Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Happy 114th Birthday, Robert E. Howard

Happy birthday, Robert E. Howard!

Born January 22nd, 1906 in Peaster, Texas. 

REH with Patches

Robert E. Howard is 114 years old today! 

The general tradition in Howard fandom is to read a story by Howard and while doing so, imbibe your favorite beverage!

So . . . Here's to the first of all dog brothers . . . Cheers!


Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Best Robert E. Howard Christmas Ghost Story by Bobby Derie

Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales,
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night
- Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta (1589)

A Christmas Carol original
illustration by John Leech
The Christmas ghost story was more of a British than an American tradition, but one that is still remembered in the lyrics of "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (1963) when Andy Williams sang "There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of the Christmases long, long ago." The most famous Christmas ghost-story is Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas" (1843), which has been adapted innumerable times for the stage, radio, television, film, etc., but the tradition was alive in well into the 20th century with the likes of M. R. James, whose volumes Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), A Thin Ghost and Others (1919), and A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories (1925) all follow the same pattern of Christmas Eve entertainments.  James himself wrote in the introduction of the first volume that most of the stories "[...] were read to friends at Christmas-time at King's College, Cambridge[.]"

In the United States in the 20th century, readers might well trace the tradition in the pages of Weird Tales, with entries such as H. P. Lovecraft's "The Festival" (Jan 1925) and Seabury Quinn's novel Roads (Jan 1938)—it being remembered that the January issues actually hit the stands in mid-December. Not all every "Christmas ghost story" had to be set at Christmas, nor involve an actual ghost. The point was not any specific formula, but as James put it in his essay "On Ghost Stories": "...written with the sole object of inspiring a pleasing terror in the reader[.]" To recall the thrill of a weird tale told on a cold winter night, perhaps facing a fire, the wind howling out of doors; yes, pulp writers fall well into that category.

It might well be asked then...what would be the best Robert E. Howard ghost story to read at Christmas-time?

Weird Tales and Strange Tales were two of the Texas pulpster's steadier markets, so there is no shortage of raw material to choose from. Even as Ebenezer Scrooge received a ghostly visitation, so too did Conan of Cimmeria in "The Phoenix on the Sword" and "Queen of the Black Coast"; ghostly aid supports the black boxer Ace Jessel in "The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux"; Solomon Kane faces eerie spirits in stories such as "Skulls in the Stars," "The Right Hand of Doom," and "The Footfalls Within." All of these contain passages and scenes that can raise a shudder, though far from the rather sedate horrors of M. R. James.

The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux
Illustration by Greg Staples
Tales closer to that older tradition but with a Southwestern setting include some of Howard's best work; classic stories such as "Old Garfield's Heart," "The Dead Remember," and "Pigeons from Hell." Those stories written in the style of the Cthulhu Mythos such as "The Black Stone," "The Hoofed Thing," "The Thing on the Roof," and especially "Dig Me No Grave" definitely echo at least a touch of Jamesian horror, with their scholarly protagonists and more subtle horrors (by Howardian standards, at least), and might well fit a Yuletide mood.

What most of Howard's ghost stories lack is that particular aspect of reticence so characteristic of James' stories—yet neither does Howard ever attempt anything quite so staid as a traditional haunting, even in "The Haunter of the Ring" or “The Cairn on the Headland” which are perhaps as close as Howard gets. There is one story though, oft-neglected among Howard's weirder and more graphically fantastic stories, which nevertheless has my vote for the most fitting to read on a Christmas holiday, either aloud to listeners or alone to oneself.

"For the Love of Barbara Allen" was never published during Howard's lifetime, and more rarely anthologized than many of his better-known stories, though it can still be found in Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard Vol. 1 (2007, Del Rey), and in Pictures In The Fire (2018, The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press). It is not quite a haunting, at least not in the traditional sense, though it deals with life and death, love and loss. Nor is it as supremely weird as "Worms of the Earth" or "The Shadow Kingdom," or as epic as "The Grey God Passes."

