Linkage and Thinkage

Howardists’ Howardist Charles Hoffman turns in an Amazonian review of The Collected Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard. He’s none too affrighted by “Rattle of Bones” (for my part I don’t think “Delenda Est” is classifiable as a horror story unless one is on the payroll of the late-period Roman Empire) and sticks up for the excluded “The Hyena,” “Black Wind Blowing,” and especially “The People of the Black Coast.” I tried to push that story hard in a TC essay back in February, but it seems that “People” is a rare blind spot for His Editorial Excellency Rusty Burke; perhaps he’s simply dined too well on too many crabmeat dinners over the years to accept the crustaceans’ oversized and supersapient brethren as a credible threat.

Today is of course Black Friday for those of us who unswooningly prefer the gore-and-gravedirt-reeking, hemoglobin-slurping, food-chain-topping undead of yester-fiction, so it’s great to see Hoffman plugging The Collected Horror Stories at the expense of “contemporary horror…recently dominated by chicks’ overheated erotic fantasies about their imaginary vampire boyfriends.” I don’t think Del Rey did themselves any favors in terms of imprinting a strong visual identity for each REH collection this time, though. Here’s the Greg Staples tentacular spectacular that for months was the front runner for front cover:

Instead they went with this:

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Howard Gets In Bed With Sylvia

Here’s an interesting blog post on Howard that is apparently four years old, yet I’d never come across it before. In between blasts of the too-cool-for-school style so common to pop-culture bloggers, you’ll find some solid red meat to chew on.

The ideological comparison with Plath is interesting. I’ve always liked her tombstone, which quotes the Hindu adage, “Even amidst fierce flames, the golden lotus can be planted.” One young woman, writing of Plath on her blog, nails the appeal — what one might call the Howardian essence — of her haunting verse:

Her poems are a world of fairytales gone terribly wrong…Her poems are unforgettable because they are, like her, at once violent and vulnerable. They speak, at once, to both the child and the beast within us.

Just so. The violent, vulnerable Texan would have heartily agreed.

Wikidiots

I’ve just about given up on REH’s Wikipedia page, as it’s nigh impossible to keep up with all of the stupid and destructive edits being inflicted on otherwise good text.

One guy recently stumbled onto the page and promptly deleted key sentences in the heavily footnoted opening, with the explanation that they were “too POV” for Wikipedia. He then proceeded to delve into the footnotes and edit direct quotations from books that were excerpted, deleting whole sentences without any ellipse or other signal that the quote had been tampered with.

Another guy deleted the sentences that said, “H. P. Lovecraft was severely affected by the death of his friend, and within a year would die himself of intestinal cancer. Clark Ashton Smith (the third member of the great triumvirate of Weird Tales) was stricken by the deaths of Howard and Lovecraft as well as those of his own parents, and soon stopped writing fiction himself, fading from the scene,” explaining that he had “Removed unsourced suggestion that Howard’s death caused Lovecraft’s cancer and Smith’s giving up writing.” Caused Lovecraft’s cancer? How can you fight off an endless assault from guys who can’t even properly read what is before their eyes without grossly misinterpreting clear declarative sentences.

When I get time I am going to post somewhere other than Wikipedia the original, un-Wikidioted version of that Robert E. Howard entry, and perhaps expand it over time into a decent biographical sketch. Somewhere it will be safe from mass attrition, relentless banalization, and general dumbing down.

“The Horror….”

This volume is set to be loosed onto a terrified populace just in time for Halloween, on Tuesday October 28, 2008. There’s been no Table of Contents released for this as far as I know (Rusty, if the lineup is set give us a sneak-peek rundown at REHupa.com!), but it’s going to be big, and chock full of Howard’s most memorable horror tales and verse.

Some readers who haven’t read widely in this area of the Texan’s oeuvre might be asking, “Exactly how good was Robert E. Howard at horror?” The most influential horror writer of the twentieth century, H. P. Lovecraft, wrote that

He [REH] was almost alone in his ability to create real emotions of fear and of dread suspense. Contrast his “Black Canaan” with the pallid synthetic pap comprising the rest of the current issue of W. T. Bloch and Derleth are clever enough technically — but for stark, living fear…the actual smell and feel and darkness and brooding horror and impending doom that inhere in that nighted, moss-hunted jungle…what other writer is even in the running with REH?

