Samhain at The Cimmerian

October is a month that doesn’t merely pluck at heart-strings, but scrapes a violinist’s bow across them. Sunlight like dwindling gold coins from a pursesnatcher’s best-ever score. Late afternoon lyricism, the year waning and the night gaining. Champagne-air with an ice water chaser. The last month of shirtsleeves and the first month of the schoolyear turned routine, after the adjustments to new classes and new teachers have been made. The Constitutional taffy-pull of the First Monday in October. The pine-tarry benison of still playing in October. The campaign bogeyman of the October Surprise. Robert Frost’s “October.” The demesne of our branch-denuding, Howard-evoking acquaintance, the sere and yellow leaf. Jack Skellington and Halloween Town. Pumpkin patches with nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see. Laurie Strode, still hours away from her babysitting gig, called on by her English teacher, de-abstractifying Fate as being “a natural element, like earth, air, fire, water.”

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Lonely Mountain, Crowded Expectations; Or, Prelude as Successor

Too many of my waking hours are given over to thinking about the Hobbit films due in December of 2011 and December of 2012; no sooner is my attention directed elsewhere than the voluble and value-adding Guillermo del Toro is interviewed again and — sproing! — my thoughts ricochet back to the movies he’s about to make. After all, it won’t hurt to have something to which I can look forward after moving to a Hooverville and while shuffling along on Hoover leather (The Internet is of course rendering Hoover blankets obsolete). Admittedly my druthers would have been a movie about the wrath of Fëanor, the wanderings of Húrin, the fall of Gondolin, or the last days of Númenor. But any Silmarillion-based movie would be hobbit-free, and hobbits shift units and sell tickets. Me, I tolerate rather than love them, although I would never go as far as Michael Moorcock, who quipped of Sauron, “Anyone who hates hobbits can’t be all bad,” or the younger Charles Saunders, who once expressed (he has since mellowed) a profound relief that there were no black hobbits. Admiration and affection for Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin I have aplenty; I just don’t love hobbits qua hobbits. But many do; adoption agencies that offered hobbit orphans would be forced to hire extra security for crowd control.

In his magisterial two-volume The History of the Hobbit John D. Rateliff backhands “critics who would prefer The Hobbit to conform to and resemble its sequel in every possible detail.” Guilty as charged; I try and mostly succeed in cherishing the book for its own self, and almost fainted when, in the dealers’ room at the 2006 World Fantasy Convention in Austin, I came face to face with a first edition 1937 Hobbit. But reading-sequence is destiny, and I first read the “enchanting prelude” in the spring of 1971, a few weeks after hurtling through The Lord of the Rings. As a result, what really got my pulse pounding like hammers in dwarven smithies were what Tolkien, looking back from the vantage point of LOTR‘s Second Edition, described as “references to the older matter: Elrond, Gondolin, the High-elves, and the orcs, and glimpses that had arisen, unbidden, of things higher or deeper or darker than [The Hobbit‘s] surface: Durin, Moria, Gandalf, the Necromancer, the Ring.” Although not immune to the beguilingly unique properties of The Hobbit, I responded the most to premonitions and foreshadowings of the later work, the design features of the Eohippus from which the later Arabian stallion could be extrapolated. So for me “higher or deeper or darker” is the way to go in the impending movies, because so many millions of filmgoers will plant themselves in multiplex seats as vividly aware of the previously-viewed-even-if-chronologically-“later” Peter Jackson films as I was of the previously-read-although-chronologically-“later” LOTR back in 1971. Some of the posts at Tolkien-oriented and other genre sites reflect apprehension that Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson will “spectacularize” or “bombastify” the source material, inflate a children’s classic into a swollen epic, and such protectiveness is laudable, but barring an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style memory-scrub, the audience can’t be made to unsee The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Ergo higher, deeper, darker.

