An Occurrence, But Not at Owl Creek Bridge

Heading into the holiday weekend and with Howard Days dominating the event horizon like a black colossus, I thought that as a capper to some recent Jack London posts I would excerpt one of my favorite literary anecdotes (my all-time favorite involves Joyce’s habit, after goading this or that belligerent drunk or intolerable pest in Parisian nightspots, of delegating to his drinking buddy, the younger, bigger, and stronger Ernest Hemingway, with the airy instruction “Deal with him, Hemingway. Deal with him”). This one features not only London and the most significant American weirdist between Poe and Lovecraft, but also George Sterling (who is likely to notch more index appearances than anyone save Clark Ashton Smith and possibly HPL in Scott Connors’ can’t-be-published-soon-enough CAS biography) and is on loan from Richard Saunders’ 1985 Ambrose Bierce: The Making of a Misanthrope. The Saunders book is not unimpeachable–“Although the poem received national attention and made other critics accept Sterling as a serious poet, ‘A Wine of Wizardry’ was far from the masterpiece Bierce had labeled it,” he snipes at the key non-Klarkashtonian poem in CAS studies –but I will always be grateful to it for the disclosure that London squired Sterling “through the exotic world of Chinese brothels on the Barbary Coast”–and for this epic encounter:

[Sterling] seized upon the opportunity of arranging a meeting between the two titans by personally inviting London (a member of the club since 1904) to attend the August 1910 High Jinks at the Bohemian Grove, which he knew Bierce would be attending.

Clearly Sterling was a great admirer of both men. but his motive for putting together the two writers, one of whom was known to be a socialist and the other known contentiously to label anyone veering from the accepted political norm as an anarchist, is still a matter of conjecture. Some biographers suggest that Sterling set up the meeting to establish once and for all which man would be his guru. Others think it was simply a mischievous prank. Regardless of his motive, in the summer of 1910 the chief players in this little drama were approaching the event quite differently.

While Bierce had spent most of the early summer leisurely canoeing on the Russian River and hiking in the woods around Guerneville, London had become despondent over the results of the July Fourth heavyweight boxing match held in Reno between the great white hope, Jim Jeffries, and the reigning title holder and first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. A white supremacist, London covered the fight for the San Francisco Chronicle, and after Johnson knocked out Jeffries in the fifteenth round the paper’s headline read “Jack London Sees Tragedy in the Defeat of White Champion.” Moreover, London had lost a considerable amount of money by betting on Jeffries, and he was in such a terrible mood over it that he was ready for a fight himself, writing to Charmian in late July about his impending meeting with Bierce: “Damn Ambrose Bierce. I won’t look for trouble, but if he jumps me, I’ll go him a few at his own game. I can play act and abuse just for the pure fun of it. If we meet, and he’s introduced, I shall wait and watch for his hand to go out first. If it doesn’t, hostilities begin right there.”

When the two men finally converged under the same roof at the Bohemian Club in August a nervous George Sterling thought better of the match up. “You mustn’t meet him,” the poet pleaded with Bierce, according to his own account of the tension-filled encounter. “You’d be at each other’s throats in five minutes.”

“Nonsense,” said Bierce, already tipsy and leaning on the rustic redwood bar at the club, “bring him on. I’ll treat him like a Dutch uncle.”

As it turned out Bierce kept his word, for when a huge crowd of club members gathered around the bar to witness what they thought would be the English-language culmination of two celebrated and opposing points of view, all they saw was a tentative introduction by Sterling, an outstretched hand offered by Bierce and London’s acceptance of his open gesture of friendship. While the threat of actual physical combat was lessened by Bierce’s uncharacteristically warm greeting, most observers still stood at a safe distance. There was no need to be leery. Bierce had somehow learned that Jack and Charmian’s first child had died only a few days after birth several months earlier and had therefore decided in advance that things would be kept light. Having lost two grown children of his own, Bierce was sensitive to London’s loss, although the subject was never brought up. Instead the two men matched each other drink for drink and gradually found they had more in common than they thought. Bierce had worked for William Randolph Hearst when the man had first broken into newspaper publishing after acquiring the Examiner, and London had done some brilliant reporting for that same newspaper while covering the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. Furthermore, their mutual damnation and total rejection of the artists’ colony at Carmel created an odd intellectual bond. Bierce’s comment that he would never want to be identified with Carmel because he was “warned by Hawthorne and Brook Farm” (a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s brief but disappointing association with an experimental art colony in West Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1841) reflected exactly what London felt, and in fact one of London’s novels published three years later, The Valley of the Moon, was his vindication of the choice to marry Charmian and live in isolated Glen Ellen.

