Awards Season Special: Presenting the Lemurians!

Everyone is voting early and often for the 2007 Cimmerian Awards, right? In honor of the ongoing event, I’m here to hand out the Lemurian Awards for the 12 all-time best essays about Howard’s work. Why “Lemurian”? Well, TC‘s annual Awards for the 3 best essays are called the Hyrkanians, and as we know from “The Hyborian Age,” the Lemurians were the ancestors of the Hyrkanians (“Now the Lemurians enter history again, as the Hyrkanians…”) In honor of that prominent Lemurian and patron of the black arts Rotath, the actual awards will be skulls, like those we’ve come to know and lust after these past 3 years, only golden this time. (Our thanks to Auric Enterprises for the generous donation of the gold that went into the sculptings, and if you can’t place Auric Enterprises it’s time to reread Goldfinger). Given their model, I can’t guarantee that these Rotath-derived golden skulls will be curse-free, but faint heart ne’er toted trophy homeward.

Is there something fishy about the Lemurians? Damn straight, and why not; after all, there was something fishy about the (pseudo)historical Lemurians. “Men of the Shadows” describes them as “the half-human Men of the Sea. Perhaps from some strange sea-monster had those sprang, for they were scaly like unto a shark, and they could swim for hours under the water.” (There’s another hint in “The Cat and the Skull’ when Howard assures us that Kull is as at home in the water as any Lemurian). Wherein lies the fishiness? These choices are litcrit-intensive. I may be in the minority in Howard fandom in that I had some decent experiences as well as some appalling ones in English classes, but to me all litcrit really means is, articles that engage with Howard’s work. Yes, I find Howard the man fascinating, but I find him fascinating because he wrote the stories and the poems. Articles dealing with his life come a distant second, and articles dealing with his impact on the lives of fans come an even more distant third. My 12 Lemurian picks are ludicrously subjective and self-indulgent, and I’m sure Leo would be willing to extend his hospitality to guest-bloggers bristling with counter-lists. Lastly, the numerical sequence implies no hierarchy or qualitative ranking whatsoever; #1 is not necessarily superior to #12. It was hard enough selecting what I deem the dozen best without also trying to arrange them in order of merit. Save for the lone whippersnapper, these essays have not only stood the test of time but been granted tenured teaching positions by time.

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The Fortress Unvanquishable, Even for Sacnoth


At the dawn of Sword-and-Sorcery, at the very moment of the genre’s Cataclysmic birth, towers a story begun by a solitary Texan barely twenty years old. In the eighty years since, dozens of authors have fed on its aged marrow like vampires. Hundreds of books have appeared mimicking its startling idioms and seductive, haunting prose melodies. Countless millions of dollars have changed hands between readers starving for more of the same and publishers scurrying around like harried Oompa Loompas in their rush to provide it. And yet upon first publication its depressed, suicidal author received a meager $100, and would never again see it reprinted during his lifetime.

The man who meticulously constructed this genre was Robert E. Howard, and the story that exploded onto the scene with a Big Bang that still echoes in our ears today was “The Shadow Kingdom.”

Arguments about the scope and confines of genre too often descend into useless pedantry. I am reminded of film noir scholar Eddie Muller‘s witheringly brilliant retort to hairsplitters who would deny the great Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) a place in the pantheon: “To those who think this isn’t noir: Man uses woman. Woman uses man. Queasy sex. Betrayal. Madness. Gunshots. He’s face down in the pool he always wanted. Case closed.” For the attentive critic, genre labels have a purpose not to be deflected by myopic minds.

Often the most difficult part of talking intelligently about Sword-and-Sorcery is dodging the flailing Nerf blades swung in its defense by those who ostensibly would protect it from harm. Valka bless the boys at for the work they do popularizing a much-maligned art form, but articles like “The Demarcation of Sword and Sorcery” obsess over surface elements while careening past deeper connections with the bone-crunching regularity of Charlie Brown missing Lucy’s football. Sometimes you can’t win for losing — in “Demarcation” Steve Tompkins gets his name misspelled even as his “The Shortest Distance Between Two Towers” is trotted out in support of the notion that “there can be little argument that a great deal of separation exists between sword and sorcery and the rest of heroic fantasy.” Cimmerian readers may recall that in fact Tompkins’ essay cogently argues the exact opposite point — that there is in fact a “short distance” and not a “great deal of separation” between these demarcated kingdoms.

