Sunday, April 26, 2015

Heroes in the Wind: From Kull to Conan Part 3

This is the last portion of my response to John Clute's introduction. I continue discussing his stilted and confusing terminology. Once again, I'm not telling anyone to avoid buying this volume, I'm just wishing that an REH scholar had of written the introduction . . .

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Picture taken from the Del Rey edition
titled Kull: Exile of Atlantis
 With his use of “ontological insecurity”, Clute has certainly left his careful reader in utter confusion. “’The Shadow Kingdom’ (1929) features Kull, king of Valusia, a usurper from fabled Atlantis, a man whose gaze is like iron, a brooder. There is some fustian in the tale, as Howard only slowly mastered the pulp habit of petticoating dark thoughts in florid adjectives; but the cosmic terror of the climax, the ontological insecurity generated by the shapechanging Secret Master aliens, comes across with near absolute conviction.” (Clute, xv) I’m not even sure I have the smallest understanding of what Clute means here by ontological insecurity. Ontology is the branch of philosophy, metaphysics, that deals with the issue of being. “[M]ost generally, the philosophical investigation of the nature, constitution, and structure of reality.” (Audi, 489) Issues such as whether God exists, or what is evil, the existence of non-physical entities” fall under the study of ontology. And we all know what insecurity means. But what is ontological insecurity? Is Clute attempting to combine the two words to mean “being insecure?” If so, his use of ontology is so far off from being accurate I actually feel embarrassed for him.
The above are only two examples of stilted language (or terms) that Clute employs in this introduction. Other examples include, “skewed intensity” (Clute, xv), “existential crisis,” (Clute, xv), “claustrophobia of mundane history,” (Clute, xvi), and he confuses succubus and incubus (xviii). This kind of language is replete in this introduction and only manages to confuse the reader. Moreover, Clute’s tone throughout the introduction is fairly condescending in the sense that Clute enjoys Howard despite Clute’s self. He also writes in such a way that he slaps his own reader without them realizing it.
 So why should all this matter? This is the introduction to a European Penguin Modern Classics volume that is now no longer in print. The reason it matters is 1) because the work was at one point in print which means that anyone can track it down and obtain a copy, 2) Howard scholars have spent decades trying to not only clarify who Robert E. Howard was, but also take Howard’s work and introduce it to the world of literature as something that is worthy of consideration. And, 3) the book and its introduction has already gained some notoriety (and response) on a website called Strange Horizons in a review written by William Mingin (see bibliography for the weblink).
Because of all this, an introduction to an academic collection of Howard’s work ought to be succinct, welcoming, and easily informative. Clute has done a poor job at all this. Clute certainly comes across as a fan of Robert E. Howard’s work, but his fandom seems a bit distorted. Moreover, while Clute could be considered an expert in science fiction, he is not an expert on Robert E. Howard. I can think of several Howard scholars who are far more qualified to discuss Robert E. Howard and his works besides John Clute.
Aside from Clute’s introduction, the works he chose from Howard to include in the volume were divided into three main parts: Black Dawn, Dark Interlude, and High Noon. Black Dawn includes The Shadow Kingdom, The Mirrors of Tuzun Thane, Kings of the Night, Worms of the Earth, and The Dark Man. According to Clute and his assessment that Robert E. Howard was “never comfortable with the novel” (Clute, xv), these stories were chosen and grouped because of their size (all about 10,000 words) and the idea that in these stories Clute claims that “Howard had become perhaps the most word-perfect, consistent, unrelenting, irresistibly succinct narrator of violent action ever to write in English.” (xvi)
Weird Tales September 1931. This issue
contains Howard's The Footfalls Within
 Dark Interlude includes The Footfalls Within, Pigeons from Hell, Graveyard Rats, and Vultures of Wahpeton. Clute is not clear why these stories are in this section other than they “reduce the pressure for a moment.” (Clute, xvi) The last section, High Noon, brings in Howard’s most famous character, Conan. This section includes The Tower of the Elephant, Queen of the Black Coast, A Witch Shall Be Born, and Red Nails. His reason for leaving Conan for last is it allows the reader to now relax , “because we sense that Howard has come home.”
It is Clute’s selection of stories where I can appreciate this volume the most. It is clear he has put some thought into his choices. Clute has also given credit to several Robert E. Howard scholars for these choices. While I do not object to any of the stories Clute has chosen to include in this volume, obviously there are some I would add or subtract for various reasons, as would just about any other Howard fan or scholar. Most of these reasons would be how conducive they are to being taught in a classroom setting of say young freshmen literature students. However, for the general public this volume would be a delightful introduction to Howard’s work, aside from its introduction, of course.
All in all, I’m pleased to see that this volume exists but saddened that it was introduced the way it was. Despite the negative undertones, the confusing language and use of odd phraseology, I can only hope that Howard’s stories included in this volume will speak louder and clearer for themselves than Clute has done in introducing them.

Bibliography

Audi, Robert, ed. Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. Print.

Clute, John, ed. Heroes in the Wind: From Kull to Conan: The Best of Robert E. Howard. London: Penguin, 2009. Print

Mingin, William. "Heroes in the Wind by Robert E. Howard." Strange Horizons Reviews: , Reviewed by William Mingin. Http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2010/02/heroes_in_the_w.shtml, 22 Feb. 2010. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.


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