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Thongor. Brak. Conan. One of These Things Is Not Like the Others…

The three inevitables: Death, taxes, and grappling with the shade of L. Sprague de Camp. I never cease to be concussed by the adamantine certainty of de Camp’s Final Guard that he and only he could ever have been Conan’s salvager and salvation, the Last Best Hope of Howardkind. That REH’s stories, the dark and bloody American frontier of modern heroic fantasy, could never have cut it on their own. That unless bulked-up and buttressed by hardcases like Conan the Buccaneer, the authentic tales would have been shunned by the scads of anthologist claim-stakers and repackaging-prospectors who flocked to the Klondike that pulp fiction became in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

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“The High-Spired Splendidness of Old”

Then suddenly fire burst from the Meneltarma, and there came a mighty wind and a tumult of the earth, and the sky reeled, and the hills slid, and Númenor went down into the sea, with all its children and its wives and its maidens and its ladies proud; and all its gardens and its halls and its towers, its tombs and its riches, and its jewels and its webs and its things painted and carven, and its laughter and its mirth and its music, its wisdom and its lore: they vanished for ever.

J.R.R. Tolkien, Akallabêth

Atlantology, which boasts a Donnelly and a Donovan, is also blessed with a Donald, Donald Sidney-Fryer. Cimmerian readers know him as one of the journal’s triumvirate of poets laureate alongside Richard Tierney and Darrell Schweitzer, a translator, and an essayist who won a 2008 Hyrkanian Award for his “Robert E. Howard: Epic Poet in Prose.” Students of weird fiction know him as a contributor to The Dark Barbarian, the editor of the Timescape Clark Ashton Smith collections The City of the Singing Flame, The Last Incantation, and The Monster of the Prophecy, and the author of The Sorcerer Departs: Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961), the founding document of Klarkashtonian Studies. His website heralds him as “the Last of the Courtly Poets & Northern California’s Only Neo-Elizabethan Poet-Entertainer.” And The Atlantis Fragments, which collects Mr. Sidney-Fryer’s three sets of Songs and Sonnets Atlantean, confirms that he is a direct descendant of mythohistorical figures like Atlas I, called Pharanomion (“the founder”, the Northron-harried Poseidon II, and Atlantarion the poet-king.

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African Gods

In Charles Saunders’ latest blog post (click here and then select “Blog”), he dwells for a spell on one aspect of the rich tapestry of culture and myth that has fueled his Imaro and Dossouye tales. It’s a peek into why his worldbuilding is so effective and immersive. Budding fantasy writers take heed.

Also check out Charles’ Forum for a neat letter from a native African currently living in Sweden who likes both Saunders and REH.

Laying Down The [First] Law

It was cased all in bright armour sealed with heavy rivets, a round helmet clamped over the top half of its skull, eyes glinting beyond a thin slot. It grunted and snorted, sounds loud as a bull, iron-booted feet thudding on the stone as it thundered forwards, a massive axe in its iron-gloved hands. A giant among Shanka. Or some new thing, made from iron and flesh, down here in the darkness.
Its axe curved in a shining arc and the Bloody-Nine rolled away from it, the heavy blade crashing into the ground and sending out a shower of fragments. It roared at him again, maw opening wide under its slotted visor, a cloud of spit hissing from its hanging mouth. The Bloody-Nine faded back, shifting and dancing with the shifting shadows and the dancing flames.

That Frazetta-grade dream of a red meeting is from Joe Abercrombie’s 2007 novel Before They Are Hanged, and so is this one:

He came on closer, this shadow, and he took on more shape, and more, and the clearer he got, the worse grew the fear.
He’d been long and far, the Dogman, all over the North, but he’d never seen so strange and unnatural a thing as this giant. One half of him was covered in great plates of black armour — studded and bolted, beaten and pointed, spiked and hammered and twisted metal. The other half was mostly bare, apart from the straps and belts and buckles that held the armour on. Bare foot, bare arm, bare chest, all bulging out with ugly slabs and cords of muscle. A mask was on his face, a mask of scarred black iron.
He came on closer, and he rose from the mist, and the Dogman saw the giant’s skin was painted. Marked blue with tiny letters. Scrawled across with writing, every inch of him. No weapon, but he was no less terrible for that. He was more, if anything. He scorned to carry one, even on a battlefield.

In the two-years-plus since we lost David Gemmell at an intolerably early age, nothing, absolutely nothing, has so reassured me about the future of heroic fantasy as Abercrombie’s sequence The First Law: The Blade Itself (2006), Before They Are Hanged (2007), and Last Argument of Kings (2008). All 3 white-knucklers are now available in the U. S. from the Pyr imprint of Prometheus Books.

