That autumn paints the leaves with somber fire;
Believe I held my heart inviolate
To lavish on one man my hot desire.
In that dead citadel of crumbling stone
Her eyes were snared by that unholy sheen,
And curious madness took me by the throat,
As of a rival lover thrust between.
Was it a dream the nighted lotus brought?
Then curse the dream that bought my sluggish life;
And curse each laggard hour that does not see
Hot blood drip blackly from the crimsoned knife.
The shadows were black around him,
The dripping jaws gaped wide,
Thicker than rain the red drops fell;
But my love was fiercer than Death’s black spell,
Nor all the iron walls of hell
Could keep me from his side.
Now we are done with roaming, evermore;
No more the oars, the windy harp’s refrain;
Nor crimson pennon frights the dusky shore;
Blue girdle of the world, receive again
Her whom thou gavest me.
— The Song of Belit
It’s not annoying enough that Robert E. Howard wrote epic alt-history better than just about everybody who came after him short of Tolkien. The dude could write poetry as well (including the above, from the Conan story “The Queen of the Black Coast”). It’s easy for lesser writers like myself to become vexed and annoyed by people with that kind of raw talent for doing the things we drive ourselves to do. But at the same time, it’s almost impossible to foment a jealous rage against Robert E. Howard’s life and career without inevitably circling around to the reality of how that life and career were both cut drastically and tragically short.
Most gamers live their lives engaging in the broad wonder of fantasy, as a matter of course. As did Howard, obviously. Many gamers have histories of feeling socially isolated and closed off from the world, as did Howard. Many gamers have stories about moments in their lives when the pressure of being closed off from the world — of feeling different and distant, and of all the uncertainty and fragility that comes with that — opened up to a particular kind of darkness that has only one way out. As did Howard.
(Aside — I’m one of those gamers, but that’s not important to this line of thought.)
But if the anecdotal evidence is to be believed, the vast majority of gamers are able to step back from that edge of darkness. And in many cases, often long after the fact, those gamers speak to the notion that gaming and fantasy played a significant part in what let them step back. For us, gaming and fantasy created a sense of a larger world that had a place for us, and gave us the understanding that even when the darkness seems like the only option, there are always choices. There are always ways to move forward. There are always reasons to fight on.
Whatever thoughts and emotions and pain resonated in Robert E. Howard on a particular day in June, 1936, they took away his reasons to fight — just long enough for the fight to end. And there’s a terrible kind of irony in the idea that Robert E. Howard’s imagination crafted fantasy worlds so vast that not only he but literally millions of readers have explored them without ever even getting close to learning all their mysteries, but that his own worlds of the imagination offered him no way out of the darkness of the real world.
Fantasy and gaming are about the ability to dream, and about how the ability to dream can help you look past the limitations of a real world that seems to promise nothing but pain. For me, and for a lot of gamers like me, the lessons of fantasy and imagination that Howard taught were a part of what kept us going. And I can’t help but wish that on that June day of eighty-odd years ago, Howard had been able to dream the future that the rest of us — in our time, in our own ways, and using the examples that Howard and so many others laid down for us — saw and made.