We Need to Talk About Conan

by Arthur B

It's time to stop making excuses for Robert E. Howard's trashy writing and overt hatred.
~
This article is, to an extent, old news. There has been a ridiculous amount of ink spilled on the subject of Conan ever since Robert E. Howard began writing about the guy. Over and over again, people have said some variation of what Jason Sanford says here - to paraphrase, that Howard was tediously and egregiously racist by our standards, and that perhaps we shouldn't keep loudly recommending his work as being essential reading in the fantasy genre. And like clockwork, in come the weaksauce defences. At best, you get pieces like this, in which Jonathan Moeller at least acknowledges that Howard was a racist but tries to argue that what Sanford was proposing was censorship. (It isn't. Shunning is not censorship. Sanford never argued that Howard's works should be suppressed or banned from publication, but Moeller seems to regard refusing to positively promote Howard's works as being the same thing as actively working to suppress them.) At worst, you have people proposing the most incredible arguments as to why, despite all appearances, Howard wasn't that bad of a racist, and wasn't even a sexist either. We've had some of that here in the past, and I suspect we'll see more; certainly, it seems to be a law that if you criticise Howard on your SF/fantasy website, fanzine or other forum, his defenders will manifest to wheel out the same tired arguments in his defence.

But the fact remains that the Conan stories have been skewered before, repeatedly, and by people with far more standing to complain about them than I'll ever have. What's prompted me to play Minority Warrior here?

Well, first off, it seemed timely. Having reviewed the Conan movies fairly recently, and having had exchanges about Howard on here too, the subject was on my mind. It had been a while since I had reread the stories anyway. People might be interested in a review since there seem to be several reprints making their way onto the shelves in the wake of the movie remake. Why not?

Secondly, the series seems ideal subject matter for the Reading Canary, though in the reverse to the way I usually do these articles - rather than being an exercise in asking "where does this series end up losing what made it good in the first place?", this has turned more into a "which Conan stories might almost have been OK if Howard had been able to shut up?" deal. A lot of the tales I simply cannot enjoy any more because of the racism and misogyny on display. On top of that, one has to confront the stark fact that Robert E. Howard just wasn't that good of a writer a lot of the time - remember, these stories were cranked out quickly, for a market that was permanently hungry for new material, and aside from some of the longer stories there's little sign of polish. Howard would regularly recycle plots or slap a new name on essentially the same supporting character (I lost count of the number of female leads who were Caucasian escapees from dark-skinned slavers), and generally cut corners in order to produce as much product as he could. When the stories are often shit, often bigoted, and fairly often both bigoted and shit, the question arises as to whether any of them are worthy of their reputation at all.

Thirdly, I did this because in another life I might have been one of those defenders. I can remember reading the stories as a teenager and simply failing to notice the bigotry involved; I can also remember reading them again when somewhat older, and being able to recognise the bigotry but willing to argue that people should read the stories anyway because they were so influential and the quality shone through. Both are positions I regard with some embarrassment.

So, basically I am tilting at a windmill which already has a small forest of lances poking out of its sails for the sake of self-flagellating about my former bad taste. It's more fun than it sounds, which is good because the Conan material is much less fun than I remember it being.

Obvious caveat: I'm a white man, so I have a thick woolly layer of privilege between me and a lot of the issues I talk about here. It's entirely possible I give Howard an easy time in some places or don't quite cut to the heart of what's wrong in other places. I might even flip out at parts which aren't actually that offensive in some places.

Oh, and trigger warning: racism and sexism aplenty in this stuff. Plus there's one story which can be summarised as "Conan tries to rape someone and fails", so yeah.

The Canon of Conan


The Conan stories first appeared in a range of pulp magazines, and were predominantly written for and pitched to the famous Weird Tales. After Howard's death, they got reprinted in book form. At around this time, Lin Carter and L. Sprauge de Camp set to work completing some of the stories Howard had left unfinished in his lifetime, as well as tampering with the text of the original stories in order to fit them into the timeline of Conan's life they had worked out. Then, once the Howard word-mine had been completely exhausted, Carter, de Camp, and a cast of thousands set to cranking out more and more Conan stories until the market was hopelessly swamped in them.

The text I'm working from here is the two-volume Conan Chronicles put out by Gollancz as part of the Fantasy Masterworks series, which arrange Howard's original stories in the chronology as worked out by de Camp and Carter and restores them to the text as originally penned by Howard himself. (Gollancz has reprinted the same texts in one volume as The Complete Chronicles of Conan, and has fairly recently put them out in three volumes as Conan the Destroyer, Conan the Berserker and Conan the Indomitable in order to cash in on the movie remake.) Howard purists would say that the restored text is the best way to experience Howard, because the tampering by other hands over time was, at points, quite extensive, and certainly not up to the standards of the man himself. Personally, I'm fine with taking this approach because firstly it means I get to hang Howard with his own words and secondly fuck reading those mountains of pastiches.

In addition, I'm not going to be reviewing any stories which were left unfinished or only existed as first drafts when Howard died. Only stories which were completed by Howard and submitted for publication by him are covered, and trust me, that's more than enough.

The Context of Conan


Many Conan compilations include the background essay The Hyborian Age, which as Howard explains in his introduction was an invented history of the prehistoric period the stories take place in. Specifically, it's an account of the rise and fall of different peoples and nations during a period when the global status quo was shaken by the cataclysm that sank Atlantis. Most of the peoples who arise during this time are, long ages later, scattered to the winds by a Pictish incursion, but eventually end up the ancestors of a wide range of modern cultures. Conan's lifetime unfolded at some point during this history, but precisely where is difficult to determine - though if I had to guess, I'd say Howard was vaguely planning to cast Conan as the last King of Aquilonia who goes down fighting Gorm's Picts as they sweep aside the Hyborian peoples.

The utility of the essay is obvious - sketching out a geopolitical history of Conan's era allowed Howard to populate his world with a richer array of cultures than is typical for a fantasy setting, whilst relating said cultures to modern peoples makes them familiar and recognisable enough to readers that we aren't completely lost. Of course, because Howard is Howard he completely botches the actual application of this - too many of his fictional cultures seem interchangeable and lack distinguishing features, and those which are readily identifiable are so because they are crude and obvious caricatures. However, it's still worth giving some attention to this essay. The Hyborian Age is, in fact, Howard's 20-page equivalent of the Silmarillion, in that it was an act of worldbuilding that, whilst undeniably important in setting up all the stuff the stories allude to, is kind of a snoozefest to read in its own right, but is compulsory reading for any serious examination of the stories it underpins because it provides a clear and at points damning outline of the philosophy behind the fiction.

The Silmarillion, after all, is an imaginary history, and as such the subjects it focuses on tend to reveal Tolkien's own theory of history. The history of Middle-Earth is a history of people's relationship with righteous authority, which proceeds from God (in the guise of Eru Iluvatar) via the loyalist Valar and Maiar to elves and men. The significant events of history all consist, at their roots, of rebellion against or reconciliation with this authority. Melkor wanted to sing his own song at the song of creation rather than following Iluvatar's tune, and he became Morgoth, the first dark lord; Aule created the dwarves as his own thing rather than letting the other Valar in on it, but when Iluvatar found out he confessed and offered to destroy his handiwork - and Iluvatar forgave him and let the dwarves live as a result. The Valar told the elves not to chase Morgoth across the ocean to get the Silmarils back, the Eldar defied them and endured aeons of horrifying warfare in Middle-Earth; the Eldar were reconciled with the Valar after the end of Morgoth, and that set in motion their exodus back to the West. The Numenoreans allowed Sauron to tempt them away from obedience to proper authority and Numenor sank; Aragorn followed the counsel of Gandalf and restored the kingdoms of men to order. Saruman forgot that he was a Maiar answerable to the Valar and Iluvatar, and tried to set up as a power in his own right; Gandalf pointed out that without his divine purpose, Saruman had no power, and Saruman's staff broke. Good monarchs like Aragorn and Theoden get their mandate by divine right; bad monarchs like Denethor do not recognise the authority held over them by those who possess the divine mandate.

If the Silmarillion has a recurring theme of relationships with a divine hierarchy, said theme being possible to discern from a careful reading, The Hyborian Age has a frothing-at-the-mouth obsession with race which it screams from the rooftops. Apologists may point out that the text was intended to provide a cultural backdrop for the stories, and consequently could hardly afford to ignore issues of ethnicity, but this would be to ignore a lot of what Howard says in the essay itself - in which he clearly and directly outlines a pseudo-Darwinian theory of race, and a racialist theory of history.

Specifically, the history outlined here is based on the fundamental axiom that physical evolution and cultural sophistication is inherently linked in human beings. The survivors of Atlanteans, in reverting to savagery, are described as devolving into "ape-men", physically regressing just as they culturally regress. This anthropocentric and mistaken view of evolution as a ladder rather than an ever-branching river is essential to Howard's fiction; in several Conan stories our hero comes up against apes who it is strongly suggested are the degenerate descendants of human beings.

It is true that Howard was not alone in this ridiculousness - Lovecraft wrote a story about some guy who commits suicide on learning that some of his ancestors interbred with albino gorillas from Africa. However, whilst Lovecraft's fiction is often blighted by his bigotry, the fundamental axioms of the Cthulhu mythos are at least based on the fundamental irrelevance of all human cultures and endeavours on a cosmic scale, and so it is possible to produce fiction which is recognisably Lovecraftian without being a racist tit about it. Creepy Howie managed to do that himself occasionally, or at least got close to it. Conversely, the Conan tales are built from the ground up around two themes: the idea of history as a clash between races for dominance, and the idea of the barbarian and barbarian societies as the most optimal expression of human development.

Howard essentially depicts cultures as existing in three distinct states: savagery/primitivism, barbarism, and civilisation. Savagery is the province of, say, the Atlantean ape-men or their Pictish caveman competitors: people who lack all technological or cultural sophistication and live nasty, brutish and short lives in the kill-or-be-killed wilds, little better than beasts. Hunted, despised, living like animals, the jungle is the savages' home. Civilised folk have a diametrically opposed nature to this; they build cities, write poems, conduct trade, craft cultural and artistic works, and study diverse sciences and magic in order to advance their lot. However, in distancing themselves from the natural world civilised folk lose touch with their animal nature, which tends to make them soft and decadent - soft, in that many of them are disinclined to violence and even those who are into it lack the natural instinct for self-preservation at any cost that the savages and barbarians boast, and decadent in that they are prone to hedonism and corruption. In extreme cases, their distancing of themselves from nature leads them to worship curious gods from the horrible outer darkness of space, with consequences Conan continually trips over during his adventures.

To Howard, the barbarian represents the ideal compromise between effete civilisation and animalistic savagery. The barbarian is in touch with his natural drives and instincts, is not ashamed of them, and will not apologise for pursuing them - wealth, sex, and power are there to be grabbed by any means necessary, enjoyed whilst they are possessed, and not unduly mourned when they are lost. The barbarian can organise, can raise a kingdom or lead an army, can see to the forging of swords and armour, but does not raise the sort of bustling metropolis that the civilised man thrives in - not for them the idleness and luxuries and softness promoted by polite society.

The myth of barbarians at the gates ready to overthrow civilisations and their attendant cultures is precisely that, a myth. The Germanic kingdoms which replaced the Western Roman Empire gladly accepted the Empire's national religion (or had been adherents of it for generations already) and soon came to think of themselves as natural successors to it. Kubla Khan, on conquering China, gladly let the civil service carry on as before because he realised you don't kill the bureaucracy goose that lays the golden tax eggs. Cultures have, of course, destroyed other cultures (or made earnest attempts to do so) repeatedly in history, but the idea that urbanised cultures with technologically sophisticated toys are in danger from non-urbanised cultures is only believable if you ignore a tremendous amount of world history.

Still, Howard clings to the idea for dear life, and so The Hyborian Age is a long saga of one people being conquered by another over and over again. Howard does not seem to be completely against inter-racial mingling - there are some cases in which two races occupying the same area interbreed with the result that both their bloodlines are reinvigorated, but this is only the case when you have two races intermingling who are strong in the virtues Howard prizes. Most of the time, race mixing is a bad idea, particularly the sort of melting pot you get in the great cities, and in general it's a good idea to keep your race pure. (Salient quotes include the fact that most Hyborians are mixed race to some extent and "Only in the province of Gunderband, where the people keep no slaves, is the pure Hyborian stock found unblemished", a glancing mention that "the barbarians have kept their bloodstream pure", and the fact that the lower classes of Stygia consist of "a down-trodden, mongrel horde, a mixture of negroid, Stygian, Shemitish, even Hyborian bloods".)

The end of the Hyborian Age is, in fact, brought about by an ill-conceived attempt to impart the values of civilisation in savages. Arus is a priest who, in the name of promoting peace and non-violence, takes up missionary work amongst the cave-dwelling Picts. Soon enough, his teachings lead them to uplift themselves from savage tribes to a barbarian kingdom, which ends up sweeping across the world and eliminating all the old corrupt civilisations in their path. The segment narrating this is by far the most detailed part of the essay - for one thing, it's the only part which includes any named individuals whatsoever - so it's clear that it held some importance for Howard. The whole point about savage peoples not being softened or pacified by civilised missionaries does make me wonder whether it was a haphazard stab at social commentary on his part, arguing that colonialism simply expends the resources of the colonisers in providing infrastructure, technology, and sweet delicious guns to a bunch of savages who'll ignore all the "civilising influence" their colonisers bring to bear and eventually maul the hand that feeds them. Charming.

There are even more obvious analogies to recent history in the essay. The whole savage/barbarian/civilised split is fairly plainly an adaptation to fantasy of the classic breakdown of cultures in Westerns - the savages have much in common with the way Native Americans were portrayed in many Westerns of the time, in that they're violent primitives who live in the wilderness and are barely more than animals (the Picts in his stories are actually pseudo-Native Americans - this is most obvious in Beyond the Black River and The Black Stranger), and the civilised folk are those coddled, complacent sorts back East who don't understand what the pioneering settlers are going through. The barbarians, naturally, are the settlers themselves, living in farms and in small towns rather than cosmopolitan cities, living off the land, accepting of violence and the cruel ways of nature but not brutishly ruled by them. These are the people that Howard, the son of a travelling doctor who as a child heard tales of the dying frontier spirit from the lips of cowboys, Civil War veterans and former slaves, obviously identified most with, and so it's only natural that he would be highly partial to their analogues in his Wild West ancient past, the barbarians.

The typical defence raised by Howard's defenders is that whilst he did have a view of history based on the clash of races, he didn't necessarily privilege any particular race over any others - sure, white people are riding high now, but Howard's ancient histories include races of brown-skinned Atlanteans being the dominant force at points in history. Everyone gets their turn in the sun, so what's the problem? Well, first off, let's remember that even if Howard did happily accept the idea that white people weren't necessarily at the top of the privilege pyramid throughout the whole of history, and was open to the notion that they might be knocked off the top of the pyramid in the future, that doesn't change the fact that at the time he was writing white people were the privileged class, and that remains the case to this day. The context Howard was written in, the audience he was writing for, and the context we read the stories in today are all relevant. And what sort of heroes did Howard write about? Overwhelmingly, white men standing tall against massed hordes, more often than not hordes of other races.

To cap things off, the essay is careful to illustrate how the various peoples of the Hyborian Age were the distant ancestors of many nations of today. "Bluh bluh they're not meant to represent real world races" is always a terrible excuse for fiction based on inherently racist axioms, but in the case of the Conan stories it's also objectively wrong; when Howard includes sly mentions in stories to hook-nosed Shemite counterfeiters, or mentions that Shemites tend to be lying, treacherous sorts, there's no wriggle room to pretend this isn't antisemitism because he said the Shemites were the ancestors of today's Arabs and Jews.

Even though I don't agree with the axioms on which the Silmarillion is based, I'm personally glad I took the time to wade through it, difficult though that was, because I feel it genuinely enriched my enjoyment of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to understand the various myths that those stories constantly allude to but rarely explain. Taking the time to properly read and understand The Hyborian Age - an essay which, due to its extremely dry nature, I had always skipped over before - has the opposite effect; it reveals just how ideological the Conan stories are. Much is made by Howard's defenders of the "nihilistic" and "amoral" basis of the stories, but whilst the tales do not adhere to conventional morality, they do nonetheless quite clearly push an agenda - the idea that civilisation is weak and phony, and only men who have been acquainted with violence since birth and to whom violence comes naturally can effectively defend themselves and others from animalistic savages. The distinction between savage, barbarian, and civilised peoples, and the essentialist characters of the different races, are reaffirmed in absolutely every Conan story. It is quite simply impossible to get away from these ideas. Which is a shame, because they leave a sick taste in my mouth whenever they come up.

Conan the Thief


As far as fictional characters go, Conan is interesting because he simultaneously does and does not have a backstory. The very first Conan tale Howard wrote was The Phoenix On the Sword, which regardless of how you work out the internal chronology of the stories actually comes quite late in Conan's life story - he's already King of Aquilonia when it takes place, in fact, and the second story in order of writing (The Scarlet Citadel) is another tale from his reign. Consequently, a hell of a lot of the stories written subsequently are attempts to fill in Conan's backstory as hinted at in those two stories, and shine a light on the experiences which gave a Cimmerian warrior like Conan the breadth of life experience and the skills as a warlord and a leader of men that were his to command as King of Aquilonia. (It's tempting, in fact, to speculate that these prequels were merely written to keep the cheques coming in whilst Howard wrote the third and most ambitious story of Conan's kingship, The Hour of the Dragon, which the sole novel-length Conan story he wrote and so was clearly more than just another quick knock-off to pay the cheques to Howard.) This does mean, of course, that the further you go back in the internal chronology, the more of a cipher Conan becomes, because he genuinely doesn't have any backstory beyond "some Cimmerian who became a thief" there; this is why adaptations which tend to focus on the early tales (like the movies) end up having to concoct their own backstories to the dude.

Nowhere is the blank slateness of young Conan more apparent than in the third Conan story written, The Tower of the Elephant. The Tower is usually held to be either the first in the chronology or, at any rate, very early on in it - the most convincing evidence for this is that Conan is described as a youth in it, a descriptor which is more or less never applied to him subsequently. It'd also make sense logically that after successfully selling the first couple of Conan stories and deciding to flesh out King Conan's early life, Howard would jump to as close to the beginning as he thought would be interesting. Conan in this story is as featureless as he ever gets in the series: he's a young Cimmerian who's trying to make his way as a thief in an unnamed city, he's new in town and isn't up to speed on the local rumours, and he's still fumbling his way through learning the ways of city folk, and that's literally all we know about him. He tries to break into a wizard's tower to steal a mysterious gem he's heard rumours about (the legendary Heart of the Elephant), but after he encounters another thief - the legendary Taurus of Nemedia - it becomes clear that our young Conan does not yet have the experience to pull off the heist, and he only survives thanks to Taurus' carefully planned gambits and the intervention of a sad space elephant.

This story is interesting for anyone trying to analyse Conan's character because although it doesn't tell us much about where Conan has come from, it tells us a lot about how Howard thought of the character, and in particular what characteristics he thought Conan gained from his Cimmerian ancestry and upbringing. Here, we see a Conan more or less without baggage and before civilisation (as Howard conceives of it) has touched him - unlike in the later tales, he's not yet a well-travelled citizen of the world capable of quickly adapting to the demands of different cultures, and he's very much a stranger in a strange land. He's got little to his name except his instinct for killing and self-preservation - as demonstrated when someone attacks him in the tavern he goes to in order to pick up some rumours to start off his first level thief quest - and a disregard for the norms of civilised society.

What is particularly interesting is that in presenting the unformed and unblemished proto-Conan to us, Howard also explicitly endorses Conan as simply being a better human being than everyone else in the bar:
He saw a tall, strongly made youth standing beside him, This person was as much out of place in that den as a gray wolf among mangy rats of the gutters.
Again, the claim by Howard's defenders that the Conan stories present an amoral and nihilistic view of the world seems kind of off here; it's hard to see a statement like the above as anything other than a value judgement on the inherent worth of Conan compared to the rest of the crooks in the tavern. You might try to argue that the above is written from Conan's point of view and therefore represents a judgement on his part, rather than on Howard's, but that doesn't really stand up to scrutiny if you look at the overall story - in which it's fairly clear that the first segment, concerning Conan doing his research in the tavern, is written as though the narrator were an invisible observer noting events unfolding in the bar during the preamble before honing in on the Kothian informant's view of things (and keeps Conan's motivations and inner thoughts a mystery), whereas the next section could more credibly be said to be told from Conan's perspective since the narration is focused on Conan and regularly chimes in with what Conan's thinking about things.

Now, we might debate as to whether the judgement made there is a moral one or not, but it certainly isn't a nihilistic one. We're being directly told that Conan possesses innate qualities that place him head and shoulders above the crowd around him - he is the noble and fearsome grey wolf, the others are mangy rats scrabbling for refuse in the gutter. It's incredibly hard to read the above - particularly when taken in context - as anything other than Howard as narrator voicing his approval of Conan, and asking us to approve of him in turn. Whilst the stories are doubtless more enjoyable if you take them as being nihilistic orgies of violence with a protagonist whose actions you aren't meant to condone, it stretches credibility to suggest that this is how they are presented; Howard was nowhere near as consistently nihilistic as he is made out to be.

Still, The Tower of the Elephant is a fun enough tale simply because despite the reader being nudged into siding with Conan, at least he doesn't do anything dreadful this time around. Sure, he knifes a guy in a pub, but that's in self-defence, and sure, he's a thief, but he's a thief who's out to rob an evil wizard and he does end up saving the sad space elephant in the process. This makes the narration's occasional references to greedy, hook-nosed Shemites particularly irritating because if those jibes weren't there I'd have been able to give this one a clean bill of health. Still, I found I ended up enjoying the two other stories of Conan's career as a thief - The God In the Bowl and Rogues In the House - to be superior, because as well as being much closer to the nihilistic and amoral stance the fans claim for Conan, they also present a wider cast of characters and use them to set up more interesting scenarios.

Take, for instance, The God In the Bowl, in which Conan is in no way the sole protagonist, and may not even be the main protagonist. The story unfolds in the premises of Kallian Publico, a merchant of Nemedia who deals in antiquities, and kicks off when city guardsman Arus discovers Kallian murdered. When Conan blunders into the scene, Arus' quick thinking allows him to summon backup, and Conan is soon apprehended on suspicion of being the killer. Conan swears he just broke in to rob the place and didn't murder anyone; most of the watchmen are inclined to discount his story, but the perceptive Inquisitor Demetrio thinks there's more to the case than meets the eye. Of course, it turns out something nasty and supernatural is to blame and Conan has to kill the monster, but despite having a fairly predictable conclusion the story has a far from conventional structure for Howard - Demetrio, who's the local equivalent of a detective, is at least as prominent as Conan, and in some respects is actually more of a protagonist than Conan this time around; for much of the story Conan glowers in the corner protesting his innocence whilst Demetrio turns up clues and ponders over their meaning.

The climax of the story - in which Conan snaps and butchers most of the watchmen, leaving Demetrio limping out of the story holding his entrails in with one hand, and the Cimmerian then faces the titular god in the bowl - might put Conan at centre stage, but though his slaying of the creature is arguaby a heroic act, the circumstances of Conan's escape from his captors are brutal enough that it is hard to see him as a hero as opposed to a brute who happens to end up in a situation where he has to kill a god to survive. Then again, I suspect part of the reason I enjoy the story so much is because Howard doesn't give it the spin his barbarian-savage-civilised philosophy would, strictly speaking, demand of the story. In principle, I guess we're supposed to see Demetrio as a corrupt and effete representative of a corrupt and effete civilisation - at least, that's what he'd be depicted as if Howard were being consistent about his philosophy. And certainly, you could read it that way, especially if you knew about Howard's creepy ideology; the way the guards are keen to just pin the murder on Conan certainly seems to be a case of the corrupt civilised sorts having it in for the barbarian who's far better qualified to deal with the problem than they are.

What saves the story is Demetrio, who upstages Conan for much of the tale by dint of being more interesting. As numerous Warhammer 40,000 novels have demonstrated, an Inquisitor who goes around torturing and oppressing people is no fun at all, but an Inquisitor who is basically a high-powered detective is really awesome fun. It does seem that Howard felt the same way, the love of a good detective story overriding his philosophical disdain for civilisation to the point where he almost seems to forget it's a Conan story at points. The existence of characters like Demetrio does not excuse Howard's noxious ideas - it doesn't matter if you concede that a few individuals of a particular ethnicity might be OK guys if you still hold their culture in contempt - but in this case it does make Howard a lot more palatable than he otherwise would be.

Rogues In the House is another story in which Conan is one of several protagonists, and isn't the most sympathetic one with it, although it is more problematic than The God In the Bowl. The basic premise is pretty good - Conan is in prison in some unnamed city when Murilo, a young noble, offers him a deal: if Murilo can engineer a jailbreak to get Conan out of the prison, Conan will assassinate the infamous Red Priest Nabonidus who is the puppetmaster dominating the political life of the city.

When the jailbreak part of the plan does awry Murilo decides to kill Nabonidus for himself - he doesn't have time to try again because if he delays the Red Priest will make good on his threat to have Murilo denounced as a traitor and executed. Conan, when he does manage to break free from prison by repurposing materials provided under the original plan, decides that honour demands that he repay the favour he owes Murilo, even though the breakout didn't go as expected, and makes his own way to Nabonidus's house. Conan and Murilo both find that themselves trapped in the Red Priest's dungeon along with Nabonidus himself, all three of them having been cast down there by Thak, Nabonidus' super-intelligent pet ape who has sussed out how the house's various traps work and has used them to take control of the place. Murilo, Nabonidus and Conan find they must work together to beat Thak, despite the fact that they really, really can't trust each other.

As I mentioned, Rogues In the House shares with The God In the Bowl the idea of including a more sympathetic character than Conan who gets to share the spotlight with him - this time around, it's Murilo. Sure, he's a guy who hires assassins and arranges jailbreaks - and sells secrets to the city's enemies, it turns out - but he's in a predicament that we can sympathise with and there is something admirable in the way he tries to beat Nabonidus at his own game as opposed to curling up and dying. Indeed, much of the early narration in the novel is from his point of view instead of Conan's.

But this time around, Murilo does not upstage Conan to the extent that Demetrio did in the previous story; Conan is most definitely calling the shots in this adventure. And on the whole, it's a pretty good story, packed with more dramatic reversals and surprises than many less talented fantasy authors manage in full novels, though there are some seriously problematic elements to it. As far as antagonists go, Thak is a kind of sleazy choice if you remember (or are even aware of) the whole thing with particularly "degenerate" savages reverting into being ape-men, and it is heavily hinted that this is the case with Thak. Even more off-putting is the first instance of what I am afraid is a recurring theme in the series: Conan treating women like shit.

In this particular case, I mean that literally. Before he goes off to assassinate the Red Priest, Conan has a little unfinished business to deal with: his lady friend who snitched on him, and her guardsman lover. Conan stomps over to where they are shacked up, confronts the guardsman and kills him. Then Howard seems to balk at having Conan kill the woman as well - perhaps for fear of alienating his readership, or perhaps because he keeps kidding himself into thinking that Conan is basically a decent guy who treats women right, a character trait entirely inconsistent with the way Conan actually behaves. (That's going to be another recurring theme, I'm afraid.) So instead he has Conan pick her up and toss her off the roof of the building into a cesspit. Because violence, humiliation, and thick coatings of shit are perfectly alright but murder isn't, or something.

This is the worst of all possible worlds. If Conan had dumped both the guardsman and the woman in the cesspit, then that'd be fine - Conan humiliates the people responsible for incarcerating him, everybody lets out a hearty lol, we move on. If Conan had butchered them both, then that'd be grimdark to the extreme and rather unpalatable, but at least it would put the woman on an even pegging with the guardsman - she was equally responsible for Conan's imprisonment, she ends up equally dead, it's not something we can cheer or applaud but it'd be grim and amoral and nihilistic and all that other shit the defenders claim the stories are. As it stands, the way Howard presents the scene implies that the woman is essentially human refuse who isn't even worth killing; when a man does Conan wrong, then it's just and right that Conan takes his bloody revenge, but when a woman does Conan wrong then she's a silly little thing who couldn't help her self and shouldn't be held to the same standard - instead, she should just be publicly humiliated, that'll learn her.

Of course, it would have been even better for the flow of the story if Howard had just cut the scene out altogether - regardless of whether you have Conan killing a defenceless woman or flinging her in the poo pit, it's a completely distasteful sequence from beginning to end and serves absolutely no purpose. It isn't even necessary to establish that Conan is a badass that you do not fuck with because at this point in the story he's already demonstrated that with the manner of his escape from jail. In the end, the scene seems to exist only to fluff up the word count, and to humiliate some random woman we weren't previously aware existed in the process.

Conan the Rapist


It gets worse though. In The Frost Giant's Daughter we learn that Conan is a frustrated rapist.

The Frost Giant's Daughter is a tricky story to place in the chronology - although Conan is clearly meant to be quite young in it, and it's set way up in the frozen north in one of the few stories which take place in close proximity of his Cimmerian homeland, he isn't quite described in the adolescent terms applied to him in The Tower of the Elephant and some of Howard's correspondence seems to suggest Tower is meant to be the character's chronological debut. Either way; Conan's gone up north to fight alongside the Aesir (not-Vikings) as a mercenary. The story begins at the conclusion of an epic battle, of which Conan is the only survivor. Suddenly, a mysterious naked woman who calls herself Atali appears on the battlefield and teases Conan; Conan charges off after her across the frozen wastes, only to discover that she is the daughter of the god Ymir, and she makes it her habit to lure warriors off battlefields so that her brothers (who are much more giant-like) can kill them. Long story short, Conan fights her brothers and kills them, then decides that on balance he still wants to fuck Atali, and he ends up chasing after her and attempts to rape her; she is rescued only when her divine father shows up and spirits her away.

There is no excuse possible for this story. In execution the prose is alright by Howard's standards and it succeeds at striking the mythic tone he was apparently going for this time around. But the subject matter at hand is completely vile. First off, there is absolutely no question that Conan intends to rape Atali, though Howard apologists have been known to claim otherwise. Howard leaves no room for ambiguity when it comes to Conan's motives here: he intends to chase Atali down, overpower her, and rape her. I suppose that if you were really trying your hardest to find a way to make the story palatable, you could interpret Atali's behaviour as being inviting at first, considering that her teasing can be summarised as "it's a shame you're not a manly manly man who could chase me down and have hot tundra sex with me, no way, you can't do that, nuh-uh, I double dare you", but even conceding that it might have that sort of angle to it at the beginning, it certainly doesn't by the end. Once Conan has confronted Atali's brothers and killed them, that really ought to be the end of Conan's plans to have sex with Atali, because there's no longer any room to argue that Atali might be playing some sort of consensual game with him; at that point, she's running for her life.

Even worse than the story itself is the arguments I've seen people make trying to defend it. It seems that there are several Howard fans out there - I won't single any out by linking to them - who are perfectly happy to do the victim-blaming thing, arguing that Conan was provoked into trying to rape Atali and therefore he shouldn't be blamed for it when she was the one strutting about naked being a teasy tease-tease. It is of course indisputable that Atali was there to provoke Conan - that was kind of the plan. At the same time, there's a name for the sort of person who responds to provocation with rape, and that's "rapist". I'm not saying I'd necessarily respond well if someone plotted to lure into an ambush so their brothers can kill me, most people wouldn't. But it'd at least get me to reconsider the situation. I'd probably say to myself "Hm, perhaps this nice lady isn't trying to lead me to a dumpster full of mint-condition Warhammer 40,000 novels," (or whatever premise is used to get me to follow her down a dark alley). "Maybe," I would think, "a nice tea party and a stimulating discussion of the Horus Heresy novels wasn't her plan for this evening after all. Why, I ought to fundamentally reconsider my interactions with this person, because to continue angling after something which was never on the cards anyway would be downright irrational!"

Conan doesn't work like that. He's here for sex and by Crom he's going to have it, whether Atali likes it or not. The fact that she's no longer teasing him or snidely suggesting that a real man would have chased her down already, that she's now scared and running to get away from this situation, means nothing to him. There's even a creepy rape-as-punishment vibe to make the whole thing extra nasty. I guess you could count this story as another one where the whole "it's supposed to be amoral and nihilistic!" Howard-defenders' bleat is actually true for once, but even if that's the case, who really wants to read anything this ugly and seedy? And besides, it isn't amoral because there is a clear (and abhorrent) moral to the story: don't wave your ass around like that or you'll get more than you bargained for. Reprehensible.

Conan vs. Africa


Queen of the Black Coast sees Conan, fleeing from the law, takes passage on a southbound ship which ends up being raided by the fearsome Bêlit, a ferocious Shemite pirate captain, and her crew of black dudes who worship her as a goddess. Impressing Bêlit with his prowess and thewfulness, she makes him her lover and co-captain, and together they terrorise the seas off the coast of not-Africa. Despite the fat stacks of loot they have won for themselves, Bêlit's unquenchable thirst for riches is still not sated, and she convinces Conan that they should go on an expedition downriver into deepest not-Africa to find a legendary lost city. Then there's chaos, disaster, and yet more mutated ex-humans fallen into the state beneath savagery. (In this case there's a bat person and some hyaena people.) Bêlit and crew buy the farm, so at the end of the tale Conan is marooned in not-Africa.

So, we've got racism by the score here: Bêlit, a woman whose skin is compared favourably to ivory, lords it over a bunch of black guys who worship her as a goddess. Naturally, Conan as another white person is qualified for a leadership role and responsibilities which it is never suggested any of the other crewmen gets even close to possessing. Obviously, said crewmen are all servile and craven and superstitious, and on the whole the story sees Howard's racist instincts very much on display. It isn't as bad as the subsequent story, The Vale of Lost Women, but that's hardly anything to boast about: there's probably Klan pamphlets that aren't as racist as The Vale of Lost Women.

Where Queen of the Black Coast really stands out for me is in its sexual content; specifically, the hilariously juvenile nature of its sexual content. The next time male geeks deride girl books for girls on the basis that all that lovey-dovey stuff isn't proper storytelling... Well, to be honest the best response to that is to tell them to fucking grow up, but once you've done that you could also point them towards this story, which has a romance subplot which far outshines more or less anything I've read when it comes to unabashed authorial wish-fulfilment.

Bêlit literally sails into Conan's world and within a minute of seeing him in action decides that they are going to fuck. She more or less declares this and Conan is glad to agree. Bêlit celebrates this by pretty much doing a striptease for Conan in full view of the crew, at the end of which they embrace and the scene fades to black, leaving us to wonder whether they bothered going to her cabin or just rutted in front of their underlings. Later, they are described as lounging about on the deck snuggling whilst discussing their piratey business, and Bêlit has fallen so deeply in love with Conan that after she dies she comes back from the afterlife to save his skin. (This is where that plot detail from the 1982 movie came from.) In short, the whole story presents Bêlit as an incredible fantasy figure - a forceful, commanding woman who practically begs Conan to let her be his sexual plaything and is willing to show off their sexual relationship to all and sundry, including by performing an honest to goodness mating dance ("Wolves of the blue sea, behold ye now the dance - the mating-dance of Bêlit, whose fathers were kings of Askalon!") for the titillation of Conan, pirates and of course the readers.

