Robert E. Howard lived during the early years of organized science fiction fandom. Devoted fans of certain literary and popular media works had existed long before, just as science fiction existed before it had a name, but it was in the 1930s that organized fandom coalesced around the science fiction and weird pulp magazines. This first fandom in the 1930s, with its politics and controversies, its enthusiasm and creativity, its sometimes bitter arguments over definitions and big egos clashing over petty pastimes, laid the groundwork for what we think of as fandom today.
Fan fiction during Robert E. Howard’s day was different, however. Fan fiction was simply amateur fiction written by fans, for fans, published in fanzines; this is what ultimately distinguished it from “pro” fiction, which was published in pulp magazines. In terms of quality, the dividing line could be nonexistent—Howard himself didn’t have any concerns if unused and rejected stories or poetry of his appeared in a fanzine, which is why he allowed The Fantasy Fan to publish “The Gods of the North”—a rejected Conan tale.
What fans generally did not do at this period was to write fanfiction as we know it today: that is, original fiction using another writer’s original characters and setting. New stories of Conan the Cimmerian didn’t fill the pages of The Fantasy Fan or any other fanzine during the 1930s, and it was rarely the case for other popular characters to get new installments in the fanzines during this period either. The concern was probably less worry about copyright strikes than propriety; the sense that it wasn’t polite to “steal” a writer’s character.
The only real exception to this was what would become known as the Cthulhu Mythos created by Lovecraft, Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and other writers during this period—specifically because these authors shared elements of their setting and even encouraged their use. For example, one of the earliest references to the Conan stories outside of Howard or Lovecraft’s own fiction was “Horror at Vecra” by Henry Hasse (The Acolyte #5, Fall 1943), which is a Mythos story that shelves the Nemedian Chronicles almost alongside the Necronomicon.
Finally I said, “All right, what is it this time? And don’t give me any more of that Necronomicon stuff, for I know that’s a myth.” Bruce was an authority on certain terrible lores and forbidden books dealing with such lores, and he had told me things from a certain Necronomicon that literally made my flesh crawl.
“What?” he said in answer to my question. “Why look at these! Not Necronomicons, but interesting!” he trhust a couple of worn, leather-bound volumes into my hands. I glanced at the titles. One was Horride Mysteries by the Marquis of Grosse; the other, Nemedian Chronicles. I looked up at Bruce, and saw that he was genuinely excited.Henry Hesse, The Acolyte #5 (Fall 1943) 11
The first fanfictional use of Conan as a character is a bit more difficult to pin down. Emil Petaja’s “The Warrior” (1934), dedicated to Robert E. Howard, begins with “From ancient dark Cimmeria he came| With sword uplifted, on that bloody day”—but does not mention Conan by name. R. H. Barlow was so moved by Robert E. Howard’s death in 1936 that he wrote an elegy, titled “R. E . H.” and begins “Conan, the warrior king, lies stricken dead,” though this was published in Weird Tales Oct 1936, not a fanzine. Another early unauthorized use of Conan was in “The Man of Two Worlds” by Bryce Walton (Space Stories Oct 1952), but that wasn’t a fanzine either, though the literary borrowing was perhaps closer to what we think of as fanfiction today:
Thorston leaped back atop the sea-wall and faced them. Below him, thegiant barbarian and sveral other self-appointed discipls of theri hero, faced the mob.
Thorsten kicked the barbarian in the back. As the man looked up, Thorsten shouted: “Your name, barbarian? You used the swod well enough. It’s yours.”
“I thank you, Theseus!” the barbarian’s face stretched in a fierce grin. “I am Conan the CImmerian. I came from your land, Theseus. From the wilds of Cimmeria.”Bryce Walton, Space Stories (Oct 1952) 43
It took a while for Howardian fanfiction in the sense that folks recognize fanfiction today to get going. In part, this was probably due to the initial lull in reprints and publications of Howard’s work after his death, and then the commercial avenues opened up in the 1950s as L. Sprague de Camp and others began to produce Conan pastiches authorized by the copyright holders of Howard’s estate, as well as reworking existing Howard stories into Conan tales. Professional writers like Gardner Fox quickly determined that it might be easier to create their own carbon-copy barbarians like Crom the Barbarian and Kothar, Barbarian Swordsman instead of getting permission to write a Conan, Kull, or Bran Mak Morn story. There is a certain irony in this, as when Marvel Comics began adapting Howard’s Conan stories to comics in the 1970s, they licensed the rights to adapt some of Fox’s Kothar stories as new adventures of Conan the Cimmerian.
