Much of the work posted herein and to follow in forthcoming numbers of this online journal will be material already published within REHupa, The Robert E. Howard United Press Association, a print APA of which I am also a member.
Of the two selections in this first issue of THE SHADOW SINGER, the first is a digital republication of the first part of my series for my REHupa journal, THE CROSS PLAINSMAN, on Robert E. Howard and the Sonnet. The second offering is a new piece and a first time publication in this inaugural number of THE SHADOW SINGER, a close reading and some commentary on Howard's first sale for publication, the short tale "Spear and Fang" written when he was only eighteen.
Robert E. Howard and the Sonnet
(part one: the narrative sonnets)
by Frank Coffman © 2000
first published in THE CROSS PLAINSMAN for REHupa #166, December 2000
The Official Mailing of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association
first published in THE CROSS PLAINSMAN for REHupa #166, December 2000
obert E. Howard's gifts as a poet have been greatly overshadowed by his well-deserved fame as a teller of tales. Indeed a great number of his millions of admirers and overly selective (or "under-initiated") readers do not even know him as a poet at all, let alone a poet of surpassing skill and intensity. But such a poet he was, exhibiting not only the conscious and sometimes strained imitation of the poets he admired, but also his own developing and distinctive flair while working within the old forms of the rhymed verse which he embraced, striking those notes of measured language as part of his general anti-modern philosophical bent.
Howard has left us an interesting corpus of poetry and some equally intriguing experimentation with the prose-poem (as close as he came to the vers libre which was gaining ascendancy in his day). He experimented with the heroic blank verse of Shakespeare, the ballad of tradition (heavily influenced by the work of Rudyard Kipling and Robert W. Service, to name but two), but he was also clearly enamored of the sonnet in the original Italian (Petrarchan) mode, comparatively more challenging in the rhyme-poor language of English.
Since the Renaissance, the sonnet form has been considered the true test for the poets of the West, challenging the poet by its tight pattern of fourteen lines, precise meter, and confining rhyme scheme to strive for lyric concision and precision. No occidental verse poet of note for more than 700 years has neglected to attempt the form, and it remains an intriguing challenge to this day. Great sonneteers not only work within but, paradoxically, break free of its ancient bounds with seemingly endless and surprising discoveries of its inherent potential. Like the chess board that it approximates in shape, it seems to offer limitless possibilities for "the masters."
And Bob Howard was a master of the sonnet form, displaying virtuosity in many ways. Sadly, both then and now, the market for poetic work neither was nor is a lucrative one. Howard was a "pro" by his own admission, a writer who decided to make a living by writing and by "splashing the field" of markets for his more profitable prose. He wove in his poetry where he could, butunfortunatelyended up leaving unwritten many of the poems that could have been.
The sonnets comprise a distinct sub-genre of Howards poetry and offer an interesting spectrum of content while remaining very consistent in form and true to the Italian mode polished and perfected by Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) in the 1300s. While all sonnets are fourteeners, the established norm for the Italian variety is based upon a division of eight and sixthe octave and the sestet. The lines are almost always in iambic pentameter with the standard rhyme scheme of the octave working on the two initial rhymes: abbaabba. The sestet added two different end rhymes, with the standard rule to never end with a couplet. The most common varieties were: cdcdcd and cdecde. Howard experimented a bit with the sestet, but never really varies from this form to any great degree.
The sonneteer sets a task for himself to fit verse within the fixed form. Most English poets, following the lead of Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (who invented what has become known as the "English" or "Shakespearean" form of the sonnet) and Shakespeare (whose sequence established it as the mode to follow in English) have opted to use the freer rhyme pattern of that form due to the relative "rhyme poverty" of our language. It is much easier to fit the abab cdcd efef gg pattern than to work with the scant four rhymes of the Italian as did Howard. That Howard opted for this more confining form tells us something about him from the outset: first, that he must have relished a challenge which is in keeping with what we know of his character from other evidence; second, that he believed in fitting content to structure and admired the traditions of literatureto paraphrase and invert Robert Frosts famous disparagement of free verse ("like playing tennis with the net down"), Bob Howard played the game "with the net up," loving the challenge of innovation and invention within the rules established by tradition.
