Progress Retort

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The scene: A discussion group earlier this month, one that thanks to its membership and mission-creep often glances REH-ward. A writer with decades as a critic/contributor or player/coach in the fantasy and horror genres behind him, as well as exposure to Howard fandom at its most dynamic and forward-thinking but also at its most churlish and distempered, posts thusly:

My feeling is that real, serious criticism of REH is going to be seriously hampered for another generation. REH needs to get out of the control of his “fans.”

Well, that’s one not uninformed opinion, and there’s no gainsaying that it’s devoutly to be desired that “real, serious criticism of REH” will continue to evolve, with those fans perceptive and motivated enough to assay such criticism evolving right along with it. I might not even have blogged here in response, were it not for the fact that at about the time of the just-quoted post I’d been rummaging around in Peter Cannon’s 1990 Necronomicon Press collection “Sunset Terrace Imagery in Lovecraft” and Other Essays, only to be struck by how applicable his “H. P. Lovecraft: Problems in Critical Recognition” continues to be to our own field.

Likening the literary afterlife of Robert E. Howard to that of H. P. Lovecraft is a tried-and-true trope, the back-and-forth between the two living authors and the later doppelg√§ngerism of August Derleth and L. Sprague de Camp, the way their roles mirrored each other for good and for ill, render the comparison well-nigh unavoidable (No such semi-Griswoldian figure ever attached himself to the legacy of the third Musketeer, perhaps because the Klarkashtonian oeuvre lacked a concept or creation as marketable as the Cthulhu Mythos or Conan the Cimmerian). A notable recent instance can be found in S.T. Joshi’s half of “Two Views of The Barbaric Triumph” in The Dark Man #8 (Winter 2004), where he suggested “the field of Howard studies today is roughly where Lovecraft studies was at around the year 1980,” with promising up-and-comers still short on “a proper sense of intellectual or emotional distance from their subject,” and accordingly prone to “resentment” or “bitterness and hostility” as well as overestimation.

“Lovecraft’s prominence in the field of supernatural horror is beyond dispute; it is his status when measured by the larger literary yardstick that is most interestingly at question,” writes Cannon circa 1990. Howard’s bodaciousness in the field of heroic fantasy or fantastic adventure is equally indisputable, and I happen to know that next week’s The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume Two: Grim Lands contains a back-of-the-book essay that tries to get a read on him with the larger literary yardstick in somewhat rambling, gambling fashion.

Howardists might recognize themselves in Cannon’s description of “Lovecraft’s keenest advocates” as “essentially all ‘amateurs,’ outsiders rather in the spirit of Lovecraft himself who champion their hero and his work from the esoteric reaches of a literary underworld, removed from the usual academic and critical channels. They preach mainly to and among themselves.” In our case the literary underworld has begun rising to the surface, limited access to academic and critical channels is potentially available, and the more creative preaching bids fair to reach the not-yet-converted. Cannon illustrates his point about outsiderness with the following comments on eminent Lovecraftians:

Dirk Mosig, father of modern Lovecraft criticism, is a psychology professor. S. T. Joshi was trained as a Classics scholar; he has no Ph.D. Donald R. Burleson’s primary field is mathematics, although in January 1986 he received his doctorate in English from Columbia Pacific University: one looks forward to his publishing more frequently now in the academic mainstream. Of Lovecraft’s major critics only Brown University’s Barton St. Armand, Professor of English, stands apart from the Lovecraft cult, his detachment and objectivity above suspicion. More successfully than anyone St. Armand has placed Lovecraft in a larger literary context, and done so without apology; unfortunately, however, he has many other interests (such as another eccentric New England recluse, Emily Dickinson) and has contributed nothing new in years.

(Hmmm — is it entirely fair to imply that HPL was a Dickinsonian recluse?) Okay, we may not yet have anyone off to one side of the Howard cult boasting detachment and objectivity that meet the main criterion for Caesar’s wife; similarly, Joshi’s precondition of “intellectual or emotional distance” sets up an interesting challenge for Howardists — can we achieve insightfulness about this writer while freeing ourselves from his trademark incitefulness? At his best Howard erases, annuls, negates emotional distance.

