Revisiting the Big Three of Weird Tales: H.P. Lovecraft, C.A. Smith, and R.E. Howard

My October 2022 reading was marked by a reacquaintance with old-school Pulp Fantasy and Horror, specifically a binge through the collected works of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard. Two of those three are still well-known names among fantasy readers, but in the first half of the 1930s, all three were well-known contributors to Weird Tales. As such, for good or ill, they remain cornerstones of speculative fiction, having shaped the way the genre looks today.

I had read all three writers before. But it had been a long time. In some cases a decade, in other cases nearly two decades. Plenty of time for me to grow and develop as a person, and to acquire greater contextual understanding of the works in question. In some cases, it had been so long that I could remember nothing about the story. In others, I could remember the story, but courtesy of being better read now than I was then, I picked up rather more than I had previously. Or maybe, to paraphrase the famous line from Heraclitus, one never reads the same book twice, for it is not the same book, and you are not the same man. In any case, coming to these old texts with fresh eyes was an interesting enough exercise that I have decided to devote a blog post to it.

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

The most famous of the three, Lovecraft is a well-known cornerstone of twentieth century Horror, though he also wrote his share of overt Fantasy. The edition I wound up reading was The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, which is exactly what it says on the tin, and amounts to some 1100 pages. A fairly meaty exercise, and all the more amusing given that the volume in question was printed in China, which I cannot imagine the man himself being amused by. But most interestingly for our purposes, the volume features Lovecraft’s fiction in chronological order of composition… from his earliest prose story, to his last. This had the side effect of allowing me to see Lovecraft’s development as a writer.

And, well, I think there are some fairly useful lessons there. Especially in terms of comparing Lovecraft with E.A. Poe, that earlier purveyor of American Weird Fiction. Poe was basically writing anything he could, in the hope that it’d sell, thereby proving that if you write enough, it does not matter if 95% of your work is garbage because people will latch onto the remaining 5% as great literature. And, yes, most of what Poe wrote was garbage – he might be remembered for his Gothic Horror (or his foundational work on Detective Literature or Science-Fiction, if you are that way inclined), but he generally had a fixation on godawful Comedy. By contrast, Lovecraft has a much clearer trajectory as a writer. He starts off weak, and gets better as he goes on through his career… while continually cannibalising ideas and themes from earlier works, to use in later ones.

This means that one can start off with a terrible early story like The Street, which is just obnoxiously racist and xenophobic even by Lovecraft’s standards, and see concepts resurface in a later classic like The Shadow Over Innsmouth. You get the same tying of urban decay to Lovecraftian terror at racial mixing, but whereas in The Street the naked theme is all there is, in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, that theme actually absorbs itself into an atmosphere of latent terror. Lovecraft even subverts his earlier conception via the twist-ending of Innsmouth… but I think the point remains that Lovecraft was not afraid to re-use and recycle, as he became a better writer. That, I think, is a great lesson for any writer – never throw anything away, no matter how horrible. You might be able to find a use for it.

(Another example would be A Reminiscence of Dr Samuel Johnson. This is another weak, early piece that would be completely unremarkable, were it not for the fact that it showcases one of Lovecraft’s other great thematic interests, namely the speculative transfer of consciousness across time. Why, yes, this utterly obscure piece is arguably an ancestor of The Shadow Out of Time. Just add a sophisticated science-fictional explanation, and appropriately creepy atmosphere, and you turn a flop into a classic).

Nor are we merely limiting ourselves to themes. When the stories are read in order, it is abundantly clear that the so-called Cthulhu Mythos was never intended to be a coherent, organised conception. It was just Lovecraft (and his fellows – we shall get to that) borrowing and re-using their older concepts, and building on them as they went along, creating an ever-growing compost heap of ideas. The best example of this build-as-you-go phenomenon in Lovecraft’s fiction is probably the Dream Cycle stories, which apart from being heavily influenced by Lord Dunsany, start out as a series of short self-referential fantasy pieces, that all build on each other – the Cats of Ulthar show up multiple times, rather like a running literary gag. Eventually, all the Dreamland oddments are incorporated into the vast and ambitious Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, with a substantial cameo from Pickman (of Pickman’s Model) fame. Plus a cameo from Nyarlathotep himself, from the more classical Mythos. Dream Quest is not light reading, but for those prepared to go off the beaten track, I think it is genuinely rewarding. It also contains a bona fide battle scene. As written by H.P. Lovecraft.

