The Perfect REH Collection

If you’re not a Robert E. Howard fan, then there’s probably not much point in reading this post any further, unless you’re simply curious. If you’ve found that you don’t like REH’s work, though, there’s nothing to see here, so move along. Shoo.

Alright, so now I’m probably mostly sharing this with fans of the stylings of REH, so you probably know that there is, finally, a wealth of material by the man to choose from in print today. For a guy who died so young he was incredibly prolific. I’ve read most of his work several times, and there’s some of it I’ll keep re-reading. Others of it, though, I won’t. For instance, Almuric. Or “The God in the Bowl.” Read it. No second helping required.

I have a long shelf of REH, including a bunch of beat up old paperbacks, all those lovely Del Reys (including the two volume best of), and Conan’s Brethren, which is sort of a “best of” featuring a whole bunch of non-Conan adventure stories. Yet as I look up at that shelf from time to time I think about which stories I would include in my very own Best Of collection.

For starters, I’d want it in one volume. And much as I enjoy and appreciate some of the stories in other genres Howard wrote for, it’s his adventure stories that really tick my clock. I don’t read and re-read “Pigeons From Hell” every few years but I darned well pull down Howard’s historicals with some frequency, or his James Allison tales, or “The Gray God Passes.” And a lot of Conan. You get the idea.

Stephen Jones’ book Conan’s Brethren comes really close to being my best of volume, but it’s a little heavy on Solomon Kane. Much as I like Kane in concept, there’s only one or two that I re-read. Howard was a younger writer when he came up with Kane, and it shows, because a lot of the plots are a little thin. There are a few other selections I’d change to make more space — Jones includes “The Lost Race” in amongst the Bran Mak Morn section, which is pretty weak, but leaves out “By This Axe I Rule” from the King Kull section, which is among the best Kull adventures, and, in my opinion, better than the Conan re-tread “The Phoenix on the Sword.” And Jones, possibly in an attempt to showcase Robert E. Howard’s range, chews up a bunch of space with Almuric and then throws in “The Frost King’s Daughter” which, by any other name, is still one of the weaker Conan (Amra) stories.

(Pardon this aside, but it’s just a little weird talking about one guy named Howard and another one named Jones when THOSE ARE MY OWN NAMES.)

On the other hand, Jones grabs ALMOST all of the best historicals, even including “Gates of Empire,” a personal favorite of mine. He includes “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth,” a more obscure entry that I always enjoyed, and then picks the two best James Allison stories, “The Valley of the Worm” and “The Garden of Fear.” I would have replaced “Hawks of Outremer” with “The Road of Azrael,” which I vastly prefer, but some people do seem to like Cormac Fitzgeoffrey (I always thought the best Fitzgeoffrey story was the one REH DIDN’T finish writing).

I criticize, but some of my criticism comes down to personal taste. Jones was probably trying to showcase a little from all of Howard’s best known heroes, apart from Conan. He made plenty of great choices in the collection, and if I weren’t a couple days drive from any body of water (apart from The Sea of Monsters) Conan’s Brethren would be a good beach read.

Still, maybe it’s my years as an editor talking, but I can’t help thinking about what I’d want to see in a one volume REH best of. I wonder if I could put one together and just print ONE copy via Lulu (because I don’t own a Nook, Kindle, or Kook, or Nindle) just for meself. If I’m ever not under a looming deadline and various home crisis, maybe…

If you were to put a collection of the best REH adventure stories together, including Conan, what would you include? Poetry counts as well. I loves me some good Robert E. Howard poetry.

I’ll start putting my own list together this week, and I’ll be curious to hear other thoughts. Please don’t try to convince me that “The God in the Bowl” or “The Lost Race” are actual masterpieces, though, or that I’m not giving Fitzgeoffrey a fair shake. If you enjoy ’em, great. REH would be happy.



11 Comments on “The Perfect REH Collection

  1. Let’s see…

    I’d definitely pick “Valley of the Worm”–it’s my single favorite Howard tale.

    I also adore the early story “Spear and Fang”–Howard’s first pro-published story. The seeds of his genius are clear in this tale of primitive man vs. cro-magnon.

    For Kull tales I’d pick “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” and “Exile of Atlantis”. Then a couple of Conan tales, probably “Tower of the Elephant” and “The Scarlet Citadel” (I’m only leaving out “Hour of the Dragon” because it’s a novel, not a short story–but it’s my favorite Conan tale).

