Sunday, July 6, 2014

Study This, Not That!: A Suggested Bibliography for REH Studies, Part Three

REH Secondary Works . . .

In any form of research secondary works/sources can be crucial. However, it should be pointed out that where there is a secondary source to support a primary source and the primary source is still available, always use the primary source. This is especially true if you end up writing articles/papers on the topic at hand. I don't say this in an attempt to dissuade the use of secondary sources but to emphasize the fact that primary sources are far superior to secondary sources. At the academic level of research to use a secondary source as if it is a primary source is intellectual dishonesty, and always frowned upon. 

However, secondary sources are wonderful resources, especially those from learned scholars and experts. And, if a secondary source is the only source available for specific information then by all means use it. But don't be quick to draw absolute conclusions based solely upon a secondary source. I'm not saying anything here that is not already widely accepted in academic circles, and this kind of research methodology has been in practice for decades (centuries even).  With that in mind, here are some of the best secondary sources that I have encountered in my research of Robert E. Howard.

History/Historical Documents . . .

Read This . . .

Current REH studies/scholarship is very fortunate to have Rob Roehm and his father Bob Roehm in the research field digging up REH history and historical documents. I love history. In fact, I love the type of history that most history buffs find boring. The gritty details about people's lives: where they are from, where they went to school, where they used to hang out, where they traveled, why they traveled to these places, how they were raised, who were their relatives, all the documents surrounding these facts, and why that all matters. This is the kind of history that the Roehms have researched, uncovered, and made known to everybody in REH scholarship and fandom. If you are unaware of their works, then you are missing out on one of the most important ingredients in REH studies. Aside from actually tracking down articles that Rob has written (e.g. old REHupa zines, the REH Two-Gun Raconteur website, and other various books/magazines) the Roehms currently have two books available. The first is titled Howard's Haunts: A Photographic Journey Through Robert E. Howard's Texas and Events of the Howard Centennial. I bought this book from the REH House and Museum three or four years ago. It was so interesting I read through the whole book in one sitting and have read it several more times since. It details places like Peaster, Dark Valley, Menard, Howard Payne University, Brownwood, Cisco, Rising Star, Fredricksburg, etc., It also covers events such as REH Days in Cross Plains, the 100th birthday bash for REH in Fort Worth, TX, REH Publications for 2006, and a chapter by Mark Finn  about The World Fantasy Convention in Austin, TX in 2006. The book is loaded with historical photographs and current photographs. Their second book is titled The Brownwood Connection: A Guide for Robert E. Howard Fans. This book provides historical details about REH's time in Brownwood during High School, College, and other visits he made to that city. This book is replete with photographs, scans of historical documents, school yearbooks, maps, newspaper articles, legal/court documents, time tables, etc. All accompany a solid written explanation of the facts, documents, events, etc. This book is so detailed at times that even train schedules from back in Howard's day are included. There's even a section about Novalyne Price in the appendices. Any serious researcher should not be without these two volumes. (Note: technically, a lot of this material—especially the actual historical/legal documents—are primary sources. Even so, I've included these works in the secondary sources section due to the current photographs and current travels accounts, esp. in Howard's Haunts, not being essential primary data/sources. However, any historical/legal documents, etc. from this material should be considered primary data and treated as such.)

Another book edited by Rob Roehm I recently purchased is titled School Days in the Post Oaks. As of this article I have yet to read this work so I really cannot review it for you, but I do know (and this is the reason I bought a copy) that it is a collection of newspaper articles about REH and his time/events in the Post Oak area. Click the link I've provided for further details.

Academia . . .

Read This . . .

Current Robert E. Howard fans are quite fortunate that they have a fairly nice size pool of rigorous academic (and academic type) material in which to swim. This certainly has not always been the case. I will not list single articles that are in larger anthologies here (see a few a those below*). There are single volumes devoted to nothing but Howard studies. It is important to note that with academic material the more current a work, the "better" it is. I do not mean "better" in terms of quality, but rather better in the sense that it is freshest, and the most up-to-date research (and usually considers previous research). The first volume that comes to mind in terms of academia, and the most dated, is Don Herron's edited volume titled The Dark Barbarian. This academic collection, published in 1984, was the first of its kind. And quite frankly, several of the articles still hold up today. For REH academic study I would actually recommend beginning with this volume. Now, I should point out several things here. First, some of the chapters mention dating issues of particular manuscripts, and these issues have currently been resolved thanks to the work of later scholars. Second, some of the chapters are not written in formal academic styles. This is only important in so far as that is probably what kept this volume from making serious inroads into academic circles. Third, there are current articles/volumes that are far more rigorous in their assessment, research, and presentation than this volume. But, as I mentioned before this volume set a precedent and therefore ought to have been taken much more seriously than it was. Another feature of REH studies that does not exist in other academic circles of the same kind is that REH studies/scholars have their own peer reviewed journal. I cannot stress how important this is. I also cannot stress how important it is for REH fans to support this effort and keep it alive by purchasing these journals when they are released. The peer reviewed journal is called The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies. The reason this journal is so important is that good solid university libraries always make an effort to obtain all peer reviewed journals in pretty much every field. To have one out there means that Howard's work has a far greater chance of being studied at the university level. Plus, The Dark Man journal must adhere to academic standards (e.g. writing in a particular academic style - MLS). If you can find back issues of these journals you will essentially have found a goldmine of REH articles and research. These journals are a must read in REH research/studies.

