Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Review of "Conan the Warrior" by Robert E. Howard



Thanks to Arnie, Conan the Barbarian is one of the most well-known characters of heroic fantasy in today's world.  A creation of Robert E. Howard in the 1930s, Conan, with his exotic adventures, sword fights, arcane wizardry, and buxom blondes in leggings and breastplates, has become not only the epitome of sword & sorcery, but a product of the times.  Though influencing a large amount of fantasy, from Joe Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers to Michael Moorcock’s Elric, Steven Erikson’s Karsa Orlong to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd, tales of the Cimmerian warrior nevertheless represent juvenile wish fulfillment in its most overt form, leaving most to balk.  Given that the quality of the writing is also extremely, extremely poor, there is little to recommend about the stories save nostalgia and cover art.

Conan the Warrior is a collection of three tales, all published toward the end of Howard’s short life.  The following is a brief summary of “Red Nails”, “Jewels of Gwahlur”, and “Beyond the Black River”.

“Red Nails” – Conan, and his unpredictable ally, Valeria, find themselves in an eerie city, danger and intrigue all around.  Wheels within wheels of plot unrolling themselves in this complex story, events shift unpredictably as the secrets of the roofed city are undone by the duo in one action-packed scene after another. 

"Jewels of Gwahlur" - Conan, following a lead that treasure exists in Keshan, has hired himself out as a mercenary to the local army.  he is not the only one seeking the treasure, however.  Thutmekri, and his partner, Zargheba, likewise crave the cache, and have brought along a fake oracle to confuse matters.  Events playing out in typical Conan fashion, the only questions remains: how will Conan outsmart the others, fight off the beasts unleashed, and claim the treasure in the process.

“Beyond the Black River” – Conan, now in his fourth decade of life, returns home to find all of his old friends involved in domestic lives.  Bored, he sets out for the Bossonian Marches and becomes a soldier at Fort Tuscelan on the eponymous Black River.  Trapped outside the fort while hunting one day, Conan’s real adventures begin when he runs into an ensorcelled man who begs him to kill another.  An uprising developing in the aftermath, Conan’s warrior skills prove invaluable.

Though Howard’s effect on the genre is undeniable, it goes without saying that most who were influenced read Conan as youths.  A time when such simplistic and fantastic scenes and stories would have the most impact, certainly there must be a different feeling about Howard’s highly descriptive and immature style of storytelling when digested as an adult.  Paragraphs such as the following are par for the course:

    “He was almost a giant in stature, muscles rippling smoothly under his skin, which the sun had burned brown. His garb was similar to hers, except that he wore a broad leather belt instead of a girdle. Broadsword and poniard hung from his belt.
   "Conan, the Cimmerian!" ejaculated the woman. "What are you doing on my trail?"
   He grinned hardly, and his fierce blue eyes burned with a light any woman could understand as they ran over her magnificent figure, lingering on the swell of her splendid breasts beneath the light shirt, and the clear white flesh displayed between breeches and boot-tops.” (from “Red Nails”)

Passages such as this and many others only make one think of a late night television romance featuring a professional wrestler, that is, rather than any attempt at quality storytelling.

And style gets worse.  On hundreds of occasions Howard is guilty of telling, not showing.  Check the following small example: “He could draw his broadsword and disarm her, beat the blade out of her hand, but the thought of drawing a sword on a woman, even without intent of injury, was extremely repugnant to him.” Repugnant, indeed.  Surely there are better ways to indicate chivalry. 

There are also numerous anachronisms: "I don't know whether it will do the job or not," quoth he. "There's enough poison there to kill an elephant, but -- well, we'll see."  Mixing the Victorian (“quoth he”) with vernacular (“…well, we’ll see…”), well, you see.  

Steven Erikson has (rightfully) pointed out that Howard/Conan were mold breakers in one fashion: their anti-culture tendencies.  At the end of “Beyond the Black River”, a character can be quoth as saying: "Barbarism is the natural state of mankind…  Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph."  Implied in this quote is that mankind’s quest for pure civilization is futile, which makes for interesting discussion, indeed.  I’m sure Conan scholars (an oxy-moron if I’ve ever heard one) have taken this idea much deeper, but given that the idea is couched in blatant sexism and goofy violence, all integrity is drained, leaving little in the wash.

In the end, the tales contained in Conan the Warrior cannot be taken with any seriousness; it’s juvenile heroic fantasy—at best.  The stories are filled to the brim with sexism, contrived violence, and an archetypal hero spouting some of the worst one-liners this side of morning tv.  Howard can string sentences together to form a plot in a fashion many modern writers in the sub-genre cannot, but none of that matters when the substance lacks depth beyond boobs, blood, brawn, and beasts.  If you can stomach Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser or Edgar Rice Burroughs tales of adventure, then Conan may be for you.  Otherwise, no matter how archetypal he may be, the book is a low quality museum piece that cannot be appreciated from any other angle save cover art.



