As a birthday present, my mother found me a copy of the first issue of Fantasy Magazine, published in February, 1953. Inside was a then previously unpublished novella by Robert E. Howard, entitled The Black Stranger. It stars (actually, almost guest starring) his most famous creation, Conan. Howard killed himself in the thirties, so didn’t live long enough to see his character become an icon and his stories the foundational texts of modern fantasy.

Howard is rather like Arthur Conan Doyle, in some respects. The quality of the writing is mixed, to be generous (Howard is a worse writer than Doyle, but better than another foundational pulp figure, Edgar Rice Burroughs, without whose John Carter stories, we likely would not have Star Wars). But despite the obvious inadequacies of Howard and Doyle, they both created something ineffably compelling in their most famous characters. They have also both not always been well served by the onscreen depictions of their characters. Holmes has always been so much elusive and complex on the page than in any of the television and movie versions (I’ll make an exception for the old BBC series starring Jeremy Brett, which were quite literal). Conan, too, is a far more interesting and three dimensional character on the page than he ever will be on the screen. The (relatively) recent movie actually reflected the cunning pirate of the printed pages, but at the expense of building a small and petty character. Schwarzenegger brought the subtlety of sledgehammer to his acting, while Oliver Stone and John Milius brought all their respective left and right wing paranoia to the screenplay and direction, respectively, but at least they combined to make him into something mythic, even if the finer points were trampled on, ground into fine dust, and finally tossed under steamroller before being buried under a Walmart parking lot.

The Black Stranger is written in the third person, but, except at the very beginning and the end, keeps the focus on other characters. Even when Conan reappears in the middle, the effect is of viewing him through others’ eyes. It is far from the best Conan story, which are generally some of the shorter ones, but there’s not really such a thing as a bad one, if you’ve got a taste for pulp.

Like Burroughs, Howard wrote when genre designations like sci fi and fantasy didn’t really exist. Look at the names of the early magazine and what do you find? Weird Tales. Astounding Stories. Amazing Stories. Howard and Lovecraft were pen pals and (sort of) friends and both published in many of the same periodicals, though that would not be true today. Howard has such an outsized influence that he effectively created (with co-creation credit going to Tolkien) the genre of fantasy out of the more nebulous genre of ‘weird.’


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