It is a small, intensely personal story set in the world of only a few generations ago, and in the Texas that Robert E. Howard knew and loved so well. There is something inexpressible in the pages of "For the Love of Barbara Allen," a process to experience, an ending as inevitable as it is fitting. While it may not deliver much of creep, if the story does not shift your heart as the nights stretch longer and the dawn is far away...well, it is a story of giving that final gift that may be given, when and where it is needed most.

If that isn't appropriate for the holiday, I don't know what may be.



Sunday, November 17, 2019

El Borak the Swift & The Iron Terror by Todd B. Vick

"Listen while I tell you the secret of the Iron Terror." [ASF 232]

Vintage Robot
In a 1935 letter to Alvin Earl Perry, Robert E. Howard explained that Francis Xavier Gordon (a.k.a El Borak), was the first character he ever created. Howard admitted that he could not recall the character's genesis, but declared that the character came to his creative mind at the age of 10. It would be years later before the character would ever see the printed page. Though it wouldn't be due to a lack of trying.

Howard began submitting stories to magazine as early as 1921, at the age of 15. He mostly submitted stories to the pulps he was reading at the time: Adventure, Western Story, Argosy All-Story, and even Weird Tales (as early as 1922).  This was, to say the least, quite ambitious for a 15 year old. Especially considering that several of these magazines published seasoned writers like H. Rider Haggard, Arthur O. Friel, Harold Lamb, H. Bedford-Jones, Talbot Mundy, and Rafael Sabatini. But Howard didn't stop there. Shortly before "Spear and Fang was published in 1924, Howard sent a story titled "The Iron Terror," to Cosmopolitan, one of the well-known slick magazines of the day. The story was rejected, Howard couched it and, as far as we know, never submitting it again to another magazine.

This was the first El Borak story Howard submitted for publication. During this early stage of story submissions (and rejections), Howard really did not know what he was doing. He would write a story, place it in an envelope and mail it off. It's likely that he never considered the type of story that a magazine like Cosmopolitan considered for publication. In those early days, Howard's publication behavior was like a kid tossing wet paper towels against a wall and hoping one stuck. "The Iron Terror," was simply tossed at the wrong wall.

At this stage in his writing/publishing career, Howard was honing his writing skills in school newspapers. In fact, he was receiving a strong local following in those papers, along with much praise. And while I am speculating here, had "The Iron Terror" been submitted to Weird Tales, even under the watch of then hard-nosed editor, Edwin Baird, it's quite possible the story might have been picked up by the magazine. I suggest this because during this time the magazine's founder J. C. Henneberger was keeping a fairly close eye on what was being submitted. I find it difficult to imagine that even if Edwin Baird might have rejected the story because he did not care for science fiction, had Henneberger caught sight of it, it might have landed a spot in one of those early issues. Of course, we will never know.

"The Iron Terror" is a nice work of historical science fiction. In my estimation, it is one of Howard's more mature early stories. It is a much better story than "Spear & Fang." Closer examination of "The Iron Terror" reveals that Howard put a lot of thought into its contents and plot. Between 1922 and 1924, Howard was perfecting his ability to control the pace of his narrative. "The Iron Terror" is a wonderful example of this. Howard also sets the tone of the story by beginning the narrative in a storm. While this practice has become pedestrian in today's literature and is now frowned upon, back in 1922, almost 100 years ago, that was not the case. In the opening paragraph, Howard's use of imagery is fantastic.
"Outside the wind roared, snatching up the snow, whirling the flakes high in the air. The streets were deserted except for a few belated pedestrians hurrying home, heads bowed against the gale." [AFS 225]
The reader is drawn into the struggle of the weather, and understands that it is snowing without being told it is snowing. This is a nice demonstration of showing and not telling in the narrative. Moreover, whether this was deliberate on the part of Howard or not, he bookends this story with struggles: one is the weather, a common phenomena, the other a man-made inadvertent antagonist gone awry. The former helps serve to heighten the intensity the latter. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's jump back to the story's narrative and content.