Indeed so much was Howard a lover of tradition that the specific literary inspirations for much of his workboth prose and poetrycan be readily conjectured (even if not verified with complete certainty). And this leads to my first examination of the sonnets of Robert E. Howard his use of the sonnet as narrative.
Just as the sonnets as a group may be seen as a distinct sub-genre of Howards poetry, so there are distinct subtypes and nuances within Howards small collection of sonnets. One thing that Howard did with the sonnet was to adapt it as a narrative poem and steer it away from the lyric of tradition. Others had done this before (see Percy Shelleys "Ozymandias" and, of course, Lovecrafts Fungi from Yuggoth sequence), but the brief narrative is a thing seldom tried with the sonnet. Other elements that we see in the prose of Howard as well as his poetry include his interest in the Oriental Adventure (a la Magic Carpet and other exotic adventure pulps). His knowledge and appreciation of Edward Fitzgeralds Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is well recounted in his letters and is visible in much of his poetry and some of his prose, each drawing elements from the Rubaiyat
Let us turn to an examination of three narrative sonnets by Robert E. Howard.
Forbidden Magic 1 There came to me a Man one summer night, Around the world the sighing of the loon
(July 1929 WEIRD TALES)
When all the world lay silent in the stars,
And moonlight crossed my room with ghostly bars.
He whispered hints of weird, unhallowed sight;
I followed then in waves of spectral light
Mounted the shimmery ladders of my soul
Where moon-pale spiders, huge as dragons, stole
Great forms like moths, with wings of wispy white.
Shook misty lakes beneath the false-dawns gleams;
Rose tinted shone the sky-lines minaret;
I rose in fear, and then with blood and sweat
Beat out the iron fabrics of my dreams,
And shaped of them a web to snare the moon.
There came to me a Man one summer night,
Around the world the sighing of the loon
[NOTE 1: Id like to thank Glenn Lord for a photostatic copy of Howards typescript of this poem which was also intended for inclusion in the collaborative book of poetry IMAGES OUT OF THE SKY (which was never published, but the title of which was used by T. C. Smith for his own self-published collection of verse some years later)]
This is an interesting sonnet in that it varies from the traditional Italian form, showing REHs willingness to be innovative and to be unconfined by strict adherence to a form if the rhymes just "dont come." The octave is regular in the A rhymes, but the young poet decided that the B rhymes of the first four lines [ABBA] could not beor were better notrepeated in the next four [ACCA]. Likely he found a couplet of lines that suited his content and they best fit in the octave.
Note the break of thought and image between the octave and the sestet (here keeping the Italian tendency to divide in sense (as well as rhyming arrangement and usual typographic presentation) between the 8th and 9th line. We shift from the night visitor to the different and generally more precisely delineated images of the sestet. The sestet is also interesting for its DEFFED arrangement (a distinct variance from the accepted norms which would have suggested DEDEDE or DEFDEF), the rhymes working from the outside to the central couplet in the group.
Both the "false dawn" and the minaret establish the Middle Eastern atmosphere and are very likely inspired by the opening of Fitzgeralds Rubaiyat:
Stanza One/Version One:
Awake for morning in the bowl of night,
Has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight.
And, lo, the Hunter of the East has caught
The sultans turret in a noose of light.
And Stanza Two:
Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand* was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
"Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry
[*Dawns Left Hand which Fitzgerald glosses:
"(II.) The "False Dawn"; Subhi Kazib, a transient Light on the Horizon about an hour before the Subhi Sadik or True Dawn; a well-known Phenomenon in the East."
