Maybe Not A Boom, But A Drumbeat

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I thought about inaugurating this blog by pointing out just how mistaken Patrice Louinet, the prolific and otherwise perceptive Howard scholar, is in his belief that Monica Bellucci would make a better Dark Agnes de la Fere than would the French actress Virginie Ledoyenmais non! Bellucci would be hard pressed to get out of the way of her own mammaries while fencing. But instead I’m going to revisit TC V3n5, which is fondly remembered in Tompkinsian precincts as The Special Apoplexy Issue. Gary Romeo’s “Viagra for the Soul,” Richard A. Lupoff’s “Long Ago and Far Away,” and Leon Nielsen’s “Pseudo Boom” all contained assertions that had me glimpsing the world through an echt-Howardian crimson mist for hours after I encountered them.

Each and every paragraph of Nielsen’s “Pseudo Boom” could not be more sincere in its concern, from a bookseller-cum-collector’s perspective, about How Well Howard Is Doing. Such a perspective is of course valid and valuable, but hardly panoptic — monitoring eBay transactions can tell us a lot about copies sold, but next to nothing about worlds rocked and doors opened. Nielsen overlooks or under-esteems significant developments while bizarrely fawning upon the Baen Books Howard paperbacks of the mid-90s, which he applauds for their “higher degree of textually pure versions” and “Ken Kelly’s splendid cover paintings.” (Splendid? Seriously, splendid? Like I said, Special Apoplexy Issue) He contrasts the scads of reprintings of the Lancer/Ace/Sphere Conans — Gary Romeo used to hand them out at homeless shelters and Vegan restaurants once a month — with the lone printing of the Baens, but we need to keep in mind that the latter were packaged with covers representing Kelly at his worst rather than those that represented Frazetta at his best, and were unified as a series only by their author, not by a gigantomorphic protagonist.

Nielsen is pushing doom and gloom, not Boom. He dismisses talk of a Second Howardian Coming as “just wishful thinking by the old guard,” much ado about what is merely “an enormous and opportunistic commercialization of more textually pure Howard material.” Had he used the word “celebration” instead of “commercialization,” I would not have found this broadside as borderline offensive as I did. Allowing for my bias as a participant editor, how were the 5 Howard collections published by Bison Books in 2005 opportunistic rather than evangelical, or an example of “pumping out repetitive material”? The introduction to each Bison volume was not pumped out but handcrafted and slaved-over to showcase the stories that would follow.

A less alarmist version of “Pseudo Boom” might have served as a useful reality check, a squirt-gun sluice of ice water to cool down overheated or irrational exuberance. And, yes, it is true that plenty of preaching to the converted and vending to the venerable is going on these days. But when Nielsen asks “For how long has it been the same people and the same names that we see over and over again, not only in the REHupa mailings but also in other amateur press publications,” or stresses that he doesn’t notice “hordes of eager, hopeful scholars storming the bastions of REHupa to get on the waiting list or contribute to the existing Howard source literature,” I have to wonder — how would he even know? He hasn’t been a REHupan during my stint (1995 to the present), a time of constant turnover (Even the Four Brothers of the Night who function as REHupa’s occasionally whiskey-sodden institutional memory have been reduced to a triumvirate of late). As for the “existing Howard source literature,” more of it exists all the time. In November and December Howardists will be digesting and dissecting [redacted]’s post-de Camp, contra-DVD bio Blood and Thunder. How many of us had heard of him in 1999? Leo Grin was not yet a name to conjure with in 1998, nor was Chris Gruber in 2000. “Same editors, same speakers, same critics and foot soldiers,” Nielsen laments, but many of this supposedly samey bunch are hitting their stride, perfecting their jump shots, doing good work while dreaming of even better. Contingents of Depends-free fiftysomethings, overly opinionated fortysomethings, and Macbeth-minded thirtysomethings do not a gerontocracy make. The publisher/editor of The Cimmerian can’t even remember the Nixon Administration, not that he would remember it in accordance with my liberal pieties anyway.

Neither the winners of the 2005 and 2006 Cimmerian Awards nor the contributors to the 2004 critical anthology The Barbaric Triumph support the notion of a stasis-stabilized circle jerk. Of ten TBT essayists, only 2-1/2 were holdovers from The Dark Barbarian, 1-1/2 if we out George Knight as being a Don Herron nom de guerre (The 1/2 would be Donald Sidney-Fryer, who translated Lauric Guillaud’s essay into English for TBT). Sure seems like enough of an infusion of new blood to bring a flush to the cheeks of even the most demanding vampire-king.

