I like taking a literary approach to genre works like fantasy, sci fi, and supernatural horror and seeing what comes of it.
It's disappointing the way modern critics often fail to address issues of race as they are presented in books from earlier time periods. Sure, when writing of Howard and Lovecraft (or even Twain and Poe) critics will not fail to repeat some notion that their racism is 'an unfortunate artifact of that time and culture'--but that is not the same as actually meeting the issue of race head on and dealing with what it means in a text.
The way an author approaches race is an integral part of their worldview, of the philosophies they explore and the ideas they present. But, it is also an issue that continues to be contentious, and critics rightly fear the harsh response that often comes when we open up that Pandoran box. So instead, we excuse it, or condemn it (it amounts to the same thing), as if by merely pointing it out we can diffuse it, absolve ourselves of actually doing the dirty work of unpacking it: 'I acknowledge that the author was Racist, and that it was Bad--so having got that out of the way, let's move on to my real analysis ...'
But critics cannot be allowed to let themselves off so easily--we much be brave, and push on. In talking about Howard's racism, it's not with the notion that I should defend him , or repair him--or least meaningfully, condemn him--but that, in order to understand Howard, it is necessary to understand how he conceptualized race, how he used it, and what it means to his stories.
As ever, with Howard (not only with his presentation of race, but also sexuality and politics) the surface tends to be grim, resembling familiar forms of prejudice: dark-skinned, menacing foreigners, scanty-clad maidens to be rescued, all problems solvable by a combination of fascist force and Nietzschean will--but beneath that, there is always more subtlety, more awareness, and more irony than Howard tends to get credit for.
In this collection, the racist hypocrisy is actually laid bare in a single narrative moment:
“The Picts were a white race, though swarthy, but the border men never spoke of them as such.”
This is not race as some inescapable, god-given aspect of identity, an inherent piece of the human soul, but as self-identity, self-creation, an act undertaken by men to separate themselves from one another. Conan himself makes the same separation, both in his own words:
“... we can’t have the cursed devils making so free with white men’s heads”
and in the view of others:
“These barbarians live by their own particular code of honor, and Conan would never desert men of his own complection to be slaughtered by people of another race. He’ll help us against the Picts, even though he plans to murder us himself ...”
Yet again and again, Conan’s own cultural background is equated with that of the Picts: he is a barbarian, like them, a wild creature born in the wilderness. The events of Beyond the Black River show Pictish lands being colonized, the natives driven out and replaced by Aquilonian farms and forts--until finally, civilization pushes too far, and the Picts unite and fight back. The Picts are then compared to Conan’s people, the Cimmerians, who also eventually rose up and attacked the Aquilonian fort built in their own lands, destroying all the settlers--a battle where a young Conan fought against the White invaders.
So Conan shares a great deal with the Picts: he is wild like them, not tame like the Aquilonians, and yet he goes to great lengths to differentiate himself from them--using the tool of race to ally himself not with his fellow barbarians, but with ‘civilized men’--while at the same time scorning the softness and ineptitude of the city-born.
Though built in the same mold of ‘Mighty Whitey’ characters like Natty Bummpo or Tarzan--the White man who is both better at woodcraft than the natives and able to outsmart the civilized men--Conan is actually born to it, actually a tribesman who has ‘lifted himself up’. It is unfortunate that Howard does not do more to explore what is clearly a deep internal conflict for Conan, trapped between these worlds, competent in both, and yet unsure of his own racial and cultural loyalties.
The resolution of the story does provide a kind of resolution, and one which should surprise no fan of Howard's--in his work, it is always barbarism that wins, because barbarism is the more pure, the more natural state of man. For Conan, as much as the trappings of civilization might tempt him, as much as he lives off of it as a scavenger, as a predator, the civilizing influence is always tainted, always stagnating, rotting away at the core, unable to sustain itself against animal man.
It might seem an odd tack to take, for a modern White writer in post-Colonial America--in many ways, civilization had already won, and won big--but that's precisely the point, and Howard's portrayal of this romantic, somewhat tragic figure of the noble primitive adds another wrinkle altogether to his portrayal of race.
By the time of these later tales, Howard was having trouble keeping himself interested in Conan stories. This tended to happen with all his characters as he went on: he would gradually find himself more interested in supporting characters, or in the politics of the world, or just in telling a different kind of story altogether. Hence, these stories mark a deliberate change on Howard’s part. In his own words, he’d ‘abandoned the exotic settings of lost cities, decaying civilizations, golden domes, marble palaces, silk-clad dancing girls, etc., and thrown my story against a background of rivers, log cabins, frontier outposts, buckskin-clad settlers, and painted tribesmen’.
