Locklin on science

Books which inspired Robert E Howard

Posted in Book reviews by Scott Locklin on September 22, 2021

“My tastes and habits are simple; I am neither erudite nor sophisticated. I prefer jazz to classical music, musical burlesques to Greek tragedy, A. Conan Doyle to Balzac, Bob Service’s verse to Santayana’s writing, a prize fight to a lecture on art.”

Robert E. Howard books; Conan and Bran Mak Morn are a sort of peak pulp storytelling of a certain kind, just as his friend HPL’s stories are peak pulp horror. The main problem with his books are there aren’t enough of them. The man killed himself at age 30, so he wasn’t drawing on a particularly deep reading life. You have to figure there was a lot of Conan taken directly from the stuff he read, and Conan fans might get a kick out of his literary interests.

Howard of course had a basic background in classic literature, as most high school graduates did in his day: Shakespeare, The Bible, Beowulf, The Norse Sagas, Arabian Knights, the Greeks and Romans. For a small example, Conan was a Cimmerian; Cimmerians were the Scythians of ancient history, written about by Herodotus. Howard was also interested, as were many in his day, in Theosophy and their weird ideas about Atlantis and Lemuria. He was  a fan of Kipling, Sax Rohmer, Jack London, Rider Haggard (who is amazing and largely forgotten) and Edgar Rice Burroughs and the myriad of Authors in Adventure magazine. I could talk about these guys in detail, but I figure it is more useful to outline some more obscure pieces I’ve read fairly recently.

Harold Lamb was a big influence on Howard. One of the writers for Adventure magazine, he churned out what can only be described as pulpy …. but extremely accurate historical fiction. I felt like I got more out of reading his “Theodora and the Emperor”  than I did out of reading Procopius. It’s not high literature, but it portrays the protagonists as complete characters in a way that historians are unable to, which is a considerable work of imagination. I’d put this book below something like the I, Claudius books, but maybe close in quality to Robert Graves Count Belisarius (same characters, completely different interpretation of them). Graves treated Belisarius as a sort of good guy tragic Mary Sue, and the Emperor and Empress as sort of malign ciphers. Lamb wrote his work a couple of decades later, and concentrated on the psychological furniture of Justinian and Theodora, who were, to say the least, obviously very complicated and interesting people. Justinian was an educated peasant who was adopted by maternal uncle, an illiterate but extremely capable soldier who eventually became Emperor. Justinian himself had no military experience, but was a political genius who oversaw a reconquest of large swathes of the Roman empire, revised roman law, rebuilt the city and oversaw many momentous events. Theodora was a former circus worker;  a sort of circus porn star and prostitute. From these humble beginnings she became a powerful and beloved leader, and one could say an early advocate for women’s rights from a woman who suffered greatly in her past life. As such they’re a lot more interesting as characters than Belisarius, who, frankly does kind of come across as a sort of tragic Mary Sue in the chronicles. Howard never read this specific book as it came in the 1950s, but it and Lamb himself is quite a find for historical fiction fans, and gives views of the type of author which inspired Howard. I have only thumbed through his other books on  Crusaders and Gengis Khan, but they look real promising also. We know REH had read Tamerlane and The Crusades and I stuck ’em on my Kobo for a rainy day.

Howard also read Flaubert’s undeservedly forgotten Salammbo. My pal Marty Halpern suggested this as a good book to read while on vacation in Lisbon, for the Carthaginian feels. In fact it was pretty appropriate appropriate, especially for the month long Santos Populares festival, which mostly takes place in former Carthaginian neighborhoods of Alfama. The book tells a bizarre story about some mercenaries hired by the Carthaginians and the Eponymous princess to fight for Carthage, and what happens when Carthage can’t pay up. It’s … brobdingnagian, energetic, sensuous and basically a fully formed sword and sorcery story written with the highest French literary qualities by Gustave freaking Flaubert (of Madame Bovary fame) and published in 1862. This makes absolutely no sense. It makes even less sense he lifted it all from an actual historical event in Polybius’ Histories. Nobody reads it any more because it was a “minor novel from a major novelist,” but I think this assessment is a mistake. It’s great fun, and as it literally invented an enormous genre of fiction, it is at least as important as the invention of modern literary narrative in Madame Bovary. I figure the type of weedy literary schnerd who pretends to ajudicate the importance of old novels is more comfortable with the neuraesthenic middle class people portrayed in Madame Bovary than they are with human-sacrificing witch-queens and barbarian mercenaries, even if the latter were actual people who really lived and did precisely the things described in the book. Flaubert himself wrote the book to be the diametric opposite of Bovary, to avoid becoming typecast as that guy who writes claustrophobic psychological novels about neuraesthenic middle class schmedleys in France. Anyway, don’t listen to the literary schnerds; read Salammbo if you like Conan books, or history or any other kind of books involving sword and sandal.