In “Demarcation,” author Joe McCullough goes on to conclude that

Sword and sorcery tells the tales of men who are free from all constraint. Their stature and skill mean they are free from the tyranny of other men. Their birth and raising free them from the morals and mores of society, and the lack of higher powers unbinds them from any concept of fate. Thus the heroes of sword and sorcery become the true representatives of free-will, and through their stories, readers are able to imagine the capabilities and the triumphs of men who are completely free to chart their own destiny.

It would be a pity if such rash and improvident definitions ever gain real purchase in the minds of thoughtful readers. The best Sword-and-Sorcery characters resist attempts to reduce them to comfortable stereotypes. Howard’s Kull time and again barely manages to escape from an ever-present entourage of enemies, only to remain ever-ensorcelled by the “ghosts of wild wars and world-ancient feuds,” the “inhuman powers of antiquity,” and most of all the ever-looming “phantom of his hate, the restless hatred of the savage, before which all else must give way.” With each story the King of Valusia triumphs fleetingly if at all, only to be seen at the beginning of the next tale with his golddust turned to sawdust:

There comes, even to kings, the time of great weariness. Then the gold of the throne is brass, the silk of the palace becomes drab. The gems in the diadem and upon the fingers of the women sparkle drearily like the ice of the white seas; the speech of men is as the empty rattle of a jester’s bell and the feel comes of things unreal; even the sun is copper in the sky and the breath of the green ocean is no longer fresh.

Even to kings, Howard purrs, and we can’t help but add “and to Sword-and-Sorcery heroes allegedly free from constraint.” The idea that S&S heroes lack the “mores and morals of society” is rebutted by innumerable passages in Howard’s work, as in this one from “The Scarlet Citadel”:

[Conan] had been placed in these pits for a definite doom. He cursed himself for his refusal of their offer, even while his stubborn manhood revolted at the thought, and he knew that were he taken forth and given another chance, his reply would be the same. He would not sell his subjects to the butcher. And yet it had been with no thought of anyone’s gain but his own that he had seized the kingdom originally. Thus subtly does the instinct of sovereign responsibility enter even a red-handed plunderer sometimes.

Postulating that Sword-and-Sorcery heroes by definition are “free from the tyranny of other men” becomes not only indefensible but insulting when one considers Charles Saunders’ hero Imaro, who thematically resonates as much about tyranny both cosmic and real as any fantasy hero created since December 6, 1865. And maybe it’s the guilty Catholic in me, but I can’t help imagining the shade of Karl Edward Wagner wanting to thump McCullough over the head with a Douay-Rheims Bible over his dictum that Sword-and-Sorcery tales feature a “lack of higher powers” that “unbinds [S&S heroes] from any concept of fate.”

In Tolkien’s defense, “Demarcation” inflicts a few goose eggs onto his wizened skull as well, as when McCullough states that “the rest of heroic fantasy, with its duties and obligations, has historically appealed to an older audience who are aware of the realities of such notions.” Perhaps he’s too young to remember the great surge of longhaired, pot-smoking, Led Zeppelin-worshipping, “Frodo Lives” hippie-folk and collegiate counter-culturists who were the true force behind Tolkien’s meteoric rise to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s. My own generation of young Dungeons & Dragons playing, Commodore 64 programming, “Shining City on a Hill” latchkey kids of the late ’70s and early ’80s solidified the trend.

