Steve Tompkins, R.I.P.

This will be inadequate. I’m sorry, but even the best I could do would be inadequate. And I don’t expect this will be the best I can do, but it is the best I can do and still be reasonably timely.

I was signing in at the 2000 PulpCon when a Californian REHupan, whose name I won’t disclose, informed me that “that guy whose zines no one can read” was also attending.

“Larry’s here?” I said. Larry Richter had been there the previous year, and I didn’t expect him to return so soon, due to his age and physical difficulties. Also, Larry’s writing style, though evidence of a brilliant and broadly experienced mind, was rather eclectic, and often forced me to mentally reparse his prose to get his meaning.

“No, no,” was the response. “I mean Steve Tompkins.”

Well, this also was good news. Steve had joined the Howard apa in August of 1995, but I had never met him in person. And I certainly found his writing readable — in fact, his was one of the zines I turned to first, when a mailing arrived. It was not the first time this prophet was without honor in his own land — another REHupan had called his zines “so seemingly clever as to be unintelligible”. To which Steve, with characteristic élan, thanked Morgan Holmes, I, and several others for pretending to find them intelligible, and then proceeded to give this guy a verbal smack down upside the head the likes of which I’ve never seen.

Steve’s writing style was also unique, and evidence of a brilliant and broadly experienced mind and an excruciatingly well-read one. Erudite wasn’t the half of it, he also seemed to be able to recall everything he had ever read — like he had a major fantasy library in his head. Looking back over the old mailings, I see my comment to his first zine, which included dozens of pages, was simply “Wild writing style.”

But it didn’t take long before we were exchanging snail mail letters (this being before everyone had e-mail), recommendations, and books (when he complained that the New York bookstores were charging $15-20 for Glen Cook’s Dread Empire series, I spent a week or so picking them up dirt cheap and sent them off, for which Steve was deeply appreciative).

Steve turned me on to Adam Corby (among others), and I in turn alerted him to the sequel (I would have scored him a copy had not Morgan Holmes bought it first). Together we pondered whether a third in the series would have occurred and why it might not have.

I would like to report that at PulpCon we spent long evenings regaling each other, but the sad fact is we exchanged pleasantries, went out to a group dinner together or two, but I came away thinking he was nice, but not nearly as verbose in person as he was in print. He certainly was genial enough, and I was glad to meet him, but our relationship seemed to be destined to be e-mail, zining, and blog posting.

We certainly exchanged many e-mails. Like me, he was very fond of cats, and we commiserated over feline losses. I’ll also never forget his e-mail reporting his experiences on 9-11, when he joined the panic-stricken mob fleeing the toxic dust cloud that followed the collapse of the Twin Towers. He said that his weight served him in good stead as lesser mortals were hockey-checked into plate windows and trampled underfoot. Of course, there were more downsides than upsides to carrying that weight.

I’m glad that his work made it into hard covers, with The Barbaric Triumph, The Black Stranger, Kull: Exile of Atlantis and eventually, I suppose Grim Lands. He came a long way from his start as a Marvel letter-hack. (Which I say without malice, as I graced some of those same pages myself) He could have gone much further. He will be missed. It is a great loss to all who knew him, and to the field he loved as well.

Heroes Fighting Critters


The late Dave Arneson (left) at a convention with former REHupan (and currently popular writer) Mike Stackpole.

The death of Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Dave Arneson last week brings to a close another chapter in the early history of role-playing games. What perhaps isn’t well known is the degree to which Arneson imbued D&D with a distinctly Howardian scarlet glow, an episodic sense of adventure that immediately reminds one of those original Weird Tales-era Conan stories. Here is Indy Cavalier, writing about Arneson in The Cimmerian V4n5 for October 2008:

Dave Arneson — D&D’s other creator, who has habitually avoided the spotlight shining on Gygax — also credits Howard’s Conan as an influence. Arneson was a tabletop miniatures wargamer who expanded on Gygax’s Chainmail miniatures rules, giving personalities and statistics to the small lead soldiers who delved into a keep to steal supplies. Arneson says his part in creating a breakthrough in the wargaming/fantasy aspects of role-playing (and the mapped-out dungeon) happened thusly: “I had spent the previous day watching about five monster movies on Creature Feature weekend, reading a Conan book (I cannot recall which one but I always thought they were much the same), and stuffing myself with popcorn, doodling on a piece of graph paper.” At Gen Con 1995, I asked Mr. Arneson directly about Howard’s influence on the creation of Dungeons & Dragons. He said he had read the first six books in the Conan series and felt they were all pretty much the same. But he was attracted to the “looting, pillaging and killing” aspect of the Conan character, and “the hero fighting critters.”