    “The Black Stone” is one of my favorite Howard tales to use Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, so I’d include that as well. “Worms of the Earth” is a good one too. I also really dig “The Fire of Asshurbanipal”.

    As for poetry, I’d squeeze in as many of his poems as I could. They’re pretty much all terrific.

    Doing this reminds of how many REH stories I still haven’t read yet…

  2. Yeah, “Spear and Fang” is surprisingly strong from such a young author. I’d probably add more Conan stories than you suggest. And I think you know that I love “Valley of the Worm!”

  3. But…but…but I like “The God in the Bowl”. Don’t know that I would put it in a Best of collection though.

    This is a question that would require some thought, so don’t consider this anything close to my final list. But…

    “The Tower of the Elephant” definitely. And “People of the Black Circle”. Maybe “Red Nails”, although I need to reread it to be sure.

    “Worms of the Earth” and “Kings of the Night”.

    “A Song of the Outer Dark” and “The Tempter” for sure from the poetry.

    I’ll need to think on the rest.

    Great question.

    • Hey Keith,

      I’m on board with all your prose picks except for “Red Nails.” I like it, but I don’t LOVE it… which probably puts me in the minority on that one as well, just as I am with “Beyond the Black River.”

      I don’t know the poetry by titles, unfortunately. I am a proud owner of the complete poetry hardback, though!

      • I’m not that crazy about “Beyond the Black River”, either. It’s been too long since I read “Queen of the Black Coast” to say whether I would include it.

        I also need to go back and reread the historicals. Been too long.

        As for the poetry, “Song” is about the triumph of barbarism, while “Tempter” concerns suicide.

  4. Today I’ll just list the straight historicals I’d put in, with no fantastic elements. First, the four that are considered by REH scholars to be undisputed masterpieces:

    1. “The Sowers of the Thunder”
    2. “Lord of Samarcand”
    3. “The Lion of Tiberias”
    4. “The Shadow of the Vulture”

    Then I’d add in one I’d say is just as fine, and REH’s best comic adventure that’s not slapstick:

    5. “Gates of Empire”

    I’d add two more from the middle ages. The first is one of my very favorites. Perhaps it’s not a masterpiece like these above (it’s quite purple) but I love it anyway: “The Road of Azrael.” Then, the flawed but powerful “The Road of Eagles.”

    I’d also add the two finished Dark Agnes tales, “Sword Woman” and “Blades for France.” I don’t think they’re as fine as the above, but they have sweeping pacing and a powerful and compelling heroine. And, besides, I’m picking the ones that I like to re-read, and I re-read these. I suppose that’s the final arbiter. It’s MY best of list, after all.

  5. I agree so much with your opinions that its scary. His last four published historicals are all brilliant. “Gates of Empire” is perfect. “Road of Azrael” is great as well (though I’m not a huge fan of the historical character who makes a cameo). and “Road of Eagles” great but with a flawed ending.

    The only ones I’d toss in that were not mentioned are “Wolfshead” that I have a fondness for and “the Hyena”

    • Hi Kveto — it’s been too long since I read “The Hyena.” Now that I have spare time, I’ll have to dig through my collections to see if I can find it. Honestly, I wonder if I HAVE read it, although I think I could fairly safely wager that I’ve read all the historicals, which I devoured.

      I hear you about that historical cameo in “Road of Azrael” but I love it anyway — I just embraced it. I don’t think ANY other writer could have pulled that off. In one of the more serious historicals it wouldn’t have worked, but I think it was marvelous here.

  6. I first read “the Hyena” in “Shadow Kingdoms” which was produced a few years ago. It also has “wolfshead”. The Hyena is not a great story but I think it has one of REH’s most compeling antagonists, the chief Senecoza.

    I wold just have prefered if REH had used King Sigurd instead of Harold. Sigurd was a Viking King who was actually IN jerusalum (or Sidon) at the exact time frame of the story, ten years after the sack of Jerusalem. So there really were Norwegian vikings in the Holy Land at that time. Harold just makes it a bit cheesy, IMO.

    take care

  7. Its all good!! I am not crazy over the humorous westerns but even some of them are great, like Knife River Prodigal. Unlike you I love the Kane stories, what a character! Howard was the Jim Hendrix of Pulp Fiction and that is saying something cause a lot of those guys could lay down some mean words my friend. I am currently reading the Wu Fang tales by Robert J Hogan…awesome stuff! Anyhow, Howard rules.

    • I have been enjoying the humorous westerns. It took me a while to get used to the changed tone, and I don’t like reading too many of them back to back, but a number of them are pretty funny.

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