*Feb.14, 2013 - Since writing the review above, I've received a storm of feedback—to put it lightly.  In response to some of these comments, I've semi-randomly scanned through the stories outlined above and found further quotes to illustrate the poor quality of writing, sexism, and overall unpracticed approach to storytelling.  In no particular order, they are:

From "Jewels of Gwahlur " 
     

    "You mean you're going to keep me? Take me with you?" she asked hopefully.
    "What else do you suppose I'd do with you?" He ran an approving glance over her figure and grinned at the torn skirt which revealed a generous expanse of tempting ivory-tinted curves. "I can use an actress like you..."


     She was on her knees, clutching at Conan hysterically, her beautiful tear-stained face upturned to him, her dark silken hair flowing in disorder over her white shoulders. Conan picked her up and set her on his knee."Listen to me. I'll protect you from Zargheba. The priests shall not know of your perfidy. But you've got to do as I tell you."

    She faltered promises of explicit obedience, clasping his corded neck as if seeking security from the contact.  (I can't help a little commentary here: "You children listen to Uncle Conan. He knows best.")

   The Cimmerian made no attempt to match wits and intrigue with Thutmekri and his Shemitish partner, Zargheba. He knew that if Thutmekri won his point, he would insist on the instant banishment of his rival. There was but one thing for Conan to do: find the jewels before the king of Keshan made up his mind, and flee with them.


From "Red Nails"

    How the stunned Cimmerian regained his feet, not even he could have ever told. But the only thought that filled his brain was of the woman lying dazed and helpless almost in the path of the hurtling fiend, and before the breath came whistling back into his gullet he was standing over her with his sword in his hand. 

   Her shirt had been torn open in the struggle, and with cynical cruelty he rasped his thick beard across her bare breasts, bringing the blood to suffuse the fair skin, and fetching a cry of pain and outraged fury from her. Her convulsive resistance was useless; she was crushed down on a couch, disarmed and panting, her eyes blazing up at him like the eyes of a trapped tigress.

    Conan spoke imperturbably. He was a barbarian, and the terrible patience of the wilderness and its children was as much a part of him as his lusts and rages. He could endure a situation like this with a coolness impossible to a civilized person.


From "Beyond the Black River"

    Evidently Conan had spent much time among civilized men, though that contact had obviously not softened him, nor weakened any of his primitive instincts. Balthus' apprehension turned to admiration as he marked the easy catlike stride, the effortless silence with which the Cimmerian moved along the trail. The oiled links of his armor did not clink, and Balthus knew Conan could glide through the deepest thicket or most tangled copse as noiselessly as any naked Pict that ever lived.
 

30 comments:

  1. Yeah...that's why Howard has a collection of tales, including several Conan stories, published by Penguin Classics... just saying.

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    1. Touche. But I don't know if an entity that is solely out to earn money is a good arbiter of quality, especially considering that Penguin (without the "Classic" appendage) has heavily invested in more than a dozen Conan collections. Besides, Tarzan is also Penguin Classic. I'm sure in a few years, Harry Potter will also be a "classic"...

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    2. I just feel your assessment of Howard's writing is a little harsh, especially on a blog that is into fantasy fiction. This stuff is the source of today's fantasy, without the bloat and useless padding. You should try reading "Worms of the Earth", and see just how powerful Howard's writing really is.

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    3. I did acknowledge in the first paragraph of my review that Conan is a seminal idea for many fantasy characters today. But that's still no guarantee of quality. Very often people have original ideas, but it takes a second person to see their true potential and develop them into something worth the while. Of those spin-offs mentioned, I would consider only Elric and Karsa Orlong as being enhancements.

      "Powerful", well, I think we'll have to agree to disagree on that point. Our individual ideas what that word means in the context of literature seem considerably different.

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  2. You layed the shit on Conan but you forgot one cliché: "Conan fans are homoerotic dickheads , taking example on their idol, Howard who was crypto gay."
    I'm surprised you didn't find the space to insert these words or were you afraid to face hordes of "juvenile heroic fantasy" fans?

    I guess you wrote a draft about it, then you saw the hundreds of shitty articles posted on shitty blogs saying the same old story about a "gay" Howard so you decided to choose some other subject: people who like sword and sorcery are immature twerps .

    If you're so strict about Conan and Sword & Sorcery, I'm curious to read what you'd say about plain fantasy a la JRR Tolkien or some more recent variant of fantasy such as Elric Moorcock. Logically you should be telling the fans of the aforementioned genres that they're just all a bunch of "daydreaming shits speaking of funny looking midgets, albino anorexic magicians and pigfaced humanoids"

    . See how the hundreds of fans will react. Oh but you cannot. Your blog will be overwhelmed by hobbit aficionados. It's far more enjoyable to shoot on sight on people who like sword and sorcery, as it is less popular.

    Jesse, you're a sissy:

    You hate "boobs, blood and beasts", yet you spank the monkey every night in front of some dumb POV on your computer, where some oiled lady gets her anus turned inside out like a dead octopus, or is it that you prefer downloading hentais about furry antropomorphic dogs humping some brod who's been tied up like a thanksgiving stuffed turkey ?

    You speak of Leiber and Burrgoughs' work as if it were all some emetic substance, as if your elevated mind could not bear such poorly written scribblings. Yet we have to endure YOURS, how painful was that?

