Friday, August 17, 2007
The Best of Robert E. Howard Vol 1
Best is, of course, a highly subjective term, and series editor Rusty Burke admits this in his forward to this collection of the short stories of Robert E. Howard. Rusty did poll a bunch of Howard fans to get a consensus of which stories were thought to be Howard's best, but the final decision was his.
Overall I'd say he did a pretty decent job. Volume I contains both The Shadow Kingdom and Red Shadows, the two stories that vie for the title of first ever sword & sorcery story. Red Shadows was published first, but it's a tale of Howard's Elizabethan swashbuckler, Solomon Kane, whereas The Shadow Kingdom is one of Howard's King Kull stories. The argument seems to be that some readers feel that a true sword & sorcery story has to be set in pre-history, like Kull's Atlantis of Conan's Hyborian Age, so they disqualify Red Shadows because it occurs in a recorded period of history. To give my take would take an entire essay devoted to the subject, so I'll talk more about it later.
Conan so overshadows Howard's other work that Rusty decided to only allow two stories about the big Cimmerian in this book. He chose The People of the Black Circle, which I agree is possibly the best of the series, though not my favorite, and Beyond the Black River, one of the very last Conan stories Howard wrote.
Also included are Worms of the Earth, which almost everyone (including me) agrees is Howard's best story about the Pict warrior Bran Mak Morn, The Valley of the Worm, one of Howard's tales of James Allison, a man who can recall his previous lives, and Kings of the Night, the story where Kull travels forward in time to meet Bran Mak Morn and fight the Roman invaders of Briton. Winners all.
There are quite a few other stories in this thick (528 pages) trade paperback. All of Howard's major heroes are represented, from Solomon Kane to El Borak. I almost didn't pick the book up though because it only contained two stories that I didn't already have in other REH collections, and those two stories were relatively minor tales of two of Howard's lesser heroes, Sailor Steve Costigan and mountain man Breckinridge Elkins. Still there are a couple of nice essays included, and it's hard to imagine me not buying a book called the Best of Robert E. Howard. Plus, this is an excellent volume to loan people that you'd like to introduce to the vivid imagination of Robert E. Howard.