Politics aside, the two writers proceeded to get so blitzed that Sterling and Arnold Genthe (the famed society photographer who also managed to capture the early Carmel years, as well as everyday scenes of the pre-1906 Chinatown in San Francisco) were forced to come to their aid. According to Genthe’s autobiography As I Remember, he and Sterling were forced to remove the two men to a nearby campsite, where the four of them sat around a roaring fire drinking and philosophizing until “none of us quite knew what we were talking about.”

After several more hours of serious drinking the quartet demonstrated the degree of their inebriation by deciding to continue their alcoholic odyssey at Upshack, about two miles away. After crossing the dangerous Russian River in a rowboat the men stumbled along a set of railroad tracks that paralleled the river for a few hundred yards, then noticed Bierce had disappeared. Retracing their route while calling out his name, the three men finally spotted him at the bottom of a twenty-foot embankment. Evidently Bierce’s derby hat had fallen off his head and rolled to the water’s edge, and he had climbed down the steep slope to fetch it and decided to curl up in a soft fern bed for a short nap. When his companions woke him up he put on his derby, climbed back up the tracks and resumed the trek to his brother’s cabin as if nothing had happened. Upon reaching Upshack Sterling promptly passed out, and Bierce and London continued to drink and talk the night away like long-lost buddies, each consuming a bottle of Three Star Martel in the process.

More Star Roving

Guest Blogger Fred Blosser adds his two cents to Steve’s recent post on The Star Rover.

FRED: I appreciate Steve’s tip of the hat in his posting today. The other guy who should be mentioned in regard to connecting the dots between The Star Rover and Howard was de Camp. I believe he was the first observer — at least, the first in print, via Dark Valley Destiny in 1983 — to remark on the similarities between The Star Rover and concepts in the Conan and James Allison stories.

With a little more luck and persistence, I might have beat Sprague to the punch by fifteen years, but to paraphrase Robert De Niro, I blew it.

I noticed the proto-Howard details in the London book when I first read it in 1968, and at that time, I asked Glenn if evidence existed that Howard had read the novel. Glenn supplied me with Howard’s “book that goes to my head like wine” comment, and I built on that in writing a college freshman English paper that I titled “Jack London and the Hyborian Age.” Before the fall semester was over that year, I revised the paper a bit and submitted it to Amra. Over Christmas break, I received a card from George Scithers accepting it for publication — but it never appeared, as far as I’m aware.

When I signed with Ted Dikty and FAX in 1976 to write a book about Howard’s weird fiction, I covered the Little People stories and salvaged a bit of “Jack London and the Hyborian Age,” particularly noting the references to Il-Marinen by both authors. I started writing my book in October 1976 and delivered the final portion of the manuscript to Dikty in February 1977. Dikty said he liked it, and sent me a galley of the first chapter to proofread, along with a xerox of artwork by Alex Nino that he said he’d use for the cover.

I proofed the galley and sent it back to Ted. Around this time, unfortunately for me, Ted decided to put my book on the back burner and first publish a big, expensive map of the Hyborian Age, along with his wife’s accompanying Gazetteer. I never heard from him again, and I presume the single galley chapter was the only one set in type. My book, like several other promised titles, never saw the light of day. (Not from FAX at least. One of the books that Dikty advertised as in the works, Glenn’s The Howard Collector anthology, later found a home at Ace.)

Looking around for something to submit to The Dark Man in the ’90s, I performed another salvage job and turned the unpublished section about the Little People stories into the article that Steve graciously mentioned. At that point, my product wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, since de Camp, in the meantime, had published his observations about Howard’s debt to The Star Rover in the background to the Allison stories, in the genesis of the Æsir and the Vanir, etc. But I’m glad that Steve seems to have liked it, and I was interested in how he picked up many, many other parallels that I hadn’t noticed.

I’ve seen a couple of new trade paperback editions of the London book in the past few years, including a moderately priced Modern Library version. I hope Steve’s article will prompt new fans to seek it out.

Steve adds: Drat. Had a survey of Howard’s weird fiction possessing the customary Blosserian seriousness of purpose appeared in 1977 or 1978, coinciding with Karl Edward Wagner’s game-changing forewords and afterwords to the Berkley Conans, that would have done a lot to improve the locust years that preceded The Dark Barbarian. I’ll have to file this one next to the history of heroic fantasy Leiber once intended to write on my Should-Have-Been Bookshelf.

