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Conan and Me

On January 22 1906, in the small Texas town of Peaster, Robert Ervin Howard was born. On June 11, 1936, over in Cross Plains, Robert Howard was told that his mother would never awaken from the coma that had claimed her, and he sat in his car and put a bullet through his own head. Between those two dates, Howard created worlds within worlds, and populated them with characters such as Solomon Kane and King Kull and Breckenridge Elkins and Steve Costigan and Francis Xavier Gordon and Brak Man Morn and...

Well, the list goes on.

But it ends ...and Conan, the Cimmerian.

I'm writing this essay on January 22, 2006, one hundred years to the day after Howard's birth. The exact date is a coincidence... possibly. The occasion is the imminent publication of my novel Age of Conan: Marauders, Volume 1--Ghost of the Wall. Since this is Howard's centennial year, I'm particularly pleased and honored that the first official Conan book (even though, in fact, it's not a Conan book at all, but a book which expands upon his Hyborian world, while keeping Conan largely off-stage) to be published this year is mine. Because Conan and I go way, way back.

The fact is, the inspiration to write this reminiscence of the times Conan and I have shared struck me just before bed--while brushing my teeth, in fact. I went to bed, even managed to drift off to sleep for a short while. But then something spooked the dogs, and I got out of bed to see what it was, and the outside door to my bedroom blew open, startling me--blown open by a fierce, howling wind out of the east. Out of Texas.

I can only imagine that it's Bob Howard, shaking me, saying get up, get your fingers on that keyboard. Tell the damn story!

Until I sat down to work on it, I knew only the year of Howard's birth, not the date. Make what you will of that. But while the rest of the household slumbers--even the dogs had sense enough to get back to bed--I'm sitting in my office with the wind wailing outside, thinking about that mighty thewed barbarian and the big man who fathered him, and how, in many ways, those two big men set me on the path that put me where I am today.

I was introduced to Conan by friends I made in my junior year of high school, back in Virginia. It was the hobby of photography, first, that drew me to John Hatchett, and John introduced me to Howard Waddell, and Howard introduced me to Conan.

I'd read other fantastic fiction. A brief flirtation with Tarzan, some Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein juvies, a scary but ultimately not supernatural contemporary Western by Gordon D. Shirreffs called Mystery of the Haunted Mine. And comics, of course, always comics.

But Howard Waddell put Robert Howard in my hands. The Lancer paperback titled, simply, Conan. It had one of those brilliant Frank Frazetta covers, so powerful and rich and evocative that one could scarcely imagine the words behind it would be any less so.

They weren't. The words behind the cover were compelling, the characters strong and the stories exciting. I was hooked.

Another thing Howard Waddell introduced me to that year was fencing. You don't have to know how to use a sword to read Conan stories, I'm sure. But it doesn't hurt. I took to the foil like I was born to it. I geared up, and still own the three foils and the fencing bag, mask and glove that I bought that year. I had already been interested in swords, for some reason, and owned an Austrian light cavalry saber from the World War I era, which was probably one of the things that bonded me and Howard.

Some of my many swords

During the summer between junior and senior years, my father was transferred to Germany, and we moved to the ancient city of Worms. There, I kept reading Howard's work, and having finished the Conans moved on to some of the other characters, as well as some of the other writers who worked similar territory. At the same time, sword & sorcery was booming in comics, and I was picking those up as well. I read Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber and more Burroughs, the non-Tarzan stuff mostly, like John Carter (who was a fencer from Virginia!) and Carson of Venus and the Pellucidar stories. I read John Jakes and Roger Zelazny and C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner and Norvell W. Page and Lin Carter (who had written Conan stories, with L. Sprague de Camp and Bjorn Nyberg!), and I read de Camp and Pratt's Incompleat Enchanter books and David Mason's Kavin's World, and, well, pretty much everything that looked like sword & sorcery that I could get my hands on.

And I was doing this in a town the Romans had conquered in 14 BC. Still standing not far from our home there was a wall the Romans had built at the time. Worms had a wonderful museum filled with Iron Age and Bronze Age antiquities, and though I had lived in Europe as a younger boy and visited later, looking at these ancient things with eyes that Robert E. Howard had opened for me was an entirely different experience. Worms is also a significant site in the legend of the Nibelungen, which Wagner made into his famous Ring Cycle, and which includes the story of the heroic Siegfried killing Fafnir, the dragon--pure Howard. In addition to books and comics, living in Europe also made it easy to collect more swords, including my prize, purchased at the shop of one of Toledo, Spain's last surviving master swordsmiths: a full-sized reproduction of the sword that Francesco Pizarro took with him to Peru. It has, only tonight as I sit here surrounded by reference books, come to my attention that Robert Howard surely read William Prescott's The Conquest of Peru-the similarities between a scene in that book and a scene from the first published Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword," (itself a rewrite of Howard's Kull story "By This Axe I Rule") are too many to be purely coincidental. I didn't know that when I bought the sword, though--was that coincidental, too? Or like the wind that woke me tonight, was I being guided down a path, even then?

College took me to California. I plastered the walls of my dorm room with Frazetta posters, mostly showing the covers of books I had read. I took up archery, at which I excelled once I figured out that because my left eye was dominant, as was my right hand, I had to wear an eye patch over that eye to enable me to sight with my right. It sounds rakish, but it's less so when it's worn under a pair of glasses.

My dorm room wall

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