Since Robert E. Howard Days was just a couple of weeks ago, and because I recently finished reading EL BORAK AND OTHER DESERT ADVENTURES by Howard, and because the new book ROBERT E. HOWARD CHANGED MY LIFE is available from the Rogue Blades Foundation, I’ve had Howard on my mind a lot of late.
As part of that, I’ve been involved in a number of conversations online recently concerning Howard, mostly with friends. And as often happens when discussing Howard, it is apparent a lot of people seem to know Howard only because of his character Conan of Cimmeria, though they might also recognize Howard as the creator of Sword & Sorcery.
Now there’s nothing wrong with any of that. I’m not trying to be snooty here or act like I’m some real fan while others are not. It’s simply a fact of life that not everyone who has interests related to my own will know what I know, and I’m sure I don’t know all they know. Fandom is massive whatever the genre or franchise, and there are different kinds of fans from the casual to the serious to the extreme and beyond. Personally I wouldn’t call myself an extreme Howard fan because I’ve known lots of people who know a heck of a lot more about Robert E. Howard than myself, but compared to the average person and even most fans of fantasy literature, yeah, I know a fair amount about the man having read all the prose from him that has been made available, a number of his poems, numerous books about him, and I’ve even attended Howard Days in the small town of Cross Plains, Texas. Still, I don’t consider any of that to make me a true Howard scholar. If anything, I probably flirt around the edges of real Howard scholarship, which by the way has shot up like a rocket during the last couple of decades as more and more individuals are drawn to not only reading but studying Robert E. Howard.
Okay, okay, I’ve moved away from my point.
My point here is that most people probably haven’t even heard of Robert E. Howard, but Howard’s Conan character is one of the most famous fantasy figures of the last century. Even those who have heard of Howard usually only know him in relation to Conan. My goal here is to let such people know that Robert E. Howard wrote about a lot of characters other than Conan, and Howard wrote in a lot of genres outside fantasy. In truth, there’s even a strong argument to be made that fantasy wasn’t necessarily Howard’s preferred genre for writing or reading, that he was actually more interested in literature about history.
First off, Howard wrote plenty of fantasy yarns not about Conan or even the Hyborian world in which Conan lived. For instance, there were tales of Bran Mak Morn, king of the Picts, and Solomon Kane, a Puritan adventurer who wielded both sword and gun against dark forces, often in Africa. Well known, though not as much as Conan, is the Kull character, perhaps Howard’s first fantasy protagonist.
Outside of strictly fantasy tales, Howard also penned horror stories and dabbled on the edges of science fiction. For that matter, it would have been impossible to come up with the Sword & Sorcery genre without elements of horror.
But Howard also wrote historical tales and stories of high adventure, even sports stories. Sailor Steve Costigan is without a doubt the most popular of Howard’s boxing characters, but there were others. Costigan and characters similar to him sailed the high seas while putting into port every so often to make some money in the boxing ring, often while also thwarting some bad guys.
Then there is El Borak. A gunfighter from Texas, Frances Xavier Gordon made his way to the East in the early parts of the Twentieth Century, taking part in adventures around Afghanistan and other parts of Asia where he became known by his name of El Borak, apparently meaning “the swift.”
In the last years of Howard’s life he wrote quite a number of tales set in the Old West, and probably his best-known character from this period was Breckinridge Elkins. Elkins was something of a hillbilly and teller of tale tales, but the massive man was also dangerous if you faced off against him with fists, or any other weapon for that matter. In fact, some of Howard’s final writings were for A GENT FROM BEAR CREEK, an Elkins novel that also included some few short tales.
I’ve really just touched on the basics here of Howard’s most popular characters, for he had a lot more characters as protagonists for his stories. So I hope I’ve not offended any true Howard scholars and enthusiasts. What I wanted here was to bring attention to Howard’s non-Conan characters to a general audience, and if even one reader goes away with a new appreciation for Howard, then I will feel I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.