    Another moronic puritanical nutcase you are, if that shit mentality of yours isn't the result of something sad , sexist and violent that occured when you were a kid, what else could it be.

    You mock Howard, speaking of anachronisms by comparing vernacular style to that of Shakespeare, yet you seem to ignore that Shakespeare's stories were ridden with anachronisms , having characters from the roman antiquity speak and act like nobles from Elizabethan times, as it can be seen in plays from that period.
    If you're such a good analyst and writer how would make someone of the Hyborian Age express himself?

    Your poorly written article asked for a youtube level response and bam here it is in your puritanical hypocrite face.

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    1. "Hollis, get the gun. Neighbor's dog got out, again. If it comes close, you'll have to shoot it."

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  3. You're a disgrace to canadian essayists.

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  4. "He grinned hardly, and his fierce blue eyes burned with a light any woman could understand as they ran over her magnificent figure, lingering on the swell of her splendid breasts beneath the light shirt, and the clear white flesh displayed between breeches and boot-tops.”

    Howard dares and that makes you uneasy because daring and speaking frankly is an idea that never even crossed your mind once.Howard does so with gusto and style.
    Please post an excerpt that describes a similar scene and that you would qualify as more artistic and not only "showing" to follow your clumsy words. Do so and we'll be able to understand, we poor Howard readers.


    “He could draw his broadsword and disarm her, beat the blade out of her hand, but the thought of drawing a sword on a woman, even without intent of injury, was extremely repugnant to him.”
    It is not a question of chivalry, I wonder if you've even read the book or if you randomly took quotes out of it to practise your writing.
    The author is simply spilling out Conan's heart and deepest feelings without coating them in syrup. Conan has an uttermost respect for women and it is said in full letters "even the THOUGHT of drawing a sword ON A WOMAN [...]was REPUGNANT to him"

    do you know what repugnant means? He didn't say "conan could have smacked the hell out of the bitch but hey after all she's just a chick worth a blow job or two, so let's not bruise her cute little mouth".
    Those are the kind of words YOU would like your readers to think were written "between the lines" when in fact Howard says Conan respects women to the point that he could not imagine seeing one being threatened with a weapon.

    Time to go sleep isn't it, Jesse? It will set your mind straight and maybe you'll notice how sick you are seeing sexist authors surrounding you and your little paranoid world.

    Have you read Queen of the Black Coast? It's not very sexist is it? Gee wiz, a woman being able to command a whole crew of seasoned kushite warriors....of course you'll pretend to not even have heard about it.
    OR you'll simply extrude that one part -of course out of context as to manipulate even better the misandric audience you wish to see addicted to your articles for some weird reason- where she dances naked in front of Conan , omitting to speak of the rest of the yarn just to prove your point , which consists in saying Howard is a sexist author who degrades women.

    It is extremely amusing to see that you avoided to post this excerpt also from Red Nails :

    "He knew it was the truth. No living man could disarm Valeria of the Brotherhood with his bare hands. He scowled, his sensations a tangle of conflicting emotions."

    Valeria is then a warrior, although a female one, yet no man was able to disarm her.
    How sexist is that you ugly manipulator?

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    1. I will do my best to respond to your comments:

      #1 - As I said to the commenter above, we'll have to agree to disagree on the exact definition of quality prose, and what precisely "gusto and style" mean.

      #2 - If you look a little closer at my review, you'll notice the quote involving the word "broadsword", "disarm", "repugnant", etc. was not regarding sexism. It was to give an example of how Howard is telling rather than showing things, which is generally considered shoddy writing.

      #3 - Regarding sexism, feminism, etc., you have an interesting point. There are a few schools of thought on the matter. Some feel that placing a female character in a position of power (like Valeria in the story you mention) is indeed a shout out in support of women, i.e. a female character occupies a role traditionally held by a male. There are other who say, however, that the only thing feminine about such characters is the 'wo' in front of 'man'. In other words, if you remove any reference such characters are female (e.g. the words, 'she', 'her', etc.) and any physical description that identifies the character as female (e.g. breasts, curvy hips, etc.) and are left with only actions and behavior to judge whether a character is male or female, then you have a man. After all, who puts value in skill with a sword, leading armies into battle, women dancing naked around a fire, holding power in society, getting in fights more? Men or women? There are many women who would argue these traits do not represent the integrity of women. Where's the social harmony? Where's motherhood and family values? Where's the female logic? Where's the emotional input? Bloody battles, sword fighting, etc. seem poor representations.

      I will take your point about Valeria, however, you might ask yourself whether she is a man's idea of a perfect woman, or a woman's idea of a perfect woman?

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  5. For some odd reasons some words disappeared in my reply:
    Elric BY Moorcock.
    If you're such a good analyst and writer how would YOU make someone of the Hyborian Age express himself?

    I'll have to buy myself a new keyboard but you Jesse you'll have to buy a brain some day, I mean putting Tarzan and Harry Potter in the same bag in the comment section of this article, you're out of your mind. You're just fucked up in the head.


