The Lovecraft Circle
Robert E. Howard and Conan the Barbarian
Robert Ervin Howard (1906-1936) wrote over a hundred stories for publication in a career that lasted twelve years. He is widely accepted as the father of the “sword and sorcery genre” with his creation of “Conan the Barbarian.”
In August 1930, Howard wrote a letter to Weird Tales magazine that would begin an active correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft. This exchange of letters, opinions, and literary ideas would initiate Howard into “The Lovecraft Circle,” where he was introduced to many authors of similar interests; each member of the group encouraged others to contribute to the various fictional worlds and mythologies they had created. This unique feature of the circle elevated it beyond what is often thought of as “networking” in modern business terms, or a writers' club, but into a magical operation wherein the thought forms it generated took on vigorous lives of their own--as can be seen by the longevity of the works created by its members almost three-quarters of a century after it was started.
In April 1932, Howard wrote to Lovecraft and detailed his most recent heroic character--King Conan the Cimmerian, also known as “Conan the Barbarian.” Howard later stated, “Conan simply grew up in my mind a few years ago when I was stopping in a little border town on the Rio Grande. I did not create him by any conscious process. He simply stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures.” He would later state to fellow “Lovecraft Circle” member Clark Ashton Smith, While I do not go so far as to believe that stories are inspired by actually existent spirits or powers (though I am rather opposed to flatly deny anything), I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces from 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 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, my typewriter--almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded 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-telling.” (1)
Arthur Machen and “The Bowman”
One of the writers read by Howard and other members of The Lovecraft Circle was Arthur Machen. Machen’s greatest literary achievements were in the gothic horror genre. However, it is his often ignored involvement in a widely reported “paranormal event” that is of interest to shapers of mass consciousness and public perception.
In August 1914, the British Expeditionary Force was in retreat. The war--which was supposed to end in a few weeks--was going badly for Allied forces in France and morale was plummeting. Machen recalled reading the newspapers of the day describing the retreat of British forces, and stated that he fell into despair. Machen, who was then working as a journalist writing war reports and various propaganda pieces from the home front, wrote a piece entitled “The Bowman,” first published on September 29, 1914, in the London Evening News. The piece was a work of fiction, but this apparently was not clearly stated, as the story presented soon took on a life of its own. The story reports of ghostly apparitions appearing at a critical moment to protect the retreating British soldiers, with phantasmal arrows slaying advancing Germans by the thousands.
Desire for such divine (or at least supernatural) intervention was so strong amidst a population hearing of their army in retreat that it went from being not just the ghosts of English longbowmen--as Machen had originally written--but to angels under the direction of St.George, the patron saint of Great Britain. Churches and other religious bodies took up the story to inspire, comfort, and encourage their congregations, whose fathers and sons were fighting in France for reasons that were not always very clear. Soon, stories appeared of enlisted men and officers who claimed to have seen something miraculous on the day in question--but these were all after the fact, and none were ever substantiated. Machen would later write a letter of regret stating that it "was as if I had touched the button and set in action a terrific, complicated mechanism of rumours that pretended to be sworn truth, of gossip that posed as evidence, of wild tarradiddles that good men most firmly believed.”(2)
Over time, this event went from being divine intervention to wishful thinking, coupled with collective hallucination induced by the stress of battle. Yet the desire for supernatural intervention in our world, particularly that of St. George--the patron saint of the British egregore, if you will--was not enough. Many in the occult community saw it as a magical act, either intentional or unintentional by Machen, using the collective energies of the mass mind. Here, Machen was not simply raising the spirits of his readers during a time of despair; he was in fact raising real spirits, an army of them to do battle with very real corporeal enemies. While there appears to be no truth in this, the effect was nonetheless the same: a collective thought form had been created, it was attached to an egregore (St. George), and strengthened through repetition and religious rites.