Lighting the Dark Cosmos of Lovecraft and Howard

By Anthony Pryor

These days, you can’t get away from HP Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard
even if you want to. In bookstores, comic shops and convention
dealer’s rooms you see them – lovingly restored editions of Howards’
tales, collections of Lovecraft-inspired fiction by a new generation
of authors, graphic novels starring Conan the Barbarian, plush Cthulhu
dolls, board games, RPGs, art and even hard rock music that pays
tribute to these men whose lives both ended tragically nearly 80 years

As a lifelong fan of weird fiction and author of the “Shepherd Trilogy,”
coming soon from Permuted Press (see how subtly I work in my
self-promotion?), I’m as indebted as anyone to the works of both HPL
and REH, for without their influence so many works of fiction would
either not exist, or be very, very different.

Neither man was perfect, of course. Lovecraft’s fear of “the other”
was driven by a brutish and repugnant racism, while Howard’s obsession
with discredited Eurocentric racial theory quickly grows first
tedious, then downright offensive. It’s a mark of these authors’
greatness, however, that we can enjoy their work despite their
shortcomings. HPL and REH created worlds that still resonate in our
imaginations, as if both Conan and Cthulhu actually existed.

Lovecraft and Howard shared a bleak view of the cosmos and humanity’s
role in it, yet their characters could not have been more different.
In tales such as The Call of Cthulhu and The Dunwich Horror,
Lovecraft’s scholarly heroes face the terrors of a strange and hostile
universe. Even those who survive their encounters with the Great Old
Ones and their minions are changed by it: the narrator of The Shadow
Over Innsmouth must face the reality of his alien heritage; the
desperate survivors of At the Mountains of Madness are shaken to the
core by the dark truths they discover; even the heroic Professor
Armitage totters on the brink of insanity after reading passages from
the dread Necronomicon.

Howard’s heroes are made of sterner stuff. Conan the Barbarian doesn’t
flinch when faced by cosmic horror. Solomon Kane clings to his
puritanical faith as he encounters ancient curses and black magic in
the forgotten corners of the world. Bran Mak Morn summons the horrors
of an ancient world to drive out Roman invaders and eventually dies
sword in hand fighting a battle that he knows he cannot win. REH also
chronicled the nihilistic bleakness of existence, but rather than
simply despair or go mad, his protagonists prefer to go down fighting.

I’m not saying that I find the universe as cold and comfortless as
either Old Weird Howard or Old Bloody Bob, but even if it is as
terrible as they claimed, I find myself falling more on REH’s side
than HPL’s.  That said, I don’t quite buy REH’s rugged, gore-soaked
individualism either. His heroes stand alone, holding off the hordes
of hell with sword or pistol, utterly without comfort or ally. This
seems ultimately futile as well, for Robert E. Howard – the man who
walked alone – ultimately discovered that a solitary existence leads
only to sadness and self-destruction. That he took his own life at the
age of 30 is the greatest of tragedies.

So now here we are, considering whether existence is truly as grim and
comfortless as these two giants of American popular fiction suggested,
and if so, how do we face it with our souls intact? I say, even if we
accept that the world is as dark as they claimed, we can still find
joy and comfort in ourselves. If there are no gods and no greater
powers to guide us, even if we are doomed to vanish without trace, we
still have one another. We draw inspiration, not by gazing up at the
uncaring heavens, but at each other – here, where there is love and
joy and life. A hero who walks the razor’s edge can’t walk alone, lest
he lose the thing that makes him human.

The Norsemen so beloved by Bob Howard believed that the only in memory
can we truly achieve immortality. And by the gods, we remember Robert
E. Howard and HP Lovecraft, warts and all. My work is a tribute to
both, and while I’d like to think that I’m a tad less bleak and
nihilistic, I would also like to think that I’ve suitably honored
their memory.