Happy 101st


As I finish packing the rest of the 2006 issues — international orders are on the way, domestics will ship within a day — we have arrived at the official end of the Centennial. January 22 marked Robert E. Howard’s one-hundred-and-first birthday. Readers of The Cimmerian know all about the controversy concerning that date, as explained in my “Birth and Death” (V3n1 — January 2006). How many of you used my instructions to procure your own official copy of REH’s birth certificate? That’s a pretty cool little gem that should be a part of any good Howard collection.

Those of you looking for some new Howard fixes in 2007 have a lot of choices. Last night I celebrated Howard’s birthday by reading Steve Tompkins’ thought-provoking introduction to Del Rey’s Kull — before Steve, had any of us ever considered the influence of World War I, Jazz Age flappers, and Macbeth on Howard’s Atlantean? And through him, on the history of Sword-and-Sorcery? I then relished re-reading the first two tales in  the book, “Exile in Atlantis” and “The Shadow Kingdom.” If you haven’t yet bought this Del Rey release, head on over to Amazon or your favorite local bookstore and snatch it up. I could do without the (in my opinion) terrible computer-originated line art, but the (also computer-originated) paintings are very nicely rendered and evocative, and having all of Kull in pure text and in one place is a real treat.

If poetry is your gig, then pop over to the REH Foundation website and pre-register for your copy of Rhymes of Salem Town and Other Poems. This is, I think, the single largest book of Howard poems ever published, many of them for the first time. Another place to read a lot of poetry is The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, soon to appear in three volumes from the Foundation. If you are one of the guys who spent countless hours absorbing the two slim volumes of Selected Letters from Necronomicon Press, this new set will knock your socks off. I consider it every bit the publishing achievement that Lovecraft’s five volumes of Selected Letters were back in the day. The vast amount of never-before-seen material found within will remain grist to the scholarship mill for decades, spurring people on to new insights about REH and serving as a base for all kinds of new discoveries about our favorite fantasist.

[redacted] edited the Collected Letters, and he has promised a full index to be released via Lulu Books or some other publisher. That will be a big help when navigating the set, and yet another reason why the Necro Press volumes will become obsolete. Until that is released, why not go to Lulu and grab Rob’s new REH book, Howard’s Haunts? Lots of additional Centennial information for those who can never get enough, plus pictures of a number of Howard-related sites that most fans have never seen.

If Howard’s Oriental and Crusader writings turn you on, consider purchasing the massively overpriced but also massively entertaining volume The Exotic Writings of Robert E. Howard from Canada’s Girasol books. This enormous book of stories, reproduced from the original pulps, will keep you reading for weeks. And if you’ve bought the Girasol Books and would like slipcases for them, contact me and I’ll put you in touch with Cimmerian SuperFan Doris Salley, who designed and commissioned some awhile back for herself and some fellow fans. Who knows, perhaps she can still set you up with one.

And it’s not too early to start making your Howard Days plans. Tentative highlights include a Thursday trip to Fort McKavett and Enchanted Rock State Park, which if you’ve never been to them is a must. We could also hit Clear Creek Cemetery, where Novalyne Price is buried. Barring any unforeseen obstacles, the Guest of Honor this year is Wandering Star/Del Rey artist Greg Manchess, so bring down your copies of The Conquering Sword of Conan for Greg to sign and doodle in. I’m going to try to hold a few less panels this year, and make them a bit less biographical and more story-and-character oriented, more “fun” for the general fan. I know I’m a bit burned out on the endless fighting and controversy concerning biographical matters, and want to reconnect with my original love for the work. We’ll see how it turns out — stay tuned for more Howard Days news as it becomes available.

This July will bring us the first of a two-volume Best of REH set from Del Rey. All restored texts, and fully illustrated by Cimmerian Award winners Jim and Ruth Keegan (they’ll need to setup a promotional website once the book appears to handle all the work offers). This will be the first major attempt at such a project since 1946’s Skull-Face and Others, meaning a set that you can send anyone to and say “If you want to try out Howard, read this.”

If biography is your thing, then why aren’t you reading Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard? It’s already out there changing common misconceptions about REH with people who thought the story began and ended with Dark Valley Destiny. The book’s author, [redacted], just opened a movie theater in the small town of Vernon, Texas — I can’t wait for the Howard film festival that’s sure to follow.

Having trouble keeping track of all of this stuff? Never fear, bibliographies are here. For the basic American biblio complete with numerous illustrations and biographical extras, get yourself a copy of Cimmerian contributor Leon Nielsen’s new book from McFarland. For a much more thorough, just-the facts compendium, including a poetry and letter index and a never-before-published REH story, hunt down The Neverending Hunt by REH Foundation Board Member Paul Herman and Cimmerian Black Circle chieftain Glenn Lord.

I’m probably forgetting a dozen other things, but you get the idea. Business is booming in Howardia. There’s never been a better time to be a fan, when Howardian riches were so abundant. I’m hoping that this year I can slow down just enough to be able to enjoy the view a bit more, and revel in all of this stuff.

A Savage Pathos


Thanksgiving! Baked turkey, with dressing made of biscuit and cornbread crumbs, sage, onions, eggs, celery salt and what not; hot biscuits and fresh butter yellow as gold; rich gravy; fruit cakes containing citron, candied pineapple and cherries, currents, raisins, dates, spices, pecans, almonds, walnuts; pea salad; pumpkin pie, apple pie, mince pie with pecans; rich creamy milk, chocolate, or tea — my Southern ancestors were quite correct in adopting the old New England holiday.

I hope you had as enjoyable a Thanksgiving this year as I did. I don’t know when I enjoyed a holiday more.

That’s Robert E. Howard, writing to H. P. Lovecraft in December of 1932. In some ways, he didn’t have much to be thankful for. The Depression had hit hard, several of his reliable markets had stopped publishing, and his life’s savings was lost when the Cross Plains banks failed. But he still had his friends, and the joys of football games and boxing matches, and the serene and comforting cornucopia of riches and memories that is a Thanksgiving dinner with loved ones.

