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'Dodge Hell?'
The Heathen and The Thessalians by Robert E. Howard
© 2021 James LaFond
Reading from The Howard Collector, pages 92-118, also reading Ye College Days, Cupid versus Pollux and Musings of a Moron
This is really, painful, reviewing the most bland and pedestrian work of the long-gone writer who inspired me—but instructive as well. Howard had a keen sense of humor which is far more apparent in his short fictions inspired directly by his young adult associations. This humor would be on display most prominently in the Elkins and Steve Costigan stories, westerns and tramp steamer yarns that harkened most closely to his actual experience boxing and his sense of fun developed in the society of his his peers, who seem to have been involved in boxing and writing in a more fleeting way than he.
By far, the best of these stories is The Heathen, about a town drunk, the scion of an old Southern family “gone to seed” who drank far too much corn whiskey. In this seen, the old heathen challenges a preacher in church and there are thoughts that he should be lynched and some words that this might come to pass.
“ 'Throw him out! Lynch him!' sounded as the Christianly spirit of true brotherly love began to get into full swing.”
This snapshot of Political Correctness in late 1920s East Texas is so much like modern Social Justice Atheism that one is indebted to the old-young poet for preserving it, and doing so in chuckling prose.
Looking at these early writings of one of our most powerful 20th century authors is instructive from a developmental vantage. As stories, only one of these five entertains in the least. These seem to have been writing exercises. As such a crud who has posted many of his writing exercises, I suppose I share some of Howard's posthumous embarrassment. As writing exercises, what are the elements we can identify in these groan-worthy stories that may have served to elevate Howard above all the writers of his era in style except for Clark Ashton Smith?
The stories were studied in brevity, a crucial skill in story execution, that is the only thing that makes most of these bearable. Perhaps they were practice towards terminating a story just before an editor triangulated it as too long for its impact?
The plots were either daft, uninteresting or so simple as to beg prediction in the mind's eye of the reader after the first 200 words. This forces character development without the wordage to craft a character in extensive externalities or though self-loathing and naval-gazing. This aspect, of writing a fundamentally uninteresting story, is perhaps one of the methods by which Howard developed his ability to use totemic artifice and social juxtaposition in the hero tales of such fantasy figures as Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane and Conan, to bring forth the soul of an actionist in such bold relief. I am reminded here of The Isle of the Black One, a compelling story even after the narrator lets slip the fact that Conan is going to take the pirate captain's crew, ship and girl, yet Howard magnetizes the events he has already summarized in a sentence, to such a degree that one would be forgiven to imagine that the doomed pirate captain begged the narrator of his doom to let him linger on stage in agony rather than being dismissed with the back of the directors' hand.
Howard also engaged the reader with a refracted lens into his own dark well of ponderings, with glimpses of his world view in Musings of a Moron, poking fun at himself, Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald [giants of his time who have had less impact n ours] in such lines as, “I dangled from a tree limb and wept for the woes of Bulgaria.”
Howard, even in his early 20s, seems to have known who he was, found himself wanting and wan and decided to use his inner eye to reflect the shadows that have stalked us for all of our fleeting time. Perhaps that is a key to his lasting impact in words.
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