Another excellent volume in the academic category is titled Two-Gun Bob: A Centennial Study of Robert E. Howard. Now, while this volume is not published via an academic/university press, many of the articles are written by professors and scholars (e.g. S.T. Joshi, Frank Coffman, Glenn Lord, Charles Gramlich, Lorenzo DiTommaso, etc.). This anthology is still in print and that says a lot about the quality of its contents since it was published in 2006 (8 years ago since the posting of this article). Another academic volume that was recently published is titled Conan Meets the Academy. This volume was edited by Jonas Prida who is an assistant professor of English and Head of the English department at the College of St. Joseph, Rutland, Vermont. Published by McFarland it is the first academic volume to focus solely on one of REH's characters. The articles are geared more toward the cultural impact REH's character Conan the Cimmerian has had on culture. Even so, it is a great volume to own, the articles are well researched, thoughtful, and well documented.

*Other volumes with single articles about Robert E. Howard's work include Undead in the West II: They Just Keep Coming. This volume contains an article written by Jeffrey Shanks and Mark Finn titled Vaqueros and Vampires in the Pulps: Robert E. Howard and the Dawn of the Undead West. Jeff Shanks also has a nice article in an academic volume titled Pulp Fiction of the 1920s and 1930s. This volume is edited by Gary Hoppenstand and Jeff's article is titled History, Horror and Heroic Fantasy: Robert E. Howard and the Creation of the Sword and Sorcery Subgenre.

Journals, Fanzines, and Miscellaneous Books/Works . . .

Read This . . .

Over the decades many REH journals and fanzines have come and gone. If you are adventurous, like to collect things, and know where to look you can track down some real jewels. You won't have to work too hard though to get your hands on one of the last surviving REH journals, and one of the better ones to be created (which is probably why it was brought back). The journal I'm talking about is REH: Two-Gun Raconteur. This journal has been around since the 70s—yes, that's a long time. I've been buying copies for at least 5 or so years and have tracked down several back issues. The journal is toted as The Definitive Robert E. Howard Journal, and it lives up to that declaration. It has its origins in the mid 70s, and was the brainchild of Damon C. Sasser. Sasser told me he thought it up in the midst of the REH boom of the 70s when there were only three active fanzines in operation: Fantasy Crossroads (of which I have several issues), The Howard Review, and REH: Lone Star Fictioneer (of which I have several issues). The journal took a bit of a break around the late 80s early 90s and then started back up in 2003 and has since then been published to date. Damon C. Sasser is still the editor today. This journal is always loaded with excellent articles (some on a scholarly level). Here are some of the past contributors: Damon C. Sasser, Patrice Louinet, David Hardy, Brian Leno, Jeffrey Shanks, Barbara Barrett, Rob Roehm, Don Herron, Bill Cavalier, Steve Tompkins, Frank Coffman, Mark Finn, Jim and Ruth Keegan, Michael L. Peters (illustrations), Timothy Truman (illustrations), Charles R. Saunders, Deuce Richardson, Morgan Holmes, Rusty Burke, etc. (I'm sure I've missed a few names). It also includes stories by Robert E. Howard. Each issue is lavishly illustrated. Back issues of these journals are frequently sought. I've seen them sell for as much as $35.00 on Ebay. Current issues are for sale here.

Robert E. Howard: The Power of the Writing Mind is a small independent work allegedly edited by Ben Szumskyj (but in reality edited by Leo Grin, per a reliable source). Regardless of its editor, it is well worth tracking down. It has articles by Joe Marek, Patrice Louinet, Rusty Burke, Leo Grin, stories by Robert E. Howard (An Untitled Story, The Devil's Woodchopper, three autobiographical letters, Double Cross, The Right Hook - this is a photocopy of the actual manuscript, and a High School Theme) illustrations by Gary Gianni, Mark Schultz, images from the portfolio of Rick McCollum Rick Cortes, and David Burton.  There is also a nice interview with Glenn Lord. While this is not a crucial volume to own, it is a solid volume and worth getting.

A good solid book that has provided me with hours of fun reading and information not only about Robert E. Howard but about REH fandom has been The Man From Cross Plains: A Celebration of Two-Gun Bob Howard edited by Dennis McHaney. While this book is not necessarily one that makes for great study and research, it is one that will give you an excellent idea about Cross Plains, TX and REH fandom. I put it in here for that reason. There are some informative chapters that will go much deeper than merely fandom (e.g. Chris Gruber's chapter titled Atavists All? Howard's Boxing Hero's as Throwbacks) but most are fan related, Howard's influences on various people, Cross Plains as a home away from home, etc. Regardless, the book is well worth reading and I highly recommend it.

I hope that this three part series will at least give interested persons a good starting point to really dig their heels in and begin researching the Texas tale-spinner. Keep in mind this list is certainly not exhaustive. It's not intended to be. Anyone reading this who has other suggestions feel free to list them in the comments. I know for a fact more research material is slated to appear in the future, until then happy researching. Cheers!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Study This, Not That!: A Suggested Bibliography for REH Studies, Part Two

REH Primary Works Continued . . .

The Boxing Stories . . .

Study This . . .