Too often, knocking down these sorts of arguments feels like hammering gophers back into plastic holes at some bizarre litcrit Chuck-e-Cheese funland. It’s silly to get too tied down to genre for its own sake — Muller’s pithy yet devastatingly effective defense of Sunset Boulevard shows how people who dither with rigid formulas fall short. And yet for a genre to mean anything at all it does need boundaries, however translucent or overlapping. The trick is in defining them in a way so that they have utility in the real world. Noir is a not a series of dance steps executed in a predetermined order, it’s an overall tone — a mood, an overriding sense of cruel irony and inescapable fate. Muller telling noir fans why they better check out Sunset Boulevard — that’s utility. Good genre categorization is like the old canard about identifying pornography: you know it when you see it. That’s assuming, of course, that the critic making such judgments has his eyes open in the first place.

Personally, I see nothing wrong with retroactively folding older works into a modern genre if the result is a greater appreciation and knowledge of the field. If noir guys want to call M noir and make it that much more of an essential film to view, cool beans. If Sword-and-Sorcery buffs insist that Dunsany’s “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth” be listed before “The Shadow Kingdom” on any master list of must-read works in the field, more power to them. It’s almost always a bad idea to attempt to forcibly divide great fantasy works from each other on the basis of genre, as often the result is akin to Siamese twins being separated with a chainsaw. A generous policy of inclusion pays large dividends, as when Steve Tompkins demonstrated the benefits of letting the oft-separated blood brothers Tolkien and REH stand shoulder to shoulder. But it’s important to not lose sight of why genres spring up and where the trendlines form. Just as securities in the stock market tend to have remarkable leaders and laggards that drag whole industry groups up or down along with them, so too do seminal works in a genre create identifiable shockwaves throughout an art form, like a stone cast into a pond creating distinct ripples across its surface.

Which to my mind is why Lord Dunsany’s “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” is not the progenitor of the Sword-and-Sorcery genre and “The Shadow Kingdom” is.

Make no mistake: “Sacnoth” is a fine tale that carefully evokes an ancient métier: the pure adult fairy tale. Frequently going out of its way to remind the audience that it is a fiction, at the same time it urges us to lower our sophisticated defenses and fully give ourselves over to the impossible events depicted. It’s a brilliant and heartfelt love letter to the kind of fantasy found in William Beckford’s Vathek or the much older Arabian Nights — in that sense, it deftly and deliberately presents us with nothing new. Like those Sword-and-Sorcery paperbacks of yore, “Sacnoth” is “In the Tradition of. . .” any number of things. And yet despite its formidable presentation of what are now seen as S&S clichés, admiring readers are hard-pressed to say what wouldn’t exist right now had “Sacnoth” never been written. No new genre label was deemed necessary because of “Sacnoth,” no clamor for similar fare was heard, no groundswell of imitation followed its publication. “Sacnoth” and Dunsany both deserve better than they’ve got in recent years, but as it stands the story is a minor curio for fantasy fans. It’s a groin-straining stretch to grant it pride of place as the instigator of the Sword-and-Sorcery genre, despite plodding through tiresome surface calculations of its use of — duh — both swords and sorcery.

“Sacnoth” is best valued as a part of that vast tapestry of the fantastic and mythic that preceded Sword-and-Sorcery, one of thousands of works peppered with elements that would one day become part of the trappings of the new genre. These elements were floating through stories for millennia, but the pressing need to define a neologic subsphere of fantasy occurred precisely due to an explosion of fiction in the middle of the last century, one whose tidal wave ripples can be traced unerringly backwards through a host of authors and fanzines to the adventures of Conan the Cimmerian in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, and from there back in time to Ground Zero: the first such story to appear in that magazine by the same prophetic author — “The Shadow Kingdom.”

Like a prism, “The Shadow Kingdom” focused a series of varying, disparate colors from the fantasy spectrum, blended them in the cauldron of Howard’s imagination, and shot out of the other side a white light unlike anything seen before. Legions of readers and writers have been wrestling with the repercussions of that eerie witch-glow ever since. It shines both forward and backward in space/time and illuminates countless works of merit, including Lord Dunsany’s “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth.” But the luminous filament casting that glare clearly emanates from a single place and time — a white clapboard house in Texas circa 1926. Remembering that not only honors Howard, but helps us clearly see what we mean when we say “Sword-and-Sorcery.” We know it when we see it because Kull lit the way, and we still worry and wonder about it because Conan built the Fortress that yet protects it from ruin, and from those who seek to peel off authors and stories and banish them to the hinterlands, whether said authors be past masters such as Lord Dunsany or J.R.R. Tolkien, or modern notables such as David Gemmell, Charles Saunders, or Karl Edward Wagner.