And then there is the Necronomicon, potentially the most famous book in popular culture to have never existed. The Nameless City (1921) is the first story to reference Abdul Alhazred and the famous line “that is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die.” But it does not reference the Necronomicon. That only appeared with The Hound (1922), which retrospectively put author and couplet into the book. Since Lovecraft was never throwing a good concept away, the Necronomicon and other in-universe texts, like The Book of Eibon (supplied by Clark Ashton Smith), just kept attracting more and more story-paraphernalia. Eventually Lovecraft wrote an entire ‘story’ detailing the in-universe textual history of the book (The History of the Necronomicon), which leaves the reader smiling – though possibly wondering whether that thirteenth century translation of Greek into Latin ought to have been more sixteenth century.

Another notable aspect of Lovecraft, that I only picked up on the present re-read, is his authorial fondness for citing his sources and influences. Yes, he often makes up sources (the Necronomicon). But often those sources are actually real. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward – notable, incidentally, for having a protagonist use non-malevolent magic, in a story written by a materialistic atheist – cites nineteenth century French occultist, Eliphas Levi. The Call of Cthulhu explicitly features a reference to the theosophical histories of William Scott-Elliot, and he elsewhere references Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis book. The Moon-Bog cites the Irish Book of Invasions, and Lovecraft’s clearly read it, because he ties in the text’s weird Greek references. The Dunwich Horror is a particularly cheeky example, in that Lovecraft is recycling the basic premise of Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan… and then proceeds to include this little inside joke:

“Inbreeding?” Armitage muttered half-aloud to himself. “Great God, what simpletons! Shew them Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan and they’ll think it a common Dunwich scandal!

Well, yes. The Dunwich Horror is The Great God Pan, moved to rural New England. Lovecraft does not hide his influences. And speaking of Machen, compare his Novel of the White Powder with Lovecraft’s Cool Air, albeit White Powder is itself stolen from R.L. Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.

(The cherry on top is that Lovecraft also includes recurring shout-outs to his mates. Klarkash-Ton – Clark Ashton Smith – is a Priest of Atlantis).

And then, of course, there is the racism. One cannot really address Lovecraft without talking about that particular elephant in the room, since it was such an integral part of his worldview – albeit, his work gets less racist as he gets older, which means a chronological collection like the one I read will tend to be front-loaded with the ugly stuff towards the start. It’s also why the Dream Cycle stories – despite their overt Dunsany borrowings – ought to get more prominence than they do, since they are less inclined to fall into that particular swamp. But having read the works of, say, Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, quite apart from Poe, I found I had become a bit more desensitized to the uglier aspects of Lovecraft this time round – Lovecraft is worse than them, but at the raw level of “embarrassing description” he is not monumentally worse. Albeit, one cannot help but cringe at a certain section of Herbert West, Reanimator, and I suppose I can thank my lucky stars that neither Medusa’s Coil (a collaboration) nor a certain unnamable poem (not prose fiction) were included in the collection.

No, the real toxicity of Lovecraft’s racism is not descriptive – it’s thematic. Lovecraft has several key themes that he loves to muse upon, and as noted, time and consciousness is one of them (human ignorance and insignificance is probably the most famous one, however). But right from the earliest stories, he also likes to write about decay. That fascinates him. And it is worth recalling that in Lovecraft’s era, it was very common to imagine that the course of Human Evolution might go the other way, and that peoples might degenerate ‘backwards’, towards the primitive and feral. Robert E. Howard runs with this too, but it is a major source of horror in Lovecraft – basically, his conception that Civilisation (as represented by White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) is under perpetual siege from these degenerate races springs from that. Sometimes, it’s not even non-white people. On one occasion, Lovecraft serves up a family of inbred Dutchmen in rural New York de-evolving into a horde of white, cannibal apes over the generations. Charming.

