A few months ago I talked about reading older horror authors in order to see what had come before and learning from it. Just reading modern work is like reading the stuff that came before, but diluted, with six degrees of separation. You’ll see a little bit of Matheson and Lovecraft in a Stephen King novel, but it’s not the same thing as reading Matheson or Lovecraft.
The next author I chose was Robert E. Howard. Now, for the few of you who recognize his name, probably know that he created Conan. But you might not know that he was best friends forever with Lovecraft and that they cribbed from each other’s works.
I was not as enthralled with Howard the horror author as I was with Howard the Conqueror. His horror loses some of its punch because of his heroes. He’ll write a scene of depraved horror that will give you chills, vicious, awful stuff that surprised me with its vivid graphic-ness. But, in the middle of this scene, he plunks the square jawed hero, unflappable even in front of the frightful, mind-bendingly terrible. When the hero is in control almost at all times, it robs the scene of its fear. To be fair, not all of his stories featured Conan Lite running around, but his heroes were generally of sterner stuff than the average man and would triumph over their foes more often than not.
To me, horror succeeds better if there’s the potential for loss, if you honestly believe that the main characters are in peril. Stephen King knows this. That’s why he’ll lovingly describe a character’s backstory for ten pages and then off them unceremoniously. You have to believe that failure is possible, that it really might be curtains for the protagonist.
In terms of detail and fear soaked scenes of blood-curdling drama, Robert E. Howard gets an A+. For stories that are truly frightening, a B? That seems harsh. The man made Conan! But, in the long run, I think I learned a lot more from Matheson than from Howard.