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Household Name In CBS-Watching Households?

Mondays-at-8:00 sitcom The Big Bang Theory is actually funny enough to lure me to CBS for a half hour a week, even if it means tolerating that network’s trademark smell of Metamucil spillages and mummification spices. As part of last night’s episode “The Barbarian Sublimation” in which Penny (Kaley Cuoco), her self-esteem cratering, became addicted to Age of Conan, the writers made sure to have breakout character Sheldon (Jim Parsons) emphasize that the game was set in the universe of Robert E. Howard’s creation.

Most of the subsequent references to places and players were game-inventions rather than authentically Howardian, but Tortage and the Swamps of the Purple Lotus got name-checked, so not too shabby, all in all. Plus, no one used the term Hyboria

Lois Garrett, R.I.P.

One of the great characters of Cross Plains, Texas, and one of the last links to the world in which Robert E. Howard lived and breathed, has died.

Lois Garrett has been featured on this blog before, a few years ago on the occasion of her ninety-sixth birthday. Along with her good friend — the late Zora Mae Baum Bryant, inheritor of the rights to the works of Robert E. Howard — Lois became a fixture in Cross Plains who had seen everything almost from the founding of the new town around 1911. She had scrapbooks filled with pictures and news items over the years, and endless stories to tell.

The years she was most active at Howard Days were 2000-2003 — after that ill health generally kept her at home during the event, where she nevertheless entertained out-of-town guests willing to make the pilgrimage to her house. I snapped the picture above in 2003 on West Caddo Peak, and feel it accurately captures the woman: alert, elegant, charming, beautiful in her small-town simplicity of manner and graciousness, with a razor-sharp wit always employed for good humor. In my mind and the minds of those who were lucky enough to spend a few weekends with her, she remains just like this: ever bathed in the warm, angelic glow of a perfect Texas sunset, the beginnings of a smile forming on her lips.

I might also add, now that she is beyond embarrassment or scandal, that I can personally attest that both she and Zora Mae were darn good kissers:

It’s hard to describe the endless stream of wry humor that poured from these two delightful pixies whenever they would get together. One of my favorite stories was told to me by Jack Baum, Zora Mae’s son, at my first Howard Days in the summer of 2000:

Ol’ Lois felt she was gettin’ up in years, and decided she needed to prepare, so she and Mother went out fixin’ to pick Lois out a nice casket. When they found one that looked pretty good, Lois remarked how small it was, and wondered if when the time came she would fit. Mom piped up with, “Well, get on up in there and we’ll just see if it fits!”

That was Lois and Zora Mae in a nutshell, and it’s hard to feel very sad about Lois’ death when you think about the long life she lived, and the prospect that somewhere out there, in a heavenly Texas beyond our ken, two good friends have been reunited, this time for keeps.

Howard Gets In Bed With Sylvia

Here’s an interesting blog post on Howard that is apparently four years old, yet I’d never come across it before. In between blasts of the too-cool-for-school style so common to pop-culture bloggers, you’ll find some solid red meat to chew on.

The ideological comparison with Plath is interesting. I’ve always liked her tombstone, which quotes the Hindu adage, “Even amidst fierce flames, the golden lotus can be planted.” One young woman, writing of Plath on her blog, nails the appeal — what one might call the Howardian essence — of her haunting verse:

Her poems are a world of fairytales gone terribly wrong…Her poems are unforgettable because they are, like her, at once violent and vulnerable. They speak, at once, to both the child and the beast within us.

Just so. The violent, vulnerable Texan would have heartily agreed.

In Defense of Hester Jane Ervin Howard

Dwell for a moment, Dear Reader, on a subject you might never have considered: the practical circumstances surrounding the writing of your own biography, well after the fact of your death and the deaths of all those who knew you best and cared for you most.

The biographer in question would have to conduct interviews with scores of people who knew you little or not at all, and hang on their every word, granting such threadbare testimony an out-sized respect. Think back to your early years in school or in the workplace, to the myriad faces and personalities whom you recall at this late date only in occasional snatches of memory fogged by the passing of decades. How many of their names can you remember? How many conversations? Could you be trusted to give a biographer the rundown on the personality and family of one of your ex-coworkers or fellow students? Could they be trusted to describe your life and family?