In rounding out, my “what I got out of a Lovecraft re-read” discussion, I thought I would mention the Tolkien connection. Believe it or not, we know that Tolkien read at least one story from each of the Big Three, courtesy of a short story collection sent to him in 1964 by L. Sprague de Camp (https://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Swords_%26_Sorcery). In Lovecraft’s case, the story was The Doom That Came to Sarnath. Alas, we have no idea what Tolkien thought of that particular story, and obviously Lovecraft (dying in 1937) never had a chance to read Tolkien. But in a strange twist, I actually think that Lovecraft’s fondness for Dunsany brought him (in one case) fairly close to Tolkienian subject-matter. The Strange High House in the Mist – where a character samples a connection with the Faerie Realm and returns changed (for the better!) is weirdly reminiscent of Tolkien’s later Smith of Wootton Major.

So yeah, The Strange High House in the Mist – a Tolkien story, as written by H.P. Lovecraft. Strange indeed.

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961)

Smith is easily the most obscure of the Big Three today, and this is a travesty – the man was simultaneously the best writer of them at a technical level, while also being the least overtly racist. But I can also see why he has fallen into unjustified obscurity. Smith was a poet, and when he (under Lovecraft’s encouragement) started writing short stories for the pulp market, he took his style and thematic interests over with him.

And, well, that would be the deciding issue for many readers. Smith’s prose can be incredibly ornate. It is lush and Byzantine, and unashamedly purple. He wants to paint pictures with words, and above all to establish a particular mood, specifically, an all-pervading atmosphere of decadence, in its most delicious form. Things like actual plot, however, often take a back-seat in most Smith stories, or at least the stronger ones, and he lacks the sort of distinctive cosmic vision that makes Lovecraft so famous. He’s frankly unadaptable in any sort of visual medium, and really comes across as the sort of author whom one loves or one hates.

I love him, of course. He’s actually one of my own major influences as a writer – his Empire of the Necromancers (1932) being an inspiration for the Viiminian Empire of Wise Phuul and Old Phuul, and coming from a poetic background myself, I can appreciate Smith’s sheer delight in words, and in conjuration of mood. I also happen to have a weakness in the plotting department, though I am working on that.

The collection of Smith stories I read in October was the 2002 one, titled The Emperor of Dreams. It’s not a complete collection. Far from it. Smith wrote a lot of stuff, of vastly uneven quality – he is (rightly) best known for his Dark Fantasy, typified by his Zothique stories, but he also strayed into pure Horror, less-dark Fantasy, and even Science-Fiction, though that tends to be bad. He’s above all Weird.

The Emperor of Dreams, unlike earlier collections of Smith’s work – which seek to specialise subject-matter within individual volumes – opts to present a general overview of the man’s material by giving a little slice of everything in One Big Book. The result, alas, is that the collection is itself uneven in quality, including the best of Smith (Necromancy in Naat; The Dark Eidolon), while also including weaker stuff (The Theft of Thirty-Nine Girdles; A Good Embalmer), and leaving some genuinely good material out (The Witchcraft of Ulua; The Ice-Demon). I actually supplemented my Smith binge with eleven extras from the online collection at the Eldritch Dark, the dedicated internet home for all things Smith (http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/short-stories/), and I intend to go back and read more later.

(For reasons only known to the editors of The Emperor of Dreams, they also opted to include what might be the single most racist Smith story, a sword-and-sorcery yarn called The Black Abbot of Puthuum, while other, better stories, like The Last Hieroglyph, missed out. The story has a bit of nuance if you squint – the real Abbot is also black, and happens to be a sympathetic character. But it’s the sort of text that makes Smith appear worse than he normally is, and I don’t think the adventure plot or the faux-feminist ending really make up for certain stereotypes on offer. Smith might have his issues now and again, but compared with Lovecraft and Howard, he has generally aged pretty well for a 1930s pulp writer).

Anyway, the all-too common accusation of Smith merely being a Lovecraft-clone is criminally unfair, on at least three levels.

