In this essay I shall seek to pick out a few themes from Robert E. Howard’s writing life, using one of his most emblematic stories, “Rogues in the House,” as a living illustration.
Howard certainly had (or imagined that he did) strong Irish roots which influenced much of his fiction in a Celtic direction. One only has to look at the nature of the Nemedian chronicles in the Conan mythos to see this. Not to mention his ever-present fascination with the Picts. This savage and ancient Scottish people are a recurrent motif throughout his career, ending with the Conan mythos, and best typified by his early Pictish king, Bran Mak Morn. One presumes, amongst other things, that Conan’s name is abstracted from the same name in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s august nomenclature. Conan Doyle, the world famous creator of Sherlock Holmes, had Irish roots via his Scottish ancestry.
This Hibernian influence aside, however, one of the things that always strikes one about Howard is the extreme violence of his stories — something which led them to be viewed with “disgust” by August Derleth, for example. Certainly the blood and thunder has a transgressive edge which seeks to outdo similar turbulence in the work of Frank Norris or Jack London. Nonetheless, whether or not this streak of exhibitionistic sadism has anything to do with being bullied at school and as a young man and seeking compensation, has to remain a lost biographical insight. There is definitely no ideological element to the blood-’n'-guts, unlike Norris, who in works like Greed (later filmed by von Stroeheim) luxuriates in the pitilessness of life along themes which are clearly socio-biological and Darwinian.
Another Howard trope which emerges early on is a depressive view of civilization and a related and oft expressed view about the sincerity of barbarism. He either believes in decline à la Spengler, or at the very least he has major problems with modernity. This comes to a head in his ready dismissal of the oil boom or black gold rush that typified Cross Plains, the Texas town where he grew up and spent most of his life.
One can see this most clearly in the treatment of Akivasha, the Stygian vampire who never died, in the latter stages of Howard’s only Conan novel, Conan the Conqueror (otherwise known as The Hour of the Dragon). He contrasts the romantic legend about her, sung by students and lovers, to reality and says that it was ever thus. Reality never lives up to mankind’s dreams. This depressive coda indicates that Howard had a pessimistic, mordant, and culturally conservative view of change and progress — whatever his actual political and socio-economic views.
A distrust in grand theory is also seen in his galaxy of unintellectual (but not unintelligent) heroes. These number — amongst many others — Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, King Kull, Conan, and a diverse spread of boxers and cowboys. There is a certain quotidian pessimism (always morphological and culturally conservative) in having characters, who by virtue of some of their limitations, can only fight their way out of a situation.
All of these more generic themes come together in a highly illustrative Conan story such as “Rogues in the House” — a story which has been described as one of the best fantasies written in the twentieth century.
One dead, One fled, One sleeping in a golden bed. — Old Rime
Rogues in the House is a revenge tragedy featuring the young nobleman Murilo who is warned to leave a walled city by the Red priest, Nabonidus. The warning takes the form of a severed ear in a box which he gives to the young pretender at a royal banquet. Murilo realises that it is either him or the priest — and fashions a scheme whereby he can rid himself of his nemesis.
This involves using the services of a barbaric outlander, Conan, who is a notorious thief and reaver. Murilo arranges for his escape from prison, and (after some preliminaries which do not concern us) Murilo follows his bravo into the very citadel of the Red Priest. In doing so, he almost trips over the body of an enormous hound or mastiff which haunted the expansive gardens of the mansion . . . the beast has been savagely killed.
On entering the House, he sees the Red Priest sitting in his ornamental vestments or robes. On confronting him and forcing him to turn, he discovers that the wizard has become a were-thing, assuming a ghastly alternative shape.
Murilo then awakens in some vaulted dungeons or tunnels underneath the House — where he is met by Conan, who, on gaining entry through the sewers, brought down a great grill after him that sealed up the entrance. It transpires that Nabonidus, the Red Priest, has also been thrown down into this labyrinth beneath the house.
All three men have a common nemesis now, and this is Thak, a man-ape from the East, whom Nabonidus had hitherto used as a servant. But the simian clearly had ideas above his station. On a recent evening, he appeared to go mad, but it was, in reality, a clever plot to take control of the Red Priest’s house and grounds, and replace him. This involved killing Jokar, the master’s taciturn other servant, a human being, as well as by sitting next to the entrance to the pits — thence to blast his enemies when they emerge from the Pits through the use of a secret chamber.
Yet other enemies, or rogues in the house, are abroad this night. These are a circle of young, ardent nationalists who seek the usurpation of the Red Priest for patriotic reasons. They steal into the mansion — fancying it unguarded — only to be blasted to Hell by Thak using the weapons of a secret chamber.
Intricate grooves fashion glass walls, within which the blossoms of the grey lotus are released. These narcotics bring madness and death. After the auto-mutilation of those in the concealed chamber, Thak opens the far glass door and allows the noxious gases to escape. He then proceeds to take the bodies to acid pits elsewhere in the house.
Seizing their chance, Conan and his companions mount the stair. But all of the doors in various vestibules are locked, and even Nabonidus, the Red Priest, is thrown into a funk by Thak. The simian soon returns, and the three collaborators hatch a plot whereby Murilo shows himself and runs away, Thak follows, and then the Barbarian lands square on his shoulders from directly above. He sinks a sharp poniard or dagger again and again into the man-ape’s thews and upper body, but to no avail, until, the beast is stunned by Murilo hurling a stool, and Conan’s blade finds the beast’s heart. After a protracted shuddering the ape-man dies, and the voice of pathos or Howard’s cultural pessimism then intrudes: “I have killed a man tonight not a beast,” interpolates Conan, “and my women shall sing of him.”
The plot then resolves itself in an attempt by Nabonidus to double-cross his new allies, but Conan’s mind, hand, and eye coordination is too swift for him. “His blood was red, after all,” mouths Conan at the end of the adventure.
In this story we can see all of Howard’s many tenets on display — heroism, extreme masculinity, violent heroics, a spell-binding plot, and sense of adventure. It is all combined with a cultural shadow: the anti-progressivism, mordant wit, and distrust of civilization which may well have folded into his own suicide, aged thirty, in 1936.