As well as all the slimy sexism and racism angles to this (supposedly powerful woman is rendered submissive before the brawny barbarian's boners, pirate queen considers burly, handsome black crewmen unworthy but strips for the first burly, handsome white dude she sees), it's also completely laughable. Queen of the Black Coast is one of those stories where you end up suspecting that the author was typing one-handed. Whilst there's nothing wrong with writing stories about what gets you hard, there's often a consequence of basing stories on your very specific sexual fantasies: namely, that the results only really work if the reader also happens to share your fantasies, and if they don't, then a lot of the time the story will just come across as being either offensive or ridiculous. Unless you yourself think the idea of having some ivory-skinned naked pirate lady jump onto your ship and fuck your brains out in front of her entire crew is smokin' hot, it's almost impossible not to snigger at the romantic subplot here.

Speaking of white supremacist sex fantasies, wow, the next story is terrible. The Vale of Lost Women centres around Livia, a terrified white women who has been captured by a raiding party of the most horrifying monsters of the Hyborian Age: black people. Disgusted and afraid of everyone from the tribal chief Bajujh to the woman who brings Livia her food, Livia thinks she has her chance for escape when Conan, who has become chief of an allied tribe by virtue of being white awesome (just kidding, it's totally because he's white) comes to visit. Slipping into Conan's luxury VIP guest hut, Livia throws herself on his mercy, and he agrees to help her because the idea of leaving a white woman to be raped by black people is repulsive to him.

They make their escape, but unfortunately Livia gets lost due to being a silly civilised woman who needs a big strong daddy to take care of her and make the decisions for her. (This is a recurring motif of any story in which Conan has to take care of a white woman from civilisation, particularly those of the "slave escaped from a black master" variety; almost invariably, the woman in question will prove to have an almost infinite ability to get into trouble when outside Conan's supervision.) She stumbles into the titular vale, inhabited by the titular lost women, and they coo and pet her and give her drugs and it begins to look like one of them - or maybe several of them - might become Livia's big strong daddy. ("Her lips pressed Livia's in a long terrible kiss. The Ophirean felt coldness, running through her veins; her limbs turned brittle; like a white statue of marble she lay in the arms of her captress, incapable of speech or movement.") Having fulfilled his titillation quotient, Howard has his tribe of undomesticated homosexuals try to sacrifice Livia to a giant bat, because that is totally what lesbians do to nice straight white girls who fall into their clutches, and Conan charges in to save the day.

You might, based on the above summary, come away with a negative impression of the story. Take that and amplify it a hundredfold and you might have some idea how abhorrent the whole thing is. The "it's meant to be amoral" argument takes another crippling blow this time around, in which it is quite clear that despite frequent claims to the contrary Conan does have a code of honour and morality which he adheres to in this story.
"You said I was a barbarian," he said harshly , "and that is true, Crom be thanked. If you had had men of the outlands guarding you instead of soft gutted civilized weaklings, you would not be the slave of a black pig this night. I am Conan, a Cimmerian, and I live by the sword's edge. But I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man; and though your kind call me a robber, I never forced a woman against her consent. Customs differ in various countries, but if a man is strong enough, he can enforce a few of his native customs anywhere. And no man ever called me a weakling!

"If you were old and ugly as the devil's pet vulture, I'd take you away from Bajujh, simply because of the colour of your hide."
Set aside, for a moment, Conan's claim that he has never raped anyone, because we know from The Frost Giant's Daughter that this is purely a competence issue as opposed to being a matter of ethics. The point is, Conan has expressed here a moral outlook: namely, that black people are depraved animals and only a flint-hearted cur would leave a white woman in their clutches. No, friends, it's clear that the Conan saga does have a moral dimension, arising from a moral system that by today's standards has been banished to the fringe when it is stated this openly and aggressively but which is still very much with us in more low-key manifestations. Sure, I'll grant you that Conan immerses himself in the local culture to the extent that he becomes a tribal leader, but that doesn't change the fact that once a white woman is involved all bets are off, because at heart Conan, like Howard, is a paternalistic and racist asshole who considers it his job to protect white women from black men. Let's remember that at the time Howard was writing this very story, the moral principles outlined in the above speech were being to put into effect by white lynch mobs across the American South.

(And, of course, there were also white people who were completely shocked and ashamed by the whole concept of lynching, and by the appalling racism of the time in general. Let's not give Howard the get-out clause that "everyone was racist" back then, because everyone was certainly not racist to the extent that this story and many, many others reveal Howard to have been.)

If you set the racism aside... well, let's face it, you can't can you? There's some shit which is just too disgusting to ignore and "FILTHY BLACK MAN GET YOUR HANDS OFF OUR PRECIOUS WHITE WOMEN" is one of them. But in a theoretical situation in which you were able to set the racism aside - say, because you're a privileged white boy who can just glide past all that stuff - the story still has plenty of issues. The sexism, for one thing. The Vale of Lost Women is just one of a long series of stories in which Conan is paired off with a civilised woman who is entirely capable of taking care of herself; like other such characters in other stories, Livia is almost completely infantilised, and the events of the story make it brutally apparent that bad shit happens whenever she fails to meekly follow Conan and obey his every order.

To give Howard his due, he may be doing something here which is a tiny bit more nuanced than simply saying "man strong, woman weak, woman do what man say and man protect woman, get kisses". It is definitely arguable that his treatment of women, like his treatment of men, is a reflection of his barbarism-civilisation-savagery philosophy. Bêlit, though the Shemites are usually in the civilisation camp, lives a barbaric lifestyle, and like the other barbarian women who occasionally pop up in the stories is far more capable of taking care of herself and is much closer to interacting with Conan as an equal than the civilised women, who as mentioned are depicted as incompetent, prissy crybabies who might possibly show the odd glimmer of having some steel to them by the end of the story they are in. Howard, in short, might be trying to suggest that refined manners and cultural mores are themselves responsible for infantilising women and making them utterly dependent on men, whilst the proud barbarian women have not undergone this process of cultural conditioning, whilst strong women such as Bêlit are capable of breaking free of it.

But merely pointing out that some of Howard's female characters are stronger than Livia does not get Howard off the hook. Valeria, one of the strongest female leads in a Conan story, ends up helpless and in need of being rescued, as do more or less all the other women in Conan stories aside from Bêlit, who dies and comes back from the dead to rescue Conan. So, of all these supposedly strong female characters, only Bêlit manages to avoid having said strength neutralised during the course of the stories they appear in. She still gets fridged for her trouble - and she still basically throws herself at Conan's feet and encourages him to consider her his sex puppet. Compare to the various civilised men who adventure with Conan momentarily, such as Murilo in Rogues In the House, who is clearly supposed to be wussy as a result of the wussifying influences of civilisation but still gets to keep something resembling dignity and a backbone.

Really, the big difference is this: in the Conan stories, soft civilised women are afraid of violence and sex, whilst barbarian women and the stronger sorts of civilised women say "yes" to both. Livia, like other civilised women who accompany Conan until he invariably ditches them between stories like unwanted puppies, is horrified by the violence unleashed as a result of Conan going into action, and tries to suppress and deny her yearning for Conan to go into action with her naked-style. Bêlit, conversely, is just free and liberated enough to know that she really wants Conan to do the nasty with her and her strength consists of her saying "Nice loincloth, wanna fuck?"

Conan the Commander


At this point in his career Conan finds his way back to miscellaneous desert kingdoms and makes a go of life as a mercenary. Stories in this vein include Black Colossus, a particularly ham-fisted attempt to shoehorn something resembling foreshadowing into the saga. The plot is fairly simple: Thugra Kotan, a sinister wizard from bygone days, is roused from his deathlike slumbers and attempts to conquer the world, necromancers traditionally being peckish for world conquest when they've been resurrected. Princess Yasmela, the ruler of Khoraja, is one of the rulers whose city-states are in the path of Thugra's army of darkness. Thugra is a creepy sort, given to visiting Yasmela in spirit form in order to go "woooo check me out I am spooky also you will be my wife in ghost land woooo". Yasmela is naturally upset, so at the suggestion of her handmaiden Vateesa she goes to the shrine of Mitra in order to beg for the deity's help. She is instructed to go into the street incognito and give command of her armies and the mercenary forces hired in to bolster them to the first man she sees. That man, of course, is Conan.

At this point, the story goes completely coo-coo for Destiny. More or less everything that happens subsequently is designed to yell from the rooftops "Hey! Guys! Conan's going to become a king one day!" For instance, when Conan dresses up in his fancy-pants Top General armour we are directly told that he looks kingly. And despite having been a rank-and-file footsoldier in the mercenary band up to this point, he adapts to the demands of leadership rapidly, managing to win a desperate victory where most expect only certain defeat. Now, it is of course possible that up to this point in his career Conan had been able to learn a thing or two about army-scale tactics from observing his superior officers. And, of course, because of the fuzziness of the Conan timeline he might have had prior experience at this sort of thing. But the internal evidence of the story suggests otherwise; Conan never says anything along the lines of "It's OK guys, I've actually led armies before" when everyone is taken aback by the fact he's been picked to lead them, and in general the point seems to be that as far as everyone (including himself) knows Conan is a completely quixotic choice for leader of the army, and yet he surprises everyone with how well he does (even though the army does get smushed in the process). Still, aside from this Great Man silliness the story's one of the more inoffensive Conan tales aside from the damsel in distress stuff, which is cosmic background radiation levels of sexism compared to how misogynistic Howard gets elsewhere. It's just a shame the story's so mediocre once the action actually starts to get rolling.

Shadows In the Moonlight is both tiresomely dull and horrifyingly offensive, in comparison. Conan has, it seems, been spending some time leading the kozaki warrior hordes, but a reversal of fate has found them scattered by Hyrkanian forces under the leadership of the infamous Shah Amurath, lord of Akif. We come to the story as Amurath finds himself deep in swampland, chasing after Olivia, a princess of Ophir, who he purchased as a harem slave and who recently escaped from his entourage. So, straight off the bat you have the evil, filthy not-Arab cornering the cowering not-European woman and getting into exchanges like this:
"Let me go!" begged the girl, tears of despair staining her face. "Have I not suffered enough? Is there any humiliation, pain or degradation you have not heaped on me? How long must my torment last?"

"As long as I find pleasure in your whimperings, your pleas, tears and writhings," he answered with a smile that would have seemed gentle to a stranger.
By this point you should be able to tell where this is going. We have, right here, a woman being menaced with sexual violence and humiliation by someone who isn't Conan - even worse, someone who isn't white. This means that it's a bad thing and Conan's going to show up to save her, so she can get off on submitting utterly to his hardened white barbarian nature as opposed to Amurath's decadent, degenerate, civilised brown person nature. Much of the rest of Olivia's character arc consists of her realising that despite Conan coming from "a people bloody, grim and ferocious" he actually knows how to treat a lady - in that he tells her what to do and cares for her like you would a particularly helpless pet - whereas the supposedly civilised man just wanted to degrade and abuse her.

Anyway, Conan and Olivia have fairly random and directionless adventures in the swamp, fall asleep in an ancient city full of iron statues - who turn out to be the frozen inhabitants who only return to the flesh under the moonlight - and eventually Conan ends up in charge of a pirate ship and they sail away. Oh, and there's some stuff with a man-ape, and it turns out the iron men back when they were alive were black-skinned and yet "They were not negroes" - presumably because the idea of actual African people building a city was just too fantastical for Howard to contemplate. Oh, and if Olivia's dreams are to be believed they were cursed after they had the temerity to abuse, mutilate, and murder a handsome white boy who might have been some kind of demigod.

To be honest, the tale is an enormous mess, Howard apparently not deciding whether it's going to be about Conan meeting Olivia or Conan taking over the pirate ship or Conan fighting a man-ape or bad shit going down in the sinister city, and opting to just throw all that stuff out there without really electing which to focus on. It comes across, in fact, like the opening chapters of a longer story in which Conan and Olivia go pirating on the high seas, except as usual Olivia vanishes and never appears in any subsequent Conan tale. (A suspicious person would question what Conan does with all these women who end up clutching to him at the end of his stories, and posit the existence of a range of shallow graves dotted across the Hyborean realms.)

A Witch Shall Be Born sees Conan back in full-time employment as head of the palace guards of Tamaris, queen of Khauran. As the story opens, Tamaris is awoken from her sleep by an intruder - Salome, her long-lost twin sister, who was left in the desert to die at birth due to a superstition about witches being born into the royal house of Khauran and was, ironically enough, adopted by a warlock who taught her all the magic he knew. Along with her accomplice Constantius and his band of Shemite mercenaries, Tamaris has neutralised the palace guards in order to pull off the perfect coup - tossing Tamaris into the dungeon so that she can steal her identity and rule Khauran in her place.

Conan, meanwhile, after being taken captive is crucified by Constantius in the desert. (Yes, he does survive by biting through the next of a vulture and drinking its blood like in the 1982 movie.) Eventually rescued by Olgerd Vladislav, leader of a group of desert bandits, Conan eventually wrests control of the band from Vladislav and forges them into a terrifying fighting force, which he intends to storm Khauran with to get his revenge. Meanwhile in Khauran, a few of the downtrodden locals discover the true fate of Tamaris, prompting the heroic Valerius to mount a daring rescue attenpt - but Salome in the meantime has summoned the monstrous Thaug to reside in the temple of Ishtar and nom on sacrifices, and Tamaris is on the menu!

This is one of those Conan stories which becomes halfway palatable mainly because Conan is not the sole protagonist, and in fact is upstaged by someone else partway through - namely, Valerius. Valerius, as a product of civilisation, has less of Howard's sympathy, but I find that inadvertently Howard manages to make me care about Valerius and support him more than Conan. The fact is that Valerius's rescue mission is a high-stakes gambit on which the very survival of Khauran depends - Howard does a good job of illustrating how if Tamaris is not freed them between the tyranny of Salome and Constantius and Conan's bloodthirsty desire for revenge Khauran will be ripped completely to pieces. As it is, because Valerius is able to present Conan with the real Tamaris and demonstrate that it was not she who betrayed him, Conan limits his vengeance-taking to Constantius and his men and fucks off.

There's a startling bit towards the end where Conan declares he is going to kill all the Shemites in the city, which sounds terrible to anyone reading it after 1945 but in context clearly refers to the mercenaries, so it's a merciless and cold-hearted war crime perpetrated against a defeated army as opposed to ethnic cleansing of women and children. Either way, I think it helps the story that by that point Conan says this Valerius has taken his place as the actual hero and Conan is yet another threat to the city that must be neutralised. This is probably not the interpretation Howard intended but I'll take what I can get at this stage.

Shadows In Zamboula is a story about how there's no good or legitimate reason for white people and black people to live in the same community, and white folks who willingly let black people share the same town as them have got to be up to something unsavoury.

No, seriously, I am not fucking kidding. A large part of the action revolves around the fact that the town of Zamboula has a bunch of slaves from Darfar - black slaves, obviously - who happen to be cannibals. The civilised fops of the town are so decadent they see nothing wrong with letting their slaves roam the streets at night eating people - because, after all, only undersirables like beggars and travellers would be out at night and or leave their doors unlocked in the town. There's some mildly interesting chicanery going on with Conan being manipulated by some of the locals in a scheme revolving around a magic ring, only for the twist ending to reveal that Conan was not the naive rube they took him to be and had in fact been duping them himself, but that's rather eclipsed by the whole "cannibal night watch" deal, which manages to be both appallingly racist and staggeringly stupid at the same time.

Oh, yeah, and there's an evil priest who sacrifices people to "Hanuman the Accursed", because Howard got all his knowledge of Hinduism from Kipling.

The Devil In Iron is an expanded take on the same general concept. Again, we have a slave girl who we are supposed to understand is vaguely European - Octavia - escaping from the clutches of a gentleman we are supposed to understand is some sort of dubious Middle Eastern type - in this case, the villainous Jehungir Agha. Again, Conan is a kozak leader whose kozak allies are conspicuous by their absence - this time, because he's set out on his own for a rendezvous with Octavia, who he's been led to believe is going to run away from Agha's clutches that night so he can spirit her away.

However, Octavia was in fact coerced into giving Conan that impression so that he could be lured by himself to the island of Xapur, where Agha's men will be able to trap him and capture him. This nefarious scheme goes awry due to the wild card involved - Khosatral Khel, a hellish demon from the outer void, which has been awoken from its ancient sleep by an unsuspecting fisherman exploring the island. Khel has used its awesome powers to reconstruct the island as it was back when Khel was last awake - once more, the fearsome fortress of Khel stands, and his servants, the sinister Yuetshi priesthood, once more live and worship Khel within its halls. In other words, once again we have a sinister city of some long-forgotten race and an evil within it which turns out not to be as dead as everyone thought it was complicating the plot, but at least this time around the source of the evil is something a bit more interesting and less exasperating than "woo, spooky black people".

Unfortunately, there are women and people who are not European involved in the story, and therefore Howard once again jams his foot in his mouth. As well has having Octavia threatened with torture and abuse at the hands of a sinister Shemite in order to get her to co-operate with the plan, Howard ends the story by yet again driving a truck over the very concept of consent. Having won the day, Conan is momentarily crestfallen when Octavia says she isn't actually attracted to him and was just pretending because she was forced to. Then he laughs, declares it doesn't matter because she belongs to him anyway, and starts forcing her to make out with him until she likes it. Once again, it's made clear that Conan has absolutely no problem with rape, because the sheer force of his masculinity will make the women he turns his attentions to want it bad by the end of the process even if they don't want it at all at the beginning; granted, the whole idea of the woman who at first spurns a particular guy's attentions before changing her mind and coming around to liking him is the core premise of a whole swathe of stories, not all of which are necessarily gross, but to have that change come about in the space of a paragraph simply because a guy is a good kisser is sheer wish fulfillment of the most crass kind, the sort of thing authors get laughed out of town for even in fairly accepting amateur communities like fanfic circles.

The Conan Who Would Be King


The People of the Black Circle is a fairly lengthly Conan novellla which combines the best and worst of Howard's writing. The story begins in Vendhya (think the Indian subcontinent), where the ruler Bunda Chand has been assassinated thanks to the occult influence of the Black Seers of Yishma. The Devi Yasmina, Bunda's sister, is outraged at this turn of events and hits on a plan to use Conan to get her vengeance. Conan has made himself leader of a fearsome force of Afghuli bandits (yes, they're loosely based on Kiplingesque depictions of Afghans), and it just so happens that Yasmina's forces have apprehended a bunch of the Afghuli leaders. Conan needs to free these men if he is going to keep the Afghuli's loyalty, so Yasmina intends to offer to release them in return for Conan riding forth against the Black Seers.

Things do not quite go down as planned. First off, Conan has his own ideas: he kidnaps Yasmina so that he can ransom her back to her people in return for the Afghuli prisoners. Second, Kerim Shah, a spymaster for the King of Turan, is on the scene - and in fact commissioned the Black Seers to kill Bunda Chand in the first place - and when shit hits the fan moves to exploit the situation for his employer's benefit. Thirdly, the Black Seers have their own agent in the vicinity, Khemsa - but since Khemsa has fallen for the Devi's ambitious maid Gitara in breach of his Jedi-like obligations to rise above emotional entanglements, it's anyone's guess what he will do with the magical power his training with the Black Seers have given him. And at some point in all the chaos, Yasmina is captured by the Black Seers, prompting Conan to attempt a daring rescue.

The People of the Black Circle is one of those Conan stories which really frustrates me, because even though it carries around a bundle of bigotry there's a lot to like about the tale. First off, it's one of the longer Conan stories, and this gives Howard room to attempt a somewhat more involved and well-developed plot than the shorter and more formulaic ones; Howard sets up an interconnected web of treachery, coincidence, and people working at cross-purposes with a skill you would never had expected he possessed on the basis of, say Queen of the Black Coast. There's dramatic reversals of fortune worthy of Jack Vance, properly weird and otherworldly magic, and some really good fights on top of that.

However, there's no getting around Howard's finely-honed scepticism of the idea that women might be competent to make their own choices, or the disasters which ensue whenever Howard turns his attention to cultures other than his own. At its heart, the fantasy of the white European making himself the leader of an Afghan horde is straight out of Kipling (who, again, seems to be Howard's sole source of information on this part of the world), as is the depiction of Afghan culture as having more or less no attributes other than banditry. Similarly, the Black Seers are clearly based on the sort of mangled rumours about Tibetan Buddhism that had inspired Helena Blavatsky to weave her stories about secret masters from the Himalayas guiding humanity and transmitting the secrets of Theosophy to her. (Weirdly, I find that this makes the depiction of the Black Seers a bit more palatable than that of the not-Afghans, probably because in the case of the Black Seers the depiction is separated from reality to such an enormous extent that it's not so much a bigoted stereotype about real flesh and blood people so much as it's a complete fabrication. Then again, actual Tibetans may feel differently on that score.)

On top of this, whilst Conan begins the story as one of a series of people who are furiously screwing each other over, by the end of the tale he is back in the role of main protagonist and is presented as someone we are expected to cheer on as he rescues Yasmina from the clutches of the wizards. This makes Conan's attitude to Yasmina seriously problematic. Once again, Conan is constantly telling Yasmina that they are going to fuck at some point and Yasmina is like "no, we're not" and Conan is like "psah, like you have a fucking choice". At least, unlike in The Devil In Iron, the Devi is not overpowered by the force of Conan's kisses and is able to go free unmolested. When Conan says he'll come visit one day with his army she swears to have an army twice the size to meet him when he shows up, which Conan takes as cheeky flirtation rather than the "I will raise a force of thousands of armed men whose job it is to make sure you never, ever touch me again" statement it kind of comes across as; I think we're meant to take their exchange as laughing banter which is meant to imply that Yasmina does kind of dig Conan, though the story has given us absolutely no reason to believe that would be the case.

Conan vs. Cities


The Slithering Shadow is yet another story in which Conan travels around with a pet girl in tow, who is all feeble and delicate and whose spoiled civilised ways cause our stalwart barbarian hero trouble and grief. This time, she's called Natala, and she are Conan are stuck in the desert when they come across the fabulous lost city of Xuthal. The people of Xuthal spend their lives in a drugged daze due to their regular consumption of wine made from the narcotic black lotus, and are preyed upon by Thog, a god from the outer darkness who's all shadowy and tentacly and blob-like - think a Howardian take on a shoggoth - and who regularly eats them. Conan and Natala meet a woman called Thalis, who falls in love with Conan and so decides to dispose of Natala by sacrificing her to Thog. Conan saves Natala from Thog, they leave, the end.

As one of the more simplistic Conan stories, The Slithering Shadow comes across like a rough blueprint for Red Nails, which has a similar premise - Conan and woman are in the wilderness, they find an abandoned city, it turns out there's a lost civilisation in there, also there's monsters. However, whilst Red Nails features Valeria, the only woman ally of Conan aside from Belit who is ever allowed to do anything cool ever, The Slithering Shadowis one more bog standard "helpless woman really ought to submit to whatever Conan wants if she hopes to survive" deal, and it's about as infuriating in that regard as you'd expect - plus you have the added spin of the plot being driven by female sexual jealousy to add even more sexism points to the pile. On the racism front, given that Xuthal is a city-sized opium den, Howard takes the depressingly predictable route of emphasising how the locals (aside from Thalis, who like Conan and Natala are outsiders) are yellow-skinned sorts with slanted eyes, so there's your Howardian racial xenophobia box firmly checked.

Of course, now that we're thirteen stories deep, none of this is a surprise. But you know what did jump out at me? The bit where Thalis ties Natala up, strips her naked, and flogs the shit out of her. In context, this comes out of nowhere and makes absolutely no sense; Thalis' plan hinges on disposing of Natala quickly by feeding her to Thog and then laying the charm on Conan, and so taking time out to flog her doesn't aid the plan at all and only creates the risk of Conan walking in on them. Once someone discovers you standing there holding a whip whilst a naked girl with lash-marks across her back is dangling from her bonds sobbing her little heart out, saying "This isn't what it looks like" doesn't really cut it, you know? Howard comes up with a semi-justification for the scene by having Natala (completely ineffectually) attempt to stab Thalis in order to get away from her, but even then that doesn't wash, because you know what also be good revenge? Feeding Natala to Thog as planned.

No, the scene is transparently present for one reason and one reason alone: because Weird Tales was a sleazy old rag whose editor at the time, Farnsworth Wright, never missed an opportunity to put some Margaret Brundage bondage art on the cover to boost sales, like so (link is NSFW, by the way). This aspect of Weird Tales is often forgotten these days, possibly because after all, the only other Weird Tales author whose fame these days shines even approximately as brightly as Howard's is good old H.P. Lovecraft, and the idea of Creepy Howie writing a sex scene for the purposes of audience titillation - or, indeed, writing a sex scene at all - is too ridiculous for words. But then again, Lovecraft and Wright were always kind of out of step of each other - Wright even rejected At the Mountains of Madness, a crime for which he should have been stripped naked, spanked, and then fed to shoggoths - whereas Howard and other Weird Tales authors were much more willing to cater to Wright's tastes by throwing in a bondage scene here and there, purely to catch Wright's eye in order to snag the cover illustration for their story.

This is one of Howard's more blatant attempts at this particular game. The only thing it really adds to the story is set up a reason for Thog to sneak up on Thalis and eat her whilst she's busy beating the shit out of Natala. Apparently shoggoths get off on nonconsensual girl-on-girl BDSM scenes, who knew?

Like all of Conan's other pet women, Natala obviously didn't last long, because in The Pool of the Black One Conan is all on his lonesome again - we catch up with him as he clambers aboard the Wastrel, a pirate ship out in the open sea, a twist of fate having left Conan adrift. Forcing his way into the crew through bluster, intimidation, and violence, Conan soon has designs on taking the captain's spot as commander of the ship - and taking Sacha, the captain's lover and this episode's weak civilised woman, for himself. The opportunity seems to present itself when the Wastrel makes landfall at an apparently deserted island, but there's a complication in the form of giant black men who like to make white boys get naked for them and dance before dipping them in their magic pool.

No, seriously, it seems this time around Howard got really really bored of writing lesbian bondage sequences for Wright's edification and decided to turn the tables a bit. Observe:
The blacks nodded and gestured to one another, but they did not seem to speak - vocally, at least. One, squatting on his haunches before the cringing boy, held a pipe-like thing in his hand. This he set to his lips, and apparently blew, though Conan heard no sound. But the Zingaran youth heard or felt, and cringed. He quivered and writhed as if in agony; a regularity became evident in the twitching of his limbs, which quickly became rhythmic. The twitching became a violent jerking, the jerking regular movements. The youth began to dance, as cobras dance by compulsion to the tune of the faquir's fife. There was naught of zest or joyful abandon in that dance. There was, indeed, abandon that was awful to see, but it was not joyful. It was if the mute tone of the pipes grasped the boy's inmost soul with salacious fingers and with brutal torture wrung from it every involuntary expression of secret passion. It was a convulsion of obscenity, a spasm of lasciviousness - an exudation of secret hungers framed by compulsion: desire without pleasure, pain mated awfully to lust. It was like seeing a soul stripped bare, and all its dark and unmentionable secrets laid bare.
Googling "Pool of the Black One" and "homoerotic" finds more or less no discussion online of the fact that this is blatantly meant to be a homoerotic scene, though filtered through an inherently homophobic lens ("desire without pleasure" implying nobody could actually enjoy being gay, etc. - you shouldn't need me to unpack this one for you). The silence on this issue in Howard criticism seems deafening, at least from where I'm sitting.

But aside from this incident, you get exactly what you expect from this sort of story: sinister black representatives of a lost civilisation are super-evil and are out to sacrifice terrified white people, heroic Conan saves the white people and gets the girl regardless of any objections she might have.

Red Nails is yet another rehash of the old "Conan explores lost city in the company of a woman, who he has to rescue" formula, and is also one of the most frustrating stories in the canon because whenever Conan isn't around it's really good. We open following Valeria, fearsome swordswoman of the high seas, having killed a man who attempted to rape her at the bandit camp she'd been staying at and not feeling much confidence in the buccaneers' ability to see things her way. Conan catches up with her, because he's horny, but whilst Valeria would prefer to push on by herself an encounter with a dinosaur forces the pair to work together. Eventually, they take shelter in the city of Xuchotl, which has a pseudo-mesoamerican aesthetic and is inhabited by a pair of warring factions fighting a grotesque and bloodthirsty feud which stems from an unfortunate love triangle their leaders were involved in generations ago. Conan and Valeria inadvertently find themselves allied with the faction led by Prince Olmec, but the true power behind the throne is Tascela, the woman at the heart of the romantic conflict which started the war. Tascela owes her longevity to the fact that she's a sorceress who is able to prolong her life through the ritual sacrifice of sexy young women - and Valeria is more than sexy enough for her purposes.

The most irritating thing about Red Tails is that it keeps hovering of the verge of being really, really good as a depiction of a society driven to destruction because its inhabitants end up prioritising a blood feud over communal survival. The ambushes the different factions spring on each other - often with the aid of dire monsters or sinister magical items retrieved from the dungeons deep beneath the city - are wicked cool, as is their psychotic celebrations whenever they kill an adversary from the opposing team. In addition, when Valeria is by herself, for the most part Howard allows her to actually kick ass - granted, this stops once he needs her to be the damsel in distress for Conan to save, but up until that point she's just as capable and bloodthirsty and black-hearted a rogue as Conan is.

Unfortunately, whilst at points the handling of Valeria represents Howard hobbling, bit by bit, towards a depiction of a female character which isn't a complete embarrassment, at other points in the story his absolute worst habits given a free hand to do as they wish. First off, there's Conan's old romantic strategy of pestering people and telling them that you and they are gonna fuck until they give in. In their first meeting, Conan brushes aside any attempt by Valeria to tell him she's not interested in him, and, whilst they are hiding on top of a rock to stay out of the grasp of the dinosaur, plops her down in his lap and starts groping at her whilst they are trying to work out an escape plan. Of course, she just mutely accepts this, because Howard cannot allow any woman to refuse Conan and actually mean it, and equally more or less every suggestion she makes for how to alleviate the situation turns out to be silly for some reason Conan himself points out. Effectively, getting rid of the dinosaur is a solo effort on Conan's part, Valeria's only role being to ask questions which show how she's less well-travelled and less knowledgeable than Conan, so that Conan can explain things to her (and to the reader) and show off how awesome he is. The correlation between Conan being present and Valeria being forbidden from doing stuff of her own initiative is more or less exact.

On top of that, let's look at how Valeria is constantly threatened with rape, or stuff we're meant to mistake for rape until the plot twist comes and it turns out "rape" is going to be a black magic ritual. Let's count! First, there's the guy she kills before the story starts at the bandit camp. Then, there's Conan creeping at her. Then, there's Prince Olmec. And last, but by no means least, there's Tascela, who stares at Valeria more or less non-stop from the point they first meet in possibly the least subtle "this chick totally wants that chick" hint an author has ever devised. Although it transpires Tascela doesn't actually want to fuck Valeria after all, there's no doubt that Howard intends us to think that's the case - all the other characters jump to that conclusion, and according to Novalyne Price Ellis (whose memoir of her brief relationship with Howard was the basis of a movie which, based on the poster, seems to be trying to sell Howard as a romantic lead) the story that became Red Nails was inspired by Howard's theory that when a civilisation becomes irreversibly decadent people become obsessed with sex and become gay.

Sure, Howard, whatever, but are you sure you didn't go for this angle so that you could be 100% guaranteed to get a cover story out of Wright? There's not one, not two, but three girl-on-girl bondage sequences in the story, in one of Howard's most blatant displays of pandering to Wright's particular tastes ever. First off, here's how Valeria reacts when she discovers the slave Yasala trying to drug her in her sleep:
"You sulky slut!" she said between her teeth. "I'm going to strip you stark naked and tie you across that couch and whip you until you tell me what you were doing here, and who sent you!"
She proceeds to do exactly that, of course - and yes, that line is just as silly and shoehorned-in in context as it sounds. It's like Valeria's interrogation technique jumps straight from "slapping the person you're interrogating about the face and demanding they spill the beans" to "stuff which would look like a weird sex game if we put it on the front cover, but it totally isn't a weird sex game so we should be able to slip it past the censors, wink" without anything in between. Later, there's another bit where Valeria is tied to a chair by Tascela and taunted, and then finally there's the actual sacrifice sequence itself which eventually made the front cover (NSFW, obviously).

It's stuff like this that makes me wonder whether that the Conan stories wouldn't seem so offensive if they were approached as bondage-themed fantasy erotica as opposed to straight-ahead sword and sorcery stories. True, the racism would still be an enormous issue, but at the same time I think that if you get off on male-dominant-female-submissive dynamics in a sexual context then you ought to be able to get jerk material which caters to that. However, if you take a sexual fantasy catering to the tastes of a few people and turn it into an all-encompassing philosophy which you yearn to apply to an entire society, things start getting deeply uncomfortable. John Norman's Gor novels may make passable jerk material for people who are sexually excited by dominance, submission, and impossibly shitty prose, but the philosophy packaged with them ends up falling to bits whenever Norman tries to apply it to society as a whole.

It's the same with Conan; Howard never set out his sexual philosophy to the same level of detail as he did his racial ideas, but it seems evident from his stories that there's an undercurrent going on of women surrendering themselves to Conan, who is depicted as a good partner because he uses his physical dominance to protect and keep safe his partners instead of brutalising them. However, Howard presents this in the context of escapist adventure fiction instead of BDSM fantasy erotica, and the audiences for the two might overlap but they are by no means the same audience; what one audience might understand as being the premise of a sexual fantasy comes across to the other audience as just a crass philosophy that it's OK to crush women's independence and free will with the force of your masculinity.

Of course, you could just say "Well, this is escapist fantasy fiction with mild BDSM themes, surely there's a place for that." Why, of course there is. But that isn't how Howard's material is usually presented and upheld by his supporters. When people recommend Howard or defend his work it's as amazing works that form an essential cornerstone of sword and sorcery, and there's often little if any discussion of the point that the stories also seem to cater to a particular set of sexual fantasies which many readers interested in sword and sorcery may not share, or of the thoughtless parroting of these sexual fantasies by Howard's imitators in the field which made much of the sword and sorcery field kind of unfriendly to those who aren't interested in that particular kink.

Right, enough of that. Next up we have Jewels of Gwahlur, a story about how black people are credulous rubes.

No, seriously, I'm not kidding. It's set in the land of Keshan, in not-Africa, inhabited by "a mixed race, a dusky nobility ruling a population that was largely pure Negro". Supposedly, the mixed race nobility are descended from a race of superior white people who came from the mysterious city of Alkmeenon. Within Alkmeenon lies the perfectly preserved body of Yelaya, the last white princess of Alkmeenon, who is worshipped by the people of Keshan and to whom their priests look for oracular proclamations - and because the city is sacred, it is kept uninhabited (so far as anyone is aware) with the priests only visiting when it is time to seek the wisdom of Yelaya. Also hidden away in Alkmeenon are the legendary jewels of Gwahlur, a fantastic treasure - and it's this which Conan is after.

However, Conan is not the only one to have heard rumours of the jewels - other scam artists in the form of the sinister team of Thutmekri and Zargheba are on the case, and Zargheba has hit on an ingenious plan - make his prize slave girl Muriela take the place of Yelaya, so when the priests come to consult the oracle she can order them to hand over the jewels to Zargheba. Conan, for his part, convinces Muriela to betray Zargheba and come away with him, and the rest of the story consists of a series of double-crosses and machinations as the different factions jockey for position whilst desperately trying to avoid the priests noticing that something is up.

