This, That, T’Other

Haterade drinkers insofar as “The Black Stranger” is concerned often target the character of Tina for special opprobrium, condemning in particular the punishment Valenso frantically administers to her as a distasteful piece of Brundage-bait, Howard blatantly angling for another Weird Tales cover or at least catering to a one-handed segment of his readership. Paying attention to the way the scene is constructed and described should be enough to disprove such allegations, but turning to “The Black Stranger: Synopsis A” in The Conquering Sword of Conan is also useful in that the synopsis is of course Howard selling Howard on his latest idea, telling the story to himself, engaging in the equivalent of a filmmaker’s “pre-viz” (previsualization). Here he refers to Tina as “a flaxen-haired Ophirean waif,” “the little Ophirean girl,” and “the child,” and Valenso loses the self-control that should be a Zingaran grandee’s watchword as follows:

The nobleman instantly seemed seized with madness, and had the girl cruelly whipped, until he saw she was telling the truth.

Nary a hint of a prurient agenda. I sometimes wonder whether Esteban Maroto contributed to the muddying of the waters here; his illustrations for the 1980 Ace standalone The Treasure of Tranicos leer at Tina through a vaseline-smeared lens as a pillowy, pouty houri on the brink of several Sapphic interludes with Belesa:

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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.

What a Mummer Wild, What an Insane Child

Mark’s post about the new Batman film from a Howardist’s perspective was one of the better contributions to the long Dark Knight of the soul that’s fallen on the blogosphere, arguably a wee bit more plausible than the following Andrew Klavan assertion in The Wall Street Journal: “There seems to me no question that the Batman film The Dark Knight, currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand.” Artist Drew Friedman begs to differ. And Cheney, the No. 2 who tries harder? Is he maybe Harvey Dent? Or remember the online debates when 300 was released? Was Bush Leonidas, or was he Xerxes? And who was Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith? Back when Viggo Mortensen was capturing so many imaginations in 2002 and 2003, a REHupan proudly reprinted a letter he’d sent to his local newspaper that anointed Bush the American Aragorn, the hero-king who was defending the West against the Evil gathering in the East.

Was there ever a time when popular culture did not lend itself to this sort of game, one that the left-handed and the right-handed both line up to play? The concept of a Manchurian candidate long ago escaped the control of Richard Condon or John Frankenheimer. High Noon, Rio Bravo, and High Plains Drifter have been arguing among themselves for decades (in his Playboy interview John Wayne labeled High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life”. Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America is a book I dote on (and may well have quoted from more than from Howard’s own works during my REHupa years), and yet once in a great while a mulish part of me wonders, can every single Western between 1962 and 1976 really have been about Vietnam?

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Contra “Hyboria”; Or, Convenience Isn’t Everything

Readers who have shipped with Ahab on his voyage-of-the-damned pursuit of the great white whale might remember that Herman Melville has this to say of master harpooner Queequeg’s natal site: “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” I’m here today to inveigh against a false place that has elbowed its way onto maps and into gaming paraphernalia and goes unchallenged in a dismaying number of articles, reviews, and blog or forum posts: “Hyboria.”

Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age was a Cynara to whom Roy Thomas, L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Karl Edward Wagner and Robert Jordan all sought to be faithful in their fashion. Not one of them ever resorted to the ersatz term “Hyboria,” but recently this un-Howardian usage has been spreading like the invasive kudzu in Wagner’s Knoxville horror story “Where the Summer Ends.” Google “Hyboria” and it comes a-choogling at us with “Kings of Hyboria,” “Gods of Hyboria,” “Welcome to Hyboria,” “Living Hyboria,” “Images of Hyboria,” “Cities of Hyboria,” “The Women of Hyboria,” exhortations to “strap on your sword, it’s time to explore Hyboria,” and the especially irksome “Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria.” I don’t believe that either Kurt Busiek or Tim Truman has slipped and referred to “Hyboria” in one of their scripts for a Conan comic, but reams of Dark Horse promotional copy has demonstrated no such taste and discernment. The term is creeping into submissions to The Dark Man, and Richard Tierney, as well-versed in Howard as he is well-equipped to write weird verse, dignified it with title-status in his “The Doom of Hyboria” cycle for TC. On May 16 of this year the Entertainment Weekly website offered a slideshow of “18 Awesome Imaginary Worlds” and added Austrian-accented insult to injury by not only listing “Hyboria” but illustrating said “world” with a still of Arnold the Isshurian looking particularly learning-disabled.

Why is this happening? I haven’t seen anyone champion the rightness or needfulness of “Hyboria” yet; maybe this post will provoke some such defense. My suspicion is that the spurious term is flourishing out of a vague sense that the Hyborian Age, Howard’s formulation, doesn’t work due to being by definition a when rather than a where, a time rather than a place. So a perceived necessity is the mother of this misbegotten invention: we have to call Conan’s world, the kingdoms that dominate human history from the fall of Acheron to the equally uncushioned fall of imperial Aquilonia, something, don’t we? “Hyboria” is. . .convenient, almost like an abbreviation or acronym in that respect, and why shouldn’t authorial intentions join so much else as burnt offerings on the altar of our modern Moloch Convenience? Thus the Entertainment Weekly feature lumps ‘Hyboria” (described as “vaguely Eurasian,” like some Macao chanteuse seducing sailors in a pulp story) in with Narnia, Oz, Terabithia, and, amusingly, Liberty City from Grand Theft Auto IV.