Firstly, while Smith cites The Necronomicon (and its mad Arabian author) in The Return of the Sorcerer, Lovecraft also uses Smith creations in return, such as Tsathoggua the toad-like entity, and The Book of Eibon. As noted, Lovecraft even writes his friend into his actual stories, quite apart from praising him in his Supernatural Horror in Literature essay. These writers were all corresponding with each other, and trading ideas in what amounts to a big shared universe. Such was the world of 1930s pulp fantasy, and Lovecraft loved the idea that others would play in this particular sand-pit.

Secondly, Smith does not share Lovecraft’s fundamentally bleak view of humanity within the cosmos. Smith’s characters don’t go mad. They often end up coming to thoroughly bad (and often quite ironic) ends, and Smith stories are often cynical, but there is such delight in the macabre, such celebration of all things decadent, that the mood often loops around and feels vaguely optimistic. Smith’s The Isle of the Torturers is in direct dialogue with Poe’s Masque of the Red Death (right down to the fixation on colours), but it actually presents Death as the friend of the oppressed, not something to be feared. I believe one commentator has described Smith as a PR man for Death, and I can see that. He’s not giving you loveable anthropomorphic entities like Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, but his stories do have the sort of death-obsession one sees in Poe’s Gothic Horror, while also somehow managing to make the very concept beautiful.

Smith indeed often seems to blend the macabre and the erotic in his stories. There is an implicit sexual element to many of these works, which ties in heavily with Smith’s fascination with portraying the pleasures and corruptions of decadence, but sometimes also ties back to his thematic interest in Death or even just plain grotesquery. The Empire of the Necromancers alludes to our villainous protagonists taking advantage of beautiful, undecomposed corpses. Necromancy in Naat and The Kiss of Zoraida have a pair of lovers reunited in death, the former in a uniquely literal sense, the latter an ironic twist on an illicit affair – something Smith, a womaniser in his youth, would have been quite familiar with. Meanwhile, Mother of Toads literally envisages its main character fucking a toad-witch under a glamour. None of this is remotely akin to Lovecraft.

Finally, Lovecraft tends to serve up a particular type of recurring character. The sensitive, educated, New England rationalist, who gets a bit too curious, and runs into things Man Was Not Meant to Know. If there is magic involved, it is generally of the malign, antagonistic kind, beyond our comprehension (which makes The Case of Charles Dexter Ward all the odder). By contrast, Smith often throws powerful sorcerers at us as actual protagonists, in a thoroughly exotic setting. They’re generally not nice people, and are often petty, vengeful, and greedy, but then very few Smith characters actually are pleasant. It is no accident that Smith was a major influence on Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. And, of course, these protagonists are still fully capable of coming to bad ends. Being a powerful sorcerer still means you might find yourself stomped upon by something higher in the cosmic food-chain. But generally speaking, a Smith character is more likely to be bored and debauched than curious and studious, and Smith – again, in contrast to Lovecraft – is actually capable of writing women.

Well and good. Is there anything else to comment upon in my re-read of Smith?

Well, yes. His sources.

Smith does not cite his sources in his actual stories, after the manner of Lovecraft, but they are plain enough. Smith’s poetic background and interest in decadence means he’s fond of Baudelaire (whom I have not read, but whom is generally cited as a strong influence on Smith). But one can also see that Smith’s Zothique – a far-future continent of sorcery and depravity – owes much to Vathek, by William Beckford (1786). One of those early works of English Gothic, Vathek is a peculiar Arabian Nights-meets-Faust novel notable for its corrupt and decadent protagonist, and delight in the demonic. Beckford appears in Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature essay, but Smith doesn’t merely praise him, but actually tries to emulate the earlier writer’s vision in his own fiction, particularly the sorcerous sections and in the later hellish ones*. And frankly I think he does it better. Smith (when he’s on his game, anyway) is a superior stylist to Beckford, and even tried to finish one of his incomplete fragments.

*Hence one internet commentator describing The Dark Eidolon (Zothique) as a Black Metal take on the Arabian Nights. Which is a description I just love.

