Between the ages of 18 and 23, I read a lot of books. I was in college part of that time, and the other part I was a young married guy trying to break in as a writer. As a matter of fact, I was 23 when I sold my first story. I read Doc Savage novels, Matt Helm novels, Saint novels, assorted Westerns, a ton of mystery novels, at least two tons of comic books, quite a bit of science fiction. I went through a literary phase where I read a lot of Hemingway (I read THE SUN ALSO RISES at least twice during that period and almost wrote about it for this post) and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read quite a bit of historical adventure fiction by the likes of Frank Yerby and Rafael Sabatini (SCARAMOUCHE was a favorite of mine, a great swashbuckler). But there was one book I read that was really special to me. Some of you could probably guess the author, even if it wasn’t right up there in the post title.
I’m talking about THE BOOK OF ROBERT E. HOWARD.
I bought it off the paperback rack (it was a wall rack by then, not a spinner) in Thrifty Drug Store, where I bought a lot of paperbacks, digest magazines, and comics over the years and in all of its various incarnations. (The store changed hands four or five times while I was buying stuff there.) I think it was a Sunday morning when I bought THE BOOK OF ROBERT E. HOWARD, but I may be wrong about that. But whenever it was, I know one thing: I took it home and immediately began to read it.
You see, before that I had read all the Lancer editions of Howard’s Conan stories. I didn’t know the full story then about the involvement of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter with these stories, all I knew was that I really liked the ones written by Howard and published in WEIRD TALES during the Thirties. Of course, even those weren’t pure Howard as published in the Lancers, but close enough to make me a fan for life. I’d also read the Lancer edition of the Kull stories. But even though I knew from de Camp’s introductions to the various volumes that Howard had written other things besides sword-and-sorcery yarns, I hadn’t read any of them until I picked up that copy of THE BOOK OF ROBERT E. HOWARD. My reaction to it was simple, yet overwhelming.
This guy could write anything.
There were humorous Westerns and serious Westerns, boxing yarns that were slapstick comedies and ones that were grim and bloody, historical adventures with just as much swashbuckling and swordplay as the sword-and-sorcery tales, detective stories that were more about headlong action than detection, creepy and atmospheric horror stories . . . Well, maybe I exaggerated slightly when I said that Howard could write anything. Not every single genre of fiction is represented among his work, of course. But not only was he able to write across a wide swath of the pulp market, but he had also done an excellent job of it.
Why should you dig up a copy of THE BOOK OF ROBERT E. HOWARD and read it, if you haven’t already? Because it’s incredibly entertaining, and the Zebra edition has a pretty nice (if a little bizarre) Jeff Jones cover. You’ll get a fine cross-section of Howard’s stories. Zebra also published THE SECOND BOOK OF ROBERT E. HOWARD, THE VULTURES OF WHAPETON, THE LOST VALLEY OF ISKANDER, THE IRON MAN, THE INCREDIBLE ADVENTURES OF DENNIS DORGAN, WOLVES FROM THE SEA, etc. All of them are very much worth reading.
Most of this stuff has been reprinted in recent years in beautiful editions from Del Rey, Bison Books, and others, with the purest text possible and in some cases versions that have never been published before, and I highly recommend all of them. I own most of them, and when I reread Howard, it’s usually these newer editions I read.
But for sheer nostalgia, for taking me back instantly to that period of my life between the ages of 18 and 23, nothing has quite the same kick as THE BOOK OF ROBERT E. HOWARD. That copy I bought in Thrifty Drug Store is long gone, but I may just have to hunt up another one. I think I’d like to read those yarns again, in the book where I first discovered them.