Mon
Jun 10 2013 12:00pm

Advanced Readings in D&D: Robert E. Howard

Weird Tales Red Nails Robert HowardWhen Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax published his now-classic Advanced D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide in 1979, he highlighted “Inspirational and Educational Reading” in a section marked “Appendix N.” Featuring the authors that most inspired Gygax to create the world’s first tabletop role-playing game, Appendix N has remained a useful reading list for sci-fi and fantasy fans of all ages.

In “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more. Welcome to the first post in the series, featuring a look at a seminal story by Conan’s creator Robert E. Howard.

Tim Callahan: My Robert E. Howard history is incomplete, at best, but my understanding is that “Red Nails” is the last of the Howard Conan stories, correct? It’s certainly a good one—adjusting for the sexism and racism and xenophobia of the time—and it has plenty of quintessential Dungeons & Dragonsesque moments. It’s the perfect place to start this big Gygaxian reread project, don’t you think?

Mordicai Knode: Definitely. Conan is probably the place most non-gamer’s minds go when you say “Dungeons & Dragons,” after J. R. R. Tolkien, but the stories are also the ones most distorted by pop culture interpretations. I actually think there is probably a lot more complex stuff on race in these books than people give them credit for. Valeria is supposedly a deadly fighter, but I wonder if that will be more “tell” than “show”—you’re right to point out Howard’s track record in that regard.

TC: Before I pull out some of the absurdly sexist bits of narration, and then mock everything about it, let’s talk about some of the aspects that make this so D&Dish. Besides the general swordplay and combat, there’s also a flight through the wilderness, a hidden city, creepy catacombs, warring factions, ritual sacrifice, and foul sorcery. It’s got it all—in a package too small to even be called a “novella.”

“Red Nails” doesn’t just seem like an inspiration for the flavor of D&D, it seems like an inspiration for the very nature of the types of adventures most often undertaken in the game. I’d say the average campaign module or the average home-brew adventure is closer to the events detailed in “Red Nails” than the kind of fancy high-adventure epics of the Tolkien school.

MK: I mean, there is a giant mega-dungeon; it hardly gets more D&D than that. The two elements that really strike home here in terms of inspiration are the populated dungeons as its own character of rivalry and strife, and black magic. The city as one massive labyrinth is great, as is the characterization of its architecture & embellishment—gleaming corridors of jade set with luminescent jewels, friezes of Babylonianesque or Aztecish builders—but it is the logic of the city that shines brightest to me. “Why don’t the people leave?” There are dragons in the forest. “What do the people eat?” They have fruit that grows just off the air. “Where do all these monsters come from?” There are crypts of forgotten wizard-kings. There is a meaningful cohesion to the place; Howard manages to stitch dinosaurs, radioactive skulls, Hatfields and McCoys, and ageless princesses into something cogent.

TC: I don’t know if I’d say there’s logic behind all of that, but there sure is an internal consistency. Ultimately, the whole thing hinges on madness, though, and that’s what makes it scary and... kind of illogical in its extreme social pathologies. But it’s a Conan story, and so it should be more about weird characters and cool scenes than anything else, and “Red Nails” has plenty of those things. It layers the weirdness on thick, the deeper Conan and Valeria go into the dungeon—and into the conspiracies within the warring tribes.

I have a question for you, before we get into more specifics about the story and a vital D&D connection I want to bring up: How does the Conan presented in “Red Nails” compare to the Conan in other Howard stories? My understanding was that he was originally more of a roguish swashbuckler type of character, far from the dunderheaded barbarian we’ve seen in movie versions. Yet “Red Nails” presents him as kind of halfway between those states. He’s roguish, but also blunt and aggressive. Is that how he is in some of the other stories too? He’s a far cry in “Red Nails” from the way he seems in either the Milius film or the Roy Thomas comic books, and I’m just wondering who the “real” Conan is.

MK: Well therein lies the brilliance of Conan as a character: he isn’t static! There isn’t a “real” Conan, because the changes in Conan are built in the stories. They weren’t released chronologically, but when you look at them as a single corpus there is an arc. Howard said the Conan stories just came to him, as if he were a historian getting snippets of the life of the Hyborian Age. At the beginning of the second chapter of “Red Nails,” Conan offhandedly remarks about being a kozak, a pirate, the leader of a desert tribe... and he alludes to his future destiny as King of Aquilonia. He can be a brute or a brooder, a thief or a chieftain. He’s certainly smarter and more lithe than people tend to think of his pop culture portrayals, though.

I do want to talk about Valeria here, because she really is the crux of the story. Howard follows the trope of the “blonde, redhead & brunette” with Valeria, Red Sonja, and Bêlit (or Zenobia). Even if Sonja isn’t technically a Conan character; I’d say she’s been grandfathered in. Valeria is... what is the word people say when they realize something is sexist but they still like the source material if you can look beyond the sexism? Ah yes, problematic. It isn’t all bad! Valeria is a more than competent sword fighter who holds her own in all of the fights in the book, and she even saves Conan from falling to his death when they are fighting the “dragon.” And sure, she panics when the monster appears, but that is explicitly the theme of civilized versus savage, not genderpolitik. For all that, Howard peppers a liberal amount of “female malice” nonsense, and makes sure to stress that even though she’s tough, she’s still feminine. That macho posturing really undercuts the story, and Conan’s casual use of terms like “wench” and “hussie” is the character at his most unlikeable.

TC: That charged, pulpy sexuality is abundant in the story, for sure. “Red Nails” radiates heat, in a sleazy, almost overbearing way. It’s such an absurd counterpoint to the other end of the fantasy spectrum—anchored by the Lord of the Rings books—where everything is chaste and romanticized to death with a tweedy puritanical streak. This “Red Nails” stuff is raunchy by comparison. Even if we give a pass to the sexism of Conan’s language toward Valeria, and his lusty approach to every conversation with her in the first third of the story, how do you excuse the bondage scene later.

I mean... old school D&D was often accused of fostering some kind of shopping mall Satanism, but if any of those Bible-belt moms read the Robert E. Howard source material, I imagine they would have been burning books by the ton. Valeria’s held down on an altar, naked, near the end of the story. It’s pretty gratuitous, even if you give Howard the artistic leeway to exaggerate vulnerability for the sake of heightened conflict.

What do you think? Does the sexism and female victimization go so far that it ruins the story? It certainly super-charges it toward... something.

MK: I guess I’ll say it undermines the story. I mean, it is still a story where a dragon née dinosaur chases Conan and Valeria through a jungle, into an ancient arcology, where they deal with psychotic feuds, strange wizardry, an undying princess and one of my favorite action scenes in Conan—the creeping duel between Conan and the mad priest with a wand that shoots lightning bolts... but only if there is a direct line between him, his victim and something conductive. Howard certainly can write the heck out of a short story... but it is punctuated by these queasy bouts of misogyny. It takes me out of the story and makes me wistful for a story with an unambiguously fierce female hero. If Valeria was a match for Conan, rather than being tossed under the bus by Howard—was he afraid that a legitimate rival to Conan would be emasculating? How embarrassing!—this story would really be fantastic.

The pin-up nature of the character, heck, even the “erotic spanking” scene with the handmaiden, I could argue about that sort of thing, but what we’re given is just simply less than. The story still has plenty of great bits in it—as a series of vignettes it excels—but overall it doesn’t hang together, because the author tears down one of the main characters for no other reason than her gender. My verdict: it is totally worth reading but you have to keep your critical goggles on and that shouldn’t be too hard, because the treatment of women in the story is pretty baldly rubbish. What about you?