Also interesting and worthy of note regarding Howards "Forbidden Magic" is the curious coincidence of images with those in the famous sonnet "Design," by Robert Frost. And coincidental it first seems that it must be, for the Frost poem was not published until 1936, the year of Howards death. The eerie connection in the images of spider, moth, and weird whiteness or palor are unmistakable:
Robert Frost, 1874-1963
(first published 1936)
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth-
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witch's broth-
A snow-drop spider, a flower like froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth hither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?-
If design govern in a thing so small.
But, as it turns out, an earlier version of this poem, "Design," was finished and published as early as 1912 and entitled "In White."
(first published 1912)
A dented spider like a snow drop white
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of lifeless satin cloth
Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight?
Portent in little, assorted death and blight
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth?
The beady spider, the flower like a froth,
And the moth carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The blue prunella every child's delight.
What brought the kindred spider to that height?
(Make we no thesis of the miller's plight.)
What but design of darkness and of night?
Design, design! Do I use the word aright?
I think it quite likely that there may be some inspiration between the earlier Frost version and Howards experimental and innovative sonnet. Howard, the student of the sonnet, could hardly have been unaware of the work of Frost, and this poem hints at a definite inspiration.
There is clear evidence of the overall musicality of his language and love of alliteration ("with wings of wispy white," the frequent Ss and Ws in the octave and these two and also Ms throughout the poem.) and other phonic devices such as assonance (vowel rhyme: "mOOn," "lOOn" "shOOk" and again in "wIth-wIngs-wIspy").
We may now conjecture about the content of the poem, most intriguingly the possible identity of the "Man" (the capitalization of the word is undoubtedly significant) he "followed." A good guess about the identity of this fellow who "whispered hints of weird, unhallowed light" would be Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Bob Howard began his epistolary relationship with Lovecraft only a year after the publication of this poem in Weird Tales. There is no doubt that Howard had been influenced by Lovecraft's work. In a letter to HPL dated 9 August 1930, Howard begins: "I am indeed highly honored to have received a personal letter from one whose works I so highly admire. I have been reading your stories for years, and I say, in all sincerity, that no writer, past or modern, has equalled you in the realm of bizarre fiction."
There is at least good evidence that this poem may be viewed as an homage to HPL, influenced by Howards boyhood reading (Fitzgerald) and study of the sonnet form (Frost). It also exhibits early the ability of Howard as sonneteer to work within the form without being a slave to it, considering the liberty REH takes with the rhyme scheme of the pattern.
Another interesting thing that Howard does with the sonnet is the occasional use of the poem to present dialogue as well as narration. This is exceedingly rare in the sonnet form, since there is little room to spare for narration, let alone the "real time" presentation of dialogue or scene. Shelley comes close to it in "Ozymandias" ["I met a traveller from an antique land who said: / Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand on the desert . . ." with the rest of the poem being the "frame narrative" of the traveller. but this, even though inclusive of two voices, the frame narrators and the travellers, is hardly dialogue. Howard uses the sonnet interestingly to include two speakers in a conversation. Here is Howards "The Weakling" (The "New" Howard Reader #4, page 29):
I died in sin and forthwith went to Hell;
Said he, "My friend, youve been directed wrong:
Robert E. Howard
I made myself at home upon the coals
Where seas of flame break on the cinder shoals.
Till Satan came and said with angry yell,
"You there divulge what route by which you fell."
"I spent my youth among the flowing bowls,
"Wasted my life with women of dark souls,
"Died brothel-fighting drunk on muscatel."
"Youve naught to recommend you for our feasts
"Like factory owners, brokers, elders, priests;
"The air for you! This place is for the strong!"
Then as I pondered, minded to rebel,
He laughed and forthwith kicked me out of Hell.
I died in sin and forthwith went to Hell;
Said he, "My friend, youve been directed wrong:
The poem is distinctive not only because of its heavy dialogic content, but also because of its variance from the usually more lofty poetic diction that Howard uses in most of his poetry, certainly most of his sonnets. But this is certainly in keeping with the notion of dialogue and the conversational tone of the piece.