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  6. Quoting Jesse:
    "Though Howard’s effect on the genre is undeniable, it goes without saying that most who were influenced read Conan as youths. A time when such simplistic and fantastic scenes and stories would have the most impact, certainly there must be a different feeling about Howard’s highly descriptive and immature style of storytelling when digested as an adult."

    Tell me then smartass, who are those authors in question whose style you claim as being so mature compared to Howard, yet were influenced by him "in their youth" when you claim they were easily impressed due to their young age??

    You're just spilling out your bile yet your goal is just to be a smartass fishing for insults by degrading an author on some dumb blog, you didn't reply about those false sexist claims for instance, nor did you try to explain yourself about what exactly was clumsy in mixing different writing styles -a mix you tagged as anachronic- as if widely acclaimed authors never employed this method when writing scenes occuring in ancient times but in english, nor did you take examples in classic literature to back your claims because they would prove you wrong.

    It's all one way author senseless bashing, with nothing to say when your arguments are proven devoid of any truth.

    You seem to despise Howard on the ground that he describes so well some scenes due to his natural talent, as if highly a descriptive style was a guarantee of poor quality.

    Boy I can only say one thing, go back to school and start reading some classics, you'll be gulping down descriptions 30 times longer than those of Howard and if it's the length that really bothers you, well you're simply not calibrated to be an essayist -as one comment justly pointed out- .

    You spoke of Shakespeare yet you probably never read his works or else you would never have uttered those goofball hainous comments, which simply show two things:

    -you're a self-proclaimed essayist popping out of nowhere , reeking of immaturity
    -you're jealous of Howard's talent and posthumous success

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  7. Hello, Jesse, good to see another review of Howard out there. Now then...

    Though influencing a large amount of fantasy, from Joe Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers to Michael Moorcock’s Elric, Steven Erikson’s Karsa Orlong to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd, tales of the Cimmerian warrior nevertheless represent juvenile wish fulfillment in its most overt form, leaving most to balk.

    That much is sadly true in the case of many of the poorer pastiches, and for many decades, this was the prevailing view in academia - even among the Conan fanbase itself. However, the original stories by Howard have much more to offer than puerile adolescent wish fulfilment to the discerning reader, and I really think you'd get a lot more out of them with a second reading, especially a recent edition with the pure texts, as opposed to the old edited editions.

    Given that the quality of the writing is also extremely, extremely poor, there is little to recommend about the stories save nostalgia and cover art.

    A shame you think that.

    Though Howard’s effect on the genre is undeniable, it goes without saying that most who were influenced read Conan as youths. A time when such simplistic and fantastic scenes and stories would have the most impact, certainly there must be a different feeling about Howard’s highly descriptive and immature style of storytelling when digested as an adult.

    Certainly I had a different opinion on Howard's writing now than when I first encountered it as a teenager, but I actually felt the opposite - the better stories were more complex and deep than I originally supposed, and considering I avoided the Conan stories for much of my youth (fully believing in the Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfillment thing), I was pleasantly surprised by the stories when I did.

    Passages such as this and many others only make one think of a late night television romance featuring a professional wrestler, that is, rather than any attempt at quality storytelling.

    You'll have to forgive me for being obtuse, but I fail to see the problem .

    And style gets worse. On hundreds of occasions Howard is guilty of telling, not showing. Check the following small example: “He could draw his broadsword and disarm her, beat the blade out of her hand, but the thought of drawing a sword on a woman, even without intent of injury, was extremely repugnant to him.” Repugnant, indeed. Surely there are better ways to indicate chivalry.

    Once again, I don't see the problem. How would you *show* Conan's internal reluctance to drawing a sword on a woman, when the very nature of that reluctance is going through his head? Yes, there are better ways to indicate chivalry, but that's based on the assumption that this has anything to do with chivalry in the first place.

    There are also numerous anachronisms: "I don't know whether it will do the job or not," quoth he. "There's enough poison there to kill an elephant, but -- well, we'll see." Mixing the Victorian (“quoth he”) with vernacular (“…well, we’ll see…”), well, you see.

    You'll notice that "quoth he" appears in the narration, while the vernacular appears in the dialogue. Considering this is a story supposedly based on completely imaginary events that happened before the dawn of civilizations, of course there are going to be anachronisms within the text, just as any translation of The Iliad is going to have Odysseus speaking English.

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    1. Taranaich, firstly thank you for the patience and reserve. This review has not yet met with the same degree of commentary.

      I think we can agree to disagree regarding the style, i.e. whether it is readable or not. However, I think it is quite easy to "show" repugnance of striking women, rather than tell it. For example, the female character might strike Conan, but he doesn't strike back. Conan might jump into a situation to defend her from being struck (I can't remember, but I think he might do this later in the story, which would make the statement redundant...). If you'd like something really "literary", Conan might keep his sword sheathed in the presence of women. Those are some simple ways, but truly creative writers would find something more subtle.

      Regarding the "depth" of the Conan stories, I think I will address that in a reply to your next comment.