Back in 2005 Bison Books released a collection of Howard's boxing stories in a volume titled Boxing Stories edited by Chris Gruber. This was part of a series—by the same publishing company, Bison Books—called The Works Robert E. Howard. This series included two western volumes (which we'll look at shortly), an adventure tales volume and a collection of weird/horror stories called The Black Stranger and Other American Tales. I bought this boxing volume a year after it was released. This volume was my introduction to Howard's boxing stories. Until recently this was the only volume I was aware existed that contained a collection of Howard's boxing stories. It was eye-opening for me. In fact, I never knew Howard wrote boxing stories until this volume. The book has a wonderful introduction by REH scholar Chris Gruber. It gives the reader a solid background about Howard's boxing stories and their characters. Unfortunately, this volume is currently out of print. You can still find a copy but they are not cheap. But all is not lost because the Robert E. Howard Foundation is in the process of publishing the definitive collection of Howard's boxing stories. Chris Gruber joined with REH scholars Mark Finn and Patrice Louinet to compile a massive 4 volume set, the first two volumes of which are already in print and for sale at the Foundations website. This new four volume set is aptly titled Fists of Iron and each volume is designated by a nice pun—"Round 1, Round 2," etc.  Just as a boastful aside, I recently won the first volume of Fists of Iron and the 2014 REH Days auction banquet. It contains a customized special drawing on the inside first blank page by the cover artist Thomas Gianni, and is signed on the numbered titled page by Chris Gruber, Mark Finn & Patrice Louinet. This first volume contains an introduction by Chris Gruber, a couple of hundred pages of boxing stories and four appendices. The four appendices contain early tales, variants and fragments, articles, several special "odds and ends," and part one of an essay by Patrice Louinet titled The Lord of The Ring. And keep in mind this is merely volume one. If you really want to research Howard and his works, and I mean be a well rounded reader and researcher of Howard and his works, then you must read his boxing stories. And now is the best time to begin doing that with the advent of this new four volume set.

The Western Stories . . .

Another necessary set of primary works to read for a well balanced REH diet is his western stories. In the same Bison Books series mentioned above (The Works of Robert E. Howard) there are two volumes devoted to Howard's western stories: The Riot of Bucksnort and Other Western Tales edited and with an introduction by David Gentzel and The End of the Trail: Western Stories edited and with an introduction by Rusty Burke. The former title contains REH's humorous westerns, the later his weird/serious westerns. I discovered The End of the Trail: Western Stories first. Although I had run into a smaller European collection of REH's western tales in the early to mid 90s at a second hand bookstore, it was really Rusty Burke's edited Bison Books volume that turned me on to REH's western stories. More importantly was Burke's introduction. That intro is a kind of "play-by-play" commentary about each story and why it was selected for the Bison volume. I was almost more impressed with this introduction than I was the stories themselves. I'm, of course, being a bit hyperbolic, but am also attempting to stress just how well done the intro to this volume actually is. Moreover, this was my first encounter with one of Robert E. Howard's greatest works of fiction—The Vultures of Wahpeton. I can count on both hands stories by REH that without a doubt deserve a home in high school and college textbooks, Vultures of Wahpeton is one of those. In fact, some of my favorite stories by REH are his westerns. But, this is not an article to point out favorites. Additionally, The Riot at Bucksnort and Other Western Tales contains one of Howard's most endearing characters—Breckenridge Elkins (and Cap 'n Kidd, of course). The above two Bison books are no longer in print. Although, the REH House & Museum in Cross Plains, TX still has copies of The Riot at Bucksnort and Other Western Tales at a reasonable price. Along with the two volumes above is a volume published by the REH Foundation titled Robert E. Howard's Western Tales. This volume has an introduction by western writer James Reasoner. His intro is excellent for anyone researching REH's westerns. Additionally, this volume contains regular westerns, weird westerns, essays, miscellanea, juvenilia, and notes about the texts. Reading Howard's westerns is as important as reading his heroic fantasy, his boxing tales, his adventure stories, horror stories, you get the idea. These stories are important and a well rounded researcher should read them.

Robert E. Howard's Letters/Correspondence . . .

One of the easiest ways to get to know someone is simply read their mail. Reading the correspondence of famous people is a great way to research their lives, their thoughts, their ideas, etc. Fortunately for us today, the correspondence of Robert E. Howard is easily accessible. That was not always the case. Just a mere two or three decades ago, you had to track down REH's letters, or contact Glenn Lord who had done a tremendous amount of footwork to collect them. Today there are several volumes you can buy that contain these letters. There is a three volume set (the first volume is no longer in print/sold out) that the Robert E. Howard Foundation sells titled The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (Volume One: 1923-1929; Volume Two: 1930-1932; Volume Three: 1933-1936). These volumes are edited by Rob Roehm and have introductions by Rusty Burke. If you are going to do any type of serious research on the life of Robert E. Howard then these letters are an absolute necessity. In fact, most professional literary research that is done outside the realm of textual analysis is often times focused on the available correspondence of the person being researched due to historical and personal insights. The second set of books contain letters between Robert E. Howard and H.P. Love Craft. These volumes are titled A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (Volume One 1930-1932; Volume two 1933-1936). These volumes are edited by S.T. Joshi, David Schultz and Rusty Burke. Now, while REH's letters to H.P. Lovecraft are in the three volume Collected Letters, H.P. Lovecraft's responses are not. This is what makes the two volume set doubly important—you get both sides of the correspondence. However, what makes the three volume Collected Letters so crucial is the fact that it contains letters to all of REH's friends, other writers, publishers, etc. And this is why I own both sets.