It is always dangerous to try to connect the "I" of a poem with the poet. For the same reasons that the narrator of a story should not be confused with its author, so the first person here as representative of Howard himself needs to be seriously questioned. I say this for several reasons. First, the mere association of the "weakling," the "I" of the poem whose sins are too pale to be admitted to Hell, with Howard would run counter to, at least, his image of himself. Still, the suggestion of overdrinking and resorting to brothels is intriguing and would certainly hold true of REH in the former at least on occasion. Regarding the latter, the jury must, I believe, remain out. Howards sexual experiences (or lack thereof) have been and will continue to be the stuff of conjecture among the psychological and biographical and some other critics until more definitive evidence is found, if ever. It may well be that we will never have good evidence regarding Howards sexual experiences.
The poem does show REH wrestling with some of the more Puritanical doctrines of his received religion and serves as a platform for brief social comment and the Marxist-socialist leanings of his youth with "factory owners, brokers, elders, and priests" being numbered among those who are qualified candidates for Hell.
Technically the poem is typically Italian in the octave rhymes, but, again, exhibiting Howards tendency to alter the sestet this one ending CDDCEE with the rhymed couplet closure taboo in the true Italian/Petrarchan form. John Wyatt (this form is sometimes called "Wyatts Sonnet") and, more famously, John Donne (see his Holy Sonnets and such offerings as "Batter My Heart, Three-Persond God") made use of this couplet-closure form as an early English variance from the Italian norm. Interestingy, Howard uses it in one of his few poems touching upon religion.
Perhaps the best narrative-dialogic sonnet in the Howard corpus, "Misers Gold" [The "New" Howard Reader #3, page 6] tells a complete brief narrative with insinuated surrounding plot and wonderfully compressed content:
"Nay, have no fear. The man was blind," said she.
A glint of silver and a sheen of jade
Robert E. Howard
"How could he see twas we that took his gold?
"The devil, man! I thought you were bold!"
"This is a chancy business!" muttered he,
"And well be lucky if we get to sea.
"The fellow deals with demons, Ive been told."
"Lets open the chest, shut up and take a hold."
Then silence as they knocked the hinges free.
Two strange gems gleaming from a silken fold
Rare plunder gods, was that a hidden blade?
A scream, a curse, two bodies stark and cold.
With jewel eyes above them crawled and swayed
The serpent left to watch the misers gold.
"Nay, have no fear. The man was blind," said she.
A glint of silver and a sheen of jade
This is the truest to purpose and most successful of Howards narrative sonnets. The wonderful achievement of REHs poetic and image-laden prose fiction is here distilled and encapsulated and seen in its essence. Great writers leave some work for the reader, and the sin of most novices at the craft of fiction is to overwrite, both in language and in content, giving too much verbiage and too much detail and too little credit to the readers intellect. Much of the delight in reading is filling in the intentional gaps that the skilled fictioneer has provided.
We see many Howardian tendencies in this micro-story.
First, we see Howards decided preference for the omission of introductory exposition (no room for it in the sonnet of course, but REH almost always omits it in his prose narratives as well). We leap into the narrative in medias res, in the good old epic plan of Homer; the blind miser has already been robbed.
Second, the suggestion of setting and specifics of the theft are done through the use of dialogue: ". . . well be lucky if we get to sea" suggesting both setting and the concept of sea + theft = pirates; the fact that the theft is a "chest" gives both specificity of the crime and enhancement to the pirate conjecture. The fact that the cautious "he" of the poem has heard that "the fellow deals with demons" adds that supernatural aura consistent with Howards adventures. That the "she" seems more bold and daring even if reckless and foolhardy is interesting, especially in light of REHs frequent depiction of strong female characters (something his few feminist critics often fail to appreciate).
