Friday, October 20, 2023

A Shopping Mall, a Yogurt Shop, and a World Undreamed Of


My love affair with everyone’s favorite sinewy, blue-eyed Cimmerian was cultivated in the fantasy section of B. Dalton Books in Bel Air Mall, Mobile, AL. I didn’t live in Mobile, but rather a tiny pitstop of a town on the opposite side of the bay, so trips to the mall were a real treat. And I always made sure I set aside time to visit the bookstore regardless of our reason for going, like something in the kitchen was broken and we needed to go to Sears or someone in the family needed clothes. My parents, while not the most educated of people, understood the importance of a love for reading, and encouraged me to explore my passion.

The only other place to find science fiction and fantasy in my area was the K&B drugstore across a four-lane highway just opposite the head of my street. For a drugstore, they actually had a decent selection. And mass market paperbacks were cheap, so it only took mowing a yard or picking up some leaves to earn enough money to feed my habit. By twelve I was a voracious reader who could devour two books in a single day during the summer. My father was a crisis counselor and my mother owned a pet grooming shop. So while not wealthy, we weren’t poor, at least not compared to the other residents of our largely lower to middle class town. But even when books are cheap, the cost adds up.

Tragically, it didn’t take long to snatch up everything K&B had to offer, and the Book Mobile selection was limited to children’s literature and a few classics. Don’t get me wrong; I love the classics. But at that age, having discovered Tolkien, Asimov, Brooks, and McCaffrey, Moby Dick did not hold my interest in the same way.

By the time I began yearning for my trips to the mall and its seemingly infinite selection, the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian had been out for more than a year. It was an R-rated film, and my parents, while not overly strict, had no intention of allowing me to see it. However, around the same time, VCRs were becoming affordable, along with the often-unappreciated laser disc. The cost had not come down enough for us to comfortably afford such a luxury, but luckily there were other options, and it was on laser disc that I first was made fully aware of Conan.

The proprietor of a nearby frozen yogurt shop was one of those obsessive laser disc owners who snatched up every new movie that became available. Being a man in his twenties with no children, he could see no problem in putting on an R-rated movie for the local teens, as long as we each bought a cup of yogurt. After all, he wasn’t showing porn or buying us booze, so what was the harm? He seemed to like having us around, me in particular as not only did I live close by but we had a shared interest in D&D and would trade adventure modules whenever we were finished with one. To my chagrin, I was never invited to play; but I think that had to do with the fact they would drink and smoke weed during gaming sessions. The guy was cool, not stupid.

I recall clearly how Conan the Barbarian practically leapt into my hand the moment I saw it tucked in between the other discs he had stashed on a shelf on the lower part of the TV stand. My smile was broad and my anticipation great. I had wanted to see this for too long and had been denied by an accident of my date of birth. No longer!

Whatever opinion you might hold as to how well the 1982 film has aged, at the time, I thought it was the best action movie I’d ever seen. I can still hear the score in my head, timpanis thundering away as the brass section calls forth long and deep and ominous. I can still hear Mako’s gravelly voice grinding out, beckoning me to forget where I was and lose myself in the Hyborian Age. My adolescent mind was flooded with daydreams of high adventure where the gods were vengeful and cruel and the schemes of wizards were as deadly as a knife in the shadows. By the time the end credits rolled, I was desperate for more. And I knew where to get it.

At this point, I should probably lie and say that I bought everything Robert E. Howard wrote straight away. But I must confess that I was ignorant of Howard or that he had been Conan’s creator. Understand that this was pre-internet days, and the history behind Conan the Barbarian was not something I could just look up in the encyclopedia, which was the primary repository of trivia in the 1980’s. The only person I knew who might have been able to tell me was my uncle. He had given me my first copy of The Fellowship of the Ring and had been a fan of the fantasy genre in his youth. But as his infrequent visits were primarily dedicated to tromping about in the woods to search for Civil War artifacts with his metal detector, which I very much enjoyed and looked forward to, it would not have occurred to me to ask about it. So it wasn’t until a year or so later that I read the original works. The Robert Jordan books were on display on my next visit to the mall, so it was with Jordan’s Conan I began my literary journey into Hyboria. And boy, oh boy, what a journey it was.