Robert E. Howard's Poetry . . .

The last of the primary material happens to be some of the hardest material to find, especially since the largest volume ever printed, an 800 plus page volume, titled The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, is no longer in print. And, you have a better chance of winning the lottery than finding a copy of it—believe me I've been looking for that single volume on every available internet avenue for about 6 years now. But, here's some good news! At this past REH Days in Cross Plains, Texas, the REH Foundation announced that a new and updated volume of that work will be released in the near future. In the mean time there are several poetry volumes currently available to any reader/researcher to peruse. The first can be obtained at the Robert E. House and Museum. It is titled A Word from the Outer Dark by Robert E. Howard (edited by Paul Herman). It contains a brief introduction about Howard being a poet and his poetry and 100 poems. Another volume that is currently available at the REH Foundation website is titled A Rhyme of Salem Town and Other Poems. This volume also has a brief introduction by Paul Herman and contains a little more than 100 poems. Robert E. Howard scholar Professor Frank Coffman also has an edited version of Howard's poetry titled Robert E. Howard: Selected Poems. This volume is a whopping 567 pages, has just over 700 poems, and three indexes to easily help you hunt down specific poems (by titled and first lines). But the unique thing about this volume over any other is the fact that Frank Coffman provides commentary, chapter introductions, and Coffman happens to be a first rate scholar of Howard's poetry. One of the main reasons I would certainly recommend Howard's poetry in any given research within REH studies is because they are so rich with history, humor, info about Texas, the historical West, love, self-reflective ideas/thoughts, heroism, and even horror and humor. Howard wrote sonnets, ballads, free verse, rhyme scheme, along with other various forms. So his poetry is a must for any serious researcher.

(More to Come . . .)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Study This, Not That!: A Suggested Bibliography for REH Studies, Part One

Have you ever seen those bestselling books titled Eat This, Not That! ? They contrast the kinds of food it is best to eat with the kinds of food it is best not to eat. They are quite informative. Interestingly enough, in the realm of Robert E. Howard studies there is certainly material on both sides of the line, so speak. In other words, there is available material that is actually good to study, and available material that is not so good to study. This article's intent is to inform the serious seeker in REH studies about the best research material to study and the reasons why. 

In any field of study/research there is always material that is better than others. What one may not understand though is what makes some material better than others and how you tell the difference? A good question to ask when embarking on research is do the data and methods used support the conclusions? In terms of historical research—which is what most REH scholars are essentially working with outside of REH's manuscripts—new data is often discovered which can render old data outdated or sometimes obsolete/wrong. The point of research is to investigate ideas, facts, events, etc. and uncover useful knowledge. Useful knowledge is obtained from eyewitness accounts, documents, manuscripts, recorded history, pictures, letters/correspondence, etc. You get the idea. This is why when new data arises it tends to out-date or sometimes make obsolete older research material. That does not necessarily mean that older material is always "bad" or rendered useless. But it certainly helps to know how new data overrides old data. 

Quality research also demands good judgment, honesty, and proper context. Poor research is usually easy to spot. It entails poor judgments, contradictory evidence, quick/poor assumptions, and/or a lack of solid evidence. While all of the above is certainly not exhaustive, it is a pretty solid foundation from which to start when considering research methodology. 

All the above considered, let me now suggest some research material that I have used to further my knowledge in REH studies. I'll attempt to explain why I think that one might want to study this and not that. It should be noted that I am simply suggesting what I have considered better research material. Also, it is always a good thing to research all material within the arena of your topic. The key factor in doing so is an ability to discern what material is best. That being the case, let's take a look at what's out there:

REH Biographies

Study This . . .

Blood & Thunder by Mark Finn

First Edition
Monkey Brain Books
ISBN: 9781932265217
Second Edition

REH Foundation Press

There are two editions of Mark's work. The second edition makes improvements on grammatical/textual errors from the first edition. Plus, the second edition adds new material based on current research findings, etc. However, even though the second edition is updated, the first edition still holds its own. I own a copy of both editions for purposes of actually being able to see improvements between the two texts and to be able to contrast the updated material between the two editions. The works themselves draw heavily on REH's letters, first person accounts, historical documents, and corrections of silly myths that have developed over the years about Robert E. Howard. There is also an emphasis on the fact that Robert E. Howard was a Texas writer, something that certainly influenced his works. To miss this point, Mark emphasizes, is to miss the man in his work. To this date, this is the definitive REH biography and an important addition to REH studies.

One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard: The Final Years by Novalyne Price Ellis

Donald M. Grant Publishers
ISBN: 093798678X
First published in 1986
This is not your typical biography. In other words Novalyne did not do the standard footwork on the life of Howard like a biographer who had never met Robert E. Howard would be forced to do. This biography is more a kin to an autobiography because Novalyne actually knew Robert E. Howard. In fact the two of them dated toward the end of Howard's life. This work is an account of her experiences with Howard during that time frame. The information is taken directly out of a personal journal she wrote at the time they dated. So not only is this work a first hand account, but it's written in such a style that makes it very readable and personable. In fact, the book was so well received that popular independent film director Dan Ireland based his film The Whole Wide World on this work. So the movie and the book have had a significant cultural impact. The importance of the book lies in the fact that there is no other account of REH's life like it. It provides the reader/researcher intimate insight into the life of the writer and the man. Moreover, there are personal conversations about politics, Texas history, religion, teaching, writing, etc. Howard details his characters, how he creates them, his writing style, why he sells various stories over others, what was selling at that time, and interesting conversations about what both Novalyne and Robert were reading at the time. This book is well worth the time invested.