Third, the luscious imagery and descriptive power of Howards language is exhibited in the opening of the sestet with the wonderful sound devices of assonance: "glInt," "sIlver," "sIlken" and in "shEEn" and "glEAming"; splendid alliteration: "GLint," "GLeam" (even exhibiting double alliteration) and shortly thereafter "Gods" and "Gold"; and also, of course, with the Ss of "Silver," "Sheen," "Strange," and "Silken"; and also consonance on the letter L: "gLint," "siLver," "gLeaming," and "siLken."
Fourth, wonderful economy of detail, necessary of course for the compressed narrative of sonnet, but also a distinctive marker of Howards prose fiction is seen in the two central lines of the sestet. Howard achieves the economy of the ballad of tradition. Just enough words are given to suggest the initial elation of the robbers/pirates in forcing open the chest (mythic allusion here to Pandoras Box?), the painful surprise of what is first supposed to be a concealed blade, and the lovely economy of "A scream, a curse, two bodies stark and cold." No ballad of tradition exhibits better concision of detail. Enough is provided for the reader to see clearly what has happened, the details are sufficient to establish atmosphere and setting in the minds eye, and the poem swings through the final two lines to reveal the jewel-eyed serpent (Biblical allusion to Eden?), the guardian of the treasure and bane of the thieves.
None of the narrative sonnets of Lovecrafts Fungi From Yuggoth, one of the few other groups of poems to make use of the sonnet as a narrative rather than lyric, are handled as skillfully or achieve such a full narrative completeness and compactness.
The poem is also most interesting in rhyme economy as it moves on only three rhymes, the sestet being in one of the two traditional patterns this time, but including the B rhymes from the octave: ABBAABBA | CBCBCB. Here Howard sets himself an even more difficult task than in the normally difficult Italian form. Seemingly simple on the surface, "Misers Gold" reveals both Howards poetic virtuosity and his consummate narrative skill, exhibiting its own "silken folds," offering a narrative poetic gem sparkling like the jade-green eyes of the serpent.
by Frank Coffman
The Promise of "Spear and Fang":
A Close Reading and Commentary
on Robert E. Howard's First Sale
first published in The Shadow Singer in the Official Posting of
Robert-E-Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association
Vol. 1, No. 1, Vernal Equinox 2001
by Frank Coffman
"The result was crude, but gave evidence of real artistic genius, struggling for expression."
Robert E. Howard, "Spear and Fang"
ighteen-year-old Robert Ervin Howard achieved his first commercial success as a "fictioneer" when Weird Tales purchased his story "Spear and Fang" which saw publication in the July issue for 1925. The story is interesting for many reasons beyond the distinction of primacy. In its short span, the young Howard displays some traits that will remain with him as an author throughout the few remaining years of his short life and the rest of his fictional output. The story gives early testament to many of the virtues that made Howard popular then and since, and it also exhibits a few of the narrative "nods" or possible "flaws" that he was prone to -- and perhaps even one or two which he never overcame.
First of all, as a work of Howard's juvenilia [or at least of this earliest period of commercial publication, and, if any time of his life might qualify to be called such, his late teens would be such a period] it must be seen as exceptionally well wrought and certainly up to the standards of Weird Tales. It exhibits a command of grammar and stylistic sophistication that are rare in one so young. Overall, the tale must be commended for the typical fast pace and leap into action that were to characterize the vast majority of his fiction.
The flaws are, to some extent, the typical ones of the writer just breaking into publication. There is a tendency to "overwrite" a bit as far as the style is concerned. There are some sophistications of speech that are, at best, unlikely as effusions of the early Cro-Magnon. But the evidence of good "homework" done -- based on the limited knowledge of the prehistoric which his era had acquired -- is also present.
But let us examine some particulars, for there are many other interesting aspects of the writer and man that Robert E. Howard was to become lying within the text of this tale.
I am going to attempt a close but eclectic reading of "Spear and Fang," offering some wild surmises as well as more solidly evidenced points. In the spirit of all critical discussion, I hope that my surmises might prompt either assent or disagreement, but, at the very least, be worthy of prompting some thought; further, I hope my more defensible points will attain the rank of distinct possibilities if not convince the reader completely.
