Sunday, July 22, 2018

By the Phoenix on This Sword I Rule! By Karen Joan Kohoutek


“If I could but come to grips with something tangible, that I could cleave with my sword!”

           
When Robert E. Howard revised an unsold tale about King Kull, the gloomy ruler of Valusia, he replaced that character with Conan, a barbarian king in a similar position, who would later be fleshed out with a wide-ranging history, and a multiplicity of formative experiences. Along the way, the character turned from an Atlantean to a Cimmerian, and his eye color from gray to blue. His personality also changes in some significant ways, from the original “By This Axe I Rule!” to the available early draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword,” and again to the version of that story published in Weird Tales in December 1932.

            As Patrice Louinet says in his appendix to the collected Kull stories, “by writing the first Conan tale on the ashes of an unsold Kull story, Howard was telling us that he now envisioned the Kull series a prehistoric one, which paved the way for the Conan stories” (289).

            The Conan who becomes the canonical version deals with court intrigue and attempts to usurp his power, in ways that are similar to the situation in “Axe.” There is a critical difference, in that Conan never declares “I am king!,” because he doesn’t have to. A line about his suffering from the tedious “matters of statecraft” line is taken almost word for word from the Kull story (11, 161), but Conan starts the story with a confidence that Kull had lacked. In “Axe,” Kull, already the king in name, comes into his full authority, an intriguing pivotal moment in a ruler’s career. Unlike Kull, Conan developed his full personal authority before he was in a position of recognized leadership, and even when other characters in the story reject his rule, it’s because of their own personal desire for power.

           
Kull of Atlantis
(art by Justin Sweet)
 
This isn’t a criticism of Kull’s character, but a reflection on the different, if related, themes their stories explore. The situation in “By This Axe” is, despite the presence of an Atlantean, fairly realistic, and something not often explored: a turning point in which a ruler comes into true confidence as a leader. The themes of the Kull story are still embedded in the Conan story  when does someone with authority in name really take on authority as a true leader? — but are expanded upon, dealing more with the longer-term consequences of taking on the crown, and the process by which a ruler’s authority becomes fully accepted by his subjects.

            In each story, the hero takes from the wall “an ancient battle-axe” (“ax” in the Conan version) which had hung there “for possibly a hundred years” (Kull 173), or at least “half a century” (Conan 21). The connotations of the axe, especially given the emphasis on its age, link it to the barbarian nature of the main characters. When Kull takes up the titular axe, he claims a personal authority that comes out of his past: who he is and where he came from. Since it belongs to Valusia’s history, the axe is associated with Kull’s formal authority, embedded in the royal structure and government, but it also reflects his primal essence, which he uses to cut through hierarchical, bureaucratic tangles. This satisfying moment hearkens back to a time before the society had become so complex, with a confusing maze of laws and traditions built up over the generations, some of them useful, but some of them unjust and no longer worth following.


Sunday, July 8, 2018

A 2018 Howard Days Highlight: T-Shirts by Todd B. Vick



Every year I attend Howard Days, seeing the Howard House and Museum is a highlight, especially if the shop at the back of the house has new items for sale. This year was no exception. Among the items that were for sale in the museum shop this year were t-shirts with new designs. It's not easy finding REH themed t-shirts, so getting new designs at the REH House and Museum is a nice plus.

I'm a t-shirt and shorts wearing kind of person. In fact, if I were 'allowed' to wear nothing but, that's what I'd wear all the time. In years past, I've bought at least a dozen different t-shirts at the Howard House museum. About 5 or 6 years ago, the museum shop had a t-shirt with a cool design by Michael L. Peters, and I've bought several of those over the years. A couple of years ago there was a minimalist t-shirt that had a single emblem, the REH House & Museum, on the upper left area of the shirt. But this year, the museum shop had two new t-shirt designs for sale, and as soon as I saw them, I snatched them up.

The first design has REH's signature across the top and "Museum, Cross Plains, Texas" across the bottom. There is also a picture of REH in the middle going through his signature, and on either side of the middle pic, two other pictures of REH, with Bill Cavalier's grave-site-foot-stone penciling at the bottom. Pretty cool, at least I thought so.



The second design, which sold out (I think in all the sizes), was a drawing by James Carter. This t-shirt design was a sword going through the words Robert E. Howard Days, with a banner that read 2018 at the bottom, and had a bit of a Virgil Finlay look and feel to it. Cool looking design, and I can see why it sold out.

