Thursday, November 6, 2014

Rediscovering Vintage Fantasy Fiction

The other day, I happened across a gorgeous compilation of tales by H.P. Lovecraft in my local Barnes & Noble. The book, whose cover features Cthulhu’s writhing tentacles in all their texturized glory, is titled The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, with an introduction by famous comic book author Alan Moore. Despite its hefty price tag, I snatched up the tome. And having brought it home, it has literally allowed me to rediscover vintage fantasy fiction.

I couldn't pass this one up!
This rediscovery wasn’t due so much to Lovecraft’s tales, though I am anxious to dig into my new book. Rather, it was the effort it took to find space for this huge tome on my bookshelf. After moving a few dozen volumes around, I ended up reorganizing a second set of shelves that had become the dumpster ground for old paperbacks. In doing so, I unearthed my original copies of the Conan novels by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Lin Carter. While the original Conan tales were published in pulp fiction magazines during the early 1930s, Conan (#1) (the first of several compilations of those stories) came out in 1983, so it’s probably been 30 years since I first cracked its cover. I found myself opening that cover once again, and reading the book over a cold and breezy weekend. Here are a few of my observations.  

Still love this old cover.
First was the introduction on Robert E. Howard written by L. Sprague de Camp. The most surprising thing about Howard was how briefly he lived. He wrote prolifically during his twenties (from 1927 to 1936), and by his late twenties he was earning more money than any other writer in his home of Cross Plains, Texas. At age thirty, he took his own life.

According to de Camp, Howard was a bit like the characters he created: six feet tall and over 200 pounds, an accomplished boxer and horseman. He was brilliant, introverted and, as de Camp writes, “maladjusted to the point of psychosis.” Perhaps not surpassingly, he was also a pen pal of H.P. Lovecraft. Conan the Barbarian was Howard’s favorite character, though he created other memorable ones in the genre de Camp calls “heroic fantasy,” such as Kull of Atlantis and Solomon Kane. Most interesting to me was that after World War II, Howard’s stories and heroic fantasy in general fell out of favor and almost disappeared. That is until 1954, when J.R.R. Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Ring. As we all know, Tolkien’s trilogy revived the genre and gave rise to the new era of fantasy fiction we are living in today. 

Robert E. Howard
Second was Howard’s essay on the Hyborian Age, where he describes the history of the world he had built for Conan’s adventures. Interestingly, even though Conan was modeled on a Gaelic or Irish warrior, Howard chose to invent a pseudo-history for his stories because he feared that trying to use a historically-accurate setting would require too much time-consuming research. (As a writer of historical fantasy, I feel his pain!) As far as world building goes, the essay is a hot mess. Howard has taken disparate concepts from mythology and more recent history and literally blended them together. For example, he talks about the ancient civilizations of Atlantis and Lemuria, and goes on to describe their wars with the “savages” of that age – none other than the Picts! (While the Picts gave the Romans trouble in Late Antiquity, these painted Scots lived eons after the legendary Atlantis.) Throw in some concepts from Norse mythology, such as the Vanir of Vanaheim and Æsir of Asgard (who were gods in mythology, but are mere people like the Swedes and Danes in Conan’s time), add in a race named after the mythical river Styx and the “empire of Zimbabwe,” and welcome to the Hyborian world. To be fair, Howard was not a scholar like Tolkien and did not have access to all the historical resources we have today (imagine a world without Wikipedia – ye gads!). What he did have was a copy of Thomas Bulfinch’s Outline of Mythology published in 1913, and he apparently mined it for all it was worth.    

Finally, there are the stories themselves. This book consists of seven loosely connected short stories that all begin in the medias res with Conan pursued by wolves or guardsmen, or in the middle of a plan to steal some treasure. The young Conan of this book is a wandering adventurer, working as a thief in most of these tales, who inevitably finds himself alone in some haunted ruin or sorcerer’s lair, only to be confronted by a monster or some supernatural foe. As a barbarian, he can neither read nor write, so he solves problems with brute force. Let’s just say, there are no puzzle-like plots to be deciphered in his tales. This does not mean, however, that the stories are without mystery or twists. In fact, one of the best stories in the book, “The Tower of the Elephant,” featured an unexpected twist that most certainly was influenced by Howard’s friend, H.P. Lovecraft. Another tale, “The God in the Bowl,” begins as a murder mystery, but don’t expect Conan to play the role of Sherlock Holmes.

Many of the stories seem cliché, but that’s because I’m reading them in 2014 instead of the 1930s. Back then they were “original” adventure tales, and since they predated most forms of entertainment available today, they were probably damn entertaining. Imagine a time nearly fifty years before we met Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker, or even Josie Wales and James Bond. Stories like Conan’s were among the most rollicking adventure tales around. This is just one reason why they are true classics, and I’m glad I rediscovered them.


Benjamin Thomas said...

Excellent summary! I have also recently gone back to read much of Howard's work. Over the last two years I have read all of his Conan works as well as Solomon Kane and a collection called "Sword Woman and other Historical Adventures"

I was wondering how do the Conan books by De Camp compare?

Joseph Finley said...

Benjamin, thanks for the comment! De Camp compiled Howard's original stories and completed some of Howard's unfinished works. He also wrote a number of stories of his own (or with Lin Carter or Robert Jordan) to fill in the chronological gaps between Howard's stories. I think de Camp was pretty faithful to Howard's style, and at times it's hard to tell who the author is. I still need to dive into Solomon Kane!

Benjamin Thomas said...

Rats, I was afraid you would say that. Now I have a lot more books to add to the TBR list.

Just kidding. Thanks for the reply.