Sunday, October 27, 2019

Ervin Family Research by David Garrett

Three of my grandparents died in rather quick succession: my mom’s mother in 1978, my dad’s father in 1980, and my dad’s mother in 1982. I was eight, ten, and twelve. This left my only grandparent, Loyd Linton Brantley. Loyd worked for the Hercules Powder Plant and delivered dynamite for a living.
Loyd came to live with us after the death of my grandmother and he would reside with us until his death in 1994. I recall that on numerous occasions, when people would ask him about his mother’s family, he would always declare that his mother’s name was Maud Ervin. He would then go on to explain that it was spelled with an “E” and not an “I”. His Ervins were proud of that spelling and any Ervin who spelled their name that way was related.
The only information I ever received about Maud’s family of Ervins was that her father was Joseph Newton Ervin and that Maud’s mother was Laura Adelaide Cathcart. Addy Ervin had died when Maud was still young and Joseph got remarried and had several more children.
I had always wondered about whether or not my Ervins were the same Ervin family from which Robert Ervin Howard (REH) was related. Over the years doing genealogical research I had never been able to discover anything about either mine or REH’s Ervins.
It wasn’t until I found an entry on the Find A Grave website that I even considered it a strong possibility. The entry listed my great grandfather as being a brother to a Robert Newton Ervin. Those not familiar with the various comments made by REH concerning his Ervin forebears will be filled in later, but this Robert would be the second cousin of Hester Jane Ervin, REH’s mother.
It was at this time that I decided to dig a little deeper and try to unravel these Ervin families.
One of Loyd’s younger siblings was his sister Mag. She lived well into her 90’s and she gave my mother a document to give to me because she knew I was doing genealogical research on the Brantley and Ervin families. This document turned out to be a very important key in me being able to prove that Joseph Newton Ervin’s father was James William Ervin – not Robert Ervin; and thus, Joseph is not a brother of Robert’s son Robert Newton Ervin.
The document was a remembrance written by Eula Erin Ervin, a daughter of Joseph Newton Ervin by his second wife, Samantha Elizabeth Smith. This would be Maud Ervin’s younger step-sister. Eula died in 2014 and left this document for her grandchildren.
Here is what Eula knew about her father:


  • “When I was born our family included Mama, Papa, Maud (married with three children), Buddy (was gone to war), Gordon, and L.D.; Kenneth came two years later.”
  • “Maud Ervin and Buddy Ervin were my daddy’s children by a former wife. He and my mother married when they were small. I think she died when Buddy was born and he and my Mama married when they were like two and four. They never knew any mother but mine and no difference was ever made in all of us.”
  • “My father’s full name was Joseph Newton Ervin. He died December 25th, 1943. He was born in America (I think) on September 23rd, 1861.”
  • “Father has been said to resemble the Dutch people and Irish people because he was of Dutch/Irish descent. He had clear complexion, blue/green eyes and wore a heavy mustache, and his hair was snow white when I was born. He was 53 the year Mama was 39.”
  • “They raised four of their own and lost four by death [not counting Maud Ervin and James Larkin ‘Buddy’ Ervin]. Douglas Cobern lived to be a toddler, and three little girls were stillborn and never named. One of them was a twin to me.”
  • “For a living my father farmed and sawmilled or hauled logs for and with his brother-in-law. I was small but I remember Uncle Joe Sanders. But I never remembered Aunt Ellen. She was my daddy’s half-sister, and he had a half-brother, too, Uncle Frank Sims. I knew his family well. I saw two of Uncle Frank’s grandsons at Mars Hill at the homecoming this year (1993). They were born and still are all in Georgia (Rockmart).”


It was the last item that gave me the information which resulted in finding a family tree online that finally answered the question of who Joseph Newton Ervin’s family was. Joseph Newton  appears as just Newton under the first child of Joseph and Eleanor Sanders:



Sunday, October 20, 2019

Review: Weird Tales of Modernity

Weird Tales of Modernity: The Ephemerality of the Ordinary in the Stories of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft by Jason Ray Carney. 197 pages. McFarland & co., 2019. $39.95

Four score and two years, hundreds of essays and articles, and at least a dozen full-length books later, academia is still struggling to come to grips with H. P. Lovecraft and the remarkable posthumous success of the man and his fiction. The same can be said for Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, who if they have achieved less name recognition, are nonetheless incredibly influential writers in contemporary fantasy, horror, and pop culture who are still read, referenced, parodied, and pastiched today. Together, these three writers form a node of association, both in terms of literary output (all three contributed to what has become the Cthulhu Mythos) and their market (all three wrote for Weird Tales).