TC: Oh, I think it’s absolutely worth reading as an example of trashy sword and sorcery that’s never dull for a moment and acts like a sleazy D&D game highlight reel. It’s also notable that it’s one of the inspirations for Tom Moldvay’s 1982 module, “The Lost City,” which amped up the insanity of the warring factions, provided a multi-level dungeon, and then gave a map of an underground complex and asked Dungeon Masters to make up their own adventures in this Howardesque world. I bought that module when I was a kid, and adapted it into a 4th edition game for my own children a little while back, and they became the less-sleazy heroes of the underground world. Also, my daughter ended up being descended from the former kings and queens of the Lost City. Because you always need to make your daughter a secret princess when you play a D&D campaign, it turns out.

MK: It is hard to talk about Conan without mentioning the art accompanying it. Frazetta may rule the minds of all who read about the Cimmerian, but the edition I read had interior illustration by Gregory Manchess, who brought a great Aztec vibe to the story, though I was disappointed that the “dragon” he drew wasn’t in keeping with the “carnivorous stegosaurus” from the story. There is also, supposedly, a forthcoming cartoon adaptation of this story that I have high hopes for; keeping the good and winnowing the chaff—like making Valeria an unambiguously cool character—could pay off big time. I’m keeping my fingers crossed till then.


Tim Callahan usually writes about comics and Mordicai Knode usually writes about games. They both play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons.

73 comments
Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
The lightning wand is definitely something that I keep coming back to; it is just a really evocative idea, apart from any narrative.
Derek Broughton
2. auspex
If you're going to do a "reread" of a book that's out-of-copyright it might be nice to point to http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/32759 so that people can read along
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
2. auspex

That is a good resource & I recommend everyone avail themselves on it.
Eugene R.
4. Eugene R.
That Margaret Brundage cover illustration from Weird Tales really, uhh, really picks up on the "theme" of the story, too. Of course, it is not like it would be too out-of-place with most RPG artwork, especially from the 1970s of the AD&D books, sadly.
Eugene R.
5. Alex F.
It’s got it all—in a package too small to even be called a "novella."

At about 30,000 words, "Red Nails" is on the long side for a novella! (Of course, it was written back in the days when novels were a lot shorter. And it's nicely paced and a quick read.)

I think calling "Red Nails" "an example of trashy sword and sorcery" is a bit harsh. I don't disagree about its problematic aspects, to be certain, and Howard wrote some well-crafted but paper-thin stories in his career... but "Red Nails" isn't one of them. There's a compelling expression of his thoughts on civilization and its decay, of the perils of opulence, and so forth--themes he dealt with before, many times, but handled better here, I think. Made more poignant, too, by the fact that his mother was suffering her own decay at the time, and Howard would soon commit suicide.

Even the sexual themes have some redeeming value. While I wouldn't say they work, Howard clearly has something in mind, and I don't think he's unaware of the fact that he's indicting a civilization's weird kinks one the one hand while being as lurid as Weird Tales would allow on the other.

One other note on Valeria--while she's endlessly frustrating for being an interesting concept repeatedly "put in her place," she's also interesting from a biographical perspective on Howard. Howard talked about women in a (fairly typical for the time) misogynistic way, but one of the most important women in his life was Novalyne Price--highly independent and happy to argue with him for hours. It's hard not to look at Valeria and see him fumbling with these issues.

Looking forward to additional columns--it's a great topic, given how influential Dungeons & Dragons has been on the fantasy landscape. Well worth looking at its own influences.
Mordicai Knode
6. mordicai
5. Alex F.

I for one wasn't trying to slander it by calling it trashy sword & sworcery-- pulp is a genre of rubbish, churned out at great pace...with really wonderful stuff in there. This is it, this is the stuff.

Now if you excuse me I'm off to look up Novalyne Price on Wikipedia...
Eugene R.
7. Alex F.
6. mordicai

That's fair enough--I just like to draw the line between "Red Nails" and, say, "The God in the Bowl." Both Howard, both Conan, both trashy sword and sorcery... but one has some real meat and depth to it, while the other, well--there was a reason it wasn't published during Howard's lifetime. Or even between "Red Nails" and "Rogues in the House"--which is fun and action-packed Howard Conan, but also fairly forgettable and unambitious.

Price's memoir-slash-Howard-biography is well worth reading if you're interested in Howard and his work. If you don't want to dive in quite that deep, however, there's plenty of other interesting Howard bio material out there.
Eugene R.
8. Kingtycoon
I want to critique your kind of blithely ahistorical feminist critique of Red Nails by trying to place the story in its contextual relationship with the events that pretty much predicated its writing.
We have to look at Howard’s activities in the context of their time in the earlier part of the 20th century. You seem to indicate that the racism and sexism that prevail in the story are largely ‘of their time’ whereas this is somewhat factual, it’s barely the whole story. We have to consider that at the time of its writing, and at the time that Conan’s stories were finding initial publication effectively demand that we give a more accurate accounting of what Howard really was attempting to do with his character. Conan is judiciously sexist and racist – he’s not flagrantly hostile, but he has prejudicial attitudes that are, by design, borne out as rational in the text. Conan is also a Barbarian, he’s contemptuous of civilization. So looking back we have to ask what was going on that made such a character a viable representation in the marketplace of popular consumption.
Really, I would posit that between Howard and Lovecraft we can in part, chart the nascence of a lot of the idioms of various contemporary right-wing ideology and I’d like to explain why I think that is.
First – Howard, a southerner, presents something of a fantasized version of the Ku Klux Klan’s myth of knighthood. But where the Klan emphasized the virtues of white-womanhood, and strongly acted against the sexual availability of white women to black men (and the post-bellum unavailability of black women to white men) – Howard takes a different tack regarding women. Why? I suggest that his attitudes regarding racism and sexism are related to the relationships between Suffragettes, Abolitionists and the Temperance movement. At a time when politicians still ran on the Dry and Wet platforms, Howard is creating antediluvian civilizations that are debauched and wretched, villainous and polyglot. He argues against what were then, rising contemporary mores. Which is to say even in his time his was a reactionary voice. Something of the boorish transgressor who waves away criticisms of his misbehavior by crying out against political correctness.
Wed this to Lovecraft’s position – a northeasterner and antagonistic to the immigrant population (one of the essential qualities of the prohibition movement) and you begin to have the entire reactionary argument of a large mass movement of the period. The high priests, executing virgin women – best described as veiled hostility to what was then called ‘Popery’ – rejection of a debauched old-world, and hostility for its teeming masses. An assertive rejection of things civilized as a proxy for the rejection of inclusion, equality and similar human rights and an abdication of any responsibility for others.
Remember that at the time of his creation – the New Deal was a new concern, the collective as a manifestation of the Red menace of the Soviet Union – all of these argued in favor of the wildly individualistic, utterly unfettered man – a fetish symbol still for the reactionary right.

