Howard Gets Some Good Press

The Brownwood Bulletin published not one but two nice articles about Howard Days, the first one preceding the event and the second one in the wake of it. Unfortunately, the newspaper archives their articles after a few days and charges ridiculous amounts of money for access. For anyone who is interested, the text is reprinted below. Each included several photographs of the house, Howard’s grave in Greenleaf Cemetery, and one of the panels in the pavilion.

Incidentally, Era Lee Hanke, President of Project Pride in Cross Plains, had a hand in popularizing the event this year, not only getting a commercial on television played sixty times in the lead-up to the weekend, but also getting coverage in local papers, including helping attract the Bulletin, urging the paper to write the articles. Howard has had few friends in the last few years as dogged, inventive, and worthy of praise as Era Lee. However, Era Lee gets it all wrong when she states that Howard fans “don’t come here to see us. They come here to see each other.” I for one look forward to seeing the ladies of Project Pride each and every year, as much if not more than seeing the Howard marvels the town offers. One of the greatest things about Howard Days is all the new friends I otherwise would never have met.

By Gene Deason
Thursday, June 9, 2005
Brownwood Bulletin

CROSS PLAINS — The legacy of fantasy writer Robert E. Howard will be celebrated this weekend as Cross Plains hosts visitors from around the world for tours, auctions and programs.

Marcelo Anciano of London, with Wandering Star, publisher of the Robert E. Howard Library of Classics, will be attending this year’s events Friday and Saturday. He will speak on “Let His Name Not Fade: Interpreting Robert E. Howard in Books, Films and Other Media” at a banquet Friday night and participate in a panel discussion with other Howard scholars Saturday afternoon.

“Brownwood is very tied to this event,” said Era Lee Hanke, president of Project Pride, the Cross Plains organization which owns the Robert E. Howard House and Museum and hosts the annual event. “Bob Howard attended his final year of high school at Brownwood. We have a 1923 Brownwood High yearbook with his picture in it. And then he took some classes at Howard Payne. He is buried in Greenleaf Cemetery.”

Many of those attending from outside the immediate area will also be staying in Brownwood, she said. More than 200 guests are expected, including 90 who have made reservations for the casual banquet at 7 p.m. Friday.

“This is quite a thing for Cross Plains,” Hanke said. “We have people come and have their pictures taken at the Howard house. They say ‘Bob Howard actually stood at this spot.’ Word has really spread about this event, and interest has really taken off in the last few years.”

Howard is best known for his creation of the literary genre known as “Sword-and-Sorcery,” featuring Conan. His fantasy fiction character came to the attention of the general public when the movie “Conan the Barbarian” starring a youthful bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger took the box office by storm in 1982.

“Howard also wrote quite a bit of other types of literature,” Hanke added. Those include historical adventure, suspense, detective stories, gothic horror, sea stories and Western burlesque.

Howard, born in 1906 in Palo Pinto County, was the only son of Dr. and Mrs. Isaac M. Howard. The family lived in several different Texas communities—including Cross Cut in Brown County—but by 1919, they had settled in Cross Plains. Most of Howard’s writing was done in their home on West Highway 36, a building which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been restored by Project Pride as a museum. He died in 1936 of a self-inflicted gunshot as his mother faced his own death because of illness.

The public is invited to attend a variety of events scheduled Friday and Saturday, including tours of the Howard home and panel discussions on his work. The pavilion on the museum grounds will serve as a headquarters for visitation by those attending, and a variety of Howard books—including new volumes published by the University of Nebraska Press—will be available for purchase.

“They don’t come here to see us,” Hanke said of the guests arriving from long distances. “The come here to see each other.”

A special postal cancellation noting the occasion will be available at the Cross Plains Post Office Saturday morning.

Anciano, the featured speaker at Friday night’s casual banquet, has been a promoter for the rock group Duran Duran, and director and producer of music videos and feature films. He has been publisher of the Robert E. Howard Library of Classics for eight years. Tickets to the dinner were sold in advance.

On Friday, tours of the Howard home will be available from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. A walking tour of the Cross Plains Cemetery is set from 10 to 11 a.m., and lunch will be served at the pavilion from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. with donations as the cost of the meal. Bus tours will be offered from 12:30 to 2 p.m. from the pavilion, and the Cross Plains Library will feature a collection of Howard items from 1 to 5 p.m.

Paul Herman will lead a program on caring for a Howard collection from 2:30 to 3 p.m. Friday at the pavilion, and a book-signing is set from 3 to 4 p.m. Rusty Burke and [redacted] will offer a seminar from 4 to 5 p.m. at the pavilion on writing a Howard biography. The banquet is set for 7 p.m. at the community center.

On Saturday, the stamp cancellation is set from 8 to 10 a.m. at the post office, and the Howard house will be open for tours from 9 to 11:30 a.m., and again from 2 to 4 p.m. The Barbarian Festival will be under way on Main Street from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., and a screening of “Pigeons from Hell” with commentary by Burke, Anciano and Michael Scott Myers is set from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the high school.

Bus tours will leave from the pavilion at 12:30 p.m. Howard items will again be shown at the library from 1 to 3 p.m. Bill Cavalier and James Reasoner will speak on “What Would Robert E. Howard Have Done Had He Lived” from 2 to 2:30 p.m.

