If you asked who Robert E. Howard loved most intensely and with the fiercest passion (aside from his mother and father) the answer might be Texas. Which is why I am at a bit of a loss with this collection.
If I had to describe the perfect Western author, he would combine Elmer Kelton’s deep sense of place with Louis L’Amour’s wholehearted commitment to adventure. That sounds an awful lot like Robert E. Howard. Imagine a Texas that resonates with magic and Western heroes who stride into battle like Conan. To be honest I don’t quite feel that with these stories.
The tales are good, they are filled with action and decent characterization. “The Last Ride” tells of a man seeking to redeem himself after living as an outlaw. “The Extermination of Yellow Donory” is about a young cowhand who is reckoned a coward and must redeem his reputation. The Sonora Kid appears in “Knife, Bullet, and Noose” and “The Devil’s Joker”. The Kid lives on the edge of the law, in “Knife” he must survive a conspiracy to kill him and rob his employer, while in “Joker” he is forced to turn outlaw. “Vultures’ Sanctuary”, “Law Shooters of Cowtown”, and “Gunman’s Debt” are also included.
While I find these stories enjoyable, I didn’t receive the absolute thrill I found on reading Solomon Kane or Conan, for example. Perhaps it’s because I only came across The Last Ride as an adult, not a wide-eyed teen. But I think there is something else here. Howard wrote amazing tales of Texas and located all sorts of lost treasures, ancient races, and hidden citadels in it. He also wrote any number of tall-tale westerns full of broad humor. But in his conventional westerns the fantastic is off limits and humor is sparse. Without two of best tools, REH doesn’t shine so brightly. Maybe had he lived he would have turned more seriously to writing westerns and have given them the full drama he gave to his historical tales of the Crusades or his EL Borak adventures.