An Underwood typewriter, such as Howard used to write his poetry and fiction.
Howard's first published poem was The Sea, in an early 1923 issue of local newspaper The Baylor United Statement. His first published story was "Spear and Fang", sold in late November 1924 and published in the July 1925 issue of the pulp magazine Weird Tales. However, Howard's first real success was the Sailor Steve Costigan series of humorous boxing stories, beginning with "The Pit of the Serpent" published in the July 1929 issue of the pulp magazine Fight Stories.
Howard's distinctive literary style relies on a combination of existentialism, poetic lyricism, violence, grimness, humour, burlesque, and a degree of hardboiled realism. Howard's background in Texan tall tales is the source of the rhythm, drive and authenticity of his work. Howard used an economy of words to sketch out scenes in his stories; his ability to do so has been attributed to his skill with, and experience of, both tall tales and poetry. The tone of Howard's works, especially in the Conan stories, is hardboiled, dark and realistic. This is contrasted with the fantastic elements contained within the stories. Direct experience of the oil booms in early twentieth century Texas influenced Howard's view of civilization. The benefits of progress came with lawlessness and corruption. One of the most common themes in Howard's writing is based on his view of history, a repeating pattern of civilizations reaching their peak, becoming decadent, decaying and then being conquered by another people. Many of his works are set in the period of decay or among the ruins the dead civilization leaves behind.
Influence and influences
I have carefully gone over, in my mind, the most powerful men—that is, in my opinion—in all of the world's literature and here is my list: Jack London, Leonid Andreyev, Omar Khayyam, Eugene O'Neill, William Shakespeare. All these men, and especially London and Khayyam, to my mind stand out so far above the rest of the world that comparison is futile, a waste of time. Reading these men and appreciating them makes a man feel life is not altogether useless.
—Robert E. Howard, letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, circa February 20, 1928
The oil boom in Texas was "one of the most powerful influences on [Howard's] life and art", albeit one that he hated. Howard grew to despise the oil industry along with everyone and everything associated with it. The oil boom heavily influenced Howard's view of civilization as a constant cycle of boom and bust in the same manner as the oil industry in contemporary Texas. A town such as Cross Plains was built by pioneers. The boom brought civilization in the form of people and investment but also social breakdown. The oil people contributed little or nothing to the town in the long term and eventually left for the next oil field. This led Howard to see civilization as corrupting and society as a whole in decay.
Howard first bought a pulp magazine, a copy of Adventure, when he was fifteen. The stories and writers featured in this magazine were a strong influence on Howard. In the same year, he sent his first story, "Bill Smalley and the Power of the Human Eye", to the magazine, although it was rejected. Despite repeated attempts during his life, Howard never sold a story to Adventure.
Howard was both influenced by and an influence on his friend H. P Lovecraft. Many ideas that he discussed in his letters to Lovecraft were repeated in his fiction and the discussion with a fellow professional writer was useful to him. For his part, Lovecraft began to include Howardian action sequences in his own work, for example in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". Much of 1931 was spent by Howard attempting to mimic Lovecraft's style. After that year, he had absorbed the parts of it that worked best for him and made them his own.
Another inspiration for Howard was theosophy and the theories of Helena Blavatsky and William Scott-Elliot, who described lost civilizations, ancient wisdom, races, magic and sunken continents and the lands of Lemuria, Atlantis and Hyperborea, and also influenced other writers of weird fiction.
Although he had his faults as a writer, Howard was a natural storyteller, whose narratives are unmatched for vivid, gripping, headlong action ... In fiction, the difference between a writer who is a natural storyteller and one who is not is like the difference between a boat that will float and one that will not. If the writer has this quality, we can forgive many other faults; if not, no other virtue can make up for the lack, any more than gleaming paint and sparkling brass on a boat make up for the fact that it will not float.
Criticism of Robert E. Howard and his work often turns towards biographical details and "backhanded compliment[s]." Many imply that Howard was an uneducated idiot savant and that his success was due more to luck than skill.
The first professional critic to comment on Howard's work was
Hoffman Reynolds Hays, reviewing the Arkham House collection Skull-Face and Others in The New York Times Book Review. Under the title "Superman on a Psychotic Bender", Hays wrote, "Howard used a good deal of the Lovecraft cosmogony and demonology, but his own contribution was a sadistic conqueror who, when cracking heads did not solve his difficulties, had recourse to magic and the aid of Lovecraft's Elder Gods. The stories are written on a competent pulp level (a higher level, by the way, than that of some best sellers) and are allied to the Superman genre which pours forth in countless comic books and radio serials." Hays then moved on to Howard himself and the genre in which he wrote:
A sensitive boy, he was apparently bullied by his schoolmates. ... Howard's heroes were consequently wish-projections of himself. All of the frustrations of his own life were conquered in a dream world of magic and heroic carnage. In exactly the same way Superman compensates for all the bewilderment and frustration in which the semi-literate product of the Industrial age finds himself enmeshed. The problem of evil is solved by an impossibly omnipotent hero. ... Thus the hero-literature of the pulps and the comics is symptomatic of a profound contradiction. On the one hand it is testimony to insecurity and apprehension, and on the other it is a degraded echo of the epic. But the ancient hero story was a glorification of significant elements in the culture that produced it. Mr. Howard's heroes project the immature fantasy of a split mind and logically pave the way to schizophrenia.
