The Lord of the Rings was the perfect fantasy for WWII-era Europe, the story of an external evil defeated by a courageous alliance. The Conan stories address a more insidious threat, the decay of civilization from within. Science fiction and the western took opposite tacks to create frontier adventures for a world with no more frontiers; Howard created a sort of nightmare inversion of both, a world in which the ragged edge of civilization is always rolling backward. “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” he wrote in the Conan story “Beyond the Black River.” “Civilization is unnatural. … And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.” It wasn’t a cheerful form of escapism — Howard killed himself with a gunshot to the head in 1936, when he was 30 years old — but it was weirdly suited to a Depression America whose guiding institutions were widely perceived to have failed.