Cannon notes “In another direction, there may be cause for hope. Current mainstream writers have begun to notice Lovecraft, if only perhaps incidentally” — an observation that antedates the dramatic intervention of Joyce Carol Oates. With Howard we find a nod or two from Michael Chabon, encouraging awareness on the part of Michael Dirda and John J. Miller, and, if we exit the “mainstream,” gracious tributes by genre heavyweights like Steven Erikson, Paul Kearney, and George R. R. Martin. “The publication by Arkham House of textually correct editions of the fiction is a landmark, ” Cannon declared when such editions were still morning-crowned and dewy-fresh, “but then we should have a Penguin edition of the best of Lovecraft based on those texts. ” Other desiderata?

A Lovecraft compendium that contained not only tales but poems, essays, and letters would also be welcome. The ultimate honor might be inclusion in the acclaimed Library of America series of standard authors. Too, we need a new biography that addresses his philosophy and a judiciously edited one-volume collection of letters with the imprimatur of a mainstream house, so as to bring to the attention of the general public the extraordinary range of his genius.

Much of this has come true for Lovecraft, and some is starting to for Howard (for some thoughts on the latter’s Library of America-compatibility, see the afore-plugged Grim Lands essay). Meaty excerpts from REH letters cohabit with his fiction in the Rusty-Burke edited Bison volume The End of the Trail and the comprehensive miscellanea of Bran Mak Morn: The Last King. While a “judiciously edited” single-volume mainstream-publisher letter collection might be a ways off, here’s hoping some of the three-volume Collected Letters sets find their way into content-generating rather than merely collectorial hands. [redacted]’s Blood & Thunder is not, and was not intended to be, definitive, but it is refreshingly re-definitive, and Dark Valley Destiny dwindles in the rearview mirror as Mark motorvates on down a less conflict-of-interest-constricted highway.

In 1990 Cannon insisted that Lovecraft required “somewhat more solid recognition of his importance than [a few] favorable straws in the wind,” and in Howard’s case maybe, just maybe, whole haystacks are beginning to take to the air. “The struggle for Lovecraft’s acceptance promises to continue into the next century,” Cannon assured readers, “with his triumph by no means certain. At best, perhaps we can expect him to be accorded a minor but respectable position in the American literary hierarchy.” My inclination is to query the word “respectable” — how respectable is Poe, even at this late date? — but now that HPL is ensconced in the Library of America, now that the (J. K. Rowling-and-Peter-Jackson-accelerated) study of fantasy is a growth industry, and we’re almost a decade into Cannon’s “next century,” a minor position for Howard in the hierarchy (understood to become a major position when we readjust the lens to focus on American genre fiction) is anything but a will-o’-the-wisp.

As for “seriously hamper[ing]” criticism, yes, Howard fandom may have spent too long in insurrectionary mode for its own good; and once insurgents have fought their way indoors and claimed office-space they often experience difficulty in downing Kalashnikovs, but it should not be forgotten that the situation that touched off the uprising was not of the fans’ making (REHupans, risibly magnified into an Elders of Zion, Trilateral Commission, or Freemasonry-style bogey-group by a few affrighted non-members, have long been ruefully aware that a majority of their number are Anglo-Celts or Scots-Irish, the fightin’est pair of fan-ethnicities conceivable). But generalizations about a fandom miss the mark in that any such body contains activist fans and content-to-consume fans, well-rounded fans and one-dimensional fans. It’s individual, largely self-selected fans that serve as shock troops in assault after assault on the pantheon, and I don’t see why, to quote the post that triggered this post again, “REH needs to get out of the control of [such] fans,” at least not soon. Leaving aside the letdown of the incomplete Wandering Star Conan, have the pertinent fans done so very badly with the Del Rey REH series, or the 5 University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books collections? The essayists for The Barbaric Triumph were mostly fans, not academics — did they disgrace themselves, or Don Herron’s project? The Dark Man has been as dinged and dented by hostile fire as the conquistador’s armor that Ram√≥n Rojo prefers to use for target practice in A Fistful of Dollars, but still meets a need and affords a venue, even if not as frequently as the fans who work on that journal would like. Fan-owned and operated, The Cimmerian combines ambitious literary/critical articles (story summaries need not apply), hectares of Howardiana, detailed event coverage, Cross Plains pilgrimage memoirs, stubborn rearguard actions on behalf of de Camp, and collector-softcore — and that’s before one reaches the Lion’s Den.

So I would be the first to agree that, like a nest of nosferatu, Howard studies thrives on fresh blood, but if much of the infusion of hemoglobin is supplied by the best sort of fan for a little while longer, most of us have weathered more distressing Howardian developments than that.