Book Review: “Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography” by David C. Smith

Robert E. Howard was a popular pulp author in the 1920s and ’30s. Mostly, he is remembered today for Conan the Barbarian, but he wrote a great deal of adventure and sword-and-sorcery stories, many of which appeared in the pages of Weird Tales.

As the subtitle suggests, this book aims to tell the story of Howard’s life through a close analysis of his literary output, using quotes from Howard and his contemporaries.

Literature is a business to me–a business at which I was making an ample living when the Depression knocked the guts out of the markets. My sole desire in writing is to make a reasonable living.

So Howard himself wrote, in the early 1930s. Smith argues that in fact, Howard did have literary ambitions, but that he cloaked them with this sort of practicality.

Howard was a hard-nosed, hard-boiled kind of guy. An amateur boxer and weightlifter, he’d seen more than a little nastiness growing up and, Smith argues, his dark and violent stories reflect his upbringing.

I confess, prior to reading this book, I’d only ever read one thing by Howard: a short story called Ye College Days. It’s a dark comedy, in the vein of Ambrose Bierce, that seems to be satirizing college sports rivalries. Funny, in a macabre sort of way.

Howard, Smith repeatedly tells us, was fixated on physicality and violence in his fiction. His stories tell of fighters and warriors, struggling in mortal combat, either against one another or sometimes against otherworldly demonic entities.

This is in contrast to Howard’s friend and fellow pulp author, H.P. Lovecraft. Howard and Lovecraft corresponded frequently, and Lovecraft’s brand of weird fiction influenced some of Howard’s works.

HPL and REH had their share of disagreements, too, including one over a fairly abstract philosophical point about whether it is better to live in the comfortable regulation of civilization, or the liberated wilds of barbarism.

My favorite parts of the book are the ones about Lovecraft and Howard’s relationship, as they debate and discuss ideas while critiquing each other’s fiction. Unlike Howard, Lovecraft was a quiet, scholarly, would-be aristocrat who had probably never even been in a fistfight, and his characters are much the same; as bookish as Howard’s were barbaric.

The entire Weird Tales community strikes me as a forerunner of internet fandoms and forums. Fans could and did write to Weird Tales, seemingly usually to complain about something. Today, we know Robert Bloch as the author of Psycho, but once upon a time he was a teenaged kid writing angry letters to Farnsworth Wright, the editor.

Speaking of Farnsworth Wright, here’s his take on the readership of his magazine:

While we have many quick-witted and intelligent readers, we also have many whose intelligence is rudimentary.

This is the problem with having a wide readership. Not that Weird Tales was necessarily a blockbuster success, since financial difficulties seem to have been a recurring theme.  On the other hand, at one point we are told that in 1928, Howard:

…earned $186 from his writing, sufficient for him to no longer require other means to support himself and to help with his family’s expenses.

I looked up estimates of the purchasing power of $186 in 1928. Seems it’s equivalent to about $3,000 in today’s dollars, so I’m guessing this was monthly income.

A dream come true, to most of us self-published authors! Imagine if we all made $3K a month. Howard was clearly making a decent living, at least before the depression.

But let’s try to zero in on the specifics of the pulp publishing business. Weird Tales pays Howard $186 a month for his stories. Why? Presumably because they think his stories sell magazines. Of course, since each issue contains stories by multiple authors, there’s no way to precisely know how many sales are due to the presence of a Howard story. But he did have a tendency to be favored with having his story illustrated on the cover. (A fact that annoyed Bloch.)

About those cover illustrations… most of Howard’s tales were illustrated for WT by a woman named Margaret Brundage.  A quick sample of her oeuvre on Wikipedia left me thinking, “More like Margaret Bondage, am I right?” Ms. Brundage’s covers frequently depicted naked women in various sorts of peril, which many Weird Tales contributors were keenly aware of when writing their stories.

Smith writes that Howard “wrote from experience and with a deep respect for history, and the best Conan stories are melancholy with the sharp memories of greater days gone before.” Perhaps, and yet I can’t help wondering if the reason his stories sold was because of the titillating covers that usually accompanied them.

This is a pretty bleak conclusion for anyone looking to draw writerly insights from Howard’s career. Whatever qualities his fiction may have had, was it popular because it provided a basis for many a teenager’s fantasy? If so, what hope is there for authors in a world that also contains DeviantArt?

However, I take a more optimistic view. We still read the Weird Tales authors today, and enjoy the worlds they were able to conjure. The quality of their writing does matter after all!

Imagine if you could tell Howard, or Lovecraft, or any of the others, that in the year 2023, we’d be using a global communications network to discuss their works. I would imagine they’d be delighted.

As I see it, the ironic thing about the pulp community of the 1930s was that they were not thinking big enough. If they had known the future, would they have been grousing over whose story got the cover illustration? No! These trivial concerns melt away when you consider the influence their ideas would one day have in popular culture.

Part of the reason that the words of these authors live on is the community they created. I’ve written before about how Lovecraft’s correspondence with Bloch helped shape one of his best stories. One wonders what they might have done if they’d had the internet at their disposal.

Comes the cynic’s reply: probably waste it by arguing over petty nonsense. A forum is only as good as its members. While I obviously have a great deal of respect for some of their work, there’s no denying most of the major figures at Weird Tales were, well, weird. (Especially Lovecraft. His eccentricities, both the harmlessly amusing ones and the kind of appalling ones, come through clearly in this book.)

