Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Stars Rush Like a Blow to the Face: Post Oaks and Sand Roughs and the Freedom of the Unreal by Jason Ray Carney

Introduction (by Todd B. Vick)

I first met Jason Ray Carney in March of 2016. We were both presenting papers in the Pulp Studies group at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA-ACA) conference in Seattle, Washington. "'No plot, no sequence, no moral': Robert E. Howard's Post Oak and Sand Roughs and the Unreality of the Ordinary" was the title of his paper. The title had sparked my interest, especially since everything I had read about Howard’s Post Oaks and Sand Roughs (POASR) was a discussion about the novella being a semi-autobiographical work from Howard. It was to be read as such, but its autobiographical accuracy was to be taken with several grains of salt. That being the case, I was curious about the contents of Carney’s paper. Would it be the same stuff I had read before? No, in fact, it was not. Carney had, more or less, turned that notion on its head and requested his reader examine the story as a work of modern fiction, in light of the development of the novel. Howard’s story was an excellent example of the modern novel. To say this idea surprised me would be a slight understatement. He had my attention. He had me thinking outside the box. I like that.

You are in for a treat with this blog post. Once again, Carney is going to peel back the covers of POASR and ask us, his reader, to see it in a different light. He will delve into the novel’s formlessness, how blog posts are akin to this formlessness (I kid you not), and then apply all this to POASR, along with the idea of genres of freedom, the failure of the novel, and REH and the pulp writer as pugilist. That’s a lot to take in, you might be thinking. It is, to a certain degree, but he does a first-rate job of explaining how this is all possible, and why it is important. In addition to his blog post, he commissioned artist Jessica Robinson to illustrate his work/REH, a first for On An Underwood No. 5. So, without further ado, I’ll leave you with Jason Ray Carney. Enjoy!  —Todd B. Vick

I. The Blog Post and Genre Anxiety

First, I want to thank Todd for inviting me to write a guest blog post. I try to keep a blog and struggle to maintain it, and the primary reason for this is that I can't quite wrap my mind around the "anything-goes" genre of the blog post: its conventions, its goals, its use-value for readers. Here are some of my questions: Are blog posts formal academic writing? Are they a kind of magazine writing for an educated but casual audience? (I wouldn't call the REH fan community 'casual'). More specifically: if I'm discussing literature (one of the few things I feel qualified to substantively blog about), am I writing a digital version of literary criticism or does the blog post context change things fundamentally? Should I use footnotes? Should I use media-specific elements, such as embedded art, like the original drawing I commissioned the talented illustrator, Jessica Robinson, for this post? Should I use direct quotations? Should I use particular academic citation and style guide? If I'm reflecting on whether or not I enjoy a particular literary work, have I stopped doing literary criticism and begun writing a mere review? How personal or objective should I be?

Snaps open a can of beer. This might help.

The formlessness of the blog post as a genre spins my head, leaves me at a loss regarding how to proceed, and, so, to begin, I'm going to take my lead from a young H.P. Lovecraft writing in 1917 to Rheinhart Kleiner. Defending his wide-ranging epistolary style, Lovecraft asks Kleiner the same thing I'll ask you, dear reader: "Regard my communications not as studied letters, but as fragments of discourse, spoken with the negligence of oral intercourse rather than the formal correctness of literary correspondence." Replace "blog post" with "communications" and "studied letters" with "formal essay," and we're getting somewhere.

Robert E. Howard
Illustration by Jessica Robinson
In contemplating writing this blog post, I feel kindred to the artistically frustrated Steve Costigan, the protagonist of Robert E. Howard's unpublished novel, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, as he contemplates writing not sword and sorcery, adventure, or gothic horror, but the realism:

Steve had wished to write life as he saw it--he had torturously pounded out a few realistic tales and had found the subject the most difficult of all. ‘I don’t know where to take hold,’ he said slowly. ‘Life is full of tag ends which never begin and never end. There’s no plot, no sequence, no moral.’

