The Reading Room

The Flame and Cycle of Civilization in Robert E. Howard’s Weird Fiction

“His knowledge was a reeking blasphemy which would never let rest…He had looked on ultimate foulness, and his knowledge was a taint because of which he could never stand clean before men again or touch the flesh of any living thing without a shudder. If man, molded of divinity, could sink to such verminous obscenities, who could contemplate his eventual destiny unshaken?” (Howard, The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, 288)
So writes Robert E. Howard in “The Valley of the Lost,” one of his horror tales. Howard, known primarily for his Conan the Barbarian stories, wrote many such weird tales featuring horribly mutated and decayed fragments of the human race. While his descriptions and his vocabulary (words such as “reeking blasphemy” and “ultimate foulness”) carry a strong taint of his good friend H.P.Lovecraft, the content of his stories is far different. Where Lovecraft is concerned with things far beyond humanity, Howard concerns himself with the  destiny and position of humanity within the grand sweeps of time and the cosmos. A common element in Howard’s stories is to feature an ancient civilization, well-versed in black magic and eldritch science, that has decayed or devolved into something beast-like, inhuman and hideous. Another common element is the cyclical rise and fall of nations from barbarity to civility then back to barbarity again. Neither of these themes exactly scream confidence in humanity’s fate.
All life, for Howard, is a primal, grandiose battle with forces natural and forces supernatural. It is the duty of each person to cling to life with every tattered breath and straining muscle, an idea inherently tied with his cycles of nations and fantastic twists of human evolution. Each man earns his right to keep breathing only by fighting tooth and nail. Yet when civilizations grow too successful, they become lazy and opulent, relying on others to fight their battles for them. These others, their jealous barbarian neighbors, eventually overthrow and replace them, pushing the once proud and mighty to slink away in cowardice to hide in caves and swamps where their progeny will eventually adopt physical markers of the bestial state to which they have reduced themselves. Meanwhile, the strong barbarians, as the new ruling civilization, eventually follow the same course as their predecessors, rising to the heights of civilization and empire only to fall back into a desperate barbarism when they too lose their place of power and must again fight to survive. It is a familiar perspective these days: “Strong men make strong times, strong times make weak men,” as the adage goes.
This vision of the savagery of the strong and the decline of the weak is shared also in the conflicting primal forces in Howard’s tales of horror, creating a marked distinction from the appearances of the occult, the demonic, and the depraved in the works of his contemporary Southern Gothic writers. Howard does not write of mere dying good-manners or the risk and gain of human souls trapped in their infirmity but of great battles between those who wish to survive and the dark forces which conspire to destroy them. 
Howard's horror is not the horror of man or the works of man, but the horror of primal forces man may or may not be able to hold under his sway, resist, or kill. It is a horror which speaks not of old towns but of an ancient, barren land which has seen empires rise and fall to the torch and spear of a stronger foe, and which remembers all, retains fragments of all, holds the bones and blood of all, and grows ever greater in its hatred for the men that walk upon it. It is a bleak, almost savage outlook on mankind and the future, one that makes for some fantastic stories.
Surprisingly, though, Howard’s most famous character, Conan, is actually a response to these very problems, for though he is often written as a wandering mercenary, Conan’s adventures conclude with him becoming king of a dying civilization, suffusing it with a new vitality and a new dynasty, and ensuring its survival for centuries. Thus even in the midst of Howard’s bleak cycles the flame of civilization can be relit.