A Wandering Star panel featuring Anciano, Burke, and Jim Keegan is planned at the pavilion from 3 to 4:30 p.m. The Saturday evening meal will be at Caddo Peak Ranch, and those attending will meet at the pavilion at 5 p.m.

A group of about 10 people are involved in Project Pride throughout the year, but Howard Days requires as many as 40 volunteers, Hanke said.

By Gene Deason
Monday June 13, 2005
Brownwood Bulletin

CROSS PLAINS — Fans and experts alike agreed Saturday that Robert E. Howard, the Cross Plains fantasy writer who took his own life at the age of 30, would have become a giant in his field if he had lived. The question, though, is exactly what field that might have been.

“That’s what I love about Robert E. Howard speculation,” artist and long-time Howard enthu­siast Bill Cavalier said during a panel discussion on what Cross Plains’ most famous resident might have done. The program was one of several panel discussions held Friday and Saturday during Robert E. Howard Days, an annual cele­bration of his works which draws international attention.

Howard is best known today for establishing the fantasy fiction genre, which was headlined by the character Conan who was brought to life on the movie screen by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the early 1980s. But by the time of his death in 1936, Howard had left that part of his career behind and was moving into other types of

Parallels between Howard’s writing and his Conan charac­ter, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ career and his Tarzan charac­ter, were raised in an attempt to project what direction Howard’s career might have taken. Burroughs, while 25 years his senior, was also a pulp fiction story writer who developed into an international celebrity. However, author James Reasoner, the other member of the panel, was not confident that Conan would made a similar leap into other literary forms as Tarzan did. It wasn’t Howard’s style.

“The only thing that makes me think that is, Howard tend­ed to leave his characters behind,” Reasoner said. “That was his professional history, and he was talking about writ­ing westerns primarily.”

That raised speculation that his interest in movies might have taken him into a career as a script writer for films.

“I would have to think with Howard’s great love for the movies, it would be a natural progression,” Cavalier said.

He noted that western movies in the 1930s are con­sidered poor, and that Howard’s death came three years before the release of what is considered the first great western, John Ford’s Stagecoach. That evolution could have been what it would have taken to turn Howard in that direction.’ Based on mutu­al acquaintances, it is probable that Howard would have teamed with Ford.

Reasoner said Howard’s approximately 100 articles, published primarily in pulp magazines of the era, were basically styled in a form of a movie script.

“You don’t find page after page of what a character is thinking,” Reasoner said. “His work is very external. That’s what a film is. He was one of those writers who expects the reader to meet him halfway, and that’s what a movie does.”

Reasoner agreed that Howard had a great future as a western writer.

“He would have been a big name in the western genre had he lived,” he said. “He was writing westerns. He was just five or six years ahead of his time. All he had to do was walk out his back door, and there was the West.”

Cavalier said there is also evidence to support those who think Howard may have become a great novelist.

“Later in his career, his sto­ries got longer,” he said.

Howard had also expressed delight with the vast number of stories available to him as a pure fiction writer, and com­parisons to Mickey Spillane’s gritty prose were offered. However, Reasoner said Howard had shown no interest in detective stories.

Members of the audience wondered if he might have become a battlefield corre­spondent in World War II, as a few pulp writers did. His inter­est in international affairs had been documented; in the 1920s, he wrote in letters in which he expressed worries about Japan and his hatred of Adolph Hitler.

One person suggested he probably would have traveled extensively if he had lived past his mother’s death. There would be nothing holding him from leaving Cross Plains.

Questions arose concerning Howard’s mental state during the final days of his life, before he took his own life on June 11, 1936.

“Was this something that was inevitable, or was it just a bad time in his life?” a mem­ber of the audience asked, alluding to the bouts of depres­sion many highly creative peo­ple often battle.

Most seemed to think his suicide was the result of sever­al personal setbacks which occurred at the same time. The consensus was that Howard would have been able to deal with them if they had not all hit him at the same time—the fatal illness of his mother, who died the day after he took his life, along with the break-up with his girlfriend and difficulties in his work.

“If any of those other things hadn’t been happening, he might have survived,” Reasoner said.

Reasoner marveled at Howard’s grasp of the publish­ing business and the richness of his stories, which would have been a key to major suc­cess in later years.

“For somebody who was stuck out in a small town in Texas, he knew his markets and he knew his editors,” Reasoner said. “No matter how long he lived, I think he would have continued doing very well.”

“It’s a never-ending debate,” Cavalier observed of the speculation. “He died at such an early age when his career was just about to take off. In the 12 years he worked, he wrote some good things, and he wrote some bad things. What direction would he have gone? He liked writing history, and he was getting away from fantasy. He wrote in 1933 that he might live the rest of his life writing history in the guise of fiction.”

“He wrote that he wished he had a century to write his­torical fiction,” he said. “He wrote a lot about history in everything he did. If he didn’t have any history, he made it up.”

“He was just on the verge of making the big time,” Cavalier observed. “It’s such a shame he had to leave us.”

Also participating in the discussion from the audience were Rusty Burke; prominent Howard researcher and author, and Michael Scott Myers, who co-produced and wrote the screenplay of the 1996 movie The Whole Wide World.