If a biographer did some Google searches on the Internet and drudged up everything you’ve written online, and if he managed to score a copy of all of the e-mails you’ve written and saved, would he have an accurate picture of what you felt and thought? Would he be able to chart the often massive changes in your thinking about religion, politics, family, friends, career, art, or anything else you care to name? Could he judge the times you were being purposefully untruthful, or masking your true thoughts in deference to someone’s feelings? Would the vast amount of e-mails you failed to archive have provided a radically different picture of your life?

In my case, I am left thinking, “My God, if someone wrote a biography about me someday, utilizing a selection of emails and the few stories remembered by neighbors and classmates and co-workers and friends and enemies, what an outrageous passel of lies and out-of-context guesses it would be!” Everything I’ve ever written anywhere could be taken as gospel, What Leo Thought, The Truth, The Facts, without regard to changing times and the wisdom and reevaluations of age. People I didn’t even know that well — or worse, people I despised and who despised me back! — would each become a trusted arbiter on my life and reputation. Every independently verifiable “fact” could be combined and extrapolated in a monstrous whole that scarcely resembled reality.

It’s a terrifying and sobering thought.

In Howard scholarship, with our intellect and reason tempered by decades of bitter experiences at the hands of sloppy and malicious forefathers, we have grown more and more careful about taking things at face value. We sift through all the available data and take into account all of the vagaries and caprice inherent in a biographical record, in a way that to the best of our ability “does REH right.” That’s not to say we make things up or paint him in an idyllic light with a halo around his head. It means we try to balance the facts with the intent that hums beneath them, and leaven the concoction with a strong helping of the Time and Place in which they occurred. The strides we’ve made in balancing the Howardian record as a result of these ministrations is plain to see.

But in the rush to do right by Howard, there has been a conspicuous lack of interest in doing right by his parents. Both Mother and Father loom large in the story of Howard’s life, and yet the two have been routinely demonized as bickering, jealous, damaged, awful parents, who bear a large measure of responsibility for Howard’s depression and suicide. His Mother especially has been snowed under by accusations of quietly demented witchery. For years I’ve grown increasingly sensitive to the methods used to accomplish this. It’s much the same sort of sleight-of-hand that was employed against Howard’s memory for so long, but in Dr. and Mrs. Howard’s case — with much less biographical meat to work with — it is far easier to carry out and far harder to combat. It’s gotten so bad that a few years ago Steve Tompkins opined to me that trying to humanize Hester Howard would at this late date be “fiendishly difficult,” like trying to rehabilitate “Grendel’s mother.” Given the amount of garbage that has made it into print, it’s hard to argue with such pessimism. “Has there ever been a pro-Hester faction, aside from REH himself?” Steve asked me at the time.

The answer to that question, it may surprise you to learn, is yes. I’m pro-Hester, and after ten years of study have come to believe that the rap on her is every bit as luridly overblown as the worst myths about REH. Various stories and opinions have their place, sure — but what proof do we really have that Howard’s mother was the monster she is portrayed as? Annie Newton and other catty neighbors and relatives with apparent grudges didn’t have much good to say about any of the Howards in interviews prepared by L. Sprague de Camp for Dark Valley Destiny, although to get a better read on the true context of those interviews they will have to be released in full someday. In One Who Walked Alone Novalyne Price Ellis appears to have faithfully recorded events, yet too often she can be seen to interpret them with frightening naiveté, as when she flippantly told REH to solve his problems by shaving his mustache when he was teetering on the brink of despond, and when she wondered why Mrs. Howard couldn’t just jump up and be as self sufficient as her own Mammy (earth to Miss Price: your Mammy wasn’t dying). E. Hoffmann Price’s outrageous ego and penchant for BS is hard to trust, especially when his retellings of the same stories got progressively weirder and more anti-REH over the years, as the dead Texan’s reputation began to far exceed his own.