Jason Ray Carney’s interest is less on the shared mythology of their fiction than the shared context that Howard, Smith, and Lovecraft were operating within and influenced by. Literary immortality is not the usual fate for Weird Talers. Pulp authors are generally forgotten. Pulp fiction is popular, ephemeral, and by many critical standards contains no more literary value than the cheap pulpwood paper it was printed on. Serious authors generally did not write for the pulp magazines; gaining academic attention for what made Weird Tales different has been an uphill battle for decades.

Which is as close to the central tenet or take-away of Weird Tales of Modernity as anything else: academics should turn their critical gaze to pulp fiction, and not reserve judgment or analysis only for “artistic literary fiction.”

This is an academic text, and the intended audience are not necessarily pulp scholars, who might quibble over certain fine points of dialogue and approach and get lost in the four-dollar-words and have to pause to remember what ekphrasis, imbrication, and de-reification mean. This is aimed primarily for professors and graduate students, the kind of folk that might need an introduction to pulp fiction in terms they understand—the technical language of folks that earnestly read and discuss philosophy and literary criticism.

There are three essential points on this book, which are woven together rather than addressed as three distinct and self-contained ideas: 1) Howard, Smith, and Lovecraft were influenced by modernism in their contemporary culture; 2) the three authors expressed this interaction in their fiction in Weird Tales as a form of “shadow modernism”; and 3) Weird Tales was uniquely suited as a vector for this kind of fiction.

Carney does not attempt an exhaustive proof of any of these particular points via minute survey of the existing literature; Weird Tales of Modernity is more of a conversation, expressing general ideas and then following them up with specific examples in the life and fiction of the “Weird Tales three.” His particular interests focus on ekphrasis (the vivid description of an object or work of art) which is characters of their work and modernity (the particular re-examination of form and technique in music, art, and literature that occurred around the turn of the 19th century to the mid-20th).

There is certainly meat for such work: Lovecraft et al. specifically discussed various modernist writers and artists in their letters, they had brushes with various contemporary artists, writers, and publications associated with modernism. That these remarks and encounters were often critical is not damaging to Carney’s thesis; a writer can be shaped by what they react against as much as any other influence. A useful companion work for this kind of analysis is Graham Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (2012).

Whether the readers will whole-heartedly agree with Carney’s critical analysis is another matter. Carney’s individual takes on specific works or perceived themes in Howard, Smith, and Lovecraft have to be evaluated and digested. Some assertions like “Cthulhu Is Beautiful,” which comes at the end of a brief analysis regarding Lovecraft’s ekphrastic efforts in “The Call of Cthulhu” and a discussion of Kant and Burke’s definitions of beauty and the sublime are fairly easy to accept. The assertion in “Sword and Sorcery and Anti-Intellectualism” that Howard’s heroes are deliberately anti-intellectual, by contrast, feels like it needs more nuanced treatment—Conan the Cimmerian being, as Frank Coffmann put it, a “Bright Barbarian” who can speak multiple languages, fills in the lonely hours by drawing in the borders of far countries on maps, knows the works of sages dead for 1,500 years, and holds poets as greater than kings—and that’s before getting into the conversations between Howard and Lovecraft in their letters on the exact subject.

I’m quibbling. That’s a pulp scholar approach, trying to nail specifics down to a line in a letter somewhere. There isn’t much in the book to quibble with; break through the ice of literary theory and its vocabulary and the actual points Carney makes are fairly succinct and largely inarguable. There is definitely more to be said about how each of these writers (and Weird Tales as a whole, which consisted much more of these three writers) interacted with modernism, but this is an introduction to the subject, not an end-point.

