Bill Ward and Howard Andrew Jones are embarked on a deep re-read of the Robert E. Howard Conan stories, and producing excellent essays on each. The current re-read is “Beyond the Black River,” which is hands-down my favorite Conan story.
For in it, Howard tapped his Texas roots and his growing fascination with frontier storytelling, transferred its tropes into his Hyborian Age— and produced a minor masterpiece. Howard was obsessed with the history of the dark and bloody ground of his homeland. He had also read much of the work of Robert W. Chambers and Joseph A. Altsheler, who wrote extensively of the early colonial frontier. In “Beyond the Black River,” Howard translated the American frontier into a fantasy setting, which allowed him the liberty to take themes that have resonated through American history and literature in a strange and dark direction.
The late Steve Tompkins wrote that,
“‘Black River’ is extraordinarily compelling precisely because it is so at odds with American history. No shining city on a hill will be built in the primordial Pictish Wilderness. The Picts will not lie down in front of the bulldozer of Hyborian Manifest Destiny but instead hijack the vehicle and put it in reverse…”
Tompkins argues ardently for a reading of Howard’s Pictish Wilderness tales that puts him squarely in a tradition that runs from Hawthorne to Melville, Cooper to McCarthy:
“Nothing else in modern heroic fantasy borders so closely upon classic American literature, and if the Black River of genre classification can be crossed, if bias and snobbery fall like Fort Tuscelan and Valenso’s stockade, these stories will take their rightful place.”
Read the Jones/Ward plunge into the Pictish Wilderness — then go read the story. You’ll be glad you did.