Salammbo; note this isn’t painted by Frazetta in the 70s; Henri Adrien Tanoux in 1921

The Book of Invasions. Howard like many Americans had a romantic identification with his Irish ancestry. Conan’s god Crom was actually an Irish god, Crom Cruach. Conan himself has an Irish name. The Book of Invasions; a weird book compiled in the 11th century, telling the possibly true tales of multiple tribes invading the island of Ireland. It’s considered mythological these days, because you know, modern people are real good at not believing in false and stupid horse shit, but back in Howard’s day it was considered to be at least partially conventional history. It’s a completely bonkers piece of literature; there are pre-celtic tribes, huge plagues, several supernatural races of demigods, and eventually the Irish show up. It’s more bizarre a document than any sword and sorcery background mythos I’ve ever read; positively Lovecraftian in places, with supernatural races and epic battles galore.


Insanely awesome online scholarship on the books REH read:

The Robert E. Howard Bookshelf



25 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. William O. B'Livion said, on September 23, 2021 at 1:47 am

    > Justinian and Theodora

    That’s odd.

    In the last year I’ve read two contemporary science fiction books in which those two–and Belisarius–played a part.

    The worst is The Valkyrie Protocol (The Gordian Protocol) (David Weber and some other dude). A rather awful book even my my low standards that I’ll forget about for weeks at a time, start reading again, lose interest…

    The other is a six book series “The Belisarius Saga” which is a sort of time travel alt history thing by David Drake and Eric Flint that’s a pretty good read, even if it changes history dramatically.

  2. Justinian of Texas said, on September 23, 2021 at 2:15 am

    Your last note about the Book of Invasions reminds me how obtuse historians tend to be. Dismissing Beowulf and the Iliad as total fantasy, until archaeologists (also mostly shitheels) start finding helmets that match the poet’s description, or the freaking Achaean trench at Hisarlik. Legends should be taken as provisionally historical.

    Seems totally plausible there could have been a low resolution oral tradition recording the arrival of IE or at least Celtic speakers to Ireland.

    • Scott Locklin said, on September 23, 2021 at 2:36 am

      Modern historians are pretty dumb. People write books pointing out all the archaeological evidence that the Visigoths actually did sack Rome (modern historians think that never happened apparently; “it was peaceful multiculturalism”).

  3. Jared said, on September 23, 2021 at 6:04 am

    I have a rare copy of Keating’s four volume History of Ireland which makes for fantastic thumbing-through. From ancient myth and quasi-history to the well-documented Norman invasion (ancestors, holla) and beyond, all in amazing detail. The text contains the original Irish, in Gaelic script, with facing English translation; I have in mind to some day try and learn to read Irish as a retirement hobby, but until then the English more than suffices.

    Irish myth proper is also supremely underrated. The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel and The Wooing of Etain come to mind as particular hits, but I’ve read quite a few and enjoyed them all.

    • JMcG said, on September 24, 2021 at 2:12 pm

      Duolingo has an Irish course that is fantastic as an introduction to the language. I started trying to study Irish as a young man here in the US and was always soon frustrated by the lack of available resources. The Internet has completely changed that.
      I’ve been working on it for four years now and can carry on basic conversations with my Uncle, a native speaker of the Ulster dialect.
      What, in your view, is the best telling of the tales of Cuchullain?

