Howard on the Menu at the Shagadelicatessen

Decades later it remains a fiendishly effective piece of stage-setting:

For ten thousand years did the Bright Empire of Melnibonè flourish — ruling the world. Ten thousand years before history was recorded — or ten thousand years after history had ceased to be chronicled. For that span of time, reckon it how you will, the Bright Empire had thrived. Be hopeful, if you like, and think of the dreadful past the Earth has known, or brood upon the future. But if you would believe the unholy truth –then Time is an agony of Now, and so it will always be.
Ravaged, at last, by the formless terror called Time, Melnibonè fell and newer nations succeeded her: Ilmiora, Sheegoth, Maidakh, S’aaleem. Then memory began: Ur, India, China, Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Greece, and Rome –all these came after Melnibonè. But none lasted ten thousand years.
And none dealt in the terrible mysteries, the secret sorceries of old Melnibonè. None used such power or knew how. Only Melnibonè ruled the Earth for one hundred centuries — and then she, shaken by the casting of frightful runes, attacked by powers greater than men, powers who decided that Melnibonè’s span of ruling had been overlong — then she crumbled and her sons were scattered. They became wanderers across an Earth which hated and feared them, siring few offspring, slowly dying, slowly forgetting the secrets of their mighty ancestors. Such a one was the cynical, laughing Elric, a man of bitter brooding and gusty humour, proud prince of ruins, lord of a lost and humbled people; last son of Melnibonè’s sundered line of kings.
Elric, the moody-eyed wanderer — a lonely man who fought a world, living by his wits and his runesword Stormbringer. Elric, last lord of Melnibonè, last worshipper of its grotesque and beautiful gods — reckless reaver and cynical slayer — torn by great griefs and with knowledge locked in his skull which would turn lesser men to babbling idiots. Elric, moulder of madnesses, dabbler in wild delights. . .

Very cool indeed. The temporal indeterminacy (borrowed by Robert Jordan?) makes for extra hauntingness, while in the insistence that “Time is an agony of Now” — such a Sixties sentiment — the reader can almost feel the tremors of the coming youthquake. And the “powers greater than men” who step in so banefully, do they echo the Olympians’ animus against Atlantis?

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Habemus librum!

It’s The Arabian Nights meets REH’s Oriental Tales, set in a version of 12th century Cairo that’s still in the shadows of ancient Egypt. It’s got sorcery, baby!

That’s Scott Oden, announcing the completion of his third novel The Lion of Cairo: 126,000 words, none of them wussified. Although his career is still in what a Flashmaniac might call “the earlies,” Scott has already joined Karl Edward Wagner and Charles R. Saunders on the short list of Howardists’ Favorite Authors Other Than REH Himself, and at his blog he reports “IMO, it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, as full of intrigue as it is full of ass-whuppery.”

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Three Wise Men Bearing Gifts; No Myrrh, Just Frank Sense

With due deference to Scott Smith, David C. Smith is far and away the best Smith to happen to genre fiction since Clark Ashton. His heroic fantasy of the late Seventies and early Eighties was distinguished by a bleak clarity of vision about human beings and the openings our nature creates for pre-human or trans-human Evil. The resulting stories, novellas, and novels were operatic without Bayreuthian kitsch, informed by the Athenian tragedians, the Jacobean revengers, and Smith’s passion for the eternal severities of the most case-hardened pulp fiction.

With his friend sometime sword-and-sorcery writer Joe Bonadonna and Jake Jaquet, the former editor of Dragon magazine, David has symposed up a storm about the state of the subgenre we all spend so much time worrying about, and the resulting conversation, with the trio seated at a table stacked with pulps and paperbacks, is available in six parts at YouTube:

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The (Not So) Annihilated Shadow

Guest blogger Gary Romeo writes in to respond to some of the criticisms TC blogger [redacted] leveled at both Gary and L. Sprague de Camp in Mark’s previous post. Here’s Gary:

“By the 1920s, Leon Trotsky had been labeled by Stalin as an enemy of the Soviet State. He had all memory of Leon eliminated after Trotsky’s exile, turning Leon into what has subsequently been called ‘the annihilated shadow’.”