The film is based on the book One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard, The Final Years by Novalyne Price Ellis, a memoir of Howard’s final two years from the eyes of his girlfriend. The film stars Renée Zellweger and Vincent D’Onofrio.

World Fantasy Convention 2006 News

In case you haven’t heard, the World Fantasy Convention for 2006 is going to be held in Austin, Texas, and the theme of the Con will be the Centennial of Robert E. Howard’s birth. Attendance is limited, and you have to purchase a “membership.” Click on the pic to view the flyer that was passed out by the Siros brothers (i.e. the 2006 WorldCon folks) at this year’s Howard Days.


Incidentally, the Con guys were saying that Howard fans are welcome to “pack the field” of the World Fantasy Awards with nominees from Howard fandom. So The Cimmerian could be nominated for the Non-Pro Category, Wandering Star editors and artists could be nominated for their respective categories, etc. Keep that in mind when purchasing your membership, nominating, and voting. Together we can make the Con Howard-centric in more ways than one.

Stygian Award

Bill Thom, who administers the useful Coming Attractions pulp web site as well as Paul Herman’s Howard Works site, has alerted me that he has put a page on Howard Works advertising the fact that it has won the Stygian Award for Best REH Website of 2004. That’s the idea.

The question is: will any other websites out there rise to the challenge and try to dethrone Howard Works next year? Almost alone among the current crop of Howard websites, Howard Works is undergoing major renovations. It will take some hard work and ingenuity to surpass it.


REHupa #193 – June 2005


The latest REHupa arrived in early June, 156 pages. The a.p.a. is in the middle of a lull of sorts, as a few years ago 300+ pages was the norm. But the membership is full, and the a.p.a. shows no signs of going away.

Longtime REHupans Carl Osman and David Burton both dropped out of the a.p.a., citing personal reasons that are taking up more and more of their time. But several new faces have stepped in to fill the breach. Don Herron, who has been in the a.p.a. twice before (the first time in its infancy, the next time around issue #100) is back yet again to help usher in REHupa’s #200 next August. A new member named Jim Dapkus has made some noise about joining, sending in waitlist money. We’ll have to wait until next time to see if he sends in a ‘zine and becomes a true-blue member.

A buzz has started in the a.p.a. about the two big REH events happening next year, the extra-big REH Days in June and the World Fantasy Con in Austin, Texas dedicated to Howard in November.

Patrick Burger, a member living in Africa, sends in an arch-academic piece on Howard entitled “Zusammenfassung: Progress on my Comparative Literature Dissertation on Robert E. Howard and Ernst Jünger (excerpt).” Gary Romeo offers a rebuttal to Steve Tompkins’ pointed, lengthy criticism of Romeo’s “Napoleon’s Triumph,” which appeared in The Cimmerian V1n1 in April 2004. Regardless of the merits of his arguments, Tompkins loses automatically just by virtue of his rebuttal appearing in the private halls of REHupa where no one who cares will read it. Romeo’s essay, however, has reached hundreds of readers, and in fact was voted 9th Place for Best Essay of 2004 by Cimmerian readers.

Danny Street of England sent in the largest ‘zine this time at fifty pages. He writes a long examination of Howard’s character Cormac Fitzgeoffrey and offers dozens of pages of quotations from the stories about everything from what Cormac looked like to his biography to his personal conduct. Interesting for those people who like to have the details of Howard’s characters extracted and rearranged into logical categories. It brings certain aspect of the character into stark relief.

Charles Gramlich weighs in with some mailing comments, those criticisms and discussion of other people’s ‘zines that forms a large part of the a.p.a. experience. Damon Sasser, publisher of The Definitive Howard Fanzine REH: Two-Gun Raconteur, announces the release of Issue #8 of that magazine, and touches on many aspects of the current Howard boom. Conan books, comics, and movies all are discussed.

Dale Rippke presents the next in his line of fun essays on Howard’s Hyborian Age. Titled “Cartographic Curiosities: Stygia and the Black Kingdoms, Part 2,” he presents an all-new, very cool map of the Southern Continent of Howard’s World (basically prehistoric Africa) complete with representations of a dozen kingdoms most Howard fans have never seen on a map before, along with detailed reasoning for placing everything where he did. Conan fans out there would love to read this stuff, or see such a map in the books. Dale is planning on coming to REH Days in 2006 to give a panel on Hyborian Maps that should prove to be a lot of fun for Conan fans, so if you are coming down to Cross Plains in 2006 look out for that.


Don Herron’s first ‘zine is “The Carter Collector Volume 1 – Number 1,” a somewhat serious, somewhat humorous look at the life and times of Lin Carter, an author well-known to Howard fans via his collaboration with L. Sprague de Camp on pastiches in the sixties and seventies. Chris Gruber’s minac ‘zine has a picture of a Windjammer circa 1927, which is probably what Sailor Steve Costigan’s ship looked like. Indy Cavalier has a trip report of the Windy City Con that was held April 23rd in Chicago, and says he found a copy of the Arkham House Skull-face for $175 sans dust jacket. Not a bad price at all. He also reprints a hilarious letter from an outraged reader in the Science Fiction Book Club newsletter, who can’t believe the SFBC would reprint one of those awful racist authors from the pulps. He wants a warning label to be placed on any material mentioning Howard in their newsletter. William Metcalf is his name, foolishness is apparently his game.