Unfortunately, all that cool stuff is overshadowed by the racist premises the story is built on - that this priesthood of black people would be taken in by transparent flim-flammery and bullshitting, both on the part of the thieves and of those who are really behind the oracular statements of Yelaya, and that this kingdom of black people has based an entire religion on worshipping white people. The whole "black people worship us as gods" deal is probably one of the most exasperating colonialist fantasy motifs ever, and it's well and truly at work in this story. There's not much more to say about it really, other than to mourn the kernel of a good story once again buried under bullshit.

Conan vs. Picts


In Beyond the Black River we find Conan holding down something resembling an honest job. The Aquilonians are busily colonising the lands between Thunder River and the Black River - lands formerly held by the savage Picts, who despite the name are depicted as being more reminiscent of Native Americans than Scottish people. Conan thinks this colonisation business is bullshit when the Aquilonians can get sufficient farmland by seizing land from the useless aristocracy who use it for idle leisure as opposed to farming - in fact, Conan has all sorts of grand ideas about how Aquilonia should be run - but he isn't above earning his keep by working as a sort of freelance lone ranger dude patrolling the area and fucking the Picts' shit up if he encounters them.

Anyway, we begin the story in the company of Balthus, a guy travelling to the colonies in search of his fortune. Balthus runs into Conan and the two become buddies, and in the process of doing so stumble across evidence of a mysterious killing. Conan reveals there's been several such murders in the area - supposedly at the hands of a swamp demon summoned by the Pictish sorcerer Zogar Sag, who is running a campaign of vengeance against the Aquilonian settlers who humiliated him. Conan's boss, Valannus, tells Conan that City Hall is breathing down his neck about the Zogar Sag case and he needs results in 24 hours otherwise he'll have Conan's badge the terror campaign needs to stop, so he tasks Conan to lead a crack team of sword and sorcery commandos (including Balthus) across the Black River to assassinate Sag. However, once on the other side the plan goes awry, and Balthus and Conan discover that Sag has convinced the Pictish tribes to come together for an all-out invasion of the colonised lands, and they end up in a race against time to warn the settlers in time.

Now, in terms of the action, this is one of the best Conan stories out there. Conan's climactic battle against the swamp demon is awesome not just for the violence involved, but also for the magnificently evocative speech the swamp demon gives about Conan being marked for death. Reading the part where Balthus and the war-dog Slasher make a lone stand against the onrushing Picts, holding them off for the crucial minutes needed for the fleeing settlers to make their getaway and ultimately sacrificing their lives under a human wave of attackers, I found Howard's prose genuinely stirring - with that sort of siege narrative of small forces facing desperate odds, it's not too hard to get the blood racing, and Howard manages it brilliantly.

But that's part of why I find this story so disturbing, because whilst I found myself getting really into it, I also couldn't help but notice it was essentially a restating of the myths of America's westward expansion in a Conan context. You've got the distant folks back off in the east who live their comfortable lives of luxury and don't really understand how it is, you have the good old settlers who are courageously eking out a hard existence on the frontier, you have the overstretched authorities and you have the beastly natives who want to burn down people's houses and kill them and rape them. You have a few token mentions of how it's kind of a shame that the settlers had to displace so many of the locals, but when the chips are down you're expected to side with the settlers all the way, and of course for the hero you have your rugged, experienced frontiersman, who combines the best of both civilisation and savagery.

These are the premises on which numerous Westerns were built - Howard himself wrote a bunch, after all. But they add up to transparently self-serving propaganda, lionising those who committed genocide in past generations and declaring it vaguely necessary for the pacification of the continent. At the end of the story, Howard has some random forester come up to Conan and spout Howard's own basic philosophy at him:
"Barbarism is the natural state of mankind," the borderer said, still staring soberly at the Cimmerian. "Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph."
Mind you, this is in the context of Conan swearing to go into Pict territory and start cutting off heads in honour of Balthus and Slasher, so the implication of statements such as this couldn't be more clear: a people who want to survive and thrive in the long term must, by necessity, act as barbarians and commit atrocities which "civilised" people would shrink from in order to secure their interests. Those Injuns Picts certainly were willing to do so, so the white colonists Aquilonians had better do the same if they don't want to be consigned to the dustbin of history! In short, Howard espouses an "us or them" ideology which points unequivocally to the conclusion that not only were past atrocities against Native Americans were justified, but also seems to suggest that the US should continue to oppress them as much as possible because if white people set aside their barbaric, violent instincts they would be swept away by a tide of savagery. Ew.

In The Black Stranger, which unfolds deep in Pictish territory, we see this point made again. Way on the west coast of the Picts' realm, a bunch of not-Spaniards from Zingara, led by the brooding and haunted Count Kortezza, have made themselves a little fort and are living out their lives in obscurity for reasons Kortezza has never made clear to his niece, the Lady Belesa. The obscurity sought by the Count is shattered by the arrival of not one but two rival bands pirates - one led by the fearsome Strombanni, played by Brian Blessed, and the other under the command of swarthy, sleazy not-Spaniard Black Zarona. Both pirates are seeking the location of the famed treasure of Tranicos, a famed pirate from ages past, which they believe to be in the locale, and both pirates have assumed that Kortezza established his fort there because he was hunting the treasure too.

In a tense negotiation between the Count and the pirates, it is revealed that the decision to make landfall here was made not by the Count, but by the seafarer who the Count had commissioned to help him move his court away from his homeland to somewhere nice and isolated - said sailor being one of the three people, the other two having been Strombanni and Zarona, to have had any clue of where the treasure was located. Dramatically, Conan interrupts the meeting - having seen the pirates arriving and sussed out what they wanted - and reveals that he himself has found the location of the treasure purely by accident, and is willing to lead the two pirates to it if they will help him drag it back and give him a share.

Of course, immediately everyone plans to double-cross each other, and much of the rest of the story revolves around three things: the mutual betrayals and backstabbings amongst the main characters (by far the most entertaining feature of the story), the Picts getting angry at the Count because they think he killed one of their guys and besieging the fortress as a consequence of that, and the Count being even more scared of black people than Howard is.

Well, I'm misrepresenting the situation a little there. It's not just any black people that the Count is afraid of - it's a specific one. In fact, the reason he's gone off to live in the wilderness is to keep ahead of the dreadful entity - it's a demon in human form which the Count had a magician summon so that he could get it to slay his enemies, but then the Count got cold feet about paying the fiend its due so it now pursues him across the world. So, fair enough, it isn't a human being... but that's not actually an excuse when you consider that the scariest form Howard could think of to give this demon in human guise is a spooky black guy. Plus the Count's explanation of all this leads to this marvellous prose train crash:
"In my lust for wealth and power I sought aid from the people of the black arts - a black magician, who, at my desire, raised up a fiend from the outer gulfs of existence and clothed it in the form of a man. It crushed and slew my enemy; I grew great and wealthy and none could stand before me. But I thought to cheat my fiend of the price a mortal must pay who calls the black folk to do his bidding."
Considering that the context of the conversation is a discussion of demonic magic and, uh, a black guy, the sheer repetition of "black" in the above bit of dialogue borders on the ludicrous, especially when you consider that in each instance Howard could have equally meant black as in "oooh noooo, Satan!" or black as in "oooooh noooo, black people!".

Anyway, so afraid is the Count of this black man that when Tina, the Lady Belesa's little companion, shows up to mention she saw a black person coming ashore, the Count freaks the fuck out and has her stripped naked and whipped to try and get her to say she's lying. Sounds like yet another attempt to shoehorn in a flogging scene to titillate Wright, doesn't it? Well, it comes across that way too, with the sequence seeming weird and over-the-top even in context and all that jazz... except for the fact that Tina is a child, as the narration repeatedly reminds us. (This isn't the first time Tina is naked in the story either - earlier on we get a somewhat more affectionate description of her naked body.) Maybe, if I were at all inclined to give Howard anything approaching the benefit of the doubt at this point, I might suggest that this was merely an attempt to troll Wright into publishing cover art of a Tina of decidedly adult proportions being flogged, which would have proved that Wright only skimmed submissions to Weird Tales for bondage scenes and didn't really pay attention otherwise, but fuck it, I'm eighteen stories deep into the review and this shit is loathsome however you cut it.

Oh, and this story also does the "native Americans just want to wreck civilisation" deal again. Sigh.

Conan the King


At some point here in the timeline Conan becomes king of Aquilonia. Though Howard never got around to writing a story to explain how that happened, he gives us enough pointers to infer what went down: the former king was a disaster, the people wanted a revolution, Conan happened to be the strong leader they needed and bam, a king is he. In essence, he's a populist dictator sweeping away the dross of a decadent aristocracy and being the strong man his people need to defend them against foreign aggression, and who has to constantly keep on the look out for plots domestic and foreign to remove him from the throne.

It's the former variety of plot he has to contend with in The Phoenix On the Sword, the first Conan story written, in which a cabal of Aquilonians known as the Rebel Four come together to oust Conan and put an Aquilonian-born king on the throne. Little do they know, however, that they are being manipulated into doing the will of the villainous Ascalante, an outlaw who intends to use the chaos of their coup attempt to seize power for himself. Things are complicated with Thoth-Amon, a Stygian sorcerer kept as a slave by Ascalante, ends up recovering the magic ring that is the secret of his power through the sheer unparalleled stupidity of Dion, a member of the Rebel Four; having regained his powers, he decides to head home to Stygia, but not before summoning a demonic entity to take his revenge on Ascalante. On top of that, the ghost of Epemitrius the Sage appears to Conan in a dream to warn him of the coup and grant him supernatural aid.

I can definitely see why there was a major demand for sequels after The Phoenix On the Sword, because it's a great little story which not only presents decent action, but also showcases a more nuanced and interesting (and less repugnant) Conan than the Conan of the prequel tales, and also doesn't really have that much in the way of egregious bigotry spoiling things. There really aren't any women at all in it, which is of course not cool but is certainly preferable to anything Howard does when women enter the picture, Thoth-Amon is a sympathetic character (perhaps the sole sympathetic character from Stygia in the entire canon), and whilst the dig about sending the Picts booze to cause trouble amongst them is absolutely repugnant if you're aware that they're meant to be Native Americans, there's nothing in the story itself to suggest that connection, so if you aren't up on your Conan lore you could believe that the story goes by with more or less no racist jibes at all.

The depiction here of Conan as a literate sort who hesitates to kill Rinaldo, a minstrel who had joined the Rebel Four, because he doesn't want to deprive the world of his poetry adds a dimension to the character that is entirely absent from both the sequel stories and the prequels, and likewise the figure of Epemitrius as an occult guardian of the nation is an interesting one who seems to have been set aside after this story; similarly, the various supporting characters in Conan's court were never given more prominent roles in subsequent stories, which is a shame because Conan's interactions with them are interesting. Then again, I guess when the series took off Howard probably decided to simplify things drastically so that he could crank out crap at a high pace.

This certainly seems to have been the case with The Scarlet Citadel, the second Conan story written, which feels more like a brief sketch than a fully-developed tale. In summary: Conan travels to the neighbouring kingdom of Ophir, where his buddy Amalrus is claiming to be being imperilled by Strabonus, the king of Koth. Actually, they're just trolling Conan: Ophir and Koth have made a secret alliance to overthrow him and take Aquilonia for themselves, and to accomplish this they have the help of the evil wizard Tsotha-lanti, who soon confines Conan in his dungeons. Conan, frees the wizard Pelias, who Tsotha-lanti was also keeping captive, and then ousts the invading forces from Aquilonia with Pelias' sorcerous aid.

To be honest, I suspect Howard wasn't satisfied with this one, because he re-used the premise for The Hour of the Dragon and in general improves on it. For the most part, it's an inoffensive read with the occasional really awesome moment; for instance, here's how Conan re-takes his kingdom from Arpello, who tries to take over as king in order to rule as Strabonus' satrap:
The sun was rising over the eastern towers. Out of the crimson dawn came a flying speck that grew to a bat, then to an eagle. Then all who saw screamed in amazement, for over the walls of Tamar swooped a shape such as men knew only in half-forgotten legends, and from between its titan-wings sprang a human form as it roared over the great tower. Then with a deafening thunder of wings it was gone, and the folk blinked, wondering if they dreamed. But on the turret stood a wild barbaric figure, half naked, blood-stained, brandishing a great sword. And from the multitude rose a roar that rocked the very towers, "The king! It is the king!"

Arpello stood transfixed; then with a cry he drew and leaped at Conan. With a lion-like roar the Cimmerian parried the whistling blade, then dropped his own sword, gripped the prince and heaved him high above the head by crotch and neck.

"Take your plots to hell with you!" he roared, and like a sack of salt, he hurled the prince of Pellia far out, to fall through empty space for a hundred and fifty feet. The people gave back as the body came hurtling down, to smash on the marble pave, spattering blood and brains, and lie crushed in its splintered armor, like a mangled beetle.
See, that's just awesome. You know what isn't awesome? Long, tedious sections in which Conan is teased by some black guy who happens to have the key which will let him escape the dungeon. As well as being a complete deus ex machina - this naked black dude shows up from out of nowhere to taunt Conan about some past incident we haven't been told about until now and then gets conveniently eaten so Conan can get the key and get out of there - it's yet another display of Howard's complete disdain for black people, this time manifesting by the fact that Conan can barely come up with any terms to describe the guy other than referring to his black skin to a ridiculously repetitive extent and mentioning that he has "thick blubbery lips". Chin up, though, the end is in sight.

The Long Conan Friday


The Hour of the Dragon, the sole full-length Conan novel written by Howard, is essentially a rehash of The Scarlet Citadel, turned up to 11. An international conspiracy consisting of degenerate Nemedian ringleaders and their craven race-traitor sellout Aquilonian stooges plots to take control of the Hyborean world, intending to place the conspirator Tarascus on the throne of Nemedia and Valerius, a scion of the ousted royal dynasty, on the throne of Aquilonia - with both of them puppets of lead conspirator Amalric. In order to gain some devastating occult backing for their plot, the conspirators use the ancient Heart of Ahriman to revive Xaltotun of Python, the most feared sorcerer of the long-lost civilisation of Acheron, who were overthrown by the Hyboreans back when they were virile barbarians instead of wussy civilised folk.

Soon enough, between the conspirators' scheming and Xaltotun's magic Nemedia and Aquilonia are under the conspiracy's control. Tarascus, having defeated Conan's armies on the battlefield thanks to sorcerous intervention, wants to kill Conan, but Xaltotun takes Conan prisoner so that he can use the threat of Conan returning to retake the throne of Aquilonia to exert leverage over the conspirators. Things do not go as planned, however, for Conan is soon able to make his escape. On making contact with resistance forces within Aquilonia, Conan learns that the populace are too terrified of Xaltotun's sorcery to rise up - but if he can regain the Heart of Ahriman, which has the power to counteract Xaltotun's magic, a revolt against Valerius and his foreign backers could very well succeed. Luckily enough, Conan happened to learn during his escape that Tarascus had stolen the Heart from Ahriman under the false belief that it was the source of Xaltotun's power, and had dispatched an agent to ride forth and put it beyond Xaltotun's reach. This prompts Conan to set forth on a desperate chase to track down the Heart so that he can win back his kingdom.

Howard didn't really write that many novels, so The Hour of the Dragon is kind of odd as far as Conan stories go; it has some strengths that the short stories lack, but it also has some weaknesses which stand out pretty starkly. A major problem is the travelogue format of much of the novel, in which Conan ends up visiting various different lands as he chases after the Heart. Let's face it: Conan's world doesn't make a blind bit of sense, consisting as it does of a range of nations snatched from various points in the last few thousand years of history and jammed together in whatever combination felt cool to Howard when he was cooking this stuff up, so you have pseudo-Renaissance pirates of the Spanish Main living in the same world as pseudo-ancient Egyptians and pseudo-Viking war bands.

Now, in the short stories - as in, say, any D&D campaign set in a game world working on similar principles - it doesn't really matter. The episodic nature of the thing means that the setting of the week is really the only thing that matters, and worrying about the tech level and cultural state of the rest of the world isn't really an interesting or useful way to approach the material. It's different in The Hour of the Dragon; because we end up visiting multiple different nations in the same story, the discontinuities between them end up getting rubbed in the reader's face, to the point where the Hyborian Age is revealed for what it is: a mere paper backdrop for Conan to be cool in front of.

Partially as a consequence of this, the novel often feels like a bunch of disconnected Conan serials jammed together to form a narrative, with characters and themes disappearing into thin air and reappearing at Howard's whim. For instance, to pad the story out a bit Howard has Conan venture into the capital of Aquilonia in order to rescue the Countess Albiona, a loyalist who is up for execution due to her refusal to denounce Conan and accept Valerius's rule. After being rescued and travelling to a place of safety, Albiona does absolutely nothing and contributes to the story in no material way whatsoever; she exists only so that Conan can go do something brave and encounter the cult of Asura who, thanks to his tolerant policies towards them, are working to help Conan regain the kingdom. Watching Howard flail to try and work out something for Albiona to do before giving up and leaving her on some other noble's estate is one of the more facepalmy moments in the novel.

Another particularly stupid incident is Conan's encounter with Akivasha, the high priestess and secret ruler of a cult in Stygia. It turns out she's an immortal vampire, which is interesting and all, but after Conan discovers this and says "Uh, no blood-soaked vampire sex for me, thanks, I'll be going now" this particular plot point disappears absolutely. It's like Howard copy-pasted some material from an unfinished draft into the story to pad out the page count, or was perhaps considering a side plot concerning Akivasha before saying "ah, fuck it" and giving up without going back to take out the entirely irrelevant diversion.

As far as sexism and racism goes, of course Howard can't write for this long without saying something awful, that's just the way he is. As well as the complete uselessness of the Countess and the "evil slutty temptress" gig Akivasha has got going on, the only other woman of significance is Zenobia, a slave girl from the harem of Tarascus who helps Conan escape from the dungeon towards the start of the story. Actually, as far as civilised slave girls who are all scared and need big daddy Conan to protect them, Zenobia is probably the most inoffensive because - unlike pretty much all the other characters of that stripe in the saga - she is at least interested in Conan before he even meets her, rather than having his attentions forced on her until she learns to like it. Sure, it's still galling to have a female character defined solely by how much she loves Conan and wants to be of use to him, but you've got to love a character who expresses her desires with metaphors like this:
"But I am no painted toy; I am of flesh and blood. I breathe, hate, fear, rejoice and love. And I have loved you, King Conan, ever since I saw you riding at the head of your knights along the streets of Belverus when you visited King Nimed, years ago. My heart tugged at its strings to leap from my bosom and fall in the dust of the street under your horse's hoofs."
Aside from coming up with ridiculously gory pick-up lines like the above, Zenobia is actually pretty efficient - she frees Conan, provides him with a decent weapon, sneaks him through the palace, and gets out of the way so he can go adventure and then come back for her when he isn't busy. At the end of the novel, he declares he's going to marry her, presumably because he's glad to find a woman who is absolutely happy to just get completely trampled underfoot for his love, doesn't make much of a fuss about hardship, and doesn't get herself captured by sultry vixens who strip her naked and flog her for Farnsworth Wright's titillation. Fair enough, except Zenobia hasn't been a factor in the book since Conan's escape, and for all we know Conan doesn't really think about her and his promise to return to her until the very last line of the book. It's almost as though Howard decided that the story really needed to end with Conan settling down and getting married to indicate that the saga closes here with a happy ending, except he didn't fancy doing any of the leg work of actually developing the love interest in question beyond a brief appearance to establish that she's the doormat of Conan's dreams.

As far as racism goes, well, you have Stygia being a bizarre cult-controlled nightmare nation with giant snakes slithering about in the streets, but that's such a crazed cartoon it's hard to relate that to real-life Egyptians. More troubling by far is the fact that across the novel any collection of non-Europeans is usually a sign of bad shit about to go down. You have those Stygian cults, of course, but you also have the black manservants of Xaltotun, and the sinister ninjas from the far East which Valerius sends to assassinate Conan, and so on. Oh, and you also have a collection of black slaves on a slave ship who turn out to be former pirate crewmen who look up to Conan as a hero, so he's able to lead a slave revolt and take command. I guess Conan really can turn around and say "Some of my best friends are black", provided that by "friends" he means "crew who bow and scrape to me and do my every whim" - but what I find particularly disturbing about this sequence is how Conan keeps talking about the black slaves in bestial terms, talking up how they end up in a frothing rage when the rebellion goes down because that's just what the taste of freedom does to them. I don't care whether you put them on the side of the good guys or not, resurrecting the antebellum South's stance that black people are violent maniacs who would butcher people wholesale if they ever got their freedom is never OK.

To be honest, I found that the parts of The Hour of the Dragon I enjoyed the most were the parts that Conan was the least involved in. One thing Howard is consistently able to do well across the Conan series is depict collections of ne'er-do-wells who don't trust each other one bit and who backstab each other repeatedly, and the conspirators this time around are one of the best examples of this. All of their mutual betrayals make perfect sense, and go a long way towards conserving suspension of disbelief - it makes sense that Conan is able to slip the conspiracy's clutches and run rings around them because the conspirators are constantly concealing information from each other and working at cross-purposes. One of the best scenes in the novel is the bit where the conspirators meet up to bemoan the rebellion breaking out in Aquilonia; the meeting turns into an enormously entertaining shambles precisely because more or less everyone present is working against everyone else present whilst simultaneously trying to put on a facade of being allies.

In fact, the end of the novel from that point onwards finds Conan more or less entirely absent from the spotlight, Howard choosing instead to focus on the various villains and depicting their downfall, which for most of them ends up happening at the hands of various supporting characters. Xaltotun is faced down not by Conan, but by a witch and a cultist who help Conan earlier in the book, for instance, whilst Valerius is taken out by a plot hatched by the citizens of Aquilonia his misrule has brought low. Having these characters play roles in the final battle just as important as Conan's own takes a little of the sting off the Great Man philosophy underpinning the series as a whole, though there's no doubt that it is still present; the basic political philosophy is that in a hardened age of bastardry you need a populist strong man ruler in charge to show the other world powers who's boss, a worldview which was pretty fashionable back in the 1930s but which is hard to defend now.

What Do We Do With Conan?


Let's face it, folks: it's time to stop making excuses for Howard. "Prejudices of his time" be damned; people's thinking about racism and sexism might have come a long way since the 1930s, but objections to both social evils had been regularly raised for over a century before Howard wrote this stuff and were a part of political discourse at the time he was working. Howard's attitudes might have been closer to what was the mainstream of then than they are to the mainstream of today, but it would be simply incorrect to assert that they were attitudes universally shared, or that by shunning Howard we would necessarily have to shun all of his contemporaries.

Possibly the most successful literary response to Conan is found in Michael Moorcock's Elric novellas. Elric is an often amoral character who struggles to analyse his own actions and find a system of morality which is even vaguely functional, and as a consequence is far more interesting than Conan, who is a mostly amoral character (aside from his code of honour which forbids him from letting black people get the better of white people) who is quite happy remaining as he is. Likewise, whereas the Conan stories revolve around Conan encountering other cultures and remaining stalwart and strong in the face of their crazy and wrong ways - whether said cultures are lost nations from the dawn of time or mere cities of fat merchants and wily thieves and effete nobles - Moorcock's heroes constantly grapple to reconcile the practical necessity of living a functional life within society on the one hand with the moral imperative to change society for the better on the other hand.

In short, Conan represents a turning away from the world and its demands on us, presenting us with a fantasy figure who straight up takes what he wants, won't take no for an answer, and can't be pushed around by anyone; conversely, Moorcock's protagonists are part of the world whether they like it or not, and must deal with it the best they can. And I believe that is why the Conan stories were so alluring to a younger me who admired that fuck-the-world attitude, and why Moorcock's outlook seems more and more comprehensible as I get older and realise how unsustainable that attitude is. Which isn't to say I don't enjoy fiction based around brash, aggressive fuck-the-world protagonists - after all, the 1982 Conan movie is based on just such an approach and it's one of my favourite films - but it does mean that I am disinclined to see Conan as anything other than escapist fun. And you know what's really off-putting and gross in escapist fun? Far-right political agendas and unrestrained bigotry. You've got to wonder about people who find that sort of thing fun.

When I started working on this article I hoped to be able to propose a list of mostly-palatable Conan stories, the sort of stories I could recommend to people so that they could read them without feeling they were being slapped in the face constantly by Howard's bigotry. As it turns out, this was optimistic. Howard's overt racism and sexism is even worse than I remember it being, and I find myself agreeing with Sanford's position - the Conan stories are not a body of work I can ever recommend to someone when it comes to reading for pleasure. A few of the stories happen to combine better-than-average writing (for Howard's average) with a lack of overt bigotry - The God In the Bowl and The Phoenix On the Sword in particular - but even then you can find reasons to feel queasy about those if you happen to be up on your Conan lore. And if you asked me to put together a 200 page anthology of Howard's Conan stories which don't include overt bigotry which most people should be able to recognise, I would have to cop out and go for printing the thing in very very large text.

There's definitely something to Howard's writing - it's rough and not very polished, but there's a viscerality and a vitality which shines through all that anyway - but there's too much that is tediously bigoted and too much which is just tedious for me to really say any of the stories are good. At the end of the day, none of them match the standards of the 1982 Conan movie, which navigates the minefield which is Howard about as well as anyone could be possibly be expected to and comes up with something which is as unabashed a celebration of masculinity as anything Howard wrote and yet at the same time has a hope in hell of being vaguely inclusive. Sure, maybe the Howard purists can nitpick at it and claim it isn't genuinely Howardian, but I've seen what genuinely Howardian looks like and I wouldn't want to inflict that on anyone.

So, in the final analysis, is it or is it not time to turn our backs on Howard and consign him to obscurity? I suspect that this is the wrong question to ask; Howard has been read and enjoyed continuously until now, over 70 years after his death, and I think there is little doubt - considering how many defenders he has out there - that at least some people will still be reading Howard 70 years after I am dead. The question I think it is more sensible to ask is "who should read Howard?"

For anyone who is at all interested in the history of the fantasy genre, Howard simply is not optional. To ignore Conan and the impact of the Conan stories on the pulp fantasy market would be like pretending the Model T Ford was an irrelevance to the automobile market. The Conan stories not only spawned a small cottage industry of authors penning apocrypha about the world's favourite Cimmerian failed rapist, but also provided a basic model for authors creating their own original works which came to be just as significant for the sword and sorcery field as Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars stories were for the sword and planet subgenre. I don't think anybody who condemns Howard for the outrageous bigotry regularly displayed in his writing seriously proposes that we pretend that isn't the case.

But when it comes to more or less any other motivation for reading fantasy fiction - whether you're angling for improving literature or trashy fun (or trashy literature or improving fun, for that matter), and assuming you are not someone who deliberately reads badly written and offensive fiction for the lulz, there is really no reason to expend time on Howard when there's a whole world of authors out there who don't have his grotesque issues and are simply better writers than he is.

To return to the Model T Ford analogy, if you are a vintage car enthusiuast then of course you are going to want to have a drive in one simply for the experience of doing so, and if you are really keen on automotive history then buying one is perfectly understandable. But if you are not into the history of cars and are instead looking for a vehicle for everyday purposes like going to the shops or fetching the kids from school, or indeed for more ambitious purposes like going on an epic road trip or getting into motor racing, then buying a Model T is an absurd decision. Decade after decade of modern car design have yielded models which outstrip such redundant cars in more or less every aspect you could possibly care about. Do you want luxury? There's better cars available. Are you after speed and performance? You can get better. How about reliability? Of course you can do better there too. Do you want all kinds of stuff which didn't even exist in cars during the Model T era, like spinning rims and a thumping sound system? The modern market has you covered. Do you want all of the above? Do the research and put your money down, and you can get it. The Conan stories are kind of like that. If you want something which does the same sort of things they do, without the grotesqueness and with infinitely better prose, there's a plethora of options out there, as well as a bunch of material which takes the sword and sorcery concept in directions Howard never even considered.

But you can stretch the analogy even further; I'm sure by this point fans of vintage cars are pulling their hair out and yelling at me for focusing on the Model T Ford when that car was famously a mass-produced piece aimed at a more low-cost budget market than cars had previously been marketed to, whereas when it comes to really gorgeous, wonderful vintage cars - the sort of car which has heaps of nostalgic appeal and historical significance, and also has fantastic engineering and provides a genuinely luxurious experience, there's plenty of other options. That is, of course, true, and it's also true of Howard. There's a whole lot of fantasy written from around the same era which is just plain better written than the Conan stuff, and whilst a lot of it does have its own issues with racism and sexism, you can at least find material which doesn't express the sort of hot-blooded and overt hatred Howard displays. As well as authors working outside the pulp market such as Lord Dunsany or Hope Mirrlees or David Lindsay, there were also plenty of authors working in the exact same arena as Howard at around the same - Clark Ashton Smith, C.L. Moore, Fritz Leiber, Leigh Brackett and so on - who blow him out of the water, and whilst he was admittedly an inspiration for some of them (Moore and Leiber in particular), they tended to do a good job of grabbing what was enjoyable about his stuff and running with it whilst leaving Howard's third-rate prose and despicable bigotry in the dust.

Hell, even Lovecraft was able to produce fantasy material which, whilst not amongst his best material (and even his best stuff could be rough around the edges), at least manage to tell a compelling and haunting story without resorting to bigotry by default. I wouldn't suggest for a second that Lovecraft wasn't as much of a racist as Howard was; when he did choose to address race, the results were usually terrible. At the same time, Lovecraft at least had some ability to occasionally shut the fuck up about his awful views once in a blue moon. That is the point where the Model T analogy breaks down; sure, Henry Ford might have been the Hitler of the motor industry but he didn't go so far as to inscribe extracts of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion onto the dashboards of the cars he sold. With Conan, Howard's ideology is integral to the product; the racial philosophy espoused in The Hyborean Age is adhered to more or less consistently across the entire series.

It's true, of course, that any attempt to read and address people writing in past times runs into the isssue that past eras didn't have the same values as ours and shouldn't be expected to. But to write off what Howard does in the Conan stories on this basis is to set discernment aside altogether. We can put works written for similar markets (or, in some cases, the same market) at the same time next to each other and compare them, and in doing so we can see that the values espoused in the Conan stories were far from universal. The views Howard expressed through his work do stand out as being particularly beyond the pale, even when compared to similarly bigoted individuals like Lovecraft; furthermore, to claim that everyone was racist to the same extent and in the same way in the 1930s is to oversimplify matters enormously.

Equally, you can't simply brush these issues aside by saying that the Conan stories are mere escapism and, consequently, shouldn't be taken seriously. When we indulge in escapism through literature, art, music, games or whatever, we aren't escaping on our own - we're escaping in the company of the author or musician or game designers in question, because they can hardly avoid expressing their worldview and their aesthetic mores through the work they produce. This is particularly true for authors like Howard; even the clunkiness of his prose can't suffocate the boisterous and energetic voice in which his narratives are written. The question is, who would deliberately choose to escape in the company of such a loud and obnoxious bigot as Howard, a man who makes a racist cold fish misanthrope like Lovecraft seem gregarious and friendly in comparison?

None of the excuses offered by Howard's defenders can answer that point. The fact is, I can't recommend the Conan stories to readers for any reason other than historical interest. Yes, he was an inspirational and influential author, but the fact is a whole lot of the material the Conan stories influenced and inspired are just better than them any metric you could possibly hope to use. Of course we shouldn't throw Howard down the memory hole, any more than we should throw any author down the memory hole, but we can at least turf him out of the pantheon. Let him, if he hasn't already, become one of those authors who is more talked about than read, whose influence we recognise and acknowledge but whose work we read for research rather than enjoyment.

Do I sometimes find my blood racing when I read the Conan stories? Of course I do. But I can usually count on Howard to say something awful and completely ruin my enjoyment sooner rather than later. Birth of a Nation was also a stirring, exciting story which got people's blood racing but if you aren't able to recognise how awful it is then something is deeply, deeply wrong. Film students are capable of studying that film, and for that matter Triumph of the Will, and recognise the technical accomplishments and novel approaches to filmmaking expressed therein and which are used regularly in movie-making up to the present, whilst at the same time separating the craft from the content and acknowledging that the content itself is abhorrent. Too many fantasy readers are unwilling to do that. Should we censor Howard? It's a little late for that. But we can at least stop celebrating him.
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Comments (go to latest)
http://openid.anonymity.com/2yq6yh at 00:28 on 2012-02-20
I'm sorry this is off topic, I skimmed most of your .. essay. I just wanted to note that you've uncovered a bug in the css handling of Firefox 10.0.2. Even though you have background-repeat set on fbbg.gif (it makes the green bar on the left of every post), Firefox stops rendering it somewhere in the middle of the section "The Long Conan Friday" I've never seen that happen before, but I've never seen a 22k word document posted to the internet except minimally formatted text! :)
Arthur B at 00:42 on 2012-02-20
I've never seen that happen before, but I've never seen a 22k word document posted to the internet except minimally formatted text! :)

I am textwalling a bit, aren't I? Do you think I need to add more illustrations to the article to break it up a bit?
James D at 04:21 on 2012-02-20
Wow, good article, exhaustive to boot. I tried years ago to get into Conan and failed (mostly due to clunky prose and a boring, unsympathetic protagonist), but after watching and enjoying the 1982 Conan movie I was going to try again. Now I'm not going to bother. Thanks for saving me time and effort better spent on better authors.
Wardog at 09:11 on 2012-02-20
Wow, I think this is the most epic thing on the internet ever...
Wardog at 09:53 on 2012-02-20
There are many things I could say about this essay, and I had my O.o face on while reading, since my sole exposure to Conan was that awful movie you made me watch :P BUT, the most important point I feel I must address is this:

...and the intervention of a sad space elephant.

I ... what?

It is of course indisputable that Atali was there to provoke Conan - that was kind of the plan. At the same time, there's a name for the sort of person who responds to provocation with rape, and that's "rapist".

Oh Arthur, I think I love you :)
Arthur B at 10:00 on 2012-02-20
The wizard has captured a space elephant.

The space elephant is sad, because the wizard has captured it.

It is a sad space elephant.
Wardog at 10:02 on 2012-02-20
OH NOES! Poor sad space elephant! Well, really, despite all the rapin, maybe Conan was not such a bad guy. I mean ... sad space elephant!
Wardog at 10:14 on 2012-02-20
Later, there's another bit where Valeria is tied to a chair by Tascela and taunted, and then finally there's the actual sacrifice sequence itself which eventually made the front cover (NSFW, obviously).

Wow, that is a well placed, nipple-concealing wrist. Those evil non-white lesbians really knew what they were doing!
Wardog at 10:22 on 2012-02-20
My God, yes, epic. Sorry for the fragmentary comments, but I realised I would lose track of my asides if I didn't throw them out when they occurred. Also: sad space elephant :(

I've never read Howard, and now I never will, and I'm actually sitting here feeling rather relieved he's death and can write no more, but this is a fantastic article. It's always difficult to navigate the 'value' of racist/sexist texts, because even though texts can be immensely problematic it doesn't automatically render them devoid of merit of pleasure ... and I think your vintage car analogy works very well. Also despite the depth of the awful, I think you came out of this being very fair to Howard.
Arthur B at 10:25 on 2012-02-20
Those evil non-white lesbians really knew what they were doing!