If you were unable to attend Howard Days but still have an interest in buying one of these t-shirts (they have various sizes), then I am fairly certain that the museum is likely still selling them. You can always call this number, (254) 725-6562, and order one.





Sunday, July 1, 2018

A 2018 Howard Days Highlight: Books, Books, Books! by Todd B. Vick

Every year at Howard Days, someone (or several someones) has a table set up for you to buy books, collectible magazines, fanzines, pulps, etc. This year was no exception. Even so, there were several books at several tables that set this year's wares apart from previous years.

First, Bobby Derie (who also presented on several panels) set up a table and gave away (yes, gave away . . . you know, for free!) three books that he put together (one that Howard boxing scholar, Chris Gruber, helped with). The first of these three is titled, Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others. Even if there were nothing between the covers of this book, the cover alone would be worth having. The cover (front and back) consists of a bunch of pictures of various pulp writers place together to form an over-all image of Robert E. Howard. Very cool! This book is a collection of essays that Derie had published between 2015 to 2017 at Damon Sasser's now defunct blog Two-Gun Raconteur, here at On An Underwood No. 5, Messages from Crom blog, and in print in the Lovecraft Annual. To have all these in one collected volume was a great idea. The second book is titled A Robert E. Howard Sampler. This is a collection of Howard's works edited by Chris Gruber & Bobby Derie. Gruber has an introductory essay and Derie wrote brief essays to introduce each section. The sections consist of sword & sorcery, weird fiction, boxing, western, poetry, detective, historical adventure, fantasy, science fiction, and H.P. Lovecraft's In Memoriam: Robert E. Howard essay. The third book is an index to One Who Walked Alone by Novalyne Price Ellis, and Day of the Stranger by Rusty Burke & Novalyne Price Ellis. This small book is a nice edition to any researcher's library, especially for quick reference to these two works.



Second, Skelos Press had a table and this year they were selling Patrice Louinet's (another presenter on this year's panels) anticipated book titled The Robert E. Howard Guide. It was originally published in France several years ago, and Louinet recently translated it into English and published it through Skelos Press. It is an excellent intro to Robert E. Howard, and a must read for Howard beginners. The book deals with a history of common misconceptions that have arisen and developed over the decades. These misconceptions have sometimes been somewhat damaging to Howard's reputation, sometimes they've distorted his works, and too often they've confused readers and fans about the writer, his works, and his life. Louinet does a first-rate job of clearing up those misconceptions. The misconception section is followed by a brief biographical section about Howard, his up-bringing, life in Texas in the early 20th century, etc. Then there are two chapters of recommended stories to read from Howard. The first of these two chapters cover "must-read" stories, each has a small bit of publishing history and summation of the tale itself. This is followed by another chapter that details twenty more stories you "should" read, with the same format of information, for a total of forty Howard stories.

Louinet then turns his attention to Howard's most famous character, Conan the Cimmerian. He discusses the barbarian's history, how he has been used (and abused) in pastiches, film, comic books, video games, board games, etc. This chapter is followed by various adaptations of Robert E. Howard's stories in motion pictures (e.g. Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane, etc.), as well as television adaptations such as Boris Karloff's early 1960s adaptation of "Pigeons from Hell."

Other nice features of this book include Howard's correspondence with Lovecraft, current places to read about Robert E. Howard, and things such as collecting Howard ephemera, and such.

As far as a basic book to introduce anyone interested in the works and life of Robert E. Howard, this is now the go-to book. It does have some editorial issues throughout (I'm not sure whether Skelos Press proof-read and/or edited the text, they should have if they did not), and there is one somewhat big blunder in the book that, once again should have been caught by the editors at Skelos Press. The blunder is that Louinet attributes the creation of Weird Tales magazine to William Sprenger (who was actually the business manager of the magazine) and not J. C. Henneberger (and J. M. Lansinger), who actually created and established the magazine. Otherwise, this is an excellent book and well worth investing your money ($14.95 price tag) and your time. Hopefully, Patrice Louinet will publish more works here in the U.S. since he is considered by many to be one of the foremost scholars on Robert E. Howard's life and works.