Now granted, Lovecraft didn’t live to see Robert Bloch write Psycho, and thank God he didn’t live to see what Derleth did to his Mythos, but I think the point stands. If you want a more modern take on Howard’s horror credentials, Stephen King wrote in his 1981 critical overview Danse Macabre that Howard’s “Pigeons from Hell” was “one of the finest horror stories of our century.” That same tale was adapted for Boris Karloff’s Thriller, and is still considered one of the scariest episodes of anthology horror television ever produced. Howard’s horror stories have lots of fans — check out this blog post, where the proprietor proclaims that “The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard is the exact reason Peggy and I established the Dark Forces Book Group.”

Yep, Howard’s horror stories and poetry are pretty freakin’ awesome, and it’s going to be wonderful to have the best of them collected in one textually pure, fully-illustrated volume. All praise to Rusty Burke, Patrice Louinet, and the rest of the Del Rey editorial gang for making this book happen.

UPDATE: Rusty has just posted the Table of Contents along with some art samples and more details at the REHupa website. Looks like an incredibly meaty book.

“Red Shadows”: Subgenre-Dawn’s Early Light?

Next month if nothing happens the Weird Tales publishes my “Red Shadows” which according to the announcement is “Red Shadows on black trails — thrilling adventures and blood-freezing perils — savage magic and strange sacrifices to the Black God. The story moves swiftly and without the slightest letdown in interest through a series of startling episodes and wild adventure to end in a smashing climax in a glade of an African forest. A story that grips the reader and carries him along in utter fascination by its eery succession of strange and weird happenings.” The announcement does it a fair amount of justice I suppose.
Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith, circa June 1928

In “Conan the Argonaut,” their must-read lead article for the worth-the-wait TCV5n4, Morgan Holmes and George Knight say of ‘The Shadow Kingdom,” “That story was Sword-and-Sorcery’s magnificent coming-out party.” Howard’s antediluvian showstopper is usually seen that way, as the beginning of what has been such a beautiful friendship between fantasy, adventure, and horror in the form of a new subgenre. But every once in a while someone is moved to contest the consensus by asking, what about Solomon Kane? He beat Kull into print by a year; “Red Shadows” in the August 1928 Weird Tales was followed by “Skulls in the Stars” in the January 1929 issue. Why isn’t the Devonian (Devonshireman?) rather than the Atlantean accorded the status of having been first to climb into the cockpit as sword-and-sorcery’s test pilot?

My blog-brother Finn would seem to be one such dissenter; in “Two-Gun Musketeer: Robert E. Howard’s Weird Tales,” his introduction to Shadow Kingdoms: The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume One, Mark writes “Howard invented the sword and sorcery tale as we define it with his genre-breaking Solomon Kane.” He regards “The Shadow Kingdom” as then taking “the sword and sorcery concept one step further” by deleting “any semblance of the world we know.”

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Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance — Plus Bodysnatching?

The tug-of-war for the remains of a fallen champion is a motif as old as the Iliad, and in today’s New York Times Ian Urbina fills us in on just such a struggle for Edgar Allan Poe’s corpse and corpus:

…Last year Edward Pettit, a Poe scholar in Philadelphia, began arguing that Poe’s remains belong in Philadelphia. Poe wrote many of his most noteworthy works there and, according to Mr. Pettit, that city’s rampant crime and violence in the mid-19th century framed Poe’s sinister outlook and inspired his creation of the detective fiction genre.
“So, Philadelphians, let’s hop in our cars, drive down I-95 and appropriate a body from a certain Baltimore cemetery,” Mr. Pettit wrote in an article for the Philadelphia City Paper in October. “I’ll bring the shovel.”
So far, no one has taken up Mr. Pettit’s call for Philadelphia’s best grave robbers to bring home the city’s prodigal son before the bicentennial of Poe’s birth in January 2009. But the ghoulish argument between the cities over the body and legacy of the master of the macabre has continued in blogs and newspapers, and on Jan. 13 Mr. Pettit is to square off with an opponent from Baltimore to settle the matter in a debate at the Philadelphia Free Library.
“Philadelphia can keep its broken bell and its cheese steak, but Poe’s body isn’t going anywhere,” said Jeff Jerome, the curator of the Poe House in Baltimore and Mr. Pettit’s opponent in the debate.
“If they want a body, they can have John Wilkes Booth,” Mr. Jerome added, referring to Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, who is also buried in Baltimore.