The story is brief enough that I will attempt this discussion "linearly" with threads of critical approach weaving through the discussion, but not formatted into blocks or segments of critical text. The discussion will flow and ramble linearly, following the lines of the story text.
First of all, regarding the practice of naming characters, the young REH seems taken with the need to hyphenate and emphasize the notion that primitive peoples likely built language from agreed upon monosyllables that eventually became compounds. This, of course, even today would be mere conjecture, but still not an unlikely possibility. Regarding the names used, I find the one for the main character "Ga-nor" to be most interesting. Whether the young Howard intended (or subconsciously "intended") the name to be a pun for gainer (in other words, "one who gains, or attains") will never be known, but I put this forward as a possibility.
Beyond this, and a bolder assertion to make, I see Ga-nor as emblematic (and I believe not merely subconsciously so -- at least not subconsciously in all respects) of the young Robert E. Howard himself. Clearly the analogy holds quite well: both are young artists, testing and extending the "boundaries" or customs of their respective crafts; both work "laboriously" at their art [I'm reminded here of Keats's great sonnet, "When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be" and the fear that he may never live to "trace the shadows" of a "high romance" with the "magic hand of chance."], and it might be said that both Ga-nor and Howard give "evidence of a real artistic genius, struggling for expression."
As for the girl, A-ÆA, the young artist is "too occupied with his work to notice her," which might very neatly summarize the answer to the question that still fascinates Howardian scholars: "What about Bob Howard's relationships (or the lack thereof) with women?" Yet through the tone of the piece, the desire might well be seen -- a desire I believe evident through much of Howard's work -- that he be admired by women, perhaps by all who might admire art, but, nonetheless, that he be or become a person worthy of admiration.
The metaphor of the cave painting is also indicative. Howard could not have known of the Lascaux, France cave paintings (discovered 1940) but he must have been aware of the archeological explorations and discoveries of the prehistoric quickly advancing in the early 20th century. The fact that such had survived for tens of thousands of years appealed to the young artist in Howard in the way that art lures many, perhaps most artists -- at least one appeal is the potential for a relative "immortality" of sorts, a living on through ones work.
Interesting also is the view of social progress supposed by the young REH to have advanced. A-Æa "should have played the modest, demure maiden, perhaps skilfully [SIC] arousing the young artist's interest without seeming to do so. Then, if the youth was pleased, would have followed public wooing by means of crude love songs and music from reed pipes." Here, though possibly presenting a far more structured civilization than perhaps existed, Howard tells us something else about himself as well. That there was something to the traditions of the tribe, but as we are told, "little A-Æa was herself a mark of progress" -- in other words the bold and forward and assertive woman -- Howard is, I believe, making an interesting parallel to the girls he would have known in the "Roaring 20's" (even if they didn't "roar" quite so loudly in Cross Plains and Brownwood and environs).
The story then shifts to A-Æa's retreat from the what we might call the "cave of creativity" for Ga-nor and the character development of two avant garde cave dwellers -- artist and assertive woman -- to the foreshadowing of danger and adventure with the mention of the "gur-na's," the Neandertal's footprints.
Interestingly, the narrator ascribes to these "man apes" the beginnings of the Cro-Magnon (homo sapiens) legends of "ogres and goblins, of werewolves, and beast men." Also, of course, we may see the emergence of the thread of species (race?) superiority and the decided notion that there are (at least were) distinctions between the human and near human -- and that Cro-Magnon man was superior.
