If you were to ask me, “who is your favorite writer?” I’d probably say Robert E. Howard. As a writer, I’ve been profoundly inspired by the way he puts words together. Having Frank Frazetta do covers for reprints and collections of Howard’s stories back in the 70s was perfect, because Frazetta did with paint what Howard did with words. He captured fire, passion, power, and excitement. But here’s the thing. I’m a consummate dabbler. It’s rare that I’ve read the entire output of an author, even one I really like. Same with listening to the entire body of work of a musician or band, or all the films of an actor or director I love. I don’t tend to dig deep or stay on target until I’ve consumed all that can be consumed of someone’s output. Consequently, I say that Howard is my favorite writer, yet I’ve actually read relatively little of his work. I mean, I’ve read a bunch, but the guy produced a considerable amount in his short life.
That’s where I was at when I picked up The Dark Man and Others, a collection of short stories that seems to be from 1963, though I’m kind of surprised by that because the paperback has held up so well. Anyway, it’s old enough to have an introduction (and may have been edited) by August Derleth. A condescending and frankly kind of mystifying introduction by August Derleth. The introduction seems to say “Howard was crap, but I guess these were fun and people may want to read them, or whatever.” Thanks, August.
In the collection are some historic adventure yarns, some straight-up fantasy, a few ultra-pulpy tales, and a bit of Horror. Unfortunately, there’s also a pretty big elephant in the room. I know there’s a lot of reexamining of older works of literature and film through more contemporary eyes. This is the way of things. There’s nothing wrong with it. And you should absolutely use context and understand that traditions and mores & folkways change. Movies that came out when I was a kid have lines of dialog that wouldn’t be OK today. Heck, there was nudity and violence in PG rated films in the 70s and today you can’t even imply that sex exists without being in danger of getting an R. I can watch 1933’s ”King Kong,” acknowledge that there are some “problematic elements” in it, and still love the movie. But here’s the thing. This book has some deeply, upsettingly gross racist crap in it. And I mean Racist. Like, the kind of race theory that the Nazis used to excuse genocide. The kind embraced by Eugenicists. “Blood and soil” bullshit. Ugly stuff. And I’m not even talking about the extremely effective and creepy story Pigeons from Hell, which features an N-word spouting, racist cop. There’s absolutely a difference between depicting something and condoning it. Though as that story is presented, it certainly doesn’t condemn his attitude. The really nasty stuff is in stories like The Children of the Night, where characters sit around and discuss race in a way that kinda made me feel nauseous. It’s made more skeevy by the veneer of scientific reasoning they try to slap on it.
Howard expresses through his stories a smug superiority of the Anglo-Saxon. Certainly there is a negative portrayal of and attitude toward Black people, Arabs, people from southern Europe or South America, but the really nasty stuff is directed at Asians, who are presented as universally sinister and frequently compared to reptiles. Not too long ago, I read another Howard collection, Skull-Face, and I didn’t review it here. I’m trying to post primarily positive reviews on this blog. Things I want folks to check out. I came away from Skull-Face with very little positive to say. Though Howard’s storytelling is, as always, top drawer, the stories in that collection are steeped in Yellow-Peril racism that is impossible for me to get past. And I’m a fan of a lot of Pulp adventure with questionable and ‘of its time’ content. But jeez. There comes a point where it’s all a bit much and the stories in Skull-Face reached and surpassed that point. I bring that up because I did decide to review The Dark Man and Others on this blog. I made that decision for multiple reasons, including that I needed to get off my chest my frustration, disgust, and disappointment at the extremely ugly worldview Howard wove into several of these stories. But also I wanted to review it because Howard has been so important to me as a writer that I have to face this, even if just a little. Several of the stories don’t feature the rampant racism and they’re enjoyable yarns. He was a hell of a writer and I hope I can capture just a bit of his magic in my own work. I also hope that a kid reading my stuff in 100 years doesn’t say to himself, “gah, why was he such an asshole?”
I’m also a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. I bring that up because of course over the last few years there’s been a lot of backlash directed at Lovecraft (really, at people who enjoy reading his work) because of his racism. I think an unfortunate amount of that is part of the whole smug “whatever you like is bad and you’re bad for liking it” movement of online cultural criticism. “Do you like Brussels sprouts? Well, let me tell you in ten thousand words why you’re a piece of shit for liking them.” But also yeah, Lovecraft was racist. As someone said, “I think his stories are great, but I wouldn’t have wanted to have lunch with the guy.” The thing that sticks in my craw is the commonly echoed statement, “H.P. Lovecraft was racist, even by the standards of his time.” The disturbing thing, the thing that I think we all need to remember is that no, he wasn’t. His views were pretty mainstream among white people in the United states in the early 20th Century. There’s a fair chance that my grandparents or great grandparents harbored ideas like this and if yours were white, they may have, too. Trying to pretend authors like Lovecraft and Howard were outliers is trying to exonerate our ancestors (and because people are still sold on ‘sins of the father,’ ourselves), and maybe they shouldn’t be exonerated. There’s also a salad-bar aspect to it. Lovecraft was racist, but let’s ignore the virulent antisemitism and general racism of Agatha Christie, or Patricia Highsmith, or Charles Lindbergh, or Walt F’ing Disney. Why one and not another?
Is The Dark Man and Others a good book? It has some good stories, to be sure. Some are pretty repetitive, however. I question putting several stories where contemporary men have flashbacks to adventures of their ancestors in one volume. The Turlogh Dubh stories are certainly exciting (did Carter & de Camp rewrite one of those as a Conan story?). Pigeons from Hell is a really effective ghost story and ghost stories usually don’t do much for me. For a writer who wants to see how it’s done when it comes to tight, action-packed, thrilling adventure tales, Howard is a heck of a teacher. I took the time to write a review of this book because in spite of how ugly and sad the racism is in several of the stories, I did enjoy reading many of the tales. Is it good? Honestly, as a collection, no. It’s not. I’d like to pluck several of the stories out of this, grab a few more of his stories and make a different collection. If Derleth was the editor, then I don’t think he did a very good job. Editing an anthology is like putting together a good mixtape, each story playing into the next while not feeling repetitive or extraneous. So, this one isn’t great.
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