And there’s the other, more unexpected, influence. Early twentieth century theosophy. Now, as noted, Lovecraft goes so far as to cite William Scott-Elliot in The Call of Cthulhu. But Smith actually goes a step further, and uses these fantastical theosophist histories as grist to the mill, so far as setting goes. Not that he actually believed in theosophist nuttery, but it provided ready-made fantasy settings for him to create atmospheric explorations of decadence. So whereas Zothique is Beckford-meets-the end of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, Smith’s Hyperborea and Poseidonis – especially the latter, with it being the last survival of Atlantis – are simply rooted in theosophy. Hyperborea is more for adventure, whereas Poseidonis suits sorcery and hidden knowledge. To take a specific story example, The Double Shadow is fantasy-horror that makes copious references to Lemuria as being something from the distant past.

And then we come to Tolkien. Because, yes, there was a Smith story in that 1964 short-story collection. It was The Testament of Athammaus (1932), one of the Hyperborean stories. Frankly, Testament is a B-Grade Smith story. It’s not awful, and the man wrote much worse… but he wrote much better too, and I personally find it more interesting for its underlying idea (prisoner mysteriously survives multiple beheadings) than for its execution, which comes across as weird-and-grotesque fantasy, rather than as the decadence Smith specialised in. As it is, Tolkien actually scribbled down rough comments on The Testament of Athammaus:

https://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Critique_of_%22Distressing_Tale_of_Thangobrind_the_Jeweler%22

This suggests he very much did not like it:

The Athammaus monster wholly unbelievable
[?…] disgusting [?… … …]. There are lots
of ways of being [?… as] nastily, without all this
[?tooraloo] of nonsense.

Most of these things are overheated & exaggerated
([?…] bigger or [?would be] bigger, [?’…’] is
[?…] than the {ends} purposes warrant)
Also obviously over or ill-written.

Even with the lack of clarity, ouch.

Robert E. Howard (1906-1936)

Turning now to the third of the 1930s Weird Tales trio, we find Robert E. Howard. Unlike Lovecraft or Smith, we are not dealing with Horror or Dark Fantasy, Ideas or Atmosphere. We are dealing with Action and Adventure. Because Howard was all about the pulpy red-blooded action, with unapologetic levels of wish-fulfilment. He wrote diversely – he was stuck in a godawful financial situation, having to support his parents during the Great Depression – but he is best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, one of the most iconic characters in all of twentieth century fantasy. And my re-read of him in October consisted of me working my way through The Complete Chronicles of Conan (2006), a compendium of all the various Conan stories written by Howard, whether or not they actually appeared in the man’s lifetime, or even whether or not they were completed. It too is an extremely meaty volume.

One of the interesting things about reading is that it allows you to inhabit the head-space of some who is not you. Someone with potentially quite different assumptions about how the world works. Literature, as I noted long ago, does not exist to parrot back the moral righteousness of one’s own position. And, well, in coming back to Howard for the first time in a decade, that was something I was left clinging to, because even more than Lovecraft, he is the one of these three that requires the greatest mental adjustment to actually enjoy. Because literary Conan somehow manages to be more problematic than E.R. Burrough’s John Carter of Mars, even allowing for the fact that Burroughs’ work is a generation older than Howard’s, and that John Carter is an actual Confederate soldier.

Ironically, I do not think Howard is as racist as Lovecraft, though the original Conan stories are (with exceptions) unquestionably racist to modern eyes. It is just that Lovecraft’s subject-matter tends to absorb its author’s racist paranoia, so that it becomes an accidental part of the Horror effect. Fear of the Other plays into Fear of the Unknown, and a Lovecraft without his copious issues would not have produced those works. But Howard, well… Howard is something different. Here, the subject-matter does not absorb the innate racism, since the objective of the work is not to elicit terror, but rather thrills. We’re supposed to feel excitement, not hatred, dread, and suspicion.

