Review: The Best of Robert E. Howard: Crimson Shadows (Volume 1 of 2)

The Best of Robert E. Howard: Crimson Shadows (Volume 1) - Ruth Keegan, Jim Keegan, Robert E. Howard

This is an anthology of short stories written by Robert E. Howard in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Most of the stories are fantasy, with a couple of exceptions. For example, there is a very odd but rather funny western-type story at the end. A couple of Howard’s original Conan the Barbarian stories are also found in this anthology. I had recognized the name "Conan the Barbarian", but this was my first exposure to the character so I didn’t know anything about him.


For the most part, I found the stories to be only moderately entertaining. They weren’t bad, and I liked several of them, but they all blurred together with similar themes, similar settings, similar characterizations, similar plot devices, etc. I may have liked them better if I’d read them in the era in which they were written, before fantasy had gained the diversity it has today. I’m sure reading them all at once, as opposed to reading them over the course of several years as they were originally published, didn’t help.


I think the Conan stories were the ones I enjoyed the most, if only because the plot of those stories seemed to have more meat to them. The first Conan story was the most interesting to me, but it had a very wimpy female who couldn’t help but lust after the savage, brave, strong, and muscular barbarian who had taken her captive. That part annoyed me. The second Conan story is the only one in the book that squeezed a couple tears out of me.


In all of the stories, the main character was usually larger than life, wild, savage, brave, and unmatched with his fighting skills. He had primitive instincts (the author’s words) that helped him avoid death and accomplish his goals. Civilization was seen as a temporary and unnatural state of affairs that would eventually be overcome by the primitive nature of man. The stories often incorporated evil sorcerers and/or ancient objects that were sources of dark magic. Magic was usually evil, powerful, and ancient. It was very rarely used in a helpful context for our heroes. Reincarnation was another common theme in the stories, although it usually wasn’t an important plot point. Some of the main characters in different stories were apparently intended to be reincarnations of previous characters, so I guess some of the “sameness” of the main characters could be partly justified by that.


There was one sentence I came to in the book that made me laugh out loud, because the character’s sentiments almost exactly mirrored my own thoughts about the book: ”It seemed to the Aquilonian that they had been fighting and running for centuries.” A large portion of this book is spent fighting. If the characters aren't fighting, then they're likely either running toward or away from something.


After a while, I felt like I had seen certain words so often that I decided to search for them in my e-book to see just how many times they occurred. The below counts include occurrences of derivative words. For example, “instinct” includes not just the use of the word instinct, but also instinctive, instinctively, etc. For perspective, this is a 468-page book.

  • wild – 130 occurrences
  • savage – 87 occurrences
  • civilized – 49 occurrences
  • instinct – 45 occurrences
  • primitive – 28 occurrences


I believe there are a few different anthologies out there containing Howard’s work. I had downloaded this one free from the Baen Free Library a few years back. The historical perspective that comes from reading fantasy works from almost 100 years ago was interesting, and I did enjoy the stories to varying degrees, but I don’t have any desire to seek out more work by the author.