“The hero fighting critters.” That’s the kind of playfulness that lies at the heart of the success of D&D, and of RPGs in general, over the last forty years. Sometimes I feel that modern fantasy fiction has lost much of that, concerned as it is with portraying realistic civilizations awash in political intrigue and bitter anti-heroes at the expense of both heroes and critters. In a way, fantasy is currently in its dystopian phase, where every sub-created world reeks of Blade Runner-esque decay and dissolution. I think the time is ripe for a recalibration towards a less bleak and more traditionally robust civilizational worldview.

Another farewell


Right on the heels of losing Steve, I’ve received word from Cross Plains that Joan McCowen died peacefully in hospice this morning after a long battle with cancer. For my tribute to her and her impact on Howard studies, go here. For a tribute to her late husband, go here.

I intend to write about Steve at length here at some point, but giving his life and influence in our field its proper measure is going to take far more than a boilerplate expression of grief or even an HPL-style memoriam. His prolificacy, his erudition, his humor, the way his diction and class and elevated style rubbed off on not only his fellow scholars but on Howard and the field as a whole — all of this and much more makes Steve’s death the worst loss in Howard fandom in my memory. I think back on all of the things he had his hands in: all of the inspiration he gave me, the education, the raw hard work whenever called upon, the hard knocks when deserved. It’s a staggering amount of influence and beneficence for one guy to have contributed, and it’s going to take awhile for us to understand how large is the gulf left behind by his absence. This is probably far more understandable to those of us who heavily relied on him than to those who merely saw his moniker on the occasional mega-essay. Speaking personally, we often clashed both politically and in terms of living life (as sad as his death is, I can’t say that it is entirely unexpected), but always in a friendly way, very much like HPL vs. REH in the way our disagreements tended to strengthen our friendship and mutually broaden each other’s minds rather than break us apart. Our friendship was based like a rock on a shared, achingly poetic love of Howard, Tolkien and their most talented predecessors and followers, going all the way back to Homer and all the way forward to guys like Charles Saunders. Whenever asked privately I would state that, along with Don Herron, Steve Tompkins was my very best friend in fandom, the guy who I felt most simpatico with as far as our intellectual assessments of the genre and of literature in general went. So much that I felt about fantasy and myth, Tolkien and Howard, things that everyone else seemed to be blind or uncaring to, Steve got 100%. It was truly wonderful to have him in my life as a sounding board for ideas, as a mentor (he was ten years older and far better read than I, and did much over the last decade to expand my literary horizons), and as a partner-in-crime on everything from REHupa to The Cimmerian to the blog to our private goals, hopes, and dreams.

There’s so much more to say about him, but it’s going to take me some time to properly gather my thoughts and get them organized. Until then, I can only mourn the loss of one of the all-time great Howardians. For once the tired cliché feels exactly right: our field will never see his like again, and his absence has left us much poorer.

“I’ll Kill the Mama-Mfuka”: The Trail of Bohu in 2009

He saw Naama, its dark battlements thrusting against the sky of Land’s End. He saw the Erriten bathing in the emerald of mchawi. He saw the cities of the East Coast crumbling in blood-smeared ruin. He saw a cloud of darkness crawling inexorably northward…thousands upon thousands of armed men, and others who were not human at all, a cloud thicker than a thousand swarms of locusts and a thousand times more destructive. He saw the turrets of Gondur torn apart, stone by stone, and the stelae flung down to shatter in the streets. He saw his people dragged screaming to altars to be sacrificed to the Demon Gods. He saw the Erriten towering gigantic and triumphant, dominating all of Nyumbani. He saw the seed the Mashataan intended to sow to replace the children of the Cloud Striders…

Charles R. Saunders never left Imaro, nor did Imaro leave him; instead, the possibility of further publication left both of them for two decades after The Trail of Bohu (1985). The last of the three Saunders heroic fantasies from DAW Books in the Eighties, Bohu is its creator’s favorite because, as he informs us in an Author’s Note at the end of the revised-and-self-published 2009 edition, “it was the first Imaro novel that I wrote from scratch…Completing a novel that did not include previously published material was a major milestone in my development as a writer.” Those of us who pounced upon the 1985 version (insofar as its non-sea-to-shining-sea distribution allowed) have also always cherished Bohu for boasting the biggest budget, the most ambitious special effects, and the most on-location filming. Nyumbani grows by leaps and bounds, and the effect is as exhilarating as the opening of “Black Colossus,” wherein Shevatas orients himself in the ruins of Kuthchemes with a tour d’horizon encompassing fabled realms to the southwest, the east, and the north, all of which he knows “as a man knows the streets of his town,” or the scene near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring during which Frodo, his perspective newly panoptic thanks to the Seat of Seeing, in effect watches as the slavering jaws of the world war launched by Sauron close around Middle-earth.