You can totally tell that they are meant to be pseudo-Aztecs as opposed to tanned brunette Caucasians from that artwork, can't you?
Arthur B at 11:15 on 2012-02-20
@Kyra:
Also despite the depth of the awful, I think you came out of this being very fair to Howard.

I think the fairest thing you can say about Howard is that the market he was writing for (and the editor who gave him his paycheques) tended to bring out the worst in him. I mean maybe Valeria wouldn't have been so thoroughly deprotagonised in Red Nails if Howard hadn't felt the need to cater to Farnsworth Wright's fetishes. And possibly his writing would have improved and he wouldn't have recycled so many situations and stock characters if he wasn't in the position of having to rapidly crank out as many stories as he could in as short a space of time as possible in order to pay the bills.

But on the other hand, even if he had been able to take his time about his stories and even if he were writing for a market which didn't encourage his worst habits, you'd still have the problem of his ideology.

@James D:
I tried years ago to get into Conan and failed (mostly due to clunky prose and a boring, unsympathetic protagonist), but after watching and enjoying the 1982 Conan movie I was going to try again. Now I'm not going to bother. Thanks for saving me time and effort better spent on better authors.

Glad to be of help. :) I think part of the reason I've been so conflicted about the Howard stories over the years is that whilst I have no love for what they are, they occasionally give you flashes of what they could have been, and that's usually more interesting than what's actually in front of you. But on the whole I think the 1982 movie does an excellent job of teasing out the could-have-been from the source material, so sticking to that is honestly your best bet.
Dan H at 18:15 on 2012-02-20
Let me join all the others saying: woah, epic.

Secondly, the thing that really stood out for me in this article was the notion of the "amorality defence" - that somehow it's okay that Conan is an asshole because it's an "amoral" setting.

To which two thoughts: Firstly (and a little frivolously) since when was being amoral a *good* thing? Is "amoral" just hipster for "douchebag"? You know, as in "the reason you object to my behaviour isn't that I'm a creepy neckbeard with no sense of personal space or hygiene, it's because I reject your conventional notions of morality."

Secondly, having thought about it, I'm kind of coming to the conclusion that morality is like accent, you can only claim not to have one if you've failed to understand what they are in the first place. It relates in a way to the fallacy of balance - by claiming that a particular set of beliefs and behaviours are compatible with an "amoral" world you're essentially elevating one set of standards above all the others by pretending that it's some kind of default.
James D at 19:04 on 2012-02-20
I guess the 'amorality' defense comes in because Conan lives in a kill-or-be-killed world, and he'd be dead if he weren't quick on the draw, so to speak. That's not necessarily a problem, except Conan explicitly enjoys killing and being a sexist and revels in these things. He feels no guilt for these things. And rather than paint Conan as an evil guy, Howard idealizes him and turns this immoral (not amoral) asshole into a thinly-veiled power fantasy that readers are supposed to want to imagine themselves as.
Dan H at 19:29 on 2012-02-20


I guess the 'amorality' defense comes in because Conan lives in a kill-or-be-killed world, and he'd be dead if he weren't quick on the draw, so to speak


Yeah, that's more or less how I read it too, but the problem is that this *isn't* an amoral position to take, it's a specific moral position. This is kind of why I'm inclined to insist that "no morality" is as meaningless as "no accent". Perhaps I'm defining the therm to broadly, but it strikes me that a truly "amoral" character would not only have to never do anything, but also never refrain from doing anything.
James D at 19:42 on 2012-02-20
That or a character who, like an animal, acts purely on instinct and lacks the cognitive ability to reflect on the rightness or wrongness of his actions. Also I suppose 'an amoral setting' could refer to the fact that doing the right thing isn't rewarded by god(s) or society and that doing the wrong thing isn't punished by the same. But that's largely true of real life, too. Anyway it's indisputable that it's not just Conan being a dirtbag, it's the narrative, through rewarding Conan's sexist behavior (women falling all over him) and featuring people of color in tremendously racist roles. For an 'amoral setting', Howard's shitty morals shine through pretty strongly.
https://me.yahoo.com/amazed0_0#b756e at 21:34 on 2012-02-20
This whole wall of text comes out more as ramblings of a madman than a well thought article. Honest. One thing is sure that this article was not written by a savage, a barbarian or a civilized person, surely you must come from the Outer Darkness.

I'm really shocked how somebody who is obviously familiar with Howard and his writings can shove so much his own biased bullshit into one single text. The sad thing is that there is some genuinely valid points there in somewhere but they are all lost.

I have no energy or any motivation to try to correct any of these interpretations or bring some other perspective to anything. I sincerely just hope that nobody forms his or her opinion on Howard or Conan based on this article alone.

Still, though very interesting that someone who apparently doesn't like a significant portion of an author's work bothers to write a mostly negative text this long.
http://jmkmagnum.blogspot.com/ at 21:39 on 2012-02-20
I have no energy or any motivation to try to correct any of these interpretations or bring some other perspective to anything.


Ummm... okay, then. *headscratch*

Still, though very interesting that someone who apparently doesn't like a significant portion of an author's work bothers to write a mostly negative text this long.


Interesting, I suppose, in the sense that any passionate writing is interesting. I don't think there's anything particularly exceptional about someone having a reaction that is both powerful and negative, and hence writing at length about it.

I must say I have a hard time wrapping my head around generalizations of "Say nice things or shut up" beyond the very specific arena of face-to-face personal insults. You appear to be casting aspersions on the entire practice of writing in-depth negative critical examinations, and that's an attitude I find... Problematic.
https://me.yahoo.com/amazed0_0#b756e at 21:57 on 2012-02-20
I must say I have a hard time wrapping my head around generalizations of "Say nice things or shut up" beyond the very specific arena of face-to-face personal insults. You appear to be casting aspersions on the entire practice of writing in-depth negative critical examinations, and that's an attitude I find... Problematic.

I enjoy reading something which challenges my views or is different. It's refreshing and prevents you from being stuck in your world. Still I expect some standards (which I naturally define myself :) which I didn't think was found here.
I just made my on-surface critical examination of this article. :)
Wardog at 22:49 on 2012-02-20
Obviously I'm kinda biased, but considering that I sat down this morning and in one sitting read 22k words on a subject in which I have no interest whatsoever I consider that pretty effective writing.

Equally, although there are valuable discussions to be had around interpretation, I rather suspect they do not begin with dismissing a cogently argued, carefully contextualised and extremely thorough piece of analysis as "the ramblings of a madman."

I'm afraid if you want to participate in this discussion you'll have to muster a little more energy or motivation or I'm going to, err, call trollin'.
Arthur B at 23:10 on 2012-02-20
Oh boy, now things are hopping.

@Dan:
Secondly, the thing that really stood out for me in this article was the notion of the "amorality defence" - that somehow it's okay that Conan is an asshole because it's an "amoral" setting.

I think the "amorality defence" is a mutant child of the "entertainment defence". The entertainment defence states that the Conan tales are intended as adventurous thrill-stories, and so should primarily be judged by whether they are entertaining and fun, not whether they match some fuddy-duddy standard of morality. Anyone who objects to a bit of mere harmless fun on moral grounds must be flint-hearted spoilsports on the level of Pat Pulling, Rick Santorum, or the Grinch. You're not meant to consider whether the story is pushing obnoxious ideas because entertainment is neutral, apolitical, and absent of agenda.

This position is absurd, so the amorality defence is the next step. True, some entertainment expresses a moral standpoint, and so you can judge whether the story told is consistent with the moral standpoint expressed, and indeed you can judge whether the worldview presented is a palatable one. But the Conan stories are different! They are specifically meant to be about an amoral dude in an amoral world who does crazy shit, and are about exalting victory instead of virtue. Then it breaks down because actually via the narration and the narrative voice Howard makes moral calls all the time.

Again, I think it's a case of people defending the idealised version of the Conan stories they remember rather than what is actually on the paper.

Secondly, having thought about it, I'm kind of coming to the conclusion that morality is like accent, you can only claim not to have one if you've failed to understand what they are in the first place.

Yeah, pretty much.

Even when the Conan stuff gets closest to the beyond-good-and-evil amorality its advocates claim for it, all that does is give you a new moral dimension - one which exalts and celebrates victory as opposed to virtue.

@James D:
That or a character who, like an animal, acts purely on instinct and lacks the cognitive ability to reflect on the rightness or wrongness of his actions.

Yeah, this is kind of bourne out in the way Howard repeatedly compares Conan to animals. Usually big cats or wolves.

@amazed:
This whole wall of text comes out more as ramblings of a madman than a well thought article.

If you're confused on any specific point I'd be happy to explain properly. After wading through a thousand pages of Howard I was feeling like a rambly madman so I wouldn't be surprised if I'm a little incoherent, but I'm always glad to engage in constructive discussion.

One thing is sure that this article was not written by a savage, a barbarian or a civilized person, surely you must come from the Outer Darkness.

Or if you want to try and insult me by accusing me of being a divine entity from beyond space and time that's cool too I guess.

I'm really shocked how somebody who is obviously familiar with Howard and his writings can shove so much his own biased bullshit into one single text. The sad thing is that there is some genuinely valid points there in somewhere but they are all lost.

Well, I'd be glad to talk over any specific points you...

I have no energy or any motivation to try to correct any of these interpretations or bring some other perspective to anything.

Oh.

Still, though very interesting that someone who apparently doesn't like a significant portion of an author's work bothers to write a mostly negative text this long.

OK, this is a specific point so I'll give you a non-sarcastic answer. I outlined three reasons in the introduction why I'm bothering to do this, but in case you lost them I'll recap them here.

- Thanks to movie remakes and book reprints the subject is timely again.
- We have a series of articles on this website where we go through fantasy series and highlight the good parts and warn people away from the crappy bits and Conan seemed to be a good fit.
- I'd previously enjoyed the stories uncritically, but I've grown a lot as a reader since then and wanted to go back and see how things held up in the light of experience.

Again, I'm glad to actually engage with any specific arguments you want to raise, so go ahead. On the other hand if you want to go back to accusing me of being a flappity space bat worshipped by a tribe of wild lesbians that's cool too. That bat had a sweet gig until Conan showed up.
Long time reader, first time commenter - hello!

Your tenacity is very impressive Arthur B (just getting through all that Conan, let alone writing 20k words about it - amazing!) and your conclusions are compelling. However, a couple of minor quibbles.

First, I think, perhaps in your perfectly reasonable distaste at the sexism and racism that runs through and through the Conan stories, you fail to get at the why of Conan's influence in fantasy, and thereby do your younger selves a bit of a disservice. For me that why is about the particular zippy, free quality of Howard's imagination. It feeds on relentless and I think we all (apart from that S Sterling fellow) agree, profoundly racist cultural appropriation, but it is also tremendously alive. See for example the sad space elephant referred to above, and that city of opium eaters lost to hedonism and despair preyed on relentlessly by an unknowable God - woof! The story is pretty awful in various ways, but the setting is cracking - and borrowed by Richard Adams for the semi-domesticated rabbits in Watership Down perhaps?

Also I think you reduce the argument from historical context to the point that it becomes meaningless. Sure, there was no absolute need for Howard to be a racist in early 20th century America - other ideologies were available - but I don't think that absolves us from being careful about applying the standards of our time, and perhaps more importantly our milieu to our reading. Better to understand that his views, while they may have been extreme (was he a crank? I don't know much about him) were sufficiently mainstream to be included in commercial fiction. That at least tells us something about his time, his audience, and could perhaps make us think about how the stories might have been read or intended. It doesn't make the parts that we find ugly and abhorrent any less so, but I think we, as critical readers, should strive to engage honestly with that ugliness.

Finally a plea from a decrepit and struggling brain - when articles are as long as this would you possibly consider breaking them up into more digestible installments?

Best,

David.
Arthur B at 10:49 on 2012-02-21
Long time reader, first time commenter - hello!

Hello!

For me that why is about the particular zippy, free quality of Howard's imagination. It feeds on relentless and I think we all (apart from that S Sterling fellow) agree, profoundly racist cultural appropriation, but it is also tremendously alive. See for example the sad space elephant referred to above, and that city of opium eaters lost to hedonism and despair preyed on relentlessly by an unknowable God - woof! The story is pretty awful in various ways, but the setting is cracking - and borrowed by Richard Adams for the semi-domesticated rabbits in Watership Down perhaps?

I've not read Watership Down so I can't comment on that. Personally the most positive thing I can say about the setting is that Howard fairly successfully shows that you don't actually need a coherent and cohesive setting in an episodic series - so long as the individual episodes hang together, it's OK to play fast and loose from episode to episode.

But even then, Howard does all this stuff, fine. Is he the first person to do them? In some cases, maybe, in some cases not really. Did he do them markedly better than anyone else? Well, he's pretty good at what he does, but there's innumerable people who are pretty good at the exact same thing who don't make me want to chuck the book across the room, and more than a few who just do what Howard does and do it better. So what's the point of reading Howard now when we have all of these alternatives which don't rub a noxious agenda in our faces?

Better to understand that his views, while they may have been extreme (was he a crank? I don't know much about him) were sufficiently mainstream to be included in commercial fiction. That at least tells us something about his time, his audience, and could perhaps make us think about how the stories might have been read or intended. It doesn't make the parts that we find ugly and abhorrent any less so, but I think we, as critical readers, should strive to engage honestly with that ugliness.

I have two answers for this, both slightly flippant but also kind of sincere.

The first answer is that it doesn't matter how the stories were read or intended in the 1930s: none of us live there, none of us can go back there. What matters is how they're read now and what we can get out of them now - and right now, all I can see is a whole lot of hate and not a lot of quality entertainment.

The second answer is that sometimes the result of an honest engagement with ugliness is to come to the conclusion that the whole thing just isn't worth the effort to engage with in the first place. If we're going to invoke historical context, let's invoke the whole historical context: Howard was writing cheap, disposable adventure fiction for the pulp market, and approached his craft accordingly. The most you're going to get out of the Conan stories is titillating sex and violence, minimal character development, and the occasional curveball like the space elephant. If that's the sort of thing you like, great - but again, Howard really isn't the sole source for that sort of thing. There's no compelling need to put up with Howard's abhorrence when you can just read other writers - writers who might not themselves be perfect on the whole diversity deal, but are at least nowhere near as bad as Howard is. (Leigh Brackett and Fritz Leiber, to name two of his contemporaries, blow him out of the water even on their off-days.) Why, then, should anyone be bothered to put up with Howard unless they are specifically reading him out of interest in the historical development of the sword and sorcery subgenre?
valse de la lune at 10:09 on 2012-02-22
Having never read a word of Conan, the impression I get is that even if we were to ignore the bigotry, the writing is impressively shit and the subject matter/formula deathly dull. Such are the underpinnings of the genre.
@Arthur
Thanks for your reply - you make good points which speak cogently to your expressed intent. Heaven knows my intention isn't really to argue with you - for what it's worth I agree completely that for entertainment purposes there's a limited amount to be gained from Conan, and unlike you I didn't even manage to get through both volumes of stories before I arrived at that conclusion. However I have a feeling that, as a reader of fantasy novels, there's still something worth wondering about and worrying at, and I guess I was trying to get at something which, admittedly, is outside the terms of your essay.

See, I think this:
you don't actually need a coherent and cohesive setting in an episodic series -
so long as the individual episodes hang together, it's OK to play fast and loose
from episode to episode

is precisely not the point I was stumbling after. Which is to say, yes, if you take the Hyborean Age (or whatever it's called) as fantasy worldbuilding then that's a perfectly reasonable point of view; but if you're interested rather in Conan as a work of fanastical imagination (is there a word for this) then it does seem to tap into something which crops up again and again (in eg Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, China Mieville, Alan Moore amongst no doubt many others), and that constantly shifting setting is part of what's going on. I appreciate that this sounds hopelessly woolly.

As far as the historical context point goes, I agree with both of your counterpoints, but am less convinced by the use you put them to. So, again, as far as reviewing Conan goes then there's a great deal in your contention that:
What matters is how they're read now and what we can get out of them now

but if that's your view then there's no need that I can see to address the historical context at all. And when you say:
If we're going to invoke historical context, let's invoke the whole historical
context:

then yes, absolutely I agree - that might be an interesting thing to do, right?

I'm less convinced by your follow-up point - isn't at least one of the reasons we read, watch, and engage critically with
cheap, disposable adventure fiction for the pulp market
of whatever era precisely that we think there is something at least interesting and possibly important about it? And while I agree that
sometimes the result of an honest engagement with ugliness is to come to the
conclusion that the whole thing just isn't worth the effort

I think that while you have for sure and without question engaged honestly with Conan as a work of escapist fiction that your readers might be interested in reading themselves, I think you absolutely haven't engaged honestly with, in this instance, any sort of meaningful historical argument. I'm splitting hairs a bit here, really, which isn't fair.

In any event let me say more emphatically what I should have opened with - thanks very much for this thought provoking essay, I enjoyed reading it and apologise for appearing to take issue with a load of things you had neither written nor intended.

@Valse
Yes, there's a great deal in what you say, unfortunately. Having read nothing but fantasy novels while my brain chemistry was vulnerable to permanent imprinting sometimes feels like a curse.

David
Arthur B at 15:43 on 2012-02-22
Which is to say, yes, if you take the Hyborean Age (or whatever it's called) as fantasy worldbuilding then that's a perfectly reasonable point of view; but if you're interested rather in Conan as a work of fanastical imagination (is there a word for this) then it does seem to tap into something which crops up again and again (in eg Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, China Mieville, Alan Moore amongst no doubt many others), and that constantly shifting setting is part of what's going on. I appreciate that this sounds hopelessly woolly.

OK, I get that this is what you're saying, but I wouldn't personally call that a matter of setting so much as storytelling technique and motifs - essentially, what you've got in Howard and Vance and Moorcock and The Scar and so on is the protagonist adrift in an absurd world where they have to rapidly adapt to and get to grips with the locale they happen to find themselves in right now, which may have little to nothing to do with the locale they found themselves in in the previous short story/six chapters ago. Is this what you're getting at or am I missing it again?

So, again, as far as reviewing Conan goes then there's a great deal in your contention that:
What matters is how they're read now and what we can get out of them now

but if that's your view then there's no need that I can see to address the historical context at all.

I raise the historical context because people who take it on themselves to argue that Howard - or Lovecraft, or whoever - wasn't being racist raise historical context all the time. Historical context is the panacea they attempt to apply to excuse all manner of evils. "You've got to understand," they say, "that everyone back then thought like that." Which is a crass oversimplification.

I'm less convinced by your follow-up point - isn't at least one of the reasons we read, watch, and engage critically with
cheap, disposable adventure fiction for the pulp market
of whatever era precisely that we think there is something at least interesting and possibly important about it?

I think we read, watch, and engage critically with it because we think there might be something interesting/important about it. I also think that the end result of such an engagement could be to decide "actually, in this particular case, I don't think there's enough interesting or important about it to merit my attention".

Obviously the range of your reading is going to be incredibly stunted - if not wiped out altogether - if you threw the book across the room and disowned an author whenever they did something mildly questionable. Nobody's perfect. But then you've got a balancing act to play. Is the author giving me enough which I consider interesting or important to convince me to look past their slip-ups, or are their slip-ups of a magnitude where what reward you might get out of persisting is insufficient to justify the effort of biting back your bile.

There's a lot of variables to consider there. The first is what you consider important or interesting. As I said at the conclusion to the article, Howard casts this long shadow over fantasy fiction, therefore if you are interested in the history of the genre that may be a reason to give his work a go... provided, that is, that your interest in genre history is sufficient to overcome the distaste you feel at overt racism and sexism (which is not merely raised in passing, but is a fundamental axiom of the worldview presented and which underpins much of the material to an extent that if you pretended it wasn't there you wouldn't really be engaging with the material in good faith), sloppy writing, heavily recycled plots and general poor standards.

There's also the factor of time investment. With Moorcock, Mieville, Moore and Vance you've named a quartet of authors who have all put their foot in their mouths at one time or another - in some cases repeatedly - and yet offer so much more than Howard and are so much less extreme in what unpalatable opinions they do express that expending time on him in preference to them seems to be an absurd decision.

At the end of the day, if someone said to me "Well, that might be the case, but I'm very interested in the history of the fantasy genre, Howard's prose style doesn't bother me, I find the stories incredibly entertaining and whilst I certainly don't like how bigoted Howard is I don't find it enough of a stumbling block to spoil my appreciation of the stories", I would have absolutely no problem with that. Hell, at points I feel the same way about other authors and the better Howard stories. (Sad space elephant FTW!)

On the other hand, a lot of people don't run with that argument. Often you see the Conan zealots make arguments which boil down to "Well, the racism doesn't bother me, and it shouldn't bother you either" - the "everyone was racist back then so you just have to deal with it" argument is an example of this. On top of that you also have people who go so far as to try and argue that the racism isn't there at all.

Basically, there's a laundry list of very tedious rhetorical tactics people use all the time when defending Howard, and I wanted to raise them in the article so that if/when they came up in the comments I could just tell them to RTFA. :)

In any event let me say more emphatically what I should have opened with - thanks very much for this thought provoking essay, I enjoyed reading it and apologise for appearing to take issue with a load of things you had neither written nor intended.

No problem, it's nice to get into a substantive discussion which doesn't revolve around the usual knee-jerk talking points.
James D at 17:09 on 2012-02-22
Obviously the range of your reading is going to be incredibly stunted - if not wiped out altogether - if you threw the book across the room and disowned an author whenever they did something mildly questionable. Nobody's perfect. But then you've got a balancing act to play. Is the author giving me enough which I consider interesting or important to convince me to look past their slip-ups, or are their slip-ups of a magnitude where what reward you might get out of persisting is insufficient to justify the effort of biting back your bile.


This is the crux of the matter right here; if you tossed aside every book for any questionable views, you'd probably end up never finishing anything. Prejudice based on sexuality, gender, race, etc. is so ingrained in our society that it's likely impossible for any author to fully escape all of it; if they write about conscious beings long enough, some form of bigotry will rear its ugly head eventually.

I think that's why defenders of Howard, Tolkien, etc. are so vehement (and often delusional) in their defenses: they think people are proposing nobody read these authors because they're racist or sexist sometimes, which is why you also hear the apologists rail against the strawman of censorship a lot. The question of 'how much bigotry is too much' is impossible to even ask when people refuse to acknowledge it's there in the first place, or justify it away by claiming historical context or whatever. Phrenology made sense in its historical context; that doesn't mean we need to practice it now. Also focusing entirely on historical context ignores the fact that these are being republished and read by legions of new readers today, including lots of children and adolescents. One wonders what sort of impact on impressionable young minds Howard's warped views on race and gender have.
Arthur B at 17:40 on 2012-02-22
Also you have to respect the fact that if people are less tolerant of some types of problematic content than you are, that's legitimate and they probably have good reasons to have that stance. And on top of that, even if a book's slip-ups don't cross the line for you, you do kind of have to acknowledge that the slip-ups exist in the first place; this is not always nice, and it would be so comforting and pleasant and easy to just brush past this stuff and let it slide for the sake of a headache-free life, but once you say "it's OK for me to straight-up ignore a book's problematic issues for my own personal comfort" you're kind of making your personal comfort more important than the issues of entire classes of people the book (accidentally or on purpose) treads on.

For a long time I went for the personal comfort option from time to time - you can catch me doing it in old articles and comment threads on here and I'm sure I still do it on occasion because it's a very easy trap to fall into. At which point I just have to hope I catch myself doing it before I make myself look like a complete prick.

One wonders what sort of impact on impressionable young minds Howard's warped views on race and gender have.

To be honest I don't think it's a "he warps impressionable young minds" thing - though I would be legitimately disturbed by anyone who did base their worldview on Life According To Howard. I think the more dangerous thing is failing to acknowledge Howard's racism or sexism, or giving it a pass as a normal and acceptable stance to have in the SF/fantasy scene. If you normalise Howard in that way you end up with a scene where it's perfectly acceptable for other hateful people to continue to be hateful, where writers who might not be hateful themselves end up accidentally saying repugnant stuff because they parrot the likes of Howard without actually picking apart what he does and thinking about what he's saying where women and minorities are made to feel unwelcome by all this, and where otherwise intelligent readers let all of this pass them by entirely because even if they do notice what Howard has been doing, the scene as a whole tells them that there's nothing wrong with it because Howard's influence absolves him of being judged on the awful things he said.
James D at 17:58 on 2012-02-22
Well yeah, I agree with your proposed scenario, but I think the entire reason that's such a bad thing (aside from making it harder for people like us to find good fantasy) is that those attitudes of "letting blatant bigotry slide" so to speak carry over into real life. If ignoring, justifying, and/or rationalizing away bigotry in fiction as blatant as Howard's becomes a habit in those who read fantasy, why wouldn't it become a habit for them in real-life situations too? After all, Howard wasn't just writing pure flights of fancy that had utterly no bearing on his actual views. I mean, I'm sure you can see for example how the whole "if women don't want you at first, overpower them with your manliness and they'll learn to like it" attitude that comes up repeatedly in Conan stories could be incredibly harmful if even partially internalized.
Arthur B at 18:44 on 2012-02-22
I think people internalise that sort of thing not because one particular author happened to say it, but because the culture they exist in failed to condemn that author when they said it, and failed to condemn a whole lot of other people when they said it too, and generally created the impression that that sort of idea is unobjectionable.

I think people are much more likely to internalise stuff because they see an acceptance of it either in the wider culture or in the more specific subculture they are a part of, than they are if both culture and subculture regarded the material in question as the work of a total crank.

In other words, The Turner Diaries wouldn't have influenced Tim McVeigh if Tim McVeigh hadn't already found himself drawn into a nasty far-right subculture which celebrated and condoned the values that book promoted.
Shimmin at 19:02 on 2012-02-22
the culture they exist in failed to condone that author when they said it, and failed to condone a whole lot of other people when they said it too, and generally created the impression that that sort of idea is unobjectionable.

I think you may have meant "condemn"?
Arthur B at 19:13 on 2012-02-22
I did, I was in a hurry (rushing to Ravenloft). :)
James D at 19:33 on 2012-02-22
I think people are much more likely to internalise stuff because they see an acceptance of it either in the wider culture or in the more specific subculture they are a part of, than they are if both culture and subculture regarded the material in question as the work of a total crank.



I think we're saying the same thing, really. Internalizing bigotry requires someone putting it into appealing terms (like an exciting story), plus general approval (vocal or tacit) from your peers. The problem now is that, aside from a vocal minority represented here and a few other places, the bigotry in Conan stories is tacitly approved of by fantasy readers at large. At best it's a (sad space) elephant in the room. Read the wikipedia entry on Howard, for example; it lauds him as a feminist. I hope articles like yours will start to change that general opinion, which was obviously your intention in writing it. I showed it to a few Conan-loving friends, and did get some useful conversation out of it, though I can't say they all agreed with you.
http://angmar-bucket.livejournal.com/ at 00:19 on 2012-02-23
I'm a huge fan of pulp stories from the 20s and 30s to a near silly degree. Because of this, and because of my growing appreciation for the "wandering adventurer" story of that time period, I decided that I just HAD to read Conan. I forget what I read but it was the first part of an omnibus that restored things in the order of writing and not in any real chronology, and was filled with gorgeous illustrations by a really talented artist. The foreward and preface were the best part; you really thought you were in for a real treat, the way the editor and the artist went on about the reconstruction of the work in its proper form, about the hard work that went into the illustrations, etc. It was all so academic...

Of course, half or more of these illustrations featured scantily-clad women and scary-looking non-Europeans. And I just got bored before I'd read the first chapter of the first story. It was a bit disappointing after all the hype. And yes, H.P. Lovecraft was a better writer, but his love of Howard's stuff was partly what encouraged me to read Conan in the first place (looking back now that seems like such a "well what did you expect with a referral like that?" moment I can't believe I fell for it).

As far as race goes, I'm "Creepie Howies" 's biggest fan, but sort of an honest fan--I relate closely to the man in a lot of ways, especially having read a lot of his letters and biography, but I try to relate in an honest sort of way. One of the worst things about being a Lovecraft-phile is the fans, and more particularly the total and complete "lalala" attitude of many of his apologist fans, some of whom contribute published material that let him off the hook for everything he does. I'll never forget the "product of his time" nonsense that a prominent monster magazine scrawled out or the laughable "arguably racist" half-heartedness of another book. His monstrous quotes on race from his correspondence isn't exactly a secret (in fact they're published, as any person studying him should know) so I wonder where exactly they get these excuses from besides the usual white privilege (or maybe that's enough).

Overall, it's this apology attitude that I've been wondering about a lot the past few years as I read this stuff. Why do people make excuses for these men? I suspect it's an all-or-nothing deal: "If I like him, he must be good," or "If his stuff is bad, I must be bad for liking it," instead of "I am an adult who can reason on my own, and if I want to read this I can without guilt yet without self-deception, and he's not alive anyway so I'm not exactly giving him any money to rant at me." (The latter is the one I tend to take when it comes to this kind of stuff and I feel it's fair.)

And I was ready to take the same approach for Conan, but looking at your article, it seems like in order to love Conan you have to pretty much forgive ANYTHING to the point where you're doing him a favor and not entertaining yourself, instead of just occasionally raising an eyebrow at Lovecraft's stories. With Conan you'd have to either have your eyebrows raised all the time, or else train yourself to stop lifting them altogether. With H.P., the evil aliens of his stories are often if not always the "evil" foreigners that he hated in real life, but like you said in regards to the Picts/alcohol thing, if you don't KNOW the secret philosophy behind the works, you can still enjoy Cthulhu for being Cthulhu, because Cthulhu is an evil sleepy alien first and a potential avatar for whatever bugs Lovecraft second, and maybe not even at all. With Conan, you can't enjoy a Pict just being a Pict, because "Pict" literally means "extra-ancient Native American person." There's no legitimate fantasy over the author's sub-text; there's only text and more text.

Of course, even if there weren't any real-world text, it still hits you in the face like Tolkien's dealings on race--the white people resist the Dark Lord, the non-whites don't bother or are bribed/forced into helping him, and a whole race of Orcs is bad without exception. So even if Howard's races were totally fictional, their handling would still betray a very twisted philosophy on how people should treat each other.

A long response to a long review... :)
valse de la lune at 19:24 on 2012-02-25
Overall, it's this apology attitude that I've been wondering about a lot the past few years as I read this stuff. Why do people make excuses for these men? I suspect it's an all-or-nothing deal: "If I like him, he must be good," or "If his stuff is bad, I must be bad for liking it," instead of "I am an adult who can reason on my own, and if I want to read this I can without guilt yet without self-deception, and he's not alive anyway so I'm not exactly giving him any money to rant at me." (The latter is the one I tend to take when it comes to this kind of stuff and I feel it's fair.)


In my experience, that's very much the case--a leap of illogic from "they call something I like bigoted" to "they think I'm bigoted." The vehemence of this increases if the fan in question believes himself to be a progressive, swell individual; any suggestion that what he loves may be racist or sexist in any way disrupts that personal, closely-held narrative of enlightened liberalness ("I'm not racist! I'm not sexist! I support gay marriage!"). At this point, you either examine your own attitude and assumptions, or you fly off the handle, lose all sense of perspective and defend rank bigotry to the death, thereby revealing to all that you really aren't quite the enlightened liberal you thought you were.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 13:24 on 2012-02-26
Wow! Nice article and nice discussion(almost entirely)! I see that most things I would've had to say have been said already. But some assorted things came into mind. First, I also read through Conan and other stories of Howard in early teen years as most of them were translated to finnish at the time in various anthologies and some collections of Howard's own stories. I haven't really revisited any of them except those, which are situated in this worlds past, at least tentatively. My memory of Conan is that it was good action and that the violence was really quite exciting.

It is disconcerting how much one can write off by just refusing to acknowledge or bypassing stuff. The good things like the space elephants, intelligent apes and assorted monsters are nice though. So basically I don't have much to say about that.

On Howard's Hyborean Age stuff, you really get the sort of simplified spenglerian vibe from it, which was kind of a vogue in the inter-war years, that the white man's european civilization was about to be crushed in the circular jumbling of civilizations and going the way of the Romans and others. A certain part of this angst that the communists, women, jews, indoor heating, refrigeration &c. were destroying civilization was to dream that a more decisive attitude to the matter might be in order, so that the invigorating strength of past generations who ran around conquering stuff could wash away the softness of contemporary culture and bring back the glory days. This historical context of ideology seems to me to be the interesting part of Howard's vision of the struggle of races and it includes the very uncomfortable and pessimistic notion that the way to combat this perceived threat was to embrace the vigorous barbarian and violent nature of humans and think of things in purely confrontational and simple ways. This may be another source for the mistaken amoral view of Howard, that nothing else matters than the struggle between different races that has been going on since the beginning of time, not equality, freedom, progress or anything. Of course the pseudo-scientific ideas of social darwinism were quite popular at the time too, so there's that.

I don't really know how useful this sort of speculation is though. The whole Hyperborean thing seems a bit hastily scrambled together. It's also interesting that Howard seems to have had some different views on the picts earlier or then it all came together somehow for Howard in the end, in his mind.

The earlier character of Kull of Atlantis, who was I guess some sort of a blueprint for Conan, but was even more boring as a character, was an Atlantean barbarian, who became king after linving it up as a gladiator, pirate and whatnot. I always kind of preferred Kull, who was more thoughtful and introspective as a character, from a doomed homeland and everything. A rejected Kull story(the last of 'em), By this Axe I Rule!, was pretty much the same as the Phoenix on the sword, except, citing Wikipedia: "The Conan version has a completely new backstory, less philosophy, more action and more supernatural elements to make it more saleable". Kull had a better title, I think. Now Kull had a friend and a sort of councilor, Brule, who was a pict. Later pict stories, starring the last king of Picts Bran Mak Morn, actually had Kull making a cameo in Roman Britain to help Bran, a descendant of Brule's. In these stories(Kull and Bran Mak Morn) the Picts are more of the noble savage, or idealized barbarian set and are antagonists, fighting a losing battle against the romans and later in Turlogh Dubh stories, they're all but disappeared and pop up to help Turlogh kill some vikings and rescue a damsel in distress from the vikings(who ended up killing herself, I think. How nice.).

So I do not know, whether Howard decided to make them the mindless savages in Conan in separation to the other stories or are they supposed to be the same folk at all times, like some have suggested, progressing in a social darwinist way from savage to barbarian to civilized(at some point, perhaps) to whatever. It may be that having read those scottish pict stories first, I never realized the native american connection, although I was probably just oblivious.

All in all, I think Howard is more together in his historical stories like Passing of the Grey God or Shadow of the Vulture, probably because both are just battle-battle-fight and cut and I guess Suleyman the Great and the vikings are just pretty good protagonists. I still wouldn't really recommend his stuff to anyone, except perhaps fantasy fans who want to get more information on the history of the genre. He might have some good sources for story ideas, if one wants to stay in Europeland, like the whole Austrian-Ottoman conflict, which one doesn't really see much.

Howard is worthy of discussion, certainly, if not for anything else than his monolithical presence in the genre and effect on how people perceive it. And discussion of his horrible mistakes and ideas is exactly the way to do it, rather than censorship. If enough writing concerning Howard's unpalatable views are made, then hopefully even the most ardent defenders of his brutal worldviews will consign him to an influence on the genre from the early 20th century or interwar american fantasy, rather than as some sort of grand master of manly storytelling. Right this morning I was sorry that I hadn't read this book or that and here I wrote a huge post on Howard, of whom I know disconcertingly much. I feel like I've wasted my youth now.