Correction: Don Herron, far more knowledgeable about Fritz Leiber than are certain antipodean resurrection men I might mention, has informed me that Leiber hoped to tackle not just our favorite subgenre of fantasy but the whole genre, which leaves me yearning even more to read what was mostly never written.

London Calling: The Ragnar Lodbrog Chapter of The Star-Rover

[redacted] and I seem to have at least a desultory Jack London thread going, so I’d like to crack open The Star Rover for this post. The novel has long had a reputation among Howardists as James Allison’s home away from home, and Fred Blosser planted a Howard studies banner in London’s text a decade ago with “The Star Rover and the People of Night” in TDM #4, May 1997, but as the title of that article hints, Fred’s focus was Rover-ian influence on “The Children of the Night.” I’m fascinated by the novel’s Chapter XVII, which finds London, who as much as anyone other than Robert W. Service made the New World’s North his own, turning his attention to the North of the Old World and affording us an example of a major American writer contributing to “the Northern thing” decades before REH, Fletcher Pratt, Poul Anderson, or Fritz Leiber.

The nativity of the chapter’s narrator, Ragnar Lodbrog (actually an Allison-style past incarnation of Darrell Standing, who is doing the hardest possible hard time in San Quentin solitary), could not be more northern, “tempest-born on a beaked ship,” and “delivered in storm, with the spume of the cresting seas salt upon [him].” “For nursery,” Ragnar tells us, “were reeling decks and the stamp and trample of men in battle or storm.” From birth he earns the enmity of Tostig Lodbrog, alias Muspell (“The Burning”, whose immediate inclination is to drown him in “a half-pot of mead.” To establish Tostig’s badassery, London alludes to the sea-king’s having eaten “the heart of Ngun after the fight at Hasfurth” and “the spiced wine he would have from no other cup than the skull of Guthlaf.” The greatest and grimmest of Northern tales comes in with an invocation of “Gudrun’s revenge on Atl, when she gave him the hearts of his children and hers to eat while battle swept the benches, tore down the hangings raped from southern coasts, and littered the feasting board with swift corpses.” Scope that not-for-the-faint-of-heart verb “raped”; London was as bruisingly powerful aboard a longship as he was alongside a dogsled, and it’s a shame he didn’t write more things like the flashback-chapters of The Star Rover.

After proto-Howardian observations about Tostig’s entourage like “Their thoughts were ferocious; so was their eating ferocious, and their drinking,” Ragnar escapes and is finally captured by the Romans, where, from the young Robert E. Howard’s point of view, the chapter goes to hell in an imperator‘s chariot. The Northron is made “a sweep-slave in the galleys” but works his way up to “freeman, a citizen, and a soldier.” We even learn that he will eventually rise to command a legion—imagine Howard’s disgust! All of the storms and stroppiness back home are just a preamble to a Gospel According to Jack, as Pontius Pilate, who is enduring a full-court press from the Sanhedrin, Ragnar, and his highborn love interest Miriam debate what should be done with a “vagrant fisherman, this wandering preacher, this piece of driftage from Galilee.” Ragnar digs himself in deeper by insisting to Miriam “The Romans are the elder brothers of us younglings of the north. Also, I wear the harness and eat the bread of Rome.” If London’s novel did indeed “generally [go to Howard’s] head like wine,” as he told Harold Preece, Ragnar’s civis Romanum sum sentiments must have been the undrinkable lees.

(Two pop culture asides: We can’t blame London for the lamentable Revenge of the Sith-associations of the term “younglings,” and thanks to Monty Python, can anyone read or see a scene featuring Pilate or other administrators of Occupied Judaea without instantaneously thinking of Biggus Dickus? I first met B. Dickus in a German movie theater in 1981, where his nom de dubbing was Schwanzus Langus–even funnier, perhaps)

For evidence of the Ragnar chapter’s impact on Howard, we need only consult the novel-fragment published for the first time in the Del Rey version of Bran Mak Morn: The Last King, which it might still be convenient to refer to by the title Glenn Lord assigned in The Last Celt, “The Wheel Turns.” (This is the abortive project referred to in an October 5, 1923 letter to Tevis Clyde Smith–“a book which doubtless would make you tired” Howard’s narrator is Hakon, who crews for Tostig the Mighty, “a terrible warrior and a man whose wish was his only law.” Tostig’s second ship is captained by one Ragnar, and another of the dramatis personae is named Lodbrog. Where a blow from London’s Tostig sends his narrator “dazed and breathless half the length of the great board”; Howard’s Tostig is no less enraged by the narrator’s disobedience, “I caught the blow on an up-flung arm but the force was enough to knock me from my feet and send me rolling along the deck.”