"I don't know where to take hold." Yep. I could say the same thing about writing blog posts, but I'm going to give it my best here. Every book or article I've read that gives advice about blogging basically boils down to these same bits of advice: choose a topic and imagine a specific audience; then, those decisions made, write about something apropos to your selected topic and in a style that will satisfy the needs of the particular audience you have in mind. Don't forget the blog post's chronological structure and ephemeral nature. Blog posts, unlike journal articles and academic monographs, are date-indexed; unlike journal peer-reviewed scholarship, which has a chance of maintaining its worth despite its aging, blog posts are acutely ephemeral, like acid-rich articles in a daily rag. Though they don't yellow with age and fall apart as papery snowflakes, they do disappear into the digital archive.

Bearing this advice in mind, let me put all my cards on the table, remove my black hat, and hang my holstered, silver-filigreed revolvers on a crooked nail (excuse the trite similes as I establish atmosphere): I'm writing a meandering blog post about Robert E. Howard's unpublished quasi-autobiographical novel, referred to as Post Oaks and Sand Roughs (Important note: Patrice Louinet told me recently that this is not actually the title of the novel; instead, it should be more accurately labeled Grasping at the Edge, a name referenced in an REH letter somewhere, though I am ignorant of the specific letter). My assumed audience is a group of diehard Robert E. Howard fans who read or are open to reading On an Underwood No. 5, who have the patience for a long essay, and who believe Howard was not merely a pulp raconteur who spun yarns that entertain (he is this, of course!) but was also a sincere literary artist who deserves wider visibility in Anglophone literary history, in the concrete form of academic monographs and articles, conference panels, and university courses that treat early 20th-century literature, popular culture, and genre fiction. Finally, I'm going to try my best to affect a minimally academic, hospitable, no BS, yet substantive prose style that hopefully entertains, educates, and starts a conversation.

II. Genre Anxiety in Post Oaks and Sand Roughs

You might be thinking that that was a lot of wind up. If this were an academic article I was writing, sure, I'd agree with you. I would take a grease-pen and X through those first paragraphs, this one, and probably several more below. But I'm not writing an academic article. Still, a fair question might be, "Why wring your hands about defining the genre of the blog post, its style, its goals, and its media distinctiveness?" Because. Trying to define the genre of the blog post is very similar to trying to define the genre of the novel, another infamously un-definable and stubborn literary genre. And, trying to define the genre of the novel--more specifically, trying to get the genre of the novel to work, to give a spark of life through cohesiveness and unity of theme--is precisely what Post Oaks and Sand Roughs is all about! Spoiler alert: the novel doesn't end up working. The fictional novel Steve Costigan struggles to write doesn't cohere and doesn't come to life. Like an anti-climactic version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the monstrous novel Costigan writes just lays there, dead meat; no bolt of lightning will change that. At Post Oaks and Sand Roughs' conclusion, the novel fails the protagonist, the young writer, aspiring poet, amateur boxer, and college student. At the novel's end, the crisis is resolved; Steve Costigan forsakes writing and literary art and chooses life instead. Here's the end of the novel, a transparent statement of resolution: "It ain't Romance and it ain't Adventure that's callin' me. It's Life. That's enough. Life, hard and rough and red and real."

Steve Costigan forsakes novel writing because it doesn't work, it doesn't serve its supposed function, which is to communicate life as experienced by the author. But here's the rub: Steve's isn't a worthless, absurd failure but instead a glorious one. The resolution and insight of Post Oaks and Sand Roughs is fundamentally of an aesthetic and philosophical variety. Put simply: Post Oaks and Sand Roughs dramatizes the failure of the novel to make a life public, to make a life shareable, to render a life comprehensible and thematically unified for other people, for strangers, to understand. I'll return to this, but the tragedy that is pronounced by Post Oaks and Sand Roughs is that complex conditions conspire so that some lives cannot be made public, are simply not publishable. Intimacy is not an option.