On another note, it is hard to take Conan seriously after finding out that he chose to multi-class to thief after being a barbarian. I mean the backstab bonus is okay, but you can't use it if you're raging and Conan does like to do that. It would be smarter to be fighter/thief, for all the bonus fighter feats.
Arthur B at 15:45 on 2012-02-26
That stuff about the Picts was interesting and I guess the decisive factor is whether Howard was choosing to identify with them (via his Irish roots) or not. For Bran Mak Morn and Kull he was, so they were pseudo-Celts. For Conan, he wasn't - he was identifying with Conan, and consequently Cimmeria (he specifies that the Irish and Highland Scots are descended from the pure-blooded Cimmerians) - and so he was free to transform the Picts into pseudo-Native Americans.

On his class choices: obviously given how old school Howard is Conan operates under the original D&D rules, where you could only be a fighter or a wizard and if you wanted to be a thief you just had to go try to steal something. For Howard, 3rd edition is clearly a hallmark of a decaying civilisation, right on the tipping point before it descends into 4th edition and homosexuality.
http://rob-sanders.blogspot.com/ at 19:40 on 2012-02-27
Hi Arthur,

My name is Rob Sanders. You recently took the time to write a thoughtful review of my novel 'Legion of the Damned'. I really appreciate this and usually try to contact reviewers and thank them for the time spent and for choosing my novels to review. I hope you don't mind but I popped your review on my blog, as well as links to Ferretbrain and to your Warhammer 40k review page. I'm building a list of the best reviewing sites (in my humble opinion!) on my side bar called 'The Scene' and I've put your reviews page on there to push more traffic your way. Thanks once again. i really enjoyed your review.
Cheers
Rob Sanders
http://rob-sanders.blogspot.com/
Arthur B at 10:18 on 2012-02-28
Hi Rob,

Thanks very much for letting us know. I'm 100% fine with you hosting the review on your blog with links back to here, especially when this is accompanied by such an effusive endorsement of the site. :)

While you're here: any chance of more Heiss stories?
valse de la lune at 18:21 on 2012-03-05
Someone turned the rapey bits in "The Frost Giant's Daughter" into slashfic after I linked them this post.

As you can see, Arthur, you've inspired great things!
Arthur B at 18:31 on 2012-03-05
Well, if you want homoeroticism in a Conan story there's that really odd bit I quoted from The Pool of the Black One. Not for nothing is Howard known as an innovator.
Robinson L at 00:36 on 2012-03-16
I've never been particularly inclined to read the Conan stories anyway, and I believe this epic post has hurled any lingering chance that I might one day do so from a high tower to fall through empty space for a hundred and fifty feet and spatter on the ground like a mangled beetle. I get the distinct impression I'm getting a lot more entertainment value just from reading this article, so thanks for that.

Obvious caveat: I'm a white man, so I have a thick woolly layer of privilege between me and a lot of the issues I talk about here. It's entirely possible I give Howard an easy time in some places or don't quite cut to the heart of what's wrong in other places. I might even flip out at parts which aren't actually that offensive in some places.

I love the way you articulate a bunch of issues surrounding the Minority Warrior position (issues which I've struggled for a while to put into words). I'm glad you included the last point, because it seems less intuitive to me than the other way around, yet at the same time it's a tendency I definitely recognize in myself as something important which needs to be addressed.

Still, aside from this Great Man silliness the story's one of the more inoffensive Conan tales aside from the damsel in distress stuff, which is cosmic background radiation levels of sexism compared to how misogynistic Howard gets elsewhere.

Apart from being hilarious, “cosmic background radiation levels of [insert offensive tendency here]” strikes me as a really great way to describe something offensive which is 1) sadly ubiquitous, and 2) substantially less horrible than more extreme examples of the offensive tendency in question.

Again, I'm glad to actually engage with any specific arguments you want to raise, so go ahead. On the other hand if you want to go back to accusing me of being a flappity space bat worshipped by a tribe of wild lesbians that's cool too. That bat had a sweet gig until Conan showed up.

And as long as I'm gushing, I really like the shear good-naturedness of this takedown.
Arthur B at 00:46 on 2012-03-16
I'm glad you included the last point, because it seems less intuitive to me than the other way around, yet at the same time it's a tendency I definitely recognize in myself as something important which needs to be addressed.


Well, the most embarrassing way to be angry on someone else's behalf is to be angry about something they don't actually think is a big deal.

/flaps about in the moony twilight.
http://darthyan.livejournal.com/ at 00:55 on 2012-04-16
Wow. I mean I knew Conan had problems (hell even the 1970s marvel comics and recent Dark horse ones, which actually make an effort to avoid racism.) Have issues. The marvel ones had this cringe inducing asian caricature, while the modern one had the rapist arab. I liked the modern ones, but I'll be honest. The later one actually offended me (I have arab family members) and the first one was fucking cringe inducing.

I prefer the newer versions since while they cannot escape the problems of their predecessors fully, they can at least make a better effort and are also far less offensive.
Let us see when two comment echo chambers...

collide!
Janne Kirjasniemi at 07:57 on 2012-04-24
If he'd just get over the fact, that his own reading of Conan is very sympathetic to the author and focus less on how people are READING IT TOTALLY WRONG, it would be a better post. Certainly discussion of thing is nice, but now he just talks a bit off target.
Wardog at 09:09 on 2012-04-24
Wow, that kind of fanwank is particularly annoying fanwank, especially because he's lucid enough that you'd think he ought to know better really. Although I suppose YOU'RE READING IT WRONG! is the standard response to "this text is kinda problematic." Also how did he get to censorship at the end there? It's not censorship to criticise Howard. Yeesh.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 09:38 on 2012-04-24
You'd think that social judgment through free expression would be exactly how society should handle problematic things. If something can't or shouldn't be prohibited through legislation, then does it mean it shouldn't be criticized at all? Weird and highly illogical.
Wardog at 10:33 on 2012-04-24
I just spectacularly failed to keep my mouth shut and walk on by... arrrgh, I'm going to regret that so hard.
Dan H at 11:13 on 2012-04-24
You'd think that social judgment through free expression would be exactly how
society should handle problematic things.


Calling things problematic is also censorship.

On the internet "censorship" does not mean "prohibiting through legislation", it means "in any way suggesting that there is anything wrong with anything."
Janne Kirjasniemi at 11:29 on 2012-04-24
On the internet "censorship" does not mean "prohibiting through legislation", it
means "in any way suggesting that there is anything wrong with anything."


Oh dear. So suggesting that something is wrong with a criticism is censorship... we shouldn't worry about any large hadron collider opening a black hole anywhere, crazy troll thinking will be the literal birth of the warp, bringing the physical manifestation of the chaos gods to chew at our sanity.
Arthur B at 12:25 on 2012-04-24
I just spectacularly failed to keep my mouth shut and walk on by...

I failed harder. :(
Wardog at 15:00 on 2012-04-24
The thing is, I do kind of understand where the nerdrage comes from - when you really love something, it's really hard to read someone else's criticisms, especially if those criticisms bring to light sexism, racism etc. Given how angry he got at you for even suggesting that attempts to defend The Frost Giant's Daughter might constitute rape apologia (this before he even launched upon his extensive rape apologia) I can only conclude his personal moral comfort requires him to defend the books to the death rather than deal with the fact he's enjoying something sexist and racist.
James D at 15:53 on 2012-04-24
Wow, that guy is like a level 999 Conan scholar, god damn. I mean seriously, the lengths he went to in disproving Arthur's off-hand comment about Conan maybe being the last king of Aquilonia were ridiculous. And he actually says "Cromdamn" in a non-ironic fashion! It's to FerretBrain's credit that you're actually politely engaging this guy, rather than just calling him a neckbeard (literally true, going by his profile pic) and moving on.
Arthur B at 16:02 on 2012-04-24
His command of Aquilionian history is greater than mine.

His command of US political history, and why a right-wing Southerner might possibly have mild issues with voting Republican is... less impressive.
Fin at 16:07 on 2012-04-24
I hate it when sexism and racism comes up in regards to Howard's fiction, because at its worst, it represents Howard at his worst. It isn't something I like to dwell on for the same reason I don't like to dwell on the bad science in old science fiction films, or films set in the future that still have the USSR and radium clocks and cassette storage.

sexism and racism! just as bad as inaccurate predictions of the future.

and of course, that is shortly followed by this

you offend me on an intellectual level. That's much worse.

haha, what.
Wardog at 16:50 on 2012-04-24
It's to FerretBrain's credit that you're actually politely engaging this guy, rather than just calling him a neckbeard (literally true, going by his profile pic) and moving on.


Hah, I wish. Err, I mean I wish it was to our credit, not I wish I'd just called him names (although that is tempting). I suspect it's one of those discussions that is just going to make everyone involved look bad. I mean, I don't think all disagreements have to end in fluffy rainbows and compromise but there's actually no points of connection all, and no investment on either side in making any.

The reason I went over there in the first place, against my better judgement, was because I thought it could very easily evolve into an orgy of criticism and lol at his expense and behind his back, and I thought that was, I don't know, impolite. Or at the very least cowardly. I mean, it's massively easy (and attractive) to set up private dogpiling communities... I don't think it's quite an echo chamber but people with similar outlooks and values tend to find each other :)
Dan H at 16:59 on 2012-04-24
Oh dear. So suggesting that something is wrong with a criticism is censorship...
we shouldn't worry about any large hadron collider opening a black hole
anywhere, crazy troll thinking will be the literal birth of the warp, bringing
the physical manifestation of the chaos gods to chew at our sanity.


To make a brief attempt to be something approaching fair to crazy internet troll logic, I think that some people for understandable reasons expand their definition of "censorship" to include "suggestions that some texts should not be read" or "suggestions that there are some texts it is inappropriate to read."

Mostly, though, Censorship is kind of the new Hitler.
Arthur B at 17:02 on 2012-04-24
I went over to give a fairly full response because he didn't resort to drive-by trolling and had clearly put thought into his points, which puts him head and shoulders above amazed0_0#b756e up there, and because he says that he wanted to comment here but couldn't make OpenID work so he clearly wants to chat with me about it.
Wardog at 14:57 on 2012-04-26
Let us see when two comment echo chambers...

collide!


Apparently one of them falls over...

I can't believe I wasted so much thought on that.

*grumbles*
Arthur B at 15:03 on 2012-04-26
Yeah, it's a shame because the conversation was getting interesting.

Mr Harron, here's the comment I was going to make in response to your latest post on that thread; hopefully we can keep this thing ticking along here if you're not cool with it being on your blog.

---

The thing is, whilst it's fair enough to say that you personally get enough out of Howard (or Tolkien, or Conan Doyle, or whoever) that you can set aside the problematic stuff they say, you can't expand that into a universal statement that other people ought to forgive the same things you forgive, and that's exactly what holding authors up as "essential fantasy reading" does.

I would not hesitate to say that Howard is essential reading for anyone delving into the history of sword and sorcery, because by those specific criteria he clearly is. But if you say he's essential reading for all fantasy fans, you're effectively saying that people either have to learn to live with Howard or accept that on some fundamental they can't be part of the wider community of fantasy readers. You can't have it both ways: if you admit that people might have legitimate reasons for not reading Howard and that this doesn't disqualify them from being credible readers and writers and critics of fantasy, then you can hardly call his material "essential".

I'm also noticing that you seem to be working with a definition which only includes overt and unambiguous declarations of racial supremacy, which isn't really how it works. Even Howard's best Conan stories hinge on implicit assumptions which stem from his breakdown of the peoples of the world into savages, barbarians and civilised cultures, and his equation of culture with race, and his general stance that with a very few exceptions miscegenation is unhealthy and produces a lower class of person. That's three premises, each of which is individually dubious, and which become something awful when presented in combination with each other.

I also think you're building a strawman here when it comes to responding to racism: what you present is someone saying "I like REH's stuff, but I'm not a racist". What I was talking about was saying stuff along the lines of "I like REH's stuff and heartily recommend it, though there's some deeply problematic content in there which at points turns into overt racism and sexism so you may want to watch out for that." It's a very common fallacy in SF/fantasy fandom that if someone says that the stuff you enjoy is racist or sexist, that necessarily means you're a racist or sexist for enjoying it. That isn't the case - what does make people look like racists or sexists is when they deny that there's anything at all untoward going on, or they refuse to acknowledge it in the slightest. People do this all the time in fandom; it's exactly that sort of behaviour I was spoofing with the Iron Dream article.

Your more recent responses on the subject have made it clear that you do acknowledge that Howard has issues (exactly how pervasive they were is something which we can individually disagree on), but the original post there, precisely because it was so laser-focused on defending Howard, ended up painting a very different picture of your stance. I might have had a critical agenda when I wrote my article but I also acknowledged where I did enjoy the stories - I was very positive about The God In the Bowl, for instance. I think it's important to be honest about both your good and your bad impressions of a piece of work, otherwise you end up with the sort of uncritical worship or polemical screed that represents the worst of fandom. It is just as possible to whitewash by omission as it is to whitewash by direct denial.
Wardog at 15:09 on 2012-04-26
I'm just generally peeved - even if is your space, I think it's kind of low to delete everything someone else has said. I mean, I wasn't abusive, I wasn't offensive ... *I* wasn't the one defending the legitimacy of rape as a punishment for crossing Conan.

Again, not wanting to dogpile or whinge behind someone's back but when somebody arbitrarily denies you the right to engage with their ideas, and erases your attempts to do so, what's left?
Arthur B at 15:12 on 2012-04-26
To be fair I think he was taking the stuff down because people were genuinely offended by his rape comments.

I don't think it was about silencing us, I think it was about whitewashing his reputation.
Wardog at 15:15 on 2012-04-26
I genuinely don't know - and it's not my problem. I can imagine people were offended by his stalwart defence of rape (I was) but equally perhaps the discussion in comments was pissing people off? I maybe the comments section of his blog is supposed to read "yeah man, you're so right." Anyway, it's done now. I'm going to go play Rainbow Unicorn Attack until I feel better.
Arthur B at 19:41 on 2012-04-26
Right. The guy has edited his "I'm deleting these entries" post to make it clear that he took them down because of complaints about the discussion of racism and rape.

Specifically, it was mostly in response to the fact that he was spending time talking about it rather than writing whimsical posts about dinosaurs. Not because anyone was offended by his defence of rape as a just punishment (a position he backed away from, to be fair, though he did argue that Conan's attempted rape of Atali is somehow a dramatic necessity). Or because anyone was offended by his suggestion that racism is an eccentricity that only a few rare freaks exhibit.

Trigger warning for his links, by the way, because the one to this discussion of The Frost Giant's Daughter includes a lot of Conan fans saying that Atali totally deserved it.

So, that's REH fandom guys: a place where paying attention to problematic stuff is more offensive than defending rape.

My Iron Dream article didn't go far enough.
Wardog at 19:48 on 2012-04-26
Wow, I am so totally not going back there. I genuinely half thought there was some kind of communication happening, but I was wrong.
Bjoern at 22:20 on 2012-04-26
I have to ask, did they pull out my favourite argument? You know:

"This actually shows how enlightened REH was. In Hyboria horrible things happen to men (they're killed, maimed, slaughtered, etc.) and horrible things happen to women too! While women still fought for equality, they were treated as equals in REH's stories. As people who have to face the consequences of their actions and who are not to be protected just because they are female."

I always love it when they try to sell rape as a form of female empowerment. Never change, fanboys.
I really don't think there's any reasoning with rape apologists. I've seen some truly gruesome shit on the blogs I hang out at, and the only effective way of dealing with that crap is to kick it solidly out of your own spaces. Let them have the company they deserve.
Michal at 03:03 on 2012-04-27
I can't help but feel that a lot of this could've been avoided if the Open ID system on Ferretbrain wasn't horribly broken. :/
Arthur B at 08:55 on 2012-04-27
In what respect is it broken? Multiple people in this thread are using it just fine.
Rami at 09:12 on 2012-04-27
Michal: Have you personally found it not to work? Which OpenID provider were you using?
http://frolicofherown.wordpress.com/ at 09:35 on 2012-04-27
Hey, this is Kyra on her disposable wordpress account - OpenID seems okay to me?
And here I am on Google...
Michal at 16:13 on 2012-04-27
Michal: Have you personally found it not to work? Which OpenID provider were you using?


The reason I joined up to Ferretbrain "in the beginning" was that I wasn't able to post comments using either Wordpress or Google.
Arthur B at 16:14 on 2012-04-27
Can you do it now, or are there still issues? If it's still not working, what are you inputting in the box and what error messages come up when you try?
http://onelastsketch.wordpress.com/ at 16:27 on 2012-04-27
Last time, I was able to log in but I would get an error message when I pressed post that would tell me I'm not logged in. Oh well, only one way to find out...
Michal at 16:47 on 2012-04-27
However, I didn't post that from my home computer and this was on Internet Explorer, while I use chrome at home (don't know if that makes a difference).
Arthur B at 16:51 on 2012-04-27
One rather persistent issue that I've noticed the login stuff has had - and I suspect this might apply to OpenID as well - is that the FB cookie doesn't understand how web addresses work. If you log in via "http://ferretbrain.com/whatever" you're only logged in if you stick to pages beginning with "http://ferretbrain.com", and won't be logged in for pages starting with "http://www.ferretbrain.com", and the reverse also applies.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 19:08 on 2012-04-27
I noticed when still using OpenID with IE, that sometimes after writing down the address or whatever, the text might just disappear and nothing happens. If I remeber correctly, it happened when trying to carry on by pressing enter instead of using the mouse to proceed.
Rami at 23:29 on 2012-04-27
Michal, Janne: ...yeah, if Internet Explorer is involved at any point the likelihood of weird bugs goes up about tenfold. I'm afraid that's a difficult one to fix as the effort needed to handle IE's odd behavior isn't insignificant, and I don't have a Windows machine to test on.

Arthur: Yes, the way that subdomain has been handled has been a long-standing error on my part. The cookie infrastructure is set up to be somewhat paranoid about crossing subdomains -- technically correct although somewhat exasperating behavior. I've changed something in the server setup so this should stop being an issue... /me crosses fingers
Janne Kirjasniemi at 00:03 on 2012-04-28
Well, using IE is bugs just begging to happen, so no need to waste your time on software which isn't reasonably co-operative.
I wanted to post a response to the allegation that Conan is a rapist in REH's stories. Since the responses to this review are a couple of months old and my response is longer than the allowed word count, I did not want to post it here. Below please find a link to a blog I started for the sole purpose of presenting my view. You are invited to respond in my blog. Thank you.

http://atlanteanbarbarian.blogspot.com/

Wardog at 23:48 on 2012-07-29
Having tried to discuss this issue sensibly elsewhere, only to have all my comments deleted in a hissy fit, I'm not going to wander off to a random blog and go through the same rigmarole.

I subsequently read a couple of Conan stories ... and dude, this is one is rapetastic, I don't really know what else needs to be said.
Arthur B at 01:12 on 2012-07-30
Woah, dude, you made an entire blog to write about one of my articles? I suppose I am flattered. By the way, I'm going to post responses to your post and any subsequent stuff you put there about my articles here on FB just as insurance, because I know that the REH defence team is very sensitive and prone to deleting everything and pretending a discussion didn't happen. I'll crosspost this to your blog just as soon as I can get my OpenID on here working happily.

So, I've looked at your comment and I'm mildly surprised that it's as long as it, since it seems to be based on a very, very simple premise: you argue that Conan is not a person who habitually rapes women, and therefore Conan cannot be a rapist.

This both misrepresents the facts about Conan and reveals a troublingly ignorant attitude to rape.

You seem to be under the impression that there needs to be a deliberate and ongoing pattern of behaviour before you can call someone a rapist. Based on this assumption, you argue that The Frost-Giant's Daughter represents a momentary slip on the part of Conan, a bout of temporary madness which under other circumstances he would not repeat under other circumstances.

That is not how it works, Todd. If I lose my temper and shoot someone dead, I have killed; I am a killer. If I am desperate and I steal bread, I have stolen; I am a thief. If Conan goes temporarily nutso and tries to rape someone, then he tried to rape someone; he is a rapist.

Every time a rape or attempted rape occurs, by definition it is at the instigation of a rapist. It does not matter whether they have raped a thousand victims before or whether this is their first time. It does not matter whether they will ever do it again. In criminal law there is an insanity defence. But the insanity defence does not involve arguing that no crime happened. To say that Conan would not be a rapist if he committed this act in a moment of madness is, in effect, to argue that it is possible for a rape to occur without a rapist present. That isn't how it works.

You argue in the story that Atali uses a spell to enchant Conan in order to make him chase after her so that her brothers can smush him. That certainly isn't impossible; there is an air of strangeness over their encounter, after all, and Conan does find his passions mightily enflamed under circumstances under which he would otherwise be suspicious. However, I would point out that the story is more than vague enough on this point that we can't say one way or the other how much Conan is affected. Perhaps the enchantment is only sufficient to cause him to set aside any confusion or suspicion he may have about this strange figure who has shown up on the battlefield, but leaves him with sufficient free will to choose how he reacts to this. Perhaps it completely controls his mind. We don't know enough to say for sure.

What I can say for sure is that your assertion that Atali finds herself unable to undo the spell, and therefore Conan is still under the enchantment after the fight with her brothers, represents pure speculation. There is no suggestion in the story that Atali has lost control of her magic, only that she has lost control of the situation as a whole; Conan now has the upper hand. Moreover, your interpretation of the enchantment as full-on mind control requires it to be a very specific level of mind control. It is enough to cause Conan to attempt to rape Atali (which you argue is against his nature, though I disagree on this point), but it isn't enough to make him, say, lie down and die when her brothers attack him, or indeed cut his own throat so they needn't bother. Why, if this is some sort of mind control spell and not merely a matter of Atali provoking Conan's emotions through her glamours, would Atali use her magic to command Conan to try and do her harm? Why not command him to follow her into the snows submissively?

And whilst I don't recall a chase like this particular one in any of the other Conan stories, to say that Conan doesn't treat women abhorrently in other tales is to blind oneself to the facts. There's a story where he takes a break from an action to burst in on a woman, murder her lover in cold blood, and put the fear of death into her at the same time before publicly humilating her by tossing her into a cesspit, for Christ's sake. In The People of the Black Circle, Red Nails and numerous others, Conan regularly shows himself willing to force his affections on women who want nothing to do with them. It is circumstance and not Conan's personal inclinations which stops him having his way with Yasmina in People of the Black Circle, for instance.

Whilst it is true that in most of these cases (but not all - Yasmina is an exception) the women in question do eventually consent to what Conan wants from them, this doesn't get him or REH off the hook. In fact, it makes REH's presentation of these stories seem more dodgy, not less. It's a perpetuation of the noxious idea that "no means yes" - the idea that women who do not want to be kissed or groped by you are just playing hard to get and that persistence will win them around. This is the nasty "last minute resistance" concept that the PUA community talk about. When it is applied to real flesh and blood women it can lead to (and has resulted in) real flesh and blood rape. It is not a concept I particularly like seeing reinforced, especially in the particularly blunt way REH tends to go about it.

See, Todd, we're not dealing with a real incident here, we're dealing with stories. Conan's interactions with women aren't historical events, where our interpretation of them entails picking over the in-universe facts to see whether, for example, he actually tried to rape Atali (he clearly did, all your arguments have done is attempt to muddy the water as to whether he was in his right mind when he did it). They are also expressions of REH's worldview - of his personal assumptions of how a character like Conan would behave towards women, and how women would respond to him. Consistently across the stories he makes it clear that he believes Conan would reach out and take what opportunities for pleasure life puts in his path, and treats the objections of women as quibbles to be overcome rather than taking them seriously.

You were good enough to point out that I don't say people who read Howard's fiction necessarily support rape. At the same time, I think it is at the very least hard to deny that the Conan stories normalise attitudes which contribute to rape culture. ("Atali was totally asking for it," "It's OK that Conan was sexually harrassing and groping Valeria at the beginning of Red Nails because she totally wanted him," etc.)

When men internalise this shit they often go on to do unwise and impossibly damaging things, Todd. We're living in a society where a whole lot of us guys aren't even able to recognise rape as rape under some circumstances. And the fact that you can't recognise what happened to Atali as attempted rape, extenuating circumstances be damned, is deeply troubling to me. It wouldn't be right for me to say you're dangerous, Todd, based on a couple of blog posts, but I think you need to read up on issues surrounding rape far more urgently than my readers need to read some mediocre sword and sorcery stories by a long-dead hack.
I have to say that Ferretbrain is one of the few reliably sane and decent places I've ever come across on the internet. It's the closest thing I've ever found to a safe space.
Arthur,

Thank you for the comments. I look forward to your complete response. I'm not part of any REH defense team. My posting is long because I quote from the story.

In short, I am not saying that Conan isn't a rapist because he only did it once. He didn't do it at all here. You claim he's a frustrated rapist because he failed but really wanted to. My point is that he wasn't in his right mind. I think there is plenty of evidence he was enchanted. I think my position is supported much more by the context of the story than yours. You just conclude that he was out to rape her but we don't have a reason. Was it because she taunted him? No, don't buy it. It's clear from the context, especially Conan' recitation at the end, that he was enchanted in some way. Think of Odysseus and the Sirens. I think much the same was going on here. In fact, I think it is just a variation of that story.

If Conan was enchanted then he cannot be culpable for his action. It was a result of the enchantment.

I hope I'm not scary. Just because someone doesn't accept your definition or, in this case, interpretation of an event, it shouldn't make them scary. My feeling today is that there is a lot fascistic thinking out there and if one doesn't accept the "company line", then you are an outcast. I hope this isn't where you're coming from. I don't think I have an ignorant attitude toward rape at all. I think you may be a little indoctrinated. The mental element counts in determining whether a crime even took place. We are not talking about reality here and interjecting modern problems into this story is not appropriate and is probably coloring the way you are reading the story.

Conan would be acquitted here. ;-)

May it be blessed,

Todd

Michal at 06:17 on 2012-07-30
...

This will not end well.

Just a feeling.
Wardog at 10:05 on 2012-07-30
This will not end well.

Yeah, I have this feeling. But let's, uh, be civil and see what we can do...

The thing is, Arthur and I have had this argument already so I have a feeling we used up our stores of civility and patience. And I really can't be fucked to go into again because there doesn't seem to be any sensible middle ground between REH defenders and the rest of the world.

Firstly, I guess I have to defend my right to read a review / piece of analysis and then decide whether or not I want to read something based on the argument presented in the review. Errr, that's what a review is for. Also, not wanting to read a bunch of stories which I will probably not enjoy very much is not me doing REH a terrible injustice, it's my right as a reader. Frankly, life's too short to read everything I think I might not like just to check I'm not liking it for the reasons I thought I wouldn't like it... But, yeah, I've read a couple of Conan stories and ... guess what ... not mad keen. I mean, yeah, they're fun, in places, but I'd far rather read, err, something else?

Also, as I keep having to point out, literature is not hermetically sealed from reality. I mean obviously it's a fantastical setting but equally you have to consider the implications and assumptions of the text you're reading.

I don't think being sensitive to this is evidence of, um, indoctrination. I think it's called critical analysis?

The thing is, I don't think there's anything 'wrong' or 'dangerous' in liking Conan, or this particular story - it's fine, you like what you like and that's okay. But I think to do so uncritically, without at least acknowledging the subtext, is ... well ... it's a shallow way of looking at a text. Equally your defence of it culls most of its rhetoric from rape apologia which makes me as disinclined to accept your interpretation as you are to accept mine.

I mean, isn't evil sex girl magic the fantasy equivalent of wearing a short skirt and asking for it? I mean for God's sake, who would want a magic power that made men want to rape you (hey, Misfits, are you taking note of this?)? I mean you don't see male antagonists wandering around in tight leather trousers inciting the heroes to random acts of unwanted buttsex through their dark sinister magic, do you? The thing is, I could just about see the benefit of a power that made your opponents go mad with wanting to kill you and chase you to exhaustion across the tundra so that you could take them out easily. But mad with wanting to sex you against your will is just plain stupid - and it's the sort of stupid that ONLY gets dumped on female villains.

Essentially a set-up where danger AND sex AND sexuality are muddled up like this SOLELY for female characters can only be kinda problematic because it joins a trajectory of narrative justification in which women are about sex and rape is a natural consequence of women being about sex.

I also notice you reference mythology in your defence - because, yeah, you're totally right, that's a totally non-rapey framework for assessing the presentation of women in a text. Also I'm not sure "but Zeus did it, and he was awesome, Milud," is going to stand up as a justification. I recognise the Sirens / Circe parallels but just because you can point at MORE evidence that female sexuality is generally portrayed as being evil and dangerous and luring men to their deaths is entirely helping your point.
Arthur B at 10:29 on 2012-07-30
Thank you for the comments. I look forward to your complete response.

Uh, that was it. It's already long enough, there's no "director's cut" version of my last comment.

But since you seem up for a second round...

I'm not part of any REH defense team.

Well, good, I've seen that S.H.I.E.L.D.W.A.L.L. thing that other guy does and it's just kind of embarrassing and silly.

In short, I am not saying that Conan isn't a rapist because he only did it once. He didn't do it at all here.

But he tries his damnedest to. That doesn't make him "not a rapist", it makes him a failed rapist, just as I'd be a frustrated thief if someone caught me shoplifting or a failed killer if I failed an assassination mission because I walked in front of a moving car.

You claim he's a frustrated rapist because he failed but really wanted to. My point is that he wasn't in his right mind.

No, my point is that he's a frustrated rapist because he tried to rape someone in the first place. If he wasn't enchanted at the time, that's grotesque (and again, you've failed to offer any support in the actual text for your idea that Atali is unable to stop the enchantment after her brothers are killed). If he was enchanted at the time, well, he might not be criminally culpable by our standards, but that doesn't change anything about what took place.

I think there is plenty of evidence he was enchanted. I think my position is supported much more by the context of the story than yours.

I think the context of the story gives us plenty of reason to believe that something outright weird and enchant-y is happening, and I agree that the ending reinforces this in the part where Conan is more or less ready to write the whole thing off as a hallucination or a dream, but for the fact he's still grasping a piece of Atali's garments.

I do not think the context of the story gives us enough to say that Conan was flat-out unable to make his own decisions. His passions were enflamed to the point of irrationality, but different people react in different ways to that. In his case, he responded with a rape attempt. According to his own statements at the end of the story, he forgot any consideration other than Atali, but there's no suggestion that his response to Atali was anything other than his own choice.

I note that you haven't addressed my points about the context of the series at a whole, in which Conan regularly menaces women and forces his attentions on them without their consent. Does this not set off any alarm bells for you?

It's clear from the context, especially Conan' recitation at the end, that he was enchanted in some way. Think of Odysseus and the Sirens. I think much the same was going on here. In fact, I think it is just a variation of that story.

It's a noxious variation of a highly problematic story, though. Think about the nature of this enchantment: it's accomplished by a sexy lady appearing before Conan, showing off her goods and teasing him. Given that we live in a world where people a lot like you and me can genuinely believe that there are cases where women who are raped were "asking for it" due to the manner of their dress and behaviour, or that mentally healthy and sound men can be so sexually aroused that they lose control of their behaviour and so "can't help themselves" if they rape someone, this doesn't strike me as the sort of myth we really want to reinforce.

I hope I'm not scary. Just because someone doesn't accept your definition or, in this case, interpretation of an event, it shouldn't make them scary.

I don't find you scary, Todd, you're a random guy whose only form of interaction with me is words on the Internet. But I do find the stance you're taking troubling.

If we're talking definitions, let's get right down to basics. I define rape as "having sex with someone without their consent". Following on from that, I define a rapist as "someone who has sex or tries to have sex with another person without their consent". There's nuances to those definitions (I'm going with a fairly broad definition of "sex" there), but I think most people in most contexts will agree with them.

In this story, Conan attempts to have sex with Atali without her consent. Had he succeeded, that would be rape. Therefore he is attempting rape. Therefore he is a rapist. If he was enchanted at the time to the point where he was no longer in control of his actions then clearly his responsibility was diminished, but I see no sign in the story that he shows any remorse or revulsion about what he tried to do to Atali, and plenty of signs in the rest of the series that he is perfectly willing to sexually harass and assault women until they agree to have sex with him, so I'm not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt here.

Even if I were, it still wouldn't change the fact that he was a rapist, though if it were clearly mind control and if it were clearly a break from the way he usually behaved and if he seemed appropriately disgusted with what he had almost done then maybe that would be enough for him to retain my sympathy (though it'd be hanging by a fine thread). As it is, it's not clearly mind control ("enchantment" covers a lot of ground from "in a dream-state" to "passions enflamed supernaturally" to "outright mind control" and Conan could be in any one of those states in this story), it's not really that inconsistent with the way Conan treats women in other stories, and Conan clearly doesn't give a fuck about the fact that he straight-up tried to rape someone, so why should I sympathise with him in the slightest?

My feeling today is that there is a lot fascistic thinking out there and if one doesn't accept the "company line", then you are an outcast. I hope this isn't where you're coming from.

Ah yes, here we go. You're a brave little soldier standing against the Feminazis and Quislings like me. Because what the fascists were all about, at the end of the day, was calling rape "rape" and dismissing shitty and offensive fantasy stories as being shitty and offensive.

I think you may be a little indoctrinated.

No, I'm afraid that's just a fun but non-canonical fan theory. Conan Effect 3 really does end with the ghost of Robert E. Howard giving me the choice to destroy all barbarians, control the barbarians, or create a synthesis of barbarian and civilised life. It's a lot clearer in the Extended Cut though.

The mental element counts in determining whether a crime even took place.

The mental element counts in determining criminal responsibility but that doesn't mean the events in question didn't happen.

We are not talking about reality here and interjecting modern problems into this story is not appropriate and is probably coloring the way you are reading the story.

We are real people living in the modern world and reading stories by a guy writing a sufficiently brief period of time ago that many of the attitudes of his era are still very recognisably with us. But oooh nooo, we mustn't actually think about the story in the context of the life we live today! That'll make us just as bad as the people who think The Lord of the Swastika is somehow racist!

Also: "modern problems"? Are you saying sexism and rape didn't happen in historical eras? Wow, Todd. Just wow.
Also: "modern problems"? Are you saying sexism and rape didn't happen in historical eras?

Sure they did; they just weren't problems. Reading retrograde literature is supposed to be an escape to a better, more fun world where you could treat women like shit and not have to feel bad about it.
Arthur B at 13:19 on 2012-07-30
Reading retrograde literature is supposed to be an escape to a better, more fun world where you could treat women like shit and not have to feel bad about it.

Speaking of magical worlds where modern gender politics don't apply...

Todd, what's your take on Gor?
You wrote:

We’re not going to agree on the rape issue. I see a guy enchanted by a mystical being and he’s compelled to do what he did. Being a rapist is, and has almost always been, considered vile. It certainly was in REH’s time. Accusing someone of rape is a big deal. It connotes culpability for a heinous act. You can’t have this if the person is enchanted. We’re not in the real world in these stories. We’re, perhaps, being too narrow with what enchantment means. I’ve never been around a deity’s daughter, so maybe that’s the effect she has on mortals. Heck, I don’t know. Do you? :-) This isn’t a date rape issue or something that happens on a college campus. You’re projecting the real world into this scenario and forgetting the fantastical and mystical element of the stories. REH isn’t using this story to advocate rape- you are reading this into the story. Conan didn’t rape. He’s not a frustrated rapist. Does he appear at all frustrated because he failed to rape Atali? No. Had Conan said, “By Crom, I wished I could have ravished her before she got away”, eh…you’d have frustration. His only response was that he was bewildered and confused by the whole affair. He’s not even sure it was real. We’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one.