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  8. Implied in this quote is that mankind’s quest for pure civilization is futile, which makes for interesting discussion, indeed. I’m sure Conan scholars (an oxy-moron if I’ve ever heard one) have taken this idea much deeper, but given that the idea is couched in blatant sexism and goofy violence, all integrity is drained, leaving little in the wash.

    Given that you dismiss the very idea of Conan or Howard scholarship as oxymoronic, it's no wonder you fail to see the much deeper and more nuanced implications of that phrase. The dichotomy and conflict of civilization and barbarism is a constant theme of Howards pervading all his writings. The interpretation that "mankind’s quest for pure civilization is futile" is a fairly surface-level reading, but again, there's more to it than that. Here's a good interview with Rusty Burke on the matter:

    http://www.wanderingstarbooks.com/ultimate/ut_interviews3.html

    In the end, the tales contained in Conan the Warrior cannot be taken with any seriousness; it’s juvenile heroic fantasy—at best. The stories are filled to the brim with sexism, contrived violence, and an archetypal hero spouting some of the worst one-liners this side of morning tv. Howard can string sentences together to form a plot in a fashion many modern writers in the sub-genre cannot, but none of that matters when the substance lacks depth beyond boobs, blood, and beasts.

    Well, all I can say to that is that many would disagree with such an assessment. There have been literally hundreds of essays, dozens of books, scores of journals and who knows how many pages written on Howard's Conan stories alone, let alone the rest of his vast literary output:

    http://www.howardworks.com/about.htm

    So it's a shame you didn't get much out of Howard, but if you want to learn more, maybe even reconsider, I highly recommend the following websites for scholarly discussions and explorations of Howard and Conan:

    The REH United Press Association
    The Cimmerian
    REH: Two-Gun Raconteur
    The Dark Man
    The REH Electronic Press Association
    The Robert E. Howard Foundation

    Whole lotta oxymorons there!

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    1. Thanks for the links.

      I have read the Burke interview, and I must say it's done nothing to make me retract anything I've written thus far. I don't mean to sound defiant, just that when initially reading the quote regarding the futility of civilization, I interpreted it the same as Burke; barbarous behavior is pervasive rather than located at specific, special points. It's such a nihilist view, and one I can't swallow. Civilization, the betterment of society, the progression of mankind toward higher ideals, are these all just a pipe dream? Has the progress we've made been for naught? Does the beautiful art that has been created have meaning? Howard would acknowledge this, then cover it over with a blanket that man's animal nature will eventually rise to destroy these advancements, the barbarous horde forever lurking. I hold out more hope.

      Regarding the wealth of non-fiction available on Conan, I will certainly admit I was unaware of how extensive it was. However, I'm not surprised. In my literary travels I have encountered an expanding base of scholarship on Harry Potter, piles and piles of Tolkien research, a growing pile on Twilght, papers and discussion on The DaVinci Code, even scholarly work dissecting the Bible to discover whether Jesus was homosexual. My point is, I do not doubt that when digging deep enough into any text, including Conan, material will be found for analysis. Heck, Cinderella can be examined for the social aspects of elitism, materialism, or the effect of broken homes. Critics, including myself, are a dime a dozen these days.

      When reading passages in Conan like that I quoted regarding "splendid breasts" and "burned with a light that any woman could understand" I get nauseated. If it were only occasional, I might turn the other eye. If I found Howard's style engaging, I might stick with it a little longer. But that the writing is pervasively unpracticed and scenes of gratuitous violence and women as sex objects feature so heavily, I'm turned off.

      If you get something meaningful from Conan, all the power to you. I just hope that you see more value in life than simple defeatism, i.e. that mankind will forever succumb to base desire.

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    2. Taranaich why are you losing your time with this fakeass troll ?
      I just read you answers, you're too kind with him.

      It's like trying to explain to a taliban that it's not cool to blow up UNESCO classified buddhic statues.

      The guy doesn't give a fucken flying shit about it, : his intent is to shit all over Howard, so let him shit in peace all alone , he's not posting on blogs to discuss and exchange ideas.He's here to hate. A shitster in other terms.

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  9. Wow, Jesse, after reading your review of this, along with your review of Lovecraft, all I have to say is: be careful when you throw words like “juvenile” around, because I yet to see that you’re capable of understanding subtext in literature, or of making sound arguments.

    I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone could read “Red Nails” or “Beyond the Black River” and take away from them as “juvenile wish fulfillment”, because these are two of the most grim stories that REH ever wrote.

    “I have read the Burke interview, and I must say it's done nothing to make me retract anything I've written thus far. I don't mean to sound defiant, just that when initially reading the quote regarding the futility of civilization, I interpreted it the same as Burke; barbarous behavior is pervasive rather than located at specific, special points. It's such a nihilist view, and one I can't swallow. Civilization, the betterment of society, the progression of mankind toward higher ideals, are these all just a pipe dream? Has the progress we've made been for naught? Does the beautiful art that has been created have meaning? Howard would acknowledge this, then cover it over with a blanket that man's animal nature will eventually rise to destroy these advancements, the barbarous horde forever lurking. I hold out more hope.”

