Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Literary Influences of Robert E. Howard: Pirates and Buccaneers by Todd B. Vick

Pirates and Buccaneers, their exploits, adventures, and duels, make a strong mark on many of Robert E. Howard’s stories. The sources for these inspirations are somewhat broad. There are nonfiction books about pirates, their history, their adventures and deaths that Howard read early in his life. Then there is the fiction Howard read that impacted his own stories with swashbuckling duels, high adventure, treasure hunts, and the like. All these pirate histories and fictional works played a pivotal role in Howard’s creation of various characters, especially his more famous Puritan duelist, Solomon Kane, and several Kane stories. 

At an early age Howard discovered and became fascinated with pirates and buccaneers. This is evident in T. A. Burns’ essay for the 10 July 1936 issue of The Cross Plains Review where she explained that a young Howard (likely age 12 or 13 at the time) proudly introduced himself and his dog to her (during one of her frequent outings to read and enjoy the outdoors) and declared that someday he was going to write pirate stories. There are any number of resources for Howard’s interest in pirates. The most difficult to determine are the books he read prior to the age of 15. But by age 15 and beyond, Howard mentions several works that fueled his passion for pirate tales. Howard wrote a brief essay for his English Class No. 3 at Cross Plains High school dated February 7, 1922. A few weeks prior he had turned 16. In this essay, Howard mentions that when he was younger, he read a Captain Kidd biography and various fictions about the pirate. These works enamored him. Here are Howard’s exact words: “Reading his [Captain Kidd’s] biography and fiction based on his eventful life, caused me to determine at an early age, to lead a life of piracy on the high seas. Tales of Blackbeard and Morgan clinched my resolve.” [Howard, Back to School, 271] 

Sometime later, Howard set aside his puerile notion of leading a pirate’s life after reading a different book. According to this same high school essay, the author’s name and the title of this other book escaped Howard’s memory. But he explained that this author “wrote an authentic book about piracy and by some means I secured it [. . .] and devoured it with avidity but was shocked to find that it contained a harrowing account of the deaths of Kidd, Blackbeard, and other noted gentlemen.” [Ibid.] Howard described, in his typical hyperbolic fashion and vivid detail, that the book contained a gruesome image of a known pirate, shortly after his execution, with a spike driven through his head. The contents and that illustration from the book caused Howard to reconsider his vocational desire of piracy on the high seas. It did not, however, deter his passion for pirate tales. In fact, it probably fueled it. 

Howard began reading pirate tales from around the age of eight or earlier. One of the earliest works Howard experienced in the literary crafting of high adventure is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Apropos to Howard’s interest or maybe even the cause, Stevenson’s tale is about buccaneers and buried treasure. What more could an impressionable boy desire than to be a buccaneer who uses a map to find buried treasure? Stevenson’s story ignited young imaginations around the globe. And that motif lasted for more than a century, first in fiction and later in films. Howard jumped on this creative bandwagon in multiple ways. In fact, his poem, “Flint’s Passing” is an homage to Stevenson’s story and characters, Captain Flint and Long John Silver. But what about that authentic account mentioned in Howard’s essay, that spurned his notion of living the pirate’s life? 

Pyle's Buccaneer illustration from Captain William Kidd and Others of the Buccaneers
Illustration by Pyle
It is anyone’s guess what book Howard is referring to. I recently spent several weeks online searching for pirate books that might have matched Howard’s description, but also discovered books he may have encountered that further ignited his passion. I found several. The first is written by Howard Pyle, the popular late nineteenth century pirates and buccaneers aficionado (and illustrator), titled The Book of Pirates (1895). While perusing the contents of Pyle’s book, I realized it was not a strong contender for the book Howard mentioned in his essay. None of the images matched the one Howard mentioned (a pike through the head of a pirate). However, Pyle’s book has a chapter titled, Jack Ballister's Fortunes. The name Jack Ballinster is strikingly close to Howard's character Jack Hollinster from “The Blue Flame of Vengeance.” All things considered; Pyle’s book could be one of the biographical accounts Howard indicated he read that influenced his notion of being a pirate on the high seas. And it is possible that Pyle’s book influenced Howard’s Solomon Kane fiction, especially based on Pyle’s illustrations. 

I came across another book that I thought might be a contender: Captain William Kidd And Others of the Pirates Or Buccaneers who Ravaged the Seas, the Islands, and the Continents of America Two Hundred Years Ago by John Stevens Cabot Abbott (1876). The contents of Abbott’s book is close to what Howard described in his essay, “it contained a harrowing account of the deaths of Kidd, Blackbeard, and other noted gentlemen.” [Ibid.] Some of the illustrations where gruesome for their day, and this image was toward the back of the book but did not depict exactly what Howard described.

Illustration from Abbott's Captain William Kidd

While I was poring over pirate books, I began corresponding with Howard scholar Rusty Burke. I told Burke about my research for this article and he immediately turned a light switch on. He said he had done something similar some time ago and the best book he could find that fit Howard’s description was The Pirates Own Book: Authentic Narratives of the Most Celebrated Sea Robbers by Charles Ellms (1837). The contents matched and in the middle of the book is an image of the head of Benavides stuck on a pole (below).



Friday, January 22, 2021

Happy 115th Birthday, Robert E. Howard!

Happy birthday, Robert E. Howard!

