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Sunday, 16 December 2012

Conan: Many Happy Returns

By Crom it seems that this month marks 80 years since Conan was born into the pages of Weird Tales - There can't really be anyone,well save for a few tribes in unexplored areas of Milton Keynes, who have not heard of the barbarian who by turns has been a wanderer, womaniser, thief, assassin and king. His creator though, Robert E. Howard is less well known -most of the articles I've read about him seem to suggest that he was a weird, redneck, who typed his stories by candlelight and pretty much kept himself to himself. He had a weird over needy (and some sources have speculated possibly sexual) relationship with his mother and killed himself after she slipped into a coma, but out of nowhere Robert E. Howard created the sword and sorcery genre.

The first published Conan story was, The Phoenix on the Sword and Howard often told interviewers that Conan came to him fully formed,but this is likely a stock answer since the first story had originally been written as By The Axe I Rule and did not feature Conan at all but a character called, Kull of Atlantis but when the story was rejected, the author rewrote it and replaced Kull with a character called Conan. After a title change to Phoenix on the Sword the story was accepted and saw print in Weird Tales in December 1932.

Howard always called himself a hack and claimed the stories wrote themselves but in truth he worked hard on them, carefully outlining and then writing and rewriting them to perfection. Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Weird Tales also had a lot to do with the way Conan developed and would make many suggestions that Howard took on board.

Howard was working during the depression and many of the markets for his stories were folding and the monthly cheques from Weird Tales where Conan was a superstar were all the Howards lived on. When the magazine found itself in trouble it publishing schedule became even more erratic than usual and the cheques sent out to authors became less frequent.

"It was gloomy land that seemed to hold
All winds and clouds and dreams that shun the sun,
With bare boughs rattling in the lonesome winds,
And the dark woodlands brooding over all,
Not even lightened by the rare dim sun
Which made squat shadows out of men; they called it
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and deep Night.
It was so long ago and far away
I have forgotten the very name men called me.
The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,
And hunts and wars are like shadows. I recall
Only the stillness of that sombre land;
The clouds that piled forever on the hills,
The dimness of the everlasting woods.
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night."
   Poem Cimmeria by Robert E. Howard

Howard, who was now nursing a sick mother was in dire need of funds and he turned his attention to writing westerns and selling to other magazines that did pay, but the stories he wrote for Weird Tales about Conan and other characters set in the same fantasy universe are truly his best work, and are perhaps responsible for the birth of an entire genre.

Today it is for Conan that Howard is best remembered, but by the mid Thirties he had given up on the character and was concentrating solely on writing the much better paying westerns. Home life though was a trial and with Howard's mother's health failing and his father away working most of the time, Howard found little time to put pen to paper.

In June 1936, as  Howard's mother slipped into her final coma, her son maintained a death vigil with his father and friends of the family, getting little sleep, drinking huge amounts of coffee, and growing more despondent. On the morning of June 11, 1936, Howard asked one of his mother's nurses, a Mrs. Green, if she would ever regain consciousness. When she told him no, he walked out to his car in the driveway, took the pistol from the glove box, and shot himself in the head.

He left behind an incredible legacy.

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