The following is an excerpt from Charles R. Saunders’ essay for ROBERT E. HOWARD CHANGED MY LIFE, an upcoming book from the Rogue Blades Foundation.
The above title is an inversion of the title of the book BLACK SPARK, WHITE FIRE, by scholar Richard Poe (1997). That nonfiction volume averred the profound influence civilizations in Africa (especially Egypt) and the Middle East exerted on early European cultures. It’s a worthy successor to Basil Davidson’s earlier THE LOST CITIES OF AFRICA (1959). My reversal of Bernal’s wording is not meant to be sarcastic or deprecatory. However, in regard to the question of how the late Robert E. Howard changed my life, the wording is singularly significant. The works of Howard, who was white, constituted the spark that ignited the fire that eventually made me a writer.
Of course, that fire could never have burned without fuel. That kindling was gathered during the 1960s — a time of massive tumult, the reverberations of which continue to this day. As a cutting-edge baby boomer at that time (born in 1946), I was in my teens and early twenties back then — impressionable years. Along with absorbing the prevailing zeitgeist generated by such factors as the Vietnam War, the civil-rights movement, and the culture clash between the boomers and the preceding Greatest Generation — who had survived the Great Depression and won World War II—I became enamored of the literary genres of science fiction and fantasy, which served as a welcome break from the ominous clouds hanging over everyone in the ’60s.
I read everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Robert Silverberg; from J.R.R. Tolkien to Lord Dunsany. And I also devoured the requisite canon read by young blacks at that time, works such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston. In the mid-1960s, though, a certain writer’s work jumped out at me and grabbed me by the throat. That writer was a long-dead pulpster named Robert E. Howard, whose fiction was being revived in paperback with eye-catching cover art by Frank Frazetta. The moment I began reading the head-spinning adventures of Howard’s character Conan and plunged headlong into the magical realm of sword-and-sorcery, I was hooked like a fish. I couldn’t get enough of REH’s writing, as well as that of his emulators whose novels started appearing like mushrooms on the paperback bookracks, at 35 to 50 cents a pop. Hard to believe books were so cheap in those days.
Besotted though I was with this newfound writer and genre, there was something that stuck in my craw like an errant chicken bone. As a writer who practiced his craft during the 1920s and ’30s, Howard was immersed in the zeitgeist of his times, which included a great deal of racism. Not only did this guy depict blacks in the stereotyped, derogatory manner of the day; he also didn’t much care for Asians, East Indians, Arabs, or even what he considered to be the wrong kind of white people, such as Italians.
True, he thought barbarians were physically and morally superior to civilized people. But in Howard’s view, if you were gonna be a barbarian, you’d better be a white one. Celts, yes. Zulus, no. To his way of thinking, barbarians at least had a rough moral code. Savages—a step below—did not.
By one of those inexplicable coincidences of life, my discovery of sword-and-sorcery occurred at approximately the same time as another revelation: a newfound awareness of African history and culture.
Charles R. Saunders had been a fan of Robert E. Howard’s writing since his twenties, devouring the power of his sword-and-sorcery storytelling. He was not, however, enamored with Howard’s portrayals of black people, and chose to forge his own path in adventure literature by creating a hero more like him. In pursuing this passion, Charles established the genre of Sword-and-Soul and introduced the world to Nyumbani and Imaro. Writer of far more than short stories and novels, Charles was also a civil servant, teacher, journalist, and profound thinker. Despite the long reach of his work, he was a solitary man who kept to himself, which sadly delayed news of his death in May 2020. Charles is not forgotten though, and his gravesite now hosts a salute to his legacy through the efforts of many of his fans. Salutes to his memory have appeared from Jon Tattrie, Greg Mele, Brian Murphy, and David C. Smith.