    First of all, Jesse, you really need to choose a position and stick with it. Is Howard’s writing “juvenile wish fulfillment in its most overt form”, or is it “nihilistic” (to quote you “I just hope that you see more value in life than simple defeatism, i.e. that mankind will forever succumb to base desire”)?, because obviously it can’t be both. As it stands, you’re wrong on both counts. The point of literature, any good literature, is to shed light on essential truths about the human condition, and it just happens that you picked two Robert E. Howard stories that are exemplary in that regard.

    “Red Nails” was written shortly after Howard took a trip to New Mexico, and it’s heavily influenced by a real historical event, The Lincoln County War, the incident that made Billy the Kid a household name. “Red Nails” is about what happens (or could happen) when a civilization peaks and then declines into violence and degeneracy. That’s great that you “hold out more hope” (an expressed desire for juvenile wish fulfillment if I ever heard one), but that’s not what good literature is about, it’s about showing the world how it really is (at the very least, from the author’s point of view), not showing it how one wants it to be. Howard was no slouch when it came to knowledge of history, and one thing that all historians will agree on is that every civilization eventually peaks and then starts a downward decline into the dustpan of history. And very often, they’re conquered and displaced by a more vigorous and warlike culture (the barbarians, if you will). Was Howard wrong about this? Look at the state of Western Civilization. Do you think the average man is stronger and more virile than his counterpart from a century ago?

    Howard grew up in Texas during the early twentieth century, and he talked to people who had actually lived on the frontier and fought with Indians when the West was still wild. That’s what “Beyond the Black River” is really about. It’s a thinly veiled American frontier story, and it’s an exploration about what happens when a more highly advanced culture comes in contact with a more primitive one. In addition to the American frontier, it has loads of historical parallels, such as the Roman Empire’s frontiers into Northern Britannia (modern day Scotland) and Germania. If you know your history, then you know that Rome was eventually overrun by barbarians, who in turn stated the long climb back to civilization again. Howard recognized that this was a cycle that mankind was likely to keep repeating.

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    1. I am well versed in my Eliade, Nietszche, Campbell, and others who espouse the eternal return. It's just difficult for me to see the profundity of Howard's subject matter when confronted with heaving bosoms, rippling muscles, heads cloven in two, etc., pulp, etc. nearly every page. Am I to ignore these overtly sensationalist elements? I mean, do you ignore the dash and glamor of soap operas to get to the real social values and psychological states underpinning daytime tv? Those ideas exist, hiding in the deeps, but is the surface worth your time?

      And lastly, what of the racist, sexist, and culturally bigoted elements of Howard's writing? Am I to ignore that, too?

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  10. “Regarding sexism, feminism, etc., you have an interesting point. There are a few schools of thought on the matter. Some feel that placing a female character in a position of power (like Valeria in the story you mention) is indeed a shout out in support of women, i.e. a female character occupies a role traditionally held by a male. There are other who say, however, that the only thing feminine about such characters is the 'wo' in front of 'man'. In other words, if you remove any reference such characters are female (e.g. the words, 'she', 'her', etc.) and any physical description that identifies the character as female (e.g. breasts, curvy hips, etc.) and are left with only actions and behavior to judge whether a character is male or female, then you have a man. After all, who puts value in skill with a sword, leading armies into battle, women dancing naked around a fire, holding power in society, getting in fights more? Men or women? There are many women who would argue these traits do not represent the integrity of women. Where's the social harmony? Where's motherhood and family values? Where's the female logic? Where's the emotional input? Bloody battles, sword fighting, etc. seem poor representations.

    I will take your point about Valeria, however, you might ask yourself whether she is a man’s idea of a perfect woman, or a woman’s idea of a perfect woman.”

    I really hate to be insulting, but that’s a colossally dumb question, dressed up as an incredibly thin straw man argument. The truth is that you’ve simply not read enough Howard to know what you’re talking about. If you had, you’d find that his stories are populated with many different types of women, and certainly all are not warriors. For the record, Valeria was at least partially based on Novalyne Price, whom Howard was dating a few months prior. Howard’s women warriors are few, but Valeria is certainly not the only one. Leigh Brackett was such a fan of Howard’s female warrior “Dark Agnes” that she wrote the introduction to “Sword Woman”. So was Dark Agnes “a man’s idea of a perfect woman, or a woman’s idea of a perfect woman”? I don’t know, you tell me.

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    1. I found another Howard woman for you.

      "At last [Conan] crossed the chamber, while she cowered back against the wall, sobbing frantic pleas for mercy. Grasping her yellow locks with no gentle hand, he dragged her off the bed. Thrusting his blade back in its sheath, he tucked his squirming captive under his left arm, and strode to the window."

      Conan goes on to throw the woman in a pit of sewage.

      I'd be curious which of the first, second, or third wave feminists would call that a shot in the arm for women's equality?

      Delete
    2. “I am well versed in my Eliade, Nietszche, Campbell, and others who espouse the eternal return.”

      That’s just it, Jesse. I don’t think you are particularly well versed in any of these individuals, and you’ve yet to show that you’re capable deep exploration of this kind of subject matter. Instead, all we’ve seen from you are quick knee reactions such as this. You actually think that you can sound intelligent by just name dropping a few philosophers that you’ve heard of. I’d like for you to demonstrate that you actually understand them.