III. A Brief History of the Novel's Formlessness

What's inspiring about all of this from my perspective as a literary historian is that Robert E. Howard, in his twenties, figured this out geographically marginalized, "grasping at the edge," if you will, in the middle of what my Appalachian grandpa would call "God's Country," a ubiquitous euphemism for "nowhere." For many literary historians and critics, the novel, like the protean blog post, has often been distinguished by its "generic formlessness." This is not my idea but Mikhail Bahktin's, a literary theorist who articulated this thesis several places but most powerfully in his Epic and Novel: Towards a Methodology for the Study of the Novel (1941). In this influential monograph, Bahktin compares and contrasts the genre of the "epic poem" to the "novel" and in doing so makes some compelling observations. In essence, Bahktin asserts that the novel has two essential characteristics: (1) its ability to "novelize" any other literary genre, such as lyric poetry, epistolary writing, belles-lettres, drama, and so on; like a Xenomorph, the novel can infect and assimilate pretty much anything. The novel can be all letters in the form of an epistolary novel like Bram Stoker's Dracula. It can be a personal and daily journal, like Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. It can be predominantly "jingle-word" lyricism, i.e. those patience-testing tales of Lord Dunsany's, H.P. Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, or what I'll sometimes call "the real Necronomicon," James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. The novel can also incorporate selections of formal and metered poetry, such as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, i.e. the several staves and epic poems that are included for the sake of narrative and world building. It can incorporate non-fictional descriptions of all sorts of things: e.g. Melville and the whaling industry, Sinclair and the meatpacking industry, Doyle and 19th-century criminology and psychology. For Bahktin, the novel is the literary equivalent of a witch's stew, and also, potentially, equally as potent.

The novel's formlessness, its ability to consume and assimilate any other literary genre, isn't so interesting in itself. But Bahktin's argument advances to more fecund soil. Let me explain: he makes a rhetorical claim about the novel's ability to adapt to, endure, and translate into aesthetic/narrative form the process of accelerating historical change. He argues that because of the novel's ability to incorporate any other genre, the novel--not drama, not lyric poetry, not the essay--is the literary genre par excellence for artistically rendering contemporary and future realities. Let me be clear: this isn't a vulgar historicist argument, like the one Ian Watt makes in his classic The Rise of the Novel (1957), wherein he argues that the novel is particularly suited to the sensibilities of a secularizing middle-class. No. Bakhtin is less concerned about how the novel shows up as a distinctive genre in the early 18th-century and is more concerned with its enduring and even contemporary function today. For Bahktin, the development of the genre of the novel in the early 18th-century was a major paradigm shift in the realm of literary art. Unlike prior literary genres that were more formalized by critical demands and conventionalized by constraining tradition--e.g., the epic poem, Attic drama, the English mystery play, the sonnet, etc.--the acutely unconstrained novel can continuously adapt to and react to the current situation to suit contemporary artistic needs. The novel, like the several iterations of its physical body--stone tablet, scroll, codex, triple-decker, pulp magazine, paperback, e-book--can take many different forms for many different situations. It's not just a Swiss Army Knife. It's alive. It's a Shoggoth.

IV. The Blog, the Novel, and Several Forms of Value

The genre of the blog post is a lot like this, but, to my mind, there are major differences between it and the novel. I'm aware that comparing them is highly speculative, a lot like comparing anchovy pizza to blueberry pie: they're both pies, right? Their resemblance is a stretch. But if you squint, it's there. And I hope you will trust me when I say that by bringing their differences into starker focus we will get a clearer since of the amazing aesthetic experiment Robert E. Howard was executing when he wrote Post Oaks and Sand Roughs.

Let's start with the most obvious difference. Unlike the novel, the blog post is non-narrative. The blog post is mostly expository writing of the educational, entertaining, and persuasive variety.

Now let's move on to the less obvious yet intuitive difference between the blog post and the novel. Alas, doing so requires a few brush strokes of jargon. Blog posts are distinguished from the novel, I think, by their "symbolic distance from three major systems of value." Let me write that again: "symbolic distance from three major systems of value." It's an important idea. Let me explain by working through the three systems of value I have in mind.

First system of value: actual capital. This refers to money. Dollars and cents. Most blogs do not demand actual capital or generate revenue, unless, of course, the blog offers advertisements, has a lot of readers; or, maybe if the blog is really badass, it results, in an indirect way, in deferred capital in the form of a book deal.