Moreover, with Howard, I think the racism is not at the level of abstract ideology (or at least at the level of a sophisticated, coherent ideology), but rather a case of an author who grew up in a profoundly racist setting (early twentieth century rural Texas), absorbing generic levels of prejudice. Then he played into ugly tropes, because that is what sold in the pulp magazines of the early 1930s. Howard was always very adamant that he did not write for art, but that he wrote for cash. If that meant including a scene where a naked woman is whipped by another woman, just so it boosted his chances of being featured on the cover art, and so getting a better payday, then so be it. If Lovecraft’s racism is rooted in individual paranoia and eccentricities, I think Howard’s is more rooted in circumstance and cynicism.

Lovecraft writes stories that treat racial mixing as the downfall of Civilisation. Howard writes a character who is happy enough to… mix races… himself, albeit, Conan says he doesn’t like black women because of the sharpened teeth. One approach is less evil than the other, perhaps, and one cannot imagine a sympathetic Lovecraft protagonist having a loyal black pirate crew, the way Conan does in Queen of the Black Coast, but somehow Howard is even more cringeworthy to read.

(Howard to his immense credit was, however, apparently no fan of that Adolf Hitler fellow. Lovecraft? Well, he said at least one stupid thing there, even if neither man lived long enough to see the end result. And to be fair to Howard, at the time he tragically shot himself, he was just 30 years old. Lovecraft at 30 was just getting started, had all his classic works ahead of him, and was mired in the Even More Racist Than Normal stage of his life. I’d like to think that if Howard had lived, he would have mellowed out that unfortunate aspect of his writing. But we’ll sadly never know).

Having addressed that particular elephant in the room – frankly, I remember being struck by the black cannibals with the sharpened teeth thing (Shadows in Zamboula) on reading it years ago, but I’d forgotten how nasty The Vale of Lost Women actually is – let’s turn to other matters arising from my re-read.

First off, Howard’s emphasis on action means that unlike Lovecraft or Smith, visual adaptations become much more viable. Famously so. It really is noticeable how well the 1982 movie is able to effectively combine elements from Howard’s original into a cohesive whole – it may be an original creation, so far as the overarching Thulsa Doom plot goes, but it’s got various elements from Howard. The movie uses them to remind us why Conan is fun to read, allowing loving shout-outs to the source-material, while leaving out the aspects that have aged poorly. For example…

  • Conan is the son of a Blacksmith (Hour of the Dragon).
  • The recurring motif of snakes (multiple stories).
  • The Tower of the Elephant is referenced when Conan and friends break into the Tower of the Serpents, albeit Conan’s fellow friendly thief does not die.
  • Crucifixion on a tree, and biting a vulture’s neck to survive (A Witch Shall Be Born).
  • Valeria as an action-girl love-interest is a combination of literary Valeria (Red Nails) and Bêlit (Queen of the Black Coast).
  • The famous conversation about the love-interest coming back from death to save Conan… and then actually doing it (Queen of the Black Coast).
  • Black lotus as a mind-altering drug (multiple stories).
  • The name of Osric’s daughter, Yasmina, is taken from the girl of the week in The People of the Black Circle.
  • The allusion to Conan eventually becoming King, which he does some time before The Phoenix on the Sword.

I am probably missing some. Curiously, my previous Conan read had been prior to seeing the movie (probably quite rare these days), so this represents my first read-through since familiarising myself with the famous adaptation.

Speaking further of the movie, while it has Conan having his share of sexual flings, there is one clear designated love-interest. In Howard, while Conan has multiple girls of the week, only two of them (Valeria and Bêlit) actually show meaningful personality or memorability. One girl of the week (Zenobia) gets promoted to Queen at the end of Hour of the Dragon, but she’s otherwise unremarkable apart from rescuing Conan from a dungeon. The remainder are really varying degrees of forgettable, essentially there as plot devices. I do think Howard might have been better-off giving Conan some sort of recurring love-interest. Sure, he’s Conan, he’s fucked half the known world… but by treating the women in such a serial fashion (Conan is always single at the start of the story), it begs the question of what Conan actually does with them between stories.