      “It's just difficult for me to see the profundity of Howard's subject matter when confronted with heaving bosoms, rippling muscles, heads cloven in two, etc., pulp, etc. nearly every page.”

      I know it’s difficult for you, Jesse. That’s why, as I’ve said, you’re not particularly good at this.

      “Am I to ignore these overtly sensationalist elements?”

      Perhaps you should try something other than two-dimensional thinking. I won’t deny the “pulp” elements of Howard’s writing. In fact, it’s a large part of its appeal. But the surface elements don’t negate the profound subtext to be found beneath the surface. Your arguments really reveal nothing but your own shallow intellect.

      “I mean, do you ignore the dash and glamor of soap operas to get to the real social values and psychological states underpinning daytime tv? Those ideas exist, hiding in the deeps, but is the surface worth your time?”

      That’s just the thing, Jesse. These elements actually DON’T exist in most Daytime Soap Operas. It’s just another knee jerk reaction from you, absent of deep thought; a false parallel, intellectual laziness.

      “And lastly, what of the racist, sexist, and culturally bigoted elements of Howard's writing? Am I to ignore that, too?;’

      It’s your life. Frankly, I don’t care what you do. If Howard’s too deep for you, or if you find it offensive, then don’t read him. But this isn’t about you. You wrote a review and published it on your blog, and your review may influence whether others choose to read Howard or not. I think those people deserve to hear another side, one from someone capable of understanding the subtext.

      “I found another Howard woman for you.

      "At last [Conan] crossed the chamber, while she cowered back against the wall, sobbing frantic pleas for mercy. Grasping her yellow locks with no gentle hand, he dragged her off the bed. Thrusting his blade back in its sheath, he tucked his squirming captive under his left arm, and strode to the window."

      Conan goes on to throw the woman in a pit of sewage.

      I'd be curious which of the first, second, or third wave feminists would call that a shot in the arm for women’s equality.”

      Poor Jesse. Another knee-jerk reaction. You went and skimmed some Robert E. Howard writings until you found something that you thought would back up your arguments, didn’t you? More intellectual laziness. You conveniently left out the fact that only hours before Conan’s girlfriend sold him out to the police and shacked up with another man (The story is Rogues in the House). It’s called context, Jesse.

      Delete
    3. Santa Claus is going to push you in the cesspool tooFebruary 5, 2013 at 2:43 AM

      HEy moronic douchebag, let's speak of this girl in question.
      "the girl who had sold him to the police was taking leave of her new lover in a chamber one flight up. This young thug, her door closed behind him, groped his way down a creaking flight of stairs"

      This girl just SOLD Conan to the local authorities and worse, had a secret lover who had foul intentions concerning Conan, which means she betrayed him twice.
      Conan didn't even hit the girl, he grabbed her and threw her in in the cesspool:

      "Conan glanced down into the muck and slime of the alleys below; he listened briefly to the clamor inside and the pleas of the wench; then he dropped her with great accuracy into a cesspool. He enjoyed her kickings and flounderings and the concentrated venom her profanity for a few seconds, and even allowed himself a low rumble of laughter. "

      For a mercenary and a man who killed so many men, Conan seems rather forgiving ,considering that the story is happening more than 10000 years before our era.
      This traitorous girl almost had him killed yet he only throws her in a pile of shit and piss.

      Jesse you're just another wannabe who fishes quotes of Robert E Howard off the web without knowing what they're about, taking them out of context but here I am to explain the context and what a fakeass troll you are.

      You could have at least said that it was from "Rogues in the House"

      Delete
    4. It is my fate to know you are not the average Conan fan, but you certainly lower the bar...

      Delete
    5. YOU lower the bar buddy, as you do not even mention the title of the excerpt you quoted for example, and you took the excerpt out on context, the context being crucial for the comprehension of Conan dragging the girl out of bed and throwing her in the sewage: she sold him to the local guardsmen and betrayed him with her secret lover getting him almost killed.

      Jesse, you're just some snobbish asshole rehashing old articles found on the web with the same old shit arguments only someone who didn't read the whole stories could dare to say, as you only read the synopsis and a few selected excerpts already present in the reviews you rehashed.

      Your fate is to spread shit on "blogs" such as this present one. But it should be to one day start reading the material you're supposed to criticize, ignorant turd.

      Your fucked up attitude deserves no less than debasing replies, a special treatment for a specially gross "analyst" .

      Delete
  11. And finally, I want to address some remarks you made on your Lovecraft review, since they mention Howard as well.

    “Fair enough; Lovecraft’s quotes certainly fit his stories, and I can always appreciate a writer challenging the status quo. Where I continue to balk, however, is the premise. No matter the inapproachable nature of fear to reality, or cosmic indifference, the nihilism overwhelms. I’m not religious, but the lack of value Lovecraft assigns to life is worrying. If this is all meaningless, why be kind to my neighbor? Why fall in love and start a family? Why not give up now instead of pushing on to the end? Had Lovecraft posited a replacement to religion that gives life meaning, the book would be worth further examination. Criticizing something without filing the void you create is only half the battle.