Set against that thin gruel you have some stubborn facts. Hester spent many of her first thirty-four years selflessly taking care of sick relatives, in the process forgoing the happiness of marriage and contracting the illness that would kill her thirty years later. (gee…I wonder where REH got his notions about caring for ill family members from?) According to her step-sisters and relatives she was beloved by that entire side of the family, known and revered for her many kindnesses. Her funeral attracted mourners from several states. Others report that she had many friends all across Texas and when healthy would visit them as often as she could. Until her health failed she helped her husband with his medical practice, running various machines and other apparatus. She enjoyed attending church and picnics and festivals in town, and was remembered by Price and other guests and friends as a gracious host.

Mrs. Howard infused in her son a passion for poetry, ancestry, and the history of the Southwest. She always believed in him, prodded him forward, wrote letters to the magazines he wrote for, yelled at the neighbors when they complained about his typewriter clacking away at all hours of the night, and protected his writing time from intrusions. Through most of his adult life REH went wherever he wanted and did whatever he wanted with no mind-control or withering disapproval that friends remember. The only evidence we have of REH staying close to home is in Ellis’ book, in the last two years when Hester Howard’s health had become critical. Common sense and imagination hint at a hidden reality too nasty for Novalyne’s youthful self-centeredness to allow for: night sweats, puke and sputum, gross incontinence, IVs and drainage tubes, moaning, crying, delirium. Yet even during those years Bob went to New Mexico with Truett Vinson and made other trips as opportunities warranted. At the time Ellis was fairly consumed by her romantic fits of pique, but in the real world REH was acting more mature and had his priorities straight. And Ellis and others thought Mrs. Howard was faking to get her son’s attention, but she’d have to be pretty dedicated at this ruse in order to create gallons of fluid in her abdomen that needed to be drained, and then later to up and die. In the final analysis, her detractors were wrong: she hadn’t been faking the severity of her illness, she had been dying a miserable and painful death all along.

Some of the gossipy stories about the Howard marriage may have a factual basis, but accurate context is key. Annie Newton’s incessantly catty anecdotes are offset by those of Bob and Marie Baker and Norris Chambers, all of whom I personally interviewed and pressed and pressed on these points, and who each gave essentially the same story: Dr. Howard was loud and boisterous (in an entertaining rather than boorish way, people loved his personality) and frequently said things in mock anger as a joke, but it was abundantly clear that he loved his wife and son dearly. For instance, de Camp and one of his interviewees believed that Isaac calling Hester “Heck” was an insult, but the people I interviewed maintained strongly that it was a term of endearment. None of the people I have interviewed recall a single instance of him truly insulting his wife in their presence; all stressed his deep love and respect for her.

These stories fit in neatly with those stubborn facts: REH’s father provided heroic care to his wife in her final years, carting her all across the state for various treatments, hiring at-home nurses, and calling in favors from doctors throughout the area. When his wife and son died he was devastated, couldn’t stay at the house for months, burst into tears regularly for weeks, and for years afterwards agonized over their graves and whether they should be moved to a nicer cemetery, going so far as to drag Norris Chambers on numerous exploratory excursions to graveyards in different parts of the state. What many Howard fans call Dr. Howard’s greed and opportunism in the aftermath of their deaths I call due vigilance from a grieving father who had heard his son rail at cheap thieving editors for years, and who didn’t like playing the fool for anyone. If he was too paranoid and angry in those early months, so be it — he was an old, beaten, devastated man doing his best by his son’s memory in a field he had no experience in. A certain amount of defensiveness and frustration was to be expected, and in my opinion any attempt to call him greedy based on a few dunning letters and court records would show a profound lack of imagination and empathy.

One of the de Camp stories that bothers me most is where Hester Howard laments that her husband’s mother “just won’t die!” as if she wanted her mother-in-law to expire. We’ll never know if she said such a thing out of pity, genuinely wanting the woman to finally be relieved of her pain, or if she said it as an ill-considered joke that was meant to be lighthearted but clanged off the rim, or indeed if she even said it at all. It’s quite hard for me to imagine someone treating others so kindly for so many years, only to turn into a snake once married. I’ve heard my mother and father make such jokes lightheartedly in front of my nonagenarian grandmothers for years, and I wonder if other, more tight-laced people listening in would be quietly appalled, even as my grandmothers laughed up a storm.