As Howard’s literary legacy grew and spread into other media, more unauthorized fiction and poetry appeared; sometimes in fanzines like “I Remember Conan” (1960) by Grace A. Warren, and sometimes in foreign language markets where local authors decided to continue the adventures of a popular character. With the advent of the internet, fanfiction made the leap from fanzines to websites. The early days of Howardian internet fanfiction aren’t well-attested, and little of the early webrings and erotic fanfiction sites survive except in obscure corners of the Internet Archive, but if you know where to look it still exists—although fanfiction today tends to be based as much on derivative works like the comic books (particularly Red Sonja) and the 1982 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As the economy grew increasingly online, fanfiction went through another important change: self-commercialization. Desktop publishing, ebooks, and print-on-demand meant that instead of posting fanfiction to a website for free, practically anyone could self-publish an ebook or POD book via Amazon or another online retailer—and a handful of folks did so.
While these works are qualitatively not very different from fanfiction available for free, the commercialization of these works draws greater scrutiny. Whether or not a given usage is legal is a matter for lawyers: if a work is under copyright, the owners of that copyright (the ultimate legal heirs of Howard’s estate) certainly have an exclusive right to profit off it, though certain uses may fall under fair use if they meet the right criteria. A free Conan fanfic on a website certainly isn’t a commercial endeavor, and probably doesn’t substantially impact the market for actual Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, for example. Likewise, works that riff off of Conan but explicitly aren’t Conan like Wolff (1971) by Luis Gasca & Esteban Maroto, The Leopard of Poitain (1985) by Raul Garcia-Capella and Collwen the Cimmerian Volume One (2019) by Matthew N. Sneedon don’t appear to be infringing on anyone’s copyrights.
The issue gets a little more complicated with works that fall in the public domain (as all fiction eventually does) since these are open to being reprinted, remixed, and reimagined in any way the public wants, including new commercialization. Some characters in such works may still be covered by trademarks, which do not expire after a given term. Hence the relatively complicated status of works like The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate (2019) by Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi, Sangre Bárbara (2021) by El Torres, Joe Bocardo, & Manoli Martínez, El Puritano (2021) by El Torres, Jaime Infante, & Manoli Martínez, and The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez, which may be legal in areas where the Conan stories have entered the public domain, but aren’t necessarily available in markets where the copyrights or trademarks for Conan et al. are still valid.
Still, there are a couple of other creative literary efforts that run that grey edge of commercialized fanfiction, and it’s worth taking a look at them to see what they do and don’t do.
King Conan and the Stygian Queen (2016) by Jess Thornton
In 2016, Jess Thornton published four titles publishing original stories of Robert E. Howard’s most famous barbarian, Conan the Cimmerian: Conan Returns, Conan in a Stygian Jail, King Conan and the Stygian Queen, and Conan and the Monkey Men. Three of those books are no longer available; whether this was due to a copyright strike, violation of Amazon’s terms of service, Thornton deciding to take them down or some other reason isn’t very clear, and ultimately doesn’t matter. King Conan and the Stygian Queen is still available at this time of writing.
The subtitle of this book is Beyond the Black River and Robert E. Howard is listed as an author, and for good reason: the book consists of a 68-page novella, then the entire Robert E. Howard Conan story “Beyond the Black River,” and a 3-page epilogue. The 71 pages of original fiction by Thornton effectively form a kind of wraparound story, not entirely unlike what Rodolfo Martínez did with The Song of Bêlit (2020) and Howard’s “Queen of the Black Coast.” However, where Martínez was weaving his story in between Howard’s original chapters, Thornton is trying to do something different.
Thornton’s 68-page novelette has an older King Conan, some decades after the end of “The Scarlet Citadel,” still in fighting shape due to a calisthenics regimen, traveling forward in time to Cross Plains in the 1930s to save author Robert E. Howard from the eponymous Stygian Queen, an undead weapon sent by Thoth-Amon to destroy the Hyborian Age before it ever begins. Along the way, Conan basically narrates his own adventures to Howard, which implicitly forms the basis for the Conan tales that would eventually appear in Weird Tales.
There are a lot of fannish threads to pick apart here. Howard’s legend had been tied in with his most famous creation’s as early as 1936, when H. P. Lovecraft declared:
It is hard to describe precisely what made Mr. Howard’s stories stand out so sharply; but the real secret is that he himself was in every one of them, whether they were ostensibly commercial or not. He was greater than any profit-making policy he could adopt—for even when he outwardly made concessions to Mammon-guided editors and commercial critics he had an internal force and sincerity which broke through the surface and put the imprint of his personality on everything he wrote.H. P. Lovecraft, “In Memoriam: Robert E. Howard” (1936)
This was, in turn, an extension of Howard’s own personal myth-building, since he wrote:
While I don’t go so far as to believe that stories are inspired by actually existent spirits or powers (though I am rather opposed to flatly denying anything) I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces of the past or present — or even the future — work through the thoughts and actions of living men. This occurred to me when I was writing the first stories of the Conan series especially. I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen — or rather off my typewriter — almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowed on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them. For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story-writing. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn’t do it.Robert E. Howard to Clark Ashton Smith, 14 Dec 1933, Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (2nd ed.) 3.142-143
The truth was a little less poetic, as discussed in the essay on the first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword” in Hither Came Conan (2023). The ghost of Conan didn’t stand over Howard at the typewriter, dictating his adventures; Howard pounded out a draft and then revised it, often multiple times, before submitting it and often receiving corrections that required further revision. Conan may have popped into Howard’s mind full-formed, but he had many fictional antecedents, including Kull of Atlantis and Conan the Reaver, that informed the character.