Weird Tales of Modernity sits comfortably on a shelf next to The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales (2015), Conan Meets the Academy (2013), and New Critical Essays on Lovecraft (2013). These are all works that speak to the same audience, trying to bring academic insight and attention to bear on the enduring popularity of ephemeral fiction. Whether it will find an audience only the future can tell, but it certainly deserves one.

—Bobby Derie

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Cthulhu Mythos and Space Opera by Bobby Derie


H.P. Lovecraft
As a young man H. P. Lovecraft would have thrilled to the sword-and-planet adventures of John Carter in Under the Moons of Mars (1912), and the intimation of ancient alien presences on Earth in A. Merritt’s The Moon-Pool (1918); but by the time he was writing his own adult material he had largely turned to fantasy—but it was the fantasy of the pre-Atomic age. E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen policed the galaxy in the pages of Amazing Stories, Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age city of Xuthal was lit by radium lamps, Leigh Brackett imagined a solar system full of habitable planets, C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith was an outlaw on many planets with ray-gun in hand, Clark Ashton Smith’s last survivors of Atlantis and Hyperborea journey to far Sfanomoë (Venus) and Cykranosh (Saturn), and Lovecraft’s monsters were not the typical witches and vampires, but stranger, alien entities.
            A keen amateur astronomer, Lovecraft largely eschewed the dynamics that made space opera feasible. In his 1935 essay “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction” he railed:

A good interplanetary story must have realistic human characters; not the stock scientists, villainous assistants, invincible heroes, and lovely scientist’s-daughter heroines of the usual trash of this sort. Indeed, there is no reason why there should be any “villain”, “hero”, or “heroine” at all. These artificial character-types belong wholly to artificial plot-forms, and have no place in serious fiction of any kind. The function of the story is to express a certain human mood of wonder and liberation, and any tawdry dragging-in of dime-novel theatricalism is both out of place and injurious. No stock romance is wanted. We must select only such characters (not necessarily stalwart or dashing or youthful or beautiful or picturesque characters) as would naturally be involved in the events to be depicted, and they must behave exactly as real persons would behave if confronted with the given marvels. The tone of the whole thing must be realism, not romance. [...] Hoary stock devices connected with the reception of the voyagers by the planet’s inhabitants ought to be ruled rigidly out. Thus we should have no overfacile language-learning; no telepathic communication; no worship of the travellers as deities; no participation in the affairs of pseudohuman kingdoms, or in conventional wars between factions of inhabitants; no weddings with beautiful anthropomorphic princesses; no stereotyped Armageddons with ray-guns and space-ships; no court intrigues and jealous magicians; no peril from hairy ape-men of the polar caps; and so on, and so on. [...] It is not necessary that the alien planet be inhabited—or inhabited at the period of the voyage—at all. If it is, the denizens must be definitely non-human in aspect, mentality, emotions, and nomenclature, unless they are assumed to be descendants of a prehistoric colonising expedition from our earth. The human-like aspect, psychology, and proper names commonly attributed to other-planetarians by the bulk of cheap authors is at once hilarious and pathetic. Another absurd habit of conventional hacks is having the major denizens of other planets always more advanced scientifically and mechanically than ourselves; always indulging in spectacular rites against a background of cubistic temples and palaces, and always menaced by some monstrous and dramatic peril. This kind of pap should be replaced by an adult realism, with the races of other-planetarians represented, according to the artistic demands of each separate case, as in every stage of development—sometimes high, sometimes low, and sometimes unpicturesquely middling. Royal and religious pageantry should not be conventionally overemphasised; indeed, it is not at all likely that more than a fraction of the exotic races would have lit upon the especial folk-customs of royalty and religion. It must be remembered that non-human beings would be wholly apart from human motives and perspectives.