The Secret Life of Leon Trotsky — Robert Elias

“Trotsky ended up being almost like Stalin’s imaginary friend. You know, that imaginary friend some of us had as kids, the one you could blame stuff on.”

The Sheila Variations — Sheila O’Malley

The editors at Wandering Star had sought to eliminate de Camp. In their various book introductions the editors would refer to “several critics,” “schools of thought,” and “some observers.” De Camp’s name was being systemically eliminated from any Robert E. Howard discussion. Even when appropriating de Camp’s idea that Howard’s youthful stay in that Texas area known as Dark Valley became the source for Cimmeria, they refused to mention his name. Patrice Louinet later confessed: “there is absolutely no denying de Camp made the Cimmeria/Dark Valley connection before me. Not acknowledging this fact — the anteriority of the link, not the so-called borrowing — was an editorial decision on my part. De Camp […] was not gonna be in this book, period.”

But de Camp did not disappear so easily. [redacted] has resurrected him to be the person of blame for every criticism of Robert E. Howard.

The latest critic to have been tainted by the Sprague Virus, according to Mark, is Arnold Fenner. I feel compelled to do another “Nuh Uh!” to Mark’s “Waaah. Waaah.”

First off, Mark tells us the book is a mere eight stories for $100. The cost for the two Wandering Star Conan volumes was over $400, and they don’t comprise a complete set either. Mark was apparently unaware that there is a mass market hardcover available from Amazon for a mere $16.50.

Like Mark, I am bewildered by the tack that Fenner chose to take. It is obvious that Howard fans today want all praise and glory, and have no stomach for insights that are not wholly complimentary. Why Fenner wrote what he did will have to explained by Fenner, but they are not the same observations made by de Camp. Mark implies that Fenner got his information from reading The Miscast Barbarian. Lets look at it.

One issue Fenner seems to have a beef with is Howard fans, like Sprague de Camp, who try to emphasize Howard’s toughness. De Camp says in The Miscast Barbarian that “by the time Robert entered the Cross Plains High School, Howard was a large, powerful youth. When fully grown, he was 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighed around 200 pounds, most of it muscle.” Fenner writes “photographs of Robert show him as an unscarred, well-fed, and not terribly muscular young man.” If Fenner read The Miscast Barbarian he certainly disagrees with de Camp.

Fenner brings up Howard’s mention of enemies. This most likely comes from Fenner remembering the scene where Novalyne Price spots Robert’s gun while they are driving in his car as much as anything de Camp wrote.

Mark is on firmer ground when quoting Fenner about the suicide and Howard’s attachment to his mother. But there are other sources than de Camp for all this. There is Novalyne’s book and movie, as mentioned before. And de Camp was not the only one writing of Howard’s attachment to his mother and focusing on the suicide in the early 60s and 70s. Glenn Lord wrote in an introduction to the Bear Creek stories that “An excessive devotion to his mother proved to be his Achilles’ heel.” And every issue of The Howard Collector ended with the Howard death verse, “All fled, all done…”

By the end of Mark’s critique even he realizes Fenner is disagreeing with de Camp on major issues. “Howard’s use of poetical style is well documented by nearly everyone who’s written critically of the man in the past two decades (even de Camp noted it…),” says Mark in response to another Fenner criticism.

The same is true for most critics of Robert Howard. They disagree with de Camp. Let’s look at three commonly quoted critics. Sam Lundwall, Franz Rottensteiner, and Stephen King.

Lundwall’s book Science Fiction: What it’s All About quotes de Camp’s defense of Sword-and-Sorcery and his stress on the genre’s entertainment value. Lundwall states:

After having delivered this unabashed praise to escapism, de Camp goes on to note the renewed interest in Heroic Fantasy and in this respect he is undoubtedly right. Old classics are reissued by the score together with new stories of blood, thunder and well-sharpened swords. The spectrum goes from the gentle novels of James Branch Cabell to the sadistic tales of Robert E. Howard… however, looking at the state of the world — the real world — today. I can well believe there are some deeper reasons too. There was a similar interest in heroes and mighty deeds in Hitler’s Germany.

Lundwall is clearly stating that his opinion is different, by a large degree, than de Camp’s. De Camp’s view is that it is all good escapism. Lundwall is making an argument that the violent nature is not just escapism. Lundwall is saying REH is dangerous fascist-inducing stuff. So saying that this critic is influenced by de Camp is clearly wrong.