Kavalier (Not Cavalier), Clay, and REH


Late last year I was privy to a couple of Emails in which Fred Blosser and Morgan Holmes, Howardists of some repute, expressed skepticism about Michael Chabon, suspecting him of “slumming” in his faux-pulp or neo-pulp endeavors. So I was pleased when Leo relayed (by way of Don Herron) Scott Sheaffer’s report of an REH-mention by Chabon in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. He’s on the side of the angels, or at least the akaanas and Yagas, and instead of building a table-barricade in the dealers’ room at Pulpcon and glowering graybeardedly at him we should be grateful for his fond gravitation to the gaudy genres of yore. No Pulitzer Prize for Fiction has ever gone over so well with me as that notched by Chabon for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, as indispensable a fictional jamboree about the dawn of the superheroes and the Golden Age of Comic Books as Gerard Jones’ 2004 Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book is a factual one.

Kavalier and Klay rewards the attentive with allusions and in-jokes about pulps and weird fiction on every other page. Luna Moth, a somewhat nocturnal emission of the eponymous creators’ imaginations, battles in “dislocated non-Euclidean dream spaces” against “slavering Elder Creatures readying vast interdimensional armadas of demons.” And what of Luna’s origin?

Know that before my homeland, great Cimmeria, was plunged into eternal darkness, it was ruled by women. All were happy in the Queendom of Cimmeria, peaceful, contented — the men in particular. Then one shrivel-hearted malcontent, Nanok, schooled himself in the ways of bloodshed and black magic, and set himself upon an obsidian throne. He sent his armies of demons into battle against the peace-loving Cimmerians; the outcome was foreordained.

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The World of the Lancer Conan Paperbacks


Guest blogger Morgan Holmes offers his own take on the pros and cons of the Lancer series….

MORGAN HOLMES: Leo’s post contrasting the Lancer and Del Rey editions was the latest in an ongoing debate of what is or was the best Robert E. Howard edition. I had been thinking for some time why the Lancer paperbacks had such an impact that later book editions never were able to duplicate.

There were advantages that Conan the Adventurer had in 1966. First was suppression of Sword-and-Sorcery fiction. It was something new to most people in 1966. Sword-and-Sorcery fiction was rare for fifteen years. In the early 1950s, you could still find Robert E. Howard influencing stories in pulps such as Poul Anderson’s “The Virgin of Valkarion” in Planet Stories. The pulps were meant to be cheap entertainment. In the early 1950s a copy of Planet Stories cost $.25, thus within the reach of a young reader. The last pulp science fiction magazines also died in 1955 when the distribution system collapsed. Science fiction was also king in the 1950s, driving fantasy and horror figuratively underground.

The Gnome Press editions of Robert E. Howard started in 1950, but Gnome was a small press. Most of its business was direct mail order or from specialty mail order book dealers. Plus the Gnome Press hardbacks were $3.00-$4.00. In today’s dollars, $3.00 would be $22.65. These books were aimed at older fans wanting the stories in book form. The small print runs would prevent creating many new ones. A teenager would have to save up in order to get a Gnome Press book in the 1950s, provided he knew of them or ever heard of Robert E. Howard.

The baby boom started in 1946 and ended in 1964. That means you had a growing population in their teens — the prime group for buying fantasy fiction. The mass-market paperback had stepped in as the replacement for the pulps as a source of inexpensive fantastic fiction. There was a massive rebirth of Edgar Rice Burroughs in paperback in 1963 when it was discovered copyright was not in effect for those stories. Ace Books published wonderfully packaged books with covers by Roy Krenkel and Frank Frazetta.