Steve once mentioned to me that it is worth considering why there is an almost complete lack of Mother-figures in Howard’s work. Is that big black hole where the hero’s mother should be indicative of some parental neurosis? Perhaps…but examples of stories lacking any mention of the hero’s mother are legion, and — thinking specifically of the pulp jungle — the last thing readers wanted was some old lady taking screen time away from the hero and damsel in distress. Those Brundage covers would start getting pretty scary. Besides, REH never seemed comfortable writing about anyone not focused through his prism of hate and feud. Woman and children frequently got short shrift throughout his work except when they could be leveraged as appealing victims or vengeance-deliverers. Howard’s work is thematically focused more than most authors, often to the exclusion of all else, and hence often lacks much of the peaceful, mundane, familial aspects of life. Mothers are just one example of that. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Rather than being tricked or forced into an unholy love for his mother, REH looked on his mom as a hero based on the facts on the ground: tales about her hard frontier youth, her many sacrifices to help her family, her unflagging support of his hopes and dreams, and the stoic grace she displayed while suffering and dying while the town around them jeered that she was faking it for attention. I can well understand how both mother and son grew bitter and introverted in the face of the condescension that Cross Plains residents had for expatriates from Burkett and Cross Cut (something Marie Baker in particular hammered home to me), just as Brownwood in turn looked down on the people from Cross Plains. Howard knew his mother had always wanted a better, more urbane life, and as old age and sickness dragged her inexorably away from that possibility and towards death, his rage at the unfairness of black fate grew exponentially, eventually eating away at him until all that was left was bleak resignation. None of this demands that Howard be a slave to his mother or her whims, or that she be a Machiavellian terror.

Had REH really been in a love-hate relationship with his mother, wouldn’t true confidants such as Tevis Clyde Smith or Novalyne Price have heard plenty about it in some shape or form? All we have is REH patiently explaining his true situation to Novalyne again and again: how his mother was a damn good woman in his eyes for all the reasons explicated above, how her sickness forced him into massive responsibilities that harried him but which he nevertheless felt obligated to fulfill, and how his Dad was doing the best he could as well. His frustration that Novalyne can’t get her head around his true relationship with his mother, and indeed Mrs. Howard’s true nature, is palpable.

I can reasonably accept that, like her son, Mrs. Howard could be cold or standoffish, especially as she got sicker, and that she wanted to live in a different town and have nice things and mannered friends. I’ll agree that when faced with a young, headstrong, demanding girl pouncing on her son after years of the status quo, she very well might have treated Price with icy distrust and feared for her son’s writing career and happiness, not to mention her own needs. I can grant that like all families they had yelling matches and fights, albeit ones that probably sounded to outsiders a lot worse than they were. But all of this is well within the range of the average family, especially when Hester’s sickness and REH’s odd career are factored in.

But listen to how L. Sprague de Camp routinely took positive stories about the Howards and twisted them into the nightmare portrait he was trying to create. Throughout the book he railed at “the small deceptions that they practiced to satisfy their need to be thought well of…small fictions maintained by the family, which, taken together, gave young Robert a distorted view of reality…an unsettling conceptual chaos…a sense of chaos tantamount to world destruction…isolated and so deprived of the normalizing functions of social interaction…overprotection of his parents…few experiences with the real world…Hester Jane’s sense of inadequacy…her feelings of rejection and dependence…personal unhappiness and conflict…people who lack adequate techniques for coping with their environment…a kind of infantile despair, which resulted in a flight from adult responsibilities…” This only covers a few pages of a biography awash in such judgments.

The problem de Camp had was all of the people that loved and admired Hester. Any testimony about a vibrant, laughing, normal woman needed to be neutralized. Thus we have passages such as the following (de Camp’s sleight-of-hand in bold): “Ambivalent though she must have felt about her father’s new wife, Hester Jane was too dependent to be openly hostile. She got on well with her stepmother and readily took on the role of assistant mother.” Note the shell game at play here: de Camp has just turned the factual reality of getting along well with her stepmother into proof that she was secretly hostile to that same stepmother. The truth is that she “got on well with her stepmother” — that is what de Camp was told by his interviewees. But that wouldn’t give him an easy explanation for Howard’s suicide, so that truth has to be covered in rhetorical manure and the jungle moss of psychological speculation.