All of which exists – to this day – within geek culture. Sure, Conan is a neat character – but I argue that he and his creator bring more bad into the conversation than they offer.
Alan Brown
9. AlanBrown
I just remember how visceral Conan's adventures felt when I first read them in high school. Where the jocks turned their noses up at all the folks reading Lord of the Rings, sneering at all the elvish stuff (this was when those Ballentine paperbacks first came out), all the guys were reading those Conan paperbacks from Lancer books with the lurid Frazetta covers.
Yes, there was a lot of racism and sexist attitudes portrayed in Red Nails, but compared to some other stuff I read in those days, Valeria was a pretty capable and competent female character. And while the villians got the best of her at one point, and strapped her to the altar, she tended to throw Conan's sexist remarks right back in his face, and had plenty of what we used to call Moxie, and folks now refer to as "agency."
Actually, once I had seen it, my visual reference for this story has been the comic version that Barry Windsor Smith did. If I remember correctly, it first appeared in a black and white format in a magazine form--it certainly would have been difficult to portray the story accurately in a book that conformed with the comics code of the day.
I have one question about the review--you spent quite of bit of effort showing how male-oriented, mysoginistic and sexist the tale was. So, was it a Freudian slip when you referred to it as a "seminal" story? :-)
Mordicai Knode
10. mordicai
9. AlanBrown

I did a legitimate Beavis & Butthead laugh at "seminal."
Eugene R.
11. Taranaich
I really, really want to discuss this in more detail, but I'll just say that if you're going to throw Howard's stories under the "racist/sexist" bus, then you'll have to throw virtually every fantasy writer from the first half of the 20th century on the road too. I'd also say describing the story as trashy, or pulp in general as trash, even in a positive way, is sorely underselling its very extensive philosophical, historical, and mythic depth.

However, I'd like to concentrate on the authors' interpretation of Valeria - specifically that I disagree with several of the statements, mostly of the "Valeria COULD have been badass, but Howard undermines her/etc" variety.

See, here's how Howard describes Valeria at various points in the story:

"stronger than the average man, and far quicker and more ferocious," who "brought into action a finesse of swordplay that dazzled and bewildered her antagonists before it slew them," "the equal of any man in the rigging of a ship or on the sheer face of a cliff," "whose deeds are celebrated in song and ballad wherever seafarers gather," who commanded ships of her own, who no living man could disarm with his bare hands, who "had proved her reckless courage a thousand times in wild battles on sea and land, on the blood-slippery decks of burning war ships, in the storming of walled cities, and on the trampled sandy beaches where the desperate men of the Red Brotherhood bathed their knives in one another's blood in their fights for leadership."

Conan - you know, CONAN THE BARBARIAN - knew that "if he came any nearer her sword would be sheathed in his heart" and that "he had seen Valeria kill too many men in border forays and tavern brawls to have any illusions about her." After the nightmare with the dragon, "her buoyant self-confidence began to thaw out again," and "there was a swagger in her stride as she moved off beside the Cimmerian. Whatever perils lay ahead of them, their foes would be men. And Valeria of the Red Brotherhood had never seen the face of the man she feared."

It's clear that her weakness with Conan was a very special case: "For another man to have kept her watch while she slept would have angered her; she had always fiercely resented any man's attempting to shield or protect her because of her sex. But she found a secret pleasure in the fact that this man had done so. And he had not taken advantage of her fright and the weakness resulting from it. After all, she reflected, her companion was no common man."

Yet even so, Valeria was very brave. She slew the Burning Skull, a hideous apparition that would give anyone pause. Hell, she didn't even notice being stabbed in the leg until Conan mentioned it. The only people who dominate Valeria are the massive, bull-like Olmec - who gave Conan himself a run for his money - and Tascela, who quite clearly had some sort of sorcerous strength going on, being able to drag the paralyzed Olmec as if he was a sack of feaths. Let's not forget that Valeria is the one who slays the villain of the piece. As for her skill in battle...
The other three swarmed on Valeria, their weird eyes red as the eyes of mad dogs. She killed the first who came within reach before he could strike a blow, her long straight blade splitting his skull even as his own sword lifted for a stroke. She side-stepped a thrust, even as she parried a slash. Her eyes danced and her lips smiled without mercy. Again she was Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, and the hum of her steel was like a bridal song in her ears. ... Valeria fought beside him, her lips smiling and her eyes blazing. She was stronger than the average man, and far quicker and more ferocious. Her sword was like a living thing in her hand. Where Conan beat down opposition by the sheer weight and power of his blows, breaking spears, splitting skulls and cleaving bosoms to the breastbone, Valeria brought into action a finesse of swordplay that dazzled and bewildered her antagonists before it slew them. Again and again a warrior, heaving high his heavy blade, found her point in his jugular before he could strike. Conan, towering above the field, strode through the welter smiting right and left, but Valeria moved like an illusive phantom, constantly shifting, and thrusting and slashing as she shifted. Swords missed her again and again as the wielders flailed the empty air and died with her point in their hearts or throats, and her mocking laughter in their ears.
Yet all you guys seem able to talk about is the bondage scene and Valeria's nude sacrifice (come on, nude sacrifices have a rich anthropological basis beyond mere titillation). In fact, you guys seem to see a lot more sleaze and sex in the story than I did. It's a perfectly valid viewpoint, I guess, but I don't think it's universal.

If Valeria was a match for Conan, rather than being tossed under the bus by Howard—was he afraid that a legitimate rival to Conan would beemasculating? How embarrassing!

Read "Shadows of the Vulture," then tell me Howard would be afraid of a warrior woman who actively shows up the badass male protagonist. The reason Valeria isn't a match for Conan is because NO ONE IS A MATCH FOR CONAN. 7-foot-tall Baal-pteor who was raised to be a killing machine since childhood wasn't a match for Conan. Prince Kutamun, born of a warrior race used to hunting lions and strong enough to chokeslam a horse wasn't a match for Conan. And yet Valeria is STILL the closest anyone, man or woman, comes to Conan's equal.

My verdict: it is totally worth reading but you have to keep your
critical goggles on and that shouldn’t be too hard, because the
treatment of women in the story is pretty baldly rubbish.

Yes, a female protagonist manages to save the life of CONAN THE FREAKIN' BARBARIAN, is frequently described in terms noted above, and has a female villain who has the intelligence and guile to manipulate and rule two tribes, are "pretty baldly rubbish."

Valeria is a more than competent sword fighter who holds her own in all of the fights in the book, and she even saves Conan from falling to his death when they are fighting the “dragon.” And sure, she panics when the monster appears, but that is explicitly the theme of civilized versus savage, not genderpolitik. For all that, Howard peppers a liberal amount of “female malice” nonsense, and makes sure to stress that even though she’s tough, she’s still feminine. That macho posturing really undercutsthe story, and Conan’s casual use of terms like “wench” and “hussie” is the character at his most unlikeable.

"Wench" and "hussie"? Really? THAT'S what makes Conan at his most unlikeable? The use of historical slurs which are more quaint than anything else? Or has there been some sort of resurgence of those words as potent swear words?

I honestly cannot understand how you can view a female character who holds her own in all her fights, is described as more or less one of the most notorious, dangerous and skilled warriors of the entire age - probably second only to Conan himself - saves the life of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, and is frequently described in terms Howard uses to describe his other heroic characters... but all that means nothing, because Conan calls her names and Howard dares to remind you that she's a woman.

... and makes sure to stress that even though she’s tough, she’s still feminine.

Why is this a problem? Does femininity somehow detract from toughness in some way? Is femininity a bad thing in a warrior woman? Really, the only way I can see listing Valeria's femininity as a negative is if you view femininity in itself as a flaw.

