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Superman on a Psychotic Bender

By Robert E.  Howard.
474 pp.  Sauk City, Wis. : Arkham House.  $5. 
By H.  R.  HAYS

THE collected stories of Robert E.  Howard range from the standard "weird
tales" pattern (the monster unloosed and its final destruction, or the
destruction of the dabbler in the occult) to a kind of action story in
costume set in a prehistoric world of Lemuria and Atlantis invented by the
author.  Howard used a good deal of the Lovecraft cosmogony and demonology,
but his own contribution was a sadistic conquerer [sic] who, when cracking
heads did not solve his difficulties, had recourse to magic and the aid of
Lovecraft's Elder Gods.  The stories are written on a competent pulp level
(a higher level, by the way, than that of some best sellers) and are allied
to the Superman genre which pours forth in countless comic books and radio
serials.  Since this genre commands an incredibly large audience in the
United States and seems to be an American phenomenon, its sociological and
psychological significance cannot be lightly brushed away.
        E.  Hoffman Price contributes a biographical sketch of Howard which
is remarkably revealing.  Howard, it seems, spent all of his life in the
small town of Cross Plains, Tex.  A sensitive boy, he was apparently bullied
by his schoolmates.  He began writing successfully at a very early age but
felt that his profession was looked down upon by his neighbors.  When Price
met him he carried a loaded revolver wherever he went and talked of
nonexistent "enemies. " Upon the death of his mother in l936 he committed
suicide with the same revolver.
        Howard's heroes were consequently wish-projections of himself.  All
of the frustrations of his own life were conquered in a dream world of magic
and heroic carnage.  In exactly the same way Superman compensates for all
the bewilderment and frustration in which the semi-literate product of the
Industrial age finds himself enmeshed.  The problem of evil is solved by an
impossibly omnipotent hero.
        Now if anything like democracy is to prevail in modern life it means
that a heavy burden of responsibility is thrown upon the average citizen.
It means that he must take a realistic interest in the difficulties of
living.  But the prevalence of Superman as reading matter for adults
indicates a complete evasion of this responsibility.
Howard's life is like a fable illustrating the sad consequences of this
situation.  Living in the never-never land of Conan and King Kull, he
slaughtered enemies by the dozen.  He was fearless, inscrutable, desired by
all women.  Single-handed he toppled rulers from their thrones and built
empires of oriental splendor.  Even the menace of the supernatural was
vanquished by magic that he alone was able to control.  In the real world,
however, he had no resources.  When he was faced with the loss of maternal
protection he took the way of self-destruction.
Thus the hero-literature of the pulps and the comics is symptomatic of a
profound contradiction.  On the one hand it is testimony to insecurity and
apprehension, and on the other it is a degraded echo of the epic.  But the
ancient hero story was a glorification of significant elements in the
culture that produced it.  Mr. Howard's heroes project the immature fantasy
of a split mind and logically pave the way to schizophrenia.

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