For that 1932 holiday he told HPL that he spent the morning doing chores, then went with Lindsey Tyson to a football game in Brownwood between Howard Payne College and Southwestern University, fierce rivals who on that day were battling for the “championship of the Texas Conference.” Before the game he ate dinner at “the home of a friend” — Tevis Clyde Smith, perhaps? — and then

we helped him unload a bunch of steers, in order to facilitate an early arrival at the game. They were the finest, fattest, big Hereford critters I’ve seen in a longest time; and one of them was the meanest and wildest I ever saw. The three of us fought him all over the hill, and after we got him in the corral, we couldn’t get the ropes off. We had two ropes on him, or he’d have killed some of us. When he’d plunge at one of us, the other would haul him back, and so on. As it was both of us had some narrow shaves. We finally got one lasso off his horns, but to save our necks, we couldn’t get the other off. We had him hauled against the corral fence, and every time we slacked the rope, he took every inch of it, and tried to murder us. At last I threw a doubled lariat around his huge neck and snubbed his head down against the fence, and held him there while the rope was cast off his horns. Then it was every man for himself!

After that adventure, Howard “picked up another friend and repairing to the stadium, witnessed one of the fiercest, closest and hardest-fought games I have ever seen.” He describes the game to Lovecraft in detailed and poetic terms that still roil the blood seventy years later. “Primitive ferocity…heaving among the helmets…charging at blinding speed…driving with all the power of his iron legs…struck the line like a thunderbolt…devastating stiff-arm…terrific punishment…sheer power…desperate plunges…” As the game neared its end, Howard’s keen eye caught a scene of the sort that his stories reek of, the kind of scene that summed up Life itself to the Texan in all of its tragic majesty and red ruin:

Always the big fullback was in the midst of the battle, fighting with every ounce of his iron frame and ferocious spirit. Then toward the last of the game, something happened. I don’t know what it was. I was watching the ball, when a yell went up, and we saw the big Indian down. His leg was hurt. They carried him off the field and laid him on the sidelines, where they began working over his injury. A big German lad was sent in in his place. He was good, but he was not Hoot Masur. Southwestern began an implacable drive. They marched irresistibly down the field, fighting for every inch. At last, on the sidelines, the injured player rose, with the aid of his companions. He began to limp up and down the lines, leaning heavily on a team-mate. Doggedly he plodded, half-dragging his injured member, his heavy jaw set stoically. Out on the field his team-mates, crippled by his loss, were being pushed slowly back toward their own goal. The fullback let go of his supporter, and walked alone, limping deeply, moving slowly. From time to time he worked at the injured leg, stooping, flexing, trying to bend his knee. Then he would resume his endless plodding. I forgot to watch the game in the fascination of watching that grim pathetic figure toiling along the sidelines — up and down — up and down. The sun was sinking, and the long shadow of the grandstands fell across the field. In that shadow the fullback plodded. Once, somewhere, I saw an old German print or woodcutting, depicting a woodcutter in a peaked hood carrying a bundle of sticks through the Black Forest. I was irresistibly reminded of this print. The peaked hood was there, even, the peaked hood of a grey sweater-like garment worn by football players when not in the game. There were the same massive shoulders, made abnormally broad by the bulge of the shoulder-pads beneath the sweater; the same slouching, forward bending pace. The shadows of the forest were to an extent repeated in the shadows of the grandstand. Only the bundle of sticks was missing, but the figure etched in the shadow stooped and toiled as if it bore the weight of a world on its shoulders. There was tragedy in the sight; he was eating his heart out because he was not back in the game, stopping those merciless onsets, giving freely of his thews and heart and blood, eating up punishment that would have snapped the bones of a lesser man. There was nothing of the story-book sob-stuff about the business. But to me, at least, there was a savage pathos in the sight of that grim, mighty figure plodding up and down the lines, striving vainly to work his bitterly injured leg back into shape, so he could re-enter the game. At last, when his captainless team was making its last stand, with its back to the wall, he sank down on the naked ground and covered his eyes with his hands. He would not watch the defeat of his mates. But that defeat did not come. Fighting like madmen, they broke up the attack just half a foot from the goal-line. The final score: Howard Payne 6, Southwestern 0. The fullback’s touchdown in the first quarter was the only score. As the grandstands emptied and people rushed down onto the field to congratulate the winners, I saw him limping slowly through the throng, toward his teammates.

Drama? You will see it on the football field, raw and real and naked, unaided by footlights, stage settings, or orchestras.

After the game it was time to repair to a local restaurant for a second gargantuan meal, a repast of “roast turkey and oyster dressing and ice cream” gorged while watching “the shirt-tail parade and the other antics of the celebrating collegians.” In 1932 Howard was but twenty-six, still only a few years removed from his time at Howard Payne and from his wayward youth. He was young, and he was with friends, and he had both watched and participated in a day chock full of hard work and brutal masculine struggle against nature and implacable foes. He had fought and he had feasted, in much the same way his new hero Conan was about to begin doing in the pages of Weird Tales for the very first time a scant few weeks later.

Howard finished the most enjoyable holiday in his memory by driving home with Lindsey “through the forty miles of hill country, through one of those still, clear, crisp star-filled nights that you enjoy only during good football weather. Simple and unsophisticated enjoyment, yet somehow I got more kick out of the whole affair than I’ve gotten out of more expensive and less innocent pleasures. We didn’t even take a drink of liquor.” After all, what use is liquor on a day punch-drunk with the mead of Life? On that Thanksgiving Howard had received a stirring confirmation of the way he viewed the world, a 50-yard-line view of the best and worst that existence had to offer. In his description of that day we see the writer’s mind at work, simmering with the dreams and thoughts that fueled his fiction.

Later in that same letter to Lovecraft Howard proclaims: “By God, I demand freedom for myself. And if I can’t have it, I’d rather be dead.” Over the next four years he would make good on this promise as his certainties about Life began to unravel and spiral into the abyss. But on Thanksgiving of 1932 the spirit of Robert E. Howard was free, and shone with a brilliance that melted away both the shadows of the Great Depression and the dark mantle of the depression that was all his own.

In the end, Life isn’t about freedom from struggle or tragedy or despair, it’s about what you do in the face of it. Whether it’s a dwindling group of battered pilgrims giving thanks to God, or a battered Indian fullback holding his head in his hands as his team wins, or a battered writer seeing in everything around him the seeds of his life’s work, drunk with the sheer humanity of it all. We all undergo great hardships in this world, but occasionally a day or a moment appears like an oasis, reminding us of all that is good and free. More than any other day, Thanksgiving conjures such feelings within us. We can read Howard’s thoughts seventy-four years later and share in his exultation, in the process reminding ourselves of the good in our own lives. Family, friends, passions, luck. Different draughts for each of us, but all drawn from the same sweet well.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Blood and Thunder is Available


Mark’s long-awaited biography of Robert E. Howard debuted to much fanfare at the World Fantasy Convention, and now it is available for purchase at Amazon.com and other fine bookstores. If you are also planning on buying the new Del Rey Kull volume (and come on, who isn’t?) you can buy both together at Amazon and save some dough.

As it turns out, Blood and Thunder isn’t 400 pages as advertised at Amazon and elsewhere, but only 254. Still, it is chock full of things Howard fans have never seen before. Never-before-seen photos of Hester Howard and Cross Plains, excerpts from the Cross Plains newspaper during Howard’s time, lots of information about the oil booms, Texas history, and the art of the tall tale. The book thankfully has an index, too.

Judging from the comments of various people who have read it, reactions have been largely positive. Even de Camp friend Darrell Schweitzer admitted to me on the last day of the Con that, despite some small errors of fact regarding pulps and such, he found the book an enjoyable and informative read and thought that it brought credit to Howard and the field of Howard studies. The introduction by Joe Lansdale, unlike the wretched Michael Moorcock foreword for the embarrassing Hippocampus REH critical anthology, is appropriately learned and reverent.

At a cost of only $10.85 at Amazon, the first biography on Howard in twenty years deserves to be on every Howard fan’s bookshelf. And with Christmas coming up, it’s a great and inexpensive gift for any Howard fans you may know who might otherwise not know about it. Hopefully this will be the start of a series of biographical treatments of Howard — Lord knows his life was rich and complex enough to support many different interpretations and degrees of focus.

Mysteries of Time and Spirit, One in Particular

What a relief it is to turn from the troll droppings and toxic testosterone of the Novalyne-Killed-My-Favorite-Writer mouth-breathers online to words written by those who were actually alive and alert in 1936. The first few references to Robert E. Howard in the 2002 Night Shade Books volume Mysteries of Time and Spirit: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Donald Wandrei, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, are merely incidental, then, in a letter dated October 19, 1932, Lovecraft tells Wandrei “Just got a fine set of rattlesnake rattles from Robert E. Howard. His letter accompanying them is a veritable prose-poem with the unconquerable serpent as its theme.” How much would those rattles, known to have been handled by 2 greats, fetch at a weird fiction-themed memorabilia auction today? Ah well, chances are they would have been “borrowed” in the late 70s and never returned to whoever was their rightful owner at that point…

On March 28, 1932 HPL is still coming to grips with “a 22-page (closely typed) argumentative epistle from Two-Gun Bob, the Terror of the Plains.” On December 6, 1935, he dismisses most of the new Weird Tales: “Nothing of any merit in it except Klarkash-ton’s “Chain of Aforgomon”—that is, nothing short. Two-Gun’s serial may be good, but I never read serials until I have all the parts.” (By the time of his June 20, 1936 letter to CAS, Lovecraft had the complete Hour of the Dragon, which he pronounced “really splendid” despite some reservations about chronic carnage and the nomenclature that always affected him like itching powder poured down the back of his collar). In that same letter he reacts with amusement to “how quickly [in “The Challenge from Beyond”] Two-Gun made a rip-roaring sanguinary Conan out of the mild & scholarly George Campbell.” And then, much sooner than would be preferable, Letter #234, from Lovecraft to Wandrei on June 24, 1936, is the next in the sequence. After expressing concern about an accident that befell Wandrei’s sister-in-law, Lovecraft writes “A more tragic and less remediable blow is one which has just hit weird fictiondom in a very vital spot—a disaster which I can scarcely bring myself to believe.” He himself has learned the news “in the form of card (without particulars) from Miss Moore.”

(Continue reading this post)

Novalyne Didn’t Pull the Trigger, Novalyne Didn’t Load the Gun…

Members of Terry Allen’s REH Comics Group have long since learned to dread the semiliterate, borderline solipsistic posts that come from one individual whose nom de harangue used to be something like blunderbusspastprime. He now styles himself simperingflophouse (close enough) and remains impervious to irony or being showered with rotten vegetables and roadkill, so certain is he that his is a unique insight into all things Hyborian and Howardian.

Today he had this to say to Tim Truman, the well-known artist and soon-to-be writer of the Dark Horse Conan comic:

Anyway, i just read his foreword in Weird Works of REH vol 3 and was surprised that he the western writer is such a Howard fan. And i also share his view about teh main cause of Howard’s suicide-over a woman. Ms Price aint as honest in what she write about their relationship now that Howard is so famous. [a whole world of sic]

“His” and “he the western writer” refer to Joe R. Lansdale. I haven’t seen Lansdale’s introduction to Weird Works Volume 3, but I doubt that someone so talented would trot out such an oversimplification. Simperingflophouse, on the other hand, expresses himself in oversimplifications and oxymorons in much the same way as Oscar Wilde was wont to express himself in epigrams. In any event the assertion that Novalyne Done It is all over Howard-dom lately; Jim Keegan did his best to club the embryonic meme to death in a recent issue of Dark Horse’s Conan, and an innercircle post earlier this year condemning Ms. Price as a two-timing gold-digger was immediately shouted down. It’s taken us decades to give the Suicide Due to Terminal Mama’s Boy-ism rush to judgment the heave-ho, and we don’t need it replaced by Suicide Due to Bad Breakup.

Blast from the Past


As Cimmerian readers well know, one of the last surviving men who actually knew the Howard family is Norris Chambers, now 88 years old I believe, who resides in White Settlement, Texas, which is in the suburbs of the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Those of you who attended the centennial Robert E. Howard Days last June got a taste of the interview Don Herron and myself did with Norris last year, which appeared in June’s TC (V3n6). Later on this year, The Cimmerian will present the full interview, with lots of new information about Robert E. Howard and his parents, so keep an eye out for it.

But if after reading the tease in the June issue you can’t wait until autumn to get more Norris stories, head over to his website where many favorite tales from his bygone youth have been posted. The one that Howard fans will initially be most interested in is “Typing Conan Stories,” but for anyone wondering about the history of Cross Plains and the surrounding area during Howard’s time, all of the tales listed on the site are well worth reading. One of my personal favorites is the macabre, Charles Willefordian tale “Good Old Chicken,” the first tale in the list. Others describe numerous hijinks of the sort that Howard likely engaged in or witnessed.

Norris was thinking about attending Howard Days this year, but this spring his wife had a stroke and he felt it unwise to leave her side. So if you like his stories and website, drop Norris a quick email letting him know, and wish him and his wife good health and a quick recovery. Who knows, maybe next year Norris will be able to make the trip to Cross Plains and visit with fans at Howard Days. It would be fascinating to walk with him through the Howard House and listen to him describe how it was seventy years ago, when he walked its halls and rooms with Isaac, Hester, and Robert E. Howard.



For decades, Howard studies has been riddled with debates about the limits of biography — the ability of modern readers to separate truth from fiction. People say that Howard made up his own reality. He told tall tales, invented incidents to suit his arguments, and believed that he lived in a world of violence and enemies that didn’t exist. Or that maybe existed. Partially. Perhaps.

In tandem with those thoughts is a sense of frustration at the way biographical myths about Howard — things we conclusively know to be untrue — continue to be perpetrated by journalists, columnists, and other assorted commentators. When engaged in the seemingly neverending battle to bring REH a measure of respect and justice, it’s easy to believe that Howard’s is a special case, a particularly virulent strain of the journalistic world’s ability to fudge every fact and jump at every good story regardless of merit or accuracy.

The Cimmerian recently had a good example of this in Rusty Burke’s article “The Note” (V3n1) which postulated that one of the most well-known facts about Howard, his suicide note, may not have existed at all. Just think if we somehow were able to conclusively prove that this was the case. Think of all the misinformation sitting out there, printed and read over the years, and how impossible it would be to rein it all in. As it stands we have enough trouble fighting the common myth of Howard as an insane Oedipal bipolar whack-a-doo.

But you know something? The more I read into the lives of others, especially artists and celebrities, the more I become comfortable with the state of Howard’s reputation, falsities and all. Not that I don’t care for the truth to become the “common knowledge” about Howard, just that I’m willing to let the transformation happen at its own pace. Howard is not unique in the level of mystery surrounding his life, nor in the inability of his biographers to make final determinations about various events, anecdotes, and historical facts.

Take a popular example from modern times: Steven Spielberg. One of the most rich, powerful, lauded, and well-known personages in the world, you would think that someone of his stature and level of interest — someone still alive and with the world realizing the worth of his output — would be safely under the proverbial microscope. All the stories verified, all the people around him interviewed, and every last scrap of data checked for accuracy. You would think that journalists could and would get all the facts straight regarding his life and work, and that — unlike with Howard — doing so would be a breeze.

Think again.

Despite all of the interviews, biographies, fans, and interest, Spielberg’s life remains a frustrating battle against creeping biomyths. The man who can legitimately lay claim to having written the most accurate biography on Spielberg so far, Joseph McBride (who also wrote arguably the best volumes on John Ford and Frank Capra) states on the dustjacket flap of his book that “much about Steven Spielberg’s personality and the forces that shaped it remain enigmatic, in large part because of his tendency to obscure and mythologize his own past.”

Sound familiar?

For instance, set against minor debates about such things as the Howard birth certificate (which says January 24 rather than 22, and which spells his middle name wrong) we have Spielberg for years claiming that he was a year younger than he actually was, complete with conspiracy theories as to why. McBride writes

Spielberg’s incorrect age and birthdate have been given in innumerable articles and several books, although all that was necessary to resolve the question was a request to the Cincinnati Board of Health for his Ohio Department of Health birth certificate.

McBride goes on to meticulously document all of the twists and turns of Spielberg’s various age claims over the years, entering a dizzying labyrinth Howard scholars can only shiver at. And that’s just the first of many myths about the director, most perpetrated by himself. Did Spielberg, for example, ever sneak onto the Universal lot in the legendary way he described many times over the years? Did he actually/possibly/maybe direct Poltergeist under the nose of billed director Tobe Hooper? We’ll probably never know for sure. The web of myth is too dense, with lots of broken strands and false leads. In many ways Spielberg is as much of an enigma as Howard.

And yet the biographies of Spielberg keep coming, and the attempts to analyze his work continue. As does the battle against wrong information. Cruise over to the Spielberg Films fansite forums, and you will see the same frustration REH fans have experienced over the years, covering everything from whether Raiders of the Lost Ark technically came in under or over budget, to the color of Spielberg’s pubic hair!

At times, Howard fans think that if Howard was more popular and secure in his reputation, we wouldn’t feel the need to be so defensive about factual errors promulgated in magazines or on websites. But if Spielberg’s fans are just as defensive about their man — a man who has seemingly won every accolade someone in his profession could hope for — then it’s pretty clear that such feelings come with the territory regardless of how famous the subject is. Perhaps Howard fans aren’t any more tender-skinned than aficionados of any other stripe.

So the next time you find yourself banging your head against the wall trying to correct misconceptions about REH, asking yourself why Howard fans are cursed with such thorny issues and vast information gaps, remember that when it comes to sifting through biomythology, and just like Spielberg’s Close Encounters protagonists, “We Are Not Alone.”

Howard and the Fourth of July

July 4, 1935. Howard, drunk and depressed at his home in Cross Plains, sits at his typewriter and begins to compose two letters. One, to his on-again/off-again girlfriend Novalyne Price, seethes with barely disguised bitterness and scorn over his recent discovery that she has been dating one of his best and oldest friends, Truett Vinson, behind his back. The letter begins:

I take my typewriter in hand to write you a letter on this grand and suspicious — I mean auspicious occasion — when the zoom of the horse race and the rodeo is heard in the land, punctuated by the flap of waving flags, the rumble of patriotic speeches, and the howls of patriots getting their scalps burnt off by premature fire crackers.

Howard went on to drop numerous hints about his knowledge of her transgressions, which precipitated the beginning of the end of their falling out and which is recounted in Novalyne’s book One Who Walked Alone.

On the same day, he wrote a fairly lengthy letter to August Derleth, which among other things featured a wide-ranging discussion of the grand holiday, Texas-style. Howard wrote:

I seem to ramble, but ignore it. It is merely a result of being too full of beer. Burgundy wine and a peculiarly potent blackberry brandy liqueur I discovered in Socorro, New Mexico. This is the galorious fourth, dear to patriotic hearts from the sunny slopes of Maine to the muscle-bound coasts of San Diego, and I must do my patriotic duty…They’ll probably have a small rodeo here at the annual picnic, with the attendant casualties. Last year it was a cowboy from Oklahoma who called himself Jack o’ Diamonds.

He then goes on to describe a long and typically grisly series of folkloric deaths that have occurred at various Cross Plains events over the years. By the end one pictures an event like the modern-day Howard Days in a shambles, with Dennis McHaney gutted and crying out his death song over here, Rusty Burke marinating in a pool of his own entrails over there, and the rest of us already being tossed into new plots at the Cross Plains Cemetery dug expressly for the occasion. Howard wraps up by remarking:

Now that’s but a poor thought on the fourth of July. But the liquor has stirred up old memories and set the ghosts of the dead walking in my mind. Old names that are already meaningless as the wind that blows through the trees at midnight. But it’s a poor thought on a day of jubilee and firecrackers. I’m drunker than I thought I was.

If Howard was kidding about being tipsy when writing those letters, he kept up the charade months later, when on November 1, 1935 he wrote Derleth again and apologized for his behavior:

I seem to remember being full of booze the last time I wrote you — in fact your answering letter confirms it. I was probably verbose and repetitious; hope I didn’t bore you too much. I have an infernal habit of writing letters when I get to a certain point of intoxication. Which is rare; I seldom get even mildly soused more than two or three times a year.

Concerning Howard’s tale of the death of “Jack o’ Diamonds” and the other examples of Fourth of July picnic mayhem, it’s a mistake to believe that they are representative only of Howard’s frightful imagination, one that created enemies out of ether and feuds out of fantasy. Howard’s stories and Texan anecdotes are often hyper-real, brilliantly distilled to highlight his chosen themes: hate, vengeance, and the innate barbarity of Man. And yet there are copious amounts of Truth to be mined in even his most outrageous and hard-to-believe tales.

To Lovecraft’s varied denunciations of Howard’s view of the world as a hopelessly violent, dangerous admixture of outlaws and innocents, Howard once retorted with several newspaper clippings, each accompanied by a typed notation by REH. One was titled “Memorial Day Costs 41 Lives,” and among the listing of death and mayhem perpetrated around the country that day are the following two items:

Two were killed in Texas, a deputy stabbed and five others shot, and in Rhode Island, a farm hand, later killed by police, shot a state officer to death.

Rhode Island, of course, was the home of Lovecraft himself, a place the horror maven made it a point to assure Howard was well-policed and utterly free from the barbaric natures and criminal outrages of Howard’s own Lone Star State. Howard’s sardonic comment, typed in the margin of the article clipping sent to Lovecraft, states, “Looks like your state was right up alongside mine on that particular day.”

The other clipping has a large headline proclaiming “FIVE OTHERS STRUCK DOWN BY BULLETS,” with a subheading of “Deputy Sheriff Is Stabbed When Feud, Dormant 26 Years, Breaks Forth Anew. Shots Narrowly Miss Group of Children Gathered About Speaker’s Stand.” The article begins thusly:


Two men were killed, a deputy sheriff stabbed and five others struck by bullets in a gun and knife fight at a political meeting here today which reopened a feud dormant for 26 years.

It sounds to all intents and purposes like something out of a Breck Elkins story, “Pistol Politics” perhaps:

“Gentlemen!” squawked Gooseneck — and then ducked as they both went for their guns.

They cleared leather at the same time. When the smoke oozed away Gooseneck crawled out from under the roulette table and cussed fervently.

“Two more reliable voters gone to glory!” he raged. “Breckinridge, whyn’t you stop ’em?”

“‘Twarn’t none of my business,” says I, reching for another drink, because a stray bullet had knocked my glass outa my hand.

Howard’s view of the Fourth of July dovetailed nicely with his views on Texas, southerners, and life in general: rowdy, loud, passionate, many times silly and unpredictable, but in the end sacred in some unfathomable way. On July 3, 1933, Howard asked Derleth:

How are you going to celebrate the gul-orious Fourth, which is tomorrow? Of late years that occasion has been observed a right smart in the Southwest. When I first remember, the Fourth of July was just another day. Too hot to shoot fire-crackers; at least we considered it so then. We saved our fireworks for Christmas, and I recall with a slight shudder the homemade fireworks my pal and I used to experiment with: dynamite caps, blasting powder, and six shooters.

We can assume that the pal in question wasn’t Tevis Clyde Smith, who lived in Brownwood and who Howard failed to meet up with for the Fourth in 1925. On July 7 of that year Howard sent a letter to Smith that read in part:

How was the fourth! I tried my dangdest to get a way over there but the amount of work there is. Lots of times I’ve worked until nine o’clock at night, principally on oil reports, and am a way behind them, now.

As the years went on, it became clear that the Fourth was a microcosmic view of Howard’s life, in that each holiday showed him missing out on real-life at the expense of staying home, working, and feeding the inner life of his mind. Again and again we see Howard lamenting the passing of the holiday without him doing some activity he had planned. In June 1929 he wrote Tevis Clyde Smith that

I’m going to make a desperate effort to go to Matamoros the 4th of July. A whole flock of first-string heavyweights are going to perform there, with a bunch of Texas sluggers for preliminary heats. Gad, what I’d give to have a ringside seat in the old bullring when Stribling crosses mitts with Risko!

As he never mentions it again in his correspondence, it’s likely he never made it. And in that same letter to Derleth on July 4, 1935, the one that found Howard drunk and despondent at Novalyne’s betrayal and at another Fourth of July spent at home, away from friends and picnics and “real life,” Howard tells Augie

I wanted to go to the annual rodeo of Stamford, but not enough to drive a hundred and fifty miles in this heat and my present state of finances. Will Rogers was there, and I understand there was — or is — a distinguished bevy of bronc busters, calf-ropers and bull-throwers — particularly the latter. I’ll maybe get to go next year — and probably won’t.

As it happened, by July 4 of the following year Howard would be dead, felled by the last gasp of the same Texan obsession with violence and danger that he continually highlighted in his letters. As scholars and fans, we can sometimes be too quick to scoff at Howard’s flights of hyperbole and tale-spinning, dismissing the bulk of it as the imaginative rural legends spun by a master of the form. In the meantime, everywhere you go in Texas you see examples of the very things he wrote of. The ruins of Forts and scenes of ghastly slaughter, arrowheads in the grass, bulletholes through historic markers, and boneyards filled with men who died violently. Howard himself is buried in the same cemetery as one of outlaw John Wesley Hardin’s most famous victims, sheriff Charley Webb, an incident Howard himself wrote about to Lovecraft with great verve. When years later Hardin himself was gunned down in cold blood in El Paso, it was said that things in Texas had progressed to the point where nobody had to saddle up a horse to notify his friends and next of kin, they simply picked up the telephone.

But I suppose such a grisly tale is a damn poor thought on the Fourth of July.

Howard in the Letters of Clark Ashton Smith

One of the most welcome books to appear for fans of weird fiction in 2003 was The Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith, published by Arkham House and edited by David E. Schultz and Scott Connors. Finally, the third member of the great Weird Tales triumvirate is revealed in correspondence. Talking about his stories, his relationships, his life, Smith is as fascinating as Howard and Lovecraft have always been in their letters.

Although none of the letters Smith wrote to Howard are in the collection (presumably because they have not survived into the present day) Howard is nevertheless mentioned in several of the letters to HPL, Derleth, and others. Smith’s comments are perceptive and largely positive of Howard and his work, and they are surely of interest to Howard fans.

The first mention occurs in Letter #107 on page 122, which is a letter to H. P. Lovecraft dated circa late October 1930. Smith is discussing Wright’s frustrating editing choices:

Wright is certainly capricious in his rejections and acceptances; though I, for one, am the last to blame him for trying to please his public. But it seems to me that he makes mistakes even from this view-point. I thought the last issue of W.T. rather punk, apart from the verses, the frontispiece decoration by Senf, and one or two fine passages in Howard’s tale. I couldn’t stomach this last as a whole — that bloody battle stuff is so stale that it gives me what Sterling called “the Molossian pip.” Still, it was better than Hamilton’s current re-dishing of his immemorial moth-eaten plot, and the commonplace detective thriller by Quinn. Munn’s story was vivid and original in some of its detail, but I didn’t get much out of it as a whole. And even the reprint was pretty tame.

Keep this low opinion of Howard’s blood-and-thunder in mind, because Smith would revise it later after corresponding with Howard and discovering the weird ecstasies inherent in his Conan tales.

Later on in the same letter he makes an interesting comment regarding Literature in general:

As for the problem of phantasy, my own standpoint is that there is absolutely no justification for literature unless it serves to release the imagination from the bounds of every-day life.

On page 176 is a footnote stating that a book Smith had recently received, The Horrid Mysteries by Karl Grosse (1768-1847), had been mentioned by Howard in his story “The Children of the Night.”

Letter #156 is to August Derleth dated Oct. 8th, 1932, and the opening paragraph on page 193 is as follows:

Dear August:

I am glad that Wright took “The Carven Image,” and shall look forward to seeing it in print. His ideas of deadwood must be peculiar, considering the amount of it that he admits into the magazine. In the current issue, Howard’s “Worms of the Earth” seems to be the one real first-rater.

The footnotes to this letter say that “Worms” appeared in the November 1933 issue. This is incorrect; it was November 1932.

On page 199 is Letter #160, from CAS to August Derleth, dated February 1st, 1933. CAS begins by once again criticizing Wright:

W. finally sent back “The Third Episode of Vahtek,” saying that he saw opportunity of using it at present, but might possibly ask me to re-submit it at some future time. Oh well. . .

Then a bit later he once again breaks down his impression of the latest Weird Tales:

The current W.T. impresses me as being an excellent issue, apart from the banality of the cover. I like the tales by Howard, Eadie and Ernst, especially the former. Quinn’s tale was altogether too hackneyed. . .

The Howard tale had been “The Tower of the Elephant,” and the “banal” cover had been by Margaret Brundage. As we will see, CAS was a champion of Howard’s Conan character, seeing the tales as extraordinarily “weird” in the best sense.

Letter #174, again to August Derleth, was dated August 29th, 1933. By this time Smith has began his own correspondence with Howard, after having heard of him through Lovecraft for several years. He states:

Howard is a rather surprising person, and I think he is more complex, and is also possessed of more literary ability, than I had thought from many of his stories. The Conan tales, in my opinion, are quite in a class by themselves. H. seemed very appreciative of my book of poems, Ebony and Crystal, and evidently understood it as few people have done.

Mull that one over for a moment, folks. Here we have Smith reevaluating his previous opinion of Howard as a fine writer whose work was too often marred by cookie-cutter plots of violence and battle. Suddenly, after reading some of Howard’s letters, he is beginning to see the thematic core of the man, and therefore the depth of his stories that was previously hidden to him. For Howard’s part, he is “getting” Smith in the same manner, which Smith is not used to and which surprises him, coming as it is from the Two-Gun Texan who he thought was shallower than that. It is my contention that for all their faults, the three great Weird Tales writers all understood each other’s greatness, they realized in their own lifetimes that the three of them were special. Whereas hopeless types like S. T. Joshi will go their whole lives without discerning the true undercurrents of these relationships and the fusion of their life’s work, despite writing thousands of pages of ostensibly illuminating commentary.

Dateline mid-October 1933. Letter #179, to H. P. Lovecraft, titled “From the room embossed and paved with demon faces, in the subterranean palace of Haon-Dor.” Smith once again delves into the current Weird Tales and rates the stories:

I hope to peruse “The Thing on the Door-Step” when you get around to typing it. In spite of your disparagement, “The Festival” holds its place in my affections, and has an imaginative quality that puts it above the new stories in the current W.T. Howard has some fine romantic fantasy in “The Pool of the Black Ones”[sic]; and Long’s tale has the makings of more than a pot-boiler. With more concentration on development and detail, it would have been first-rate. I must re-read the story by Merle Prout. I liked the idea and some of the incidents; but certain crudities rather jarred upon me in the hasty perusal which I gave it. My own tale was chiefly conspicuous for certain scientific horror-touches, carefully accumulated; and if the idea of flesh-eating plants weren’t so hackneyed it would deserve a higher place.

I find this a valuable addendum to my thoughts of the last letter excerpt. Namely here we see HPL having disparaged one of his very best tales, “The Festival,” and Smith stepping in to correct what is either HPL’s self-modesty or inability to judge his own work (probably the latter, a problem Howard often shared). Then not a moment after bucking up Lovecraft, Smith does some disparaging of his own story, as usual deeming the plot too overused. I think Smith is wrong to do so; plots are ultimately mere window dressing for the story. They are a dime a dozen, overused in every venue, yet tales achieve their uniqueness not from plot but from the author’s sensibilities seeping into the execution of the telling of the story. All of the Conan tales have fairly derivative plots, yet Howard’s focus on barbarism and the decay of civilization elevate those plots into something new, they say things that haven’t ever been said in quite that way, even as the plot looks painfully familiar to narrow-minded readers.

A short Howard reference is to be had on page 236, during Letter #182 from CAS to HPL ca. early November 1933. Smith writes:

Yes, I noticed W’s plural mention of The Black Book & Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Shades of Von Junzt!

Of course, it was Robert E. Howard who invented this book and the book’s author, which have since become two of the most famous and popular invented aspects of the Cthulhu Mythos.

On page 239 we have another short mention of Howard, this time in Letter #183 to HPL dated c. 4 December 1933. CAS has just read Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep” several times, and has come away impressed. When Lovecraft sent stories to friends in manuscript form, the story would go from correspondent to correspondent in a loosely-knit circle, of which Howard was a part. CAS thus writes:

I trust that Conan and most of the others on the circulation list fully appreciate the treat in store for them. The ms. goes forward to the Cimmerian monarch today.

In late January 1934 Smith wrote another letter to HPL, in which he dissected the latest Weird Tales, singling out Howard for praise:

Howard Wandrei’s tale in the last W.T. was quite good and original, I thought. Conan, as usual, put on a very entertaining and imaginative show. Merritt’s “Woman of the Wood,” though excellent, impressed me as being somewhat overrated. The other tales in this issue were hardly noteworthy.

The Conan tale Smith had read was “Rogues in the House.”

Smith received a volume in the Not at Night anthology series in late February 1934, and wrote Lovecraft about it in Letter #187. On page 251 of the Selected Letters book he tells us:

I received also the new Not at Night anthology, Keep on the Light, and was struck by the immense superiority of the items taken from Weird Tales, over others which, I presume, are by British authors. Howard’s “Worms of the Earth” and Whitehead’s “The Chadbourne Episode” were the leaders.

On page 275 in Letter #202, this one to R. H. Barlow dated November 23rd 1936. It is the first mention of Howard by CAS in this volume since his suicide five months earlier. This was the beginning of the end for the Weird Tales Golden Age. Howard was dead; Lovecraft was a few months away from his own death, and Smith would leave the field, devastated by the loss of his peers and bedeviled by his own personal troubles.

At one point in the letter he talks to Barlow about various life troubles, and while Howard is not brought up his ghost hangs palpably over the proceedings:

I am damnably sorry to learn, both from your letter of last June and Ech-Pi-El’s more recent letters, the troubles and difficulties that you have been having. Such matters are beyond our control, and it would seem the misfortunes have a way of “ganging up” on the victim: at least, that has been my own experience. I have had enough grief, the past two years, to founder a dreadnought and am beginning to wonder if sea-bottom has yet been reached!

A bit later comes the Howard reference, where CAS writes:

Which reminds me, before I pass to other matters, that I greatly liked your sonnet-tribute to R.E.H. in the pages of our old standby.

This sonnet, titles simply “R.E.H.,” appeared in the October 1936 number of Weird Tales. Barlow was a more careful observer of Howard’s end than most others at the time; Barlow himself would take his own life years later.

A short time later, on November 27 1936, CAS wrote to HPL, in the course of which he commented that:

Howard’s death startled and shocked me as it must have shocked everyone else. It is understandable but infinitely tragic and regrettable. . .Sometimes, though, the anticipation of an event is more unbearable than the event itself; and I wonder if Howard might not have pulled through if the nurse had been less frank.

I admired Barlow’s memorial sonnet greatly. Your prose tribute, and that of Price, were fine.

But soon, HPL too would be lost. On March 23, 1937 CAS wrote to August Derleth about the death of Lovecraft a few weeks earlier on March 15 of intestinal cancer:

Dear August:

The news of Lovecraft’s death seems incredible and nightmarish, and I cannot adjust myself to it. . .it saddens me as nothing has done since my mother’s death; and, somehow, I can’t help feeling that it should have been unnecessary.
[. . .]
It is all too melancholy; and it would be no less futile than needless to expatiate on the loss to us who are left.

A week later, Derleth had decided on a plan to preserve all of Lovecraft between hardcovers, the genesis of what would soon become Arkham House. He asked Smith for information on the Cthulhu Mythos, and Smith’s reply contains the next Howard reference, in Letter #209 dated April 13 1937. Speaking of the mentions of various Cthulhuoid deities, Smith notes that:

Hastur is mentioned in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” in a listing of fabulous names that includes Bethmoora (from Dunsany) and L’mur-Kathulos and Bran (partially or wholly from R. E. Howard: though there is also a Bran in Celtic mythology).

One of the absolutely most fascinating quotes about Howard that I have ever read came on page 302, at the conclusion of a long letter to Robert Barlow dated May 16, 1937. It staggers the knowledgeable reader by virtue of it’s revelation of the forces that drove the last of the Weird Tales greats out of fiction writing, and for the truly perceptive readings the three greats gave each other’s work. Before we saw CAS marvel at Howard understanding his poetry as few others ever had; now witness Smith paying Howard the same compliment, albeit posthumously:

Writing is hard for me, since circumstances here are dolorous and terrible. Improvement in my father’s condition is more than unlikely, and I am more isolated than ever. Also, I seem to have what psychologists call a “disgust mechanism” to contend with: a disgust at the ineffable stupidity of editors and readers. I think that some of my best recent work is sculpture: and I find myself confronted with another blank wall of stupidity. Oh well and oh hell: some one will make a “discovery” when I am safely dead or incarcerated in the bughouse or living with a yellow gal in Cambodia.

Yours for the bombing of Philistia and Boetia with Chinese stinkpots,

Clark Ashton

P.S. On glancing over this letter, I note a few asperities of tone, and, in places, a lack of Arnoldian “sweetness and light.” In extenuation, I must plead that I have been pretty much at the boiling point lately.

I believe the late R. E. Howard and I would have had a grand time together lambasting civilization; that is, if I have not been misinformed as to his views. Barbarism, barbaric art, barbaric peoples, appeal more and more to me. I could never live in any modern city, and am more of an “outsider” than HPL. His “outsideness” was principally in regard to time-period; mine is one of space, too.

My God, think of what might have occurred had Howard somehow survived, and after the death of Lovecraft he and Smith struck up a far more intense correspondence, making up for the loss of HPL with a stronger link to each other. How perfect is it to see how Howard influenced and inspired the likes of CAS as much if not more than those people affected REH. REH is generally seen as dispensable in the greater schema of the Lovecraft Circle. His views contrary to the cosmicism practiced by the rest of the group, he often is dismissed as a hanger-on of sorts, the Gilligan of the group. Don Herron has acutely pointed out in the past Lovecraft’s stellar use of Howardian action in his masterpiece “The Shadow of Innsmouth,” opining that HPL could never have brought himself to that great a boil without his furious correspondence with Howard fueling his creativity at the same time, subtly influencing his writing the same way traces of Lovecraft crept into Howard’s writing. Now, we get to add to that the wonderful fancy of Clark Ashton Smith slaving away on his curious sculptures that would become one of the famous cornerstones of his artistic legend, the whole time grumbling about civilization and thinking of Howard and his Cimmerians, those images ultimately affecting the primitive grandeur of the carvings. Wonderful.

The last mention of Howard in the volume of letters is also of more than cursory interest, for it provides another nugget of Howard lore which to date I had never heard, or don’t remember hearing. Letter #217 is to Barlow on July 12th, 1937, and begins with mention of a new fan publisher on the block:

Glad to hear that the booklet impressed you so favorably. (Mr.) Claire P. Beck, aged nineteen, is the printer; address, Box 27, Lakeport Cal. . .He is desirous of bringing out a book of R. E. Howard’s stories, and also a selection of mine.

So now we have word of a Mr. Claire Beck (1919-1999) (who ran an amateur printing operation with his two brothers, Groo (?!?!) and Clyde) wanting to print a Howard volume during the same time Derleth and Wandrei were desperately trying to get Arkham House off of the ground. As it turned out, Derleth and Wandrei were the Johnnys-on-the-spot, succeeding where so many other fans failed. But between this little tidbit, along with the cryptic mention in an OAK to Dr. Howard letter of someone possibly being interested in collecting the Conan stories and/or the Costigan stories circa 1937, and with items such as Paul Spencer’s plea to reprint Howard (currently in print in The Barbaric Triumph) thrown in, it’s clear that Howard was as viable a commodity as Lovecraft during those years, with only luck and the vagaries of the marketplace nudging Lovecraft into print first via Arkham House.

The Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith is a must-buy for any fan of Robert E. Howard, as it fills in large gaps in the knowledge of one of Howard’s best literary compatriots, gaps that serve to broaden one’s formulation of the entire weird fiction and pulp scene during those years. It’s obvious to me that someday a book combining the lives of all three Weird Tales geniuses — Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith — will have to be written. There is far too much spectacular material not to give it a try. All three authors deserve to ascend through the literary ranks together, for together they fed off of each other’s talents and momentum, and their combined corpus is far more potent and rich than any one of them alone. Whoever first called them the Three Musketeers was prescient in the extreme, for truly in a literary sense they remain “All for one, and one for all.”

Dark Valley Dust Jacket

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

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


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

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

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