Big Jim Charles, REHupa’s resident Kentucky redneck (and currently the only one of us who is a professional journalist) has a neat little article called “The Barbarian President: REH and Old Hickory” which compares REH’s barbarian characters to Andrew Jackson. Rick McCollum is finally back in the fold after a long hiatus, and offers a Minac ‘zine of mailing comments in his inimitable style. Newer member Jess Horsley talks comics, Morgan Holmes talks Donald Wandrei (Weird Tales author and co-founder of Arkham House). Mark Hall, editor of The Dark Man, gives us an Old English lesson (he’s an archeologist and can translate that language).

James Van Hise offers his usual comics talk and reviews, while Frank Coffman discusses the interesting technology that allows people to make 3-D pictures from 2-D originals, and promises to show some interesting experiments with this technology applied to Howard photographs in the near future. Pretty Cool. He also hints that his book on Howard’s poetry, complete with many Howard poems, is nearing completion. Matt Herridge finishes things off with a warning on assuming that Howard’s writing is more biographical than it is.

All in all a decent mailing, filled with interesting Howard stuff that the majority of fans out there will never see. REHupa’s requirements aren’t very difficult: a mere two pages every four months is the minimum you need to write and send in to remain a member in good standing and receive mailings. Will any fans out there be tempted to give it a go, and in the process gain access to all of this Howard material in the mailings? In Cross Plains, at least two people said they were thinking hard about taking the plunge. Being a member is worth the price of admission, that’s for sure.

Fear and Loathing in Cross Plains

Two recent suicides each cast red glimmers of insight into the complex motivations underlying Howard’s own end. “Thompson’s Death Marks the Passing of a Literary Era,” the headlines proclaimed. Hunter Thompson — author, iconoclast, curmudgeon extraordinaire — had committed suicide, shooting himself in the head in his kitchen, fulfilling an apparently long-standing wish. Robert E. Howard had killed himself with a Colt .38 automatic; Thompson, having a bigger head by a number of degrees, felt impelled to use a .45.

Thirty years earlier Thompson had invented “gonzo journalism,” using drugs, outrageousness, lies, and style to entertainingly blur the lines between reality and fiction. Howard created what could well be termed gonzo adventure, an eclectic mix of genres, cultures, and over-the-top violence that established a literary icon — The Dark Barbarian of Don Herron’s fancy — and created a new genre — Sword-and-Sorcery — influencing a host of writers over the last century in the process. Both Thompson and Howard have shot across the literary stratosphere like burning stars, with prose that people considered dangerous and subversive. In books with titles such as Generation of Swine and Songs of the Doomed, Thompson painted a decadent civilization ripe for falling, filled with what The Nation‘s Richard Elman once called “those who are doomed to lose.” In his breakthrough study Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, one feels acutely as if Thompson has entered Howard’s barbarian mythos:

[They are] the first wave of a future that nothing in our history has prepared us to cope with…There is not much mental distance between a feeling of having been screwed and the ethic of total retaliation, or at least the kind of random revenge that comes with outraging the public decency.

Thompson’s tales of drugs and adventure were a mythmaking akin to Howard’s painting 1930s Texas as a short half-step away from the bloody Wild West of the 1880s. Gay Talese said of Thompson that “You never know what these people do…they know what is entertaining about their material, and sometimes what is not true about their life becomes part of their persona.” Where Thompson used drugs to achieve that blur, Howard used history.

“Loathsome” was a word that Thompson embraced, considering it a badge of counterculture honor. He was such a virulent purveyor of slime that some industrious fans were able to construct a Hunter Thompson Insult Generator, available on the web. Like Howard, Thompson needed enemies as a foil for his rage, without which rage turns in on itself and consumes its host. He spat out vitriol towards anything that smacked of the American Dream, while the whole time hypocritically lamenting the dream’s passing. Four decades earlier Howard grieved over the passing of his own American Dream — one where if only the frontier had still been there to shoot and fight his way across, everything in life would have been grand. In lives dominated by neurosis, loneliness, and low self-confidence, shock and outrage were sources of strength and succor. Upon Nixon’s death Thompson wrote “He Was A Crook” for Rolling Stone, subtitled “Notes on the Passing of an American Monster,” the pathetic tastelessness of which betrayed a bitter man who demanded honesty from everyone but himself. Faced with such displays of childish hatred passing for hip political integrity, we have to wonder whether Thompson ultimately killed himself because he simply could no longer find ways to outrage readers like he used to, his late bashing of George Bush merely quaint considering the avalanche of similar nonsense now found in every newspaper and on every television. No longer is it taboo to slam politicians with the ferocity he used in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail. When one’s rep as a counterculture hero begins to pale into kitsch, where is there left to go?