Howard and his views on race are best detailed in Barbara Barrett's "REH and the Issue of Racism" and Mark Finn's "Southwestern Discomfit," but it's clear that Howard was indeed of his time. But in regards to sexual politics? He was practically a protofeminist:

http://theblogthattimeforgot.blogspot.com/2010/06/howard-what-he-really-thought-of-women.html
Alan Brown
12. AlanBrown
@11 That was a good, spirited defense of Valeria. Well said!
This discussion is giving me the itch to pull the story off the bookshelf and read it again.
Mordicai Knode
13. mordicai
8. Kingtycoon

Well hold on; before we go deeper into your argument, I want to say this: I don't think Conan is white. Conan doesn't have pale skin, but more over, he's explicitly is an outsider to the quasi-proto-Europeans of the Hyborean Age. I don't think that is out of bounds to argue, & so I don't think that painting Howard with a KKK brush is going to help find an interesting angle for lit crit. I think there definitely are racial politics to get into-- Howard does badly-- but I don't agree with your paradigm. It isn't simple.
Eugene R.
14. Gatwick
Hear Hear Kingtycoon and Taranaich, using the current viewpioint to critique another era's viewpoint is valid up to a point, but people used to believe the world is flat and Gallileo got put in prison for his beliefs.

So if Howard portraited his (male) character as somewhat boorish by today's political correctness values, that is as valid as some modern sword-fantasy stories where all the women have access to reliable contraception. Conan is supposed to be a barbarian and uneducated so he isn't likely to say "madam" instead of "hussy or wench".

Anyway, onwards to the next article!
Mordicai Knode
15. mordicai
11. Taranaich

Well, first, I'm fully willing to throw everyone under the bus for issues of race & sex. Sure! Why, should I just let it slide?

Secondly, the whole point of my argument around Valeria is that Howard does a "tell" not a "show." Sure, I heard about how dangerous Valeria was. But yet all I saw was her getting damseled.

& for real you are going to argue that the nude sacrifice scene wasn't sexual? For real? Come on, that is like saying Wonder Woman just happened to keep tying up ladies in bondage scenarios.
Mordicai Knode
16. mordicai
14. Gatwick

True, people thought the world was flat. But not 100 years ago, & also um, women & people who weren't white aren't abstract issues? Though yes, Gallileo would argue that it isn't so abstract...

...but come on. You think Conan saying "wench" & "hussie" is somehow a value neutral? Putting aside that it is HOWARD saying those things, not Conan, you think "hussie" is a synonym for "madam"? Pull the other one!

Anyhow, my point, in discussing race & gender, was to acknowledge &...well, discuss! Not to sweep it under the rug, nor to paint the whole story by its failings. Red Nails is awesome; it would be better if it had better gender portrayals.
Alan Brown
17. AlanBrown
Understanding outdated and unpleasant attitudes in fiction, and learning to read the works in the context of the time they were written, is essential for anyone who wants to read stories from times gone by. But that doesn't mean you accept those attitudes.
While he had his own code of conduct, Conan exhibited many flaws, and was 'rough around the edges' even by the standards of the Hyborean Age. Just because people find him a compelling character, though, doesn't mean they advocate that we all emulate his behavior.
And, given the censorship that went on in the days when Conan was written, there was a LOT of sexual suggestion in those stories. It couldn't be presented explicitly, but it was there between the lines, and often presented in ways that involved the denigration of women. A person from those times would be shocked by the explicit nature of fiction today, but I would hope they would also see more healthy attitudes toward sexual issues.
Eugene R.
18. Jozxyqk
16. mordicai ..... I guess I'm confused. Are you saying there is something objectionable (or even especially noteworthy) about having a *character* in a story make sexist comments? (e.g., in a review of Game of Thrones would you call out GRRM because Ned Stark says that Arya can't be a knight, but must instead marry a lord and raise children?)
Mordicai Knode
19. mordicai
17. AlanBrown

I think we agree! I think we have a responsibility to be critical of the things we like, & to acknowledge & talk about their flaws. I should be clear-- if the post wasn't clear enough-- that I think Conan ruuuuuuuuuules. He's super effing cool, he's the best, I think he should be in the Justice League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or whatever. & if our cultural legacy is more explicit sex without denigration? I'd be happy with that!

18. Jozxyqk

Nope! I'm not saying it at all. I'm talking about an authorial voice, & citing examples of the text to explain it. GRRM & feminism is a controversial subject, but I think that A Song of Ice & Fire is an implicit condemnation of patriarchy, that uses extraordinary measures to make that point-- to wit, by making rape culture explicit. People talk about how much sexual assault-- or threat of sexual assault-- there is in the books, but given the fact that 1 in 6 women in the US will be sexually assaulted...well, I think that there is a real danger in REALITY, too, & the books reflect that.

I would not be able to make the same argument for Howard, though. As Alex F. points out above, I don't think that Howard is exclusively terrible, & in fact pitches a feminist character-- in the avowedly capable Valeria-- into the mix. I think he fails at it, but it is encouraging to see him try.
Bill Stusser
20. billiam
Mordicai @13

Of course Conan is white, why would you think he wasn't? The Cimmerians were based on the celtic people of scotland, you don't get much whiter than that. The Hyborean age is more like the Roman empire, where the Germans and celts and picts were the barbarian outsiders, than like midieval europe.
Mordicai Knode
21. mordicai
20. billiam

Cimmerians are descended from Atlaneans...I think it might be hard to make an argument of ethnic origin there. Anyhow, he is generally described as dark skinned; you can read that as "tan," if you want, but he's certainly not of the same skin tone as Aquilonians.
Alan Brown
22. AlanBrown
Actually, I have read that modern DNA analysis is overturning many of the previous, and often idealized, notions of "Celtic" culture. The Irish and Scots, for example, may owe more of their DNA to the Iberian Peninsula and its people than was previously thought.
Rafael
23. Ryamano
Howard stories are pulp and made at a time when the mores of society was not feminist or anti-racist as it is now, so they do show this in the style of language and tropes used. I think most of the stories he wrote are awesome, along with the ones written by Lovecraft, even though they contain this, and even though they would be horrified by my existence (hey, I'm very multiracial).

In some ways I understand the article's writers dislike of some things. It's just that when I read a Howard or Lovecraft story I already adjust my sensibility to this so it doesn't faze me. I got a reaction similar to the author's when I read "The black rose". I did not expect to see such terrible depictions of black people in a book about two Englishmen who travel to China, even though in 1945. So, in some ways, it depends on expectations.

Anyway, I think the article didn't discuss much race. We all know Howard was racist, but still his Conan works feature more people from non-white races than many authors that came after him. In "Red Nails" Conan meets some people who seem to be Native Americans (Aztecs expys more precisely). How many Native Americans did Frodo, Elric or Fahrd meet on their adventures? I think it's ironic that one of the most racist authors of fantasy put more non-white people on his works than others who were less racist than him. It would take decades before fantasy authors would put non-white people back on fantasy in such diversity, in more politically correct depictions.

To Mordecai, I think Conan is supposed to be white. The Cimmerians in the Hyborian Age were ancestors to the Celts of our history, and Howard, being a celtophilliac, would not consider Celts nonwhite. Also, Conan has black hair and blue eyes. When a character is not white I think Howard takes the time do describe him or her as so.