So the idea of King Conan dictating his stories to Robert E. Howard is the Howardian equivalent of Lovecraft actually owning a copy of the Necronomicon or having secret knowledge that the Mythos was actually real. By itself, that’s not entirely unknown in the wider diaspora of Lovecraftian fiction; Sangre Bárbara and El Puritano both have a wrap-around story of a young Howard listening to the stories that would go on to inform his fiction. The question becomes one of verisimilitude: how does Thornton weave this supernatural visitation from Conan of Hyborian Age Past into his known history?
While there is obviously some familiarity with Howard’s life, including his family, his relationship with Novalyne Price, the town of Cross Plains, Texas, etc., most of the details just don’t add up. Howard’s first Conan story was written and published in 1932; Prohibition ended in 1933; he met Novalyne Price in Cross Plains in 1934; and he committed suicide at age 30 in 1936. Yet when Conan first meets Howard the author is described as about 30, doesn’t recognize Conan, they drink a pitcher of beer together, and he meets Novalyne at the drug store in Cross Plains. Novalyne and Robert were also never engaged to be married and she was not in Cross Plains when he died, but she is described as his fiance and in town when he died at the end. All of the pieces of Howard’s life are there, but the timeline doesn’t jive with what we know of Howard’s life.
The prose is passable; it’s obvious Thornton has a great affection for Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and sought to reproduce, as much as he could, the flavor of the language. The “methinks!” and “he ejaculated” are laid on a bit thickly and come across less naturally than how Howard wrote Conan, but no author can exactly reproduce another’s style. The use of Thoth Amon as the antagonist probably owes a bit more toward the later Conan pastiches and comic books, since Thoth Amon only appears in one story by Howard (“The Phoenix on the Sword”) and is mentioned in another (“The God in the Bowl”).
On the surface, the inclusion of the entirety of “Beyond the Black River” may seem odd. The story appears to be in the public domain (at least according to Wikisource), but it has nothing directly to do with Thornton’s novelette of King Conan and the Stygian Queen…until you get to the epilogue. Without spoiling the ending, Thornton had implicitly inserted his version of Howard into “Beyond the Black River” as an existing character, without changing a word of Howard’s story, to give the writer what he considered an appropriate glorious death in battle and send-off. Effectively making the story of Howard’s suicide a cover for what really happened.
It doesn’t really work if you think about it too hard, since throughout “Beyond the Black River” there is zero hint of that character sharing any of the information that Howard would presumably have known, and knowing quite a lot that Robert E. Howard would not have known. It’s a well-meaning tribute, perhaps, an effort to rewrite Howard’s end as being more glorious than what it was…but for it to work, the reader has to basically turn a blind eye to who Robert E. Howard was and how he suffered and persevered through the long years of his mother’s illness, the ups and downs of his writing career, his tumultuous relationship with Novalyne Price and his other friends.
King Conan and the Stygian Queen is fanfiction in the sense that this is fiction by fans, for fans—for who else except ardent fans are going to want to read a “new” (and reprinted) story of Conan? Yet the way the story is written, the errors made in depicting Howard’s life, seem likely to alienate a lot of those selfsame fans. At least those who care for who Robert E. Howard was, warts and all, instead of an idealized image of him as the first of Conan’s fanboys.
“Not Quite Milked by the Yeti” (2017) by Callie Press
My name is Brendalee Elkins and I am from round abouts Nevady, just like my whole clan has always been, ancestors and such. We been here since Apache times, and lay claim to some pretty famous Injun-fighters, leastaways teh ones what didn’t marry into the tribes like my cousin Buckminister Elkins done. Daddy always said he weren’t no more than half anything including half an Elkins, though, and I guess that proved it to my kinfolk when he run off with his little squaw.Callie Press, “Not Quite Milked by the Yeti” in Smutpunk Erotica Collab (2017)
Most of the derivative fiction that stems from Robert E. Howard’s original creations comes from either his Hyborian Age tales of Conan or his Cthulhu Mythos tales. Yet Howard wrote many more characters and settings; original works based on Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, and even Sailor Steve Costigan have seen publication in authorized works. The comedic Western stories starring Breckinridge Elkins (or his close counterparts Grizzly Elkins, Pike Bearfield, and Buckner Jeopardy Grimes) have attracted less creative attention, although they inspired Howard’s friend E. Hoffmann Price to create his own Western character, Simon Bolivar Grimes, for a series of stories. Yet fanfiction efforts to pen new Elkins stories have been few.