As for Howard himself, his own story ended in a rather sad way, the details of which I won’t discuss because they have little bearing on his literary work. All I’ll say is that it would have been interesting to see what he might have produced had he lived to write for a full natural lifetime. Stephen King called much of Howard’s work “puerile.” Smith contests this accusation vigorously, and rightly so, but he never brings up what I consider the most obvious objection: Howard died at the age of 30, and so never could produce more mature works.

After reading this book, I decided to give another of Howard’s stories a try. I read Wolfshead, because Smith seemed to think it’s one of his best early stories.

It’s not bad, I have to say. Of course, for multiple reasons, it is shocking to the sensibilities of modern readers. But it’s got a good atmosphere; a creepy castle in some remote jungle, a cast of interesting characters, and a memorable narrative voice.

Looking through Howard’s works on Wikisource led me to The Battle That Ended The Century, which is a humorous in-joke story, allegedly by Lovecraft, packed with references to various members of the Weird Tales crowd, including Howard, or as he is called in the story, “Two-Gun Bob.”. My favorite line:

[T]he eminent magazine-cover anatomist Mrs. M. Blunderage portrayed the battlers as a pair of spirited nudes behind a thin veil of conveniently curling tobacco-smoke.

Can’t you just picture the sort of scene that’s being described? I bet when you started reading this review, you had no idea who Margaret Brundage was, and now you are able to appreciate inside jokes about her art style that were originally intended for a specific group of writers in the 1930s.

Such is the power of a writing community! Here we are, nearly a century later, and still reading their words. Would anyone in 1936 have dared imagine that the contributors of this strange little pulp would still be remembered? And what will people in 2110 remember about 2023, I wonder? An interesting question to ponder, indeed. But for today, I have gone on too long already.


  1. I think HPL and his pals would have loved the internet. Blogs and social media instead of amateur journalism and thousands of letters. Not sure if HPL could have made a living from self-publishing any more than most of us, though.

  2. Fascinating stuff! I do find it slightly amusing that his response to the Great Depression was “Well, I should become a writer” 😅 It does seem difficult for authors to write outside of their lived experiences. Not impossible but I think we take comfort in creating characters and stories in which we could easily see ourselves.

    I guess “write what you know” is pretty decent advice, after all.

    1. Yes, I think every writer needs to somehow feel connected to their characters. That’s where lived experience has to come in; it’s the only way to make characters the reader connects with.

      If a writer does that, then they can have the most bizarre and outlandish setting they want, but it will still feel ‘real’ in a way. (Or at least, as a sci-fi writer, I hope so. Because I’m probably never going to go into space, so… :D)

  3. I may need to check this guy’s stories out. Meanwhile, King referring to another writer as puerile is just so … ironic? Lacking in self-awareness? Trumpian? Something like that.

    And if I could make $3,000 a month from writing, I could fully and completely retire.

    1. I know, I couldn’t believe King said that. Maybe it’s just me, but somehow King’s authorial voice always strikes me as that of a teenager.

      1. You’re exactly right. His narrative voice has never grown beyond a 13-year-old boy. One of the reasons I can’t stand him any more.

        (Narrator: of course Paxson says this, knowing that his own narrative voice has yet to grow beyond a bored, depressed middle aged man.)

  4. You’re putting too much into 3 grand a month. They wrote on commission by the word. That would have been a good month, but most likely other months he didn’t get a dime.
    A bookstore by my house was getting rid of all its sci-fi and fantasy books going strictly children’s. Back then you tore the front page of the paperback off and mailed it to the distributor for a refund, then threw them away. She gave me a dozen Conan books. I was working graveyard shift as a security guard. Kept me away at night reading them.

  5. I doubt that Howard made a very lavish living off of writing,. I seem to recall that he was often owed money from the magazines who published his stories. I must admit that while I am familiar with Weird Tale covers, I have, maybe read one or two of Howard’s work in a pulp magazine anthology, even though his work was quite popular back in the 60’s & 70’s. (Nor Lovecraft for that matter.)

    It is interesting that you should only be discovering him now, I guess you’re just too young…

    1. You are right, later in his career he was owed a lot of money from Weird Tales.

      I’d heard of Howard for years, mostly due to his association with Lovecraft, but for some reason never read him much until now.

  6. This is an interesting and thorough view of one of the most influential writers of the Sword and Sorcery and Weird Western styles.
    Whereas I could never get into the original Conan stories it cannot be argued of the impression the Conan character has left. He strides the Comic Book market a untameable colossus. Howard also created the little known warrior woman character Dark Agnes (more Renaissance) who arguably gave rise to Red Sonja. Sonja and Conan more than once cross paths in the comic book world, as equals sharing a grim humour and high body count. (We’ll leave the film aside)
    Thus Howard’s legacy as a writer and person still remain.

    1. Yes, indeed. I’ve never actually seen the film, and probably never will, but I love the soundtrack to it.

      1. Classify it as ‘OK’ and keep your expectations of acting as quite low. Brigette Nielsen does ‘OK’ and Arnie is Arnie (of course).
        There’s another Sonja in the pipe-line.
        Conan the Barbarian (1982 film) with Arnie (of course) did better but it did have Max von Sydow and James Earl Jones in the cast which helped a great deal

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