Decades later, I can’t recall how many I read, but I do remember that upon arrival at B. Dalton I knew precisely where I was going and what I would be purchasing, and I can still feel the pang of disappointment when I read the last page of each adventure, knowing it could be weeks before I could get my hands on another. By this time I had discovered the comics and graphic novels. I managed to find on a vinyl album with a couple of Conan shorts. But as much as I enjoyed comic books, I was a reader. I was drawn to long-form tales in which I could truly immerse myself. In a way, that was why I discovered Howard’s original works. I had initially avoided them due to how short they were compared to the other Conan novels. After all, I had to get the most out of my mall visit, so it didn’t make sense to buy a book that I could read from cover to cover in the time it took to drive home. And my fantasy interests continued to expand, so I would often choose something else.

But Conan the Barbarian was never far from my heart. Its influence on the writer I one day became is stronger than with any other character I’ve encountered. This misunderstood icon of American fantasy genius was a foundational inspiration for my entire career.

I once heard a joke made about Conan. It wasn’t mean spirited in nature. But I was compelled to leap to the Cimmerian’s defense all the same. Yeah…I never was able to keep friends for very long.

He said, this is how you plot a Conan novel:

1) Conan rides into town.

2) Conan kills whoever he wants.

3) Conan eats whatever he wants.

4) Conan drinks as much as he wants.

5) Conan has sex with your woman.

6) There is nothing you can do about it.

7) Conan rides from town.

8) The End.

Yes, it’s funny. And it is typically how people unfamiliar with the character beyond the 1982 movie view him. He became the embodiment of masculinity in its most primal form: a powerful warrior who hacks and slashes his way out of any situation, who takes what he wants when he wants it. Conan is sinew and steel, blood and sweat, death and conquest. The personification of male strength and aggression.

But for those of us who know better, this depiction of Howard’s creation is not only inaccurate, it’s insulting.

The complexity of Conan is routinely ignored or overlooked by those who choose to set him up as an example of masculine toxicity and dominance—and more often than not, by those who have never read the source material.

To say that readers gravitate toward Conan and have remained loyal for nearly one hundred years simply because he can kick ass and take names is projecting a shallow, uninformed opinion upon the fans. To believe they revere him because he is a brutish conqueror lacking the weakness and reservations that men in the modern era wish they could shed is so far off the mark as to be ludicrous.

Conan is strong, without question; but not fearless. Brave, but not reckless. Determined, but not heartless. A survivor, but not without boundaries. Conan is honest to a fault, and true to his word even if it could cost him his life. A fiercely loyal friend. While he detests weakness, he is frequently a protector of those who cannot protect themselves. He is a natural leader, but he knows when to follow. He is confident in his own strength and abilities yet aware of his limitations and shortcomings.

While the image of a muscle-bound berserker slaughtering his way out of danger may be the predominant view of the uninitiated, once you begin to learn who Conan really is, you quickly discover that he is far more likely to think his way out of a situation than use brute force.

It is this increasing depth and gradual growth that in my view is the true genius of Robert E. Howard: not only in the character of Conan but in the way Howard portrays the world in which his adventures take place. In a scant ten years, he took a shallow hack-and-slash barbarian and cultivated him into a man whose facets are as numerous as the words on the pages on which the tales are written. 

I look at Conan today, so many years after Howard’s death, and I am in awe of the legacy left behind and the striking influence it has had on popular culture and overall storytelling. For me as a writer, Conan has been instrumental in teaching me how to build my characters and help them to grow in a natural, relatable way that resonates with my audience. And his world building helped me to understand that as much as I love Middle Earth, I can look beyond the Shire to darker, more dangerous lands.

The B. Dalton bookstore has long been closed. I haven’t been to the mall in years. If I want a book, I need only turn on my computer and order it. But nothing will ever make me feel the way I did with a paperback propped in my lap, my eyes glued to the page, my mind lost in the lands of Stygia, Aquilonia, and Zamora.

 I feel the world is ready now for a reintroduction to Conan; his bold nature, his sublime confidence, his unbreakable will. A man never unsure where his moral compass should be pointed. These are the things heroes are made of. And may Crom strike down those who would reduce him to a mindless heap of toxic male muscle and aggression! I for one could not be happier to have created the most recent addition to the legacy. While my contribution is small, it feels to me as if the gods have blessed me with a gift of incalculable value. I can only hope I am worthy.

Pre-order Conan: The Child Here