The Last Celt: A Bio-Bibliography of Robert E. Howard by Glenn Lord

Glenn Lord's work, though no longer in print, is well worth tracking down. There are still copies to be had at various online bookstores (in fact here's one such place).
Berkley Windhover Books
ISBN: 0425036308
November 1977
This work contains Robert E. Howard's autobiography, essays on/about his life, an account of his suicide, family photographs, original artwork by Howard, letters from publishers, a detailed bibliography, and so much more. Glenn Lord was single-handedly responsible for current research being as effective as it has been. Not only for his own published material but for his work and help with all of the most important current REH scholars and their work. In fact, this work is merely a drop in the bucket of all the material Glenn Lord has provided for current REH research. The Last Celt is one of the best starting places for doing REH research, even though it is somewhat dated. The material is reliable, the research is well performed, and the footwork that Lord performed to garner the material is astounding. I owe much of my early research about Howard to this single volume. It is well worth tracking down.

Not That . . .

Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard by L.Sprague de Camp

The main reason I place this work in the "not that" group is due to it's lack of objective research. For too long this biography was the only one available. Unfortunately the repercussions still linger from this work today. However, those repercussions are waning due to current scholarship. I can't stress enough the poor research quality of this work. L. Sprague de Camp (henceforth de Camp) apparently took it upon himself to speculate about various things for which he was unable to find supporting facts. de Camp is not bashful about his speculations either. In fact, he prefaces those speculations with phrases such as "I suspect", "I believe", "It probably . . .", etc. Additionally, because of de Camp's background in psychology, he takes it upon himself to psychoanalyze Robert E. Howard, who at the time was long dead. And de Camp did this despite the fact that at the time psychoanalysis was being seriously questioned about its genuine validity. Today the practice has all but been dismissed as faulty and outdated. If you do decide to tackle this work do it with a full salt shaker and an active discerning mind. The small redeeming qualities of this book are its photographs of Cross Plains (from the 70s) and the REH home from the late 70s early 80s, and its early bibliography.

Robert E. Howard: The Supreme Moment by Francis DiPietro

Unless you are glutton for punishment, I would avoid this biography altogether. Of all the biographical
material I've read (and I've read pretty much everything that's available) this is the worst. In fact, DiPietro prefaces his biography by explaining that he is not a biographical writer. Is that an apology or merely self loathing? However, he does detail his previous works/credentials, all are fictional parodies based on Robert E. Howard's works (e.g. The Hour of the Dragon). Additionally, he admits to researching all the current REH scholars and lists each of their names. All the names are from the standard lot. It should be noted here that by listing names all he in fact accomplished was admitting that his work is derivative of their work. Perhaps derivative is too complimentary a term, a type of plagiarism would be closer to the truth. Regardless, the material in this work is more speculative than de Camp's biography. Despite the poor narrative quality of DiPietro's work he doesn't add any meaningful material to Howard studies. When I say 'meaningful' I mean DiPietro has done nothing to further the research, he has merely taken what is already available and speculated upon it. The most frustrating thing about this work is when DiPietro writes various claims or statements and then leaves them with no further explanation or support. Why? This does nothing but frustrate careful readers. I certainly do not recommend this work at all.

REH Primary Works

Study This . . .

The Del Rey Robert E. Howard Works
Del Rey Books
ISBN: 0345461517
December 2003
Del Rey Books
ISBN: 0345461509
July 2004

In 2003 Del Rey published a volume titled The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian illustrated by Mark Schultz with an introduction by Patrice Louinet. This volume took what was previously done on Wandering Star a few years earlier and made the price accessible to everyone. Morever, buzz about the authenticity of the stories being based solely on the original submitted manuscripts by REH to Weird Tales made the volume all the more appealing. Plus, the appendices included Patrice Louinet's work titled Hyborian Genesis, part one of a three part essay on the historicity of the creation of Conan and the chronology of those manuscripts. The other parts of Hyborian Genesis would continue in the two subsequent Del Rey Conan volumes. Besides the Conan volumes from Del Rey, other volumes would soon follow. All said, 11 Del Rey volumes would be published, including volumes devoted to Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, Kull, El Borak, REH's Horror Stories, historical adventures, etc. The only pitfall I can think of regarding these volumes is that there were no volumes of REH's western and boxing stories. But the REH Foundation would soon remedy that. All of the Del Rey volumes include first rate artwork, excellent introductions, and informative appendices. Each volume is a must for any serious REH reader or researcher.

Not That . . .