Third, The Robert E. Howard Foundation, as usual, had their table set up and were selling the much anticipated volume titled, Pictures in the Fire: Remaining Weird Tales and Esoterica, edited by Paul Herman. From the inside flap: This volume is mostly comprised of weird and horror stories, along with a bit of juvenilia, fragments, poetry, and assorted odds and ends. The front and back cover art is drawn by Bill "Indy" Cavalier (who was the guest of honor at this year's Howard Days, and a long-time fan of Robert E. Howard). If you do not already have a copy of this book, you better hurry and get one, it is likely to sell out fairly fast.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Swanson of Dakota By Karen Joan Kohoutek

Carl Swanson
with his wife, Evelyn
North Dakota, where I have lived for many years, is an under-represented state in the history of weird fiction. So one of my favorite footnotes is the elusive Carl Swanson (May 25, 1902 — November 16, 1974), who corresponded with Lovecraft, inspired The Fantasy Fan fanzine, and collaborated with Jerry Siegel, all while living in Washburn, ND. One of his best-known ventures is an attempt to start a magazine called Galaxy, although, judging by references in the letters of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, the idea swiftly rose and fell.

            Lovecraft commented on Swanson in several of his letters to Robert Barlow, starting in January 1932: “I am told that a new weird magazine is about to be started by one Carl Swanson of Washburn, North Dakota. I’ve sent in ‘The Nameless City’ & ‘Beyond the Wall of Sleep,’ but am doubtful about their acceptance” (21). Later that month, he added that he had “just heard from Swanson—the new magazine man. He has accepted both ‘The Nameless City’ & ‘Beyond the Wall of Sleep’” (22).

            In March 1932, Lovecraft provided more information. “Swanson’s plans are slowly taking form. The new periodical will be called Galaxy, & Derleth understands that the rate of pay will be about ¼ (cent) per word. The magazine will sell for 10 (cents), or $1.00 per year. Wright of W.T. is rather worried about the coming competition, & tends to resent the sale of reprinting rights to Swanson by his authors” (25).

            This would come up again in March 1935, when, speaking of Wright and reprint rights from Weird Tales, Lovecraft says, “The only smallness he ever displayed in a matter of reprinting was some years ago, when Swanson of Dakota intended to found a magazine of second appearances” (217). Also in March, Howard wrote to his friend Tevis Clyde Smith that “a man named Swanson is publishing a magazine in one of the Dakotas, on the weird order. I’ve neglected my chances, until I wonder if the thing’s about up ten years ahead. Lovecraft wrote me that he’d placed a couple of yarns, and evidently the old weird tale buccaneers have descended on it like a horde of vultures” (315).



Sunday, June 17, 2018

Howard Days 2018: A Trip Report by Todd B. Vick



This year was my seventh straight year to attend Howard Days in Cross Plains, Texas. Every year I meet new people and learn new things, and that alone keeps me wanting to come back the next year. But in addition to meeting new people and learning new things, there is so much else going on, trying to take it all in can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. This year’s theme was celebrating REH Fans and the keynote speaker was, Bill “Indy” Cavalier, long time Howard fan and OE (Official Editor) of The Robert E. Howard United Press Association (REHupa). Moreover, most of the panels this year were geared to the fandom of Robert E. Howard. Every year I can summarize the event itself usually in one word. This year that word is fellowship.

It may have simply been the group I spent the most time with this year, but there were a lot of people who knew one another via the internet but had never met before in person. So "meeting" for the "first time," so to speak was a prominent feeling and activity. That was the case for me with several online friends who also attended the event this year. David J. West, author and guest writer here at On An Underwood No. 5, whom I have known online for many years, attended this year’s event for the first time. We had previously discussed him possibly attending previous Howard Days, and I had explained that I could pick him up from the airport and we could always drive to the event together. This year he took me up on that offer, and I’m glad he did. Getting to meet David J. West and hang out with him this year was a highlight for me. Moreover, when we arrived in Cross Plains, West was looking for others whom he had met online but had not met in person, so we eventually crossed paths with author Keith West (a regular attender to Howard Days), Jason M. Waltz (Rogue Blades Entertainment), and eventually we connected with author Ty Johntson. I was also able to reconnect with other regular Howard Days attendees (e.g. Bobby Derie, Scott Cupp, Scott Valeri, Russell Andrew, and many others). I was also able to finally meet Rob King (and his wife) who has helped me a little in my current research.


Thursday, June 14, 2018

Hot (and a little bothered) Off The Press by Gary Romeo

A Critique of Patrice Louinet’s The Robert E. Howard Guide

Robert E. Howard Days 2018 saw the release of Patrice Louinet’s The Robert E. Howard Guide (Skelos Press, 2018).  It is in the tradition of Robert Weinberg’s The Annotated Guide to Robert E. Howard’s Sword & Sorcery (Starmont House, 1976) and Marc Cerasini and Charles E. Hoffman’s Robert E. Howard Starmont Reader’s Guide (Starmont House, 1987).  Patrice’s book is less weighty than either of these books in that it gives only brief commentary on the stories mentioned.

