hostile we see them as “something not only to be battled but to be hated.” I think anyone who has looked at what happens on the frontiers between societies in conflict would have to agree that Howard’s views were pretty dead-on. Even when the initial contacts are not hostile, man’s tendency to turn hatred on perceived threats frequently serves to escalate into conflict and ultimately violence. At the end of the Turlogh O’Brien story “The Dark Man,” a priest asks “Almighty God, when will the reign of blood cease?” “Turlogh shook his head. ‘Not so long as the race lasts.’” It seems a bleak and pessimistic view, but on the basis of our history to date, it also seems a realistic one.

Then there's this:

MILLER: How did Conan become such an iconic figure?

BURKE: Well, if I knew the answer to that, I should be able to pick out the next big iconic figure and invest heavily. But I think the answer probably lies in a phrase you used in your Wall Street Journal article last year: he came along at just the right time and really captured something of the zeitgeist. Charles Hoffman first made the claim back in the 1970s that Conan was an existential hero: Conan’s story is not that of a boy who sets out on a quest to fulfill some noble destiny (as in the story of young Arthur, or Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings), nor to find some Grail, but is the story of a man who recognizes that there is no inherent meaning in the world, that we make of ourselves what we can, and who seizes opportunities to become what he wishes to become. He is fiercely independent, and that is certainly a characteristic that a great many Conan and Howard fans share. He does not recognize authority as superior simply by virtue of its being in authority. He was a perfect anti-establishment figure, as well as one who seemed to embody the ideal of self-reliance while possessing a strong sense of morality.

I guess Conan appeals partly for the same reason Firefly does: It's a pessimistic view of the world while a somewhat more positive depiction of actual people. Those with faith in organizations and causes may flock to Star Trek, while many of us are turned off by its antiseptic and gray view of humanity, preferring the dirtiness, horniness, and human-ness of Firefly.

Conan wasn't fighting for a damn thing except himself, and, occasionally, a hottie or young warrior he took a shine to. At no point in any Conan story was there ever the promise of a coming utopia and final defeat of evil; evil always had to be fought, but it could never be conquered, and would be present so long as man existed. In National Review/WFB terms, there was no Immanentization of the eschaton in Hyboria, ever, and the very nature of the world precluded such a soft-headed notion of a Return to the Original State of Grace. Hyboria looked a lot like earth, in other words, at least as many saw it. (Thanks to Thomas D for the correction on that NRO/WFB catchphrase.)

Speaking of Scene-Setting: Chandler is a past-master of it.


You really can't evoke decay and corruption better than this introduction to General Sternwood in The Big Sleep:

We went out at the French doors and along a smooth red-flagged path that skirted the far side of the lawn from the garage. The boyish-looking chauffeur had a big black and chromium sedan out now and was dusting that. The path took us along to the side of the greenhouse and the butler opened a door for me and stood aside. It opened into a sort of vestibule that was about as warm as a slow oven. He came in after me, shut the outer door, opened an inner door and we went through that. Then it was really hot. The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.

The butler did his best to get me through without being smacked in the face by the sodden leaves, and after a while we came to a clearing in the middle of the jungle, under the domed roof. Here, in a space of hexagonal flags, an old red Turkish rug was laid down and on the rug was a wheel chair, and in the wheel chair an old and obviously dying man watched us come with black eyes from which all fire had died long ago, but which still had the coal-black directness of the eyes in the portrait that hung above the mantel in the hall. The rest of his face was a leaden mask, with the bloodless lips and the sharp nose and the sunken temples and the outward-turning earlobes of approaching dissolution. His long narrow body was wrapped--in that heat--in a traveling rug and a faded red bathrobe. His thin clawlike hands were folded loosely on the rug, purple-nailed. A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.

The butler stood in front of him and said: "This is Mr. Marlowe, General."

The old man didn't move or speak, or even nod. He just looked at me lifelessly. The butler pushed a damp wicker chair against the backs of my legs and I sat down. He took my hat with a deft scoop.

Then the old man dragged his voice up from the bottom of a well and said: "Brandy, Norris. How do you like your brandy, sir?"

"Any way at all," I said.

The butler went away among the abominable plants. The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings.

"I used to like mine with champagne. The champagne as cold as Valley Forge and about a third of a glass of brandy beneath it. You may take your coat off, sir. It's too hot in here for a man with blood in his veins."

I stood up and peeled off my coat and got a handkerchief out and mopped my face and neck and the backs of my wrists. St. Louis in August had nothing on that place. I sat down again and I felt automatically for a cigarette and then stopped. The old man caught the gesture and smiled faintly.

"You may smoke, sir. I like the smell of tobacco."

I lit the cigarette and blew a lungful at him and he sniffed at it like a terrier at a rathole. The faint smile pulled at the shadowed corners of his mouth.

"A nice state of affairs when a man has to indulge his vices by proxy," he said dryly. "You are looking at a very dull survival of a rather gaudy life, a cripple paralyzed in both legs and with only half of his lower belly. There's very little that I can eat and my sleep is so close to waking that it is hardly worth the name. I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider, and the orchids are an excuse for the heat. Do you like orchids?"

"Not particularly," I said.

The General half-closed his eyes. "They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute."

I have two rules: No one who's college-age or less should be allowed to read Ayn Rand -- she's far too effective a polemnicist for a young mind -- and no one who has any ambitions to write fiction should be allowed to read someone like Chandler. He induces complete paralysis as you realize that you're just not fit to take the field with him.

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posted by Ace at 03:17 PM

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