Next system of value: cultural capital. This refers to bragging rights. Hipness. The respect you demand from your peer group or social supplicants. Sure, there is something neat about saying you're a blogger or you keep a blog, but, can we quantify bragging rights? How does it compare to other neat activities? Are you exhibiting your experimental art at some New York gallery? Do you have a full file of Weird Tales? Do you own Worf's forehead latex? The idea of cultural capital, a concept explored in Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979), is simply that there are alternative systems of social value to actual capital not proscribed by money. Writing blog posts, unlike writing novels, doesn't generate much cultural capital.

Final system of value: aesthetic value. Does the object under consideration do something for you? To you? This last system of value refers to the potential of an object d'art to stir its auditors, readers, and/or viewers. We might see this as a subjective system of value and therefore irrelevant, but don't be so quick. There are compelling arguments, not easily discounted, that make strong cases that our aesthetic tastes, which seem mere preference, are determined by objective conditions beyond our control, conditions to which we are as victims rather than as masters. Most would agree that aesthetic value isn't a consideration when it comes to the genre of the blog post. The last time I checked, people weren't so concerned that their blog posts were works of art. Sure, we all want to be good prose stylists, but there is a refreshingly unpretentious kind of "shirtsleeves" quality to blogs, at least from my perspective.

V. The Genres of Freedom and the American Novel

I went through these three systems of value in order to make an airtight case about novel writing: unlike the formless blog post, the formless novel is intimately associated with these systems of value. Although both the blog post and the novel are the same in that they afford the writer unchecked freedom to proceed the way they damn well please stylistically, conventionally, and rhetorically--let me coin a phrase: they are both "genres of freedom"--they are different when it comes to systems of value. Blogging, though not a waste of time (I hope I'm not wasting my time), is a leisure "low stakes" activity in contrast to novel writing, which, I would argue, is a quasi-sacred activity, particularly so in the United States. Let me explain.

Because of interesting historical and cultural reasons, as explored in Mark McGurl's wonderful The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James (2001), writing the American novel has become closely associated with the systems of value I explored above. Anyone who reads widely in American literature can't refute the idea that the Holy Grail of producing "the great American novel" motivates North America's most ambitious and brazen writers. White Stag though it is, the myth of "the Great American Novel" has raised a lot of our writers to the Hagiography of Literature: Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, Melville's Moby-Dick, Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, Warren's All the King's Men, McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and so on. These weighty, wide-ranging, and philosophically ambitious American novels struggle and mostly fail to fully captures the effervescent spirit of a sublime nation. For the British, for reasons I won't speculate about here, novel writing (and novel reading) was an activity that, though later held in higher esteem, had had a slightly compromised reputation from the start (think Anne Radcliffe, the Gothic Novel, and serialized fiction). And yet, and yet! for North Americans, it's plausible--to the extent that it was more strongly associated with nation-building and rendering a unifying national culture and mythology--to argue that novel writing has been (and continues to be) a quasi-sacred calling, generating actual wealth, cultural esteem, and critical praise.

I'm sure a lot of you, aspiring writers and novelists yourselves, completely understand this. To announce to kith and kin that you're writing a novel has dramatic, even brazen, flair to it. It's akin, I dare say, to saying you're going to hike the AT, convert to another religion, get you're Ph.D., start a new business enterprise, and so on. Consider a person you know who is writing a novel, who has been writing a novel for as long as you've known them, and when you check in with them on their project, they are still plugging away; for me, their noble novel-writing enterprise becomes part of their persona, the source of a lingering artistic halo that illuminates them. I'm not saying a version of this doesn't show up in other national cultures, but, for many North Americans specifically, unlike writing a mere blog post, writing a novel is important. It's a symbolic manifestation of "rugged individualism," a forceful, even aggressive gesture of personal worth. For many, to say, "I'm writing a novel!" is also to say, "I have thought long and deeply about this strange life, my countrymen, and having lived, I will now tell a tale! Hearken to me!" In the crowing of every ambitious American novelist, perhaps we hear echoes of Whitman's Leaves of Grass: "I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume." Read that again. Whitman isn't joking.