Here’s another gem from Dark Valley Destiny: “During her pregnancy, Hessie was all smiles and laughter, forever joking with her neighbors, but she never left her husband’s side. She traveled with Dr. Howard wherever he went. Her fear, and the dependency it generated, must have been enormous and unquestionably carried over into her relationship with her son.

So again, the facts on the ground — given to de Camp by the testimony of his interviewees — was that Hester “was all smiles and laughter, forever joking with her neighbors.” That she traveled with her husband “wherever he went” may be factual, too, but any speculation as to why she did so is just that. Given her “smiles and laughter,” could not the reason be something other than “fear” and “dependency”? Just maybe? Hmmmmm?

De Camp was an expert at taking gossamer personal opinion and spinning it out into a base for portraying REH and his family as a seething cauldron of resentment. Try this one on for size: “Long and frequent dislocations, such as Hester Jane had experienced, do not make for happy wives or relaxed mothers. Thus, it must have been a strained and uncertain if beautiful bride whom Dr. I. M. Howard took to wife.” The “long and frequent dislocations” de Camp is talking about are the occasional travels Hester made between various members of her family, often with the purpose of caring for sick relatives. Elsewhere in the book, de Camp admits about that same family, “As each little half-sister arrived, Hester Jane became her loving companion and was always remembered with warmth and gratitude. They all came to Hester Jane’s funeral, bringing with them their abundant loyalty and honest grief. They were charming people, these Ervins, and their graciousness and courtesy were part of Robert Howard’s heritage, too.” And yet given all of that, he nevertheless feels justified in assuming that Hester Howard going to live with these “loving” relatives, who recalled her with “warmth and gratitude,” must have left Hester feeling “strained and uncertain”! De Camp does this so oily and glibly because without making these audacious leaps of cause-and-effect, boldly integrating them seamlessly into the record, the conclusions he draws about Hester’s malignant hold on her son would turn to dust. Multiply these invented scandals by a few hundred times, and you can begin to see how the old science fiction grandmaster’s Dark Valley Destiny research — and especially his relentlessly jejune, quasi-psychological interpretations of it all — have over time achieved a subliminally canonical presence in the field.

(As an aside, flipping through the various biographies, what’s with the overwhelming preference for referring to REH as “Robert,” or the even more infuriating “young Robert,” like a scolding parent admonishing a pouting child? The man’s name was H-O-W-A-R-D, Bob to his friends, and the respectful thing to do — as a quick reading of most any biography or newspaper article will attest — is to refer to him by his last name as a general matter of course, with less-formal designations being brought in as the need for variety dictates. I can’t help but recall Howard’s plaint to his friends, “Why do youse bastards keep calling me Robert?” spoken after they had apparently been teasing him for a spell by repeatedly and deliberately using his formal first name.)

Most galling to me is the now-ubiquitous idea that REH was a suicide because his parents raised him as a misfit from the Island of Lost Toys, that their awfulness damaged him in his youth and set him on the highway to hell. REH deserves the courtesy of being confronted as an educated, mature, free-willed adult, one who made his own decisions and fought his own demons as a man. And his parents don’t deserve to be saddled with a reputation as suicidally unpleasant ogres because their adult son killed himself. He died at thirty, not thirteen.

My conviction is that REH was an adult, a man. He went as he pleased, did what he wanted, is even on record as cussing out his Dad in front of his friend when he needed the car. He had been insinuating suicide for years without ever actually trying it, arguing with friends that it was a valid way to check out and writing eerie, almost loving poems about it. After ten years of dealing with Bob the Loner, Bob the Gloomy Grump, how many people in his social circle were convinced he was faking his level of despair, the same way people had erroneously assumed his mother was faking the illness that killed her? Today, we’ve been inundated with studies and news items urging us to take all such warning signs deadly serious and call a hotline…but then?

Add to that REH’s craftiness (all too common in determined suicides), tricking his Dad by first putting him at ease and then suddenly doing the deed before his mother had died. Might Howard have similarly reassured his Mother while she was conscious, promising he wouldn’t act rashly, all the while fully set on going through with it once she was so far gone that she “would never recognize him again”? And if he did trick her in this way, could she be faulted for thinking her attempts to dissuade him from suicide had succeeded? And what exactly does this say about him being tied to her apron strings? Go to some suicide websites. Read the stories. Howard’s death isn’t some weirdo thing, it’s all too common in all of its tragic “woulda-coulda-shoulda” particulars. Suicides leave behind dazed loved ones who only in hindsight are able to piece together all the clues, leaving them consumed with guilt at their inability to prevent the act.

