Friday, July 06, 2007

First Impressions


Someone at the Robert E. Howard Comics Yahoo Group asked about everyone's first exposure to Robert E. Howard's actual prose. I started to reply but of course ended up writing another mini essay, so I decided just to put it up here at Singular Points. I've added a couple of bits of info for people who actually know me to this version.

My first exposure to Robert E. Howard was the Marvel Conan Comic but my first reading of Howard's prose is a bit more complicated. I discovered Conan in 1973 when I was eleven years old. I read several issues of the comics before I noticed the "adapted from" notes in the credit blurbs, so I didn't immediately know that Conan was a character who appeared in books. Of course once I figured it out, already being a bookworm and now being obsessed with Conan, I wanted those books.
But I lived in a small town in Georgia (Canton) and it had only a tiny library and no bookstores, new or used. My only chance was the occasional weekend trip to the closest shopping mall which was an hour away, near Atlanta. (Cumberland Mall, which in those pre Hwy 575 days was a long haul.) And of course once I finally nagged my parents into taking me to the mall, there were no Conan books to be had. Not only that, but no one at the bookstore had any idea what I was talking about. The books were out of print, though at eleven I don't think I'd have known what that meant, even if the clerks at B. Dalton or Waldenbooks could have given me that information. (I also didn't know that Lancer Books, the original publishers of the Conan paperbacks, had gone bankrupt and that the rights to the series were tied up in a legal mess.) All I knew was that I couldn't get my hands on the original Conan stories. I ended up with Lin Carter's Thongor and the Dragon City, and Fritz Lieber's Swords Against Wizardry. Not bad as consolation prizes but no REH and no Conan.
Jump forward a couple of years. My local library had a small paperback trade rack. You could bring a book in and take a book out on the honor system. It was mostly full of romance paperbacks, but occasionally I'd find a science fiction book I wanted. My mom was an avid reader, so I always had paperbacks to trade. I was scanning the rack and suddenly spotted the word CONAN. I snatched the book up. It was the Lancer edition of Conan the Freebooter. The cover was torn, the spine was broken, and the pages were loose, but it was an honest to gosh Conan book. Finally, I had found one. I took it home and scanned the contents. I liked the title "A Witch Shall be Born" so that was the first story I read. That was my first Robert E. Howard prose. The funny thing is, I didn't like it much. I think I was a little young for Howard's unfiltered dark imaginings. Edgar Rice Burroughs was more my speed. Later of course that would change.
Oddly enough, the first new Conan book I ever owned was a British Sphere paperback of Conan the Wanderer. While the rights to publish the Conan books were still tied up here in the US, Sphere was allowed to reprint the Lancer Conans in the UK and some of them were shipped over here and sold at B.Dalton. I've no idea how that worked out. I remember that I was shocked at the price. $2.95 when most paperbacks were still $.95 to $1.25. I still have that book. A few years later, ACE Books would get the rights to reprint the Conan series and then I could finally get all of the available Robert E. Howard Conan stories, albeit in slightly edited versions as I found out later. It would be almost three decades before the unedited texts would become readily available, but that's another story.

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