We carry within the wonders we seek without us, Sir Thomas Browne wrote, There is all Africa and her prodigies in us: The Trail of Bohu in particular carries within it a prodigious number of African prodigies, both civilized (the glory that was Kush and the grandeur that was Great Zimbabwe) and barbaric — the trail in question leads past the most notorious killing fields in the history of southern Africa. The novel begins with inclement weather, with weather, in fact, that does not know the meaning of the word clemency. A storm is brewing at the southern end of Nyumbani, and the phrase “end of Nyumbani” applies in more ways than one. As we witness the enormities occurring in the High Chamber of the Erriten of Naama, which herald enormities greater still, the theme of both “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow Kingdom” swells again, the theme of man as an eviction-inviting squatter in a condemned edifice. In the words of Abadu, a character in David C. Smith’s novel Oron, “Humankind holds its life and its lands but precariously — and perhaps not at all.”

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Heating Up Best Served Cold


Last Argument of Kings (2008) turned out to be the best Sword-and-Sorcery novel I’ve read since David Gemmell’s The Swords of Night and Day back in 2004, the culmination of Joe Abercrombie’s tough love redemption of the oh-so-discredited concept of the fantasy trilogy. An interview displaying the relaxed humor that’s only found in a creator deeply serious about his creations is now up at YouTube; don’t be alarmed by the fact that it’s in five parts, as each is of little more than blink-and-you’ll-miss-it duration.

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Wheel of Pain, Tree of Woe, Throne of Tinfoil, Or, The Daze of Highly Insulting Adventure


Here at TC Central a schism wider than the Hyrkanian steppes has long separated me from site-founder Leo Grin and Silver-Keywielder Brian Murphy. Is John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian Li’ Abner versus the Moonies, as Karl Edward Wagner discerned so many years ago, or the most stirring sword-and-sorcery epic ever filmed? Well now [redacted], who posts as “Taranaich” at the REH Forum, has graciously given us permission to run El Ingenioso Bàrbaro Rey Konahn de Simaria, an attempt at reconciling the Howard and Milius Conans that far surpasses the L. Sprague and Catherine Crook de Camp CtB novelization. Mr. [redacted] is clearly the greatest Scotsman since Sean Connery, and Gordon Brown should knight him forthwith:

The film starts in the northern mountains of Brythunia. There, a tiny backwards village lies, far away from the rest of the world. The Simarians are a comfy folk living on the northern border, originally founded by a small community of luddites shunning the civilized wonders of Brythunia for a more “honest” rural life. Using distorted and piecemeal information gathered from drunk adventurers and senile folklorists, they model themselves after the Cimmerians, though their society leaves a lot to be desired in terms of accuracy. They worship Krumm, a mashup of Cimmerian and Nordic mythology whitewashed into a benevolent deity to suit their drippy ideals. Not actually knowing how to make proper swords, they use simple casting techniques to create attractive but impractical replicas: since they rarely meet other people, they never actually test their weapons in combat. This is the tribe of Konahn. Young Konahn has a happy childhood with his nice dad and hot mother, with no bandits or dangerous beasts to contend with, and no feudal lords to oppress them.

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Green Hell, Golden Civilization?


Were someone to press a Kampfpistole against my head and demand to know which de Camp and Carter Conan novel I deemed the least feloniously FUBAR, I’d have to go with Conan of the Isles, mostly because of two paragraphs on the second-to-last page:

Even farther west, at the very rim of the world, the old thief had confided, lay a vast new continent, Mayapan, the Atlanteans and their Antillian descendants had called it. They raided its coasts for gold, emeralds, and virgin copper, for red-skinned slaves and curious birds with gorgeous plumage; for tiger-like cats whose pelts were marked with black rosettes on tawny gold. Here, too, were barbarian states founded by renegades from Atlantis and Antillia, where the cults of the Great Serpent and of the Saber-toothed Tiger carried on their ferocious rivalry in a welter of human sacrifice and abominable worship.

A new world, he thought; a world of trackless jungles and spacious plains, of towering mountains and hidden lakes, where immense rivers writhed like serpents of molten silver through depths of emerald jungle, where unknown peoples worshiped strange and fearsome gods…

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Derleth Be Not Proud, Part Two: Cry ‘Havoc!’ and Let Slip the Hounds of Tindalos