Will "Queen of the black coast" or "shadow of the vulture" be featured in these series as well? I think they are more "protofeminist" than "Red Nails". Some parts of them are inversions of what usually happened in pulp at the time. Belit is the pirate woman who spares Conan because she has a sexual desire for him. He becomes her mate (and not the other way around), with her being called the queen of the black coast, and not him being the king. Later, it's her spirit that saves him from certain death. In "The shadow of the vulture" Red Sonya of Rogatino is a more interesting character than the main hero, Von Kalbach, more developed and actually is the one that not only defeats the villain, Oglu, but also saves Von Kalbach more than one time.
Mordicai Knode
24. mordicai
22. AlanBrown

Huh-- weird, I was just talking about this stuff in regards to the Ancient Egyptians (being a very heterogeneous crossroads, probably) the other day!

23. Ryamano

See, I don't want to turn off my blinders & enjoy fiction for white straight males by white straight males. I want to keep my eyes open & cringe when a writer makes a sexist or racist blunder.

We didn't talk about race, mostly because, despite heavy Aztec trappings, I would consider the people of the maze-city to be an entirely fictitious fantasy group. Like, it isn't a quasi-Native American or crypto-Asian or thinly-veiled African allegory; they are just weird people who have lived in a dungeon-city for centuries. Didn't come up.

That said, while Howard definitely blunders on race, I don't think he's all bad by any means. I think it is a Solomon Kane story where he runs into an Atlantean who is like "black savages? Man, I'm from ATLANTIS, to us brown people all you white & black people are barbarians!" So there is an awareness there.

Anyhow, I still disagree on Conan being white. Ultimately, the fact that Howard was sparse with his descriptions of Conan (or, if not sparse, colourful rather than factual) is no accident. He wanted him to remain plastic.

& alas, this is the only Howard; each post will be a seperate writer or book (as Mister Gygax picked both books, authors or series in his Appendix N). Though I agree there is something to be said about Belit.
Eugene R.
25. Jozxyqk
Mordicai 21 -- So why is it an issue that Conan (the barbarian) says "wench"? That's not authorial voice.
Mordicai Knode
26. mordicai
25. Jozxyqk

Because it exists in the context of the rest of the story that constantly undercuts the female characters. & because Conan isn't just "a character" but is in fact the focus of the whole story. & because when you put a misogynist in your story, that introduces the theme of misogyny to the story...which sure, you can do plenty with! To keep using GRRM as an example, Jaime is a piece of crap misogynist who says terrible things to Brienne...& has to eat crow as his stupid misogynistic assumptions are blown away. What is the use of making Conan say misogynistic things?

& because what I actually said was:
Conan’s casual use of terms like “wench” and “hussie” is the character at his most unlikeable.
Which, there you go. Is explicitly pointed at Conan. Who I generally like. & liking characters is one reason to like a book.
Rafael
27. Ryamano
While I agree that this is Conan at his most unlikeable, in my opinion it's not due to him calling Valeria "wench" and so on, but because he said this:

The pay was poor and the wine was sour, and I don't like black women. And that's the only kind that came to our camp at Sukhmet—rings in their noses and their teeth filed—bah!

Basically Conan's motivation for joining the adventure is his dislike of black women and lust for a white women in the Darfar border.
Eugene R.
28. Graham T.
24. mordacai

There's a ton of racial issues to unpack in the Solomon Kane stories., and I'm very much looking forward to your analysis on them. The most problematic character is easily N'Longa, a horribly accented African shaman who gives Kane a magic staff and steal bodies and practices VooDoo. The guy is a walking caricature of how the "savage African witch doctor" is portrayed in fiction. And yet N'Longa is also the most competent ally Kane ever meets, is a deadly threat to any foe he encounters, and who saves both of their lives on numerous occasions when Kane's skill with a sword and rifle are mostly worthless.

So yeah, problematic. How does one reconcile a horrific stereotype who is written to be such a sympathetic and "cool" character? One doesn't often find a "Magical Negro" who borrows the body of a healthy warrior to go fight alongside the hero (N'Longa himself is very old and frail), rather than hang back and act as an advisor.

Sadly, this is on top of a lot of "Deepest Darkest Africa, Land of Exotic Horrors and Savage Men" stuff in many of the stories that is irredeemably racist. Great adventure stories if you can get over that, but an understandable hurdle and impediment to enjoyment.
Mordicai Knode
29. mordicai
27. Ryamano

Um, jeez. Yeah, I will co-sign on that.
Eugene R.
30. Jozxyqk
26. mordicai "What is the use of making Conan say misogynistic things?"

It shows Conan's attitude towards women.

Do you think it is inappropriate for an author to give a character objectionable views unless such views are used in some sort of morality play?
Eugene R.
31. Juniper
I was about to write my own defense of Valeria, Conan, and Howard (and even question if you had actually read the story, after reading your review) until I read #11, which kicks so much ass I don't need to.
Mordicai Knode
32. mordicai
30. Jozxyqk

Do you think it is inappropriate for a reader of a work to...not like misogynistic characters, especially when the content of the story also contains a sexist slant? Do you think any critical discussion of a text is suspect because it might examine or talk about things that a character in a book said or did?
Mordicai Knode
33. mordicai
31. Juniper

See whereas I wonder if anybody read:
Valeria is a more than competent sword fighter who holds her own in all of the fights in the book, and she even saves Conan from falling to his death when they are fighting the “dragon.”
Because people keep pointing out Valeria's fighting to me as though I didn't say that. Which is weird.
Eugene R.
34. Juniper
You said this:
Valeria is a more than competent sword fighter who holds her own in all of the fights in the book, and she even saves Conan from falling to his death when they are fighting the “dragon.”

And then followed it up with this in #15:
Secondly, the whole point of my argument around Valeria is that Howard does a "tell" not a "show." Sure, I heard about how dangerous Valeria was. But yet all I saw was her getting damseled.

I find that to be contradictory. I disagree with multiple other areas of your review, but I can't say it any better than #11 did, which provided you several examples to refute that aspect (and others) of the review, so I won't.
Eugene R.
35. Jozxyqk
To answer your first question: No. To answer your second question: Yes, to the extent the critic imputes to the author the views of a character.

You said: "You think Conan saying 'wench' & 'hussie' is somehow a value neutral? ... it is HOWARD saying those things, not Conan ... ."

But I take your point. If the whole book is sexist, and the main character is also sexist, it starts to add up.

On the whole, though, I think reviewing Appendix N is going to be a lot less fun if you guys spend this amount of time judging the pieces according to today's social mores.
Mordicai Knode
36. mordicai
34. Juniper

You have a fair point: my use of hyperbole in the comments was overblown. He does show it, but he does a lot more telling & again, really undercuts her achievements by...well, undercutting them! Things like:
She made no reply, nor did she seek to repulse his arm from about her waist. She was frightened, and the sensation was new to Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. So she sat on her companion's—or captor's—knee with a docility that would have amazed Zarallo, who had anathematized her as a she-devil out of hell's seraglio.

Are strikingly out of place, bobbing on Conan's knee like a sex kitten. I'd rate that sexist. Whereas-- & this is a point I'll happily concede, & did above-- it isn't all of them. Things like:
This exhibition of primordial fury chilled the blood in Valeria's veins, but Conan was too close to the primitive himself to feel anything but a comprehending interest. To the barbarian, no such gulf existed between himself and other men, and the animals, as existed in the conception of Valeria. The monster below them, to Conan, was merely a form of life differing from himself mainly in physical shape. He attributed to it characteristics similar to his own, and saw in its wrath a counterpart of his rages, in its roars and bellowings merely reptilian equivalents to the curses he had bestowed upon it. Feeling a kinship with all wild things, even dragons, it was impossible for him to experience the sick horror which assailed Valeria at the sight of the brute's ferocity.