Had Howard lived, might he have had the same sort of front-heavy career? Writing for three decades more, perhaps marrying and mellowing, and ultimately never re-attaining the heights reached in his youth? If so, Howard saw the writing on the wall and got out while the getting was good. For decades Thompson waited for the rebirth of the revolution he helped create and watched dissipate, and only after that hope had dimmed irrevocably did he feel the need to pull the trigger. By the end his health was failing. Spinal surgery. A broken leg. Shades of Howard famously considering himself over the hill at thirty years of age, bedeviled by a “weak heart,” “black moods,” and problems as outwardly minor as having slipped in his boxing skills.

Boxing brings us to the other recent suicide in the news, the death of Najal Turpin, the twenty-three year old pugilist who fought on a new reality TV series from Survivor impresario Mark Burnett entitled The Contender. In the course of the show he met superstar Sylvester Stallone and competed in a series of matches slated for national television. Even given that he must have been depressed for some reason, it’s amazing that he killed himself so soon after such a career highlight, and before the show has even debuted to what could have been hit status. What was he thinking? Had his performance in the show forced him to face the same demons as Howard and Thompson, namely the specter that he was in his “sere and yellow leaf,” that his best days were behind him? Turpin shot himself in his parked car, just like Howard, but with his girlfriend in the seat next to him, his own personal Novalyne bearing witness to his destruction.

Turpin’s manager stated that the suicide “had a lot of stuff on his mind,” including the recent drive-by murder of a boxer he had been friends with. Howard’s self-destructive tendencies may have been similarly birthed via the suicide of a high school classmate in his teens, along with the deaths of young friends like Herbert Klatt. It would seem, and not surprisingly, that boxers have a heightened sensitivity to the waning of youth and strength, often the one part of their lives that fills them with confidence and calm. Once taken away, the thought of living the rest of their lives weak both physically and emotionally is too much to bear.
If Turpin’s girlfriend can be seen as a substitute Novalyne, then Hunter Thompson’s lawyer has acted as his own Dr. I. M. Howard, providing context and trying to extrapolate intent:

Tobia [Thompson’s lawyer]…said he spoke to Thompson at least five times in the last week, as recently as the day before he killed himself…his client and friend did not leave a note, only conversations and obscure directions he had issued to friends and family in recent days…”This was definitely not spur of the moment,” said Tobia…”He arranged to have things dealt with, and he wanted his family close by, but he didn’t want anyone to knowࢀ”he didn’t want anyone to try to stop him. In a weird way, he wanted it to be, I think, a celebration.”…[Tobia] noted Thompson has written about suicide and talked about it with friends…”He didn’t want to waste away,” Tobia said. “He did not want to exist as an invalid or as someone who needed constant care. It wouldn’t suit his sense of self.”…”There was no one thing you would point to and say, ‘Oh…he’s going to kill himself,'” Tobia said. “It wasn’t clear last week suicide was imminent, but now it adds up.”…”I was numb last night,” he said yesterday. “But when that settles in, the phone calls, things start to come back, and things begin to make sense…We all had hints, but none of us had the full picture.”

Like Thompson’s in 2005, Howard’s death in 1936 marked, if not the end of a literary era, then the beginning of the end. Lovecraft was soon writhing in the throes of terminal stomach cancer, while Clark Ashton Smith abandoned the increasingly lonely halls of Weird Tales and retreated to his solitary cabin and his poetry. The pulps themselves soon vanished under the first waves of the paperback era. Soon Howard’s world was gone, leaving only stories and a dwindling number of grizzled veterans with bittersweet memories. Thompson had been one of the grizzled veterans of his generation for many years, before finally deciding to join Howard in the same oblivion which swallowed up both their worlds, worlds they made famous and which they ultimately couldn’t live without.

Shadow worlds of hate, energy, violence, and outrageousness are not only what took Howard from us, but also what gave him to us in the first place. Perhaps de Camp wasn’t too far off the mark when he posited that only people depressed or deranged enough to kill themselves can write of dangerous and bizarre things with such intensity, belief, and consistency. Samuel Johnson’s maxim “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pains of being a man” is how Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas begins. Methinks one could easily substitute “barbarian” for “beast.”

American God

Just finished reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the premise of which I found interesting although the book suffers from several problems. One is the rampant passivity that plagues most modern fiction—i.e., the main character has lots of things happen to him without proactively affecting the plot, and hence spends most of the book in utter confusion somewhat akin to that of a lab rat, a problem Robert E. Howard, despite his many artistic faults, seldom manifests. Also, much of American Gods, clever and well-written as it often is, is penned in a spare and hyper-visual style just like comic scripts or movie screenplays I’ve read, which serves certain scenes well but ultimately detracts from the epic Lord of the Rings/The Stand quality of the journey. And the plot is somewhat reduced in thematic terms by the gaping hole where Jesus should be, something that I think needs to be addressed in any book that lays claim to discussing Americans and their gods, both historical and modern. Still, the sheer phantasmagoric imagination at work here and the courageous "swinging for the fences" mentality that seems to drive the ideas lends gravitas to the book and validates the many awards it won upon its release in 2001. In a genre as stagnant and repetitive and filled with terrible writers as fantasy, Gaiman stands out as a talent worth reading and analyzing.