In his own fiction, Lovecraft largely kept to these principles, the main exception being “In the Walls of Eryx” (1936), written in collaboration with Kenneth Sterling and published after Lovecraft’s death. In his own fiction, Lovecraft allowed horrors from the stars to come to Earth—most notably Cthulhu in “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), “The Colour Out of Space” (1927), the Mi-Go in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930), the K’n-Yans of “The Mound” (1930), the Elder Things in At the Mountains of Madness (1931), and the Yithians in The Shadow Out of Time (1935), with passing references in other tales; he also touched on interplanetary fiction in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (1932) with E. Hoffmann Price and in his part of the round-robin “The Challenge from Beyond” (1935).

           
Clark Ashton Smith
Lovecraft’s friends and compatriots had no such qualms, and followed their own muse. Clark Ashton Smith set stories on Mars, Venus, and Saturn, blending cosmic horror with space opera. Robert E. Howard occasionally dropped Lovecraftian monsters from “the Outer Dark” into his Hyborian Age setting for Conan to face, and wrote the sword-and-planet novel Almuric, published after his death. C. L. Moore, who was part of the Lovecraft circle and major contributor to Weird Tales from 1933-1937, was not a direct contributor to the Mythos, but her space opera outlaw Northwest Smith faced monsters no less Lovecraftian for their lack of direct ties to the Cthulhu mythology.
            In the decades since then, many writers have expanded on the creations of Lovecraft and his friends, taking them into every conceivable setting—including space—such as Richard A. Lupoff’s classic “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977). In the late 80s a short-lived magazine focused on tales of scientifiction called Astro-Adventures (1987-1989), which included tales both old and new worth seeking out and reading. The best of the new tales might be Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette’s Boojumverse (“Boojum,” “Mongoose,” and “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward”) full of space pirates and living ships which are fantastic.
            Lovecraft himself never gave a single, consistent approach to the Mythos he created—nor did he require his friends and co-creators to adapt themselves to his philosophies of writing. The Mythos of his stories takes place in a dark and strange cosmos, where beings from distant stars and planets had visited Earth in the distant past...and some of them still survived, or their relics at least. The different approaches that the creators of the Mythos took, the occasional contradictions and fans’ efforts to reconcile disparate representations of the Mythos and its relationship to space, are all part of the fun of the setting. Mythology need not be consistent, and it need not all be true...lies, distortions, omissions, and forgotten truths underlay the mythology of Cthulhu and Hastur, Shub-Niggurath and Tsathoggua. It is up to the readers to decide where exactly is the cold planetoid Yuggoth from whence the Mi-Go come, or whether Mars and Venus ever bore life and were habitable by human beings.
            In the decades before humanity split the atom, they looked up at the stars at night and dreamed of walking on other planets—not knowing what they would find there. There was a sense of limitless possibilities, with their feet upon the dusty earth, and their imaginations flying through Venusian skies, disturbing the dust in some million-year-old ruin on Mars. It was an age when solar empires were planned out with pencil and paper, and realized on typewriters. Much of it never happened, and what did happen not the way they thought it would—but it’s a fun dream to visit sometimes.

Suggested Reading


Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette: “Boojum,” “Mongoose,” “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward

Ramsey Campbell: “The Insects from Shaggai,” “The Mine on Yuggoth”

Robert E. Howard: Almuric, “The Vale of Lost Women,” “Xuthal of the Dusk”

H. P. Lovecraft: At the Mountains of Madness, “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Colour Out of Space,” The Shadow Out of Time, “The Whisperer in Darkness”

H. P. Lovecraft & Hazel Heald: “The Horror in the Museum,” “Out of the Aeons”

H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Brown Reed Bishop: “The Mound”

H. P. Lovecraft & E. Hoffmann Price: “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”

H. P. Lovecraft & Kenneth Sterling: “In the Walls of Eryx”

Richard Lupoff: “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone,” “Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley”

C. L. Moore: All of the Northwest Smith stories, but especially “Shambleau,” “Julhi,” “Yvala,”
“The Cold Grey God,” and “Lost Paradise.”