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Superman on a Psychotic Bender No More

It’s easy to be a morning person when one happens upon pleasant surprises like the following in the New York Times:

In May 1934, two years before he killed himself in the driveway of his home in Cross Plains, Tex., Robert E. Howard published one of the finest adventures of his most famous character: the warrior, thief, swashbuckler and king called Conan the Cimmerian.

In the story, “Queen of the Black Coast,” Conan lounges in moonlit reverie on the deck of a galley beside the pirate queen Bêlit and reveals his elemental, live-for-the-moment spirit.

“Let me live deep while I live,” he says. “Let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

Conan is no hero. The best Conan stories end not in triumph but in an ambiguous, almost melancholy recognition that righteousness is scarce, perhaps even irrelevant. Conan’s world is not one of grand struggles between good and evil. Rather it is a world of avarice, of treachery, of raw power, slavery, embraced passions and ancient secrets best kept from man.

That’s from “At Play in a World of Savagery, but not This One,” by Seth Schiesel. Mr. Schiesel’s piece is ostensibly a review of Funcom’s Age of Conan, and yet he chooses to lead with four accurate and insightful paragraphs about Robert E. Howard and Howard’s Conan (“Conan the Barbarian,” may his fur diaper chafe him, is nowhere to be found). Manna from heaven (Mitra or perhaps Ishtar, certainly not Crom) made all the tastier because one of the most notorious of all hatchet jobs on the reason we blog here, “Superman on a Psychotic Bender” by H. R. Hays, appeared in the New York Times back in 1946. We’ll accept Schiesel’s review as a first step toward atonement.

Regrettably, he sees fit to include a facile comparison between Tolkien and Howard: “While Conan hacked and slashed his way through a decaying, darkening world, Bilbo, Aragorn, Frodo and Gandalf became paragons of virtue…” Seems to me the Middle-earth of the late Third Age, caught between Isengard and Barad-dûr, is decaying and darkening up a storm. Mr. Schiesel might also be gobsmacked by what the late First Age was like, and it’s now easier than ever before to learn, by reading The Children of Hà¹rin.

Still, at the moment I’m a delighted Howardist, not a touchy Tolkienist, and the review is further sweetened by several quotes from game designer Gaute Godager, who likens Conan to the archangel Gabriel marching into Sodom and Gomorrah (a Biblical precedent that just so happens to have also been very much on Sergio Leone’s mind in A Fistful of Dollars). Godager also says “Howard put Genghis Khan and the Mongolians in with the Romans and the Greeks, some Celts, and the sense of Africa pouring in a lot of this sense of darkness and put it on the stove, put the lid on and let it brew and simmer.” My only quibble with that would be that much of the darkness is Stygian, Acheronian, “Eastern” (the Master of Yimsha), or pre-human rather than “African.”

What really matters, though, is a signature passage from “Queen of the Black Coast” turning up in what still has a claim, albeit a somewhat shaky one, to being the newspaper of record. Very cool.

“Northern Woods,” Eastern Frontier, and a Very Young Southwesterner

For me at least, The Last of the Trunk has been a case of punch-drunk love. For hundreds of pugilistic pages the book reads like the revenge of [redacted] and the other members of the Boxer Rebellion who for the past ten years have busied themselves overthrowing the previous hegemony of the heroic fantasy and historical adventure stories in Howard studies. That the 2007 grab-bag might well have been entitled The Last, All in Trunks shouldn’t be surprising; as Patrice Louinet points out in his introduction, the Boom-era fanziners and small-pressers who cherry-picked Howard’s outtakes and leavings were hunting the sworded and the creature-featured.

That having been said, we do get away from ringside every so often. In “The Brand of Satan” the tiger-souled Brand Kenmara anticipates what Conan accomplishes in Afghulistan and Francis Xavier Gordon avoids or averts in Afghanistan:

Here in the foothills [of India], I built a vast outlaw band, composed of natives, wandering tribesmen from the Northern plains, and renegades of almost every nation. My band grew in numbers until it almost assumed the proportions of an army. I beat off English troops sent into the hills after me, and what was much more difficult, defeated a confederation of Ghurkha chiefs.

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John Carter of Earth


Any given year is a demonstration of mortality in action, but so far 2008 has been especially hellbent on inaugurating the afterlives of figures who had permanent luxury suites in the Tompkinsian pantheon: George MacDonald Fraser, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Fagles, and now Charlton Heston.