It occurred to me that the book’s main fantasy—that all the Gods of history were brought to America in the minds of its immigrants and were then forgotten, leaving them to get by in America as near-mortal, on-the-skids versions of their previous godlike selves, albeit ever on the lookout for a comeback—can be applied to authors as well. Gaiman himself seems to have unwittingly made this connection, as the following excerpt from one of his press tour interviews shows:

1930. Probably the most prominent English essayist was A. A. Milne. The editor of Punch, famed for his comedic essays and a man with several plays running in the West End concurrently. A man who had bestselling books with titles like The Daily Round and hilarious collections of essays and sketches. One of the funniest writers of his generation and an accomplished playwright. I did an Amazon search several months ago just out of interest to see just what of his was actually in print. And it listed 700 books: all of which, as I went down page after page, were variant editions of the two Winnie the Pooh books and the two books of comic verse for children that he wrote. And that’s all that we have left of A. A. Milne and he’s in better shape than most of his contemporaries whose names we do not remember at all. I can’t point to the other guy who was the biggest playwright in the 1930s because we don’t know who that was and if I said his name, you’d be blank. The fact is, those two books of children’s stories and two volumes of children’s verse are what posterity, rightly or wrongly, has deemed the important thing to remember about what A. A. Milne did.

Like the gods of Gaiman’s imagination, authors go through periods of sometimes incredible power and influence, which can continue for decades or for millennia, depending entirely on the necessity of "worshippers" continuing to praise and honor them. It’s the reason why Charles Willeford, in Don Herron’s biography Willeford, maintains so forcefully that "writers need critics." It’s why, in both Gaiman’s novel and in his example above, even the Great hold power only at the pleasure of the masses. Once the people stop worshipping, the power of the god, and indeed the god itself fades. It’s still there, buried in the psyche of a few, popping up now and again in some minor fashion or historical context, but the fame and influence that once was is no more.

Seen in this light, Robert E. Howard’s borderline obscurity takes on a new, more optimistic meaning. Like Milne, he has seen better days, and also like Milne, he is largely now known for a single creation, Conan. But it’s clear that, seventy years after his death, Howard has a much broader range of material in print than "most of his contemporaries whose names we do not remember at all," as Gaiman puts it. Even Howard’s minor characters have fan followings and reprintings via books like Paul Herman’s Wildside volumes. Howard is, most definitely, not forgotten, or in mortal danger of being lost to the ages like his contemporaries, many of whom inspired and influenced him. Given the extremely low percentage of authors that make the jump to posthumous relevance and success, I like Howard’s chances to remain a viable force in fantasy, and a growing one in classic American literature.

Later in his interview Gaiman notes that it’s far too early to tell if he himself is going to be remembered for anything, despite his classic Sandman series of comics selling upwards of 80,000 copies in hardcover collections each year, almost twenty years after they debuted. Or perhaps—like Milne—one of Gaiman’s minor works will be the one thing everyone remembers his name for long after he’s gone. That’s exactly right, and exactly what many people do not understand about the long-term prospects of writers. When the current crop of popular authors have been dead for seventy years like Howard, then you can talk about who’s selling what and who is more famous than who. With living authors sales count precious little towards their long-term critical or artistic viability. But with dead authors, continued sales become much more important. Howard’s work has outlived the hugely popular works of far more successful authors, for far longer than such authors have been on the cultural map. Selling millions of copies and being highly collectible seventy years after your death is a high achievement. It’s rare. It means something.

As American Gods go, Robert E. Howard is not too shabby.

Dark Valley Dust Jacket

When I recently picked up the hardcover edition of Dark Valley Destiny by L. Sprague de Camp, Catharine Crook de Camp, and Jane Griffin (Bluejay Books, 1983) for the hundredth time, a quick perusal of the dust jacket copy suggested a number of thoughts.

The first was one I never heard anyone else mention before, namely that it’s risible that two thirds of the triad that penned the only biography to date on Robert E. Howard were women, and antipathetic women at that. While I of course have known this factually for many years, this observation had never struck me with such force before. Try as I might, I find it impossible to escape the conclusion that dissecting the life of Howard, one of the all-time classic men’s writers, requires a sympathetic and understanding male outlook and empathy far beyond what a pair of old ladies like Mrs. de Camp and Mrs. Griffin could ever hope to either possess or compensate for. The dust jacket copy of Dark Valley Destiny is also a microcosm of both the pleasures and the problems inherent in the book. It begins, as de Camp’s ruminations on Howard almost always did, with noting the suicide, stating:


On the morning of June 11, 1936, thirty-year old Robert E. Howard ascertained from his mother’s nurse that Mrs. Howard would not regain consciousness. He had spent the night before sorting through his papers; he had made funeral arrangements earlier in the week. Then he calmly walked out the door, got into his car, carefully rolled up the window, and shot himself in the head. Thus ended the life of one of America’s most significant writers.

Such a preternatural focus on the suicide to the exclusion of all else is a large part of what infuriates so many fans about de Camp’s book. But tellingly, the dust jacket then goes on to heap ample praise on Howard in unabashedly admiring terms. “The definitive biography of Robert E. Howard, who created the archetypical fantasy hero … the heroic sweep of his narratives, the vividness of his imagery, and his ability to convey mood, magic and mystery mark his writing as exceptional. Had he lived, he might have become one of the most celebrated of all American fantasy writers.” That he actually has become one of the most celebrated of fantasy writers shouldn’t cause us to judge this last statement too harshly; Howard fans have well-documented the penchant of critics to leave Howard out of books on the fantasy genre, despite his preeminent status. On those grounds, the statement that Howard “might have” become celebrated is valid.