Just months before the release of the Lancer Conan was another important event that helped prime the pump. Ace Books discovered a copyright loophole and published The Lord of the Rings with Jack Gaughan covers. Ballantine Books published the authorized editions in 1966 with the psychedelic flamingo covers. Burroughs and Tolkien were major factors in preparing the scene for Howard. Plus you had two of the L. Sprague de Camp edited anthologies, Sword and Sorcery (1963) and The Spell of Seven (1965) that would have introduced some readers to Robert E. Howard for the first time. There were no trade paperback science fiction books, as trade paperbacks were mainly meant for the college market.

The Lancer paperbacks were for the most part sold in drugstores and some grocery stores. You did not have the bookstore chains like you do today. There were regional distributors who supplied paperbacks to the places that sold the books. A regional distributor knew that one place might sell more westerns and mysteries while another might move science fiction paperbacks. In some ways, the Lancer paperbacks may have been available in more places than the average paperback would today. Someone going to the drugstore to get the newest issue of Eerie or Creepy would have stumbled across the now iconic image of Conan as created by Frank Frazetta.

Then there is the question of cost. The first Lancer paperbacks were $.60, going to $.75 and then $.95 in 1968. Sixty cents in 1966 would convert to $3.81 today! That is incredible — science fiction and fantasy paperbacks are $7.99 today. That would convert to $1.25 in 1966. So the Lancer paperbacks were a great deal. More so, the minimum wage in 1966 was $1.25 an hour. That converts to $6.83 an hour today. Western writer and Robert E. Howard fan, James Reasoner, once told me that mass-market paperbacks should cost one hour at the minimum wage. Paperbacks are often an impulse item. The higher the cost, the more a potential buyer has to agonize if that book is worth it. In 1966-67, a teenager working a few hours a week could stop at the local drug store and pick up a Lancer paperback and still have money to pick up the latest 45 record like “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Ruby Tuesday.”

There were some other factors — horror had made a comeback by the 60s after having a low profile in the 50s. Our theoretical teenage buyer could see the latest Hammer horror flick before picking up Conan the Adventurer. What impact did the Italian sword & sandal movies have, the ones starring Steve Reeves or Gordon Scott, and all those Hercules/Maciste/Samson/Goliath movies?

So, you have an intersection of demographics, cost, distribution, interest, and of course the Frazetta look that combined to create something that will probably never occur again. The nearest you could get today to recreating what the Lancer Conan paperbacks would be to have Leisure Books publish Robert E. Howard at $4.99 (price of their westerns) with distribution to truck stops and grocery stores. Plus you need an artist to create something totally new, and there is only one Frank Frazetta. Why are western paperbacks $4.99 but science fiction and fantasy paperbacks $7.99?

REH namechecked in The New York Times


Don Herron alerts me to a post Scott Sheaffer wrote on the REH Inner Circle e-mail list alerting Howard fans to Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon’s new story appearing in installments for the Sunday New York Times magazine. The tale is titled “Gentlemen of the Road,” is influenced by various pulp authors, and is set in the Russian Dark Ages during a time of (I assume) swordplay and adventure. Best of all, in a Q&A with readers Chabon cites Robert E. Howard as an important influence:

I also, maybe more importantly, re-read some of my lifelong favorite writers of historical swashbuckling romance: Alexander Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock (to whom the story is dedicated), George MacDonald Fraser. The tone of the writing, the style, the approach to the idea of heroic swordsmen and their personalities (of which I favor the ironic variety found in the last three authors named and perhaps in Dumas, as well), all that was in many ways more of a challenge than the details of period, which are just a matter ultimately of reading and using the imagination. Though the Khazars and their world have a basis in general fact, I freely invented the situations and characters.

The first two chapters of the story are behind the usual draconian NYT firewall, but you can read the third chapter here (and the others if you have a password).