Later, Lundwall again quotes de Camp to disagree. Lundwall quotes de Camp, “[S&S provides] the reader with a heroic model with whom he for a moment can identify himself…” Lundwall’s rebuttal, “As far as entertainment goes, I can’t see anything wrong with this. Though I still dislike the over-emphasis on violence.”

So even though Lundwall later mentions the suicide, he is not doing it as a mindless drone hypnotized by de Campian propaganda. He is disagreeing with de Camp on fundamental points.

Franz Rottensteiner is another case. His The Fantasy Book quotes another de Camp defense of Sword-and-Sorcery. Rottensteiner follows the de Camp quote with a dismissive, “Apologists of this kind of entertainment trace its development back through Eric Rucker Eddison and Lord Dunsany to William Morris…. But in fact it is not even the debilitated offspring of these sagas, but rather a misbegotten child of our own technological civilization, offering a quick escape from an oppressive world.” Rottensteiner, like Lundwall, is disagreeing with de Camp to a large degree. De Camp never talked about fascist underpinnings or escaping from an “oppressive world,” just a mundane one. These guys have their own axes to grind, that are clearly different from de Camp’s views.

Stephen King is no de Campian-influenced fan of the genre either. King in Danse Macabre says “This kind of fiction, commonly called ‘sword & sorcery’ by its fans, is not fantasy at its lowest, but it still has a tacky feel….” He then goes on, “The only writer who really got away with this sort of stuff was Robert E. Howard….” Then, “Howard overcame the limitations of his puerile material by the force and fury of his writing…” Then comes the truncated Del Rey quote: “Stories such as “The People of the Black Circle” glow with the fierce and eldritch light of his frenzied intensity. At his best, Howard was the Thomas Wolfe of fantasy, and most of his Conan tales seem to almost fall over themselves in their need to get out.” But King follows that with, “Yet his other work was either unremarkable or just abysmal….”

By pointing out that de Camp is not always to blame for a critic’s negative appraisal of Howard (among other things) I have been labeled by the de Camp bashers as a decampista. It is as fine a label as any, but please don’t forget that I (and Steve Allsup) are REH fans first and foremost. I am not a fanatical de Camp fan. I like him well enough and enjoy his work but, hell, remember I forgot his birthday!

Mark makes a final plea that publishers should only hire admiring critics like Rusty Burke, himself, or others cut from the same cloth to write introductions to Robert E. Howard material. In other words, a stifling of thought, sameness, is preferred over anything that might veer from the current orthodoxy. Mark ends by basically issuing a boycott of the product. Paradox holds the Conan/Robert E. Howard franchise these days and would most likely agree on a boycott of these public-domain publications. But they should be wary of a fandom that calls for sameness and rigidity in all things related to Robert E. Howard.

Pan Versus Peter Pan; Or, Can’t We Have Some Adult Fantasy to Go with the Adulterated Fantasy?

Beginning in December of 2003 and continuing through 2004’s Oscar season, The Return of the King shook the earth like a mûmakil charge. Peter Jackson’s LOTR films served up something for almost everyone not named Grin: halflings, Howard Shore, monsters, Orlando Bloom for the maenads-in-training-bras, the Shakespearean dynastic/familial crises of the House of Eorl or Denethor and his sons, a cinematic siege with a fuse as slow-burning as that of Zulu, clashes between combatants in their thousands and tens of thousands that could hold their armored heads up in the company of Chimes at Midnight, Kagemusha, and Ran (the edged weapons became even edgier on the Extended Edition DVDs), and the realization that Frodo not only fails in, but is maimed by, his mission. So why have so many fantasy films since then settled for being merely a kindergarten of unearthly delights? The most “mature” spectacle to result from the Rings phenomenon has been the paroxysm of litigation pitting Jackson against New Line Cinema and the Tolkien estate against New Line’s corporate successors.

I have no quarrel with the Harry Potter films, at least not after the helm was relinquished by a Columbus who discovered only mediocrity. In fact Alfonso Cuaròn’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban ranks with The Two Towers and Pan’s Labyrinth as the finest film fantasy of this decade — interesting that it took a Mexican director to relocate Hogwarts from an amusement park in Crassville to Gothic highlands atmospherically patrolled by the spirits of George MacDonald and Isak Dinesen as well as the Dementors.

