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Robert E. Howard: The Creator of Conan and Pioneer of Horror Fantasy – Life and Works


He was a man of contradictions, a Texan cowboy who dreamt of ancient swords and sorcery. His words gave birth to a barbarian who became a cultural icon, a symbol of primal power and untamed masculinity. Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, was more than just a pulp writer. He was a pioneer of horror fantasy, a master of the sword and sorcery genre, and a literary force whose impact continues to resonate today. This blog post delves into the life and works of this extraordinary writer, exploring his influences, his defining creations, and the lasting legacy he left behind.

Table of Contents

Early Life and Influences

Robert Ervin Howard was born on January 22, 1906, in the small town of Peaster, Texas. His childhood was steeped in the rugged landscape and frontier spirit of the American Southwest. He was an avid reader from a young age, devouring tales of adventure and romance. His father, a physician, instilled in him a love for history and storytelling.

Howard’s early writing attempts were fueled by his fascination with the fantastic. He was drawn to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose tales of adventure in exotic settings captivated his imagination. His admiration for the author’s prolific output inspired him to embark on his own literary journey.

However, Howard’s literary influences extended beyond Burroughs. He was deeply engrossed in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, a fellow writer of dark fantasy and horror. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, with its themes of ancient evils and existential dread, profoundly influenced Howard’s own style, injecting a chilling element into his tales of adventure.

Arthur Machen, a British author known for his blend of folklore and the supernatural, also left a mark on Howard’s writing. Machen’s exploration of Celtic mythology and ancient mysteries resonated with Howard’s own fascination with the past and the unknown.

These influences combined to shape what would become known as the “Howard Style” – a distinctive blend of pulpy adventure, historical fiction, and dark fantasy. His characters were often larger-than-life, driven by primal instincts and a thirst for adventure. His settings were steeped in history and mythology, blending realism with the fantastical.

The Birth of Conan

In 1932, Howard created his most famous character: Conan the Barbarian. Born into a world of savage tribes and warring empires, Conan embodies the spirit of a primal warrior. Driven by a hunger for survival, he traverses a landscape of brutal violence and supernatural forces, battling for glory, treasure, and the right to rule.

The Hyborian Age, the fictional setting of Conan’s adventures, is a world rich in history and mythology. Howard meticulously crafted this world, drawing upon ancient civilizations and folklore to create a tapestry of cultures, languages, and religions. The Hyborian Age is a microcosm of humanity’s primal instincts, a canvas for Howard to explore themes of power, ambition, and the eternal struggle between savagery and civilization.

Conan’s impact on fantasy literature is undeniable. He became a cultural icon, representing the wild and untamed spirit of the barbarian. His influence can be seen in countless subsequent works of fantasy, from the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien to the graphic novels of Frank Frazetta. Conan’s popularity transcended genre boundaries, inspiring adaptations in comics, movies, and video games, cementing his place as one of the most enduring fantasy characters of all time.

Other Major Works

While Conan the Barbarian is undoubtedly Howard’s most famous creation, his literary legacy extends far beyond the Hyborian Age. Howard’s prolific output encompasses a wide range of characters and stories, showcasing his versatility as a writer and his mastery of the fantasy genre.

The Kull Stories

Preceding Conan, Howard introduced Kull, the king of Valusia, in 1918. Kull, a warrior-king of the ancient Atlantean civilization, ruled over a world of magic and intrigue. His stories explore themes of power, ambition, and the rise and fall of empires. While Kull’s adventures may not be as widely known as Conan’s, they serve as a precursor to the barbarian’s exploits, demonstrating Howard’s early fascination with the clash between power and savagery.

The Solomon Kane Stories

Solomon Kane, a Puritan warrior who battles demonic forces, represents a different facet of Howard’s writing. In contrast to the untamed barbarity of Conan, Kane embodies a righteous and disciplined warrior, fighting against evil with sword and faith. Howard’s exploration of religious themes in Kane’s stories adds a layer of complexity to his writing, showcasing his ability to blend elements of horror, fantasy, and historical fiction.

The Bran Mak Morn Stories

Bran Mak Morn, the last king of Britain, is a figure of legend and myth. Howard’s stories depict his struggle against the invading Picts, weaving together historical facts and fantastical elements. Bran Mak Morn’s adventures offer a glimpse into a pre-Arthurian Britain, filled with magic, monsters, and the clash of ancient cultures.

The Historical Fiction

Howard’s literary repertoire also includes historical fiction, showcasing his ability to blend factual accounts with imaginative storytelling. “The Scarlet Sister Mary,” a tale of the American Civil War, and “The Devil in Iron,” a story set in the English Civil War, demonstrate his ability to capture the historical realities and human drama of conflict.

While Howard’s fantasy works are undoubtedly his most enduring contribution to literature, his historical fiction reveals his talent for crafting compelling narratives set in specific historical contexts.

A Life Cut Short

Behind the vibrant worlds and thrilling adventures, Robert E. Howard’s personal life was marked by struggles and tragedy. He battled depression throughout his life, exacerbated by financial difficulties, a troubled romantic life, and the constant struggle to make a living as a writer.

Despite his success in the pulp magazine world, Howard’s work was often dismissed by the literary establishment, a fact that contributed to his feelings of inadequacy and isolation. These inner demons, coupled with the pressures of a demanding writing career, took a heavy toll on his well-being.

On June 11, 1936, at the age of 30, Howard took his own life. His death was a devastating loss to the literary world, leaving behind a legacy of vibrant characters and unforgettable stories.

Howard’s Legacy

Despite his short life, Robert E. Howard left an indelible mark on fantasy literature. His influence can be seen in countless subsequent works, inspiring generations of writers to explore themes of savagery, adventure, and the darker side of humanity.

His creation of Conan the Barbarian ushered in a new era of sword and sorcery fantasy. Conan’s popularity continues to this day, with his adventures being adapted into comics, movies, and video games, solidifying his place as a cultural icon.

Howard’s legacy extends beyond Conan, encompassing his diverse cast of characters and his mastery of the fantasy genre. His work remains a testament to the power of imagination and the enduring appeal of thrilling adventures.

His stories continue to captivate readers with their blend of historical fiction, pulpy action, and dark fantasy.

His impact on fantasy literature is undeniable, making him a pioneering figure whose influence continues to inspire readers and writers alike.


Q: What is the most popular Robert E. Howard story?
A: Howard’s most popular story is undoubtedly “The Tower of the Elephant,” a Conan the Barbarian adventure that showcases his trademark blend of action, intrigue, and supernatural elements.

Q: What is the difference between Conan and Kull?
A: Conan and Kull are both barbarian heroes, but they represent different facets of Howard’s writing. Conan is a more savage and primal character, driven by instinct and a desire for survival. Kull, on the other hand, is a more sophisticated and cunning ruler, a warrior-king with a complex understanding of power.

Q: Why is Robert E. Howard considered important?
A: Howard is considered important for his pioneering work in fantasy literature, particularly in the development of the sword and sorcery genre. His creation of Conan the Barbarian cemented his place in literary history, and his influence on subsequent fantasy writers is undeniable.

Q: What other authors did Robert E. Howard influence?
A: Howard’s influence can be seen in the works of countless fantasy authors, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, and countless others. His characters and themes have inspired countless stories, from epic fantasy sagas to gritty urban fantasies.

Q: Is there a place I can learn more about Robert E. Howard’s work?
A: You can find a wealth of information about Robert E. Howard’s life and work online, including websites dedicated to his writings, scholarly articles, and fan forums. The Robert E. Howard Foundation is a valuable resource for fans and scholars alike.