Though I read and talked about Kull some time back, I have only recently started reading Conan. Beginning at both ends, I’ve been reading the Del Ray collection “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian” in bits on my lunch breaks and have just finished the 1977 edition of Red Nails over the last couple days at home.
Though I’m enjoying the hack & slashery of the late Conan (I haven’t made it far enough into the early stories to form an opinion), I have to say that it does not quite reach the momentous depths of Kull. Of the stories collected in Red Nails, Beyond the Black River comes the closest to those gloomy and brooding tales of the Atlantean King, with its sense of impending doom that hangs over the fragility of civilization’s facade.
However things that were absent from Kull (namely the copious amounts of naked shrieking women and girl-on-girl whipping) did leave the impression that they were tacked on in an attempt to make sales and land a Margaret Brundage cover*, and, in isolation, could explain why Lovecraft scholar ST Joshi would write Howard off as a hack and why his statements would be so perplexing to someone who had read Kull but not Conan. Brundage had real influence on the magazine’s content, and writers would more or less cater to her fetishes in hopes that Wright would throw one of their story’s scenes her way for a cover.
Brundage herself is experiencing a bit of a resurgence; she received a posthumous award at last year’s Worldcon and is up for another this year, I believe. As female icons of the early sci-fi era are being rediscovered and celebrated, Brundage gets to enjoy some of the deserved accolades for her contribution to the field, but she also presents a bit of an uncomfortable truth that iconic women aren’t always going to be what people who are looking for iconic women want to see.
While some women in SFF have faced erasure, Brundage apparently faced pillory. In the Foreword and Afterword of the 1977 hardback of Red Nails (published only a year after Brundage’s death), Karl Edward Wagner took the opportunity to excoriate Brundage for terrible art no less than four times**.
Today’s controversial figures like Bayonetta or Lara Croft pale in comparison to those depicted by Brundage, who herself was clearly fascinated (perhaps enamored) with BDSM. As people rediscover her and her artwork, they are bound (pun intended) to be polarized by her subject matter. Regardless of how you feel about her and her artwork, her influence on the fiction of the 1930s is undeniable.
*There was additional intent for Howard, however, as he’d said once wanted to explore the themes of how institutionalized deviant sexuality was symptomatic of cultural decadence. Worth noting that by Howard’s comments on sexuality, law and civilization, we’re probably about where Xuchotil was right before their wizards all died off.
**:I’ll admit, I misremembered this; while he mentions Brundage several times, he does not out and out say that she herself is bad, but does reference a few of her works negatively:
“It is late spring of 1935. Despite the wretched Margaret Brundage cover, you have just plunked down a quarter for the May issue of Weird Tales.”
“Wright seems to have been experimenting: the issue featured “a weird Craig Kennedy murder mystery” by Arthur B. Reeve, set off by a non-erotic Margaret Brundage cover that was possibly her worst ever.”
and he does go on to praise the cover for “Shadows in Zamboula” as “one of Margaret Brundage’s best pastels”.