In short, he was trying to write stories of the American frontier, with the Picts and Cimmerians as the native tribes, and the Aquilonians and Zingarans as then English and Spanish, respectively. Of course, choosing the painted Picts is natural, since they were the rebellious natives whom the Romans pushed out, clearing the forests for lumber and building farms and forts in their place. There is certainly a place for such stories in the ancient world, but unfortunately, Howard’s attempts don’t draw on those earlier portrayals--they are too modern, too American, and the character and world of Conan seem to be a bit lost in this fresh setting.
The ancient empires, strange magics, cosmic horrors, crumbling temples, immortal priests, sensuous ports, and Atlantean curses of Ashton Smith are left behind, as are the stoic Norse sagas which mark Conan's origins--and along with them, the majority of the tone and depth of Hyboria also dissipates, until we’re left with Howardian versions of Hawthorn’s Leatherstocking tales or Sabatini's Captain Blood, inexplicably featuring Conan at their center--well, perhaps not inexplicably: after all, Howard knew that Conan stories would sell.
Indeed, The Black Stranger is actually written along the lines of a Gothic novel--a disgraced count in exile on a desolate island with his beautiful niece, a roguish courtier-turned-pirate after a lost treasure, a deadly and unseasonable storm, and that shadowy threat that looms over all in the stranger, himself. Conan himself barely shows up through the first half of the story--and when he does, he's dressed in full 17th Century pirate regalia. Perhaps sensing the ill fit, Howard later changed out Conan for a different lead character and updated the setting.
These stories are considered some of Howard's best by some critics, as the essays included in the Del Rey edition demonstrate, and they certainly do have some things going for them. As he enters his thirties, Howard's prose becomes tighter, his vocabulary both more varied and more specific--no longer do we see the same crutch words and repetitions that marked the earlier tales. But also gone is the tone and vibrance which set the Conan stories apart.
The actual structure of the stories also leaves something to be desired--they are somewhat piecemeal and meandering, the conflicts often solved by convenient interruptions, and with a general lack of interesting set pieces and stand-out scenes. In quite a few instances, characters act in ways that make little sense in context--in the last story, for example, Conan and others keep switching sides in the middle of combat.
That isn't to say that this new, crisp style of prose couldn't have worked for Howard, were he just writing pirate tales and frontier stories, but adding the additional layers of ancient Hyborea and Conan stretch them too thin, setting them tonally at odds with themselves. Certainly, there is much more of Howard the American in them--the stories are more personal to his experiences, but mixing them with the Conan mythos does them no favors.
Beyond that, the wild Picts, a 'White race who are not called White' become just another example of over-romanticized natives, that White-guilt urge to go 'back to nature', while at the same time painting the natives as both less and more than human, both pitied and put on a pedestal, but never actually considered as more than an image, a grand symbol for the spiritual enrichment of Whiteness.
The sexual politics are likewise troubled: though Valeria is in some ways a refreshing figure--she is actually competent, actually seeks her own equality, is skilled with a sword--in other ways she’s more constrained than many of the other female figures in Conan stories. Simply being strong of arm and having masculine traits does not make a female figure a strong character--and beyond that, it takes for granted that the only way to add strength to a female character is by making her more like a man.
What is missing in the romances of these stories is the woman’s point-of-view which made earlier Howard stories intriguing: that we got to see those women from the inside. They may have been constrained socially, they may not have been physically powerful, but they still chose to act out despite this--what made them strong was the fact that they were willing to question their society and to oppose it. What attracts them to Conan is that he is outside civilization, he is not simply another man who leers over them, controls them, and treats them as objects. He is interested in them in a more mutual way.
Unfortunately, with Valeria and dancing-girl Zabibi, we instead get only Conan’s point of view, and he leers and gropes after them unpleasantly as they try to avoid his advances--he even agrees to help Zabibi in exchange for sexual favors, thereby fulfilling the cliche which Howard earlier subverted in ‘The Vale of the Lost Women’ (though given the conclusion, it’s hinted that he never intended to collect on the bargain, and that it was likely just a ploy on his part to put her off guard). These later stories are less subversive and more cliche--the sort of thing you’d expect from a piece of unremarkable sword & sorcery.
It seems that, much like Leiber, the later, personal experiments Howard made with his best-known series were much less effective than his early outings. Perhaps it has something to do with the freshness, the wildness of an early writer being a better match for the rollicking adventures of Sword & Sorcery. With time comes polish and ponderousness, which do not match well with the genre, and even in the few examples where Howard does return to the earlier themes, the presentation is lacking--it just feels like old ground retread.
I guess that, for me, the earliest Conan stories are the best--perhaps because, like Conan himself, Howard was still finding his way, still discovering new places, still capable of surprising himself, of being delighted merely to be on the road, weapon in hand, unsure of what might be found over the next hill.
My Suggested Readings in Fantasy