London’s Tostig feasts “under the smoky rafters of Brunanbuhr” and “Jutes” is spelled “Juts” in The Star Rover, a spelling retained by Howard, in the last sentence of whose Chapter 2, “The Viking,” two ships are “sold to the Juts at Brunanbuhr.” Howard’s fragment features an “Angle” ship helmed by Gathlaff–recall London’s reference to Guthlaf and his skull’s afterlife as a beverage holder. Interestingly, this section of “The Wheel Turns” also offers a preview of Conan’s underhanded undermining of Zaporavo in “The Pool of the Black One”:

Cunningly, without speaking against Tostig and giving him an excuse to slay me, craftily, without drawing suspicion of any sort to myself, I turned the Vikings against Tostig, against his arrogance, his over-bearing ways, his cruelty. Many of them hated Tostig anyway, so it was not such a difficult matter.

We know that when Howard was taken by a story, that story was sometimes taken by Howard, who would then make it his own. In his introduction to The Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient, Patrice Louinet notes “Howard’s first attempt at writing an Oriental story was contemporary to his reading Lamb’s ‘The Wolf Chaser’ (Adventure Magazine, April 30, 1922). . .The Texan first wrote a short recap of Lamb’s story, then proceeded to write a short story, or rather outline of a story, which apparently didn’t go beyond the second page.” But I think the after-effects of London’s Ragnar chapter outlasted the rather blatant appropriation evident in “The Wheel Turns.” Might not Howard’s later “Men of the Shadows” be a sort of indignant answer-song? If barbarism is the natural state of manking, then it is damn sure the natural, the only permissible state of barbarians, and Ragnar should be ashamed of himself. Against the stark backdrop of the north of Britain, where a “high mountain wind” roars “with the voice of giants,” Howard’s unnamed Scandinavian legionary reverts to his true self as the “real” Romans are Pict-picked off one by one: “By Thor and Wotan, I would teach them how a Norseman passed! With each passing moment I became less of the cultured Roman.” We can sense Howard’s glee as his Viking remarks on “years of Roman culture [slipping] away like sea-fog before the sun” and he can’t divest himself of “all dross of education and civilization” fast enough (I feel the same way when I try to read Cicero). Picture Howard at his Underwood, glaring at his well-thumbed copy of The Star Rover as he types “I was no Roman, I was a Norseman, a hairy chested, yellow bearded barbarian. And I strode the heath as arrogantly as if I trod the deck of my own galley.”

Bran himself gets in on the de-Romanizing action: “But you are a Roman, to be sure. And yet, methinks they must grow taller Romans than I had thought. And your beard, what turned it yellow?” Is it fanciful to suggest that one reason why the first few pages of “Men of the Shadows” are a real story, rather than a rejection-earning summation of Pictish history, is because Howard was picking a fight with London/Ragnar? We need not drag in Harold Bloom’s theorizing about the anxiety of influence and the patricidal inclinations of authors just starting out to speculate along these lines.

And beyond “Men of the Shadows,” might one of Ragnar’s conversations with Miriam contain an echo-in-advance of Conan and Belît’s conversation as the Tigress glides up-river on the sinister Zarkheba? Here’s London:

Let these mad dreamers go the way of their dreaming. Deny them not what they desire, above all things, above meat and wine, above song and battle, even above love of women. Deny them not their hearts’ desires that draw them across the dark of the grave to their dreams of life beyond this world. Let them pass. But you and I abide here in all the sweet we have discovered of each other. quickly enough will come the dark, and you depart for your coasts of sun and flowers, and I for the roaring table of Valhalla.

As for other possible debts, in London we find “Once I was Ushu, the archer,” in Howard “I was Lakur the archer in the land of Kita.’ In Chapter XXI of The Star Rover, a pre-Ragnarian but equally Aryan reverie, the narrator would have us know “The sword, in battle, sings not so sweet a song as the woman sings to man merely by her laugh in the moonlight, or her love-sob in the dark, or her swaying on her way under the sun while he lies dizzy with longing in the grass.” I can’t prove it, but one of Asgrimm’s disgusted utterances in “Marchers of Valhalla” seems like a direct retort to what might have struck Howard as treacle: “The kisses and love-songs of women soon pall, but the sword sings a fresh song with each stroke.”