“Not Quite Milked by the Yeti” by Callie Press is such a rara avis, although in this case Rule 63 has been applied, and despite continuing the use of outdated cultural depictions is set in the current day. The juxtaposition of the stereotyped backwoods hicks in a contemporary world is played for humor, much the same in 2017 as it would have been in 1967 when The Beverley Hillbillies was on the air, or when Li’l Abner and Snuffy Smith ran in newspapers during Howard’s lifetime. The broad outline of the start of the story resembles Howard’s first Elkins story, “A Gent from Bear Creek,” where occasion requires Brendalee to go into town:
Somehow he said some fellers got some nekkid pitchers of me on the internets, which as I understand it is kinda like the post, only electrical. Someone musta snuck a camera up the creek whilst I was bathin’ or something, but it befuddled me as to when.Callie Press, “Not Quite Milked by the Yeti” in Smutpunk Erotica Collab (2017)
Press has obviously studied Howard’s Elkins stories and includes several references to the series, including names like McGraw, Bear Creek, Chawed Ear, and the Humbolts. Brendalee, like her male counterpart, is not entirely the brightest or most trustworthy narrator, and casually displays superhuman strength and endurance for comedic effect. It is a solid pastiche of Howard’s style.
Then the yeti (“albino samsquatches”) enter into the story.
While the Breckinridge Elkins stories might border on the ridiculous when describing Elkins’ strength, stamina, capacity for liquor, resistance to common poisons, and thick-headedness, they never veered all the way into outright fantasy. I have a suspicion that the popularity of the “monster sex” erotic ebook scene on Amazon in the 2010s inspired this particular narrative, and fair enough—there are stranger flavors of Howard-inspired erotic fanfiction, if one knows where to look. There is also a certain flair in this novel new element that can’t help but bring a smile:
I knowed when I stared into them other-worldly eyeballs that he wanted to milk my titties somehow, and I didn’t reckon that was gonna fly with this Elkins girl. I hadn’t never had no baby, and I such as shuckin’ didn’t plan to let them big old manglers try to perjuice milk out of my sensitive mammaries, no matter how enormous they is compared to normal glas’s teats.Callie Press, “Not Quite Milked by the Yeti” in Smutpunk Erotica Collab (2017)
Despite the slightly racy themes and language, Brendalee Elkins’ adventure with the Yeti isn’t erotica, or even particularly raunchy; just a good bit of light-hearted fun involving some oversize genitals and an unexplained desire to induce lactation. What it shares with King Conan and the Stygian Queen is a certain fannish approach: this is a story by someone who has read, enjoyed, and above all understood the Breckinridge Elkins yarns and what makes them work. Some of the jokes are a bit crude and the changes made to the setting are a bit ridiculous, but then the Elkins stories are often ridiculous, that’s what makes them funny. While no one would ever mistake “Not Quite Milked by the Yeti” as something that could have come from Howard’s typewriter, any fan familiar with Howard’s work can definitely see when Callie Press got her inspiration and what she was trying to achieve: a bit of adult-oriented humor in a Howardian vein.
Callie Press and Jess Thornton both approach their material as fans, and the primary audience that would appreciate their efforts are also fans, since they can see the work put into these stories. Yet there is a difference in how each realizes their goals. Press’ Brendalee Elkins is patently based on Breckinridge Elkins, even more than E. Hoffmann Price based Simon Boliver Grimes off of Buckner Jeopardy Grimes, but in writing the story she made Brendalee more than just a mountain man with a big bosom. Brendalee’s character may not be exactly ladylike, but neither is Breckinridge a typical example of Southwestern manhood: they are both exaggerations played for comedic effect, and at points veritably superhuman in their attributes…but they are distinct. By contrast, Thornton set out to write an actual Conan story starring Conan; there is no clever hinting, no tiptoeing around copyrights or trademarks, just an open use of an established character.
Both of these works can be categorized as commercial fanfiction, but each also represents distinct modes of fanfiction. That is part of what fanfiction is: an opportunity to experiment, to try different things, to take characters and settings in new directions that the original author(s) never dreamed. In 1936, Robert E. Howard likely imagined that Conan and Breckinridge Elkins would effectively die with him, notwithstanding a few stories left in his trunk that hadn’t seen publication yet. He would no doubt have been amazed to see what had become of his literary creations…and in the years and decades ahead, who is to say what lies ahead for Howard fandom?
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).
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