In a review of Michel Houellebecq's essay "H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life" published in the Los Angeles Times, April 17, 2005, Stephen King implies that Howard did not work at his craft and was merely pastichingLovecraft. King described his disapproval of the sword and sorcery genre, and superheroes, in his book on writing Danse Macabre: "[It] is not fantasy at its lowest, but it still has a pretty tacky feel. ... Sword and sorcery novels and stories are tales of power for the powerless. The fellow who is afraid of being rousted by those young punks who hang around his bus stop can go home at night and imagine himself wielding a sword, his potbelly miraculously gone, his slack muscles magically transmuted into those "iron thews" which have been sung and storied in the pulps for the last fifty years." On Howard in particular, he wrote:
Howard overcame the limitations of his puerile material by the force and fury of his writing and by his imagination, which was powerful beyond his hero Conan's wildest dreams of power. In his best work, Howard's writing seems so highly charged with energy that it nearly gives off sparks. Stories such as "The People of the Black Circle" glow with the fierce and eldritch light of his frenzied intensity. At his best, Howard was the Thomas Wolfe of fantasy, and most of his Conan tales seem to almost fall over themselves in their need to get out. Yet his other work was either unremarkable or just abysmal.
An exception to this, in King's opinion (again from Danse Macabre) was the author's Southern Gothic horror story "Pigeons From Hell." King referred to this work as "one of the finest horror stories of our century."
In the foreword to
Two-Gun Bob, a collection of essays on the subject of Howard, fellow fantasy fiction writer, Michael Moorcock, wrote: "The ability to paint a complex scene with a few expert brushstrokes remains Howard's greatest talent, and such talent can't, of course, ever be taught." Howard scholar Rob Roehm considers the use of the phrase "can't ever be taught" to be a variation on the recurrent theme of Howard's lack of skill or training. Moorcock's foreword goes on "[Howard's] greatest hero, Conan the Barbarian, is his best, created from whole cloth, with a nod to Natty Bumppo and Tarzan of the Apes, and most closely representing the kind of person Howard, home-bound, mother-worshipping, suspicious of big cities, would in his dreams most like to be." Roehm counters that none of the assertions made about Howard in that comment are true, although none of them are unique to Moorcock either. In Wizardry & Wild Romance, Moorcock has also written both that Howard "brought a brash, tough element to the epic fantasy that did as much to change the course of the American school away from previous writing and static imagery as Hammett, Chandler and the Black Mask pulp writers were to change the course of the American detective fiction" and that he "was never a commercially successful writer in his lifetime. His brash, hasty, careless style did not lend itself to the classier pulps. Most of his work appeared in the cheapest of them."
Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi wrote, in his biography H. P. Lovecraft: A Life, that "The bulk of Howard's fiction is subliterary hackwork that does not even begin to approach genuine literature" and "The simple fact is, however, that his views are not of any great substance or profundity and that Howard's style is crude, slip-shod, and unwieldy. It is all just pulp—although, perhaps, a somewhat superior grade of pulp than the average."
The following table shows Howard's earnings from writing throughout his career, with appropriate milestones and events noted by each year. During the Depression, Howard earned more than anyone else in Cross Plains. When Howard died, Weird Tales still owed him between $800 and $1,300. (Adjusted for inflation, this amount would be equivalent to between $14,444 and $23,472.)
Robert E. Howard's Earnings from Writing
Adjusted for Inflation
1st Solomon Kane published
1st Kull, 1st Steve Costigan
Oriental Stories launched, 1st Bran Mak Morn
Fight Stories suspended, Kline engaged as agent, 1st Conan
Oriental Stories becomes Magic Carpet
Magic Carpet cancelled, Action Stories re-launched, 1st professional El Borak, 1st Kirby O'Donnell, 1st Breckenridge Elkins
"By the spring of 1936, he was enjoying an all-time high in sales."
Three publishing houses have put out collections of Howard's letters. In 1989 and 1991, Necronomicon Press published Robert E. Howard: Selected Letters in two volumes (1923–1930 and 1931–1936) edited by Glenn Lord with Rusty Burke, S. T. Joshi, and Steve Behrends. In 2007 and 2008,
The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press published a three volume set (1923–1929, 1930–1932, and 1933–1936) titled The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, edited by Rob Roehm. Additionally, in 2009, Hippocampus Press published two volumes (1930–1932 and 1933–1936) of Howard's correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft as A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft & Robert E. Howard, edited by S. T. Joshi, David Schultz, and Rusty Burke.