Last week, Robert E. Howard got name-checked in the New York Times Magazine, due in equal measure to Jack Vance and Carlo Rotella. Jack’s contribution consisted of being the subject of the article and of having been a fan of Weird Tales during the Depression. Rotella did his part by being an assiduous journalist and a reader of discerning tastes.
Professor Rotella, whose day job is chairing the American Studies Program at Boston College’s English Department, seems to be quite accomplished already at this stage in his career. A Yale graduate, Rotella has held several fellowships, including a Guggenheim. He has won, or been a finalist for, several awards. Besides the New York Times Magazine, Carlo Rotella has also written articles and essays for the Washington Post Magazine, Harper’s and American Quarterly, to name just a few. One of his areas of specialization is American Literature. Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard both fall within that category. Rotella readily admits to being “a long-time reader of Howard.” Considering the depth and quality of his Vance article, one can hope that he turns his hand towards penning a piece on REH at some point in the future.
The impetus behind the Times article seems to be the imminent and simultaneous publication of two Vance-related books, both from Subterranean Press. One is an anthology by divers hands, Songs of the Dying Earth. The other is Vance’s long-awaited autobiography, This Is Me, Jack Vance!
Songs of the Dying Earth is a star-studded collection dedicated to Vance’s most famous setting. Clocking in at six hundred pages, Songs of the Dying Earth means serious business and packs plenty of literary firepower. While veteran science-fiction anthologist, Gardner Dozois, is co-editor, all the promo materials spotlight his partner: George R. R. Martin. Martin is not the only one to throw his literary weight behind this tribute volume. Dean Koontz writes an “appreciation” of Vance. Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, Terry Dowling, Mike Resnick and Tanith Lee all contribute fiction. Michael Chabon has written copy for the dustjacket. The setting which influenced authors such as Gene Wolfe and Michael Shea (why weren’t either in the anthology?) and game designers like Gary E. Gygax receives its due praise, from both within and without the fantasy genre.
This Is Me, Jack Vance! is the author’s autobiography. Jack Vance has been fairly notorious over the years for being private, preferring to let his prose (and, occasionally, his forays into jazz) do the talking. In the two hundred pages of This Is Me, Jack Vance!, the tight-lipped recluse regales us with tales of his hard-scrabble youth and his early days writing for the pulps during the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Those looking for a primer on how to craft Vancian prose will not find it between these covers. As Jeremy Cavaterra, a friend of Jack’s puts it (in Rotella’s article, “A Genre Artist”), “Part of it is that he feels like it’s the magician telling you how the trick works, and part of it is that he writes by feel and doesn’t interrogate it.”
While some might not believe it, Jack Vance is a long-time admirer of Robert E. Howard; a charter member of the fan-club from the Weird Tales days. As he told Carlo Rotella, “I waited at the mailbox every month with my tongue hanging out for the latest issue of Weird Tales.” Vance wasn’t waiting to read the latest mini-opus from August Derleth nor Seabury Quinn. While Tim Underwood has not always been the best friend of Robert E. Howard, he and his erstwhile partner rendered REH scholars a service when they edited Jack Vance (Writers of the 21st Century series). In that volume (which also included a chapter by Howard studies godfather, Don Herron), Richard Tiedman queried Vance as to his influences. According to Tiedman, Jack informed him that,”Those in the field who had a more definite impact on his writing were, according to Vance himself, Olaf Stapledon, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert W. Chambers, and, to a lesser extent, James Branch Cabell and Robert E. Howard.” A “definite impact.” “Robert E. Howard.” I am sure there are many who would have bet against that in Vegas.
Jack Vance is an American original. An author whose voice has echoed down the decades since his prose first hit the pulp. The fact that he was an aficionado of REH from the get-go is just a foot-note. Still, it does make the man a bit cooler. As if he needed it.
My thanks to Dan Clore for turning me on to the NYT article and to Carlo Rotella for providing additional information.
Art by Fabian and Staples.
Steve Trout adds:
That Vance is a Howard fan comes as no surprise — he has a barbarian character named Kul as a major character in “The Green Pearl.”