Now It Can Be Told: The Poignance of Subliterary Hackwork


S.T. Joshi’s article “Bran Mak Morn and History” in Two-Gun Bob: A Centennial Study of Robert E. Howard comes trailing a backstory that originated with the author’s 1996 magnum opus H. P. Lovecraft: A Life. That book more than deserved its Bram Stoker and British Fantasy Awards, but phrases from the pages (502-503) on which Robert E. Howard is introduced as an untutored provincial-turned-pen pal were destined (and designed?) to live in infamy among even the least touchy Howardists: “Fanatical cadre of supporters,” “subliterary hackwork that does not even begin to approach genuine literature,” “[Howard’s] views are not of any great substance and profundity,” “Howard’s style is crude, slipshod, and unwieldy.” The artful dismissal-intensifier “does not even begin to approach” is surpassed a page later when Joshi quotes Lovecraft’s “There’s a bird whose basic mentality seems to me just about the good respectable citizen’s. . .” evaluation of REH in a December 14, 1935 letter to Kenneth Sterling and then editorializes “If Howard’s later devotees would adhere to this view, they would make themselves a little less ridiculous in proclaiming vast profundity and originality for his work.” Only a little less ridiculous, mind you — that might qualify as the unkindest cut of all, were there not many cuts yet to come.

In 2001 Howard occasioned what has to be the worst passage in one of Joshi’s very best books, Ramsey Campbell and Modern Horror Fiction. Here is as good a place as any to mention that when Joshi is writing about those like Campbell or Shirley Jackson or Thomas Ligotti who broadcast on his preferred frequencies and speak to his sensibilities, few genre critics repay reading as much as he does. Otherwise, however, he can be so condemnatory as to suggest a reflexively merciless, possibly infanticidal tribal deity casting the aesthetically or morally misshapen forth into the Outer Darkness. Let’s steel ourselves to gaze upon his expanded inventory of Howardian infractions (page 148 in the Campbell book):

Howard’s prodigious imagination in conceiving the life and actions of primitive peoples is certainly remarkable. It was probably derived from his own fascination with what he perceived to be the freedoms of barbarian life and his implacable hostility to civilization — attitudes fostered by his being the descendant of one of the original settlers of Texas and his lifelong residence in the remote village of Cross Plains. These provocative conceptions are, however, frequently offset by a lamentable crudity of expression and a yielding to the most hackneyed conceptions of pulp fiction: characters who are broad caricatures rather than living beings; lurid bloodletting and melodrama; implausibility of action, especially with regard to supernatural phenomena; and a general slovenliness in diction and plot development. Howard and his work have attracted a small but vocal band of cheerleaders who are determined to give him high rank as a writer and thinker, but it is unlikely that he will ever have as high a standing as, say, his friend H. P. Lovecraft in general literature.

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Look Who’s Reading Howard


On the REH Innercircle e-mail group, Gary Romeo alerts Howard fans to an interview with the winner of the 2006 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, M. T. Anderson, who mentions that he’s been reading none other than Robert E. Howard and jonesing to write a book centering around barbarian themes. Pretty cool coming from a guy who made his name writing award-winning pop-up books and the like. (Hat tip: Don Herron)

From Hollywood to Cross Plains

In the October 26, 2006 number of the Cross Plains Review, there was an article about some recent visitors to the Howard Museum. At that time the World Fantasy Convention group hadn’t pulled into town yet, but the ladies of Project Pride had some exciting guests nonetheless. The article carried no byline, but unless I miss my guess the author must have been Cimmerian contributor Arlene Stephenson.


From Hollywood to Cross Plains

A routine request to show the Robert E. Howard Museum last week resulted in quite an exciting opportunity for local Project Pride members. Arriving at the Museum, they found Bruce Boxleitner and Rob Word wandering around the yard, thoroughly enjoying the peace and quiet. Boxleitner, popular Hollywood actor best known for his television roles and producer Word had flown in from California to participate in the Dean Smith Celebrity Rodeo in Abilene.

Both visitors were very knowledgeable of Howard and his writings and the history behind his life in Cross Plains. Boxleitner was especially interested in Howard’s western stories.

Boxleitner has played in numerous made for TV movies and is currently in the TV series, “Pandemic”. Some may remember him in the series “Scarecrow and Mrs. King” of some years back. One of his real ties to the weekend, however, was perhaps the fact that Dean Smith had played his stunt double in “How the West Was Won.” Boxleitner is married to Melissa Gilbert of the “Little House on the Prairie” fame.