VI. Post Oaks and Sand Roughs as an Assertion of Personal Worth

We seem to have gone afield of Post Oaks and Sand Roughs. Let's circle back. Keeping in mind what I just argued about novel writing and its high esteem in North American culture, let's consider the conflict of Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, which isn't expressed until late in the story. Steve Costigan, the protagonist of the novel, is at his wit's ends. He has finished college. His parent's are pressuring him to get a job. The manuscripts he sends to professional grade magazines are being returned rejected in staccato fashion, like painful jabs to Steve's face. Steve is on the proverbial ropes. So, what does he do? It's beautiful when you seen from the perspective I have been outlining. He decides to write a novel:

He saw no logical end to his life. He could not go on forever, pounding out stuff no one would buy, and the thought of going to work nauseated him. He looked about desperately for some escape. […] He determined to write a tale of his own life, seeking to instill an interest therein by a realistic account of the drabness, and sham of small town life, the futile and abortive gropings of humanity, and the failings and ambitions of such strugglers as himself.

By bringing together my anxiety about blogging, Bahktin's analysis of the novel, with an account of the uniquely American high regard of novel writing and its relationship to several types of value, I hope you can now see how Steve's decision to write a novel of his life can be viewed as an assertion of his personal worth, and--spirals within spirals!--can be viewed, accordingly, as Robert E. Howard asserting his personal worth. Put another way, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs is about a young man undertaking what we can now view as a most sacred of tasks: novel writing. It's perhaps difficult for us to see it now, embedded as we are in our NaNoMo culture where everyone's writing a novel, but the gesture of a young person living in Cross Plains (I mean "Lost Plains") deciding to write a novel about their life, their experience, to render life as he sees it, to share his ideas, can be viewed as tragic, and even more so when the conflict’s resolution is considered:

At first it seemed easy. He thought all that was necessary was simply to write occurrences. Then he found translating realism, or even writing it, was the hardest of all feats [...]. The book was rejected, and Steve was neither surprised nor very disappointed. He had enough artistic sense to know that his work had violated all the rules of literature. […] The next morning he rose early, put on a tie, which was a practice he hated, brushed his hair, and dolled himself up generally.

Could it be that "the book was rejected" is just another way of saying Steve, and Robert E. Howard, were rejected?

Yeah. I think Post Oaks and Sand Roughs is the story of a geographically disenfranchised artist coming to terms, artistically, with the un-publishable quality of his ordinary life. Steve Costigan's life is too absurd, too formless, to render in artistic and narrative form. Like a person trying to grope toward a point in a meandering blog post, Costigan slowly came to realize that his life was a story that could not be narrated, could not be made public. This might sound a little circular, so let me put it another way: Post Oaks and Sand Roughs is a specific novel about the failure of the novel in general, and this has major literary historical significance.

VII. Interbellum Literature and the Failure of the Novel

There's a long and venerable conversation about how Interbellum Anglophone Literature was haunted by the idea that post-WWI, industrialized modern life had become too complicated to render truthfully and beautifully in a novel. It came to seem that the most that could be attained by the sincere novelist would be a hollow, shallow, paperdoll sentimentalism, a reductive approximation of actual life. This is an important conversation to connect to Post Oaks and Sand Roughs.

It wasn't just the unreal Steve Costigan and real Robert E. Howard who were frustrated by the exhaustion of the novel as a literary art form. Many 1920s writers and literary critics voiced similar concerns about the novel's growing impotence in the 20th-century. Check out Virginia Woolf "Mr. Bennett and Mr. Brown" (1923). Or, more to the point, look at T.S. Eliot's essay, "Ulysses, Order, Myth" (1923), part review and part defense of James Joyce's novelistic technique in Ulysses. Referring to Ulysses, Eliot writes, "If it is not a novel, that is simply because the novel is a form which will no longer serve." Referring to Joyce's use of extended mythological allegory to shape his protagonist's, Leopold Bloom's, day, he states, "It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history."

If, by the 1920s, the traditional realistic novel had become "a form which would no longer serve," then there seemed to be two approaches a literary artist could take: naturalism or modernism. The approach of naturalism was an unyielding commitment to representation of the modern world in all of its ugliness, injustice, and absurdity. Think of the muckraking journalists of the 1910s, 20s, and 30s.

