Heroes in the Wind is a new volume from Penguin Modern Classics collecting together fourteen stories by Robert E. Howard, selected and introduced by John Clute. In a way, this development may be surprising: if you’d never read a word of Howard, what would you imagine his stories to be? Escapist potboilers with mighty-thewed heroes, perhaps? In a range of ‘classics’?

Clute asks a similar question at the start of his introduction: knowing what we do about Howard, should we — do we want to — read him? Yes, says Clute, because whatever else Howard was, he was a storyteller (literally speaking the words of his stories aloud as he typed them); and because he had more to say to us than bald synopses of his tales may suggest.

What do I make of that, reading Howard for the first time here in 2009, and being of a similar age as he was towards the end of his career? I cannot be as enthusiastic as Clute, but I do see where he’s coming from.

Let it be acknowledged first of all that the negative aspects we may anticipate — the stereotyping, the bloody violence — are indeed here; and, regardless of the distance of history, they make for unpleasant reading (to put it mildly). But, side-by-side with these, Howard’s fiction has what Clute referred to in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) as the ‘wind of Story’ — a restless storytelling energy that led to such dynamic passages as this charge into battle led by Cormac of Connacht (from ‘Kings of the Night’):

A wild roar answered [Cormac], and loosing rein he shot down the slope with five hundred yelling riders plunging headlong after him. And even at that moment a storm of arrows swept the valley from either side like a dark cloud and the terrible clamor of the Picts split the skies. And over the eastern ridge, like a sudden burst of rolling thunder on Judgment Day, rushed the war-chariots. Headlong down the slope they roared, foam flying from the horses’ distended nostrils, frantic feet scarcely seeming to touch the ground, making naught of the tall heather…

I can’t deny the sheer kinetic force of such writing. Yet I find myself feeling ambivalent about these stories. I think it’s because I don’t find the positive qualities to which Clute refers to be as prevalent within the tales as I’d have liked.

Yes, I know: other people’s readings should have no bearing on mine; but this is one occasion where what I’ve read about the book (namely Clute’s introduction) has influenced how I read the book. I don’t actually think that’s a bad thing here, because Heroes in the Wind is Clute’s book as well as Howard’s; and I feel it’s only right to pay attention to his views on the material he has compiled.

Clute’s introduction is, incidentally, a fine example of what an introduction should do, which is to provide context and illuminate the book in a way that enhances the reading experience, rather than obviating it. How many times have you seen an introduction to a work of ‘classic’ fiction that starts with a warning like: ‘This introduction makes the plot of the book plain’ — or that does exactly that, but without the warning? Not here, thankfully.

The main positive qualities of Howard’s stories that I take from Clute’s introduction are the dynamism of telling which I noted earlier; and a certain sense of bleakness that gives the tales more of an edge. I see both of these qualities in the stories themselves; the trouble is that, too often, I found myself noticing them intellectually, rather than feeling them emanating from the prose (admittedly, this was more often an issue with the latter quality than the former).

The stories of Heroes in the Wind are grouped into three sections. The first contains early sword and sorcery tales with a number of protagonists, notably the Atlantean Kull, King of Valusia, and the Pict Bran Mak Morn. Though there is an energy about these pieces (they include ‘Kings of the Night’, from which I quoted the passage above), I get a sense of it being held back. In part, I think this is because the characters are held back somewhat (most especially Kull, who longs for the days when he was a warrior, free to roam); and of course Howard had less experience as a writer then.

What I think comes through most strongly in these first tales is a sense of horror at what lies beneath the skin of reality: most of them involve an encounter with supernatural entities from beyond (on a historical note, it’s fascinating to see how much thinner the line the line between sword and sorcery and horror could be eighty years ago than it is today). There’s also a recurring theme that time and civilisations will pass, that we are ‘the jest of the gods’ – but the full force of this didn’t come across the same.

The volume’s second section moves away from sword and sorcery; and it’s here, in ‘Graveyard Rats’, that I find Howard really hitting his stride. This is a horror story which begins with a man being driven insane when he finds his dead (and buried) brother’s head on the mantel and goes on to unravel what happened, and why. The momentum of this piece never lets up, and Howard smartly plays on our expectations; but I wouldn’t go so far as Clute does in calling it ‘an oneiric vision of how the world claws its victims into obedience and death’  — I don’t find the story quite as powerful as that.

Also in this section is one of the collection’s longest tales, ‘Vultures of Wahpeton’. John Middleton, the sheriff of Wahpeton, hires a Texan named Steve Corcoran as his deputy to deal with a mysterious gang known as the Vultures. But there’s more to the situation than meets the eye: Middleton is actually the leader of the Vultures, and makes a deal with Corcoran to double-cross the gang and split a hoard of gold. And the intrigues continue… Again, Clute is a good guide to the story — ‘we are left with a sense of the profound entrapping starkness of the world’ — but, also again, I do not feel this as strongly as he suggests. There is a bleak moral complexity to this piece: ‘Vultures’ could as well be a metaphor as the name of a gang; and, thanks to his background, even Corcoran’s moral code is more elastic than one would anticipate from a ‘hero’ (even taking into account historical distance). Yet, I keep coming back to that same stumbling-block: that something stops me experiencing this on a deeper emotional level. I’m coming to think  that I just don’t find Howard’s pulp style very effective in this regard.

On to the final section, and Howard’s most famous creation — Conan; and, straight away, I feel that the ‘wind of Story’ blows more strongly here than it did through the earlier sword and sorcery tales. Conan is a freer protagonist, and Howard’s telling is freer; ‘The Tower of the Elephant’ demonstrates marvellously what its genre can offer: the unceasing forward motion of the quest, and the fizz of strangeness and magic. I don’t think it works quite so well when we don’t travel directly with Conan (or Howard’s secondary protagonists)– for example, there are passages in ‘A Witch Shall Be Born’ in which past events are reported, and they don’t have the same impact as when we are ‘there’, so to speak; but, at his best, Howard is every bit the storyteller that Clute’s introduction promises.

I’d like to conclude by returning to a subject I mentioned in passing at the beginning — are these stories really escapist? I suppose, before I started Heroes in the Wind, I was expecting  to find bracing adventure stories within. What I found was something slightly different, something that I don’t feel is quite so well suited to being read for escapist motives; because these stories seem all too mindful that there is ultimately no escape. In this context, the fight of the warrior reads like a frantic attempt to beat back the inexorable tide of reality — the kind of bleakness to which Clute refers.  [EDIT 9th Sept: I’ve been made aware that my wording here is not as clear as it could be, so I’ll clarify. I was talking about escapism because it’s an accusation often – and often unfairly – levelled at fantasy. Howard’s fiction isn’t like that, which, in my view, is wholly a positive attribute.]

In the end, I have to say I’m rather ambivalent towards these stories as a whole; I see what’s good about them, but there isn’t quite enough of it in them for me. But there’s more to Howard’s tales than first appearances suggest; and his heroes will live on. I think it’s good that we have Heroes in the Wind as an overview.