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.
I became aware of Steve Tompkins shortly before he began blogging on The Cimmerian. I’d heard his name spoken about the council-fires in Cross Plains. As soon as I returned and recovered from Howard Days 2006, I discovered Steve’s first blog post here. At the time, I didn’t have access to a lot of his writings in print, so his essays on this site were a true gift of the blogosphere. As one would expect, he came out of the gate all guns blazing. His “Maybe Not A Boom, But A Drumbeat” entry hit Leon Nielsen’s nay-saying regarding a “new Howard boom” (from TCV3n5) head-on. In the process, he spoke for myself and others who felt that there was far more to write about Robert E. Howard and his fiction, and many more new fans to recruit to the REH banner.
One of his next blogs, “Miskatonic U.’s Film School“, heralded his intention to make this blog a pantheonic temple to all those writers who deserved (not least, in the estimation of Howard himself) to stand alongside this site’s Reason For Being. Making the case for being an REH and a Lovecraft fan, Tompkins also began forging a legacy as one of the best essayists on the Man From Providence in this twenty-first century, at least from this fan’s perspective. Steve’s tripartite essay, “Derleth Be Not Proud,” brings one up to date on the state of Lovecraft studies and HPL’s Mythos in a magisterial manner.
Mr. Leo Grin, without a doubt, instigated the trend on this site to include the other titan of twentieth century fantasy, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Steve Tompkins, his landmark essay, “The Shortest Distance Between Two Towers,” but newly-penned, was the Hurin to Leo’s Huor, warding the Man From Oxford against ill-reasoned and shallow attacks. In the twenty-first century, Tolkien could not wish for two mightier pens to guard his name and reputation. Tompkins’ “Long Ago, Far Away, and So Much Better Than It Is Today?” is as good as Tolkien essays get, and I’ve read a lot of ’em. He told me in an email that he “hemmorhaged money” when it came to books of JRRT criticism/scholarship. If there is any justice in this world, he’ll be published in one such volume, someday.
Steve Tompkins could draw connections between disparate figures in fiction and history that gobsmacked me on a fairly regular basis. Who else but Tompk could write an essay like “Hearts in Mouths,” where the obvious connections (in hindsight) betwixt Yogah of Yag, Sigurd, Cormac na Connacht and Rain-in-the-Face are made clear? He pulled a similar hat-trick with his three-part “Something To Do With Deathlessness” essay, demonstrating the parallels between the cinematic ouevre of Leone and Wagner’s anti-hero, Kane. Who else could see the kinship connecting the Valerius of The Hour of the Dragon and the Joker of The Dark Knight? Tompkins did so in his most excellent “What A Mummer Wild, What An Insane Child” essay.
Tompkins’ erudition and apparently eidetic recall was mind-boggling to me. Leo Grin has likened Tompk’s brain to a “supercomputer,” and credited it with having a “mental highlighter.” I can only concur. Amongst my circle of friends here in SEK (which includes some PHds, what-have-you), I am generally considered to be the guy who can pull out a reference/quote when the situation calls for it. Steve Tompkins made me feel like a middle school delinquent/dropout on a maddeningly regular basis. I would read one of his essays where he quoted a source and think, “Yeah! That’s the perfect quote.” The thing is, I knew it would have taken me hours or days or weeks or never-ever to come up with that quote. Tompk could come up with it and put it exactly where it should go. No amount of mental elbow-grease can really substitute for that. Sheer talent, plain and simple.
The recall and the strategic application of quotes was just part of Tompkins’ arsenal. Besides that, and his ability to scry connections no one else had seen, Tompk could turn a phrase like few word-smiths out there. I will not even attempt to list the countless times I was astounded by his knack for stringing just the right words together. You, dear reader, need to read and experience that for yourself.