  4. TonyC said, on September 23, 2021 at 6:24 am

    Wasn’t there a movie about Robert Howard? D’Onofrio and Zellweger, I think.

  5. Montius said, on September 23, 2021 at 1:04 pm

    An excellent post after my own heart, Scott. I have been obsessed with REH and Conan since I first read my dad’s old Lancer paperbacks with the Frazetta covers. I look forward to reading some of these books you suggested here.

    I still want to believe that Howard was visited by the spirit of ‘Conan’ and was relaying an actual pre-cataclysmic history.

    PS- THE Scott Locklin on Caribbean Rhythms when?

    • Montius said, on September 23, 2021 at 1:17 pm

      Whilst other children were reading Harry Potter in the 6th grade, I was reading of Conan slaying ape people and cleaving folks in two from shoulder to hip.

    • Scott Locklin said, on September 23, 2021 at 6:41 pm

      “While I don’t go as far as to believe that stories are inspired by actually existent spirits or powers (though I am rather opposed to flatly denying anything), I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces of the past or present—or even the future—work through the thoughts and actions of living men.

      This occurred to me, especially, when I was writing the first stories of the Conan series. For months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything salable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen—or rather, off my typewriter—almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them.
      For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of storytelling. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn’t do it. I do not attempt to explain this by esoteric or occult means, but the fact remains. I still write of Conan more powerfully and with more understanding than any of my other characters.”

      • Montius said, on September 24, 2021 at 1:59 pm

        I want to believe.

      • Walt said, on September 24, 2021 at 2:52 pm

        This makes me wonder if a spirit of idiocy has been sent on modern writers so that there is nothing new to read. The only fiction I want to read is from 80-100 years ago, Tom Wolfe novels being the exception.

        • Scott Locklin said, on September 25, 2021 at 12:17 am

          Cormac Mcarthy, Mishima, Don Colacho, Tito Perdue, John Biggins, Houllebecq, Vonnegut, Bulgakov, Celine (90 years), Junger even Lamb is within the 80 year window.

          Supposedly Coetzee, John Dos Passos, Saul Bellow and Murakami, but no real idea.

          Novels aint what they used to be, but there are a few worth lookin at in the last 100 years.

          • Altitude Zero said, on September 27, 2021 at 3:51 pm

            Totally agree about Lamb – pretty much forgotten today, but the guy never wrote a bad book in his life – the Genghis Khan book is particularly good, worth digging around to find.

        • anonymous said, on September 25, 2021 at 4:50 pm

          Before you can write good books, you need something to write *about*. I think the problem our generation has is that many of us have lived in this emaciated experiential vacuum: Books about other times and places that might have inspired our muses are abstract to us – not so anyone growing up in the early 20th century. Our own experiences are grinding for school, then grinding for “work” – that’s *it*.

          Why is Isekai (cringe inducing genre that it is) even a genre?: Because the only unstructured non-regimented non-dismal experience most urban bugmen experience is on the other end of a screen, that’s why! They’re writing the world that they know – an entirely artificial one. In every other capacity, we’re as provincial as the most closely oppressed serf bound to the land – we haven’t really lived.

          PS – thank you for all the historical references. I’m making a sort of project to repair my ragged education.

          • anonymous said, on September 25, 2021 at 5:10 pm

            Also one other problem is that it’s all thirdhand or worse at this point. People writing fantasy are trying to write in someone else’s setting who was trying to write in Tolkein’s setting (who referenced his own real experience with warfare (input) and Norse sagas.)

            Gygax had a bookshelf as well, referencing a lot of older sources. Fourth, fifth, whatever hand Gygax, unblended with any other creative source grounded in reality, rapidly becomes bleached of content. If some hypothetical AI being were to grow up in a minecraft world, the only thing he’d have to write about are the workings of mathematical rule-sets – elaborate consequences of arbitrary axioms. The paint on the cubes wouldn’t signify to him what it signifies to the person who painted them, in an attempt to emulate some referent in a much richer reality.