The Lancer/Ace Conan Series

Unless you're just into collecting Frazetta's artwork, I would not recommend the Lancer or Ace Conan series. Granted, there are a few volumes where Robert E. Howard's work is present, albeit edited. And, these are not the purist copies. Even though many fans discovered Robert E. Howard (me included) through these volumes, L.Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter included too much of their own work. That's right, the volumes are filled with pastiches from de Camp and Carter, and the Howard works are edited (sometimes quite heavily). Don't misunderstand me here, I'm not slamming de Camp or Carter for their own efforts, it's just if you want to read the real Robert E. Howard stories then stick with the Del Rey editions. Moreover, the introductions to the de Camp/Carter volumes are wrought with problems/issues. No different than the problems/issues in de Camp's biography about REH (DVD). Even so, when I was younger and first introduced to REH (back in 1981) through the Ace editions of these books, I certainly could tell the difference in writing styles/voice/quality between the de Camp/Carter stories and the REH stories. All this being the case, buy them for comparisons to the Del Rey stories and see how they stack up. If you are doing textual analysis then by all means collect these and see how the stories were re-worked/edited compared to the original Weird Tales publications (or original manuscripts). It is for that very reason I own all the Lancer and Ace editions. Otherwise, pass 'em up.

(More to come . . .)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Transitional Howard: Racism and Solomon Kane

Was Robert E. Howard a racist? The hard and fast answer: yes. Is this a pointless issue as some think it is? I guess that answer is reserved for individual opinion. The only reason I think it might still be important is due to the fact that it keeps being brought up. So, to some, it's not a settled issue and is perhaps important.

Regardless, this post is not about whether Howard was a racist. It's not an attempt to defend Howard's racism because he was a "product of his time." No. This post is about how Howard might have dealt with the issue in his stories; more specifically in his Solomon Kane stories. 

When the issue of Howard's racism is discussed there are usually three main stories tossed to the forefront of the stage: The Vale of Lost Women, Shadows in Zamboula, and Wings in the Night. The first two are Conan stories, the last one is Solomon Kane. There are others mentioned besides these three, but these usually top the list. My concern is with the last story mentioned. I think Wings in the Night gets pigeon holed into being a work that "clearly" demonstrates Howard's racism. It clearly demonstrates something about the issue of racism, but not, perhaps, that Howard was being racist in the story. But, let me back up a step. Asking whether Howard was a racist is, I think, asking the wrong question. Here's what I mean.

Howard's racism has already been well established. No one is actually denying it are they? If so, they might want to get their head examined, or do a little better research on the issue. So the question is he a racist, is he not, is moot. A better question is, did Howard ever attempt to deal with his own racism? I think he did to a certain degree and I think this can best be seen in his Solomon Kane stories.

No one knows the exact chronology of the Solomon Kane stories. The Del Rey edition titled The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane has the stories in as close to chronological composition order as possible. That being the case, all one has to do is read the edition from start to finish and you'll see what I'm about to point out.

As readers of this volume we are first introduced to black African characters in Red Shadows (e.g. N'Longa). By The Moon of Skulls Howard has an entire black civilization living in an underground city that was once occupied by an ancient civilization. In these two stories Howard has referred to his black characters as "negros"; a term that dates back to around 1440 to 1442 when the Portuguese stumbled upon sub-Saharan Africa in their attempt to find a feasible route by sea to India. The Portuguese used the term negro—which meant "black"—to refer to the indigenous people. By the 1970s this term became pejorative and is now no longer used. In Howard's day it was quite common, and not pejorative, to use the term "negro" to refer to blacks. So the term certainly does not connote any form of racism by its use in Howard's stories. However, Howard has caricatured his black characters. This is done through Howard's use of dialogue and description.

In The Moon of Skulls Howard describes the black civilization in the underground city as not intelligent enough to have figured out what would otherwise be the fairly obvious hidden passageways. He also implies that this black civilization is a lesser form/status of people, and that they need to be punished for keeping captive an innocent white girl named Marilyn. So right away it seems that Howard's black characters are not off to a good start. But, one of Howard's main characters, the black queen named Nakari is elevated a bit in the story. She is described as moving like a she-leopard and having lithe beauty, Solomon even catches himself in admiration of her. Why would Howard put a black main character in such a positive light? What is he trying to tell his reader, if anything? What does Howard then do with his black characters in subsequent Solomon Kane stories?

It's not an accident when Howard places a black character in a positive light. It's certainly not done merely to improve or sell a story. In fact, in the late 20s and early 30s, racism ran rampant across the country (especially in Texas). It would be unusual for a racist writer to take a black character and detail that character in a positive way. So it would have been "normal" for Howard to always paint his black characters negatively. And, as was pointed out in the first part of this series, Howard did occasionally do that. Nonetheless, to elevate a black character in a story or place that character in a positive light is risky in Howard's day and demands some seriously clever writing. This is what I think Howard has done in a slow but steady progression throughout his Solomon Kane stories.

In The Hills of the Dead Howard returns to negative stereotypes for his black characters except for one; a small girl which he declares is:
[A] much higher type than the thick-lipped, bestial West Coast negroes to whom Kane had been used. She was slim and finely formed, of a deep brown hue rather than ebony; her nose was straight and thin-bridged, her lips were not too thick. Somewhere in her blood there was a strong Berber strain. (Del Rey edition; The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, p. 230-31).
There are several things going on in this passage that the casual reader could too easily overlook. First, it is quite obvious that Howard has done his research and done it well. He describes the indigenous Berber people of North Africa who lived west of the Nile river. Second he describes this type as a higher type. What does he mean by "higher type"? Is he merely trying to demean the "lower type" by calling the Berbers "higher?" Or is he pointing out diversity among various indigenous Africans? Third, his use of a small child is ingenious because it practically demands sympathy. What better way to gain sympathy for a dark skinned person than to make her a girl and a child at that? All these factors, especially the understanding of diversity between people and Howard's use of a small female child is a clever and subtle way to get his reader to slowly empathize and understand characters who would otherwise be thought of as racially sub-standard.