Part One: Hypersensitive, Not Hyperborean

Part Three: Autochthonic Masses Howling and Wet-Mouthed

If you decide to write a Conan pastiche, chances are you are going to wind up having the mighty Cimmerian swear “By Crom!” a few more times than Howard did per story. You will probably increase the quotient of “skull-cleaving” blows, etc. Since the smaller details of the warp and woof of Howard’s style work so well hypnotizing you as you read, you cannot quite identify or explain them, and thus you cannot quite take aim at them to imitate them in your pastiche. To compensate, you lean more heavily on the most obvious stylistic trademarks and hope the reader will think it sounds like the real thing. This is of course the reason, also, for the way many fan Mythos pastiches turn out. As immature writers, their authors cannot account for what it is in Lovecraft’s stories that grabs them so. So they go overboard, with the most blatantly obvious feature, the Mythos names and monsters. The pitiful result only makes it all the more obvious that this was never really the secret at all.
— Robert M. Price, “Xothic Romance” (introduction to The Xothic Legend: The Complete Mythos Fiction of Lin Carter)

Think back to the fall of 1944, weeks before the Third Reich’s last great offensive got rolling in the Ardennes. That’s when Fritz Leiber, writing in the pages of The Acolyte, called for “a detailed study of the growth of [Lovecraft’s] Mythology and the background, and also an appraisal of the extent to which it helped or hampered Lovecraft’s writing.” From that perspective The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos has been a long time coming, but earns the admiration of weird fiction enthusiasts by succeeding as an introduction to, and also an interrogation of, both the original Lovecraft Mythos (to adopt the Joshi-endorsed term) and what he memorably terms “that heroic task of literary misconstrual,” the Derleth Mythos.

Way back in The Weird Tale, Joshi complained that “the bulk of recent critical work (not merely in this field but in most others) seems so cheerless, mechanical, and obfuscatory that the reader is likely to be repelled rather than attracted to the subjects of study.” Not so the readers of this book, lucky recipients of a text that is elegantly written (although a reference to the “United States’ secession from England” is a brow-furrower), eloquently argued, and commendably inclusive. In a February 17, 2009 review of Kenneth Hite’s lively Tour De Lovecraft at his blog, John D. Rateliff identifies that book’s drawback as an assumption that readers are “thoroughly conversant with every tale Lovecraft ever wrote; if you can’t instantly recall, say, ‘The Tree’ or ‘He’ in great detail, then you’ll be a bit lost.” That’s not true of Rise and Fall (Rateliff, incidentally, provides a link to his own persuasive case for The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, but also steps in albino penguin droppings by deeming At the Mountains of Madness “a tedious bore that would have been better at a quarter of its bloated length.” The preference for Dream-Quest is to be expected from a fantasy-esteemer, but “tedious bore”? Is it possible that Farnsworth Wright has pulled a Joseph Curwen on Rateliff?

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They Found Howard’s Snake


I hate snakes; they are possessed of a cold, utterly merciless cynicism and sophistication, and sense of super-ego that puts them outside the pale of warm-blooded creatures.

— Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, ca. February 1931

“The visionary explorer, Col. P. H. Fawcett, claimed to have seen a 48-foot anaconda, but I don’t believe it.”

— L.Sprague de Camp, REHupa #57

Novalyne: Well, I haven’t seen any giant snakes, or big-busted naked women frolicking through the West Texas hills lately.

Robert: Oh, but I have.

— The Whole Wide World

From recent science news:

It was the mother of all snakes, a nightmarish behemoth as long as a school bus and as heavy as a Volkswagen Beetle that ruled the ancient Amazonian rain forest for 2 million years before slithering into nonexistence. Now this monster, which weighed in at 2,500 pounds, has resurfaced in fossils taken from an open-pit coal mine in Colombia, a startling example of growth gone wild.

“This is amazing. It challenges everything we know about how big a snake can be.””This thing weighs more than a bison and is longer than a city bus,” enthused snake expert Jack Conrad of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who was familiar with the find.

“It could easily eat something the size of a cow. A human would just be toast immediately.””If it tried to enter my office to eat me, it would have a hard time squeezing through the door,” reckoned paleontologist Jason Head of the University of Toronto Missisauga.


To give de Camp due credit, he was aware of the Gigantophis, a prehistoric python that was the previous record holder at 30-33 feet. And while boas get very large, they do not have the optimal climate for growth that Titanoboa apparently did — really hot, steaming jungles such as Howard assured us was Satha’s natural habitat.

Mystic Chords of Memory and the Melancholy Tune Thereof


Mary Emmaline Reed is sharing her childhood memories of Alabama around 1865 with her granddaughter’s new swain, specifically the depredations of the locust-outdoing “riff-raff” that showed up soon after the Union Army:

Bob lunged forward in his chair. He’d hung on every word, and now he reacted physically. It is one thing to read history, but it’s altogether different to talk with someone who remembered. “And there was nothing you could do about it?” His voice was venomous against the injustice.

“Well,” Mammy mused, “yes and no. There was a little bit of help.”

“Help?” Bob picked up the word quickly. And though I’d heard the story many times, tonight, it was new again. Bob’s interest, his emotion, his deepest attention to Mammy while she talked, made me participate in the story.

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