    Conan is largely in the same nihilist vein; the world will always be barbarous and civilization a pipe dream. In other words, don’t try to improve standards for yourself or society, rather give in and live like a barbarian like the rest. Forgive me, but even if the world has not evolved much further than the Hyborian Age, I like to think that what little progress has been made is a step in the right direction. “

    Wow, for someone who claims to be non-religious, you sure do offer a weak straw-man argument. Seriously dude. I hear conservative Christians make the exact same argument when it comes to evolution of the existence of a creator. “If there’s no God, no creator, then there’s no moral authority, and no meaning to life, so why even bother?” It’s lame.

    Okay. You’re terrified of staring into the abyss, and you crave literature that feeds you the belief that your life has meaning and that everything will turn out okay in the end. How exactly is that NOT juvenile wish fulfillment?

    “Call me enlightened, call me progressive, call me pathetically hopeless, but I’m not a defeatist like Lovecraft and Howard, and I appreciate my literature as such.”

    No, I would not refer to you as progressive or particularly enlightened. On the contrary, you’ve yet to demonstrate a capability for deep thought. You’re really not very good at this.





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    1. Final thoughts, as I weary of your frustrated and aggressive, personal attacks.

      Summary of my review:
      1. Conan is pulp
      2. Conan is written in incredibly poor style
      3. There are numerous scenes featuring women as sex objects for no deeper purpose
      4. Conan has a few admirable points; there exists commentary on the nature of civilization, and conversely, barbarity.
      5. Conan stories can be exciting, however:
      6. Conan stories are mostly cheap sensationalism (sexuality and violence are their foremost elements)
      7. Conan has been a major influence in sword and sorcery since.

      Summary of things I've learned since posting the review:
      1. Conan stories feature racism
      2. Conan stories feature cultural discrimination
      3. Conan's worldview is nihilist
      4. Conan stories also feature several strong and non-sexualized female characters
      5. Conan fans cover the entire spectrum of intellect, for better and worse

      Delete
  12. Quoting Jesse:

    "But that the writing is pervasively unpracticed and scenes of gratuitous violence and women as sex objects feature so heavily, I'm turned off.
    "

    Jesse, your arrogance and snobbery has no limits. You repeat endlessly the same arguments even when they are proven wrong.
    I must insist upon the fact that you've read merely bits of Conan stories, or else you wouldn't call the violence "gratuitous" . Worse, in these pseudohistorical times described by Howard, violence was a way of life but probably you've never read the Hyborian Age essay and thus you have no clue at all of when this age is supposed to occur . A hint, it's before the recorded real life History, moron.
    Am I supposed to read the books for you too?

    If women were mere sex objects for Conan he'd simply fuck them and move on or keep them as sexslaves, but other than that he falls for Belit as SHE seduces him and he even avenges her. Not once she turned into a "sex object".
    Valeria is more complex, but once again Conan has great respect for her and never takes her for granted. Her being a strong figure, almost a feminine equivalent of Conan in terms of swordfighting doesn't turn the situation into a sexist parody of the ideal woman as you implied, far from it.
    Conan went to brothels but tell me whcih reaver which mercenary which wandering real life historical characters didn't go to brothels? They were filled with them.
    You'd like to change this fact? You accuse Howard of making it all up? Holy fuck you're one real clinical case buddy.
    I think you have issues towards women and suffer from some lack of confidence in yourself, seeing "sexist authors" everywhere. As it has been said already, you're just fucked up in the head and taking it all on Robert E Howard, whose sole crime was to make us discover the magnificent Hyborian Age, an age of wonders whose essence you simply failed to grasp because you pretend to have read the stories, then you bash the author without having understood the short excerpts you've briefly read and cannot even replace any events in their context, getting lost ins some sort of grinding in the ground game not to speak of the style that you failed to appreciate as you have been poorly educated and have no clue of what dilemma it represents to make characters speak in ancient times -in english- .
    Probably because you suddenly decided to write and are jealous of Howard who accomplished more in his lifetime than you could ever accomplish even if you could live 10 lives. He initiated the genre Sword and Sorcery, inspiring for nearly 80 years since his death many authors, artists, filmmakers and musicians while you're there scribbling it's flat and dull be with that rotten attitude of yours.

    A little tip: if you wish to denigrate an author , referring in name only to classic authors such as Shakespeare and others, well then start comparing for real and start analyzing SIDE TO SIDE similar excerpts. Accusing an author of publishing "unpractised" writing must be backed up with comparisons with writings that are according to you better "practised".
    Readers will see you were unable to even do that.

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  13. Jesse, I don't know why you allow these virulently hateful and brain-searingly offensive posts to remain on your page. You don't have to allow them to stay.... We all have our positions, preferences, etc -- it's a little ridiculous that people get this much up in arms about divergent opinions.

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    1. Ridiculous to the point of humor, even. :) Perhaps someday I'll delete them, but for the moment I publish them as some form of indirect proof.

      Delete