          • Walt said, on September 27, 2021 at 9:44 pm

            Good points. We live in cocoons now. Kids aren’t even allowed to experience danger. I had the beach and the ocean where you can still experience man v. nature, but increasingly-urbanized people don’t have any man v. nature experience. Man v. man has been eliminated by nation-state police forces, but something tells me it’s about to make a huge comeback with the decline of nation-states, BLM, and ACAB. Imagine if highwaymen took over our highways again, like in 3rd and 4th century Rome, and we had to grow our own food.

        • JMcG said, on September 25, 2021 at 5:57 pm

          Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is the best thing I’ve read since O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels. It’s massive, maybe 3000 pages in total, but very enjoyable.

          • Scott Locklin said, on September 27, 2021 at 9:53 pm

            I gave up on Science Fiction a while back, though he was a good writer. Check out John Biggins if you like the Aubrey/Maturin stuff; it’s sort of partway between O’Brian and Flashman.

            • JMcG said, on September 28, 2021 at 5:22 pm

              I guess you could call it science fiction, but it’s more good-humored historical fiction. It’s set in the 17th century and has as one of its central plot points the interplay between Newton and Leibniz. Thank you for the recommendation.

              • JMcG said, on September 28, 2021 at 5:24 pm

                Looking into it, I’ve read all the Prohaska books from Biggins. Probably on a prior recommendation from you. I very much enjoyed them. Thanks again.

  6. Christopher said, on September 24, 2021 at 12:58 am

    You point about “actual people who really lived and did precisely the things described in the book” reminds me of a blog post I ran across a few weeks ago, discussing epic fantasy:

    For the past couple of years or so I have gradually distanced myself from fantasy (and “fantasy in space,” also known as Science Fiction) for my reading material because, well, it’s simply too boring. I came to the conclusion that our real world has enough interesting stories of real, greater-than-life people to occupy me for thousands of lifetimes for me to waste time with imaginary worlds inhabited by cosplayers whose made-up struggles have no relevance or relation to our own. Yet… ineluctable as that conclusion seemed, it was also unfair and it didn’t really explain the reason. I mean, sure, something is boring or is badly written… all right, but why? Besides, not all fantasy works are, even to my jaded present self, as dull as an airplane plastic knife. So, why?

    I have written my share of posts about the decline of fiction, so the explanation I will give now may seem crude and underwhelming in its simplicity, but sometimes the simplest answer is the best as it goes right to the point. Here it is: heroic fantasy is written almost exclusively by turbonerds, and nerds are usually boring people, and boring people write boring stories.

    Every time I have read a good war memoir or the biography of some real-world traveler or adventurer, my reaction has always been, “Damn, I’d love to pick out this guy’s brain or have a chat with him so he can tell me all about his life.” That’s because I’m a man, though. I guess that if I were I woman I’d think “I must get this guy’s phone and/or I will have all his children,” but I digress.

    Here’s an interesting exercise — who is more likely to have a good story to tell: John Scalzi, author of such books like Redshirts or Lord Miles, who just chilled for a few days in the Afghanistan of 2021?

    Interestingly, I don’t think this is just a problem for genre literature. Another blogger notes how Herman Melville would have never written Moby Dick had enrolled in a MFA program instead of going out to sea. Wouldn’t be surprising if this were the case in other fields of human intellectual pursuits.

    • Scott Locklin said, on September 24, 2021 at 11:06 am

      MFA programs are hilarious bugman credentialism. I know a few people who had some literary achievements as teenagers who never did a thing again post MFA. I can’t think of a single significant writer who has one, though most significant writers have had interesting lives.

      Great article; thanks for linking it!

    • Altitude Zero said, on September 29, 2021 at 2:02 pm

      Samuel Finlay, the guy who wrote “Breakfast with the Dirt Cult” about his experiences fighting in Afghanistan, ought to try his hand at writing sci-fi. At worst, he’d be his generation’s David Drake, At best…

  7. spraguedecampfan said, on September 27, 2021 at 2:28 pm

    Harold Lamb also influenced the first Conan movie. That “crush your enemies” thing came from his book about Genghis Khan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: