A Means to Freedom and the Kane Hardcovers: Get ‘Em While You Can

TC editors advertising (I refuse to use the term “pimping”) their personal literary items for sale has a long history here on the blog.  Check out this post by Leo Grin (and several subsequent).

Times are dire here in serpent-haunted SEK. Musing on such, a decision was reached by yours truly. Time to lighten the load for the journey into the future.

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Norris Chambers and the Howard House on Youtube

Here’s a communiqué from REH fan and photographer, Ben Friberg:

Howdy! Ben, warrior photog here. Just wanted to let you know I posted my tour of the Howard house with Norris Chambers on my youtube channel. Leo and I are talking with him about what he remembers of Bob. Mixed in some pictures of the Howards and cutaways of the room and other parts of the house. It’s not as zippy and quick moving as my Cimmeria post, but it’s informative and neat to listen to the last guy who knew Howard talk about the nice, gentle man he was. It will be a part of my overall movie/doc, but I decided I wanted to post it in this form, in order to share with my fellow Howard fans. It would be great to show the room and inside of the house to folks who live all over the world, and who may never get a chance to come out to Cross Plains.

Friberg shot the video in 2007 as part of a bigger REH documentary that he is working on. He and Leo Grin accompanied Norris Chambers in a tour of the Howard House and listened as Chambers reminisced about Robert E. Howard. To my mind, Friberg’s video is one of the best pieces of its type I’ve seen. To hear Mr. Chambers relate his memories of the Howards is just enthralling. Ben’s video can be found here.

A link to Friberg’s “Cimmeria post” can be found here.

Enjoy CP

This weekend is the 2009 Howard Days, and I wish great joy to those who can make it; we won’t be able to attend once more. But I thought some of you would be interested in the first trip I took to Cross Plains — one that could well be considered the forgotten Howard Days.

Everyone knows, pretty much, about the 1986 trip where the town was visited by Rusty Burke, Vern Clark, Bill Cavalier, Nancy Collins, Mark and Deanna Kimes, Steve Ghilardi, Tom Kovacs, and Graham Flanagan, on the fiftieth anniversary of Howard’s death. It was far from the first time people had come on that pilgrimage, as Leo wrote once, but it was probably the most significant. Eventually Project Pride, the Howard Museum, and Howard Days would all derive from this beginning — but it didn’t happen all at once.

Although I didn’t go on this first trip, I heard much about it; especially how it was impossible to really grasp the isolation of the post oaks and sand rough region without going there myself. So when the next time a trip was planned, I made sure to go. Burke was still in Houston, so that was where we met up. I flew in, only one of two times I ever flew that didn’t involve work. It was 1989 then, in November. They had just bought the Howard House, but not yet done anything with it. The group consisted of Rusty, Vern, Indy, Tim Arney, Gary Adrian, and myself. Though Glenn Lord couldn’t go to Cross Plains with us this time out, I did get to meet him in Houston for the first time, a great and funny guy. I believe we had good weather for the trip, as best I can recall, despite it being November. I can remember sitting on the Howard porch at night, and a stray cat coming up to us, whom we promptly named “Bob.”

We did all the traditional stuff, it seems: visited the house and the library, went to the Howard Paine University and the Brownwood grave, and were feasted by generous locals. As with the first trip, we got fed by Project Pride members Charles and Lou Rodenberger (a tasty chili, instead of the now standard — though wonderful — brisket on Caddo Peak). I remember they had a marvelous library, not what you’d expect from the Cross Plains area. We also met Charlotte Laughlin and her husband, who had done the heavy lifting in determining the books in Howard’s library. Perhaps most unique was a trip to the “other” Caddo Peak (East, not West), which was technically not legal, and decidedly hazardous. I still have a piece of rattlesnake skin I collected there. It was a beautiful sunset view, though, perhaps even more so than the familiar one.

Perhaps the reason this Cross Plains trip has been so overshadowed by the others is that it coincided with the 100th mailing of REHupa, which was a huge event on its own. It will always be a big event for me, however, though I have been back there a few more times, as it was my first.

A Texan Feast

“In fact, I’m something of a gourmand — I believe you spell it that way.” Robert E. Howard to H.P. Lovecraft, ca. December 1932.

Howard Days in Cross Plains is just around the corner. Thus and therefore (and especially since I’m unable to attend this year), I find myself yearning for fare of the Texan persuasion. My first trip to Howard Days (in 2006), I stayed over in Dallas the night before. One of my Texan cousins steered me to a little hole-in-the-wall called Lee Harvey’s in a fairly disreputable quarter of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Excellent burgers, cold beer and billiards (and discussions regarding Dan Brown and the Knights Templar) made for a memorable evening.

Soon after pulling up to the Alla Ray Morris Pavillion in Cross Plains the next day, I savored the hearty fare purveyed by Joan McCowen and the other estimable members of Project Pride. Nachos and chili just do a pilgrim’s soul good, I must say.

The gustatory highpoint (figuratively and literally) of both my trips to Robert E. Howard’s hometown would have to be the Saturday night barbecues at the Caddo Peak Ranch. Do not breath a word of this to my Kansan brethren, but Texan BBQ has it all over KC barbecue. Marjorie Middleton (and many others) put on a mouth-watering spread of Texan proportions, with attendant Lone Star hospitality.

However, my trips to Cross Plains were but the latest of my personal forays into the splendrous fields of Texan cuisine. Ever since the Christmas of ’76, I’ve visited Texas and sampled its culinary wares. Having relatives in the Dallas area helps mightily in that regard. Probably my most memorable visit (in regards to Texan food) was in 1980. In the short week I was there, my uncle took me to the legendary Tolbert’s Chili Parlor (founded by a Texan with the most Howardian moniker of “Frank X. Tolbert”) and a Tex-Mex restaurant (name unremembered) which served a delectable (and still unknown-beyond-Texas, at the time) dish called “fajitas”. Yeah, I thought my Uncle Gary Bradbury was pretty cool.

Robert E. Howard was, by his own admission, a bit of a “gourmand.” Judging from what Rusty Burke cites in “The Gustatory REH,” Howard was not laying claim to a false title. For a small-town Central Texas boy who reached manhood before the Second World War, REH’s tastes in food were wide-ranging (indicative of his far-reaching studies in numerous other areas). In his letters, Howard speaks of his appreciation for Mexican, Italian, German, Creole (and, by extension, Caribbean) cuisines. Such might be more likely expected (in that era) from a well-heeled sophisticate born to a more cosmopolitan clime.

That said and noted, I believe Robert E. Howard would be highly pleased by the latest (July 2009) issue of Saveur magazine, which is on newsstands as we speak. Most fortuitously (considering that Howard Days are just around 120-121_saveur_cover_306the corner), the editors and writers of Saveur (several of whom have Texan connections) decided to dedicate their most recent issue to the food-ways of the Lone Star State. To my knowledge, Saveur has never devoted an entire issue, cover to cover, to just one region, state or country (depending on whether you’re a Texan or not, the “state” or “country” designation may be problematic).

So, a singular honor has been granted to Texan cuisine by the finest cooking magazine in print (which Saveur is, in my opinion). Several chapters in the July 2009 issue relate specifically to Robert E. Howard’s opinions and tastes. Here’s a few… (Continue reading this post)

His Like Will Not Be Here Again

This has been an incredibly hard post to compose for a myriad of reasons. Steve Tompkins was nonpareil. His wit, his style, his awe-inspiring intelligence, his impact on Howard studies (and weird literature studies in general), his sheer output; there simply has not been any commentator on our beloved genre(s) quite like Mr. Tompkins. Many writers have pontificated about this or that aspect of weird/fantastic literature. Not one did so in quite the way that he did, nor did they do it quite so well, in this blogger’s opinion.

I never met Steve Tompkins (though we had a near miss at WFC ’06). I corresponded with him for about right on four weeks. Many others who knew him much better have already weighed in with praise for the man and his work. I can only give my perspective as a fan and as someone who hoped to call Steve Tompkins a friend someday.

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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.

Saluting the First Lady of Howardom: Joan McCowen

A Special Place

It’s true that REH wrote irresistibly thrilling stories. But, let’s face it, his life was about as exciting as a bus ride through Kansas. I don’t see why people hooked on the stimulation of Conan stories would travel great distances — spending $4000 or so, in the case of Flanagan — to examine the extremely private and extremely dull life of REH.

By all accounts, Robert E. Howard was an overly sheltered hot-house flower who spent his brief life in a room typing.

It’s weird.

— newspaperman Kent Biffle, writing in the Dallas Morning News, June 22, 1986 soon after attending the very first Howard Days

Howardists know all-too-well the peculiar combination of blithe ignorance and petty maliciousness frequently directed at Robert E. Howard by tonsured men of the journalistic cloth. In Biffle’s case, decades earlier he had been one of the young reporters on the scene in Dealey Plaza during that location’s most horrifying and chaotic afternoon — I suppose to him seismic events like that are what make one’s life truly exciting. In any case, if a small group of fans in 1986 caused him to scratch his head in consternation, it must be positively unsettling for him these days to ponder things like the Robert E. Howard House now a literary museum on the National Register of Historic Places, or REH’s life now immortalized by Hollywood in 1996’s The Whole Wide World. All of that translates into an awful lot of people obsessed with what Biffle once dismissed as an “extremely dull life.”

Anyone with even a modicum of interest in men and women of letters, though, can’t help but think that it’s Biffle’s disdain for literary spirit quests that comes across as truly weird. For the majority of us, touring the watering holes of favored authors is plenty exciting. At the time of Biffle’s article, Rusty Burke printed a rebuttal in his REHupa ‘zine, specifically a quote from A Literary Tour Guide to the United States: South and Southwest by Rita Stein, who in her book explains that, “Standing in a house where one’s favorite author lived, or seeing the desk at which he or she wrote, or visiting the haunts the writer once knew establishes a certain kinship with that writer.” Don Herron, the Godfather of Howard literary criticism (and, as it happens, the host of the longest-running literary walking tour in the United States), said much the same thing twenty-three years ago in his endlessly stimulating volume The Literary World of San Francisco & Its Environs:

The attraction of these writers’ homes and haunts, for many of us, is irresistible. In 1870 California’s own Joaquin Miller left for England to place a laurel wreath on Byron’s neglected tomb, to see sites associated with Burns and Scott, to track in London the steps of Browning, Bayard Taylor, and Tom Hood. The great Chicago bookman Vincent Starrett (who as a young reporter broke the story that the Literary Lion of 1800s San Francisco, Ambrose Bierce, had disappeared into Pancho Villa’s Mexico) recalls meeting the mystic writer Arthur Machen in London in 1924. As they strolled down a lane, Machen pointed to a plaque marking a home of Thomas Hood, Sr., and exclaimed “All over London!” (One of these London literary plaques on a dwelling place of W. B. Yeats compelled Sylvia Plath to take a five-year lease on the flat, where she committed suicide.) The LA writer Charles Bukowski mentions discovering John Fante’s novel Ask the Dust (1939): “Fante was my god and I knew that gods should be left alone, one didn’t bang at their door. Yet I liked to guess about where he lived on Angel’s Flight and I imagined it possible that he still lived there. Almost every day I walked by and I thought is that the window Carmilla crawled through? And, is that the hotel door? Is that the lobby? I never knew.”

Howard fans of all stripes have drifted into Cross Plains for decades, each compelled by the same siren song that motivated the likes of Miller, Starrett, Plath, and Bukowski. Each came searching for literary touchstones to connect with on an almost spiritual level. Award-winning science fiction writer Howard Waldrop is on record as having made the Quixotic trip as a youth way back in 1966:

June 11, 1966: A clear day that should come off hot. It is 6:30 in the morning, and my father tells me to use his car rather than my old ’51 Chevy for the trip. A trip that will take me a hundred and fifty miles there and a much longer way back, it seems…I was going out in search of part of America and Texas gone exactly thirty years ago to that day…I had only a vague idea of what to do or where to go…

Greenleaf Memorial Cemetery…I parked the car, got out and began to walk. Row on row of stones, marble, granite. Most are old, the marble is grayed or black, the raised letters are beginning to wear. The cemetery is huge, extending nearly a half-mile down the roadfront, at least that wide back from the road…two-thirds of the way back, near the center, I came on the marker, a huge one. HOWARD….

I stood for awhile, then went back to the car, turned it around and left. I was heading home. Robert Ervin Howard was behind me, towards the lowering sun. Back there was his short life, the immense amount of fiction he turned out, and the loneliness of his days….He wrote, out here in this open West Texas land, with nothing from his surroundings conducive to writing. His mind spanned ages, continents, the stars, the gods. And then he was gone.

In October 1965 famed fantasy poet Richard Tierney (Collected Poems: Nightmares and Visions, et al.) also made the journey, memorializing the event in his private journal (an excerpt of which was later published in The Cimmerian V1n2):

Oct. 21, Thurs.

We took off and drove up through the post-oak country to Brownwood, Texas, the former stomping grounds of Robert E. Howard…in the afternoon, we drove to Cross Plains, Howard’s home town. I’ve seldom seen a more dusty, nondescript little town in this country…We found [Howard’s house] — an old wooden house with peeling white paint and a weedy lawn, surrounded by a rickety picket fence. An old woman saw me taking pictures of the house and came out to talk. She lived there, now, and she had known Bob Howard in the old days.

On the way back to Brownwood I got some pictures of the Post Oak country around sunset. We got a motel room in Brownwood, bought some beer, and read aloud from certain parts of Howard’s story “The Black Stone.”

Oct. 22, Friday

Don & I located Robert E. Howard’s grave in the Greenleaf Cemetery near Brownwood. He is buried with both his parents under one headstone, which is probably fitting. Too bad I couldn’t have visited his grave on a dark, windy night bearing wine and strange incense for oblations; that would have been more appropriate.

Any number of writers, scholars, and fans from around the world have followed suit. The first meager (by today’s standards) Howard Days saw a paltry ten fans attend, and what gave Kent Biffle such pause was that two had traveled from Switzerland and one all the way from Australia, not knowing what to expect but determined to make what seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime trip to explore the authentic American Southwest milieu of their favorite writer.

Even before the advent of Howard Days, journeys to Cross Plains from halfway around the world were not unheard of. One of my favorite stories was detailed in The Cimmerian V4n1, when in an article titled “On the Road to Cross Plains” British Howard fan Chris Green told of his long-ago “CROSS PLAINS OR BUST” foray into Texas from England:

In the Summer of 1985, I took a hitchhiking and bus trip across the USA, coast-to-coast and back again on very little money, sleeping rough from time to time and skipping meals often, all for the sheer joy of making a journey I had dreamed of for years. Being young, I didn’t mind the hardships. I’d been a Howard fan since the mid-’70s, having come across him via the Marvel comics adaptations, and later a copy of the Sphere Conan the Conqueror, which I happened across in a secondhand bookshop. After reading that I was hooked for life, so naturally when the time came to take the plunge and make what I saw at the time as my Kerouac-esque epic journey, I had to make Texas a major part of my itinerary…Just seeing the town sign as we entered the outskirts gave me a tingle down my spine. We eventually located the Howard House, which looked kind of sad and shabby, with peeling paint and an overgrown yard, but nonetheless it was strangely thrilling to me.

Each one of these wanderers epitomize the literary natures and poetic souls that leave the Kent Biffles of the world confused and peevish. Each visited Howard’s house and whatever haunts they could locate, and even as they soaked in the atmosphere they harbored a flood of unanswered questions. Was that the shed where Howard lifted weights and practiced boxing? Was that the yard where Howard posed for sword-wielding pictures with his friends? Was that the exact spot in the dirt driveway where Howard’s car was on that fatal June morning in 1936? For the most part, these questing aficionados of the Howard legend were left with Bukowski’s lament on their lips: I never knew.

It didn’t help that many residents of the town of Cross Plains were for many decades openly hostile to Howard’s memory. For fifty years after his death there were no signs, no markers, no evidence of any kind that one of the most well-known fictional characters of the twentieth century had been willed into reality right there in Cross Plains. All throughout that time, the Howard House was privately owned and for the most part inaccessible to fans, most of Howard’s friends were either dead, sullenly behind closed doors, or had moved away long ago, and those dwindling few who still remembered Robert E. Howard were likely to be as scornful of the the town’s most famous son as Kent Biffle in full snob mode.

But a funny thing has happened in the twenty-two years since the entire notion of a Robert E. Howard Days was declared “weird” in the Dallas Morning News. Almost like magic, such lame attempts at ghettoization have given way to literary canonization by academic and popular presses, critical respect in newspapers, magazines, and books, and major Howard-themed events at GenCon, the World Fantasy Convention, and in Cross Plains itself. Since that first fledgling Howard Days, when a mere ten souls made the trek to Howard’s hometown and broke bread with an unimpressed Biffle, the yearly pilgrimage of his most dedicated acolytes has grown by leaps and bounds. In 2006, the year of Howard’s centenary, over three-hundred fans showed up to soak up Howard’s “extremely dull” life, coming from as far away as England and Germany.

These days, a hardcore Robert E. Howard reader can come to Cross Plains on a lark, as Hollywood actor Bruce Boxleitner (Tron, Babylon 5, Heroes) did a few years back, and be greeted by numerous signs around town, a full-fledged and lovingly restored Howard Home and Museum, and even an enormous Conan the Cimmerian painted on the side of the town Library:

Many people, from all around the country and all walks of life, have contributed to this Renaissance. But crucially, it was some of the citizens in Cross Plains itself who managed much of the heavy lifting during the lean early years of struggle for very little gain. It is they who created a local booster organization called Project Pride, who in turn bought the Howard House, painstakingly restored it to its historical 1930s grandeur, put up the signs around town, established a Howard collection at the Library, and began the annual Howard Days festival that is now a favorite pilgrimage for fans across the country and around the world. The Howardian faithful have benefited immensely from the symbiotic relationship Project Pride has forged with the wider world of fandom. Few authors have the sort of hometown footprint and respect that Robert E. Howard is now accorded in Cross Plains, and for that every fan should be eternally grateful.

A Special Woman

The preceding is all just a long way of explaining the significant import of an event being held this afternoon. A celebration is scheduled from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Cross Plains library, to honor the woman who as much as anyone is responsible for the hugely successful twenty-year push to preserve and revere Howard’s memory in his hometown. Her name is Joan McCowen, and those of us who know Cross Plains well and visit often see her as nothing less than a living legend, a Herculean champion for literature who for decades has served as a beloved den mother to the ever-growing bands of rowdy scholars and fans who descend on Cross Plains each year.

(above: Joan McCowen in 2007, posing in the hallway of the Howard House with fellow Project Pride docent Anne Rowe.)

In 1986, in the wake of the very first Howard Days gathering, Rusty Burke wrote a lengthy trip report on the event for the eighty-second mailing of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association. Marveling at the generous helpings of hospitality, friendship, and Howard history granted to him and his fellow attendees, he wrote at the time, “I’m not very good at putting emotions into words. It had far surpassed anything I thought at all reasonable to expect. I’d been led all these years to believe that the people of Cross Plains considered Howard a wacko and had little use for him. My first inkling that this might not be entirely true was my meeting with Joan McCowen at the Library in March.” That meeting had occurred when Rusty had passed through town (he lived in Houston at the time) and stopped into the library where Joan was working. As he wrote in 2002: “This was my first real connection with Cross Plains, and I am proud to say that now, sixteen years later, I have many good friends there, including Joan McCowen and her husband, Alton. Cross Plains has become a second home, perhaps a spiritual home, to me.”

Even before meeting Rusty, Joan had been using her position at the library to begin building a collection of Howard books there, starting with, in Rusty’s words, “mostly battered Ace Conan paperbacks.” She had already read Dark Valley Destiny by that time, and specifically recalls that it was Howard’s poetry that most captured her attention. So it was that this Cross Plains expatriate (she had been married in Illinois in 1951, and had later lived in San Diego with her husband until they both retired to Cross Plains in 1977) became an invaluable and influential champion for Robert E. Howard in the small, sleepy town. And when in 1986 Rusty Burke came calling, she was ready and willing to help him plan a special Howardian-themed gathering, exactly fifty years after the fictioneer’s death. It was the first of its kind, and its success would directly lead to Project Pride’s decision to buy and restore the Howard House and establish an annual Robert E. Howard Days.

Reading back through those old 1986 REHupa mailings, it’s clear that — for all the excitement their group vacation to Texas was generating — Rusty and the others were hedging their bets. They had no idea what to expect when they arrived in Cross Plains, and were simply hoping for something along the lines of what Waldrop and Tierney experienced: a bit of interaction with a few of the more amendable townsfolk, an opportunity to snap a picture or two, and the chance to make that subtle but profound connection with a favorite author and his home that so many of us yearn for.

But what Rusty and the others didn’t count on was the sheer thoughtfulness and ingenuity of Mrs. McCowen. For just a taste of the difference she has made for fans of Robert E. Howard, compare the somewhat forlorn and lonesome reminiscences of Mssrs. Waldrop, Tierney, and Green printed above with this description from Rusty of his kid-in-a-candy-store, fantasy come true, we’ve-arrived-in-Mecca blowout in 1986:

More surprises were in store for us when we entered the library. I would never have thought so many people would be there! I have no idea what the final count might have been, but there must have been forty or fifty at any one time — and this is not a huge library by any stretch of the imagination. A lot of them were really decked-out, making me feel very self-conscious (fortunately, the gang of “visiting scholars” was fairly presentable). We were quickly fitted with name tags, and mingled with the group. I got busy unloading the box of books we’d all chipped in to contribute to the library…I was a bit surprised to find that the donation was to be officially accepted not by Mrs. Loving or Mrs. McCowen, but by one of the town alderman….

Another treat was now in store for me…I got to meet and chat with Mrs. Alla Ray Morris and her mother, Alla Ray Kuykendall — their heirs of the Howard estate…She has done us the remarkable favor of bringing along a number of Bob Howard’s typescripts, which were displayed on a card table for us to inspect. These included the original mss. of “Lord of the Dead,” “The Black Moon,” “The Isle of Pirate’s Doom” and others. One feature of the manuscripts that immediately caught my eye was that Bob Howard didn’t believe in margins — he used every square inch of paper. Once again, that powerful feeling of spiritual kinship arose, as I reverently held these manuscripts — pages Bob Howard himself had typed, straight from his imagination, through his fingers and onto the paper. It was a transcendent experience, and from the bottom of my heart I thank Mrs. Morris for making these available to us….

One interesting experience was meeting a teenager from Rosenburg, which is south of Houston. He and his parents were traveling to New Mexico on vacation, and, a Conan fan, he had talked them into driving through Cross Plains along the way. He was quite surprised to see the “Robert E. Howard Day” sign in the library window….

No words I can ever commit to paper will begin to express the depth of my appreciation to these fine women and men, who did so much to make us welcome, and to make our trip so worthwhile. As I’ve said, they picked up some friends in faraway places, for life.

(above: Joan McCowen in 1986, holding court outside the Cross Plains Public Library with some of the small band of Howardists who had roared into town for the very first Robert E. Howard Day. REHupa editor Bill “Indy” Cavalier is standing at left — dig those 1980s bicycle short-shorts! And the Dean of Howard Studies, Glenn Lord, is in the peach shirt.)

Ponder all of that for a moment. From lonely fans standing out in the dusty road saying I never knew, to teenage fans passing through town on a whim and finding a raging Howard Day party at the town library, complete with original typescripts and the world’s foremost Howard scholars. That’s the difference Joan McCowen and her compatriots in Project Pride have made to our field, and since 1986 those nascent contributions have borne ever more fruit. Think of all the discoveries fans have made while visiting Cross Plains for Howard Days: the people they’ve interviewed, the sites they’ve explored, the treasures they’ve found (much of it dutifully recorded in The Cimmerian over the past half-decade). How different Howardian history would have been if Mrs. McCowen had airily blown off Rusty during his first contact, perhaps even feeding him some variation of Biffle’s “Howard was just a boring wacko, so why bother?” line!

But of course, someone with the grace, intelligence, and dedication of Joan McCowen would never think of doing such a thing. As the town librarian, as a standout and indispensable member of Project Pride, and as a fan of both great writing and of history, she has always been on the side of the angels.

At the end of his 1986 trip, Rusty experienced the kind of quiet exultation that so many of us have shared in later years:

Each of us had come to this moment, traveling hundreds, or thousands, of miles, because we do feel a spiritual kinship with Robert E. Howard. This was a family affair, then, and perhaps that’s why it eluded Kent Biffle. A reporter is always doomed to stand outside a family circle. He can report a family’s reunion, their sharing of memories and feelings of the departed, but he can never share in them, and so he can never truly understand. But we understand, and we joined together in giving thanks for the wonderful talent of Bob Howard, and the enrichment he brought to our lives. There, standing under a sunny Texas sky, I felt again that spiritual kinship — and now, not only with Bob Howard, but with these other people who had come so many miles to be here. A bond was strengthened here, one that had been formed in REHupa, but now was strengthened through shared experience. I will never forget these moments.

Nor will any of the rest of the thousands of fans who over the years have dropped everything, spent thousands of dollars, and trekked across untold leagues to come to Cross Plains and partake of the literary smorgasbord that Mrs. McCowen and Project Pride have kept open for Howard fans for over two decades now.

Joan is now getting up there in years, and is afflicted by a cancer that has unfortunately spread. Her beloved husband of over a half a century, Alton, died the summer before last, a terrible blow for all of us that follows the loss of so many other longstanding friends of Howard fandom in Cross Plains: Morris Cavanaugh, Joe Hanke, Clara Nell Spencer, Jack Scott, Billie Ruth Loving, Joe Howser, Zora Mae Bryant, Lois Garrett. None of us knows when or how we will leave this earth, and so it is particularly timely and appropriate that the town of Cross Plains is setting aside December 6, 2008 to honor one of their most loved citizens. Joan has friends not only throughout Cross Plains but throughout Howardom, and from what I hear many of the latter are planning to attend the celebration. For anyone interested and able, it’s being held in the town library from 2-3pm. If you are in Texas and within striking distance, do show up and pay your respects to a wonderful lady and her legacy of service, both to Cross Plains and to the memory of its most famous son.

I wish I could be there myself, alas, but in lieu of that I’ve tried my level best to bring us all there in spirit with this post. Rusty was right all of those years ago: we who have been to Cross Plains many times and who have befriended the members of Project Pride feel a spiritual connection to the town and to our surrogate family there, linked as we are by one common thread: the life and work of Robert E. Howard. And in large part we have Mrs. Joan McCowen, librarian extraordinaire, to thank for that. Whatever trials Joan may be facing, whatever the future holds for her, I hope she gains much comfort from knowing that she has changed untold lives for the better during her long and productive life. And the prodigious love and appreciation of each and every one of those people will accompany her from now until the end and beyond, wherever her ever luminous and undimmed spirit may roam.

May God bless and keep Joan McCowen, now and forever. You’re the best, girl.

(above: Joan McCowen in 2006, flanked by well-known Howardists and Cross Plains regulars Rusty Burke and [redacted]. You can read Rusty’s tribute to Joan here.)

Lois Garrett, R.I.P.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bird Brains. . . .

Don Herron has forwarded me a message from the REH Inner Circle group, where he and Frank Coffman were reminiscing about the 2007 Howard Days festival, specifically an event that occurred on our drive back to Cross Plains from Enchanted Rock State Park. We had all gorged on sausage and beer at a fantastic German restaurant in the ‘burg — that would be Fredericksburg, a town legendary for its amazing Teutonic cuisine. While the rest of our group dozed contentedly, Don Herron navigated down an endless Texas highway in the light of the dying sun. Suddenly, WHACK! — something fairly big hit the windshield full on. Feathers and gore splattered across the glass and up over the hood. In an instant it was over, leaving only a quivering glob of bird brains on the windshield to mark what had happened:


Everyone was startled into wakefulness by the sound, but the van itself hadn’t swerved an inch. Don drove onward, his nerves and thews all steel springs and whalebone, in total control of the vehicle:


Throughout the van rose a mad howl of exultation as we beheld the quivering remnants of that ghastly communion between bird and barbaric man. We beat our chests and tore our hair and tattooed a lugubrious melody on our shields, as drenched in ornithographic bloodlust as Solomon Kane in “Wings in the Night.” We knew, with a dread instinct older than Atlantis and Acheron, that this fallen creature was but an emmisary for enemy legions far more horrifying. Yet as the sun fled and darkness engulfed the world, we drifted back into an easy sleep, secure in the knowledge that the Dark Barbarian was at the wheel, holding the terrors of the night at bay with an icy stare that was hoary when the Earth was young.

UPDATE: I’ve been alerted that the people reminiscing were hoping to see some bird brain sunset pics. These two are the best I have:



Alton McCowen, R.I.P.


Just received the following missive from Arlene Stephenson of Project Pride in Cross Plains:

Fellows, felt the guys would all want to know that Alton McCowen passed away late yesterday [Friday]. EMS picked him up, died shortly after from an aneurysm. We were all just kind of getting used to the fact that Joan [Alton’s wife, and a founding member of Howard Days] had been diagnosed with lung cancer and getting lined up with treatment options.

No arrangements have been made yet. The home address is 15980 FM 880 S, Cross Plains, TX 76443.

Photo by Russell Andrew

Alton was an irreplaceable paragon to both Howard Days and the town of Cross Plains. I first knew him as Cross Plains Librarian Joan McCowen’s stoic husband, quietly moving in the background helping with all of the little tasks that go into making REH Days work. As I befriended more folks in Cross Plains, I learned that Alton was not just an occasional assistant to Project Pride, but an invaluable presence at the Howard House proper, doing much of the upkeep and restoration duties year-round.

Later still I learned of his artistic side, as it was he who had taken the old pickets of the replaced Howard House fence and begun making picture frames out of them to sell in the gift shop (that story was told by Era Lee Hanke in “Old Pickets Find New Homes” in The Cimmerian V2n4) — all of you lucky enough to have bought one of those while they were available have Alton to thank for it.

