CONAN AND ME, PART ONE: LANGUAGE, PULP, RACE, AND FICTION

Lately I’ve been re-reading (actually listening to on CD) some of R.E. Howard’s later stories on Conan, such as The Conquering Sword of Conan.

Now every year, usually in the Fall (but at other times as well) or as the weather changes I get a desire to read or listen to Conan, or Solomon Kane, or the stories of HP Lovecraft. Adventure and horror stories. Don’t know why, I just do, it’s sort of a recurring literary theme with me. I associate Autumn and early Winter with adventure, and patrolling, and exploring, and the coming dark.

(I also at this time of year like to read or listen to the radio plays of Jack Flanders or the Green Hornet or John Carter of Mars or Doc Savage or other types of things like that I used to listen to as a kid.)

Now I’ve always liked the stories of Conan (though I have much more in common personally with the character Solomon Kane) as I enjoy a lot of pulp fiction. It’s adventurous, and that’s what I like about it. Adventure stories and pulp fiction tend to roam widely in space and time, and this very much appeals to the explorer and Vadder in me. As well as to the historian in me, as pulp stories are often pseudo-historical and often contain historical and archaeological allusions and references. I wish far more modern writers wrote really good adventure stories, especially for young men and boys, but also even for girls, such as my daughters. Alas, aside from children stories adventure yarns seem a dying or dead art. More is the shame.

But a couple of things have always bothered me about Conan and his adventure stories. One is Howard’s sometimes ridiculous use of inappropriate language, mixing antique, antiquated, and outmoded terms all in the same paragraph or sentence and doing so without a broader context. The same can be said for his general world building tendencies as well, he sometimes mixes wholly inappropriate matters and allusions and settings and events and places and personages together haphazardly and without any logical framework. I know this is part of his Sword and Sorcery Shtick but it can detract heavily from the appeal of the story. As a writer I certainly understand that every writer is at least to some extent a product of his times, and of what is known in his time. As well as a victim of his own his ideas, and a bondsman of his ideas about writing. Finally he is in at least in some sense a slave of his own language, real or invented, and his use of that language. But Howard’s language often descends into “pulp-speech” in a way that is almost an obvious caricature of pulp. In other words his writings become the very caricature of the pulp genre to such an obvious degree that it becomes impossible to read some of his phrasing without saying to yourself, “this story is pulp.” Instead of, “this story is a great adventure.”

True, sometimes his phrasing and language use is clever, even inspired, at other times though it is both simultaneously banal and overwrought. At times like that you easily remember within your own mind, “this is fiction,” and that’s precisely what you want to avoid in fiction writing.

The second thing that bothers me about Conan is Conan’s obsession (in some of his stories at least) with race and tribalism and ethnicities and “groups.”

to be continued…