As soon as Inklings were identified as golden egg-layers Andrew Adamson’s 2 Narnia adaptations, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008) became inevitable (the more recent film has a severe case of Pelennor Fields envy, and its conquering Telmarines seem to have been airlifted straight from slaughtering the charges of eagle knights during la noche triste in Tenochtitlan).

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JJM on D&D

This morning Between the Covers host John J. Miller brings the Dungeons & Dragons True Word to the heathen masses of the Wall Street Journal, and includes several news tidbits that proved new to me. Check it out.

Contra “Hyboria”; Or, Convenience Isn’t Everything

Readers who have shipped with Ahab on his voyage-of-the-damned pursuit of the great white whale might remember that Herman Melville has this to say of master harpooner Queequeg’s natal site: “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” I’m here today to inveigh against a false place that has elbowed its way onto maps and into gaming paraphernalia and goes unchallenged in a dismaying number of articles, reviews, and blog or forum posts: “Hyboria.”

Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age was a Cynara to whom Roy Thomas, L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Karl Edward Wagner and Robert Jordan all sought to be faithful in their fashion. Not one of them ever resorted to the ersatz term “Hyboria,” but recently this un-Howardian usage has been spreading like the invasive kudzu in Wagner’s Knoxville horror story “Where the Summer Ends.” Google “Hyboria” and it comes a-choogling at us with “Kings of Hyboria,” “Gods of Hyboria,” “Welcome to Hyboria,” “Living Hyboria,” “Images of Hyboria,” “Cities of Hyboria,” “The Women of Hyboria,” exhortations to “strap on your sword, it’s time to explore Hyboria,” and the especially irksome “Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria.” I don’t believe that either Kurt Busiek or Tim Truman has slipped and referred to “Hyboria” in one of their scripts for a Conan comic, but reams of Dark Horse promotional copy has demonstrated no such taste and discernment. The term is creeping into submissions to The Dark Man, and Richard Tierney, as well-versed in Howard as he is well-equipped to write weird verse, dignified it with title-status in his “The Doom of Hyboria” cycle for TC. On May 16 of this year the Entertainment Weekly website offered a slideshow of “18 Awesome Imaginary Worlds” and added Austrian-accented insult to injury by not only listing “Hyboria” but illustrating said “world” with a still of Arnold the Isshurian looking particularly learning-disabled.

Why is this happening? I haven’t seen anyone champion the rightness or needfulness of “Hyboria” yet; maybe this post will provoke some such defense. My suspicion is that the spurious term is flourishing out of a vague sense that the Hyborian Age, Howard’s formulation, doesn’t work due to being by definition a when rather than a where, a time rather than a place. So a perceived necessity is the mother of this misbegotten invention: we have to call Conan’s world, the kingdoms that dominate human history from the fall of Acheron to the equally uncushioned fall of imperial Aquilonia, something, don’t we? “Hyboria” is. . .convenient, almost like an abbreviation or acronym in that respect, and why shouldn’t authorial intentions join so much else as burnt offerings on the altar of our modern Moloch Convenience? Thus the Entertainment Weekly feature lumps ‘Hyboria” (described as “vaguely Eurasian,” like some Macao chanteuse seducing sailors in a pulp story) in with Narnia, Oz, Terabithia, and, amusingly, Liberty City from Grand Theft Auto IV.

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Superman on a Psychotic Bender No More

It’s easy to be a morning person when one happens upon pleasant surprises like the following in the New York Times:

In May 1934, two years before he killed himself in the driveway of his home in Cross Plains, Tex., Robert E. Howard published one of the finest adventures of his most famous character: the warrior, thief, swashbuckler and king called Conan the Cimmerian.

In the story, “Queen of the Black Coast,” Conan lounges in moonlit reverie on the deck of a galley beside the pirate queen Bêlit and reveals his elemental, live-for-the-moment spirit.

“Let me live deep while I live,” he says. “Let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

Conan is no hero. The best Conan stories end not in triumph but in an ambiguous, almost melancholy recognition that righteousness is scarce, perhaps even irrelevant. Conan’s world is not one of grand struggles between good and evil. Rather it is a world of avarice, of treachery, of raw power, slavery, embraced passions and ancient secrets best kept from man.