Word is quite the all around over achiever — artist, composer and director. He has served as program consultant for a lot of the Encore network’s westerns, action, mystery and true channels. Most recently, he completed 65 half hours of a cartoon series called “Totally Tooned In.”


Another visitor drove from Florida just to visit the Museum and to attend a pulp fiction convention in the state. Wayne Lindsey has been a member of Project Pride for two years and was finally able to take the time away from his job of moving alligators for the Florida Parks and Wildlife to pursue his other dream of walking where his favorite author walked.

Project Pride received a delightful letter of appreciation for the hospitality extended to visitors, the Greens, from England. In summarizing their extended visit to the U.S., they commented that the three favorite places they had visited were the Grand Canyon, Green Mesa and Cross Plains. And they just couldn’t decide on their top choice!!

Life at the Howard House Museum stays interesting, to say the least.

I’ve known that Bruce was a Howard fan for awhile, ever since James Van Hise (editor of Sword & Fantasy) told me the story of when he interviewed the actor for Starlog or some such magazine and discovered that he owned the Wandering Star books. Boxleitner is best known these days for his starring role in the long-running sci-fi series Babylon 5, but those of us who grew up watching early 80s cable television also remember him fondly from his role in Tron.

While at the World Fantasy Convention a few weeks ago, one of the things I hammered home to non-believers was the breadth and depth of Howard’s fan base worldwide, how his influence was always popping up in the strangest places. Boxleitner is merely the latest in this trend. The fact that he went out of his way to visit Cross Plains all the way from Abilene to satisfy his Howardian curiosity speaks volumes. It’s nice to know that Howard has friends in Hollywood — it is to be hoped that someday this affection will translate into some good Howardian adaptations of his westerns and other stories.

The REH Foundation


One of the big announcements at the World Fantasy Convention was the formation of a new organization called The REH Foundation, which seems to be Paradox Entertainment’s attempt to foster a connection with fans and do its part to perpetuate the original Howard work that fuels their licenses and various multimedia projects.

Among the Foundation’s stated goals is establishing an ambitious publishing schedule designed to get all of Howard’s work in print, especially the never-published material such as the Complete Letters and poems (the first volumes will be appearing early next year). In addition, there will be a concerted effort to make typescripts and other research materials available to scholars. Apparently the Foundation is also going to help support Howard Days in Cross Plains, and perhaps establish grants or awards to foster the study of Howard by scholars and the emulation and perpetuation of Howard’s style and legacy among modern writers.

If all this works, it should be a great boon to the field. Much will depend on cooperation and organization, things that aren’t always evident among Howard fans. And as we all know, previous Howard initiatives have had a history of going belly-up at inopportune times. Over the years changes in ownership and in the book market have grounded one set of good intentions after another. In any case, Howard fandom and scholarship and publishing seems to be growing by leaps and bounds every year. All of this activity can only be good for REH.

A Robert E. Howard Scholar?

Guest blogger Morgan Holmes is back with a gripe about the gross misuse of the term “scholar” in weird fiction studies of late.

MORGAN HOLMES: I went to Bill Thom’s Coming Attractions site, a Friday-night ritual to see what was new. Scrolling down, this jumped out at me:

RIGHT HAND OF DOOM: A CRITICAL STUDY OF MICHAEL MIGNOLA’S “HELLBOY” is a book of essays & articles to help educate fans and scholars of Michael Mignola’s HELLBOY (TM). It focuses on the narrative & sequential art of the comic book series. It is a homage [sic] to the artist’s talents and a way to establish a bridge between comic books and academe. Collected and Edited by Benjamin Szumskyj (the well-known Robert E. Howard scholar).

Ben Szumskyj is a character known to various degrees by those who are members of the rehinnercircle group at Yahoo! or who buy small press publications such as REH: Two-Gun Raconteur. To call him a scholar is presumptuous. Let’s examine his body of work.