C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, & Frank Belknap Long:
“The Challenge from Beyond”

Clark Ashton Smith: “A Voyage to Sfanomoë,” “The City of the Singing Flame,” “The Demon of the Flower,” “The Door to Saturn,” “The Dweller in the Gulf,” “The Immortals of Mercury,” “Master of the Asteroid,” “Mnemoka,” “The Plutonian Drug,” “Seedling of Mars,” “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis,” “Vulthoom”

E. E. Smith: The Lensman series, especially the core four novels (First Lensman, Galactic Patrol, Grey Lensman, Second Stage Lensman)


Bobby Derie’s latest work is Space Madness!, a roleplaying game of adventure & horror in an atompunk future inspired by the works of H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, & other Mythos writers.


Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Carnival, The Girl, and The Smitten Teenager by Todd B. Vick

“There were many women in the brief life span of Robert Ervin Howard. And yet there were few.”—Harold Preece, Fantasy Crossroads, vol.1, no. 3, May 1975
Novalyne Price
1927 yearbook photo
Daniel Baker College
Often when fans think of Robert E. Howard and women, images come to mind of Bêlit, Valeria, Yasmina, or any other number of female characters Howard created. Some may think of his mother, who devoted her time and life supporting her son. Perhaps more ardent fans (and Howard scholars) wonder if the notion that he had relations with a prostitute in Mexico is, in fact, true. There does seem to be strong evidence for such. There is also the “Sunday school girl” Howard discussed with his colleagues in The Junto. Someone Preece admits they all were worried could possibly have tied Howard to a conventional “churchy woman.” (Preece 21) Maybe some fans think of Novalyne Price Ellis, who dated Howard for several years toward the end of his life. Whatever the case, perhaps only a handful of Howard aficionados and scholars recall the carnival girl whom a smitten Howard encountered at the tender age of 15.
There is next to nothing written about the events of Howard’s life at age 15, when he visited a carnival, perhaps local to Cross Plains but maybe elsewhere, and encountered a female carnival worker. Apparently, she was like a strong west Texas dust devil scurrying across the plains, who immediately swept Howard up, if only from a distance. Howard never mentioned this girl in his letters, to anyone. Moreover, one of his closest friends, Tevis Clyde Smith, who had written somewhat extensively on Howard’s life, never mentioned her in any of his writings. In fact, none of Howard’s closest friends or correspondences who have written anything we have copies of (e.g. essays, letters, interviews, articles, etc.) ever mention this girl, except one—Harold Preece. 

In the May 1975 issue of Fantasy Crossroads (book three volume 1), contains an article by Harold Preece titled, “Women and Robert Ervin Howard.” In this article, Preece discusses a private conversation he had with Howard in Cross Plains when Preece visited the Howards at their home, just six or so years after the carnival experience. Preece explains:

The full—yet awfully thin, story—came out during the one weekend that I spent with the Howard family. The year was either ’28 or ’29. I can remember the fondness with which Mrs. Howard gazed at her maverick son—but, also, the graciousness with which she treated me as a guest knowing her Dallas nieces, Maxine and Lesta Ervin. She would have undoubtedly known the nice Sunday school miss. But probably this conventional matron had never heard of the carnival girl. (Preece 21)

The idea that Mrs. Howard likely knew nothing about the carnival girl is probably correct. There were various things Howard kept from his mother, some out of embarrassment to himself, and others if for no other reason than she might get upset.[1] And like all of us do, he experienced things he simply wanted to keep to himself. Even so, Howard confided in his friend regarding the carnival girl.
           