I also am increasingly convinced that the stories of his parents shielding REH from Life — the death of his dog Patch, et cetera — have been grossly exaggerated and misconstrued. From a fairly early age REH was depressed, often spoke of killing himself, and argued passionately for the philosophical right to do so. Far from causing his behavior by always keeping their son safe and isolated from reality, could they not have been presented with this inexplicable, frightening logic, and then began trying their level best to dissuade him from his stated goal, to the degree that they even believed he was serious? Happens all the time — good kids and adults, raised well and living in good homes, becoming horribly depressed and then killing themselves without apparent reason, leaving the parents helpless, confused, worried, and ultimately devastated and asking “Why?”

All of this makes far more sense than the theorizing about how his parents weirdly and craftily molded him into a pampered recluse unable to deal with the world. Depression of all kinds and causes can pave the way to suicide when it becomes so great and ubiquitous that the fear of dying becomes less of a horror than the pain of living in mental agony. Far from being the catalyst for opening the door and pushing him towards it, if anything the love and support from his family seems to have been one of the only things that kept him from pulling the trigger much earlier, that helped to hold the demons at bay. It was when that love and support threatened to crumble and vanish, with nothing — no “great love or great cause” — to take its place, that he decided “the game wasn’t worth the candle.” No hard proof one way or the other (there rarely is with suicides) but when you read the stories of other people doing the same thing, it all fits Howard like a glove. His suicide strikes me as typical, amazingly so, almost pedestrian. Artistic vocations attract depressed people unsatisfied with the Real World, and such people disproportionately commit suicide. At some point, it becomes silly to blame people’s parents for the actions of their adult lives.

Look over Wikipedia’s List of Famous Suicides. That’s a lot of wicked mothers working overtime! My conviction is that ultimately people are responsible for their own destructive impulses, whether they are thirty-somethings like Howard, Michael Hutchence, or Peter Ham from Badfinger, or sixty-somethings like Hemingway or George Sanders or Hunter Thompson. Depression is by far the deadliest killer on that list, not mothers. If Mrs. Howard had been hitting REH with hangers his whole childhood, that might be a different story. But coddling Howard into the grave? By using such criminally abusive tactics as making him wear clean white shirts to school, forbidding him from playing football, exposing him to things like poetry, and not passing along phone messages? Oh the horror!

I’ve said before that conscientious biographers can’t rely solely on first- or secondhand stories and papers dug up and arranged like so many butterflies coated in formaldehyde and pinned into scrapbooks. The corpses might be colorful and even anatomically correct, but so much of the life and beauty of the creature is lost, and can only be gained by seeing one alive and in flight. Where a biography is concerned, especially when the person in question has left scant evidence of the fullness of their personality, you have to also look at the Big Picture and use copious amounts of imagination and common sense. A more sympathetic and understanding analysis of the Howard family shows three people who cared deeply about one another and stayed together until the end despite being wracked by tragedies that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. There is a place for the negative stories, yes — but they deserve to be accompanied by the other side of the coin, the laudable familial bonds that held the Howards together throughout their lives. These things should be relayed not in the minimalist, grudging, giving-the-devil-her-due fashion de Camp and his ideological soulmates employ, but with a full-throated and generous magnanimity.

Hester Howard was a woman of uncommon strength and dedication to family, one remembered by many as a laughing and loving woman, a good friend and genial host, courageous in the face of illness and death, a lover of poetry and fine things, a lady in the truest and most noble sense of the word. Some families even named their daughters after her, such was the depth of the admiration of her friends. She is not responsible for the adult despondency and suicide of her son — it’s clear that Robert E. Howard adored his mother, and her fatal illness filled him not with resentment but with an unutterable sadness about the horrors of old age inflicted by a heartless, cruel world. She deserves to be remembered far more charitably than she has been. Until such time as she is, this little blog post and my occasional prayers to her memory will have to do.