As for how Conan treats women, I don’t think you’re being fair. It would take up too much time and space to do it justice but you have to consider the setting. REH is drawing from other times and other cultures in order to present believable ancient/Dark Age type setting. Do you think women were treated well in ancient and Dark Age times? What you demand didn’t exist for most of human history- it was not the norm. Neither sex expected anything different. Critical Women’s Studies is a relatively new thing. How receptive would the stories be if Conan said to Valeria, “Hey, uh…do you think…uh, maybe…I could hold your hand, maybe?” If you look at Conan’s behavior towards women in the stories, he treats them better than most of the women get treated in Hyboria or our own ancient and Dark Age times for that matter. Relatively speaking, he’s rather liberated. He likes strong women. Belit and Valeria are not exactly subservient women, are they? What about Zenobia? Conan likes her because she was brave and resourceful and had no civilized agenda. In fact, he’s impressed by her and acknowledges her resourcefulness.

“Forcing attentions” is not necessarily menacing and doesn’t support expectations of potential rape either. It depends on the expectations of the involved parties. In our Earthly cultures women have been treated differently over time, differently by culture and differently even within a culture by different strata of the same society. In some cultures, a slap on the butt is obscene and unwelcome while in others it’s accepted, perhaps even expected. My partner learned this when he took his daughter to Italy just a few years ago. Both the men and the women there had expectations on how the two sexes should interact and this was difficult for my partner to accept when these cultural expectations were directed at this 16 year-old daughter. Their behaviors there would have probably resulted in orders of protection here in America.

I get your point about men today not knowing how to treat women. That is actually a two-way street and a problem for both sexes, not just men. Should women use their sexual charms to take advantage of men? Isn’t this a form of “forcing attention” and misandry? Don’t think it happens? Don’t think women abuse men too? You don’t do my job. Our cultural problem is that neither sex knows how to treat the other because the cultural underpinnings have been wrecked. Where do young men and women learn to treat or mistreat one another? It used to be by watching their parents and their culture. This is no longer the case. Many don’t have two parents to see the interaction and the culture is a disaster. They certainly are not looking to REH novels for guidance. I understand what you are saying but this has nothing to do with Conan stories. Sword and Sorcery stories are not intended to be guides for the home.

You bring up Rogues in the House where Conan tosses the snitch woman into a cesspool. I hate to put it this way but it evidences the silliness of your position. Conan kills the guard lover but doesn’t kill the woman. He doesn’t kill her because she’s a woman. You criticize the story because he doesn’t kill her! He humiliates her instead and this is evidence to you of the shitty way he treats women. This is incoherent. Do you think that he humiliated her because she was a woman? You mean this had nothing to do with her snitching and getting him arrested? Heck, he killed the boyfriend for goodness sake and he did nothing- where’s the concern for him? Would it have been more acceptable if he killed her too? Is it that important to treat them the same? Is it only sexist because he doesn’t kill her? You think he humiliates the woman only because she’s a woman but kills the guard boyfriend because, what, he’s a man? Conan may not treat women as you would like but he treats men a lot worse!

You’re consistently exhibiting misandric leanings. You have no sympathy for the men who are butchered and murdered in the stories but you are indignant if a woman gets thrown in a cesspool or groped. The woman in the Rogues in the House betrays Conan and gets him arrested. Atali tries to murder him. Akivasha tries to kill him. This is all okay because Conan is a man and men deserve to be betrayed and murdered?

I have never read the Gor stories.


Arthur B at 01:48 on 2012-07-31
We’re not going to agree on the rape issue. I see a guy enchanted by a mystical being and he’s compelled to do what he did.

That may be the case, but that is and can only be your interpretation. The story does not tell us to what extent Conan is compelled to do what he does.

Being a rapist is, and has almost always been, considered vile. It certainly was in REH’s time.

So what were the "modern problems" you were alluding to in your last comment then?

Accusing someone of rape is a big deal. It connotes culpability for a heinous act. You can’t have this if the person is enchanted.

Why would Atali enchant Conan to make him try to rape her? Is there really no other way she could have convinced him to follow her out into the tundra? You seem intent on blaming Atali for events that occur after the slaying of her brothers, despite the fact that she is clearly no longer in control of the situation at that point.

We’re, perhaps, being too narrow with what enchantment means. I’ve never been around a deity’s daughter, so maybe that’s the effect she has on mortals. Heck, I don’t know. Do you? :-)

The only authority we have on the way deities work in the Conan stories is Howard himself, and Howard doesn't offer nearly the level of detail which would allow you to declare what Atali can and can't do to the level of precision you've attempted here.

This isn’t a date rape issue or something that happens on a college campus. You’re projecting the real world into this scenario and forgetting the fantastical and mystical element of the stories.

But if we sit around and tell stories in which rape and attempted rape becomes normalised in a fantastical or mystical context, and we accept that uncritically, it's that much easier for us to turn a blind eye to things that happen in real life isn't it? I mean, if you accept that Conan attempting to forcibly have sex with Atali is somehow not-rape and not a blemish on his character in a fantastical context, you're making the judgement call that under hypothetical circumstances having non-consensual sex with someone isn't so terrible. Why would you stand by that position?

REH isn’t using this story to advocate rape- you are reading this into the story. Conan didn’t rape. He’s not a frustrated rapist. Does he appear at all frustrated because he failed to rape Atali? No. Had Conan said, “By Crom, I wished I could have ravished her before she got away”, eh…you’d have frustration.

I was using "frustrated" in the sense of "foiled". Call him a "failed rapist" if you like since he certainly makes the attempt.

REH is drawing from other times and other cultures in order to present believable ancient/Dark Age type setting. Do you think women were treated well in ancient and Dark Age times?

Why are you making an appeal to historical realism here when you are keen to emphasise the fantastic and mystical elsewhere?

If the important thing is realism, why should we assume Conan is enchanted rather than just angry and horny in The Frost Giant's Daughter?

If the important thing is escapist fantasy, why include grotesque and depressing mistreatment of women as part of the escapism?

Of course women were treated poorly in the past. That doesn't necessarily mean that women in historical contexts consistently acted like automatons from pick-up artist manuals.

How receptive would the stories be if Conan said to Valeria, “Hey, uh…do you think…uh, maybe…I could hold your hand, maybe?”

I dunno, it worked well enough for plenty of knights into the whole courtly love deal in the chivalric romances.

Seriously, though, if you think there's no middle road in courtship - even in a historical context - between roughly forcing your attention on a woman and being a complete wet blanket then I think you need to work on your game a bit.

Relatively speaking, he’s rather liberated. He likes strong women. Belit and Valeria are not exactly subservient women, are they? What about Zenobia? Conan likes her because she was brave and resourceful and had no civilized agenda. In fact, he’s impressed by her and acknowledges her resourcefulness.

And what about all the soft, spoiled civilised women who are completely helpless that he likes to scoop up and drag around with him?

In some cultures, a slap on the butt is obscene and unwelcome while in others it’s accepted, perhaps even expected. My partner learned this when he took his daughter to Italy just a few years ago. Both the men and the women there had expectations on how the two sexes should interact and this was difficult for my partner to accept when these cultural expectations were directed at this 16 year-old daughter.

A charming story but rather moot when you consider that most of the civilised women Conan hauls off in his stories consider his manners to be outright rude and definitely unwelcome, until the scene where they inevitably bend to his will.

Should women use their sexual charms to take advantage of men? Isn’t this a form of “forcing attention” and misandry?

So, imagine if there were no enchantment in The Frost Giant's Daughter aside from Atali taking advantage of Conan with her sexual charms. Would you still say he wasn't a rapist then?

Just curious.

To address your questions: of course women can sexually abuse men. It looks a lot like men sexually abusing women. Are you actually talking about women forcibly groping/kissing/raping/whatever men or are you taking the Men's Rights Activist line of railing against women trying to manipulate men with their slutty clothes and their dirty, dirty bodies?

Don’t think it happens? Don’t think women abuse men too? You don’t do my job.

...which is?

Our cultural problem is that neither sex knows how to treat the other because the cultural underpinnings have been wrecked. Where do young men and women learn to treat or mistreat one another? It used to be by watching their parents and their culture. This is no longer the case.

Where do they get it from then? I acknowledge that some kids lack engaged parents to help them form these ideas but I don't know of any children who grew up in the absence of any culture at all aside from a very few Kaspar Hauser cases. Everyone who grows up in contact with human beings exists in a culture.

Also holy balls your rant is going into some weird areas here.

Many don’t have two parents to see the interaction and the culture is a disaster. They certainly are not looking to REH novels for guidance.

Thank God for that, otherwise the rape and hate crime statistics would be even more depressing than they already are.

I understand what you are saying but this has nothing to do with Conan stories. Sword and Sorcery stories are not intended to be guides for the home.

But they're part of the culture, right?

You bring up Rogues in the House where Conan tosses the snitch woman into a cesspool. I hate to put it this way but it evidences the silliness of your position. Conan kills the guard lover but doesn’t kill the woman. He doesn’t kill her because she’s a woman.

So it would be wrong of him to kill her, because of a patronising social order which assumes that she just isn't as significant as the man and is therefore less worthy of his time, but it's a-OK for him to publicly humiliate her and put her in fear of her life?

Do you think that he humiliated her because she was a woman? You mean this had nothing to do with her snitching and getting him arrested? Heck, he killed the boyfriend for goodness sake and he did nothing- where’s the concern for him?

If I remember right the boyfriend was the guard she snitched to.

But this is precisely my point: Conan is taking revenge for being snitched on. This revenge involves a murder. So we're already in a space where Conan is doing stuff which isn't laudable and we can't really support as readers. If he'd killed the woman, then at least he'd be being consistent. As it is, we have a drawn-out sequence of her being humiliated and literally treated like shit. This is not an authorial decision which speaks to a high regard for women.

You’re consistently exhibiting misandric leanings.

I was paralysed with laughter for about five minutes after reading this line. Wow.

You have no sympathy for the men who are butchered and murdered in the stories but you are indignant if a woman gets thrown in a cesspool or groped.

The men you speak of are more or less exclusively warriors who attempt to fight Conan. They posed him a threat. Women in the Conan stories would be lucky to be even that relevant.

The woman in the Rogues in the House betrays Conan and gets him arrested. Atali tries to murder him. Akivasha tries to kill him. This is all okay because Conan is a man and men deserve to be betrayed and murdered?

It's not OK, actually, because it creates a consistent assumption that women who are not actively helping/submitting to Conan are evil tricksters out to betray and murder Conan.

I have never read the Gor stories.

You should give them a try, something tells me you'd like them.
A portion from our last exchange:

Me:
You bring up Rogues in the House where Conan tosses the snitch woman into a cesspool. I hate to put it this way but it evidences the silliness of your position. Conan kills the guard lover but doesn’t kill the woman. He doesn’t kill her because she’s a woman.

You:
So it would be wrong of him to kill her, because of a patronising social order which assumes that she just isn't as significant as the man and is therefore less worthy of his time, but it's a-OK for him to publicly humiliate her and put her in fear of her life?

Me:
Do you think that he humiliated her because she was a woman? You mean this had nothing to do with her snitching and getting him arrested? Heck, he killed the boyfriend for goodness sake and he did nothing- where’s the concern for him?

You:
If I remember right the boyfriend was the guard she snitched to.

But this is precisely my point: Conan is taking revenge for being snitched on. This revenge involves a murder. So we're already in a space where Conan is doing stuff which isn't laudable and we can't really support as readers. If he'd killed the woman, then at least he'd be being consistent. As it is, we have a drawn-out sequence of her being humiliated and literally treated like shit. This is not an authorial decision which speaks to a high regard for women.
<snip>

I had typed up a long response to your last post but the responses above convinced me that the discussion is over. They evidence your adherence to a feminist worldview that I find ridiculous. The woman wasn't killed because of the "patronising social order which assumes that she just isn't as significant as the man..." This made me laugh for a while. Thanks. And you think I have weird rants? :-) Most of the women I know, if you gave them the choice between being killed or being thrown into a cesspool, would not argue to be killed because they want to be treated equally and, in the process, argue feminist ideology to make their point. About throwing her in the cesspool, you conclude, "This is not an authorial decision which speaks to a high regard for women", but killing her would? What a hoot. You are kidding, right? Maybe the barbarian should have brought her flowers. What happened to the chivalry you held up? This is chivalry...Cimmerian style anyway.

I do find your support for chivalry interesting. I would have expected you would find such things offensive and degrading to women; I mean, the society was a patronizing social order that oppressed women, right? What about the Titanic? Was it misogynist for the men to sacrifice themselves for the women and allow women and children into the lifeboats first? Didn't this imply a greater dignity in the men that their lives were worth sacrificing but the lives of the women were not? Shouldn't the women have been put on equal standing with the men and allowed to die alongside them or is chivalry just for men? This is curious.

Okay at least you're willing to concede that Conan is, over all, not a nice guy and not just a misogynist/rapist. That's a start. He kills people. He's a "reaver". He steals. He grabs women's butts. He's tough to love. How about this- put the book down. Why torture yourself? Had I know your political leanings when I prepared my first response, I would have stepped away from the keyboard. I don't see how you can enjoy any literature that wasn't written until after the counter-culture revolution in the 60's and perhaps you don't. You'd be hard-pressed to find any society that could meet the demands of your feminist outlook and every story will be tainted by some "patronizing social order" that treats women differently than men. If you continue to view things through that tiny ideological filter, all you will see is a world conditioned by your preconceptions. You'll always find what you're looking for- misogyny, rape, sexual inequality, etc... I'm sure a Marxist would have a field day analyzing and deconstructing Hyborian economic systems to point out how the bourgeoisie exploits the proletariat....but this would be kind of stupid, wouldn't it?

BTW, I did appreciate some of your review. I agree that God in the Bowl and Rogues in the House are some of the better stories and for the reasons you present. I think there are other good ones too. Unfortunately, I don't think you'll let yourself enjoy them. You seem like a nice person and I thank you for your courtesy. I do think you over politicize these stories and you don't treat them justly in your deconstruction. Quit deconstructing and enjoy the stories.

As for the Gor stories, they're have to wait. I'm going tackle some Fritz Leiber next.

God bless.

Todd
Arthur B at 11:18 on 2012-07-31
I had typed up a long response to your last post but the responses above convinced me that the discussion is over.

Discussion? I thought we were just pontificating at each other.

Most of the women I know, if you gave them the choice between being killed or being thrown into a cesspool, would not argue to be killed because they want to be treated equally and, in the process, argue feminist ideology to make their point.

Obviously if the woman in question were a real flesh and blood person it would be better for her to be humiliated than murdered, but we're not talking about a real person, we're talking about a character in a story, a story in which REH shows just enough tact to realise that showing Conan actually killing a defenceless woman would make his readership lose sympathy with him but at the same time just can't stop himself from writing a scene where Conan violently humiliates and degrades her.

It's all the more repugnant to me because the scene in question is so needless. We don't really need to know why Conan was in jail at the start of the story in that much detail - the dude gets in enough trouble that we can guess for the most part - and it isn't needed to explain why Conan was late to the party at the Red Priest's place because the unexpected complications to the jailbreak plan already provide a perfectly adequate explanation on that score. The woman in question has no further impact on the story, and the whole sequence could have been cut out without any effect on the plot whatsoever. That being the case, it seems decidedly relevant to ask why the scene exists. "Comic relief" or "padding out the word count at the editor's behest" would both seem to be distinct possibilities, but the fact that when REH needs to add such a sequence he decides to go for "dumping women in shit for the lulz" is not a good or admirable thing.

About throwing her in the cesspool, you conclude, "This is not an authorial decision which speaks to a high regard for women", but killing her would?

If the snitch had been a male friend of Conan's, do you seriously doubt that he would have killed the guy along with the guard?

I do find your support for chivalry interesting.

You know what I find even more interesting? The fact that you noticed me mentioning chivalry in my previous comment and jumped to the conclusion that I was declaring support for it.

I wasn't; if you follow the discussion you'll see I was citing the whole courtly love deal as an example of super-manly heroes held up by their culture as the pinnacle of masculine excellence taking a very meek and timorous approach to courtship. But hey, you saw a buzzword and so you launched into your Titanic spiel without any consideration of the context because apparently that passes for rhetoric in the world of Men's Rights.

For what it's worth re: the Titanic - as the posts under the link point out, the whole "women and children first!" thing is a mild myth. It's also, yes, a sexist myth because it implies that women are about as capable of taking care of themselves in a life-or-death crisis as children are. Infantilising people is not a sign of respect. Putting women on a pedestal through an undue adherence to some versions of the chivalric ideal is hardly better because you're still working on the assumption that men and women cannot ever interact as equals.

Okay at least you're willing to concede that Conan is, over all, not a nice guy and not just a misogynist/rapist. That's a start. He kills people. He's a "reaver". He steals. He grabs women's butts. He's tough to love. How about this- put the book down. Why torture yourself?

Good idea. That's precisely what I advocate in the article, in fact.

Had I know your political leanings when I prepared my first response, I would have stepped away from the keyboard.

Had you paid even the slightest bit of attention to the article or my other writing on FB you would have been able to infer said leanings without too much trouble.

I don't see how you can enjoy any literature that wasn't written until after the counter-culture revolution in the 60's and perhaps you don't. You'd be hard-pressed to find any society that could meet the demands of your feminist outlook and every story will be tainted by some "patronizing social order" that treats women differently than men.

You have a good point there - works from decades ago generally aren't going to reflect the values of modern readers. (Though that said, some older titles are just plain less offensive than others. There were people furiously campaigning against racism in Howard's time just as there were people happily supporting it. Just because it happened to be quite a racist period of history doesn't mean we should assume that everyone was equally vile.)

I do believe it is possible to look beyond the shortcomings of a work and find value in it. This requires two things. Firstly, there needs to be value to be found in the first place. Secondly, the value to be found in a work should be a sufficient reward for the effort required to look beyond the problematic aspects of a text.

How much effort is actually required will vary from reader to reader. What is an irritation for me might be an absolute deal-breaker for someone else. That said, in my assessment the Conan stories do not offer sufficient value to make it worth the effort to get through the obnoxious amounts of sexism and racism underpinning them, at least for most modern readers. A few stories are an exception - I still like The God In the Bowl or The Tower of the Elephant but for the most part the stories usually find some way to spoil the experience, either through the expression of REH's toxic views or through just not being especially good (let's face it, some of the stories are utter tripe) or both. Whilst there is some entertainment to be derived from them, it's not of such a transcendent standard that you can't get similar jollies elsewhere with less offensiveness. (Your average Black Library novel, though often less than stellar on the diversity front, at the very least offers similar thrills with less prepackaged bigotry.) As for the higher literary merits of the tales... look, it's a set of legends underpinned by utterly discredited theories of racial superiority and degeneracy, any serious critical examination of the Conan saga will inevitably come to the conclusion that it's thematically repugnant.

If you continue to view things through that tiny ideological filter, all you will see is a world conditioned by your preconceptions.

You come in here spouting MRA talking points and then say I'm the one with the tiny ideological filter? The irony is killing me.

I'm sure a Marxist would have a field day analyzing and deconstructing Hyborian economic systems to point out how the bourgeoisie exploits the proletariat....

Not really. Howard doesn't really evoke any coherent economic systems in the stories - the closest he gets is the town whose economy is based on enslaving cannibals and letting them eat people at night, which isn't so much an economy as a horrible racist joke - whereas he spends much more time writing about unpleasant things happening to sexy. Also it's fairly clear that the Hyborian age predates the rise of the bourgeoisie in the first place.

You seem like a nice person and I thank you for your courtesy.

I love it when people can't tell how rude I'm being to them.

I do think you over politicize these stories and you don't treat them justly in your deconstruction. Quit deconstructing and enjoy the stories.

Is this deconstruction in the sense of Derrida (in which case I'm fairly sure I haven't done it here) or deconstruction in the "actually sitting down and thinking about stuff" sense? Because I can't help but think that a story which you can only enjoy if you don't think about it just isn't a very good story.

As for the Gor stories, they're have to wait. I'm going tackle some Fritz Leiber next.

Something tells me Conjure Wife would be right up your street.
Rami at 01:38 on 2012-08-01
Arthur: Now I see why you've been running into OpenID bugs. I'm glad you've managed to keep the conversation on FB, although with these epic comments we may hit database issues ;-)
http://darthyan.livejournal.com/ at 02:30 on 2012-08-01
I actually want to say that King Kull the Shadow Kingdom is actually pretty inoffensive, focusing mostly on intrigue and the villains are basically human beings with giant snake heads. The Picts who are portrayed negatively in Conan are actually portrayed for the most part positively (the picts are the ones who bring the whole "evil serpent men trying to murder you" plot to him, and actually save his ass twice.) It's just plain political intrigue with a mix of sorcery in it.

I also want to say that while the REH originals are pretty racist, Jason Sanford did say in the article that the later versions (the dark horse ones) were things he didn't have a problem recommending. I am ultimately able to get through the pastiches because they do make a sincere effort to remove most of the bigotry and actually do a fairly decent job. Of course they do sometimes fail (Janissa, the warrior woman who was trained by being raped nightly by demons being a particularly egregious and cringe worthy example), but they do have some genuinely cool moments. Kalanthes, a minor character mentioned in God in the Bowl is an example of a black guy who is actually portrayed positively. He's strong, determined, a skilled magician, and is apparently one of the few civilized people and magicians that Conan has any real respect for (in the Dark horse series he's the only client Conan is seen working for repeatedly) (his relationship with Thoth Amon is also very well scripted and portrayed, with both having an affable and courteous interaction even when both want to rip out the others throat.)


and Conan is much less of an asshole (in one case, he saves a starving beggar from a bunch of cutthroats because he feels that said beggar doesn't deserve to get gutted for stealing food out of desperation, and he also stops men under his command from raping people.) He's still somewhat amoral, but ultimately far more relatable.

As for the conan fan base, they actually do have some reasonable people. In the new Queen of the Black coast they cut the whole "mating dance" Belit does and while most people initially threw a hissy fit they ultimately calmed down once the issue was released, and quite a few actually admitted that the story worked fine without it. And at least one die hard conan site flat out stated "Women of the lost vale was hard to read due to being so painful."
Arthur B at 10:04 on 2012-08-01
The Picts who are portrayed negatively in Conan are actually portrayed for the most part positively (the picts are the ones who bring the whole "evil serpent men trying to murder you" plot to him, and actually save his ass twice.)

Interesting, though it's worth noting that as I understand it Kull is set before the fall of Atlantis, and the Picts we see in Conan are meant to be utterly degenerate and savage descendants of the Picts we see in the Kull stories. So whilst the Picts getting a positive treatment in the Kull stories might be nice (I've not read them yet so can't judge), it doesn't really exonerate the way they are treated in Conan.

I've actually managed to obtain a second hand copy of Conan's Brethren, a collection of Howard's non-Conan sword and sorcery stuff, so I ought to take a look at it to continue my savaging of his material.

With respect to the comics, I understand the new ones are actually trying to take an interesting approach to the adaptation, such as allowing a woman (Becky Cloonan) to draw it take part in the creative process (gasp!) and giving her the artistic license to draw Conan the way she wants to, which includes making him a hottie (as she judges it). I'm not surprised to hear that there were negative knee-jerk reactions to it but heartened to hear that there are Conan fans who are more reasonable - if only they'd swing by here occasionally...

To be fair to the fan base, I think it's understandable that they are very, very cautious about adaptations considering the dreck that was published under L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter's watch. In particular, de Camp and Carter did actually tamper with the original texts of the stories quite significantly in some cases, so hissy fits when people propose making changes to the stories in adaptations may well be expected. Though cutting the mating dance is 100% the right call because it's a ridiculous enough idea in prose and there isn't really a good way to get it across in a comic book without making it look either profoundly silly or just plain gross.
http://darthyan.livejournal.com/ at 02:48 on 2012-08-26
I actually saw one review that made a point about how utterly sexist the conan movie was (the sex slaves instantly start flirting with conan, and the author of the review stated that real victims don't act that way.) said author is a fan. BTW I've seen two blogs run by conan fans; both of them have flat out stated that WOTLV was crap
Arthur B at 13:27 on 2012-08-26
Was that the remake or the original darthyan? I actually think the original, whilst not stellar, actually does a lot better than the remake. (It has a version of Valeria who isn't victimised or sidelined, for instance, whereas the female lead in the remake exists soley to be kidnapped and tied to a wheel.)

Re WOLTV: Yeah, unlike The Frost Giant's Daughter few people are really willing to go to bat for that one.
http://darthyan.livejournal.com/ at 03:09 on 2012-08-28
new one. Believe it or not it was that guy you were debating about frost giants daughter who made that point. Basically in the remake once conan and his buddies liberate the slaves the females who were implied to be sex slaves instantly start flirting with him, and the bttf writer said that he personally considered that kind of stuff unpleasant and distasteful and that even when a sex slave did offer herself to conan in the books it was an act of desperation. I can link it if you want.

Anyway with beyond the black river i thought conan was saying that colonization as a whole was lame since the wussy settlers would get killed. Maybe i missed something
Arthur B at 10:45 on 2012-08-28
new one.

Thought so, I remember the scene.

Believe it or not it was that guy you were debating about frost giants daughter who made that point.

Would this be the tedious coward who deleted all evidence of the discussion because he was running a family blog where people shouldn't be saying mean things, or would this be the tedious bigot who made a blog specifically to comment on this article and littered the discussion with MRA talking points? For some reason The Frost Giant's Daughter seems to be a lightning rod for odious Howard defenders.

the bttf writer said that he personally considered that kind of stuff unpleasant and distasteful and that even when a sex slave did offer herself to conan in the books it was an act of desperation. I can link it if you want.

Please do, I'd like to read over his actual argument because I think it mildly misses the point. Whilst I can think of several instances in the stories where a sex slave offers herself to Conan, he's usually happy to take her up on the offer and it's not uncommon for her to fall for him by the end of the story.

Anyway with beyond the black river i thought conan was saying that colonization as a whole was lame since the wussy settlers would get killed. Maybe i missed something

I think that's part of the point but an oversimplification. The settlers, being rugged frontiersmen and women with the gumption to try and eke out a life for themselves in the badlands, actually represent the best of civilisation; it's the spoiled, pampered aristos back home that Conan reserves much of his distaste for. The point seems to be that Cimmeria shouldn't be undermining itself through this pointless and expensive sacrifice of its brightest and best, and that it could do much better if the aristos were turfed out of power and their lands broken up for people to farm.

In other words, Howard advocates isolation over colonialism because he thinks this would be a better way to secure and strengthen the colonising power, and any discomfort the process of colonisation causes to the colonised peoples is kind of secondary to him.
http://darthyan.livejournal.com/ at 21:34 on 2012-08-29
It's the first, and while he was cowardly he did make some points on the films badness that I felt made some sense. I took the meat to be that the idea of a woman who's just been raped just throwing herself on her rescuer to be offensive.

http://www.conanmovieblog.com/2011/08/19/conan-the-barbarian-a-critique/


One thing that might be surprising is that Roy Thomas's Run on Marvel, as well as Kurt Busiek and Timothy Truman's run on Dark Horse are both praised a great deal on Howard's board, even though both are somewhat tamer than the original (Conan is needless to say somewhat more relatable, and in black coast conan actually tries to establish a genuine working relationship with the black corsairs rather than just having the high and mighty "i'm better cause I'm white" attitude.) Even when Thomas adapted pastiches his versions are less likely to get pilliored.
Just discovered this...screed. Wow, you REALLY hate Conan. It comes across, in just about every paragraph of this lengthy post. No, I mean, it REALLY comes across. It's so vitriolic, it almost seems like a case of "milady doth protest too much." But whatever. I am glad, I guess, that you kept the comments confined, for the most part, to 17 Conan stories and didn't try to paint the other 280+ stories that Howard wrote with the same tar and feathering brush. You make a few good points, but those flowers of insight mostly get choked in the weeds of your bald anger. Too bad, really.

I won't even try to engage you in any kind of debate on this issue, since you've made up your mind on this and we have very different definitions for just about every single vocabulary word on your civics test. Hey, it's your site. Say and do what you want. I do have a couple of questions for you, though. Sorry if this is coming in late in the year, some seven months after you posted this, but oh well. That's the Interwebs for you.

1. Have you read any of Howard's humorous work? He wrote nearly a hundred stories in the funny boxing and funny western genres. I'd be very interested to know your take on those stories.

2. Howard wrote a number of stories set in the Middle East. These "historical Oriental" stories are usually set in and around the various Crusades. Ever read any of them? Or any of the "El Borak" stories, about the Texas gunfighter transplanted to Afghanistan?

3. Have you ever read "Sword Woman?"

I'm really interested to hear your thoughts on any of the above.

Mark Finn

Arthur B at 16:23 on 2012-10-26
Oh, hi! Thanks for swinging by and commenting.

Just discovered this...screed. Wow, you REALLY hate Conan. It comes across, in just about every paragraph of this lengthy post. No, I mean, it REALLY comes across. It's so vitriolic, it almost seems like a case of "milady doth protest too much."

What can I say? There's a lot to hate in the Conan stories. As I mention in the conclusion, I was going in fairly optimistic hoping to put together a set of non-bigoted (or at least not overtly bigoted) Conan stories I could recommend to readers but gave up when I realised that such a collection probably wouldn't hit 100 pages.

But this isn't really about hating or liking Conan. The Hamlet misquote applies to cases where someone's insisting they dislike something so much that it sounds like they secretly like it, which doesn't entirely apply here. Whilst many Conan stories are awful, I do enjoy some of them - the thrust of the article, though, is that whilst I find them on balance enjoyable I can't enjoy them as much as I'd like because of the bigotry on show, and I certainly couldn't recommend them to randoms on the Internet as being a good read on that basis. That's a more complicated position than "I hate Conan so I am going to say bad things about Conan".

I am glad, I guess, that you kept the comments confined, for the most part, to 17 Conan stories and didn't try to paint the other 280+ stories that Howard wrote with the same tar and feathering brush.

That would be a tedious task indeed, though I've covered Solomon Kane before.

I won't even try to engage you in any kind of debate on this issue, since you've made up your mind on this and we have very different definitions for just about every single vocabulary word on your civics test.

"I'm not trying to engage you in any kind of debate, but I'm going to rock up here, declare that you are wrong, and ask you a bunch of questions". Curious behaviour for someone not interested in a discussion, no?

Hey, it's your site.

(Actually it isn't.)

I do have a couple of questions for you, though. Sorry if this is coming in late in the year, some seven months after you posted this, but oh well. That's the Interwebs for you.

No problem, we have a tolerant attitude to comment necromancy here.

1. Have you read any of Howard's humorous work?

Nope.

2. Howard wrote a number of stories set in the Middle East. These "historical Oriental" stories are usually set in and around the various Crusades. Ever read any of them?

Nope.

Or any of the "El Borak" stories, about the Texas gunfighter transplanted to Afghanistan?

Nuh-uh.

3. Have you ever read "Sword Woman?"

Nope.

I'm really interested to hear your thoughts on any of the above.

I'm flattered, but given that I have other projects ongoing (Moorcock reviews, Dick reviews, real life work etc.) I can't promise that I'll ever get to any of those and frankly don't intend to go out of my way to acquire and read them.

I'm not sure how you could mistake any of them for being relevant to the Conan discussion, however, given that none of them are Conan stories. Who knows! Maybe Howard is all about checking his privilege and feminism and racial harmony and all that malarkey in those tales. That doesn't undo anything Howard did when writing Conan. If he wasn't a tiresomely predictable bigot when writing about boxing or the Crusades then it's all the more unacceptable when he was being a tiresomely predictable bigot because that would indicate that he knew better.
But if someone writes a funny story and you think it's funny, you can't hate them and call them a bigot anymore. If you acknowledge that they're funny, you've said something positive about them and are thus no longer allowed to dislike or criticize anything they do. Because bigots are worthless subhumans, and anyone who's not a worthless subhuman is by definition not a bigot.
What can I say? There's a lot to hate in the Conan stories. As I mention in the conclusion, I was going in fairly optimistic hoping to put together a set of non-bigoted (or at least not overtly bigoted) Conan stories I could recommend to readers but gave up when I realised that such a collection probably wouldn't hit 100 pages.

I don't think that it's Howard's best writing. That's not to say there aren't some good stories in the lot--but when the Conan stories are bad, they are atrocious. Probably not for the reasons--okay, mostly not for the reasons you state, but still.


But this isn't really about hating or liking Conan. The Hamlet misquote applies to cases where someone's insisting they dislike something so much that it sounds like they secretly like it, which doesn't entirely apply here. Whilst many Conan stories are awful, I do enjoy some of them - the thrust of the article, though, is that whilst I find them on balance enjoyable I can't enjoy them as much as I'd like because of the bigotry on show, and I certainly couldn't recommend them to randoms on the Internet as being a good read on that basis. That's a more complicated position than "I hate Conan so I am going to say bad things about Conan".

Actually, no. Maybe it's the vigor with which you set about tipping over this particular sacred cow that made me wonder if there wasn't some other motivation for the effort. I mean, hey, if you want to knock Conan off of his perch, I'm not going to stop you. As I said, those aren't my favorite REH stories, not even hardly. I think it's the intellectual bullying that made me come and post a comment.

I cannot believe you think Howard is more racist than Lovecraft--the guy who named his cat "niggerman." The same man who wrote "The Horror at Red Hook." It feels as if you've overlooked some of Lovecraft's glaring and obvious biases in favor of scavenging through Howard's most mediocre work to make your points.


That would be a tedious task indeed, though I've covered Solomon Kane before.

And a lot more even-handed, too.


"I'm not trying to engage you in any kind of debate, but I'm going to rock up here, declare that you are wrong, and ask you a bunch of questions". Curious behaviour for someone not interested in a discussion, no?

Well, let's be fair, here: it's your space. I've seen how the above "discussions" went, and I figured out there's nothing I can show you, nothing I can point to, that you won't invalidate by replying "but that has nothing to do with these Conan stories, right here," or "what's your point? Racist is racist, and there's no excusing it." Not with facts, not with different readings, not with additional information. I'm not going to try and change your mind because you've already made it up.

I am going to say, instead, that a lot of people have mulled over this question of whether or not REH was a racist, a sexist, a bigot, etc--people who have read far more deeply than just the Conan stories, though it's undoubtedly what started the whole debate to begin with--and they have all come to widely and vastly different conclusions. Some say yes, some say no. Some are apologists, and some have chosen to contextualize Howard and his work. It's far from settled. Well, outside of here, I mean.

(snip)

I'm not sure how you could mistake any of them for being relevant to the Conan discussion, however, given that none of them are Conan stories. Who knows! Maybe Howard is all about checking his privilege and feminism and racial harmony and all that malarkey in those tales. That doesn't undo anything Howard did when writing Conan. If he wasn't a tiresomely predictable bigot when writing about boxing or the Crusades then it's all the more unacceptable when he was being a tiresomely predictable bigot because that would indicate that he knew better.

