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.