#116 – Gardens Of Fear, Robert E. Howard BOOK REVIEW

December 6, 2018

Gardens of Fear

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what compelled me to spend most of my adult life criss-crossing the globe, exploring strange lands. Why is it that my brother has lived his entire life in Newcastle whereas I, who share many of the same interests, left home at 18 for university in another city and then never really came back? [1] My nine-year experiment with Game and Euro Jaunts wasn’t an aberration, but rather just a different expression of the same thrill-seeking and wanderlust. Where did I get that from?

Conan. That’s where.

Read this from Queen Of The Black Coast, the first short story in the Gardens Of Fear anthology. A pirate ship led by Belit has attacked the trader Conan had passage on so he jumped onto Belit’s ship and hacked his way past half her African crew. Conan finally held at bay, Belit steps in to offer him a place by her side. Sword in hand, dripping blood, he thinks it over:

His eyes swept the bloodstained ranks, seeking expressions of wrath or jealousy. He saw none. The fury was gone from the ebon faces. He realised that to these men Belit was more than a woman: a goddess whose will was unquestioned. He glanced at the Argus, wallowing in the crimson sea-wash, heeling far over, her decks awash, held up by the grappling irons. He glanced at the blue-fringed shore, at the far green hazes of the ocean, at the vibrant figure which stood before him; and his barbaric soul stirred within him. To quest these shining blue realms with that white-skinned young tiger-cat – to love, laugh, wander and pillage-
“I’ll sail with you,” he grunted, shaking the red drops from his blade.

I first read this story in 2006, when I lived in Tokyo. It spoke to me: the thirst for travel and adventure, to range the wide world and see what’s out there. I wanted to live. I felt that Newcastle was too small and parochial to hold me, and even London was too similar, too close [2]. Robert E Howard wrote his Conan stories from the small Texas town of Cross Plains, which he rarely left. He travelled vicariously, through his voracious reading of history in the local library and the adventure in the pulps. His stories yearn with wanderlust. Conan stories speak to every man who wants to pick up his metaphorical sword [3] and set out on an adventure with only his wits to protect him. I loved it.


Me on a date outside The Four Seasons hotel in Moscow

A rolling stone gathers no moss. Such a transient exploratory lifestyle can only be maintained if you have a philosophy that supports it. What does Conan say about his own?

“I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian sceptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

This is a rationale couched in the bombast of heroic fantasy that equally applies to the more down-to-earth daygamer chasing skirt across several continents. I suspect most of you can relate to it. Let other people talk of mortgages, professional advancement, and IKEA furniture. Let me book a budget flight, share an Airbnb with my mates, and then chase skirt. Let me have afternoon beers on the sunny sidewalk cafes of Kiev, a big fat burger from Submarine on Knez Mihailova, and then check out the dancing skirt in Icon and Gipsy in Moscow. Lads, laughs, booze, and skirt. I am content.

Until 2017, in my case.

Conan has no children. The stories don’t mention them. At no time does he seek to put down roots. He often schemes to take over a country and install himself as king, but even when he temporarily achieves it, the wanderlust gets him and the stone begins rolling again. By the time Conan reaches middle age, REH has stopped writing about him. What happened in the end? Did he settle down with a wench and raise a brood of sturdy barbarian boys? Or did he slip down the ranks of sell-swords, fighting on auto-pilot through a series of pointless wars at the ends of the earth until one day he couldn’t quite slip the sweep of a broadsword and his adventuring ended in an unmarked grave?

Ruminations aside, this is an excellent collection. It’s volume six in the ten-volume special edition The Weird Works Of Robert E Howard, of which I own nine [4]. They present REH’s stories in order of publication and in the original texts, without the various politically-correct edits made when Conan was re-popularised with the 1970 TOR Books paperbacks. REH invented the heroic fantasy genre that J.R.R. Tolkien would go on to perfect. I’ve always preferred the REH originals. They are more hard-boiled and don’t have any stupid fucking elves and dwarves.

There’s nothing lustier and more red-blooded than an REH Conan story. I absolutely recommend them. This particular volume is an expensive way to read Conan. You can usually pick up the entire REH oeuvre for a couple of quid on Kindle.

If you like lads, laughs, booze and skirt you’ll very much like my memoir series available here. If not, you’re a bit of a faggot so you might as well fuck off and start bumming Turks [5]

Sigma Wolf store

[1] “Who gives a fuck, tell me if this Conan book is any good?” you might reasonably reply.
[2] I no longer feel that way, suggesting I’m coming full circle.
[3] Or laptop and rucksack.
[4] The missing volume, The Black Hounds Of Death, is outrageously expensive.
[5] If you don’t already.

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