It has obviously been a long time since I've posted. Life, leisure, and laziness are responsible for this ebb in activity. In other words, I have no one to blame but myself. Fortunately, my current diet of Robert E. Howard has wrenched my from my torpor.
Although Tolkien was instrumental in drawing me to the genre of fantasy, the sinewy tales of a particularly saturnine Cimmerian really inspired me. I think the main reason Howard's stories (warts and all) resonated so much is that they got on with it, as it were. Tolkien had the luxury of time and space to describe the minutiae of his beloved Middle Earth. Howard, on the other hand, was laboring under the scrutiny of pulp editors, who wanted stories that were as kinetic and titillating as they were short.
In my case, I started out with the ACE paperback version of Howard's Conan - the ones that attempted to place Conan's stories in an artificial chronology; more offensive still, these books, with their lovely Boris and Frazetta covers, included many stories written by other writers. Some of the stories were not bad, but no one one but Robert E. Howard can write like Robert E. Howard.
I came back to Conan early in my third decade, and, after reading all of Howard's Conan stories, I moved on to Solomon Kane, Kull, and, recently, Bran Mak Morn. I am currently reading the fine story called "The Worms of the Earth". Bran, the direct descendant of the Pictish warrior Brule the Spear Slayer, is a lithe, doomed leader of a race that is reverting to savagery. Bran is more like Solomon Kane than either Conan or Kull. He is, in some ways, the most nuanced of Howard's characters.
Although the stories are clouded with a patina of historicity, they are, in essence, just as fantastical as any other of Howard's tales. What I love most about the tales is that Bran seems far more human than Kane, Conan, or Kull. He does not share Kane's puritanical zeal or the equanimity of Conan's freewheeling youth. He is similar to Kull in that he shoulders the burden of kingship. In his case, he leads a moribund race teetering on the brink of extinction. He seems to know, intrinsically, that he is fated to lose both his battle against the encroaching Romans, as well as his struggle to rescue his people from reverting to out-and-out savagery.
Bran is, in point of fact, of a different bloodline than his people - a line that can be directly traced back some 100,000 years to Brule the Spear Slayer, Kull's trusted companion. In the story that I'm reading, Bran is poised to achieve a Pyrrhic victory over the Romans. Without spoiling too much, suffice it to say that Howard and Lovecraft corresponded a great deal; this story bears the fruit of that correspondence.