In a nation where the next vice president could very well be a politician whose first instinct after taking office as mayor was to ban various books in her town’s library (Which might explain why she attended so many colleges in so few years: she kept being offended every time she ventured into the stacks of the successive institutions of learning), it’s reassuring to see cities fighting over a major writer. Urbina briefly considers the claims of not only Baltimore and Philadelphia but also Richmond and New York (The fact that Poe was actually born in Boston now seems as incongruous as Rusty Burke’s Brooklyn birth).

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Howard Gets Philosophical

Roderick T. Long, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University and a self-described Aristotelean/Wittgensteinian, left-libertarian market anarchist, has penned a thoughtful essay on Howard’s Pictish tales. Long sees Howard’s racism and racialism as part of a complex cultural, historical, and artistic dynamic, one potent enough to transcend garden variety prejudice and attain a genuine artistry reminiscent of Kipling. A follow-up post, meanwhile, meditated on Howard and feminism.

There is much within these two posts for Howardists to debate, but agree or disagree they are fine examples of the sort of serious critical writing Howard deserves, writing originating from well outside the incestuous Howardian tribe. Professor Long does Howard’s shade the favor of taking him seriously, judging and criticizing his stories as literature and not mere pulp hackwork, and that is very nice to see.

REH Alive & Well As a Ghost in the Pop Culture Machine (An Occasional Series)

In the article I recently posted surveying Sword-and-Sorcery since the Eighties, it was a particular pleasure to push the ornery-in-the-best-sense, refusing-to-consent-to-consensual-reality work of Matthew Stover as hard as I could. Stover’s latest novel will be throwing elbows on bookstore shelves this fall, and over at his blog he’s been musing about how, while the women who enjoy the adventures of Hari Kaine (an assassin as lethally talented at kingdom-decapitating as Gemmell’s Waylander) really, really enjoy them, a certain post-graduate studies quality makes demands that will at least partially exclude some readers:

The real problem with gathering feminine readership for the Acts of Caine, it seems to me, is that [Heroes Die, Stover’s first Caine novel] depends on an SFF-savvy reader — for it to have full effect, the reader should already be well-versed to the point of exhaustion with the various tropes that the story is twisting into less-familiar shapes. Which seems to be more of a guy thing, overall.

Make sure the woman you lend the book to has already read Conan and Bran Mak Morn, Elric and Hawkmoon and Fafhrd & Gray Mouser and the like, and I’m pretty sure she’ll like Caine.

This is a problem with male readership as well. As one editor at Del Rey told me:

“What stops Caine from being more successful is that he’s only accessible to people who are already hardcore fans. Write something ‘entry-level’ — not necessarily Harry Potter, but even more grown-up entry-level like most of Jonathan Carroll or Neil Gaiman, something where someone who knows nothing about SF and fantasy can enjoy it — and you’re golden.”

Unfortunately for me and my career, I’ve never been able to pull something like that together, outside of Star Wars.

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Arnie Fenner Responds

Mark is tied up with ArmadilloCon in Austin, Texas at the moment, and so won’t be able to answer Gary until early next week. Until then, Arnie Fenner, the man whose introduction started this latest flurry of posts, writes in to clairfy a few things. Here’s Arnie:

Yee-haw, boys! Get a rope! We’ll teach that Fenner fella a…Godfrey Daniels! You guys are talking about me! :-)

Just to be clear, I don’t think I did a hatchet job on REH, definitely didn’t deify Frazetta, and certainly didn’t give de Camp a pass, either, (shoot, Mark’s posting is longer than the intro) so I’m guessing that questioning some of the suppositions about Howard that have appeared in the last decade or so is what has raised everyone’s Irish. We all read the same stuff and can come to different conclusions, particularly when evidence is anecdotal or offered 70 years after the fact. In other words, its a big world and the last time I looked there was room in it for more than one opinion.

No, I don’t think Howard was a “great” writer, but (as I stated) certainly believe he was an exceptional storyteller. That’s not a dismissal or criticism or damning with faint praise at all — at least, it wasn’t intended as such. That he was able to overcome his circumstances and limitations and create work that people are still passionate about decades after his death…says loads. The difficulties a writer — or artist — surmount in order to create a lasting work makes their accomplishment all the more remarkable. But I also pointed out that Howard benefited from — became better at his craft with the guidance of — Farnsworth Wright’s editing. A matter of opinion, I’m sure.

Steve asked: who do I think are great writers? Joseph Conrad, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, to name a few. Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, George MacDonald Fraser, and Robert E. Howard (among others) are great storytellers. There’s more than enough room on my bookshelf for both.

I do agree that Rusty Burke would have written a better intro.

