My Return to Hyboria

The other day, I wrote about Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, who is coming to the movie screen, if indeed the filmmakers manage to bring him there (you never know for sure till it’s done, as I know all too well). This was just the latest bit of data in what has been a return to the realms of pulp for me the past year or so.

I’ve always loved pulp, and never been far from it, and in the recent past I used a short Savage Worlds adventure with 1930’s pulp action to introduce my players to the system, I introduced my son to Doc Savage (in the pages of the original novels and Marvel comics, as well as the George Pal/Ron Ely movie misfire from the seventies, which is actually pretty cool if you’re a 7 year old boy), I reread some H.P. Lovecraft, I started (and have nearly completed) a juvenile adventure novel that is deep tribute to both Doc Savage and Lovecraft, I added more pulp to my DVD collection (The Shadow, The Phantom, The Rocketeer, and of course the Indiana Jones trilogy), and hell, I could go on, but you get the point. The listing may be extraneous, anyway, since when I think about it, I could probably do a similar list from any previous year. As I said, I’m never far from pulp.

The latest is I’m re-reading Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, in their original form, unexpurgated and un-bastardized by L. Sprague de Camp or anyone else. I always loved this stuff, and haven’t ventured near it in years, so the inherent danger was that it wasn’t actually as good as I remembered (this has happened to me quite a bit, alas, and much golden light from my storied past has paled in the process). I mean, what if Howard wasn’t as good as I remembered? What if the blood and thunder and poetry of his prose was what my teenaged mind brought to his clunky hack material?

Well, no worries. The SOB could write.

I burned out on fantasy years ago, having read so damn much of it, and seeing so much of it become, basically, clumsy Tolkien pastiche brewed in folks’ own Dungeons & Dragons games. George R.R. Martin brought me back for a grand visit with his “Song of Fire and Ice” series, which brings Shakespearian complexity and historical novel heft to muscular, gritty pulp adventure, and is some of the best damn fiction of any sort I’ve ever read. I drop back in on Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser every couple years, and each time I’m surprised that, while I recall Leiber as being a prose god, I’m still giving the man less credit than deserved.

And Tolkien. I love Tolkien, but I think Peter Jackson mostly improved on his work, and you don’t read J.R.R. for his prose anyway, but for his world- and language-building and epic tale-telling. And it’s when Tolkien’s at his pulpiest, with screeching Nazgul and sinister giant spiders and, well, Gollum, that he’s at his best. And Aragorn could build his fire in the wildlands of Weird Tales and be completely at home. Tom Bombadil…well. Um.

I’d read 100 pages of Howard’s Conan any day over 100 pages of Tolkien. Howard’s writing is as muscular and aggressive as his barbaric hero, and as intelligent. Conan is a far cry from the contemporary stereotype of the bulky, none-too-bright savage, and the stories put him in a variety of situations, not just the same one over and over. Magic in these tales is rare and mysterious and almost always corrupt. Monsters are scary, not just another bag of hit points to whack at. There is passion and danger and the feel of real (often swampy) earth underfoot.

So, in short, I’m lovin’ my return to Howard’s Hyboria, and watching Conan in action again is thrilling. If you haven’t read this stuff, you should. Start here.

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