Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Pulp Culture
'Conan' creator wrote
chilling horror tales


October 23, 2003
By Franklin Harris

Robert E. Howard is best known today as the creator of Conan — the barbarian, thief and adventurer who would become king. But his best stories have nothing to do with the sword wielding Cimmerian.

Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard
Although he practically invented modern heroic fantasy (as opposed to the epic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien), Howard was most accomplished as a writer of horror and dark fantasy. He made his first sale, a story called "Spear and Fang," in 1921 to the pulp magazine "Weird Tales."

Nowadays, "Weird Tales" is recognized as one of the most important and influential of the pulps. Apart from Howard, its contributors included H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Bloch, the author of "Psycho." Tennessee Williams' first published story also appeared in its rough pages.

Like many of the younger writers who contributed to "Weird Tales," Howard fell under Lovecraft's influence. The two exchanged correspondence, and Howard wrote stories set within Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, thus helping start a tradition that continues today of other authors playing in Lovecraft's cosmic sandbox.

Unfortunately, collections of Howard's stories go in and out of print, and sometimes they are available only as limited editions costing $100 or more. Amazingly, none of Howard's Conan stories are easily available, although Del Rey will release the first of three Conan volumes, "The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian," in December. "The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane" will follow in June.

The one mass-market edition of Howard's stories currently in print, however, happens to be one that collects his best dark fantasy stories — "Nameless Cults: The Cthulhu Mythos Fiction of Robert E. Howard," edited by Robert M. Price and published by Chaosium.

The collection starts with Howard's most Lovecraftian story, both in content and voice, "The Black Stone." The story contains many of the things you would expect from Lovecraft: strange cultists who worship a ghastly creature who, in turn, lives across time and space; ancient shrines that tend to drive their hapless visitors mad; and the dread feeling that comes from knowing that man isn't the master of his domain. For "The Black Stone," Howard even invents his own book of ancient, forbidden lore, "Nameless Cults," obviously modeled after Lovecraft's own tome, "The Necronomicon." (Lovecraft returned the favor by using "Nameless Cults" in several of his stories.)

For perhaps his best and eeriest tale, Howard combines horror with heroic fantasy. The result is "Worms of the Earth." Here, Howard seeks inspiration not just from Lovecraft, but from one of Lovecraft's influences, Arthur Machen.

The hero of the story is one of Howard's Conan precursors, Bran Mak Morn, the king of the Picts, who wages a futile struggle against invading Roman armies. Bran calls on an ancient, degenerate race — even older than his own — to exact vengeance on a Roman governor.

Howard achieved a similar synthesis in his story "The Shadow Kingdom," starring his second most famous creation, King Kull (you may have seen the terrible movie starring Kevin Sorbo). Lovecraft again admired Howard's work and sought to incorporate references to its heroes and lands within his own stories. Kull's kingdom of Valusia appears in several of Lovecraft's stories, including his novel "At the Mountains of Madness."

Yet despite the esteem in which Lovecraft and others held it, Howard's horror fiction has always been overshadowed by Conan. And given the spottiness of Howard's publishing history, we're lucky to have "Nameless Cults" to assemble Howard's most chilling tales.

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