Is clearly a comparison between the raw savage power of Conan contrasted with the flaws of civilization. In the first passage, she's not really a character, she's arm candy for Conan. In this bit, she IS a character, she's the over-civilized counterpoint to the Cimmerian.

Bits like this:
...she had always fiercely resented any man's attempting to shield or protect her because of her sex. But she found a secret pleasure in the fact that this man had done so.

Are part of what I mean by the "tell don't show." She's super tough & independent! Except when she's around Conan. Which is the only time we see her. & it turns out she really just wants a nice strong man to take care of her!

But then we really see why she's in the story:
"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!"
&
On that altar lay Valeria, stark naked, her white flesh gleaming in shocking contrast to the glistening ebon stone. She was not bound. She lay at full length, her arms stretched out above her head to their fullest extent. At the head of the altar knelt a young man, holding her wrists firmly. A young woman knelt at the other end of the altar, grasping her ankles.

For bondage scenes! (Which I actually don't mind; when things cross to clearly erotic & pin-uppy purposes, it becomes its own sort of thing.)

The key issue is one of agency. She's not utterly without it; but she's not a good example of it, either. Which is why we discussed it. & then the comments section became entirely about that; not about the megadungeon or the dino-as-dragon or the Atomic Skull or the sweet lightning wand. Sadly. Because those are awesome. Also Conan is awesome, except when he's calling everyone "slut."
Bill Stusser
37. billiam
Mordicai @ 21

You say you can read Conan's dark skin color as 'tan' if you want but that is exactly how Howard writes it. From chapter two of The Poenix on the Sword, 'Behind an ivory, gold-inlaid writing-table sat a man whose broad shoulders and sun-browned skin seemed out of place among those luxuriant surroundings.' See that, sun-browned, I would definitely read that as 'tan'.

Also, I would argue with your assessment that Howard wanted Conan to be plastic or non-descript. From that same chapter Howard writes, as he does in almost all of his Conan stories, about Conan's 'smoldering blue eyes'. How many people of color have blue eyes?

Yes, the Cimmerians are descended from the Atlanteans. The Atlanteans were barbarians from Atlantis, an isle Northwest of the main Thurian continent, between the pictish islands and the coast. Not sure where you are getting the Atlanteans are brown thing, Kull is an Atlantean but is described just like Conan except for gray eyes instead of blue.

Also, it is a wide held assumption that Conan is an idealized version of Howard himself.

Also also, one of the first stories that Howard sold was People of the Dark, a first person narrative about past lives. The protagonist John O'Brien is an Irish American living in the Southwest, just like Howard. O'Brien remembers one of his previous lives as 'Conan of the Reavers', a black haired Gael who swears by a Celtic deity named Crom. Sound familiar?

Last but not least, let's not forget that Conan is a Gaelic name.
Terence Tidler
38. libertariansoldier
I find the idea that a character who never existed, or was even mentioned, as a myth, in Howard's Conan stories can be "grandfathered in" because of some comic books to be ludicrous. Combining that with the idea that Conan is not fair skinned makes me think that you are not very familiar with the Howard Conan corpus. Moreover, you fail to distinguish his attitudes from either that of "civilised" cultures of the period, or his period from the modern day, and insist on analysing it as if it were a modern author writing about a present day character.
maybe you will do better when you analyse an author whose work you are more familiar with, or, at least, use more than one of their works to analyse that author's impact on D&D, which I kinda thought was the point.
Mordicai Knode
39. mordicai
37. billiam

But you know white people aren't the only people who can get tans, though, right?

Seriously though, I hear everything you are saying, & I don't think it is a bad argument, but here is where I think we part ways-- you think you can be "right" in this discussion, & I think the topic is on of literary relativism. You cite elements from personal writings, older stories, real world languages...a hodge podge! I could retort by saying "weren't the real world Cimmerians like, from what is now Iran & didn't they end up in Turkey?" or (as 22. AlanBrown mentioned) that there may be more Mediterranean blood in the Celts than previously thought but...well, I don't think that is the best paradigm to approach literature?

As for his plasticity; I don't think it is an accident that Howard used words like "giant" instead of "six feet" or "two cubits" or "fifteen stone" or something.

38. libertariansoldier

You find the idea of a canon-- or well, fanon-- that is larger than the original source works difficult to swallow? Because I certainly don't. I, for instance, am not a huge fan of Derleth, but I have played Call of Cthulhu & I am aware this his work is often grandfathered in to the Lovecraft Mythos. Doesn't bother me. Red Sonja is very much part of a milieu with Conan. Heck, Howard even invented her, more or less, though comics made her what she is. Fun fact-- & I bet this will bug you even worse than Sonja-- I'd grandfather Zula in too. 'cause I like her.
Steven Halter
40. stevenhalter
mordicai@36:I agree that the maze city, the Dino-dragon and the lightning wand are all way cool. I vaguely recall my realization of just what the "dragon" was when I first read the story. Quite fun.
Do you know of any earlier examples of the "megadungeon?" Other Conan adventures certainly had the smaller form of "dungeon" in them, but the whole city here seems fairly unique at that point in time.
Mordicai Knode
41. mordicai
40. stevenhalter

I can't think of any earlier megadungeons, though regular dungeons were a big deal in Gothic novels, right? Though not neccisarily as the setting of the story. Moria also jumps out at me as a megadungeon but that (obviously) doesn't predate Conan.

I personally am a huge fan of expanding the category of "dragon" beyond the Smaug-like. There is a great Coulthart piece on Cthulhu that when I saw I was like "oh yeah, why does everyone play up the "humanoid" angle on ole Squiddy, why not make him more dragon-like? I mean, the way I see it there are lots of things that squinting makes into dragons. Godzilla, for sure, right? Dinosaurs. Things!

As for the wand, I keep meaning to put something like it in a DnD game. In fact, it seems to me that 4e, with its very strict battle rules, would be a perfect fit, as would any 3e game that used minis & battlemats.
Rafael
42. Ryamano
Regarding the whipping of the handmaiden scene, I think Robert might have had a fetish regarding whipping women, so this would basically be a case of author fetish.

A young Robert wrote this letter to Adventure magazine in 1924

http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Robert_E._Howard_to_Adventure,_Aug_20,_1924
4. I have heard that until 1889 or 1890 there was in Germany a law which permitted a man to whip his wife. Is this true? If so, were there any limitations to his authority?

6. I understand that public whipping was one of the punishments by law formerly in use in the countries of central Europe. In what manner was this done? Were women ever whipped?