That’s from “At Play in a World of Savagery, but not This One,” by Seth Schiesel. Mr. Schiesel’s piece is ostensibly a review of Funcom’s Age of Conan, and yet he chooses to lead with four accurate and insightful paragraphs about Robert E. Howard and Howard’s Conan (“Conan the Barbarian,” may his fur diaper chafe him, is nowhere to be found). Manna from heaven (Mitra or perhaps Ishtar, certainly not Crom) made all the tastier because one of the most notorious of all hatchet jobs on the reason we blog here, “Superman on a Psychotic Bender” by H. R. Hays, appeared in the New York Times back in 1946. We’ll accept Schiesel’s review as a first step toward atonement.

Regrettably, he sees fit to include a facile comparison between Tolkien and Howard: “While Conan hacked and slashed his way through a decaying, darkening world, Bilbo, Aragorn, Frodo and Gandalf became paragons of virtue…” Seems to me the Middle-earth of the late Third Age, caught between Isengard and Barad-dûr, is decaying and darkening up a storm. Mr. Schiesel might also be gobsmacked by what the late First Age was like, and it’s now easier than ever before to learn, by reading The Children of Hà¹rin.

Still, at the moment I’m a delighted Howardist, not a touchy Tolkienist, and the review is further sweetened by several quotes from game designer Gaute Godager, who likens Conan to the archangel Gabriel marching into Sodom and Gomorrah (a Biblical precedent that just so happens to have also been very much on Sergio Leone’s mind in A Fistful of Dollars). Godager also says “Howard put Genghis Khan and the Mongolians in with the Romans and the Greeks, some Celts, and the sense of Africa pouring in a lot of this sense of darkness and put it on the stove, put the lid on and let it brew and simmer.” My only quibble with that would be that much of the darkness is Stygian, Acheronian, “Eastern” (the Master of Yimsha), or pre-human rather than “African.”

What really matters, though, is a signature passage from “Queen of the Black Coast” turning up in what still has a claim, albeit a somewhat shaky one, to being the newspaper of record. Very cool.

Abomean Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves — And So Is Charles R. Saunders

A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t. Charles Saunders, whose “Fists of Cross Plains” (which can be read at Damon Sasser’s REH: Two-Gun Raconteur website) is a blow-by-blow of a fanciful Robert E. Howard Heavyweight Championship staged, and ultimately upstaged by audience participation, in the Texan’s hometown, has earned that Dempseyism. The creator of Imaro of Nyumbani and Dossouye, she who was once an ahosi in the army of the Leopard King of Abomey, has had plenty of practice in shrugging off the slings, arrows, and belaying pins of outrageous publishing misfortune. Most recently, just as he promised in his TC interview last year, he has bounced back to his feet after being floored by the disappointment of Night Shade Books’ decision to give up on a relaunched Imaro series after just two installments, a Short Count to rival the infamous Long Count of the Dempsey/Tunney rematch. Saunders is now working with the most simpatico publisher he’s ever had, himself, and the first offering of that partnership is Dossouye, a “Sword-and-Soul epic” that can and should be ordered from

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World Fantasy Award Voting About To End


Those of you who attended or supported the REH-themed 2006 Austin Convention are eligible to vote this year, for the last time, and there’s only a few weeks left in which to do it. As expressed in a previous blog post, you can nominate up to five people in each category, and one caveat is that while you don’t have to nominate for every category, you at least have to do so for more than one. Another is that you can only nominate living persons (so no votes for REH himself, alas.)

Leo Grin for The Cimmerian will be running in the Special Award — Non Professional category if you are so inclined, and other possibilities I can think of include:

Life Achievement — Glenn Lord for fifty years of Robert E. Howard research, scholarship, and editing.
Artist — Jim and Ruth Keegan for their work illustrating 2007’s Best of Robert E. Howard volumes from Del Rey.
Special Award Professional — Rusty Burke, for editing Del Rey’s 2007 Best of Robert E. Howard volumes.

So if you are eligible, take a few minutes to email Rodger Turner your ballot, and do your part to ensure that REH is well-represented at the fantasy field’s premier awards show. Voting deadline is June 8.