We then meet Ka-nanu ("canine"?, the "dog," at least the cad). And we begin to see a few "nods" by the young REH. First of all, the sophistication of Ka-nanu's "Turn not away, fair maiden . . . . It is your slave, Ka-nanu" is not only so much out of keeping with the prehistoric society that Howard hopes to depict, but it is also far out of character for the Ka-nanu we have just been introduced to ("He wooed her with a mocking air, as if he did it merely for amusement and would take her whenever he wished, anyway. He seized her by the wrist"). And, to top that off, A-Æa has been described as anything but "fair" ("A-Æa herself was very easy to look upon. Her hair, as well as her eyes, was black and fell about her slim shoulders in a rippling wave."), unless "fair" might be meant in the other sense as the antonym of "foul." Right after this, Ka-nanu calls her "moon of delight," which is more metaphoric than we might usually allow a cave dweller, but which does give interesting evidence of one of REH's decided and well-attested early literary influences, Edward Fitzgerald's translation of "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" -- specifically Section 74 of the First Edition:Ah, Moon of my Delight who know'st no wane,
And not much later, Ka-nanu calls A-Æa "my little antelope." Simply too poetic for this boorish thug.
A telling passage about the differences between Ga-nor (can we read him as Howard?) and Ka-nanu and their attitudes regarding women follows:
"Ga-nor was known to be gentle with women, if careless of them, while Ka-nanu, thereby showing himself to be another mark of progress, was proud of his success with women and used his power over them in no gentle fashion."
Is Ga-nor's gentle carelessness perhaps the truth about Howard in a very interesting way, about the young artist so caught up in his art and that mission that no woman could dissuade him from that art and that mission? And did REH see Ka-nanu's callousness typical of the "progressive" attitudes of his own era? It seems from the positioning of the clauses that Ka-nanu must be the "progressive" one here, but is this perhaps a grammatical nod? We can but speculate.
With the next transposition of scene, Ka-nanu is leading hapless A-Æa off into the forest to do his worst, when the first passage of what is to become distinctive Howardian style strikes us between the eyes:
. . . in the midst of a glade he paused, his hunter's instinct alert.
From the trees in front of them dropped a hideous monster, a hairy, misshapen, frightful thing.
A-Æa's scream re-echoed through the forest, as the thing approached. Ka-nanu, white-lipped and horrified, dropped A-Æa to the ground and told her to run. Then, drawing knife and ax, he advanced.
The Neandertal man plunged forward on short, gnarled legs. He was covered with hair and his features were more hideous than an ape's because of the grotesque quality of the man in them. Flat, flaring nostrils, retreating chin, fangs, no forehead whatever, great, immensely long arms dangling from sloping, incredible shoulders, the monster seemed like the devil himself to the terrified girl. His apelike head came scarcely to Ka-nanu's shoulders, yet he must have outweighed the warrior by nearly a hundred pounds.
Here we have three markers of Howardian style sprung full-blown in his first sold story.
First of all, we have the tendency that could be called by various names but I will define it by calling it simply "action packing." To be more specific about this, we may add that it's achievement is often effectively carried out by what, in most writers, is a flaw, but which Robert E. Howard gets away with beautifully, again and again: the tendency toward "hypermodification" by the liberal use of adjectives and adverbs. This hypermodification can occur serially ("serial modification") as we see in such strings as "hairy, misshapen, frightful" and in frequent "compound modification" (usually done by two qualifiers linked by the word and. This we can see as on marker of REH's style thenceforward. Somehow -- he usually (I will not say always) keeps it from cloying or being overdone. Mark Twain once wrote, "If you can catch an adjective, kill it." and creative writing coaches everywhere suggest that we should write in vivid nouns and action verbs and modify sparingly, but Robert E. Howard achieves both economy and compression of excitement in his practice of hypermodification.. Another marker of his style is the use of nominal (nouns) and verbal (verbs) compounding (to be discussed in the third point below).. Suffice it to say that, in the majority of Howard's action scenes, nearly every key noun and many verbs get extra reinforcement from adjectives and adverbs. This is often in the form of plural modifications made to a single nouns or verbs and not merely a tendency to modify most nouns and verbs a single time (which also occurs in many sentences).