The various analytical statements that follow the above praise, describing how the de Camps and Griffin have masterfully delineated “Howard’s problems,” should be weighed against the remark that “Dark Valley Destiny is a fascinating work of research, interpretation and writing that illuminates the personality of the man who, almost single­handedly, created the subgenre of American fiction now called `heroic fantasy.”‘ The italics in “interpretation” are mine, intended to highlight one of the stated techniques de Camp used to flesh out the shadowy areas in Howard’s life, one of the techniques that any biographer has to use when a vast swath of the subject’s life is mist. De Camp can surely be criticized for the logic and strength, or lack thereof, of these interpretations, but let us not damn him for the necessity of interpreting in and of itself.

Sci-Fi Part Deux

Flipping through the December 2004 issue of SCI-FI: The Official Magazine of the Sci-Fi Channel, I was interested to see a "special fantasy section" featured prominently. Knowing that Howard would be mentioned and ruefully remembering the last time the folks at SCI-FI commented on Howard (John Clute’s now-infamous appraisal in his review of the Gollancz Conan Chronicles), I skimmed through to see if their treatment of Howard had improved any in the ensuing two years. Alas, it has not. Read what I found, along with my somewhat oversensitive but nonetheless appropriate response, halfway down this page of the letters section of the SCI-FI Weekly website.

While the quip which spurred me into action was, in and of itself, not worth complaining about overmuch, it does highlight the continued pattern of Howard’s shoddy treatment at the hands of genre journalists, treatment that would never be tolerated if directed at SCI-FI ‘s sacred cows. We would never see, for instance, a joke about Isaac Asimov’s death by AIDS, or about James Doohan’s Alzheimer’s. Of course we wouldn’t, that would be tasteless and offensive. So we should expect the same basic level of decency whenever Robert E. Howard and his suicide are mentioned in such publications.

Heart’s Blood

In brute historical terms, Robert E. Howard amounts to little more than a brief flash illuming the cultural fabric of the early twentieth century.

At the time of his suicide by gunshot on June 11, 1936, at the age of thirty, what little fame the young writer had was to be found among the fans of the wood pulps, which in the 1920s and ’30s were enjoying the very height of their popularity. In the years before the invention of the cheap paperback book, pulp magazines filled a large niche in the cultural landscape, providing even the poorest of Americans with inexpensive, plentiful reading alternatives to high-priced hardcovers. The market encompassed scores of titles covering all manner of genres, and within about a dozen of those Howard had made his name. Weird Tales, Strange Tales, Oriental Tales, Fight Stories, Action Stories, Argosy/All-Story. Howard submitted what he called his “yarns” to such magazines again and again, methodically, relentlessly, sometimes desperately. For every three stories he wrote and peddled, he sold only one. The other two were tossed into a large trunk, there to lie in the darkness unread and unappreciated, perhaps forever.

Howard wrote professionally at a fever-pitch for twelve years. With no mentoring or training of any kind he wrote over three hundred short stories, several novel-length works, and over seven hundred poems. Yet on the day of his death he had never had a single book published, and the pulps owed him a small fortune in back payments.

The unassuming hamlet of Cross Plains, Texas was the place he called home throughout his adult years, a town as small and isolated today as it was seventy years ago. For nearly a century now it has hovered around a total population of a thousand souls. People in Cross Plains farmed, drilled for oil, loaded trains. They most certainly did not sit at home and write stories. In the dusty light of this environment, Howard the Writer may as well have been Howard the Alien. He was looked down upon as lazy for banging a typewriter while others worked blue collar jobs, as crazy for shadow-boxing prizefighting plots while walking down the street, and as disreputable for publishing bloody, sexy, haunted tales in magazines with covers no respectable churchgoer would be caught dead peeking at. A more inhospitable place in America for such a writer to flourish is hard to imagine.

During his thirty years of life Howard had exactly one girlfriend. Much of his early life was spent writing, boxing, traveling, and visiting with friends. In later years, nearly all of these pastimes gave way under the burden of caring for his increasingly ill mother, who over the course of a decade wasted away from tuberculosis in scenes of increasing horror and anguish. Howard writes of hundred-mile trips to doctors to drain gallons of fluid from her chest and of being constantly wakened to change bedclothes and sheets drenched in sweat and sputum. His physician father was often gone on house calls across the county, performing Hippocratic miracles for little or no pay. Today, many Cross Plains senior citizens, a number that dwindles every year, proudly announce that Dr. Howard delivered them into this world during those long ago Texas days, and each one is living testament not only to his medical skills but to his absence from the Howard home, and from the side of his sick wife. A series of nurses were hired and fired with numbing regularity, and so Robert increasingly got little sleep and little time to write. He did however have plenty of time in which to dwell on the sorrows and horrors of existence.