Really? That's your take? It's weird, because you hit a very important point in your review that made me think you'd read some outside material. It's about Wright and Weird Tales. Yes, he DID like the subjugation of women, the light bondage, the gossamer silks covering heaving breasts, etc. Also, he paid authors more money for stories that made the cover. At the time Howard was writing Conan, his regular markets--his humorous boxing stories--had dried up. He was looking for a regular series. Weird Tales was his go-to publisher, whenever he had a story he couldn't place anywhere else. At that time, Seabury Quinn's occult detective Jules de Grandin ruled the roost. Howard set about trying to write a series that would (and ultimately did) compete with that series, which featured a number of women in peril, getting smacked around, tortured, etc. Howard was writing to the market.

All of this is old news, really, and I don't want to take up any more of your space with it. I put most of this and more in an article found here if you're interested. Or not. Either way. I don't think it will change your mind at all. But just in case someone else wants to try it out, it's there. Instant gratification, and all that.
Neal Yanje at 08:20 on 2012-10-27
You seem to be placing emphasis on Howard (and strangely, Lovecraft) as actual human beings, when I don't think anyone here really cares about that. The basis of this article is not that Howard was a super-evil racist bad man, but that the Conan stories contain inexcusable sexism and racism. Anecdotes about Howard or his other stories and their lack of racist contents do not negate what is found in the Conan stories.

If you have any specific criticism of a point the article raises, about a particular incident you feel is mischaracterized, I, at least, would genuinely like to hear it. I'm obviously not Arthur, but I have read some of the Conan stories and feel like this article about sums up my experience with them, as well.

Additionally, I have read "Swords Woman" and "Blades for France" if you want to talk about those. Though again, they aren't related to Conan.
Arthur B at 14:59 on 2012-10-27
I don't think that it's Howard's best writing. That's not to say there aren't some good stories in the lot--but when the Conan stories are bad, they are atrocious. Probably not for the reasons--okay, mostly not for the reasons you state, but still.

Ok, so two people with very different perspectives on life can assess the Conan stories and decide that they are trash. So... what's wrong with trashing them?

Actually, no. Maybe it's the vigor with which you set about tipping over this particular sacred cow that made me wonder if there wasn't some other motivation for the effort.

Would you like to speculate about what that might be or are you just tossing around half-formed accusations for the hell of it?

I think it's the intellectual bullying that made me come and post a comment.

Firstly, what the hell is intellectual bullying? Secondly, who am I bullying?

I cannot believe you think Howard is more racist than Lovecraft--the guy who named his cat "niggerman." The same man who wrote "The Horror at Red Hook." It feels as if you've overlooked some of Lovecraft's glaring and obvious biases in favor of scavenging through Howard's most mediocre work to make your points.

I cannot believe the amazing things people say about this article when they skim it and don't read it properly.

I do, in fact say above that "I wouldn't suggest for a second that Lovecraft wasn't as much of a racist as Howard was; when he did choose to address race, the results were usually terrible." What I do say, though, is that racial bigotry isn't part of the fundamental axioms of Lovecraft's fiction, not least because one of those axioms is that all human concerns are meaningless when confronted with the terrible secret of space. Very occasionally, Lovecraft would write a story where his racial views simply weren't apparent because the subject didn't come up. The same isn't true of Howard's Conan material because the very axioms of the series are based on a racist myth of barbarian vs civilised man vs savage.

Well, let's be fair, here: it's your space. I've seen how the above "discussions" went, and I figured out there's nothing I can show you, nothing I can point to, that you won't invalidate by replying "but that has nothing to do with these Conan stories, right here," or "what's your point? Racist is racist, and there's no excusing it."

If the only arguments you can think of to defend the Conan stories involve pointing out stuff which isn't actually relevant to the stories or trying to argue in defence of racism then you should probably take a moment to think and work out whether this is really a position you want to glue yourself to.

Not with facts, not with different readings, not with additional information. I'm not going to try and change your mind because you've already made it up.

None of the defenders who've rocked up so far have offered additional, genuinely new facts or additional information. They've just presented different readings, and the existence of different readings don't illegitimise my reading of the text (especially when, as so often seems to happen, my reading is supported by what the text actually says whereas the Conan defenders' reading is supported by what they wished the text said).

I am going to say, instead, that a lot of people have mulled over this question of whether or not REH was a racist, a sexist, a bigot, etc--people who have read far more deeply than just the Conan stories, though it's undoubtedly what started the whole debate to begin with--and they have all come to widely and vastly different conclusions. Some say yes, some say no. Some are apologists, and some have chosen to contextualize Howard and his work. It's far from settled. Well, outside of here, I mean.

Have you encountered his conversations with Novalyne Price on the issue? I'd say he's pretty well convicted out of his own mouth there.

Howard set about trying to write a series that would (and ultimately did) compete with that series, which featured a number of women in peril, getting smacked around, tortured, etc. Howard was writing to the market.

How does this in any way excuse Howard's bigotry? If anything, if he played up racialism and sexism for the benefit of the market that's worse. If he genuinely believed that stuff that's one thing, but to be the sort of guy who insincerely fans the flames because he gets money for it? That's fucking low.

I also don't buy the idea that his racial ideas were dictated by the market - again, see some of the stuff he said to Novalyne Price.

On top of that: how does this make the boxing stories relevant? The bondage stuff is relevant to Conan because it shaped the content of the stories, the boxing yarns are by your own admission a different set of work written for a different market and so aren't nearly as relevant to a discussion of Conan.

All of this is old news, really, and I don't want to take up any more of your space with it. I put most of this and more in an article found here if you're interested. Or not. Either way. I don't think it will change your mind at all. But just in case someone else wants to try it out, it's there. Instant gratification, and all that.

Ah, I see you are aware of Howard's conversations with Price but you decide to write off the whole "different line" thing by saying that lots of people believed that back then. That doesn't let Howard off the hook in the slightest; yes, people believed that back then, but there were also a lot of people who disagreed with that, and Howard decided to side with the bigots. Trying to excuse him on the basis of his upbringing is like arguing that he was a mere automaton who had no real capacity to break from the dogmas he was taught as a youth, which is hardly a flattering defence. Saying that Howard was merely saying stuff that a lot of people were saying at the time doesn't excuse him any more than excusing one of Howard's neighbours for joining the Klan simply because lots of other guys were donning white hoods during that era.

And again, it doesn't matter to a discussion of the Conan stories whether or not Howard was more or less racist elsewhere, what matters is that he was racist here, in the stories the article addresses.

You seem to mistake this article for an attempt to write an all-encompassing biography of Howard, and it isn't: it's a critique of the Conan stories and where it addresses Howard, it addresses him in his capacity as the author of Conan and the views he expresses in the Conan stories. If he contradicts himself in other tales all that means is that his views were inconsistent or that he changed his mind between writing one story and t'other.
Wardog at 19:37 on 2012-10-27
I have to say I find responses to this article … profoundly strange. I’d say it’s pretty comprehensive when it comes to addressing the problematic aspects of the Conan stories but I wouldn’t say it was misrepresentative, vitriolic or driven by any sort of agenda other than a critically evaluative one.

I’m also curious about the ‘intellectual bullying.’ I mean, “the Conan stories are kind of racist and that’s not very nice” is a slightly easier position to argue than either “the Conan stories aren’t racist because blah” or “the Conan stories are racist but it’s okay because blah” – but occupying a sensible rhetorical position doesn’t, to my mind, constitute intellectual bullying.

I’d also like to point out that your main contributions to the debate in which you won’t participate can be summarised:

1. REH wrote other, less problematic things so you should apparently be talking about those
2. Lovecraft was racist too, why aren’t you picking on him?
3. REH was writing for a racist market so it doesn’t count
Observations that are irrelevant to the question of whether there are racist elements to the Conan stories – which there clearly are.

I am going to say, instead, that a lot of people have mulled over this question of whether or not REH was a racist, a sexist, a bigot, etc--people who have read far more deeply than just the Conan stories, though it's undoubtedly what started the whole debate to begin with--and they have all come to widely and vastly different conclusions. Some say yes, some say no. Some are apologists, and some have chosen to contextualize Howard and his work. It's far from settled. Well, outside of here, I mean.

I find it very odd that, in certain fan circles, it seems to be considered necessary to have read the entirety of an author’s output before you’re ‘allowed’ to comment on individual works, and frequently before you’re allowed to decide whether they’re something you might want to read.

I think you can deepen your understanding of an individual by reading everything they’ve ever written, but a text is a text is a text. You don’t have to read the complete works of Shakespeare to be able to conclude that The Merchant of Venice is kinda anti-Semitic.

Equally, you seem to be taking the fact that there is no broad consensus on the matter as a reason to discount Arthur’s argument. But since interpretations of racism, sexism & etc. in a text are, to a degree, subjective, ultimately it doesn’t matter what other people are saying. From Arthur’s point of view, as he argued – to my mind cogently, based on genuine textual evidence - these are sexist, racist texts. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are otherwise without merit, although for a lot of people, racism and sexism are tedious things to read about when they’re meant to be doing something fun, like enjoying a fantasy novel.

I honestly don’t think there’s anything you could say that is going to make me change my mind about whether the Conan stories are racist and sexist. And this isn’t – as you seem to believe – because I’m closing down the debate and refusing to acknowledge the existence of other interpretations.

It’s simply because my definition of -ism is so different to your definition of –ism, and serves a completely different function. To me it’s a practical question of not having to bother with stuff that will annoy or upset me, whereas you seem to be preoccupied with the question of whether it’s fair to ‘call’ a particular person a bigot. Discussing specifically problematic textual elements is, uh, how literary criticism works. Speculating randomly about a dead dude is, well, a hobby I guess? But not remotely relevant to what I think about his books.
Melanie at 20:24 on 2012-10-27
I find it very odd that, in certain fan circles, it seems to be considered necessary to have read the entirety of an author’s output before you’re ‘allowed’ to comment on individual works, and frequently before you’re allowed to decide whether they’re something you might want to read.


And then if you do read the entire body of work and still have a negative opinion of it, you'll probably be asked, "If you didn't like it, why did you read it?" It's pure goalpost-moving, is what it is. A certain type of fan doesn't want negative reviews of That Thing They Like to even exist, regardless of context, so they try to insist that you shouldn't write a negative review unless [insert ridiculous condition here] and that any review written without first meeting that condition is therefore invalid. Obviously, there would be fewer negative reviews if everyone did feel they couldn't write one without reading the whole series/reading everything the author's ever written/having read it in its original historical context when everyone* said that kind of thing anyway/whatever.

*Not actually everyone.
Melanie at 20:55 on 2012-10-27
As an eerie coincidence, I just now read a cracked article that touches on that very idea:

Whenever I complain about the pacing of the show, or how underwritten one of the characters is, or how underwritten all of the characters are, one of the show's defenders will inevitably point out that I only have that opinion because I haven't read the graphic novel on which the show is based. If I read all of the comics, they say, then I'd like all of the characters better.

I agree. If I'd read a better version of The Walking Dead, I would probably like it. However, until such time as the Walking Dead show gets so much better that it retroactively makes the first two seasons enjoyable, I'm going to go ahead and continue not to like it.
Oh, you know, in the end, it really doesn't matter. Like I said, you've got your mind made up, and if I take exception with the tone of your article, your little asides like "Creepy Howie," a passive-aggressive attack if I ever saw one, or anything else like that, well, it's really MY problem in the end. You are free to like or dislike for whatever you want, and for whatever reason you care to ascribe, and no one can say "boo" about it.

This is a blog post, after all, aimed at a small group of people, and not actual journalism. What does it matter if you don't readily make a distinction between Howard's stories and the man himself? You would not be the first to check out Conan and make conclusions about the man based on having read less than one-tenth of his fictional output.

All I'm saying is this: You were pretty harsh, but not necessarily wrong, about the Conan stories. I think you've mis-characterized Robert E. Howard pretty badly. Take that comment for what it's worth, or don't.

Heh. "Certain types of fans..." You folks are precious.
Fin at 05:35 on 2012-10-28
It seems to me as though you believe the argument is something along the lines of "Conan is racist, sexist trash. Therefore Howard is a one-dimensional stereotype of a bigot." Howard's racist and sexist tendencies can be extrapolated from his choices as a writer. This doesn't give a complete picture of him as a human being, but who cares? What the Conan stories say about Howard the person is incidental. The sole concern here is what the stories say.
Arthur B at 18:27 on 2012-10-28
Fin pretty much has the right of it.

I'd add to that that it doesn't matter how caring and friendly and unfailingly benign the rest of your life is; writing overtly racist texts and selling them for money is a profoundly racist thing to do. Nobody has offered anything to suggest that the fascistic might-is-right ideology expressed in the tales is radically different from Howard's own views, Howard never really distanced himself from or denounced the Conan stories when he was alive, and what I've read of his other material hasn't really seemed that dissimilar. Calling him a racist on the basis of stuff he sat down and wrote and submitted for publication is no more outrageous than suggesting William Turner Pierce was a racist on the grounds of The Turner Diaries.

I'd also point out that even though the Conan stories represent less than a tenth of Howard's actual output, I'd say they represent nine-tenths of his legacy. Let's face it, when new readers discover Howard nowadays it's nearly always due to Conan, with perhaps a significant minority finding him through his occasional delvings in Lovecraftian horror. I would submit that Howard's boxing stories, his "historical Oriental" stuff and Sword Woman aren't stories most people find out about before they run into Conan. They aren't the material which Howard is lauded for, and they don't form the basis for his reputation and legacy. Howard is celebrated by fandom on the basis of his sword and sorcery, and Conan is the material which is most highly praised and widely recommended.

If anything, that's the only real attack on Howard I'm making with this article: that his reputation and renown is based on bigoted tripe.

If you think that Howard should be given a radical critical reappraisal based on the hundred or so boxing stories he wrote, I'd be happy to hear that argument. As it is, your "actual journalism" credentials seem to be based on a long screed in which you constantly make blunt assertions that Howard almost never meant what he actually said whenever the subject of race came up so I'm not expecting to see a brilliant argument explaining in detail why those boxing yarns represent brilliant literature, but hey, you might surprise me.
Melanie at 20:02 on 2012-10-28
I'd add to that that it doesn't matter how caring and friendly and unfailingly benign the rest of your life is; writing overtly racist texts and selling them for money is a profoundly racist thing to do.


Oh! Maybe, when commenting on an author's work, we should not only consider everything they've ever written, but everything they've ever done.

That would be fairer, right? And if you're not familiar with the entire rest of their life, then you're not allowed to judge.
Melanie: That's not what I am saying, nor what I said. Thanks for your spirited comments, though. It's fun to type things, isn't it?

Arthur: I agree with you that most people enter REH and leave through the same door--the Conan door. The reason why no one is challenging your premise, however, is that you keep saying that other text evidence isn't germane to the discussion. Okay, fair enough, in that case, you win.

Incidentally, Howard's fiction has been reprinted in 11 volumes of trade paperbacks, eight of which aren't Conan. There are other publishers working on many of his less well known texts. I'm one of the editors, for example, on the collected boxing stories project--a massive four volume collection. So, while Conan continues to have his place in popular culture, more people are discovering his other works. You should try the El Borak stories. They are very well written, and the politics are not far removed from current Middle East situations.

Oh, and thanks for the dig re: my credentials. I promise you, I've written much more than just that one article on the REHupa site, including this book right here, among others. So, yeah. There's that.
Arthur B at 08:08 on 2012-10-29
Arthur: I agree with you that most people enter REH and leave through the same door--the Conan door. The reason why no one is challenging your premise, however, is that you keep saying that other text evidence isn't germane to the discussion. Okay, fair enough, in that case, you win.

I don't see what's so irrational about saying that texts which are not Conan aren't really germane to discussions about Conan and what Conan implies about his creator.

Incidentally, Howard's fiction has been reprinted in 11 volumes of trade paperbacks, eight of which aren't Conan.

I have no doubt that there are plenty of other books available, I just doubt that they'd have much of a readership were it not for Conan and the Lovecraft connection.

I'm one of the editors, for example, on the collected boxing stories project--a massive four volume collection.

So your insistence that I really need to read the boxing stories in order to discuss Conan and Solomon Kane boils down to advertising then?

Oh, and thanks for the dig re: my credentials. I promise you, I've written much more than just that one article on the REHupa site, including this book right here, among others. So, yeah. There's that.

So, you're part of the Howardiana cottage industry and see my suggestion that maybe he doesn't deserve the place he's been allocated in the fantasy hall of fame as perhaps suggesting that all your hard work has perhaps been a mild waste of time?

I mean, well done for getting all those rewards from fannish circles and the REH in-crowd but tickling the fancy of the subculture and demonstrating serious, critical journalistic credentials are two different things. I'm sure that Blood and Thunder represents an impressive amount of research but if the general approach is similar to Southern Discomfort I hold out little hope for the race angle getting a treatment which doesn't have a transparent wipe-the-smear-from-the-saint angle.
Wardog at 09:28 on 2012-10-29
Folks, this is tedious and unproductive. Can we just let this rest?

You've said you basically agree with Arthur's textual analysis ("hey these are a bit racist, aren't they?"), we've pointed out several times that this is a discussion about text not about people, you've denied that you're arguing that it's unnecessary to read an author's entire output nor to bring a biographical or historicist approach to the critical table when approaching a single text or set of texts (despite the fact, you keep shouting "but he also wrote this!" in every post you make) ... so what are we talking about again?

I don't see what's so irrational about saying that texts which are not Conan aren't really germane to discussions about Conan and what Conan implies about his creator.


You don't, eh? Well, considering that this is the only thing of yours that I've read, this particular piece implies an awful lot about you. Is that fair? Is this one piece an accurate assessment of your likes and dislikes, your interests and your politics?

And I never called you irrational, but hey, I might have implied it. Sorry about that. I think "strident" is more appropriate. Or maybe "narrowly focused."

I have no doubt that there are plenty of other books available, I just doubt that they'd have much of a readership were it not for Conan and the Lovecraft connection.

Due to the way he's been packaged and marketed, yeah, I would agree with that. But things have been slowly changing over the past ten years or so.

So your insistence that I really need to read the boxing stories in order to discuss Conan and Solomon Kane boils down to advertising then?


Did I insist? I think I asked. Advertising? Haw! What a joke. As if ANY of you would buy a $50 hardcover for something you have zero interest in, on a recommendation from someone whose values you find specious and capricious. Give me a break. I made the point about the humorous stories to simply show...ah, never mind. Insert previous comments here.

So, you're part of the Howardiana cottage industry and see my suggestion that maybe he doesn't deserve the place he's been allocated in the fantasy hall of fame as perhaps suggesting that all your hard work has perhaps been a mild waste of time?

You're kidding, right? I came over here to take the temperature of someone who was (and is) tilting at windmills. "A mild waste of time?" You're the one spinning your wheels, man. Conan has been translated into over 30 languages. They're about to start on a new movie, not two years after the last one failed miserably. And when they do, it's going to start yet ANOTHER resurgence in the popularity of the books. The comics continue to do well. The mmo is a going concern. Howard Studies has never been stronger.

You, on the other hand, wrote a blog post on a website. That you've gotten THIS much attention for it is something of a bloody miracle. You're not changing minds. You're not moving the needle. You're ranting in a corner of cyberspace to your friends. Big difference.

I mean, well done for getting all those rewards from fannish circles and the REH in-crowd but tickling the fancy of the subculture and demonstrating serious, critical journalistic credentials are two different things.


Thank you. And when you've acquired a similar list of credits to your name, I'll be sure to congratulate you, as well.

Kyra: I keep saying that he wins, but he keeps on talking. What can I do but reply? I'm not going to let him suggest that I'm somehow not a professional writer or a published author and his angry little screed has caused me to question all of my life choices. Given the parameters he's (and you've) laid out, and given the strictures placed upon any rebuttal, he wins the argument. I've dropped the mic. I'm walking off stage. If he calls me back out again, I will turn around and start over. But really. I'm done, if he'll just let me go. Can he do that? I rather doubt it.
Arthur B at 14:15 on 2012-10-29
I'm going to pull a Lt. Columbo here as you're walking out the door, Mark. Just one more thing...

...when you recommended the boxing stories as a means of getting a more rounded view of Howard, did you expect us to read tales with titles like Blow the Chinks Down! and come to the conclusion that Howard wasn't racist? Because that seems kind of hopeful to me.
Wardog at 18:13 on 2012-10-29
We are all losers in this, believe me.

And this is getting actively nasty so I'm going to ask you both to stop because you're wrecking my day. I don't mind disagreement in discussion but the personal attacks and snide comments need to stop.

Mark, I can tell you feel like a lone voice howling in the wilderness, but I don't understand what you think the argument is? Or what strictures you think you're operating beneath? Yes, nobody is interested in talking about REH because this is an article about texts, and - for me at least and I think for a lot of readers, or at least those who take Barthes to heart - creators are largely irrelevant to discussions of texts.

I genuinely don't know what you're trying to say here. I mean, I would completely understand the "well, yes, the Conan stories are pretty racist but REH wrote some other better stuff that I'd personally recommend - have you tried this" style response, but you come across as saying "REH wrote some other, less racist stuff, which invalidates what you're saying about the Conan stories here." Which is kind of ludicrous.

You seem to be genuinely upset that somebody wrote an article saying that the Conan stories are a bit racist - a position you, in fact, agree with. I think, given that REH wrote racist stories it is fair enough to conclude from that, err, that REH wrote racist stories. That doesn't make him Satan. Nor does it mean that his texts are worthless; it just means that a subsection of people aren't going to get much fun out of reading them.

I think from this - I would say - fairly uncontroversial position, it is reasonable to ponder why we keep recommending these books over, for example, books that are not racist.

Equally, you seem to have misread what it is we're trying to do here - which is, um, to have fun, discuss books and other things that interest us. I don't think Arthur cares whether his article "gets attention" or not. And oddly enough, I don't believe you have to read the Entire Established Canon of Arthur (all hail) to decide whether you enjoy reading his articles or not - I'm guessing, from here, probably not :) But, dude, that's okay.

And I'm sorry if you feel we're not taking you seriously as a professional writer but, uh, we're not. There are bunch of professional writers of various stripes who kick back their heels over here. This is not about your day-job. But even if it was, writers don't necessarily make good critics. Arthur was not questioning whether you were a professional writer, he was questioning whether it was remotely relevant.

Fb isn't a space with any aspiration to professional journalism. You keep pointing this out as if we weren't aware of it, or weren't perfectly happy with that arrangement. I've done professionalism journalism. The pay is shite.
Kyra: you've done a lovely job of putting a bunch of words into Arthur's mouth, none of which were, in fact, accurate assessments of anything he and I were talking about. I'm also sorry you did not get paid well for writing. I always tell people that you have to love it to death first, and hope for money second. I have been blessed with gigs that have paid, some of them pretty well--but it's never enough to do more than cover a car payment, or rotate the tires on my car. I keep hoping though...

ArthurB: That title in question is what the editor re-named the story. The original title, Howard's title, was "The House of Peril."

The reason why I asked you about the humorous stories, both boxing and western, is twofold: 1. Yeah, I admit it, I was fishing to see how deeply you'd read of any of Howard's other works. The boxing stuff has only come into vogue in the last ten years or so, but everyone that has read it has been pleasantly surprised by it. And 2. Everyone in those stories is a racial epithet first, and a sailor second. Limeys, Frogs, Wops, Chinks, Swedes (or more frequently, Squareheads), Danes, Micks, Harps...and I'm sure I'm leaving out a few.

Those stories were written prior to 1945, when the Nazi War Crime Trials brought a lot of uncomfortable stuff to light regarding the German's treatment of the Jewish and Polish people. Before that time, racial characteristics were used as a shorthand--most particularly in the case of humor and satire--as a way to explain and humanize themselves to a population that was unsure about all of the immigrants suddenly appearing at their shores. Jewish and Irish comedians in particular lampooned their own culture to get laughs and defuse tensions. Most of the joke books and a lot of the humor writing prior to mid-20th century made use of stereotypes as a form of shorthand.

I really just wondered what your thoughts on the subject were. But since you haven't read the stories, It's a non-issue.
Wardog at 09:39 on 2012-10-30
Oh bless you, no, that's not what I meant at all. Let me try to put it more simply. I merely wanted to illustrate that if I wanted to be paid for this kind of thing, I would be, err, being paid for it. As for writing in general, I've funded my education on it so I've done pretty well out of it but, as it is, coming onto Ferretbrain shrieking that we're not paid journalists is kind of the equivalent of freaking out because people have sex who may not be professional sexworkers.
And finally--Kyra:

"Coming onto Ferretbrain shrieking that we're not paid journalists," is EXACTLY what my whole problem was with the article. You've pinpointed the problem and managed to skewer your way through the rhetoric with the kind of precision usually only seen in complicated brain surgery procedures. How silly of me to have been arguing one thing, when I totally and completely meant something else entirely. Dear God, my entire value system has been compromised by your wit. I...I'm sorry for all of the trouble I caused. I see now that my weird fascination with being a genuine and authentic person online as well as offline has been the reason why I've been so unhappy all these years. I get it now: the Internet is the place to be snarky, bitchy, hyperbolic, misrepresentative, prone to extremes and yes, even sarcastic. It's not the place to engage in a thoughtful discussion, learn new things, have your worldview broadened, or make connections with people outside of your own personal bubble. From now on, if I'm not regurgitating into my sycophants' mouths, then I'm not doing it right.

Thank you for setting me straight on this. And thanks too for refereeing the communication breakdown between me and Arthur. I hope to meet him in person one day, but I doubt he'll feel the same. I find these kind of conversations play out a lot differently when you can look someone in the eyes. It's weird how seeing someone as a person acts as a filter for most of the id-speak that dominates online.

Nice metaphor, by the way. If all of your scholarship papers were that snappy, you should have gotten a doctorate's worth of dough.

Aaaaaaaand Scene.
Yeah, okay, sorry about that last post. I haven't had my coffee yet. What I should of said was this:

Kyra: I never shrieked about you not being a professional writer. I kinda resent that you think I did. Or that this was the crux of the matter. It only came up in the first place because Arthur brought it up in his snarky reply--make that replies.

It was a good metaphor, though. Too bad you had to waste it on this.
http://patonius.myopenid.com/ at 04:19 on 2012-11-08
Great article, very thought provoking. I've read a fair few Conan stories, mostly to enrich my understanding of other fantasy like Leiber and Moorcock. To be honest, for all the talk I see everywhere of the "power" of Howard's prose, the only stories that I actually remember being interesting are A Witch Shall Be Born and Beyond the Black River. The rest of it has just blended together in my head as an endless parade of stereotypes and corny action.
Arthur B at 16:22 on 2012-11-08
I confess that when Howard's prose really starts popping I find it a lot of fun to read. The dude was really good at fight scenes and getting your blood fired up.

On the other hand, "being good at writing fight scenes" is not a unique skill in fantasy writing and as for getting the blood fired up - well, that rather hangs on what it's being fired up for, doesn't it?
http://patonius.myopenid.com/ at 06:00 on 2012-11-09
Yeah, the problem I had was that even if the fights were well written they never seemed to be in the service of anything important. It's harder to really care when the only thing at stake is some Cimmerian asshole getting rich and laid. You highlight Balthus and his dog's last stand as a great action scene - I couldn't agree more, that was awesome, the combination of good writing with actual meaning and dramatic power. It's a shame that the really good bits like that make it too easy to overlook the genocide going on in the background - I know I was guilty of skipping over the implications when I first read it.
Robinson L at 08:30 on 2012-11-16
Patonius: the problem I had was that even if the fights were well written they never seemed to be in the service of anything important. It's harder to really care when the only thing at stake is some Cimmerian asshole getting rich and laid.

That sounds similar to a problem I had when I read a bit of R A Salvatore back in my teens - he has a reputation for writing great fight scenes, and sure, they may have been pretty good, but what good are well-written fight scenes if all the characters involved are so bland that I don't give a care about any of them?
http://darthyan.livejournal.com/ at 18:04 on 2012-11-19
Howard's writing is.......cringeworthy to say the least at times. Even the most diehard fans are not willing to defend women of the lost vale. I mentioned dark horse largely because they do try (not always successfully mind you) to deal with the more cringe worthy aspects, and by and large they do a fairly admirable job. One of a set of two shots involves Conan working with a Pictish witch to stop a serpant man, and by the end of the arc Conan's distaste of picts is considerably smaller. Another miniseries had him bonding with a stygian orphan (his own unborn child had just been killed as part of a dark ritual to resurect an evil god), and the one set in the asian analogue had a female asian character with a fairly decent character arc (one of the villains is her own brother, and she's torn between doing the job and putting him down like the monster that he has become and trying to bring back the good man she once knew before he was corrupted). They even had one issue where the Akivisha sequence from Hour of the Dragon played out from Akivisha's point of view; it was......interesting to say the least.

also, yes the "product of his time" excuse can be pretty tired. I think the main argument is that many of the works that are considered "classic literature" are also disgustingly racist, and that his views were not quite as simple as "he was an evil disgusting racist on the level of William Luther Pierce". There have been some argumments that Howard's views were becoming somewhat more progressive as time passed (his earliest solomon kane stories are apparently far more racist than any of his later works.)
Wardog at 18:11 on 2012-11-19
Wait ... a Stygian orphan?! An orphan from the pits of hellllll?!!

(that's almost as good as the sad space elephant).
http://darthyan.livejournal.com/ at 20:48 on 2012-11-19
the stygian orphan is in midnight god, and it can be summed up as interesting story let down by a somewhat anticlimactic. Basically a mysterious wizard named Ra Sidh (who claims to be an official ambassador but is really a rogue wizard committing mass genocide against his own people as part of a ritual to summon a creature called the midnight god) visits Aquilonia Ra Sidh wants to use Conan, so he harvests the soul of Conan's unborn son in order to lure Conan into his turf for a final confrontation. Ra Sidh's forces have decimated the north of stygia to harvest the souls, and one of the only survivors Conan encounters is a small boy named Shi-Ku. Still reeling from the loss of his own child, Conan takes a liking to the boy, who is needless to stay quite shellshocked. Eventually they force one of Ra Sidh's servants to lead them to the temple/abyss where the ritual to revive the god is, and Conan and Shi Ku are dragged down to the very bottom of the abyss. Conan has a really wierd conversation with three giant statues which evidently contain the souls of the giant kings who founded the evil kingdom of acheron, and they give the key to how to defeat the Midnight God (since what Ra Sidh is planning is fucked up even by their standards.) Ra Sidh summons the god by using the orphan as a host (basically he wants to fuck with Conan) but with the help of the Giant King's advice and a flashback with his grandpa Conan defeats the god and than rips Ra Sidh a new asshole in the process, keeping Ra Sidh's body as a trophy to remind others not to fuck with him.
Arthur B at 23:56 on 2012-11-19
Kyra: Stygia = Egypt, back in Conan Times.

darthyan: I've heard the theories about his racial views evolving over the years but I'm not convinced.

In particular, reading around his other material he seems to have had a specific set of ideas which don't seem to have changed much at all over the course of his career. But that is for a later article.

Solomon Kane is truly cartoonishly racist though.
Wardog at 11:04 on 2012-11-20
I am now disappoint :(

To me 'Stygian' is ... abyssal. As in Ultima Underwold: The Stygian Abyss.

I was really excited by the hell!orphan.
Arthur B at 17:45 on 2012-11-20
I am now disappoint :(

This is a regular feeling of mine when dealing with Howard. I'll be like "oh, this is nice, a story about a medieval werewolf which doesn't seem to be based on Howard's usual obsessions" on one page and then the next page I'll be like NO HOWARD DON'T SHIFT THE ACTION TO AFRICA YOU HAVE LOST YOUR AFRICA PRIVILEGES A MILLION TIMES OVER GO TO YOUR ROOM
http://openid.aol.com/joatsimeon at 06:38 on 2013-02-16
There are some questionable interpretations here. I'll deal with individual stories to keep each manageable.

Starting with the general "morality" question, Conan starts out as a thief, moves up to bandit/pirate, becomes a bandit chief, a pirate captain, then a mercenary, then stages a coup d'etat and takes the throne of Aquilonia by force.

In other words, he takes people's stuff, kills them and takes their stuff, works as a hired killer, then becomes a dictator by strangling the previous head of state with his bare hands.

Is this moral? Well, that depends... 8-).

There is, in fact, no such thing as "morality", singular -- some objective, universal standard of right and wrong (unless you're a theist, and I'm not).

There are only moralit(ies); complexes of local custom which define some actions as good and some as bad. As Herodotus observed lo these many years ago, 'nomos is King', nomos being translatable roughly as 'arbitrary local custom'.

Conan comes from a tribal/clan culture in which raiding strangers, killing them and taking their stuff is perfectly acceptable; see the Tain bo Culaigne for source material.

By the standards of the people he robs, he's a Bad Guy; by his own, not so much.

By the standards of orthodox contemporary (or 1930's) Western society, he's a murderous thug. But as the saying goes, orthodoxy is merely my doxy, while heterodoxy is someone else's doxy. This too shall pass and our morals too are merely 'nomos' from the viewpoint of eternity.

One of the points of fiction in general, and one would hope speculative fiction/SF/Fantasy in particular (along with good historical fiction), is to get into the heads of people who are genuinely different -- in their moral values, for example.

That doesn't mean one shouldn't have opinions or beliefs; merely that in fiction, it's sorta limiting to expect them to be validated all the time. You should be able to step back from them during the 'conditional hypothetical' of a story.

A couple of times reading the original article I got a strong "what on earth is he going to do when he gets to 'Taming of the Shrew' or 'A Merchant of Venice' vibes?
http://openid.aol.com/joatsimeon at 06:50 on 2013-02-16
And on the question of artistic merit:

Alan B: Howard was writing cheap, disposable adventure fiction for the pulp market, and approached his craft accordingly.

-- many people wrote cheap, disposable adventure fiction for the pulps. Many wrote horror/supernatural stories.

They're not still in print and widely read. Howard and Lovecraft are.

This is not an accident; if you read some of the -other- stories that appeared in the same magazines at the time, you'll see why.

Howard's stories have power. Some of Howard's work is better than others, but the best of his stuff is among the finest of its kind.

It's kind is headlong action-adventure with colorful settings. This is a genre. Contemplative studies about middle-aged academics are a genre. Each has its conventions, each has better and worse examples.

Which genres you like is merely a matter of taste. Henry James was a very, very skillful writer of a certain type of fiction... but you'd have to pay me a lot of money to read 'Portrait of a Lady' again.
http://openid.aol.com/joatsimeon at 07:03 on 2013-02-16
In principle, I guess we're supposed to see Demetrio as a corrupt and effete representative of a corrupt and effete civilisation -


-- well, no. Demetrio is the Smart Guy; among other things, he's much more wary of Conan than anyone else in the room, and knows something about Cimmerians -- that they're excellent climbers, for example. He's also brave and dedicated to getting to the bottom of the case.


The existence of characters like Demetrio does not excuse Howard's noxious ideas - it doesn't matter if you concede that a few individuals of a particular ethnicity might be OK guys if you still hold their culture in contempt


-- Demetrio is a Hyborian. Are you saying that Howard treats -Hyborians- with contempt, as a group? Because the Hyborians are pretty well the stand-ins for "Europeans" in this context.
http://openid.aol.com/joatsimeon at 07:09 on 2013-02-16
As far as antagonists go, Thak is a kind of sleazy choice if you remember (or are even aware of) the whole thing with particularly "degenerate" savages reverting into being ape-men, and it is heavily hinted that this is the case with Thak.


