Friday, August 28, 2020

Conan the Uncorrupted: Pure Robert E. Howard, Belatedly

Two books came in the mail today: The Conan Chronicles volumes I and II by Robert E. Howard. Originally published in the UK in the early 2000s, I must have missed their debut. I still can't figure out if there ever were counterpart editions in the United States, but if there were, they have evaded me.

I became a belated fan of Conan and Robert E. Howard in the late 1970s, during the Marvel Comics Roy Thomas-John Buscema run in which Bêlit was practically a permanent guest star, much like Daredevil and the Black Widow, or Captain America and the Falcon.

I would have read more prose Howard as a teenager (I graduated high school in 1980), but at the time, the late seventies, all that was available in paperback were corruptions of Howard by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. What little pure Howard I could pick out made it clear he was a powerful writer; I remember enjoying an anthology entitled Pigeons from Hell a great deal.

But finding Conan material that wasn't adulterated by the heavy hand of de Camp and Carter was impossible. I seem to recall owning four paperbacks with black bindings and Frank Frazetta covers, but never doing much more than scratching the surface with them, because the Howard content had been so diluted.

I remember owning four paperbacks with this same general design: black with that particular font. However, searching online, I can only find a couple black covers similar to this. I may have stalled out in trying to read Conan in prose after sampling only one or two.

Another cover I'm pretty sure I owned but never read. Even as a junior in high school, I instinctively resented seeing L. Sprague de Camp's name as big as Robert E. Howard's on the cover; I regarded him as a usurper and sense I was in possession of tainted goods.

This could only have been an instinctive reaction, based solely on the quality of the writing, since at the time I was unaware of the auteur theory of cinema and had no other literary theory to guide me. The same went for Doc Savage stories that were not penned by Lester Dent; even before lists of collaborators were published, most notably in Philip José Farmer's Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, and subsequently in more accurate and detailed versions elsewhere, I could tell that anyone but Dent just stunk.

Anyone but Howard on Conan stunk, too, and I knew that intuitively in the late 1970s.

Over this pandemic summer of 2020, I got curious about Howard. Part of the reason was the postponement of Pulpfest, a show that has called nearby Cranberry, Pennsylvania its home these past three years. I attended those shows and set up a table to sell sketches and art at the 2019 version, and have had a blast at every one of them. As a result, I have renewed an acquaintance and deepened my understanding of the work of Dent, Farmer, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and other pulp and fantastic fiction authors. This summer, it was time to take another look at Howard.

These are the editions I just acquired. Both have pretty terrible covers, but with the decline of figurative art at every level during my lifetime, one doesn't expect another Frank Frazetta to be born anytime soon.

Fantasy art has been in a shabby, degraded, and debased state for decades, and contemporary depictions of even classic pulp material nearly always fail on every level. Another reason I should have just sprung for the compendium, which at least doesn't attempt a fannish painting such as the above at all.

When I went searching online, I was unaware that there had been a sort of "pure Howard" movement afoot in fandom for quite some time, and that fans had long rejected the adulterations of de Camp and Carter. I imagine the estates of the respective perpetuators had a vested interest in keeping these corruptions attached to the Robert E. Howard name and Conan property, and that probably even the REH estate had some interest in not reducing the footprint of its chief literary and media property by declaring the de Camp and Carter stories counterfeit and non-canonical (although the demonstrably were).

On the other hand, perhaps sales of Conan in the bookstores was pretty much exhausted, and with copyrights set to expire eventually, if not immediately, a collection of pure Robert E. Howard Conan became one of the few attractive marketing moves left open to the property owners. (There have been similar efforts to remaster the legacies of William S. Burroughs and others, perhaps with less satisfying results.)

One thing missing from these new UK editions is an account of how nasty and drawn-out a process it was, wresting the pure Howard originals from the corrupted de Camp and Carter versions. No doubt, this account was omitted from the books' afterwords because permission still had to be secured from the de Camp estate, since de Camp had shrewdly copyrighted several unpublished Howard drafts in the fifties. That's one way to keep your name from being hated on.

In any event, I'm looking forward to setting down and enjoying these volumes, after I read about a million other things waiting in line (although these stand a good chance of jumping that line). The cover illustrations are deplorable--I'm convinced fantasy illustration is a lost art--but then, just about every painter who has taken on Doc Savage, Tarzan, or Conan since James Bama and Frazetta has made Mary GrandPré (the charming but structureless and lukewarm American illustrator of the Harry Potter volumes) look like a master draughtsman comparison (which is not by any means).

I'll probably wish I had opted for the one-volume Complete Conan Chronicles (I may yet spring for that), but for now, I will enjoy the lightweight paperbacks of a true prose heavyweight, even if Conan is socially regressive literature in every conceivable way.
Read my roman-feuilleton prose experiment, The Ms. Megaton Man Maxi-Series! New chapter every Friday!

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