The harrowing horrors and heroics of the Robert E. Howard story

These "pulp tales" still entertain even when there's no surprises

The harrowing horrors and heroics of the Robert E. Howard story
Photo by Pelly Benassi / Unsplash

When you read a Howard story, you know what you're getting

There's going to be an ugly horror from outside of time and memory.

Distant echoes of lost races fought by the ancestors of men in the dim mists of history.

Odds are fifty-fifty that somebody's going to cleave the eldritch horror with a broadsword before the tale's over.

Howard's weird stories are the literary equivalent of 80s action films -- in all the best ways.


Elder things and lost races that ruled the world before Man

Lovecraft was Howard's friend and literary mentor.

Many of Howard's tales mention sunken R'lyeh and figures out of the Mythos, though in passing as part of the backstory rather than main antagonists.

Howard built up his own mythology. Herr Doktor Professor Von Junzt, author of the blasphemous Nameless Cults, turns up in many a Howard yarn.

The lost race of degenerate beings, haunting abandoned catacombs honeycombing the local hills, recurs frequently.

It's a common enough trope in horror. Man was not the first ruler of this world.

In the far off past, those mysterious origins of the species, our ancestors fought against unmentionable horrors, driving them away.

Dark gods, other non-human races, races of degenerate once-humans, cults, revived mummies, the occasional alien, it's all here.

If the villain is the measure of the hero, then our heroes are great indeed...


Ordinary men become shockingly competent heroes under stress

Here's a major departure from Lovecraft, whose protagonists tend to be men of letters.

Deep thinkers, who find themselves confused and maddened at the merest comprehension of the horrors before them.

Oh but not in a Howard story.

Where one of Lovecraft's academics is liable to run screaming from the writhing tentacled thing in the dark...

A Howard character is apt to pick up a pistol and charge in blazing.

They have a striking success rate, too.

For such a depressing take on life and the universe, the heroes come out ahead more often than not.

The likes of Kull, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn give us brawny, intelligent characters who don't shy from violence.

Others, men of the 20th century, come from more mundane roots yet find a connection to these mythic forebears.

Rare is the story where Our Hero doesn't channel the bloodlust and supernatural spirit of his warrior ancestors.

Hey, if we can tell stories about the unseen shadow of the universe, why not? Fair's fair.

The heroism alone makes Howard's stories far less bleak and depressing than the Lovecraft house style.

And many a Howard story ends with...


A broadsword to the monster's face

It's the same principle at work in the Arnold and Stallone classics from the 80s.

Everybody loves a hero with heart.

Everybody wants to see evil defeated.

Nihilistic fiction isn't only emotionally bleak. As art, it's sub par. When you choose to paint in a palette of greys, you can't capture the shades of the scene before you.

Lovecraft works not for his bleakness but for his brilliance in evoking the sublime.

Lovecraft's stories endure, like all good horror, because of the emotions they evoke in the reader. We remember "The Color Out of Space", "The Call of Cthulhu", and "At the Mountains of Madness" not because of their bleak view of existence, but for their strangeness.

Clark Ashton Smith had a similar power to conjure up horrors out of the fantastic and strange.

These stories pull back the curtain on the familiar, mundane world and show us just a glimpse of terrifying wonders and wondrous terrors lurking in the shadows. The threat to body and spirit are real, as is the dread, but -- in my humble and correct opinion -- they're not the main point of the tales.

Howard?

His best horror rivals Lovecraft for exploring the terrors of the unseen. He shows us that all too real intersection of excitement and life-threatening terror.

With the key difference that the hero with guts can win against the monster.

That's a theme that you don't find too often in today's stories.

When today's stories aren't embarrassing moral lectures, they often don't show us any heroes worth caring about.

The modern protagonist, when not a snarky political mouthpiece, is a cipher. Just add personality.

Horror films end with a false victory where the hero/ine seems to make it out of the haunted house only to JUMP SCARE fail.

It's a sign of the times, I guess, though we ought not forget the power of the sign to create the disease.

Immerse yourself in a culture of depressive hopelessness and don't be shocked to find yourself without hope or happiness.

Even horror stories of existential dread can give you a competent and triumphant hero worth caring about

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