Photo by Russell Andrew

It was in 2002 that Alton hung around the festivities long enough for me to have my first real conversation with him. We talked for hours about the history of Cross Plains and Texas, and when Ed Waterman and I began asking questions about the flora and fauna of the region, he suggested we take a ride so he could escort us down the back roads and point out various landmarks. We drove away the afternoon with Alton showing us tinhorns where the old town had been, and the difference between things like live oaks and mesquite, and of course he made a point of showing us some post oaks & sand roughs, explaining to us neophytes their importance to the geography of the region.

Meeting Alton thus became the highlight of the weekend for me, and as a result I came up with the idea of arranging a yearly bus tour for REH Days attendees, with Alton as guide. Project Pride was enthusiastic about the idea, and so 2003 became the first year with a “Cross Plains Bus Tour.” Those of you fortunate enough to take one know how informative and entertaining they were. Amazing vistas of Cross Plains and environs, combined with a detailed knowledge of the region imparted by Alton in his laconic, inimitable manner.

Photo by Matt Herridge

In the last two years eye trouble prevented him from handling the guide duties the way he used to, and so locals Don Clark and Jack Baum, along with Howard scholars Rusty Burke and [redacted], picked up the slack. Now that Alton is gone, I hope those gentlemen will continue to run the tour Alton created for us. Perhaps they can call it “The Alton McCowen Bus Tour” in his memory.

Photo by Russell Andrew

I feel grateful that this summer I was able to spend several hours of quality time with Alton, catching up on Cross Plains gossip, listening to his vision and health woes and his many historical reminiscences, and especially looking at some wonderful old pictures of his family he had discovered, taken when he was just a boy, sepia photographs as clear and evocative as the ones we have of REH from the same time. We had a particularly great talk together — who knows, maybe because on some level he suspected it might be our last. In any event, it leaves me with strong, fond memories to remember him by, and that’s a priceless gift.

Photo by Russell Andrew

Back in 2002, after a weekend of getting to know each other, Alton approached me and my compatriots on Sunday morning, after Howard Days had ended, and gave us each a treasure: a long wood shingle from the original roof of the Howard House, specifically from the area right over Howard’s bedroom, shingles that many years earlier had quietly sat over REH while he pounded out his stories. Alton had patiently written a short note of provenance and signature on each one, and that year we went home with a piece of memorabilia that most fans never get to see.

I’ve since followed Alton’s example and given mine away to another Howard fan who I knew would appreciate and care for it, but I will never forget his gesture, or the many other kindnesses he bestowed upon fans over decades of work as a member of Project Pride. He will be dearly missed.


Alton’s wife Joan (on left, with Anne Rone) must be devastated, and I’m sure she would appreciate any condolences thoughtful Howard fans would send her way. Use the address Arlene provides above.

MARK ADDS: Both Alton and Joan have been good, loyal friends of Howard fans over the years, giving of themselves over and over again, and not just during REH Days, either. Joan helped me on several of my own special projects, and I always enjoyed Alton’s stories and observations during the bus tour. He was also instrumental in helping me piece together the history of the ice house, which has become a feature during the walking tour. Rest in peace, Alton. You will be missed.

LEO ADDS: Here’s Alton’s obituary:

Alton McCowen, age 75, of Cross Plains, passed away Friday, August 24, 2007 in Abilene.

Funeral services will be at 10:00 a.m. on Monday, August 27, 2007 at Higginbotham Chapel in Cross Plains with Matt McGowen officiating; burial will follow in the Cross Plains Cemetery.

He was born to Raymond Alton and Donie (Scott) McCowen in Shreveport, LA on September 14, 1931. After graduation Alton joined the U.S. Air Force. He married Joan Thomas in Park Ridge, IL on March 31, 1951. After leaving the service they made their home in San Diego, CA where he worked at the San Diego Gas and Electric Company until 1977 when he retired and moved to Cross Plains. After moving back to Cross Plains, Alton then worked as a general carpenter and handyman.

He is survived by his wife Joan McCowen of Cross Plains; numerous cousins including, Burlie Paul McCowenof Abilene, Bobby Jack McCowen, Rubin McCowen, Charlene McGowen and Jimmy McCowen all of Cross Plains; and Bonita Horton of VA.

There will be a time of visitation and sharing of memories Sunday, August 26, 2007 at Higginbotham Funeral Home at 5:00 to 6:00 p.m.

In lieu of flowers donations maybe made to the Cross Plains Public Library, PO Box 333, Cross Plains, TX 76443.