Howard suffered from depression all his life, which age and increasing stress steadily worsened. From his earliest letters and stories on down to his last days, one is struck in his writing by the essential bleakness of his worldview. Many surviving photographs of Howard show a deadly-serious, hollow-eyed youth who seems to have the dolor of the world swirling around in the dark pits of his eyes, as if tinged with the blackness of his ultimate end. This is far more apparent in hindsight than it was during his lifetime. No one, not even his father—who endured Robert’s hinting about suicide every time Mrs. Howard’s condition worsened—truly realized how desperate he was until it was too late. As the 1930s marched implacably onward towards the looming specter of the Second World War, Howard watched his friends get married and find jobs and move away. He watched now-forgotten writers thriving in high-end markets he had never been able to break. And he watched his mother—the only person who unabashedly supported his writing ambitions in the dark early years of rejection—slowly die in excruciating pain. Above all, he was alone. Alone with the dying embers of his thoughts, dreams, and hopes, beset on all sides by an encroaching darkness.

In the seventy years since his death, many critics have determined that Howard’s achievement is of no real worth, seeing instead a pathetic figure whose writing merely possesses an untrained virility that holds a crude fascination for undiscerning readers. At best he is remembered as a passionate hack, a mildly exceptional poster boy for the clichéd, racist, artistically bankrupt pulps. More often he is smoothly ignored, even in books that profess to comprehensively cover Texan writers or the fantasy genre. He has been called a paranoid nutcase, an Oedipal momma’s boy, and a hundred other slurs. His depression and suicide is regularly mocked, laughed at, and taken as ipso facto evidence of a pathologically immature intellect unworthy of serious consideration. His fans are often derided as bitter simpletons and angry bottom feeders, echoes of Howard himself. His few articulate critical champions are seen as wasting their time slumming and offering absurd over-praise.

So, granting all of this, why waste time writing about Robert E. Howard? Why care?

It’s a strange thing: despite the efforts of such critics to convince readers of Howard’s intrinsic ignobility, I—like thousands of others—like Bob Howard. While he’s not the best writer—who is?—and he’s not a perfect writer—who is?—his words have a way of lingering in one’s head like cold fire, resisting the best efforts of Time to douse the brilliance of their color or dim the power of their sound. His characters—Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, Kull, Sailor Steve Costigan, Breckinridge Elkins, and especially Conan—burst from the page with exuberant life. His letters are full of zest and humor and passion and despair, and his best poetry is possessed of a fell beauty and bardic cadence that recalls Norse myths and Icelandic sagas. He wrote a lot of junk, yes—what published writer has not?—but, to my mind, a lot more jewels. As the father of Sword-and-Sorcery, as a man who has sold millions of books decades after his death, and as a writer whose themes and characters have seeped into both the public mythology and my own private dreamscape, he has earned my respect.

All this, despite the protestations of critics appalled at having their ivory towers invaded by an uncouth barbarian, and indeed, despite the gloomy soothsaying of Howard himself. In October 1928, at the ripe old age of twenty-two, three years into his professional writing career and eight years before his suicide, he wrote to his friend Tevis Clyde Smith:

I am not a genius, neither am I clever, educated or especially intelligent. But I have faith in myself and a capacity for work. What I am writing now is less than nothing in the long run, even though it represents my heart’s blood. The world is not interested in heart’s blood, but Success Accomplished and nothing else. The toil, the sweat, the torment means nothing. What the world wants is perfection and of what lies behind, men reckon but little. A man may toil a lifetime, toil like a giant and perform the deeds of unthoughted heroes, but if he does not succeed, as the world measures success, all his labor and hardships go for naught and he is a jest and a by-word, soon forgotten.

But I’ll succeed if I live, in my eyes and according to worldly standards. And when I come to the end of the trail, if I have lost, I can say that at least I never whimpered for sympathy in my work. And if I win I can say that I made it absolutely on my own with never a helping hand and that I owe nothing, not one damned thing, to anyone. Still, it sometimes rasps me that I should be condemned utterly for what appears under my name today. No one judges George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, or Jack London by what they wrote in their early youth when they were struggling up the long ladder and neither will I be judged by my earlier efforts, when the dust has drunk my brain and dreams.

But God, the utter futility of it descends on the soul of me like a thick fog through which I can see no light.

Howard did not live to see his Success Accomplished, not a single book of it. His brain and dreams have been drunk by the dust, and only his heart’s blood remains. Yet that is enough.

In Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, in a scene of quiet, incomparable power, the deposed, forlorn King meets in the last hours of his life the only one of his daughters whose love and devotion to him never wavered, despite his horrendous mistreatment of her. Wracked by guilt and calamity, he falls to his knees in front of her and exclaims: “I know you do not love me, for your sisters have, as I remember, done me wrong. You have some cause; they have not.” His daughter, who has every reason to hate him, to loathe his unreasoning rages and pathetic despondency, and who is soon to be hanged for coming to his aid, instead embraces him warmly and whispers two words that—in their simple heartfelt syllables—encompass a magniloquent universe of feeling: “No cause. . .no cause. . .”

Robert E. Howard, the father of Sword-and-Sorcery, died thinking the world had ample cause to brand him an utter failure, a wasted loser, a lonely soul whose life’s work and every thought was destined for oblivion and obscurity.

No cause, Robert. No cause.