First, most of Ben Szumskyj’s work has appeared in amateur press associations such as his heroic fantasy apa, the Esoteric Order of Dagon, and REHupa. Amateur press associations have small memberships which receive the publications. Being distributed to 30 or maybe 40 people does not constitute being “well-known.” Ben Szumskyj or Ben Zoom as he is sometimes known, was an intermittent member of REHupa from October 2000 to August 2004. Going through these zines, a reader gets a building sense of morbid curiosity as to what Szumskyj would produce next. The contents can be broken down into two categories: surveys of Robert E. Howard fiction and the most incredibly strange essays possibly ever written about REH that can be described as pretentious and funny.

The first fanzine in October 2000 was an introductory effort with the statement that “All fantasy is born from reality.” His second fanzine has an apology for an outburst stating: “I am not ‘illiterate’ or a bad speller.” There is also some writing in cyrillic script. Is English his native language?

February 2001 has this quote: “Read the story that embraced you. Shed a tear if you will, but respect and feel for a man, a misunderstood man, who has. . .only after many years, will now begin and see his name and writings reflect the eternal justice it has long deserved.”

October 2001 brought his “Fear Dunn: Dispelling the Racist Myth.” December 2001 contained a survey of REH’s heroic fantasy characters. April 2002 had a comparison of H. P. Lovecraft’s “Beast in the Cave” and Robert E. Howard’s “Spear and Fang.” August 2002 was another survey of the “Faring Town” stories. October 2002 contained a comparison of Robert E. Howard and J. R. R. Tolkien with this observation:

Although there are similarities, whether for the sake of juxtaposition or coincidences worth noting, they are not to be classed as the same type of author, whether by way of method, style, genre of direction. . .Middle Earth in its scale and background, is a lot like Hyboria but perhaps not as detailed by the author and a task in which scholars have had to expand on. Whether such an addition would have captured the already recognized fan base, we will never know, but is something that grieves fans that wish to fall hopelessly in love with Tolkien’s creations and worlds, but are halted as a result of lost fulfillment and expectations.

In REHupa 183, October 2003 we get the first of the classic pretentious essays: “WHEN LIFE IMITATES ART: Bakhtin’s Concept of the Dialogic Formation of the Subject in Relation to Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell Tale Heart’.” Perhaps Szumskyj was taking some college course on literary criticism but this is the first of several examinations that leave you wondering, “What color is the sky where this guy lives?”

February 2004 brought “Brothers of the Night: A Cultural Materialistic Study of Shakespeare’s ‘Prince of Morocco’ and Robert E. Howard’s ‘Jacob’.” This was a comparison of The Merchant of Venice and “Pigeons From Hell.” I kid you not.

April 2004 contained “Cimmerian Gloves: A Study of Robert E. Howard’s Ace Jessel from the Ringside,” a survey of a minor boxing series. This quote is a keeper: “I believe that texts like these, in which Howard portrays coloured folk in a positive and strong role, shows that this so called ‘racist’ was a man trying to be free and express his deepest beliefs.”

Szumskyj’s “The Clean Shaven Barbarian: A Masculine Reading of ‘The Gold and the Grey'” may be his masterpiece of wrongfully attempted criticism resulting in high weirdness. The essay is an examination of phallic imagery in the Robert E. Howard poem. You can’t make this stuff up. “Brothers of the Night” was actually reprinted in REH: Two-Gun Raconteur.

Two-Gun Bob: A Centennial Study of Robert E. Howard is a book due out from Hippocampus Press and edited by Ben Szumskyj. The book will contain an introduction by him and also his “Cimmerian Gloves” essay.

Is Ben Szumskyj a Robert E. Howard scholar? A scholar is a learned person or one who has advanced training in literature, the arts, etc. These qualities are not present here. We have an almost equal amount of surveys and outlandish attempts at criticism and comparisons to other authors. Reading over these, one thought that came into my mind was Szumskyj actually hates Robert E. Howard’s fiction and his essays are a conspiracy to heap derision and contempt on REH. The word scholar is a word that should not be used to describe Ben Szumskyj.