Considering the insertion of the whipping scene in Red Nails, there might be a case for it.
Alan Brown
43. AlanBrown
In all this talk of lurid details about sex and gender roles, we haven't touched on one of the reasons Howard is remembered, long after his lurid pulp-writing contemporaries are forgotten. And a primary reason why Red Nails is so compelling a story.
That is the fact that the man knew his history, and was extremely well-read. So you had a mix of visceral pulp adventure with a fantasy world that was inspired and informed by actual history, which gave it a real and lived-in feel.
Terence Tidler
44. libertariansoldier
@39
1. I thought the purpose of your article was to discuss REH. Apparently not. Perhaps you should change the title to Advanced ...- Red Nails, with a superficial discussion of Conan, to include its "fanon". Because REH wrote over 300 hundred stories, 90+% of which had nothing to do with Conan.
2. Who is Zula?
Bill Stusser
45. billiam
Zula? As in the black sorceror/swordsman of the Zamballah tribe? The guy with the mohawk from the Marvel Conan the Barbarian comics from the late 70s? But he was a he, not a she?
Bridget McGovern
46. BMcGovern
Zula was a male character in the comics, but portrayed (by Grace Jones) as a female warrior in Conan the Destroyer. I'm assuming Mordicai is talking about grandfathering the Grace Jones version of the character into the larger "fanon" up at #39.
Eugene R.
47. Vincenzo
I get tired of purists of REH. These are the same people who moaned about De Camp and Carter who, if it weren't for them and Frazetta, REH would have blended into obscurity. I have both the novels and the newer "more pure" REH Conans and both are equally awesome. Now to find the Red Sonja novels that came out a while ago. There always has to be a fundamentalist fan no matter what thesubject is.
Mordicai Knode
48. mordicai
43. AlanBrown

Verisimilitude! For all the...space alien elephants, for instance, you still get human beings, people, behaving as human beings, as people. & groups of human beings behaving as...groups of human beings! & then sometimes, frost giants. But! The point is, yes! People! Sometimes idealized or demonized (or undercut...) but people.

44. libertariansoldier

Oh man, sorry you don't think our representative sample was good enough. That being said, Gary Gygax's "Appendix N" specifically notes that the "Conan series" so we did focus on that 10% slice very specifically.

45. billiam
46. BMcGovern
47. Vincenzo

Yep, I was talking about Grace Jones, but good looking out for the fact that she was a Rule 63 of an old character. For the better, I think. & she gave us Ember, one of the 3e iconics, too!
Eugene R.
49. Kevin Andrew Murphy
Happy to see this reread series.

When you get to Bellair's The Face in the Frost, you should point out that it's available as part of Magic Mirrors, the Bellairs collection from NEFSA press which also includes The Dolphin Cross, his unfinished sequel.
http://www.nesfa.org/press/Books/Bellairs.html
Peter Erwin
50. PeterErwin
As to whether Conan is "white" or not -- Howard explicitly identified him as such in at least one story. In the opening scene of "The Black Stranger", Conan is facing off against his Pictish pursuers, having crossed the Pictish-inhabited "wilderness" between Aquilonia and the western coast:

"The nearest outposts of civilization were the frontier settlements along the Thunder River, hundreds of miles to the east. The Cimmerian knew he was the only white man ever to cross the wilderness that lay between that river and the coast."

(I think there may be one or two other examples of Conan identifying as "white" in the Pictish frontier stories. There are also instances where someone else -- e.g., the woman Livia in "Vale of Lost Women" -- thinks of Conan as "white".)

This is, in a way, a little odd: given the barbarian-versus-civilization rhetoric that Howard deployed in the Conan stories, you might think that Conan would identify more with the Picts -- who are, after all, fellow barbarians -- even if there's a history of warfare between them and the Cimmerians. I suspect this is simply Howard's unconscious belief in the importance of race asserting itself.
Mordicai Knode
51. mordicai
50. PeterErwin

LA LA LA LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU!

Actually though, that is a pretty convincing argument, & a bit of a bummer. Though I will happily use my post modern textual relativism to picture Conan & hope for casting of a more racially ambiguous Conan. (I never saw that movie because I heard it wasnt any good but Jason Momoa looks great, I'm totally on board with that guy).
Bill Stusser
52. billiam
mordicai @ 51

I thought the last Conan movie was pretty good, not great or anything, but well worth watching. Its way better than Conan the Destroyer, that movie is just terrible, sorry. Jason Momoa was a good Conan, even if he doesn't look like how I picture Conan. He was better than Arnold ever was or probably will be (if that awful sounding new movie gets made).

The race sequence with young Conan after the title is awesome and worth watching the movie for alone.

One thing though, if you don't like the way Conan treats women in Red Nails or the other REH stories, ie the whole 'wench' thing, you might have a problem with the movie.
Alan Brown
53. AlanBrown
That overly muscle-bound thug with an Austrian accent from the movies just happens to have the same name as Howard's Conan. Any other similarities to the Conan from the books are strictly coincidental.
Richard Green
54. richgreen01
Have never read any Conan (apart from a few Marvel Comics) so I am going to give this a go. Feel guilty that I've never read an author who influenced D&D so much.
Eugene R.
55. Ben Pachano
Thanks, Tim and Mordicai for this review, and thanks for being willing to talk about the problematic race and gender issues here. To those who are saying that talking about such factors "ruins" a reread: As a person of color, I literally cannot stomach reading Robert E. Howard, because everything I've picked up by him has dripped with racism and white supremacism. So if talking about this ruins your reread, it seems only fair, since the issues themselves ruined my *original* read. :)

These are some of the foundational texts of the genre(s) we all love. So yeah, I think any conversation about the influence of these works, for good and ill, needs to include all aspects of them.

Or do you really believe that modern SF/Fantasy no longer have any race or gender problems? Or that these problems are completely unrelated to the use of certain tropes in foundational works?
Mordicai Knode
56. mordicai
52. billiam

It is on Netflix, right? Maybe I'll watch it today & tomorrow. I am verrrrrry prone to procrastination when it comes to movies. Anyhow, like I said, the gender issues may bother me, but I do appreciate Conan stories, regardless, for their other, fine points.

53. AlanBrown

I think there are a few moments in the first film that really "get" it; I just think, hey, Conan has been a pirate, a thief, a king...maybe for a while he was a flexing body builder, sure, just another weird life experience for him...

54. richgreen01

There are some nice collections, but as others have pointed out, there are also lots of public domain stuff, too.
Mordicai Knode
57. mordicai
55. Ben Pachano

Thanks for weighing in, Ben. I can only read it from the white & male perspective & cringe at bits of it. I try to flinch when I see flinch worthy stuff, because then I can acknowledge it & hopefully create a broader context for the stuff that I liked, too.
Sky Thibedeau
59. SkylarkThibedeau
Cimmerians are Middle Easterners with blue eyes. T.E. Lawrence pretended to be an illiterate Cimmerian when he was captured by the Turks and interrogated among other things.
Sky Thibedeau
60. SkylarkThibedeau
Look up the movie "The Whole Wide World" with Vincent D'Onofrio from Law and Order as Howard and Rene Zellweger as Novalyne Price.
Mordicai Knode
61. mordicai
60. SkylarkThibedeau

You know, someone at work was just telling me the same thing today.
Eugene R.
62. False Prophet
#40: It's been years since I read it, but I interpreted the megadungeon in "Red Nails" as basically a more fantastical version of those 19th/early 20th century "lost city" stories. H. Rider Haggard's "King Solomon's Mines" and "She", "The Man Who Would Be King", etc.--the same sort of thing the Indiana Jones films were riffing on. This being Howard, it probably makes "Red Nails" one of the earliest and foundational examples in the fantasy genre.

#59: It's not too uncommon for Central Asians to have blue eyes. The mutation that produces blue eyes arose on the shores of the Black Sea about 6,000 years ago.
Mordicai Knode
63. mordicai
62. False Prophet

For that matter I don't think you'll really find a cogent argument for genetic admixing based on real world chromosomal markers in the pages of Conan stories.
Eugene R.
64. Marc Rikmenspoel
Something a lot of people here are forgetting is that REH was TRYING to be provacative with stories like Red Nails. Conan in general was written to be popular, and thus was filled with hints of lesbianism and flagellation. REH didn't put that stuff into his more "serious" works such as his Crusader stories.