Most entertaining for me were the summaries of fifty great REH stories.  Patrice revisits the twenty best in Chapter 3, followed by thirty more in Chapters Four and Five.  It is always fun to remember why you love REH in the first place and the comments on these stories really do reemphasize why REH is a writer worthy of respect and study.

There is little new here for older REH fans but there may be things for older and newer REH fans to digest and argue about.  Especially Chapter One where Patrice discusses common misconceptions about Howard. 

Chamber of Darkness #4
The first myth brought to task is that Howard was convinced Conan had really existed.  Patrice rightly destroys this notion mostly originating from John Milius.  It has always been my opinion that Milius may have read Chamber of Darkness #4 (Marvel Comics, 1970).  This issue contains a very good story by Roy Thomas and Barry Smith entitled “The Sword and the Sorcerers.”  The story features a sword & sorcery author named Len Carson.  Len is having nightmares about his Starr the Slayer character and decides to kill him off.  Starr materializes from the ether and kills off Len before Len can kill him in his story.  This is a great tale about a sword and sorcery author and is easily morphed into it being about Robert E. Howard if you are so inclined.


Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Blunders of One Weird Tales Artist: Curtis Charles Senf by Todd B. Vick


Curtis Charles Senf
The September 1931 Weird Tales had, perhaps, one of the most farcical blunders ever committed by a magazine illustrator, and it happened to one of Robert E. Howard’s most popular and prized characters, Solomon Kane. The artist was Curtis Charles Senf (C.C. Senf), who at the time, lived in Chicago and began drawing covers and interior illustrations for Weird Tales. His debut cover was the March 1927 issue. In fact, Senf did 8 of the 12 covers for Weird Tales in 1927, and 11 of the 12 covers for 1928. His numbers tapered off a little after these two years, but over-all, Senf was the artist for 45 covers at Weird Tales. In addition to this, he drew hundreds of interior illustrations for The Unique Magazine. To say he was a seasoned magazine artist and illustrator is a slight understatement. However, and this is a pretty big however, he eventually stopped reading the stories he illustrated, and the results were laughable, and even angered some of the writers for Weird Tales.

Curtis Charles Senf was born on July 30, 1873, in Rosslau, Prussia. In 1881, when he was a boy of eight, the Senf family emigrated to America on the S.S. Wieland. They landed in New York City on June 28 and then ultimately settled in Chicago, Illinois. His father's occupation was listed only as "workman."[1] C.C. Senf attended public school and upon graduating high school, he enrolled in the Chicago Institute of Art. Following his art studies at the Chicago Institute of Art, Senf became a commercial artist and lithographer. Eventually Senf opened an art agency called Senf & Company with Fred S. Gould. This venture failed and eventually was forced to file bankruptcy in 1903. There are no other details about employment for Senf until he becomes a regular artist for Weird Tales. By the time he landed the job of cover and interior artist for Weird Tales, Senf was almost 54 years of age. 

"The Bride of Dewer"
Given the fact that the cover art for Weird Tales prior to 1927 was average to downright terrible, Senf was a welcomed edition to the magazine. Even H. P. Lovecraft, who was often picky about weird art (and weird fiction), expressed hope that this new artist might create better cover art than previous artists had for the magazine. In a January 1927 letter to August Derleth, Lovecraft declared, “I shall welcome the new cover artist, & can feel sure at least that he can’t be any worse than those who have hitherto messed up the magazine.”[2] His hope would be short lived, by June of that same year, Lovecraft told Derleth, “. . .the present ‘artist’ Senf has no sense of the fantastic whatever.”[3] While Lovecraft is not necessarily incorrect in his over-all opinion about Senf’s work, Senf “could do a truly weird cover, one of his best being for ‘The Bride of Dewer,”[4] and there were a few others. In fact, a little later in this article, we will look at another truly weird cover Senf did (and perhaps one of his best works) toward the end of his career at Weird Tales.  Moreover, in 1927 Senf was reading the stories and illustrating them according to their content, so this last sentiment by Lovecraft was merely a stylistic complaint on his part. Senf’s artwork, for the most part, was “better” than the work of previous artists for the magazine, his style was that of late 19th century artists, with nice detail, color, and vivid scope, and he excelled when the story was a period piece. Even so, in many ways, Lovecraft was correct, Senf’s sense of the fantastic and/or weird was not the greatest.