Born January 22nd, 1906 in Peaster, Texas.


Happy 115th Birthday, Robert E. Howard




The general tradition in Howard fandom is to read a story by Howard and while doing so, imbibe your favorite beverage!

So . . . Here's to the first of all dog brothers . . . Cheers!




Sunday, January 17, 2021

Renegades and Rogues: The Life and Legacy of Robert E. Howard by Todd B. Vick


This Tuesday (January 19) , my book, Renegades and Rogues: The Life and Legacy of Robert E. Howard  hits the shelves in bookshops around the world. It is the first comprehensive biography of Robert E. Howard published by a major academic press (The University of Texas Press). It is a cumulation of three years of research and writing devoted solely to the book, 18 years of scholarly research and writing (articles and blog posts), and 40 years of being a reader and fan of Howard's work. 

There are several reasons I wanted to write this biography: 

This book is something I had been planning on doing since 2002, but back then I was ill-prepared to take on the task. There was so much more research I needed to do, so much more reading, uncovering of Howard's family and life. So, I dug my heels in and pushed forward and devoted my time to the task of researching and writing a biography. 


To date there has not been a biography about Robert E. Howard from an academic press. Moreover, there is a need for a biography that benefits both fans and scholars. And when I say scholars, I mean the use of available reliable sources, with notes that students and writers can use in their own research. I thought it was also important to take advantage of the advancements of the publication of Howard's collected letters, the letters of other pulp writers about Howard, and other materials. All this was paramount to me writing Renegades and Rogues. I also felt that an objective examination of Howard's life, from birth to death, with an emphasis on the external factors that not only affected his life but his work was needed. I knew from the start I was writing about real people, with real flaws, real struggles, and issues that everyone could relate to. My research and sources had to be present to give the work the academic foundation it needed. 

Renegades and Rogues establishes a solid foundation for current and future fans and scholars providing them with an objective, unexaggerated, unromanticized examination of Robert E. Howard's life and work. It includes the vast amount of new data that has been uncovered over the last ten years presented on blogs with limited readership. I also spent months poring over interviews of the people from Cross Plains and other local areas who knew the Howards. What were they saying? How consistent were their claims and memories? I then incorporated this information in the book. These are intriguing firsthand interviews that help illustrate the larger picture about the Howard family and in particular Robert E. Howard's life.

Some of the questions I asked myself while I was researching this biography include, what events did Howard experience that caused him to write what he wrote? How did his formative years play a role in his stories? What influences did his parents have on him? What made Howard tick? What got him out of bed in the mornings? How did the publishing markets move him to write? What directions? Why did he write what he wrote? And, if he had lived, what direction was Robert E. Howard headed with his writing? All these questions and others I attempted to answer.

The first three chapters of the monograph focus on the Howards' familial history, their travels from Robert's birth up to their move to Cross Plains. I apply this information to not only Howard's personality, but to his work as well. I then discuss Howard's education, his friends and their influences on him, and how his correspondence with friends and other writers moved him and his works in various directions. I examine Howard's 12-year publishing career (with an emphasis on his historical period), the market in which Howard published and how that market directed his stories. I take a look into his relationships, especially with Novalyne Price (Ellis), but I did this from her perspective and how she explained her encounters with Robert and his parents. I examine a select amount of Howard's stories and provide cursory exposition and commentary about those stories. I also examine Howard's most famous character, Conan the Cimmerian, and the publishing career of that character in great detail. I do all this and much more.


Because the book is published through an academic press, my initial manuscript draft was read by peer readers who basically took the manuscript, examined it, broke it down, and then sent it back to me for revision and improvement. This process vastly improved the direction and content of the book. Once the initial review was corrected, it went back out to several other peers who did the same. The first two peers who examined the manuscript were S.T. Joshi and Karen Kohoutek. Both provided me with wonderful feedback. The second group remained anonymous, and we discussed what was necessary to change during this final phase of editing. Due to this process the book's research, sources, and content were scrutinized and improved upon. I'll not lie here, this process was somewhat painful and arduous, but in the end it vastly improved the monograph. 

All the above should give you a good idea as to the whys and wherefores of Renegades and Rogues. I hope that those who know only a little about Howard (but perhaps know more about his characters, especially Conan) will find this book helpful in understanding the man behind all these wonderful stories. I also hope that the seasoned Howard fan or scholar will benefit from these pages as well. That was my goal in writing this book. I sincerely hope you enjoy it and that you learn more about Robert E. Howard and his work.

Here is a book trailer for the biography:



Early reviews of the book:

“Todd B. Vick surveys the entire panoply of Robert E. Howard's times and life. Early twentieth-century Texas, so important to a young writer who almost never crossed its borders except in the mighty treads of his imagination, becomes a player in the action fully as much as Conan or Solomon Kane—and Renegades and Rogues is a truly outstanding biography because of it. The book is a terrific read that will grab you like the brawny iron arms of Khosatral Khel and not let you go.”
—Roy Thomas, former editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics and author of the Conan the Barbarian comic


“Renegades and Rogues is a compelling read. Vick does an outstanding job in portraying Howard’s family life, in describing the major incidents of his literary career, and especially in providing insightful details into the remarkable resurgence of Howard’s work in various media after his death.”
—S. T. Joshi, author of I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft



The book can be ordered at your local independent bookstore or online at:

The University of Texas Press