What is more, and this is crucial, N'Longa reappears at the beginning of The Hills of the Dead. Only this time N'Longa gives Solomon an important gift—the famous Staff that is older than the world. Even though Kane is hesitant to take the staff, an exchange like this between a black person and a white person is, at best, extremely unusual given the decade in which the story was published. It can certainly be viewed as a positive action between two races who are otherwise always at odds with one another. Moreover, the staff is an instrument of help, and is intended to help Solomon in his travels. It's almost as if this is a type of peace offering between two races.

Now we come to Wings in the Night. In this story Howard is in rare but extraordinary form. He begins the story with this opening sentence:
Solomon Kane leaned on his strangely carved staff and gazed in scowling perplexity at the mystery which spread silently before him. (Del Rey edition; The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, p. 275)
The first thing Howard mentions is the staff given to Solomon Kane by N'Longa. A staff that will later be used to help a tribe of natives in Bogonda. As the story progresses, Solomon Kane is chased down by a group of flying human-like beasts (we later find out are harpies). Kane kills one of the beasts but is injured. He is brought unconscious to a tribe of natives. These natives nurse Kane back to health.

The interesting thing about the natives from Wings in the Night is that they are not like any other natives Howard has written. First, they have a more appropriate manner of speech (as crazy as that sounds it is an important detail). Second, they are more intelligent than any other Kane has encountered. Third, this area, called Boganda, has never encountered a white man. Fourth, because they have never seen a white man and they witness Kane kill one of the harpies (what they call an akaana) they assume Kane is a god. Kane corrects them and declares, "I am no god. . . . but a man like yourself, albeit my skin be white." 

Two interesting things occur in Kane's response. First, Kane claims that he is equal with these men—"I am a man like yourself." Second, to correct their claim of deity toward Kane, he explains—"Albeit my skin be white." Howard eliminates any sense of superiority and uses the fact that these natives have never seen a white man to defeat the idea of deifying one. The combination of color and the fact that Kane has killed a beast that has given these people grief for so long is why they mistake him as a god. But Howard levels the playing field, so to speak, and has Kane declare that he is their equal. This, I might add, is a pretty liberal thing to write in Howard's day. But, there are more interesting things to come in the story.

As Wings in the Night progresses, the reader finds out that the Bognadi tribe chose a lush land to cultivate and live on, but they are soon tormented by the flying beasts they call akaana. The akaanas (harpies) eventually control and kill the Bogandi tribe leaving about 150 tribe members at the time Solomon Kane finds them. Because their numbers have dwindled due to the harpies, the Bogandi could not escape to the West because of the large numbers of cannibals. Kane pities the Bogandi people and vows to help them. It is at this point that we see the first reference of a black tribe in any of Howard's writings being referred to as human beings instead of black people:
Kane shuddered at the thought of a tribe of human beings, thus passing slowly but surely into the maws of a race of monsters. (The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, Del Rey, p. 302)
Kane is disgusted with the thought that these harpies have caused this group of people to suffer so much. His pity is not aimed at them because they are black, but because they are people. Since Kane had already killed two harpies, the beasts stayed at bay for a period. Kane remains with the tribe and racks his mind to devise a plan to get rid of the beasts. For a time the village is at peace until the harpies launch a final attack.

In the night, Kane is awaken by a full blown assault. The harpies have descended on the helpless Bogandi tribe; a surprise attack in the night. In the midst of the turmoil, Kane attempts to help the people but is as limited as they are with weaponry. Feeling utter despair and responsibility for these people Kane goes mad. In his temporary madness he lashes out in all directions killing harpies and screaming at the top of his lungs in the process. The harpies finally leave the village in total ruins, everyone has been slaughtered except the maddened Kane. And it's here that Howard writes one of his most telling paragraphs in the story about the "white man":
And was he [Kane] not a symbol of Man, staggering among the tooth-marked bones and severed grinning heads of humans, brandishing a futile ax, and screaming incoherent hate at the grisly, winged shapes of Night that make their prey, chuckling in demonic triumph above him and dripping into his mad eyes the pitiful blood of their human victims? (Ibid p. 312)
There are several important things to note in the above paragraph. First, why does Howard refer to Kane—the only person in the scene who is white—as a symbol of Man? Why is man capitalized? It has nothing to do with masculinity. Nor does it refer to Kane's status. I think Howard is using the the phrase in connection with two features of the story: the fact that the Bogandi thought Kane was a god, and the fact that Kane is white. So race here is an issue but not racism toward blacks per se. Kane has failed this tribe, he's gone mad due to that fact. He feels responsible. Also, Howard calls the tribe, once again, humans and not blacks in the above paragraph. I think "Man" is capitalized in the above paragraph to refer to "whites,"—Kane being the white man on the scene—and has a religious referent (a god). This assessment is based on what immediately follows: the sub-title "The White-Skinned Conqueror."