Second, in keeping with the catalogue lists of Homeric style (see the "role call of heroes" in the cataloguing of the hosts of the Greeks in The Iliad), Howard will not infrequently run through a listing of details as we see in the vivid depiction of the Neandertal: "Flat, flaring nostrils, retreating chin, fangs, no forehead whatever, great, immensely long arms dangling from sloping, incredible shoulders . . . ." The young Robert E. Howard already displays his sense of scenic depiction and narrative pace (along the lines of Aristotle's mimesis [mimicking of "real time" action and dialogue] distinct from diegesis [the summary of the narrator]). Howardian scenes of action and danger and physical encounter to the death strive to keep "reading pace" with the "story pace." So, his language becomes as packed as the action depicted.
Third, we see the young writer's virtuosity with the language and a very sophisticated command of English. He exhibits complexity and diversity in his phrasing and clausal arrangements. He likes the periodic effect of saving the main clause until that last part of the sentence -- always a way to build suspense. He uses interjected appositives and inversions of syntax well, both in this early tale and throughout his work. Other markers of distinctive style include the frequent use of both metaphor and simile and the occasionally use of compound subjects, compound verbs, and compound (as opposed to serial) modifiers and the frequent use of the rhetorical device of tricolon or three-part parallel structure as in the following passage:
On he came like a charging buffalo, and Ka-nanu met him squarely and boldly [compound adverbs]. With flint ax and obsidian dagger [compound subject] he thrust and smote [compound verbs], but the ax was brushed aside like a toy and the arm that held the knife snapped like a stick in the misshapen hand of the Neandertaler. The girl saw the councilor's son wrenched from the ground and swung into the air, saw him hurled clear across the glade, saw the monster leap after him and rend him limb from limb [tricolon of clauses with the first and last exhibiting compound verbs]. (emphasis mine)
But more and much more specific on these points for a later essay and a more complete narratological examination of Howardian techniques.
Ga-nor's successful pursuit of the kidnapping "Neandertaler," his close-call defeating of the man-beast , and the rescue of A-Æa mark the culmination of the narrative. Not to be overlooked is Howard's "sprinkling in" of various beasties and dangers to add to the atmosphere of the tale: mammoth, tiger, python. He gets in his gory details (especially noteworthy is the offer of a morsel from the monster to A-Æa after he has her in his lair -- the uncooked meat being "the arm of a Cro-Magnard child."). The brush strokes of horror and danger are already being practiced and developed by the young Howard.
And we have the marker that perhaps makes Robert E. Howard stand out most as the young man who would become the pre-eminent writer of adventure fantasy for the pulp market of his day and the popular market since: the scintillatingly brilliant image that simply reaches from the page and grabs the reader and captivates and even enthralls. At least for me the depiction of Ga-nor after he finds the remains of Ka-nanu's dismembered corpse shines like the frequent diadems of words waiting to be wrought by the Howard yet to emerge and develop:
He was racing now, and his face was a devil's mask, for he had come upon the bloody glade and had found the monster's tracks leading away from it.
That metaphor of the "devil's mask" and the lovely poetic echoes of the "l" and "d" sounds in "bloody glade" makes one realize that Howard had a genuine vision of his creations in action as well as a keen poet's ear for the music of words as well as their meaning, for their sound as well as their sense. Moreover, he was able to transform that vision through the medium of language, mankind's most potent artistic medium.
The battle scene itself is one grand example of how even the young Howard could visualize and mentally choreograph (eventually, of course, often physically "choreograph") his action stories. Howard had the mind's eye of a director of cinema (one can only speculate how interesting might have been his possible eventual attention to screenplay or direction). His stories (to play off the famous line of Hamlet's) never "lose the name of action."
At the end, the battle and the girl are won. "What I have fought for I will keep," says Ga-nor, who, like the hero of a legion of legends, wins the battle over the evil and daunting adversary and wins "a lover and a mate." The last sentence has the final tone of a story of legend: "And so it was that . . . ." The last sentence also shows that spark of romance, still alive it would seem in the young Howard, but which would recede if not diminish in the maturing fictioneer.