So I disagree with Nielsen when he writes that the “last great recruitment to the Howard movement happened during the boom of the late 1960s to the early 1980s.” Dark Horse is publishing not only a monthly Conan comic but frequent miniseries, and all of their issues recruit by offering a monthly crash course in Howard himself as taught and drawn by Jim and Ruth Keegan. And at there is now a forum where the uninitiated can mingle with, or shrink from, the ungafiated.

When Nielsen depicts a “stagnant, myopic-thinking bickering of old folks” I’m sure he means it as a warning of a possible foreshortened future rather than as a description of the status quo — though it might do as a sketch of rehinnercircle on a really bad day. He worries that Howard might “decline, vanish, and eventually be lost from memory once again, as has happened to many other pulp magazine writers.” But Howard is much more than just a dearly beloved pulp writer. Despite the cooties many Howardists flinch from catching by way of any association of their man with modern fantasy, Howard is a major, major genre figure. He can’t be written out of 20th century heroic fantasy, and his influence has been “written in” to the best 21st century heroic fantasy. His entry in the 1997 Encyclopedia of Fantasy is a Texas-sized hunk of real estate, even if vast expanses are given over to a forced march through innumerable pastiche-titles, and his legacy is going to be honored at the Texas-staged 2006 World Fantasy Convention. Moreover, he’s poised to benefit from the achievements of Peter Jackson and J.K. Rowling. Rowling has created tens of millions of new readers, and although the way of the world will see to it that many of them will shuffle or sleepwalk away from not only fantasy but pleasure reading itself, tens of thousands will delve into the genre’s deeper and darker Morias, where the Del Rey Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, and an at long last decontaminated Conan, soon to be joined by Kull, will be waiting alongside David Gemmell, George R.R. Martin, China Mieville, and others. Howard’s destiny is to engross readers and engender writers, so I think Leon Nielsen is calling for activity while ignoring the hyperactivity that is already underway. We can’t turn the clock back to 1966 or 1976 (the Romeo household is a special case) but we can do our not inconsiderable damnedest to ensure that 2006 mops the floor with 1996, and that momentum and momentousness carry over into 2007 and beyond. Maybe there’s no Boom, but there’s a drumbeat as expressive and galvanizing as the one that Solomon Kane can’t help hearing throughout the African sequences of “Red Shadows.”

Miracle of human diversity among blog-brethren time: I’m of the opinion that the new TDM double issue offers much that merits reading and little that merits dismissal. Rusty Burke’s “New Deal Heroic Fantasist” is the logical follow-up that Steve Trout’s classic “King Conan and the Aquilonian Dream” has deserved for a long time, and Steve himself makes a welcome reappearance in the “back-of-the-book” section. And with Gary rendering the pages of The Cimmerian sticky with his effusions about de Camp buddying-up to Howard in the not-so-great hereafter, TDM need not be embarrassed because Jeffrey Kahan dared to note that quite a lot of male-on-male gazing occurs in the boxing stories. The best writing about boxing (Hemingway, Mailer, Oates) often reflects the fact that fistfighting–rules, refs, and ringside rubberneckers notwithstanding–is one of the most intimate things that 2 men can do together.

ROB ADDS:I completely agree with you. Rusty’s piece is great, as well as most of the rest. My main objection is the timeliness of the pieces. I had hoped that there was some updating going on while we waited for the issue to come out. The mag is labeled “Spring 2006,” but most of the content is from Spring 2005 — or earlier.

MARK ADDS: This past Monday at BookPeople, one of the cashiers flagged me down; it seemed that the guy in line was buying all three of the Del Rey Conans in one fell swoop. I complimented him and asked if they were for him or a gift. “They’re for me,” he said. “I’ve been reading the Dark Horse Conan trade paperbacks and I’ve been loving those articles in the back. They really made me realize that there’s, you know, a ‘Conan,’ like there’s a ‘Tarzan,’ and then there’s the real Conan. So I wanted to check out the real Conan.” When I told him that I was the one that wrote those articles in the back of the Dark Horse trades, he cornered me for twenty minutes to ask me about this and that. He was most interested in what to read next. After Conan. Because, he said, “when I saw the display back there, I was like, ‘whoa, this guy did so much more than Conan.'”

Anyone who tells you that new people aren’t coming to Howard, that the buzz isn’t out there, is blowing in the wind.