I think Howard’s Conan also provides an interesting alternative to Lovecraft and Smith in a worldview sense. Recall that Lovecraft’s essential premise is that humans are fundamentally unimportant – the cosmos is a big, scary place, and simply does not care about our existence, any more than you would care about a spider in your bathroom window. Smith offers a variant, basically analogous to that spider in your bathroom window being able to talk back to you from time to time. Or at least the spider is able to take lots of hashish and indulge its sordid arachnid whims before you (or a bigger spider) remove it in some ironic fashion.

In Howard, our little bathroom spider is able to fight back. And even drive you out from the bathroom for good.

Howard’s Conan does not pretend to understand the full nature of the world. Hell, he struggles to understand what he considers the inherently daft norms of Civilisation, and prefers to focus on what he considers the important things in life, namely fighting, women, and drink. But he does understand that the notion that if you hit something often enough, eventually it will stop moving… which means you end up with scenes like in The Slithering Shadow, where Conan manages to severely wound an Eldritch Abomination. Howard thus offers a little slice of optimism to counteract Lovecraft – asserting that humanity might be unimportant, but it is not helpless.

So far as Howard’s influences go, I think he’s harder to pin down than Lovecraft and Smith. Howard apparently said Conan was influenced by various prize-fighters he knew, but so far as clear-cut literary influences, I was able to spot only two. The Hyperborean Age conception is, as with Smith, lifted from theosophical ideas of the era, albeit Howard does not go into as much detail as Smith. The other is that The Frost Giant’s Daughter is an attempt to invert Ovid’s account of Apollo pursuing Daphne. The myth has god chasing mortal… Howard serves up mortal chasing god*.

But apart from that? One might hypothesise Howard’s propensity for snakes, and their association with the in-universe realm of Stygia, to be a reflection of 1920s cultural Egyptomania. There is probably some E.R. Burroughs too, some Jack London, and Rider Haggard, plus a Weird Tales feedback loop with Lovecraft, Smith, and others. And, as noted earlier, Howard really does run with the (now-debunked) notion that de-evolution of the human species is viable. But Howard covers his tracks better than the other two writers.

*The Frost Giant’s Daughter actually managed to make itself less problematic on this re-read than when I first encountered it. It is still a somewhat… edgy… story, so far as matters of sexual consent go, but coming back to it now, it is abundantly clear that Conan is out of his mind at the time, via magical shenanigans. I also appreciated the atmosphere of the piece.

And that brings us to the obligatory Tolkien connection. The Howard story we know Tolkien read (as it was featured in that short story collection) was Shadows in the Moonlight. As with Lovecraft’s entry, we unfortunately have no idea what Tolkien really thought of that piece, though allegedly he told L. Sprague de Camp that he “quite liked” it. Which might have been politeness, or just de Camp being economical with the truth. We shall probably never know.

**

Such are my thoughts arising from my October re-read of the Weird Tales Big Three. It did, of course, involve covering a lot of literary ground, since these gentlemen were pretty prolific in their output (which in turn meant that my own writing was put on the backburner), but I thought it was definitely worth it. Coming to these works again, after such a long time – and after acquiring a much better understanding of both genre and wider literature – was an interesting and rewarding experience. That is not to say that their flaws aren’t there for all to see, of course. I am now in a much better position to spot those flaws than I was 10-20 years ago, and I see now that even my man Clark Ashton Smith has more issues than I had remembered. But when one remembers the circumstances these writers were in (dirt-poor in the case of Smith and Howard, and living off a dwindling inheritance in the case of Lovecraft), one ought to appreciate that this was Pulp Fantasy and Horror written for desperately-needed cash during the height of the American Depression. I am sure all three would be surprised to learn that they still have readers in 2022.

Addendum: A guide on reading Clark Ashton Smith online: https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2022/12/30/sifting-the-good-from-the-bad-a-quick-and-dirty-evaluation-of-clark-ashton-smith-stories/

2 thoughts on “Revisiting the Big Three of Weird Tales: H.P. Lovecraft, C.A. Smith, and R.E. Howard

  1. Pingback: Sifting the Good from the Bad: A Quick and Dirty Evaluation of Clark Ashton Smith Stories | A Phuulish Fellow

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