Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: Wolfshead by Robert E. Howard (1968)

Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: Wolfshead by Robert E. Howard (1968)

(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 30.)

First, I hope you didn't miss the column too much last week. It's best to consider Box Of Paperbacks a weekly column, except when it's not. I'm not the fastest reader, I have to read other books from time to time (both for review here and for my own sanity), I've got the usual weekly A.V. Club duties, and behind the scenes, we're in the thick of semi-secret A.V. Club projects X, Y, and Z. (I wish that last part was an exaggeration, but I'm confident the final results will be worth the effort.)

Okay, on to Robert E. Howard, a favorite of mine even before this project began.

Howard might as well have changed his middle name to "Creator Of Conan." That's the fate of authors who create iconic characters: always living in the shadows of their best-known creations. Just ask the writers behind Professor Challenger, John Carter, and whatever comes after Harry Potter. But Howard pounded out hundreds of stories in his short career, chronicling the adventures of men like Kull, Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, and others, not to mention his boxing tales, horror stories, and Western adventures. Howard more or less invented the sword-and-sorcery genre, but that didn't stop him from writing and selling stories in virtually every genre covered by the pulp magazines of the 1920s and '30s.

He was, by all evidence, motivated as much by genuine enthusiasm as the need for a paycheck. Howard boasted about stretching his tales to get more money from magazines that paid by the word, but it seldom feels like he's phoning it in. His writing style—and by this, I mean his approach to the physical act of writing—almost seems to make this impossible. Can you phone it in when you're dramatically reciting every word you type? The proof's in the prose, too. Howard writes without much ornamentation, and for maximum forward momentum, but every word reads as if it's carefully chosen. From the finale of "The Horror Of The Mound": "Breaking away and staggering up, gasping and bloody, he lunged blindly at the foul shape and caught it in a grip not even the vampire could shake." At his best, Howard reads like the Platonic pulp ideal. What he does only seems simple, as anyone who's spent time with his disciples can attest.

The son of a doctor and a mother who doted on him, and whose lifelong battle with tuberculosis affected him profoundly, Howard grew up devouring books in book-poor central Texas. Born in 1906, he saw the Western frontier fade into the world of the Texas oil industry. The fading soaked into his work. As Rusty Burke writes in the excellent, concise biography found at rehoward.com, it's hard to overestimate the "influence of this boom-and-bust cycle on Howard's later ideas about the growth and decline of civilization—that societies are built by hardy pioneers, who are then followed by others who grow decadent and enjoy the fruits of the society but contribute nothing to its continued growth, and thus inevitably the society will decay or be overthrown by a new generation of pioneers."

Howard's biography reveals an unexpectedly poignant figure. He devoured books in a community that didn't value learning. He was a weirdo in a place that emphasized conformity. He had difficult, though rewarding, relationships with women, most prominently his friend Novalyne Price, whose memoir of her time with Howard inspired the sweet but fatally syrupy 1996 movie The Whole Wide World, starring the then-not-yet-famous Vincent D'Onofrio and Renée Zellweger. Feeling out of place in the world he was given, he spent his time creating other worlds. Long prone to depression, he committed a long-in-the-planning suicide seated in his car in front of the family house after his mother's tuberculosis took its final turn. He was 30. Howard called his most famous creation a man "with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth." Reading literature biographically is both reductive and foolish. And unavoidable.

Which brings us to Wolfshead, a hodgepodge collection of Howard stories published by Lancer in 1968. The book comes from what's known as the "Howard boom" of the '60s and '70s, in which a new generation of readers discovered his work courtesy of welcome (though haphazardly assembled) reprint collections like this one.

How haphazard? Consider this: Here we have a few tales connected to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, a title story that's an unannounced sequel to a story in an earlier collection, one of eight stories featuring the recurring character of James Allison, and a cover that promises "witches, warlocks and demons!" above an awesome Frank Frazetta cover that has little to do with witches, warlocks, demons, or any of the stories beneath it. (You could argue that it dramatizes "The Valley Of The Worm," but the details don't really match up.)

By and large, though, they're pretty good stories in any context. Neither the eponymous story, a very early effort that revisits the tortured werewolf hero of "In The Forest Of Villefere," nor "The House Of Arabu" are particularly notable, but the rest of the collection serves as a pretty good sampling of Howard efforts featuring none of his major characters. "The Horror From The Mound" finds a high-spirited Texan unwisely digging up what he believes to be a Native American burial site, against the advice of his Latino sidekick. "The Cairn On The Headland" reverses the formula, telling a similar story from the sidekick's perspective, here an academic blackmailed into the service of a heedless adventurer intent on disturbing an ancient site outside of Dublin. The structure is much the same, but the approach quite different. "Mound"'s hero is almost comic in his stupidity, and Howard fills the story with details of the country he knew so well. "Cairn" is told in high style, achieving a gritty grandeur as it moves toward a weirdly spiritual conclusion.

The best-known story here is "The Valley Of The Worm," one of eight tales Howard told from the perspective of James Allison, a man whose "drab, disease-racked life" is soon to end. But that doesn't stop him from reflecting on his past incarnations as great heroes. Here, he remembers his time as Niord, whose battle with—you guessed it—a giant worm, was the secret inspiration behind the tales of Beowulf, Perseus, Siegfried, and St. George. Actually, make that a "worm-god." Howard tells the tale grippingly, as Niord descends into one fresh level of hell after another in pursuit of the monster, encountering other scary beasties and monstrous worm-god cultists along the way. As the worm dies, it undergoes, Niord says:

…a frightful transfiguration the nature of which I can not yet describe. Even now when I try to think of it clearly, I am only chaotically conscious of a blasphemous unnatural transmutation of form and substance, shocking and indescribable.

It's less a worm than a horrifying creature with an occult connection to an even more ancient horror. We now have at least one foot in the realm of one of Howard's contemporaries and great influences, H.P. Lovecraft. Other stories here make their debt even clearer.

There are other connections as well. Allison reveals that he has "never been any but a man of that restless race of men once called Nordheimr and later Aryans," presented here as a race who, through superior cleverness and martial technology, defeat the more brutish Picts. The clash of cultures plays a crucial role in Howard's stories in a way that isn't always comfortable to modern eyes, but which at least compares favorably to a lot of Lovecraft's fantasies, usually set in the places where the thin skin of civilization fails to contain chaos beneath. It's a potent, much-imitated formula—see Cloverfield for the most recent iteration—that in Lovecraft's originals carries a lot of racist baggage with it. (Stories like "Dagon" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" find their deepest horror in the idea of racial impurity. And the less said of Lovecraft's private opinions of other races, the better.) With Howard, it's generally tempered to one degree or another. In the long run, he'd find a lot more use for Picts than Aryans, and little reverence for the idea of civilization.

Lovecraft and Howard enjoyed a long, contentious relationship by mail, and a letter from Howard provides the introduction to the collection. After recounting time spent as a soda jerk, Howard seems at peace with his chosen profession when he writes, "I have worked as much as eighteen hours a day at a typewriter, but it was work of my own choosing," all in spite of living where such a profession is "absolutely foreign and alien to the people among which one's lot is cast." "I was first to light a torch of literature in this part of the country, however small, frail, and easily extinguished that flame may be. I am, in my own way, a pioneer," he states elsewhere in the letter. It's hard to sift the modesty from the braggadocio in that statement, but it's fair to say that it doesn't sum up Howard's literary achievements, which extend much further than the point of his best-known creation's sword, and have made a deeper and more lasting impact than his sandals.

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The Outlaws Of Mars by Otis Adelbert Kline

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