In Red Nails in particular, he wrote in his private correspondence that he tried to make things as over the top as possible. His stories were written for pulp magazines, which had their own short hand, based on stereotypes. Working within the tropes of the genre, Red Nails was an attempt to push boundaries. It would be as gory as possible, include as much sex/eroticism as his editor could tolerate, and empower female characters in a way that would shock some of the readers of the time.

These elements would have been somewhat disturbing to readers back in 1936. They obviously still are to some today. But as I said at the start, this was deliberate, REH was trying to push peoples' buttons, and he succeeded admirably.
Mordicai Knode
65. mordicai
64. Marc Rikmenspoel

Sure, but I guess to that I'd say-- there is a difference between two of the terms you used: "provocative" versus "pushing people's buttons." In the former, you want to start a conversation. Here we are debating parts of Howard's work! In the latter, you are just trolling, shooting for a cheap rise. I think there is probably a third option, too; unacknowledged bias. Which I assumed was more at play-- but I guess you are saying it is more the first, which is heartening. I already drew a parallel to Moulton (didn't I? Anyhow, bondage in pulps always makes me think of him).
Eugene R.
67. stanley Wagenaar
I think pretty much anyone interested in reading a Howard yarn knows what they are getting into; a little Google-fu will give potential readers all the prep you need before diving in. This is hairy, manly stuff; whiskey straight up. "Lite" beer drinkers need not apply. If it offends 'yer delicate feelings, avert 'yer eyes. You won't find any unicorns, elves or rainbow- pukin' dwarves here! And remember kids, its just pulp adventure fiction from the 'Olden Days', don't take it too seriously.
Mordicai Knode
68. mordicai
67. stanley Wagenaar

I'm a hairy, manly guy. Doesn't mean I swallow misogyny without chewing.
Eugene R.
69. stanley Wagenaar
Well, it's kinda like people who complain about fighting in hockey; it's a part of the game. if you don't like it, don't watch it. On the other hand, I would not care for a writer today using the same terms and attitudes of the 1930's pulp fiction. We have advanced far beyond that, I hope. But reading vintage S&S does not make you racist or sexist. It is what it is, and the good far outweighs the bad. Just be intelligent enough to seperate the two. So much of today's genre fiction has become so P.C. that it has become sanitized, lifeless. Boring. I like to read some old school pulp and adventure fiction once and a while, but that doesn't mean I wanna live it.
Mordicai Knode
70. mordicai
69. stanley Wagenaar

Sure, but what if you like hockey? I guess that is a pretty solid analogy; "don't watch hockey" isn't the team I'm on, I like hockey! So I have a vested interest in speaking up about the problems in it. It isn't like it is an essential ingredient. Anyhow, I don't think I agree with one of your premises-- that removing racism or misogyny from books makes them sterile or lifeless-- but you point out yourself that you wouldn't care for a modern work with those attitudes. I do agree that being a critical thinker can allow you to seperate the wheat from the chaff, & no, I certainly don't think reading it makings you a racist or a sexist. If it wasn't clear, Robert E. Howard is a writer I deeply admire; I would say a "favorite" but I admit to only reading his Conan, Kull, Kane & Bran stories, so I think that would be presumptuous of me.
Alan Brown
71. AlanBrown
I don't think anyone wants their fiction sanitized to the point where it would not offend anyone. But when racist, misonogistic, or other unpleasant behaviors are exhibited by characters, we expect for them to be challenged in the story, or somehow couched in a way that we know the author does not share these attitudes.
Colin Bell
72. SchuylerH
@69-71: Fans of Leigh Brackett will remember that she wrote an introduction to Sword Woman, which collects three of Howard's stories about Dark Agnes de Chastillon. Although they weren't published until the 1970's, they show that Howard could write heroines as well as heroes. Also laudable is his reaction to a 1928 magazine article entitled "Women: A Diatribe": Howard responded with a letter celebrating the intellectual achievements of women through the ages.

Howard on race is more problematic. "Black Canaan" is one of the more divisive examples. However, there are non-white heroes in Howard: Ace Jessel the boxer is the star of "Apparition in the Prize Ring" and Solomon Kane's old friend N'Longa also qualifies. Apparently, the influence of Novalyne Price went some way towards softening Howard's views on race.
Eugene R.
73. stanley Wagenaar
70. mordicai

I guess my comments are intended more for the Howard(and pulp fiction in general) haters, who damn an entire genre without looking at the quality to be found in these tales. I would hate to see the nay-sayers win and have these works "edited" to remove "offensive terms", or worse, have these books removed completely. No matter how people feel about it, these works are also pieces of our History, a glimpse at how we were, and where we are today.
I think a good writer could write pretty good Conan, or Tarzan pastiche without the offensive racism/sexism, and I would not mind reading it. The tougher thing to remove is the trend for fantasy heroes to be riddled with angst, doubts and (gasp!) feelings! I want my heroes to cast doubt aside, and plunge into battle with his/her brain blazing with the bright flame of battle lust, to hell with the consequences! Just my two cents.
Eugene R.
74. Paul!
My suspicion is that the lushous covers of the books served as primary source material for the Schwarzenegger (German for "big black man" as he said on the Merv Griffin show) movies and the comics. I look at the REHoward books as more like horror fiction. (The HPLovecraft estate has reprinted some of his letters with REH. I doubt they were friends as HPL was a recluse who lived with his sisters and his mom most of his life.) Those covers depict Conan as a bare-chested brute.
In the stories, Conan was orphaned young, tried to become the King of Thieves, lived as a mercenary and pirate and a general, but he always longed to become a king. In his travels, he had to learn some eight languages, so he wasn't some dimwitted bully. He would have been called a barbarian by any nation, including his own, as he was just a kid when he started his adventures. He refused to learn the arcane protocols of each nation he visited, as he had an unrelenting bias against foppish dandies and their whispered intrigues.
I also wouldn't call Conan racist. While living with the black Picts, he played a game wherein two warriors would take turns throwing daggers at each other's head and then catching them out of the air. Conan would use this (level-up!) skill in later adventures. He left his black friends to continue his driving quest to become a king.
I wouldn't call Conan sexist. I suspect his king-quest has a role in why he called waitresses mere "serving wenches." I doubt he was so impolitic with the princesses he tried to marry. I also cringe when Conan comes off as a caveman toward women. Maybe Conan was dismissive of women to the point of seeming misogynistic. But he was dismissive of everyone. Conan was a surprisingly flat character. REH would have chapters without Conan in them, and the men and women would appear to be accomplished, articulate, and complicated connivers. As a pulp character, Conan needed little backstory that had to be carried over into each "episode."
(REH shouldn't be thought of as misogynistic. Some have said the reason he killed himself right after his mom died was a sign of his dependence upon her strength. Heavy Metal magazine had a story emphasizing this argument. Very sad. How can anyone read about Red Sonja and think REH had tried to celebrate a sexist agenda?)


Many of the Conan "episodes" were perfect ideas for gaming. In some collections, the story would start off with an italicized paragraph detailing how Conan was a general in one nation but was chased out for starting a relationship with a princess. He would be riding into some land that time forgot... and the story would begin. How familiar does that intro sound?!!! Like many D&D gaming sessions, I'd say! How about a Mind Flayer-like alien trapped inside a gem in a tower? Or a ruined temple guarded by a gold golem? Or a mist-shrouded valley guarded by apes with transparent masks that Conan figured allowed them to see in the mist? Or a wizard with a summoned demon that could go gaseous and assassinate people in the castle?

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