No sooner was I surfing the first wave of obituaries and career summaries than I was muttering and cursing. Everything else Heston did was being reduced to flotsam bobbing atop each half of the parted Red Sea, or dust beneath Judah Ben-Hur’s chariot wheels. It’s difficult to be objective about those movies because they became the Easter season equivalent of the Yule log, always on the TV screen in the background. When I try to watch either, it isn’t long before I wish someone had spiked the holy water. Oh, Ben-Hur retains some interest because of the involvement of Gore Vidal, Yakima Canutt, and a young assistant director named Sergio Leone, and the early scenes at the Egyptian court in The Ten Commandments are entertaining, mostly because of Yul Brynner’s seething Ramses (had he not gotten all that emoting out of his system, would he ever have been able to play the robot gunfighter in Westworld?) But I prefer Heston’s mid-career parts, when cracks in the Michelangelo-sculpted marble and verdigris on the gleaming bronze began to be detectable, so I was glad to find Manohla Dargis’ “The Man Who Touched Evil and Saved the World” in the New York Times: “My fondness for Mr. Heston can be traced back to the films I saw growing up, most important, his great dystopian trilogy, Planet of the Apes (1968), The Omega Man (1971), and Soylent Green (1973).” Had Ms. Dargis bethought her of how Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) ends, she might have reconsidered the second half of her tribute’s title, but I’m with her on the Dominus of Dystopia; whenever I read Howard’s “The Last Laugh” (an overheated discussion of which concludes an essay printed in TC V5n1), despite the probable Conanomorphism of the protagonist’s appearance, I imagine Charlton Heston, the last word in last stands and the first choice for the day after the end of the world.

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Slay Cat Blues


Great and terrible flesh-eating beasts have always shared landscape with humans. They were part of the ecological matrix within which Homo sapiens evolved. They were part of the psychological context in which our sense of destiny as a species arose. They were part of the spiritual systems that we invented for coping. The teeth of big predators, their claws, their ferocity and their hunger, were grim realities that could be eluded but not forgotten. Every once in a while, a monstrous carnivore emerged like doom from a forest or river to kill someone and feed on the body. It was a familiar sort of disaster–like auto fatalities today–that must have seemed freshly, shockingly gruesome each time, despite the familiarity. and it conveyed a certain message. Among the earliest forms of human self-awareness was the awareness of being meat.

That’s from David Quammen’s memorable-if-not-haunting 2003 Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind, a meditation on how “the alpha predators, and the responses they evoke, have transcended the physical dimension of sheer mortal struggle, finding their way also into mythology, art, epic literature, and religion.” One of the alpha-est predators, arguably the iconic carnivore of the Cenozoic Era, is figuring very prominently indeed in the trailers and promos for the March 7 release 10,000 B.C., directed by Roland Emmerich: Smilodon, the sabre-tooth tiger. Aficionados of Nature red in tooth and claw hope the film’s CGI and editing create charismatic killer cats that surpass Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion sabre-tooth in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and reclothe the animal in the dignity that was shed with the Denis Leary-voiced Diego in Ice Age and Ice Age 2. In honor of the occasion, I’d like to pay tribute to the two foremost mega-felines in all of modern fantasy, the gliding, pouncing juggernauts of Robert E. Howard’s “Beyond the Black River” and Karl Edward Wagner’s “Two Suns Setting.”

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Bumbles Pounce


Snowshoes discarded as an encumbrance, he slid down the frozen declivity until his feet struck something that snapped with an inauspicious crack. The rib-cage of a headless skeleton, the inhumanly slender bones of which identified it as one of the svartalfar. Now that the terrain no longer sloped away from him, his trek brought him alongside similar leavings again and again. This was the killing ground of something unimaginably powerful and insatiably bloodthirsty.

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Frazetta & Howard, Moorcock & Howard


Bear with me for this first paragraph. Most people who are fascinated by Alexander the Great know that Mary Renault wrote an Alexandriad, a trilogy of novels about the conqueror’s life and the succession wars that raged after his death: Fire From Heaven (1969), The Persian Boy (1972), and Funeral Games (1981). But some might not be aware that Alexander first appeared in the final chapter of a fourth book, The Mask of Apollo (1966). Renault’s narrator, Nikeratos, a Greek actor who has watched, and narrowly escaped with his life from, Plato’s doomed attempt to bring an ideal city-state into being in Sicily, meets the young prince at the Macedonian court in Pella, and they discuss whether Achilles should have killed Agamemnon and what an alliance between the Achaeans and Trojans for the purpose of eastward expansion might have achieved. Once back in Athens, Nikeratos muses “He will wander through the world like a flame, like a lion, seeking, never finding, never knowing (for he will look always forward, never back) that while he was still a child the thing he seeks slipped from the world, worn out and spent.” What Renault is getting at is that time and chance have denied Alexander exposure to Plato’s poetry, leaving him only the far more prosaic Aristotle. The Mask of Apollo ends this way:

All tragedies deal with fated meetings; how else could there be a play? Fate deals its stroke; sorrow is purged, or turned to rejoicing; there is death, or triumph; there has been a meeting, and a change. No one will ever make a tragedy — and that is as well, for one could not bear it — whose grief is that the principals never met.

On page 57 of Paul M. Sammon’s Conan: The Phenomenon, Frank Frazetta is quoted (by way of as saying “I feel a certain sense of loss that Howard isn’t alive to appreciate what I’ve done with Conan.” A certain sense of loss; for me that loss is quite similar to Mary Renault’s even-more-unbearable form of tragedy in which the principals are divided by circumstance or chronology.

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