M.J. Downing: Influences 2; The Allure of the Hyborean Age.

“I write for my tribe,” Mike Brewer said to me one night around a fire. I can’t be sure, but I think that was a February night, about twenty degrees or so, and we were outside after midnight, leaning over a fire pit and bundled in heavy clothes that would smell like the aftermath of a three alarm fire for days. Cass Johnson was with us, and we both knew that we were part of the ‘tribe’ of which Michael spoke. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery, and Adventure stories make up our fare. And I know that I write for that same tribe, too, those people who seek transportation to fictional worlds. It doesn’t matter to me if I write a Doctor Watson story set in a Victorian landscape or if I chronicle the coming of age adventures of Andy McKinney in a mythical Louisville neighborhood. I write for my tribe, those folks who hunger for a slice of life in a world I create for them, an experience which enables them to suspend their disbelief for a time.
And as I continue my series on my influences, I am struck by how thoroughly compelled I was by Robert E. Howard’s “Hyborean Age,” especially the free-floating interface between his map of that world and the manner in which he relates Conan’s tales. Howard’s genius for character and place enabled him to pull together material from disparate literary sources in such a way that drew me in to his world as a young reader. I was to find this again in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but that is another tale.

Howard’s essay, “The Hyborean Age,” states clearly that his intent is not to rewrite history or our understanding of it. He creates this world to immerse his readers, not to educate them. In the Conan stories, Howard places his character in a history rich with the sorts of struggles we can see in accepted history: migrations of peoples, empire building and falling, ethnic cultural clashes, and shifts in barbaric deity worship. He has no concern for any metaphysical truth that might evolve, for his emphasis is on the human spirit, on courage and personal honor, which remains his focus for any story he writes. His characters, men and women, dare to fight for freedom. They might be subjugated, but they fight to follow their dreams. Such stories appealed to me in my late adolescence, as I struggled blindly to find a sense of who I am, and they speak to the same urge, now, that compels me to write. Though I have mined other veins for plots, thus far, I still might try my hand at a plot set in Howard’s Hyborean Age, at some point, though I imagine the bureaucracy of copyright law will come into play, which seems at odds with the values of Howard’s creation.
His map, alone, shows Howard beckoning to readers to taste the exotic through place names familiar enough to most readers to suggest reality. Iranistan, Zembabwei, Vanaheim, Asgard, Corinthia, Shem, Stygia, and even his dark jewel, Cimmeria, that mountainous land of mists and darkness for the Latin writers, offers a reader a connection between our history and Howard’s fictional landscape. Indeed, he offers his world to readers as a tumultuous era that might well have preceded our own recorded history, drawing us in. Place names crop up, too, like the Himelian Mountains, a shadowy spelling of the Himalayas, that put western readers, like me, in the landscape of adventures I have already known through Kipling and others. His intent seems simple: give readers the occasion to willingly suspend their disbelief and be transported through story.
S.T. Coleridge, who gave us the terms “a willing suspension of disbelief,” saw this action as necessary to create a bond of trust with a reader, a promise of consistency in a world that is inconsistent with the one into which we are born, the mundane world that taxes us with demands for obedience to, first, parental and then social law, with the need to conform to the values of a success oriented culture, even for those not gifted with opportunity. Howard’s characters embedded in his consistent, familiar-yet-exotic world struggle for freedom, autonomy. Their adventures transport his readers into the place where courage and honor, which don’t always ‘pay,’ show us the value of the struggle itself, the worth of the journey, instead of attaining a bottom line. We can live larger in our hearts through Howard’s stories, through our willing suspension of disbelief, and this, alone, has been an influence on many a writer, not just me.
Yet Howard’s true genius shows in giving us the tales as though they are exploits recounted by a person who lived them. They are the memories of a larger than life character, not a history that unfolds from beginning to end, written by the winners. Indeed, as Rusty Burke relates in “A Short Biography of Robert E. Howard,” to be found on The Howard Foundation website (www.rehfoundation.org), the character of Conan came to the writer as a series of episodes that dominated his writing for a time to the exclusion of anything else. Burke cites a quote from Howard to Clark Ashton Smith that the stories grew “without much effort on my [Howard’s] part,” for Howard relates that he didn’t “seem to be creating, but rather relating events that have occurred.” And they are rich in the familiar-yet-exotic Hyborian Era. Their episodic nature gives readers a similar sort of emotional experience to a tale recounted over a fire, told by a person who struggled against odds, a person who may have won and lost, like a grandsire’s tales of the old days. These sorts of stories force their listeners to deal with the life of one who has lived, even if the events in them run counter to what history—or common sense, science, politics, or religion—tell us is true. Cut off from the powers that control us, told by a person who comes to us and relates his or her yarn, for what it’s worth, such stories offer readers a richness in life that submerges us in the reality of their moments, and that is a deep well and mysterious. As a writing skill, it is unparalleled, one to which any writer aspires. I know I do, and much of my desire to do so I can say comes from reading Howard’s work.
I see it in other, later stories Howard wrote, like “Old Garfield’s Heart,” one of his “Texian” stories of the supernatural. One man listens to an improbable tale, told by his grandfather, and the listener, striving to act honorably in a hard world dominated by ruthless men, emerges from his encounter with the barbaric and bizarre with knowledge of the mystery of life’s richness. I find myself wishing that Howard had lived longer and given us more of these, for his skill with dialogue, dialect, and pacing seem to have grown in this story. For, on the evidence of his ability to throw readers into character-rich, improbable tales, I think Howard’s work should be held in higher esteem by the writing community. His readers, who, like me, come to his work without the judgments of the ‘serious’ literary community in their way know the value of the ‘pulp’ fiction that gave writers like Howard, Lovecraft, and others a means of sharing stories that stir the imagination.
I have a rich legacy behind me, which has kept me up on many a cold night, around a fire with other dreamers. It stirs me to write all the stories I can. Stories of ghosts, monsters, fights lost and won, hearts broken and healed, for I write for our tribe. Therein, I see stories of redemption—not success, mere winning or losing—about the need to struggle, the worth of pursuing dreams, and I say again, thank you Robert E. Howard, for pointing the way.

 

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