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Celebrate Classic Pulp Literature Without Repeating Its Mistakes

“Her only garment was a broad silken girdle. Her white ivory limbs and the ivory globes of her breasts drove a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerian’s pulse, even in the panting fury of battle. Her rich black hair, black as a Stygian night, fell in rippling burnished clusters down her supple back. Her dark eyes burned on the Cimmerian.”

No, that isn’t a quote from a badly written fan fiction, it’s the words of one Robert E. Howard, most known for Conan the Barbarian. What is more surprising, is that it’s also the description used to justify including what basically amounts to a naked figurine in a board game currently topping half a million dollars on Kickstarter.

Also included in this particular game’s character descriptions is that of a two-weapon fighter described as “full-bosomed” that further discusses how she is “all woman”.

Finding descriptions like this is in a modern medium and meant to be taken seriously is disappointing at best, and disgusting, degrading, and misogynistic at worst.

I realize that the creators of this particular game are attempting to, and I quote, “stay as true to Robert E. Howard as possible” but it bothers me that this apparently can’t be done without realizing that some aspects of his works are problematic in the year 2015 when they might not have been during his time and should be given a more modern realization.

Though credit should be given to Howard as it appears that as he got older some of his more racist and sexist opinions began to dissipate. Wikipedia even states that Howard himself had feminist views, which would have been rare at his time, and that he included many strong female characters in his works. While that is certainly worthy of applause, the viewpoints that would constitute feminism have changed in the past 75 years. That isn’t even considering that he may have very well regretted the things he wrote in his younger years, as he became more socially aware. I will be the first to admit that some of my own views, writings, and creative works from 10 years ago are embarrassingly racist and sexist. I can only imagine how I would feel in another 65.

Why can we not celebrate the worlds that Robert E. Howard created, without resorting to the less savory aspects? My favorite pieces of H.P. Lovecraft inspired lore did just that. The Lovecraftian series of games by Fantasy Flight is a perfect example. This includes Arkham Horror, Mountains of Madness, Elder Sign, and Eldritch Horror, as well as the Call of Cthulhu card game which has a surprisingly diverse cast of characters, none of which are sexualized. Another prime example using the same Lovecraft-inspired theme is the video game Eternal Darkness for the Nintendo GameCube, staring a well written female lead.

H.P. Lovecraft’s writing is just as prone to racist, sexist, lurid, and exploitative stories as Robert H. Howard, if not more so. Lovecraft’s stories were printed in pulp magazines just like Robert H. Howard. In fact, Robert H. Howard took a lot of inspiration from Lovecraft as well as corresponded with him. However, you don’t see Fantasy Flight using the “N” word as flippantly as Lovecraft did, and we shouldn’t see games being published today that pride themselves in the descriptions Robert E. Howard used to describe BĂȘlit and Valeria.

It’s okay to love and celebrate the works of authors, despite their problematic points. It’s okay to read the original works of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard in their original language. It’s more than appropriate to enjoy Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer without editing out the parts that caused it to become one of the most famous banned books of all time. We can read those works, and learn from them. They give us a picture of the past and the world that came before us, unfiltered with all the ugliness attached. We can and should celebrate that, but quoting it and repeating it, and further aggrandizing it in modern works should be seen as inappropriate. We are better than that.