Returning for a moment to Before Adam, one last example of Howard redoing London to his own satisfaction possibly occurs in Chapter 1 of “The Wheel Turns,” “Back Through the Ages,” which borrows the senior writer’s term “the Younger World” and evokes “the Swift One” with a character named Swift-Foot. Red-Eye, the throwback more pongid than hominid of Before Adam, gets away with murder and worse. That surely didn’t sit well with Howard, and so we get:

For I saw red rage and there, in the swaying tree-tops, a hundred feet from the ground, we fought hand to hand, the Hairy Man and I, and bare-handed and unaided I slew him, there in tree-tops, when the world was young.

And was this cursorily described incident then one of the kernels of “Spear and Fang”? Food for thought–and in honor of London, a San Francisco treat.

After the End: Howard & London’s Postapocalyptic Imagery

At the grim climax of Before Adam, Jack London’s 1907 novel of “The Younger World,” narrator Big-Tooth describes how he and his proto-hominid kinfolk were hunted into the swamps by the more Cromagnonesque Fire People, who have mastered arson and archery:

We make plaintive querulous noises, look at one another and cluster close together. It is like the meeting of the handful of survivors after the day of the end of the world.

Was the just-quoted passage the ur-version of one of Howard’s favorite reality-heightening similes? Let’s compare:

Slowly through the corpses they came, as ghosts might come to a tryst through the shambles of a dead world. (“The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”)

The survivors stared bleakly and blankly at each other, like survivors after Judgment Day or the destruction of the world. (“Red Nails”)

…until dawn came slowly, sullenly and dimly, and we halted and stared haggardly at each other, like ghosts in the morn after the destruction of the world. (“The Thunder-Rider”)

Now my intent here is not to whittle away at Howard’s artistry. In all three instances he noticeably improves upon the London original. Survivors dematerialize into ghosts, or regard each other “bleakly or blankly,” and the images of “the shambles of a dead world” and a dim and sullen dawn are all Howard. This is just one of many examples of what we’ve known for decades, that London’s work contains whole Klondikes and Yukons wherein Howardist source-hunters can prospect for inspiration-nuggets.

Speaking of the postapocalyptic, congratulations to Cormac McCarthy, the terrible beauty of whose 2006 novel The Road just won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, although I still wonder how readers who take their marching orders from Oprah Winfrey are coping with the roasted-baby-on-a-spit scene.

The Romantic Primitive Debunked


Conservative columnist Mark Steyn has been reviewing books for the popular Canadian magazine Maclean’s for several months now, and his latest piece focuses on a book that will be of interest to Howard fans.

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade posits the argument that primitive societies were far more warlike and brutal than modern historians and sociologists give them credit for. By the end, when Steyn mentions Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History by Lee Harris, it feels as if the shade of Robert E. Howard is guiding the keystrokes.

I’m hard pressed to think of an author with a more visceral, hypnotic expression of these themes than Robert E. Howard. Others come close — Jack London hits many of the same nerves in The Star Rover, Before Adam, and The Sea Wolf, not to mention a host of short stories such as “Love for Life” and “An Odyssey of the North.” But Howard had a way of making the unfathomable brutality of the past come to life that I have never seen matched. As he wrote to Harold Preece (a quote that [redacted] recently added to this site’s REH quote generator):

I mean my characters are more like men than these real men are, see. They’re rough and rude, they got hands and they got bellies. They hate and they lust; break the skin of civilization and you find the ape, roaring and red-handed.

Those of us who lament the dearth of novels in Howard’s output would be wise to consider to what degree the short story format helped distill and hone this artistic statement in ways difficult to do at novel length. Too often we wish that Howard wrote longer stories or provided more characterization, without realizing that perhaps these “weak spots” in his writing are a necessary adjunct to the most powerful elements. Add more exposition, and perhaps all of the raw power and unbridled momentum would be lost, leaving Howard as just another middling, lukewarm author.

One of the reasons Howard has remained so relevant as an author and artist is because his most passionate themes are so universal that seventy years haven’t aged them at all. Even when plot elements hinge on now-debunked science, the basic soundness of his worldview remains. He engaged in harrowing tales of war and rapine at a time when unfettered violence was far more shocking and frowned upon than it is now, and frequently risked rejection for his single-minded focus on such things to the exclusion of all else. But his contemporaries’ revulsion is our gain: while other authors frequently recede with the passing of years, trapped in the amber of their time and place, REH’s achievement only glows brighter. It seems that hardly a day goes by without me being struck by the application of Howard’s thoughts on the barbaric nature of mankind to something in the news.

I’m convinced that someday, with the right criticism and films and reprintings, Howard will become well known enough to be mentioned and quoted in such articles as Steyn’s — a prophet of primitivism in this uncertain age of teetering civilizations.