-- now here you're missing the point completely. First, Conan's attitude towards Thak is one of respect; he specifically states that he will consider Thak a man he has killed, a worthy enemy, not a beast.

And, of course, in Howard's Hyborian imaginarium the Atlanteans went through a stage of reverting to ape-like primitivism.

Thak, in other words, is just like Conan's own ancestors, and Conan acknowledges it.
http://openid.aol.com/joatsimeon at 07:16 on 2013-02-16
Bêlit's unquenchable thirst for riches is still not sated


-- pirates tend to do that thirst for riches thing. Bêlit's is a rather 'pure' lust; she just likes the shiny. There's no suggestion she wants to retire to a palace and have nougat dropped into her mouth.

Naturally, Conan as another white person is qualified for a leadership role


-- in the story, it's specifically stated that Bêlit is the brains of the operation; Conan is her bone-breaker.

Obviously, said crewmen are all servile and craven and superstitious


-- where on earth did you get this idea? Said crewmen handily slaughtered the (white) crew of the Argossean ship Conan was on originally, and apart from Conan didn't find it particularly difficult. They're successful pirates. Not a profession in which the craven and servile do well.

Note that Conan has absolutely no problem with shipping on a crew of black pirates attacking and robbing white people. This gets him into trouble later, in "Hour of the Dragon".
http://openid.aol.com/joatsimeon at 07:20 on 2013-02-16
They make their escape, but unfortunately Livia gets lost due to being a silly civilised woman who needs a big strong daddy to take care of her and make the decisions for her.


-- how about Livia gets lost because she's a sheltered urbanite from a professional family who has neither experience nor skills in the wilderness?

Is she supposed to suddenly become Sheena, Queen of the Jungle?
http://openid.aol.com/joatsimeon at 07:31 on 2013-02-16
The point is, Conan has expressed here a moral outlook: namely, that black people are depraved animals and only a flint-hearted cur would leave a white woman in their clutches.


-- well, no. Throughout the Conan stories, it's assumed that captive/slave women will be raped and abused by their owners... which is historically spot-on, of course. Bajujh is no more of a pig that any number of other men over every group in his position throughout the series (or real history).

He's physically repulsive, but other members of his tribe and the one Conan is running are described as superbly muscular and handsome.

The only place you've got any grounds is that Conan is a thoroughgoing tribalist here -- and, reluctantly, considers Livia to be "one of his", so he rescues her. Not that he likes, respects, or even has the hots for her.

Note also that Livia doesn't get to be a goddess because she's white. Conan doesn't get to be a chief because he's white, either: it's because he's hell on wheels in a fight, and the locals (like his own people) respect that.

http://openid.aol.com/joatsimeon at 07:46 on 2013-02-16
We come to the story as Amurath finds himself deep in swampland, chasing after Olivia, a princess of Ophir, who he purchased as a harem slave and who recently escaped from his entourage. So, straight off the bat you have the evil, filthy not-Arab cornering the cowering not-European woman:


-- actually he's an evil, filthy -Turk- (Turanian, in Hyborian Age terms), but leave that aside.

This part is based, like much of Howard, on historical examples; specifically, Turkish expansion into SW Europe and the Ukraine, perhaps with a side-dish of Crimean Tartar slave raiding.

Circumstances in which numerous European women actually -were- enslaved, something which continued well into the 19th century; add in the Barbary Corsairs, who raided villages as far north as Iceland.

Slavery (of both whites and blacks) continued in the Ottoman Empire until abolished under European pressure; the Victorian explorer Samuel Baker "acquired" his future wife (ethnically German-Hungarian, and incidentally blond) in a Turkish slave market in Vidin.

Or are you saying that while this happened, Howard shouldn't allude to it in his historically-based fantasy? It should somehow be 'written out'? Why?
http://openid.aol.com/joatsimeon at 07:55 on 2013-02-16
Oh, yeah, and there's an evil priest who sacrifices people to "Hanuman the Accursed", because Howard got all his knowledge of Hinduism from Kipling.


-- ummm... dude, you -are- aware that Kipling was born in India, lived and worked there for a long time, and spoke Hindi as his first language? And that his father was a museum curator in Lahore? Have you read "Kim"? Which is widely considered (in India) to be a great Indian novel.

Howard could have used far worse sources. His problem was that he didn't do enough research; of course, Cross Plains in the 1930's didn't exactly have a lot of access to substantial libraries.

BTW, have you ever been to Cross Plains? If I had to live there, -I'd- be tempted to kill myself.
http://openid.aol.com/joatsimeon at 07:58 on 2013-02-16
but in context clearly refers to the mercenaries, so it's a merciless and cold-hearted war crime perpetrated against a defeated army


-- dude, are you seriously proposing that the Hyborian Age should have obeyed the -Geneva Conventions-?

Killing all the members of a defeated army (or in some circumstances selling them into slavery) was absolutely kosher until comparatively recently.

In this case, the defeated troops entered the city by treachery, supported a coup, and then engaged in all sorts of atrocities.
http://openid.aol.com/joatsimeon at 08:10 on 2013-02-16
also couldn't help but notice it was essentially a restating of the myths of America's westward expansion in a Conan context.


-- arrgghh. Dude, the whole point of "Beyond the Black River" is that the Aquilonians -lose-.

The frontier is pushed back, and will never get to the Black River again.

As Conan says to Balthus, "You Hyborians have expanded as far as you'll be allowed to expand." He explicitly states that the whole enterprise is doomed.

and you have the beastly natives who want to burn down people's houses and kill them and rape them.


-- well, of course they do. Why shouldn't they, since they're trying to get their land back and avenge their losses?

What are they supposed to do, love the Aquilonians for burning their villages and taking their land?

Conan finds their behavior totally to be expected. He fights them because he's an honest mercenary, and anyway Cimmerians and Picts have had their own conflicts and there are blood-feuds dating back to time immemorial.

It isn't a matter of "Picts bad, Aquilonians good", it's a matter of "Picts and Aquilonians fighting over land and killing each other". Both sides are utterly merciless. When (much later in the Hyborian Age) they get the chance, they do to the Aquilonians precisely what the Aquilonians tried (and failed) to do to them. And they tried to do it to the Cimmerians as well, of course.
http://openid.aol.com/joatsimeon at 08:19 on 2013-02-16
Oh, and this story also does the "native Americans just want to wreck civilisation" deal again. Sigh.


-- no, this story ("The Treasure of Tranicos") demonstrates that the Picts (shown here more or less as white Iroquois) don't like foreigners coming and building forts on their land, cutting down the forest and generally making themselves at home uninvited.

Not to mention (the Picts think) killing their people and putting their heads up in trees.

So they attack. What, precisely, is wrong with that? Looks like vigorous self-defense.
http://openid.aol.com/joatsimeon at 08:29 on 2013-02-16
At its heart, the fantasy of the white European making himself the leader of an Afghan horde is straight out of Kipling


-- actually, Kipling got the idea for "The Man Who Would Be King" from the career of Josiah Harlan, an American mercenary in the service of Ranjit Singh, Sikh maharaja of the Punjab, who later became Prince of Ghor in Afghanistan for a while. (The British more or less turfed him out later, to oversimplify.)

Howard was working from the same material.

See, that sort of thing -actually happened-. Reality, not fantasy.

Note also the career of Brooke, the "White Raja" of Sarawak, off further east.
http://openid.aol.com/joatsimeon at 08:50 on 2013-02-16
Long, tedious sections in which Conan is teased by some black guy who happens to have the key which will let him escape the dungeon.


-- the black guy in THE SCARLET CITADEL is out for -revenge- on Conan, whose (black) corsairs sacked the guy's town and were responsible for him being enslaved. Oh, and they killed the guy's brother, IIRC.

So he was sold as a slave, and ends up as a dungeon guard because of that.

In short, he wants revenge on Conan and that's why he taunts him. Can you blame him? He also contemptuously turns down Conan's attempts to bribe him to let him go. In Hyborian Age terms, he's acting perfectly honorably.

See, this is what happens when you're determined to project a script on to the material.

http://openid.aol.com/joatsimeon at 09:01 on 2013-02-16
"Rogues in the House" -- the analysis here completely jumps the shark; Conan is unbearably sexist because he -doesn't- kill the woman who snitched on him?

She's not a warrior of any sort; killing her would be inappropriate. Instead he drops her into what's a metaphor for her behavior and departs, leaving her (after a bath) none the worse for wear, except for a case of the humiliations.

Considering that she tried to get him -killed-, did so by -treachery-, and nearly succeeded, that's sort of mild behavior, under the circumstances.

http://openid.aol.com/joatsimeon at 09:15 on 2013-02-16
General summation; was Howard ethnically prejudiced?

Oh, hell, yes -- not as much as most small-town white Texans born in 1900, largely because he was smarter, more imaginative and and much better read than the average in that environment, but quite considerably.

Is this a reason not to read and enjoy his stories?

Oh, hell, no. I don't expect to get ideological agreement from Shakespeare (or H. Rider Haggard, for that matter). Nor am I interested in anxiously check-marking anything I read for vice and virtue.

So values dissonance doesn't prevent me from enjoying their stories, or Howard's, or for that matter (if you want real extreme weird values dissonance) the "Tale of Genji". That's not what I go to fiction for. I like the shock of the strange.

I strongly suspect that the real reason Howard excites such extravagantly negative responses is to do with a far deeper level of his worldview, which was rather a bleak one based on the omnipresence of conflict.

The dude did have serious mental problems, but that's another matter.

And in point of fact, he's going to continue to be read and enjoyed. Writers who stay in print as long as he has -- I first encountered his work in the 1960's, during one of many revivals -- generally do. If the test of quality is long-continued popularity (and I see no other objective way to measure it) then he's passed.

Complaining about this is sort of... futile.
Wardog at 12:44 on 2013-02-16
Arthur - up to you whether you want to disemvowel this stuff, I can't actually be bothered to read it.

(Sorry, but I am sick of talking about Conan :P)
Arthur B at 15:35 on 2013-02-16
Thanks Kyra, but I will in fact reply to this stuff, if only because "joat" a) seems to hate the idea of not having the last word on a subject and b) would probably interpret us deleting/disemvowelling the comments as some sort of victory.

Conan comes from a tribal/clan culture in which raiding strangers, killing them and taking their stuff is perfectly acceptable; see the Tain bo Culaigne for source material.

And if that were all Conan did, that would be one thing. If, indeed, the stories were pitched so that the narration exalts Conan for doing these things, then the concept that Howard was writing a story based on cultural standards of an very different time might hold water.

However, Conan also does a whole lot of things which the protagonists of 1930s adventure fiction tend to do in order to indicate to us readers that they are meant to be heroes. He faces off against cackling villains whose malice is far more cartoonish and over the top than his reavery. He is constantly rescuing vulnerable women. Yes, there are respects in which the modern reader is not meant to 100% sympathise with Conan, but there are also respects in which the modern reader is supposed to be rooting for him. Consequently the idea that Conan is divorced entirely from modern (20th/21st Century) morality is bunk, because many of his stories are clearly constructed in a way which is meant to engage with the modern reader's moral sympathies.

One of the points of fiction in general, and one would hope speculative fiction/SF/Fantasy in particular (along with good historical fiction), is to get into the heads of people who are genuinely different -- in their moral values, for example.

In which case Conan is something of a failure, because in his racial priorities, his attitude to women, and his love of the "barbarian" lifestyle at odds both with controlling central authority and what Howard depicts as debased savagery, Conan is just like all of Howard's other protagonists, and for that matter probably wouldn't have been that out of place in rural Texas in the 1930s.

That doesn't mean one shouldn't have opinions or beliefs; merely that in fiction, it's sorta limiting to expect them to be validated all the time. You should be able to step back from them during the 'conditional hypothetical' of a story.

A couple of times reading the original article I got a strong "what on earth is he going to do when he gets to 'Taming of the Shrew' or 'A Merchant of Venice' vibes?

When I get around to watching those I will doubtless do the same thing I did with Howard's stories: weigh them in the scales, and see if the offensiveness outweighs in my mind any other merits the stories possess.

The thing is, Howard's stories don't actually possess that many merits. And even if Shrew or Venice did have more stuff going on which made me think that on balance I liked them, I wouldn't blithely pretend that the offensive parts of the play didn't happen.

-- many people wrote cheap, disposable adventure fiction for the pulps.

"joat", if you're going to don a throwaway OpenID and spam Ferretbrain, you need to get over the habit of beginning your responses to quites with "dash dash lower case". It's a Steve Stirling habit which makes us assume you are Steve Stirling and ban you.

Many wrote horror/supernatural stories.

They're not still in print and widely read. Howard and Lovecraft are.

This is not an accident; if you read some of the -other- stories that appeared in the same magazines at the time, you'll see why.

Firstly: is this a diss on Clark Ashton Smith? It better not be.

Secondly: Howard's and Lovecraft's stories are remembered for a variety of reasons beyond the pure quality of the stories in question. Both inspired a heck of a lot of pastiche, partly because people were genuinely taken with the stories and partly because they both developed a particular style which writers learning the ropes found a useful structure to imitate. Both, by dying young, inspired their colleagues and friends to preserve their fiction and promote it. Both, some time after they died, found their particular styles coming back into fashion in a big way, and there was a Lovecraft boom and a Howard boom which enormously raised the profile of their fiction (and also inspired a lot of editorial bad decisions on the part of the custodians of their legacy).

The thing is, fashions change. Bulwer-Lytton was a bestselling author in his day; now, he's best known for one line. And sometimes fashions change for good reason - for instance, when people realise that actually the Emperor is quite nude, so perhaps mimicing his sartorial choices isn't such a brilliant move.

Howard's stories have power. Some of Howard's work is better than others, but the best of his stuff is among the finest of its kind.

It's kind is headlong action-adventure with colorful settings. This is a genre. Contemplative studies about middle-aged academics are a genre. Each has its conventions, each has better and worse examples.

And as you'll see from my past writings on Ferretbrain I'm not averse to headlong action adventure with colourful settings. If I wasn't, I wouldn't have reviewed all of those Warhammer 40,000 books.

The thing is, Howard's work just isn't a particularly good example of that sort of story compared to what's available today. All of the action-packed fight sequences, the tense explorations of sinister locales, the cliffhangers, the reversals of fortune - all that stuff? We can get it elsewhere these days, and get it better. In Howard's time you had less precedents for the sort of fiction Howard was writing (though I would argue that Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom material and its imitators do more or less everything Howard does to a comparable level of success), but we are lucky enough to be spoilt for choice in this day and age. (Particularly now Gollancz have got their SF Gateway initiative up and running to get out nice ebook editions of heaps of stuff which it wouldn't have been economically feasible to keep in print before. Have you seen the treasures they've been letting out through that? It's fantastic.)

I will point out that whilst a lot of heroic action adventure stuff is still problematic (in particular, the whole "colourful settings" thing often degenerates into "treating other people's cultures like they are toys for your amusement"), a lot of it is way less overtly offensive than Howard's material. So, when weighed in the scales, Howard's material loses out to a lot of it. When you consider that there are folk out there who are just as adept at presenting an evocative location or an exciting fight scene as Howard, if not more so, the reasons to keep reading him dwindle until only "historical curiosity" or "academic study" are left.

He's just not that good, and the reason he got so much attention back in the day I suspect is because he didn't have many competitors, and most of his competitors and imitators weren't even as good as he was. If you corrected the spelling, punctuation and grammar of The Eye of Argon and swapped some of the names around you could probably convince someone it's a lost Howard story.

Demetrio is the Smart Guy; among other things, he's much more wary of Conan than anyone else in the room, and knows something about Cimmerians -- that they're excellent climbers, for example. He's also brave and dedicated to getting to the bottom of the case.

Yeah, he's a really cool character, but he's also an obstacle in the story for Conan to get around.

Demetrio is a Hyborian. Are you saying that Howard treats -Hyborians- with contempt, as a group? Because the Hyborians are pretty well the stand-ins for "Europeans" in this context.

Firstly, Demetrio is not merely a Hyborian. He hails from a particular nationality (he's a Nemedian) and a particular culture (he's an Inquisitor for the city). It is city culture which Howard holds in contempt in The God In the Bowl. Howard's prejudices were not simply a matter of black people-vs-white people - they were a complex, layered structured of bigotries informed by his misinterpretations of Darwinism.

First, Conan's attitude towards Thak is one of respect; he specifically states that he will consider Thak a man he has killed, a worthy enemy, not a beast.

And, of course, in Howard's Hyborian imaginarium the Atlanteans went through a stage of reverting to ape-like primitivism.

Not just there, though. Other stories allude to people living in the jungle reverting first to savagery and eventually to bestial forms. This is not an accidental inclusion in Howard's worldbuilding, it's a specific idea derived from Howard's (deeply flawed) conception of Darwinism. Conan acknowledging the essential humanity of Thak is a recognition of a fact of Howard's world, but the story as a whole ends up becoming a cautionary tale about giving too much slack to your evolutionary inferiors.

Bêlit's is a rather 'pure' lust; she just likes the shiny. There's no suggestion she wants to retire to a palace and have nougat dropped into her mouth.

I have no objection to Bêlit, as a pirate, wanting to do piratey things.

Then again doing a striptease in front of the entire crew isn't very piratey. At least, not if you're the captain.

-- in the story, it's specifically stated that Bêlit is the brains of the operation; Conan is her bone-breaker.

A position which none of the other crew members who had been with her crew for longer was qualified for because...?

Said crewmen handily slaughtered the (white) crew of the Argossean ship Conan was on originally, and apart from Conan didn't find it particularly difficult. They're successful pirates. Not a profession in which the craven and servile do well.

They have no problem with obeying Bêlit's every command, they have no problem with Bêlit bringing on a new guy and suddenly declaring him first mate, promoting him over the head of every other crew member and declaring him their master, they are deeply superstitious when it comes to having anything to do with the sinister temple they go to plunder. "The blacks shuffled their feet uneasily, but did as they were told" - is this a description of a rowdy pirate crew, or a party of servants?

Note that Conan has absolutely no problem with shipping on a crew of black pirates attacking and robbing white people. This gets him into trouble later, in "Hour of the Dragon".

Doesn't it get him out of trouble because he meets some of his ex-crew members and they are able to help him escape from captivity?

-- how about Livia gets lost because she's a sheltered urbanite from a professional family who has neither experience nor skills in the wilderness?

Is she supposed to suddenly become Sheena, Queen of the Jungle?

A better question to ask is "Why, when Howard wrote a story requiring Conan to encounter and look after an utterly helpless character, did he choose for that character to be a soft civilised woman who can't take care of herself in the wilderness?" There are many varities of helpless character Howard could have used in the Conan stories, but he went for "pampered woman who needs a big strong daddy to take care of her" more or less every time.

Throughout the Conan stories, it's assumed that captive/slave women will be raped and abused by their owners... which is historically spot-on, of course. Bajujh is no more of a pig that any number of other men over every group in his position throughout the series (or real history).

OK "joat", now you're being wilfully obtuse. Check the conversation where Conan agrees to the escape plan again. He doesn't pitch the escape in terms of captives versus captors, it's in terms of white versus black. Bajujh's physical shortcomings don't really come into Conan's calculations, he makes his decision entirely on racial considerations.

The only place you've got any grounds is that Conan is a thoroughgoing tribalist here -- and, reluctantly, considers Livia to be "one of his", so he rescues her. Not that he likes, respects, or even has the hots for her.

Which is precisely the point of the conversation - Conan is willing to behave extremely out of character for the pragmatic reaver you want to paint him as, pissing away a good alliance and getting his men slaughtered, purely for these tribalistic considerations.

Except, of course, he's not doing this for a fellow Cimmerian. Livia would not be recognised by Conan a member of his tribe by the standards of the ancient world. "White" as an ethnic identity is a decidedly modern concept that was very much accepted in Howard's time. Where now your argument that Conan doesn't have any connection to modern morality when in fact he's behaving entirely heroically by the standards of white racists of the 1930s?

-- actually he's an evil, filthy -Turk- (Turanian, in Hyborian Age terms), but leave that aside.

I apologise; for some reason, Howard isn't brilliant at teasing out the fine differences between different types of brown people in his fiction. Funny, that.

Or are you saying that while this happened, Howard shouldn't allude to it in his historically-based fantasy? It should somehow be 'written out'? Why?

Firstly, I don't think as a Howard defender you necessarily want to go down the road of "IT'S HISTORICALLY ACCURATE!" because if the Hyborian Age is meant to be a thinly-veiled allegory for the real world then we can judge it by the standards of the real world, no?

Secondly, I like how people who want to paint white people as historical victims who have to fight, fight, FIGHT!!! for their liberties constantly constantly harp on Ottoman slavery of white people. Of course it happened. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was happening concurrently. The Conan stories, so far as I can recall, never allude to such a thing. Pretending one happened whilst the other didn't, I am sure you agree, would be naughty. It would also be bad to pretend that their relative scales were different; as far as I'm aware, the best historical estimates have the Barbary corsairs and the Ottomans enslaving hundreds of thousands of European, whilst the current estimate for the trans-Atlantic slave trade is twelve million slaves shipped across the Atlantic. That's two whole orders of magnitude difference, which I rather think explains why the trans-Atlantic trade gets more attention than what the Ottomans got up to.

-- ummm... dude, you -are- aware that Kipling was born in India, lived and worked there for a long time, and spoke Hindi as his first language? And that his father was a museum curator in Lahore? Have you read "Kim"? Which is widely considered (in India) to be a great Indian novel.

I'm fully aware of it. I'm also aware of his predeliction to borrow Indian culture for horror purposes.

Howard could have used far worse sources. His problem was that he didn't do enough research; of course, Cross Plains in the 1930's didn't exactly have a lot of access to substantial libraries.

Granted, but some people would see the sense in refraining from writing about stuff they don't actually understand or have good research mateiral for.

BTW, have you ever been to Cross Plains? If I had to live there, -I'd- be tempted to kill myself.

Wow.

People accuse me of being unfair to Howard but it takes a Howard defender to descend to the level of making jokes about his suicide. Actually, I take that back. It takes you to descend to that level. None of the other Howard defenders I have clashed with as a result of this article have stooped to this in our exchanges. So far as I'm aware, Mark Finn and Al Harron and the rest have consistently been very respectful about the subject. Pretty fucking shameful, "joat".

-- dude, are you seriously proposing that the Hyborian Age should have obeyed the -Geneva Conventions-?

Killing all the members of a defeated army (or in some circumstances selling them into slavery) was absolutely kosher until comparatively recently.

Admittedly I was being flippant there. On the other hand, does it not send a chill down your spine when Conan declares he's going to kill all the Shemites?

Dude, the whole point of "Beyond the Black River" is that the Aquilonians -lose-.

The frontier is pushed back, and will never get to the Black River again.

Oh, sure, you can get some merit out of the story by viewing it as a deconstruction of the myth of manifest destiny by depicting a story in which the natives push back the civilising force. On the other hand, it still buys into the notion that the settlers are a civilising force and the locals are savages who have to be fought viciously if they aren't going to sweep in and massacre everyone.

It isn't a matter of "Picts bad, Aquilonians good", it's a matter of "Picts and Aquilonians fighting over land and killing each other". Both sides are utterly merciless. When (much later in the Hyborian Age) they get the chance, they do to the Aquilonians precisely what the Aquilonians tried (and failed) to do to them. And they tried to do it to the Cimmerians as well, of course.

This is true, but it teases out a central point of Howard's fiction: the idea that the basic interaction between races is warfare. Howard sees no possibility of a mutual understanding developing between peoples in the long term; temporary truces may be reached, but in the long run it's a vicious world of kill or be killed out there. This is a simplistic sort of social Darwinism which isn't even very good Darwinism (many species in the wild manage to survive perfectly well without specialising in being fighty killy things), in which people of different ethnicities have to be constantly watching out for the next race war, which must inevitably come when the balance of power shfits. Given the rhetoric you pulled out the last time you were here, assuming you actually are Steve Stirling (and I see no indication that that isn't actually the case), I guess this is good reason for your neighbours to start worrying.

-- no, this story ("The Treasure of Tranicos") demonstrates that the Picts (shown here more or less as white Iroquois) don't like foreigners coming and building forts on their land, cutting down the forest and generally making themselves at home uninvited.

Not to mention (the Picts think) killing their people and putting their heads up in trees.

So they attack. What, precisely, is wrong with that? Looks like vigorous self-defense.

Looks like vigorous self-defence, is presented as a terrible peril. It's a lot, in fact, like the attack on the castle in Wolfshead: although the attackers are arguably completely justified in forcibly evicting a colonising force from their territory, it's presented as a terrible peril to the white people the narrative is structured to get us to sympathise with and something to be fought against with all available might.

-- actually, Kipling got the idea for "The Man Who Would Be King" from the career of Josiah Harlan, an American mercenary in the service of Ranjit Singh, Sikh maharaja of the Punjab, who later became Prince of Ghor in Afghanistan for a while. (The British more or less turfed him out later, to oversimplify.)

So it's a fantasy someone got to live, so what? It still reeks of the colonialist idea that brown people need white people to take charge and tell them what to do.

-- the black guy in THE SCARLET CITADEL is out for -revenge- on Conan, whose (black) corsairs sacked the guy's town and were responsible for him being enslaved. Oh, and they killed the guy's brother, IIRC.

So he was sold as a slave, and ends up as a dungeon guard because of that.

In short, he wants revenge on Conan and that's why he taunts him. Can you blame him? He also contemptuously turns down Conan's attempts to bribe him to let him go. In Hyborian Age terms, he's acting perfectly honorably.

That's true, but it's all stuff which Howard invented. There are a million different reasons why a guard in that citadel might want revenge on Conan. Equally, there are a million different types of people that guard could have ended up being. However, Howard chose to make the guard a thick-lipped racial stereotype. Is this pure accident? Did Howard roll on a Random NPC Generator and get "black stereotype"? I think not.

"Rogues in the House" -- the analysis here completely jumps the shark; Conan is unbearably sexist because he -doesn't- kill the woman who snitched on him?

She's not a warrior of any sort; killing her would be inappropriate. Instead he drops her into what's a metaphor for her behavior and departs, leaving her (after a bath) none the worse for wear, except for a case of the humiliations.

Considering that she tried to get him -killed-, did so by -treachery-, and nearly succeeded, that's sort of mild behavior, under the circumstances.

If Conan had murdered both of them then that would be deeply unsympathetic behaviour but he would at least be treating them even-handedly. If he had humiliated both of them then it would be more sympathetic (and funnier). As it is, the threat posed by the man is taken seriously and the threat posed by the woman is not taken seriously (she snitched on him once, what's to stop her snitching on him again for murdering a guard - a crime which Conan would certaily face more than a jail sentence for?).

Is this a reason not to read and enjoy his stories?

Oh, hell, no. I don't expect to get ideological agreement from Shakespeare (or H. Rider Haggard, for that matter). Nor am I interested in anxiously check-marking anything I read for vice and virtue.

This is the basic disagreement. Neither of us expect to get ideological agreement from people who come from History. At the same time, though, I would say that values dissonance is at the very least a mild irritation. It is something I can get over, but I need a reason to get over it - in other words, there should be something of sufficient value to counterbalance the values dissonance. Howard's ideology is, as you point out, is based on a view of the world assuming an omnipresence of violent conflict, and which I would also say exalts the idea of violent conflict as inherently enobling in itself and disparages the idea that as thinking apes we can actually reduce or sideline the role of violent conflict in our lives. If you take that away, there's nothing left to his stories beyond decent but not uniquely brilliant fight scenes and action and derring-do.

I would say that even if you don't give a damn about values dissonance and it doesn't factor into your assessment of a work at all, that's still not a good reason to read Howard. The fact is that there are plenty of superior authors - from Howard's era, from before Howard's era, and from after Howard's era - who were just better at the sort of fiction he wrote. There are only 24 hours in the day and most of us can devote only a fraction of them to reading; why waste your time on substandard work unless it's for the purpose of historical curiosity, academic study, or criticism?
Wardog at 16:23 on 2013-02-16
*cries*
assuming you actually are Steve Stirling (and I see no indication that that isn't actually the case)


Yup, that's me. "Joatsimeon" has been my email address for over a decade -- it's not a secret.
Arthur B at 18:16 on 2013-02-16
OK, good. I've banned your G+ ID but left the above intact so there's no doubt about it.

I have deleted your other comments since they contribute nothing new to the conversations beyond pointing out, yet again, that my objection to Howard is ideological and not aesthetic. I don't actually believe those things are necessarily disconnected; ideology can suggest an aesthetic, aesthetics can support an ideology. The fascists understood this, Stalin understood this, lots of people have understood this. You don't agree. Fine. Goodbye.
Rami at 00:16 on 2013-02-17
After this I wonder if we don't need a new tagline: "Arguing with people who are wrong on the internet since 2006" ;-)
Fishing in the Mud at 00:29 on 2013-02-17
It was nice to have such a generous helping of spam with my eggs this morning.
http://arilou-skiff.livejournal.com/ at 22:18 on 2013-02-25
Completely agree, the idea that Howard isn't a racist, misogynis prick is rather laughable. It is obvious, odious, persistent and systematic.

Mind, that was why I found him vaguely interesting when I decided to read him, he is a pretty good snapshot of early-20th century ideas about race. (in some ways I was actually positivey surprised, I was expecting worse) As a historical example he can be pretty valuable. (there's a lot of stuff written about how all sorts of ideas about race and gender kind of warped in the late 19th/early 20th century, and Conan fits right into that particular transition)

I remember for my 2nd. year essay at college I wrote a comparative piece on.... Marriage-advice manuals? From the early 20th century. (one from 1912, one from 1920) and many of the ideas that underlies Howard also shows up there.
Ashimbabbar at 20:24 on 2014-02-17
While I would agree with much of what is said here about Howard ( I am no admirer of his prose writinngs ), I think there are a few points that could be clarified concerning the story The Phœnix on the Sword.

• It’s a very minor point, but what you write about the picts sounds as if it were all right to have savages maddened by strong drinks if they were real Picts but unacceptable if they were American Indians…

• I think we ought to look more closely at the 3 main characters in the story, Conan, Ascalante and Thoth-Amon.
- Conan, as you point out, is a far more nuanced and likable character here. However, he is essentially a great man as seen by Carlyle - the stooopid commoners don’t understand he usurped the throne for their own good, and Conan is mightily moody about it.
( You could write interesting stories about a barbarian usurper who is persuaded he’s ruling his new subjects for their own good. Howard didn’t. )
Also, it is worth noticing he is rather sidelined in this story - what he does is angst about how hard it is to be a king, get awakened by a supernatural figure so as not to be butchered in his sleep by conspirators he knew nothing about, and use edged weapons on the bad guys natural and supernatural. Period.
- Ascalante is far more interesting and dynamic a figure; considering Howard’s love for human predators, he is the civilized answer to Conan, the only civilized enemy actually dangerous for him*. It takes a supernatural intervention to foil his plans and another to break his courage: but for those absolutely random occurences, he would have despatched Conan easily and made himself king of Aquilonia.
- As to Thoth-Amon, I do not believe he is presented in a sympathetic light within the frame of the story.
a/ He is a coward and lacks any personal quality - he derived his power from digging up a Magic Gimmick and knowing how to use it, whereas Conan and Ascalante became what they are by their own resources and strength of character. And in order to send a demon against Ascalante he not only needs to have his One True Jewelry Piece, but to steal one of Ascalante’s sandals as well - how is that for ridiculous ?
b/ He is a worshipper of Eeevil god Set.
c/ He is a murderous madman. Dion is a fat mass of stupidity who is in his way and has no business living anyhow, and killing Ascalante is nothing more than fair; but he then orders the demon to kill “all with him”.

However, I think the character is worth considering in a different light. Howard warns us by describing him as a giant whereas there was no necessity within the story for it - he could as well have been a scrawny runt.
In order to understand what the character represents, we need to turn to Howard’s poetry. A good many of his poems describe eldritch darkness, NOT vanquished by some white muscular hero, but triumphing; and this he embraces with enthusiasm. Take the end of Which will scarcely be understood
“ The poets know that justice is a lie
That good and light are baubles filled with dust -
This world’s slave-market where swine sell and buy,
This shambles where the howling cattle die,
Has blinded not their eyes with lies and lust.

Ring up the demons from the lower Pit,
Since Evil conquers goodness in the end;
Break down the Door and let the fire be lit,
And greet each slavering monster as a friend.

Let obscene shapes of Darkness ride the earth,
Let sacrificial smokes blot out the skies,
Let dying virgins glut the Black God’s eyes,
And all the world resound the noisome mirth.

Break down the altars, let the streets run red,
Tramp down the raceinto the crawling slime;
Then, when red Chaos lifts her serpent head,
The Fiend be praised, we’ll pen the perfect rhyme.”
Thoth-Amon in his more exalted moments could have written this.

Therefore, I believe Thoth-Amon is, as well as an evil sorcerer villain, a stand-in for Howard: the giant [ scrawny kid who did a lot of bodybuilding ] despised slave [ considered a weirdo and having to write cheap stories for pulps ] who consorted with eldritch darkness and would loosen it upon the world [ and writes poems about it because this world plain sucks ].



* Actually, Prince Kutamun of Stygia in Black Colossus could qualify if Howard had bothered to write more than say one line and a half about him. He should not have brought a rock to a knife fight.
Arthur B at 23:36 on 2014-02-17
It’s a very minor point, but what you write about the picts sounds as if it were all right to have savages maddened by strong drinks if they were real Picts but unacceptable if they were American Indians…

Ah, I sort of see that now you mention it. I think I was more noting that it's more offensive if you realise they are meant to be Native Americans because there's a specific (and ongoing) history of their populations being hurt by strong alcohol being shoved their way by colonisers, whereas there isn't really the same history with Picts. (At most you could argue that there's nasty stereotypes out there about drunken Irish or Scots people, but few if any of them really identify with the Picts just as not many people in England feel really strongly about having a specifically Saxon or Norman identity.)

( You could write interesting stories about a barbarian usurper who is persuaded he’s ruling his new subjects for their own good. Howard didn’t. )

Good point. Though I'm equally sceptical about "legitimate" monarchs who believe they are ruling their subjects for the good of the plebs, all told.

He is a coward and lacks any personal quality - he derived his power from digging up a Magic Gimmick and knowing how to use it, whereas Conan and Ascalante became what they are by their own resources and strength of character.

To be fair, I would personally see the insight and intelligence and occult and historical learning to work out how to use the Magic Gimmick to be a laudable personal quality, though since Howard didn't put a high value on the civilised man's book-learnin' (nor, for that matter, for the role of stealth, subterfuge, and a healthy level of cowardice in natural selection) I'd concede that Howard would not agree.

In order to understand what the character represents, we need to turn to Howard’s poetry

Which, if the sample you quoted is any guide, doesn't even reach the standard of your average heavy metal lyricist. ;)
Ashimbabbar at 00:09 on 2014-04-04
I have just discovered the Phoenix on the Sword actually was a King Kull short story Howard rewrote for Conan. I don't know them well, but I understand the King Kull stories are far less into bloody sword-wielding and more into would-be philosophical considerations - although born a barbarian Kull gives points to civilization.
Also, Picts are good guys there.

Possibly the evil magic-user part was taken by Kull's nemesis Thulsa Doom ( THERE's a heavy metal name for you ! ).
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