The other approach was to artistically redeem the chaos, ugliness, and absurdity of the modern world through the transformative power of literature and story. The clear of example of this is, of course, is James Joyce's "mythic method," the technique articulated by T.S. Eliot's review of Ulysses. This method basically involved two parts: (1) the literary artist, like a doctor truthfully diagnosing a sick patient, soberly acknowledges the sickness, the idea that modern reality was a dung-heap, a chaotic jumble of absurd miscellany that could no longer be captured in literary form. (2) Unperturbed by this sad prognosis, the literary artist calls upon the power of literary art--narrative, allegory, and symbolism--to shape the ascendant chaos of the world; the artistic rendering might come to be inaccurate, the story mythological and two dimensional, but it would be a beautifully inaccurate rendering, a stained-glass window or piece of bread ritualistically transformed into the spirit-body of God. Consider Stephen Dedalus's brazen assertion at the end of the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is pretty much a clarion call to artists to transform the fallen world: having become a true poet, Dedalus set outs "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." "Smithy of my soul." Important distinction: the artist is not transforming reality and not merely holding a mirror up to it like a journalist. Put simply, the real world is a giant slum; the artist, however, will use art to transform it, to redeem it.

VIII. Robert E. Howard and the Third Way

In Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, Steve Costigan comes to this realization, acknowledges this forking path, and, from my perspective, he seems to create a third choice, to leave the real behind completely, a decision allegorized when he leaves Lost Plains at the novel's close. Seen in the broader context of Howard's literary career and corpus, it's a pretty amazing gesture, one pregnant with meaning. Costigan's flight from Lost Plains, to my mind, is Howard accepting as his purview fantasy, horror, adventure, the Western, and the sensational, in other words, the freedom of dream visions over a constraining adherence to terra firma. It's too simplistic just to say that Costigan, and thereby Howard, was a literary genius, that he, by a process of intuition, understood that the problem of literary representation was a dead end in the interwar period, that it was the key contradiction confronting and baffling the literary artist of his day. The fact is that Costigan (and by all accounts, as did Howard) had an intellectually nourishing group of artistic friends, a smart mother and father, enough money to buy books, and no small amount of belief in himself, at least in the beginning. Just because Howard (oops, I mean Costigan) didn't go to the Ivy Leagues, didn't live on the West Bank of Paris, didn't read The Smart Set, The Atlantic, and Poetry, doesn't mean he wasn't rigorously participating in interwar literary culture. This novel proves he was. The problem is not with his level of participation but with how we define interwar literary culture.

*Climbs onto soap box.* Brothers and sisters! *Slams the rostrum* We literary historians aren't always capable of fully acknowledging how myopic--how nearsighted!--we often are when we make generalizations about literary history. Regarding interbellum literary culture--let me tell you straight--there were numberless writers participating in the teens, 20s, and 30s, and anyone who is arrogant enough to believe their own generalizations without conditions is lying to themselves! *Climbs off soap box.*

But why do I think Post Oaks and Sand Roughs is so important, is not merely a literary curio? Let me answer this from the perspective not as a literary historian but as a Robert E. Howard fan, and, I'll warn you, I'm getting speculative, opinionated, and elliptical here. I haven't figured it all out just yet and I could use some help.

Drum roll: Seen in a broader context of literary history, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs is clear evidence that Howard chose to focus on and master the non-realistic genres in the latter part of his career not only because of economic considerations but also because--and here's my kicker--the unrealistic genres helped him solve a high-minded aesthetic problem specific to geographically marginalized writers "grasping at the edge." If literary history had seemed to reach a forking road--naturalism or modernism, the literature of the profane or the literature of the sacred--then Howard sought and mastered a third road. Neither sacred nor profane, worldly or otherworldly, the literature Howard pioneered was both, a synthesis of modernism and naturalism, the otherworldy sutured to the worldly, what I have termed elsewhere "shadow modernism," a most ambitious literature aware that story is shadow but also aware that, by the high art of the storyteller, shadows can--and do!--achieve something almost like autonomy.