Two excellent examples of Steve’s talent for spinning skeins and webs of words aren’t even essays, technically. “Bumbles Pounce” and “Night Falls On Whoheim” are whimsical Yuletide fables, forged with a hammer of true-silver. As with most good Yule-tales, there is darkness about and within them. Dickens, an author Tompkins admired, would approve, perhaps. Those two entries give us a small glimpse of what might-have-been, had Tompk turned his hand to fiction. It would be a small leap, indeed, from chronicling the doings of a Howardian/Klarkash-tonian/Grendelian Grinch to spinning a Tompkinsian tale based on, say, the oddyssey of the Sons of Tuireann.
I didn’t pull that reference to the Irish Mythological Cycle out of thin air. Tompkins (like Robert E. Howard) claimed some Gaelic blood and was proud of it. The title of this essay is drawn from Millman’s Our Like Will Not Be There Again, a book I would be surprised if Steve hadn’t read. A good example of Tompkins’ Celtic pride is his (underappreciated, in my opinion) post, “While We Can Garryowen Hail.” As an essay dealing with the NYC fire department should be, it is redolent with references to Irishry, bagpipes and even Clontarf. The tune referred to is one that Edgar Rice Burroughs would have heard when he rode with the 7th Cavalry. Tompk wondered if Robert E. Howard was familiar with it. Considering REH’s deep, abiding interest in “old-time” songs of the Isles, I find it hard to believe he wasn’t.
Tompkins expressed a suitably Celtic desire to wreak personal vengeance upon those who instigated the murder of his friend, who died on 9-11. He also seemed pleased that “Garryowen” was being played in Afghanistan. Those sentiments contradict the view, occasionally heard, that Tompk was some kind of utterly irrational “liberal”. The fact that he also slammed Germaine Greer and exalted Charlton Heston should put paid to that notion. Steve leaned to the left, but not blindly, not from my perspective. One could argue that Robert E. Howard did the same.
At least there seems to be little dispute regarding Steve’s excellence as a person. From my personal experience, via email, he was invariably kind, generous, self-effacing and patient. In one of the first emails I received, he stated that, “I’ve been worried that the blog would degenerate into a sort of Tompkins idiolect…” I informed Steve that there were far, far more frightful things to fear than that. He dutifully answered every question my semi-literate (computer-wise) self posed, though I’m sure he had much better things to do. For my first post, I was utterly nonplussed in regard to what to call the damned thing. Steve, always a master at coming up with cool titles, suggested one and I used it, gladly.
We discussed our mutual admiration for Tolkien several times. I broached the possiblility of contacting JRRT scholar, Tom Shippey. Shippey teaches here in the States, and I saw no real problem getting him on board in some fashion once he’d read Steve’s and Leo’s essays. Steve was ecstatic over the idea. Hopefully, in memory of Tompk, it will come to fruition. Another time, Steve told me, “I’ve been fine-tuning a thumbsucker about the relationship between Morgoth and Sauron that ransacks Paradise Lost, and hope to get that posted before mid-March.” By mid-March, Steve Tompkins was in the hospital with a week to live. If some draft of that essay exists, I’d love to read it.
I was able to surprise Steve on a couple occasions. Turns out that he was unaware of Thin Lizzy’s rendition of “Whiskey in the Jar” until a day before I mentioned it, he having heard it while watching Life On Mars. He felt a bit sheepish about that. Another time, when we were discussing Hemingway, I mentioned that one of my favorite former girlfriends was a big fan of Papa’s writings and quite erudite regarding the subject. Astounded, Tompk informed me that, “Women who appreciate Hemingway are a marvel right out of Sir John Mandeville.” That was the last line from the last email that Steve Tompkins ever sent me. I hope that I reaffirmed his faith, just a little bit, that wonders do happen in this fallen world. It’s a damned shame that one didn’t come ’round for him when he needed it.
To paraphrase a certain Cimmerian: “I will count him among the bards who have passed on before me, and my women will sing of him.”
*Art by Michael Wm. Kaluta