13 July 2011

The Hour of the Dragon by Robert E. Howard

The Hour of the Dragon by Robert E. Howard

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book this old. And this book has been on my to-read list for a long time. A mentor in my MA program suggested I read some Robert E. Howard and so I got this book but I never quite got to it.

The Hour of the Dragon is Howard’s only novel-length story--the mass market paperback wasn’t even 300 pages. It was featured in installments in Weird Tales starting in 1935. Magic and betrayal, wizards, death and quests what’s not to love about this original sword and sorcery story?

While Howard had great stories to tell, I found myself cringing at the usage and style. Exclamation points everywhere, ill-placed Middle English, impossible names (yet not as impossible as his contemporary and friend H. P. Lovecraft). Every time I cringed, I had to remind myself how long ago this was written. Have tastes in prose changed so much? Or was that just the result of the cheaply produced pulps of the era?

Despite all that, delicious vocabulary crept among the purple prose on which 90’s Sword and Sorcery was built. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to look up a word while reading, and I think it’s a shame that I don’t have to do so more often. Maybe I’m just not reading the right stuff?

What about Conan himself? The character that people could not get enough of in his heyday? I can certainly see the draw to him. He was the strapping giant that no one could beat, he fought on the side of good and didn’t back down from confrontation. Despite being a little sexist by my own 21st century standards, he had respectable morals and philosophies. He also was intelligent. He had a mind for politics, even though he obviously hated them, and could strategize a battle--and Howard could write it well enough to draw out the suspense (this is probably the key to his success).

As I mentioned before, Howard created the original Conan character during the Great Depression. And now, the new movie for Conan the Barbarian is coming out, during this new depression we’re living through. Coincidence? What do you think?

Review cross posted at Greater Portland Scribists

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2 comments:

  1. A shame you weren't a fan of the style, but perhaps that's more a matter of taste than anything else. What Middle-English usage bothered you, if I may ask? And for that matter, what "impossible names"? This is a fantasy story, after all, so names like Xaltotun and whatnot are fair game. I don't see the problem with exclamation marks, personally. Still, taste is subjective.

    Nonetheless, I'm glad you made the plunge and read Howard. Even so, there's so much more to Howard than Conan, which is by far his most commercially-minded creation. I would recommend you seek out his poetry: it was written without thoughts of what would "sell" in mind, so Howard could just write from the heart without restraints. Indeed, in the two-volume "Best of Robert E. Howard" collection from Del Rey, only 4 of the 32 collected stories are Conan tales. The 21 Conan stories only account for a mere fraction of the 300+ stories Howard wrote in his lifetime.

    On Conan's "sexism": well technically, he's only disparaging of civilized women. In an early adventure, he fully expected the queen he was working for to strap on armour and take part in the battle: after all, that's what Cimmerian women did. Thus Conan being a little condescending to women isn't because of their gender, so much as their civilized softness. He tends to treat civilized men much as he does civilized women. When a woman proves herself to be strong-willed and worthy of Conan's respect (see "The People of the Black Circle," "Red Nails") he treats them with fierce admiration.

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  2. Thanks for responding to my post and sharing the Howard information. I see that you are familiar with his body of work and his achievements.

    I’ve formally studied the writing of popular fiction for a few years and have become sensitive to many usages that have become cliché or have been poorly imitated since Howard’s time.

    Howard’s approach to Middle-English is one of these things. I think I only came across a handful of words in the novel. It’s the fact that there were just a few loosely placed words, instead of, let’s say, whole lines. If he’s going to use it, use it. It might have been effective for Howard to transport the reader to Conan’s time. Maybe I’ve just seen too much of it used poorly for it to have the desired effect.

    Believe me, I’m used to seeing outlandish names. Check out my story, THE MAKING in SCRIBINGS, to see what I mean. In fact, Xaltotun was one of the easier ones for me. I think my issue stemmed from the fact that most characters had four of five syllable names and no one had nick names. Many of the syllables echoed each other’s sounds and made me constantly stumble in their pronunciation, so more often than not I would just skim over their names and forget them. And from a letter from H. P. Lovecraft to Donald A. Wollheim himself: “The only flaw in this stuff is R.E.H.’s tendency to devise names too closely resembling actual names of ancient history--names which, for us, have very different associations.” He has his reasons of course, but still very much a matter of taste.

    This seems to be an interesting Conan story from what I’ve heard. It seems to stand apart from many of the other tales in that it is a novel, but also in that Conan was alone for most of the story, as in, he didn’t have many allies and was constantly facing his enemies. Character development, I did notice, was one of Howard’s strengths. Conan is indeed a three dimensional character. And apparently, I didn’t have much opportunity to see other facets of his personality.

    Thank you for the suggestions. I’ll have to look them up and discover more about the author who influenced many of my favorite writers. I’ll be at Readercon this weekend, maybe I’ll find some good deals on his collections.

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