It's a weird allegory, but I imagine Howard, surveying, as a thoughtful artist and literary technician, all the available means of expression in the interwar period, and he starts to resemble Conan:

Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen- eyed,sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.

Replace "Conan" with "Howard" and "jeweled thrones of the earth" with "literary techniques of the 19th-century," and my allegory, hopefully, snaps into focus.

Conclusion: Robert E. Howard and the Pulp Writer as a Pugilist

I began with a strange but useful juxtaposition, reflections on the blog post with a literary history of the novel's formlessness, so pardon me as I conclude with what I think is another strange but useful juxtaposition, a rendering of the ordinary contrasted against a rendering of the extraordinary. This first one is from Post Oaks and Sand Roughs. Steve Costigan has just spent the evening boxing at the ice house in Lost Plains, and made euphoric by a strangely nourishing violence, he laughs:

Steve knew Life, fierce, red, and vibrant. God, but this was his element! To fight, to kill or be killed, here in this hell-hot, smoke-laden atmosphere, with a gang of rough-necks screaming oaths and obscenities and shouting for his slaughter! Steve felt jubilant in a strange manner. His mind was clear now, and the blood raced through his veins. He felt no bad aftereffects from his terrific battle. [...] He sighed deeply and with relish and glanced up at the stars, which seemed somehow less cold and more friendly. He laughed.

The next one is the opening from "The Tower of the Elephant." The narrator skillfully renders the extraordinary as a punch to the face. But who, dear reader, is being punched?

Steel glinted in the shadows where wolf preyed on wolf, and from the darkness rose the shrill laughter of women, and the sounds of scufflings and strugglings. Torchlight licked luridly from broken windows and wide-thrown doors, and out of those doors, stale smells of wine and rank sweaty bodies, clamor of drinking-jacks and fists hammered on rough tables, snatches of obscene songs, rushed like a blow in the face.

We are made euphoric by this strange figuration: unreal dream-visions allegorized not as a harpists' falsetto song but as liberating haymakers straight to the reader's bloodied face, body, and heart. With Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, Steve Costigan--hell, I mean Robert E. Howard--is able to forsake with contempt the degraded ordinary and artistically liberate himself from the real. We know how the story proceeds: after 1929, with Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, thoroughly trunked, it is we readers, bloodied by blow after blow, who will come to look upon the friendly and dream-giving stars, dizzied and laughing, along with Steve, along with Robert.

Robert E. Howard
Illustration by Jessica Robinson

About the Author & Illustrator

Jason Ray Carney Jason Ray Carney teaches 20th-century literature and creative writing at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. His scholarship appears in The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales, The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies, Lovecraftian Proceedings, The College English Forum, and elsewhere. His fiction appears in Skelos: Journal of Weird Fiction and Dark Fantasy, Swords and Sorcery Magazine, Empyreome Magazine: Science Fiction and Fantasy Quarterly, Hypnos Magazine, and others. He keeps a formless, meandering blog at

Jessica Robinson is an independent illustrator based in Columbus, Ohio. She draws inspiration from comic artists and illustrators from around the world. Feel free to contact her about prints and commissions. She can be contacted via Facebook at

1 comment:

Rusty said...

Jason, as I think I told you at Howard Days - and if I did not, I certainly should have - this is a real tour de force. I had recognized (see my intro to Grim Lands) the "postmodernist metanarrative" in POST OAKS, but, perhaps swayed by my knowledge of his indebtedness to Jack London's MARTIN EDEN, I had not seen the novel as a whole as more than superficially semi-autobiographical. You've opened up a treasure-chest of critical insights, here.

I know it's too complex to deal with in a reply here, but I'm curious as to how - in light of the suggestion that "the acutely unconstrained novel can continuously adapt and react to the current situation to suit contemporary artistic needs" - you would view Howard's refusal in most of his work to be bound by "formalized... critical demands and conventionalized... constraining tradition." I'm thinking here of things like his deviations from the norm in portrayal of legendary creatures (vampires, harpies, zombies, etc., on all of which he put a unique spin), or refusing to make his heroes conform to Romantic ideals.

Ah, what worlds within what worlds await the bold explorer?