Preece provides no description of the girl, which likely means Howard may have never given one. So, what she looked like is lost. In Preece’s article, he attempts to interpret why Robert may have been smitten with this girl. “Carnies—a wild breed—interested him because they lived free of the rules that govern solid home folk.” (21) At its core, this idea is very Howardian, but its not likely the whole reason Howard may have been taken in by her. “He stood there spellbound when he saw her moving around the midway.” (21) Other than a particular beauty that a 15-year-old Howard may have favored, how could this carnie girl have captured young Howard’s immediate attention? Preece surmises that, “she would have been easily identifiable as a ‘despised show woman’ in any of the little towns played by the rambling carnival. By her cosmetics and her hairdo —eyed jealously by inhibited local ladies—by her lascivious walk and her general air of not giving a damn about not being a nice girl.” (21) Preece certainly paints an interesting picture of Howard’s telling of the circumstances. One can easily see why Howard might like her since she smacks of everything he may have found appealing: different, mysterious, free, beautiful, and an uninvited kind of character that Howard was fond of incorporating into many of his stories.
            It is not known whether this carnival (or fair as the case may have been) was a local event or an itinerant show. It is not likely that the show was local, like the annual fair and rodeo held in Cross Plains nearly every summer and typically sponsored by someone such as the local Fire Department. If that were the case, this carnival girl may have been a local girl, unless they hired outside workers to come in and help. There was such an event in Cross Plains on July 21-22, 1921 and a write up about it in the July 29, 1921 Cross Plains Review. But Preece’s retelling of Howard’s experience does not seem indicative of a local event. No, it seems closer to an itinerant carnival or an out of town event. It is also possible that this carnival may have been in a larger town, like Abilene or Brownwood, and the Howards traveled to attend it. In fact, back in 1921, both Brownwood and Abilene hosted various carnivals and fairs in their respective towns. The American Legion held several rodeos/carnivals in Brownwood,[2] and Abilene hosted a traveling carnival that is still in existence today.[3] It would not have been unusual for the Howards to have traveled to either town, especially since Mrs. Howard had at one time lived in Abilene and the Howards also knew people in Brownwood.
            Whatever the case may be, a 15-year-old Howard spotted this girl, and being taken in by her, he watched her until she “disappeared behind a tent with a man—likely another carnie—for whom she had probably been waiting.” (22) According to Preece’s recollection, the girl’s occupation at the carnival was not known. She was likely spotted by Howard somewhere on the midway, perhaps close to the gaming or show booths.

She may have been a dancer—maybe the mistress of the character who “barked” the show. Or she could have been a shill for one of the “pitches” stepping up to make a fake purchase of some dubious ware to attract customers not getting their money back. She might have been a gypsy or just some Midwest girl gone wrong.
     Whoever or whatever this sensuous wench, she made a lifelong impression on an already impressionable 15-year old boy. (22)


After she disappeared behind the tent with one of her fellow carnies, Howard did not see her again. Taking this account into consideration and given the fact that Preece recalls that Howard was quite taken by this girl, one wonders whether he incorporated her into any one of his numerous female characters. Preece thought Howard might have done just that. “Subconsciously or otherwise this actual maverick woman may have been his model for all the fantasized ones due to be born of his ripened talent, years later.” (22)
            It is at least interesting to imagine that Howard may have used his memory of her for a female character for, perhaps, one or more of his Conan yarns. Could she have been the model for a blonde-haired mercenary named Valeria? Or could she have been the woman in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” whose “body was like ivory to his [Conan’s] dazed gaze . . .” (Howard 32) Perhaps Howard used her as the model for Bêlit, who was “untamed as a desert wind, supple and dangerous as a she-panther.” (127) There are any number of possibilities where Howard may have used her. Or it may be that he simply kept her to himself, choosing to tell only his friend, Harold Preece, perhaps in an attempt to make her real again in the telling. Whatever the case may be, she certainly left an indelible impression, and I for one, am glad that Harold Preece chose to share Howard’s experience with his fans.

Works Cited
Howard, Robert E. The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. New York: Del Rey, 2003.
Preece, Harold. "Women and Robert Ervin Howard." Edited by Jonathan Bacon. Fantasy Crossroads, May 1975, 20-22. (Volume 1, Number 3)



[1] In one of Howard’s letters to Clyde Smith, Howard attempts to avoid writing a biography about himself for The Junto, for fear certain things about himself might get back to his mother (CL3.487-488)
[2] See The Cross Plains Review, Vol XII, No. 11, May 20, 1921.
[3] In Abilene, Texas a city fair was established in 1881, which later became a county fair, and eventually became The West Texas Fair and Rodeo. By 1921, this fair in Abilene would have been a county fair with an itinerant carnival coming in to set up its show.

This article was originally posted at James R. Schmidt's blog: MightyThorJRS