If Mark wants to talk about our differences of opinion sometime over beers, I’d be glad to. He’ll have to buy, of course: after all, I know Frazetta. :-)

As I said awhile back, Leo, I greatly enjoy The Cimmerian. If you’d like a copy of the Conan book, I’ll ask Tim Underwood to send you one. Despite the introduction, it’s actually pretty nice.

Tainted Fruit from the Bitter Tree

Yesterday I was so Pearl Harbored by Mark’s disclosure of the contents of Fenner’s foreword to the new Underwood volume that the blackly comic aspects of the situation were lost on me. For example, the blurbage for the book at the Bud Plant site straight-facedly informs us that Fenner “always has a new take on whatever iconic subject he approaches.” Sure he does, if by “new take” one means wheezy, so-retro-as-to-be-paleo underestimating and overlooking.

Even funnier is the fact that this foreword, so determinedly, effortfully ill-informed, is one bookend to the selected Conan stories, the other being H. P. Lovecraft’s “In Memoriam: Robert E. Howard,” only one of the very best (and least aged) appreciations of Howard’s legacy ever written. As Felix Leiter observes in Diamonds Are Forever, “nothing propinks like propinquity,” and the propinquity in this case does Fenner no favors. Perhaps someone will be moved to argue that it speaks well of the Underwood team that they were open-minded enough to house two such contrasting assessments of REH under the same roof; me, I see editorial incoherence bordering on cognitive dissonance. Are Howard’s Conan stories mere glorified captions for the Frazetta paintings, or are they what Lovecraft suggests they are? Let’s listen: “No author — even in the humblest fields — can truly excel unless he takes his work very seriously; and Mr. Howard did just that, even in cases where he consciously thought he did not.” Yep, to borrow another phrase from “In Memoriam,” it really is a “sorry piece of cosmic irony” that Lovecraft’s X-ray vision should now have to cohabit with Fenner’s myopia.

In the come-on that Underwood Books apparently supplied to Amazon and other vendors, both the Hyborian Age and Middle-earth are mangled, as “the Hyborean Age” and “Middle Earth” respectively. Furthermore, the Hyborian Age is wrongly labeled “an alternate Earth that preceded Tolkien’s Middle Earth.” Big deal, some might mutter; an “e” instead of an “i,” a missing hyphen — so what? Well, I long ago concluded, whether within REHupa or online, that references to writers named “Tolkein” or “Hemmingway” were guarantees that whatever opinions followed could safely be ignored, and my suspicion is that with Underwood Books or anyone else, those who don’t sweat the small stuff don’t get the large stuff.

I see from the Underwood website that they publish the Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick 1980-82 (Volume 6), edited and introduced by none other than Don Herron. Don is rumored to know a little about Robert E. Howard; would it have been so very difficult to solicit his opinion on the Fenner foreword before going to print with it? The website also offers something that I can barely imagine a Herronian reaction to, or that of anyone who cherishes genre classics: War of the Worlds: A Modern Version of the Classic Novel by H. G. Wells. Apparently one Robert Reginald has pried Wells’ classic loose from its 1898 context, vandalism the website justifies as follows: “Yet, despite the book’s stature and the power of its story, its antiquated language and outmoded science have limited its interest for modern readers. This new adaptation remedies that, preserving the authority of Wells’ narrative while modernizing the language.”

Where to begin? “Outmoded science” — has scientific accuracy been what lures readers to the novel since the Twenties at the latest? “Antiquated language” — Dracula came out in 1897; should we modernize Stoker’s language too? Or what about Heart of Darkness from 1899? Conrad was not only an old-timer but a Pole writing in English; we’d better render him accessible to 21st century subliterates right away. No time like the present, or should that be no time but the present? I don’t idly mention Heart of Darkness here, the Conrad and Wells texts are not-so-secret sharers, very much of their turn-of-the-century moment in the way they shift uneasily beneath the White Man’s Burden. But what does that matter when we can have Robert Reginald pre-chewing the vocabulary and retrofitting the references for us? All the while “preserving the authority of Wells’ narrative,” of course, in much the same way as “The Treasure of Tranicos” preserves the authority of Howard’s “The Black Stranger.”

“No one” will watch a black-and-white film these days; better colorize ’em all. “No one” will read “antiquated” prose either; maybe Underwood Books or some other cultural benefactor can step in to modernize the creaky language of “The Shadow Kingdom” round about 2035 or so, or the very stories strung up from — er, collected inBitter Tree in the mid-2040s. Can’t wait.