This sub-title jumps off the page deliberately. Howard uses it to grab attention, but it is this sub-title that has lent to the idea that Howard is being racist when just the opposite may be a work here. Reading on, we see Kane surveying the death and destruction at the claws of the harpies. Kane observes the dead Bogandi people, especially those whom he has come to admire (e.g. Goru). Then this happens:
Kane looked at the shambles that had been Boganda, and he looked at the death mask of Goru. And he lifted his clenched fists above his head, and with glaring eyes raised and writhing lips flecked with froth, he cursed the sky and the earth and the spheres above and below. He cursed the cold stars, the blazing sun, the mocking moon and the whisper of the wind. He cursed all fates and destinies, all that he had loved or hated, the silent cities beneath the seas, the past ages and the future eons. In one soul-shaking burst of blasphemy he cursed the gods and devils who make mankind their sport, and he cursed Man who lives blindly on and blindly offers his back to the iron-hoofed feet of his gods. (Ibid p. 313-15)
Suddenly we read what might appear as a maddened tirade. However, this tirade speaks volumes not only about the content of this story but about the content of the human condition and current affairs during Howard's day and the century that lead up to Howard's day. Once again we see Howard capitalize the word "Man." He does so in the same context as the last passage—referring to "whites." This time Man is followed by a most telling passage: "who lives blindly on and blindly offers his back to the iron-hoofed feet of his gods." 

What does Howard mean with his use of "iron-hoofed feet"? Is this a reference to slavery? To hatred? To racism? The answer seems to be, "yes", to all the above. And, as Howard has declared, "Man . . . blindly offers his back" to these things. Moreover, the harpies in this story certainly represent those who have oppressed and destroyed certain people, namely the oppression of blacks. Howard is brilliant in his subtlety with this point, but the careful reader will find the message.

So what does Kane (the "white god") do in response to all this? He acts like a god and exacts punishment. He devises a plan and traps the harpies in a hut. He then sets fire to the hut, destroying the beasts. The religious allusions in the conclusion of the story are obvious. But is this what Howard thinks should happen to those who practice oppression of certain races? Howard's struggle with the issue of racism is apparent, which leads me to think that Howard was at least attempting to deal with the issue through his stories. I, for one, think the use of this story to defend Howard's racism is wrong headed. A closer look reveals a much different story, and a potentially transitional Howard in his previous views about racial issues.

(Illustrations by Gary Gianni for the Del Rey and Wandering Star editions Savage Tales of Solomon Kane; July 2004)

Saturday, April 26, 2014

King Conan: The Hour of the Dragon (A Brief Review)

Conan is no stranger to comic books. In fact, beginning in 1970 Conan made his first comic book appearance with Marvel—Conan the Barbarian. Four years later Curtis Magazines, an imprint of Marvel, launched The Savage Sword of Conan. From that time forth one company or the other has released some type of Conan comic book and this trend has lasted to today. Having read a number of these, I can safely say that while some were good only in that they managed to capture the essence of Robert E. Howard's character, certainly most did not properly adapt Howard's original stories. And for me, this became so frustrating that I all but gave up on reading "adaptations" in the comic book arena of Howard's characters/stories. That is until Tim Truman and Dark Horse saved the day.

The latest series of Conan comic books from Dark Horse is a light in an otherwise dark world of REH comic book adaptations. The series I'm referring to is titled King Conan: The Hour of the Dragon. The series began its run in May 2013 and still continues to this day. The first six parts are actually called The Hour of the Dragon and the last six parts are called The Conqueror under the main title of King Conan. All twelve parts adapt Robert E. Howard's novel titled The Hour of the Dragon. Before the comic book was released I heard that Timothy Truman was writing it. This excited me for two reasons. First, back in April of 2013 REH Days announced that Timothy Truman would be the guest of honor for that year's panel discussions.

I knew about Truman from previous works going all the way back to Grim Jack, a character he co-created with John Ostrander. Second, I heard that Truman was going to adapt Howard's story as closely as he possibly could in comic book form. At first I was skeptical. I had heard previous claims about various series regarding REH's characters and had usually ended up being disappointed. But, because I had already purchased my REH Days ticket, was bound for Cross Plains, TX in June of that year, and this series would be released just prior to that (in May 2013), I figured it would be discussed at one of the panels. So why not buy the first issue and give it whirl? Besides, it would only drain my pocket of a measly $3.50.

Now, I must reveal that when I buy a series of comic books I usually read only the first issue and if I deem it "good enough" I'll buy the subsequent issues and then read them altogether. I only do this with series I know have a limited number of issues. Additionally, being a long time REH fan, I was very familiar with The Hour of the Dragon. So, I bought the first issue and read it. I was stunned at just how close it followed Howard's original work. Moreover, at REH Days Timothy Truman declared that the series would stay as close to the original work as he could get it. Rumor confirmed. I've been buying every issue since and just finished reading the first six parts of this twelve part run. What follows is a brief review of the first six issues. To prepare for this review I re-read Robert E. Howard's work The Hour of the Dragon and used it to compare and contrast this comic book series.

With regard to the first six comic books in this series, here is how they are divided from Howard's original work:
  • #1 (Part 1 of 6) covers most of the first three chapters of the book
  • #2 (Part 2 of 6) covers the latter middle of chapter 3 to the latter middle of chapter 5
  • #3 (Part 3 of 6) covers the latter middle of chapter 5 to the end of chapter 6
  • #4 (Part 4 of 6) covers chapter 7 to the end of chapter 8
  • #5 (Part 5 of 6) covers chapter 9 to the end of chapter 10
  • #6 (Part 6 of 6) covers chapter 11 to the end of chapter 12
WARNING: Spoiler Alert—if you read past this point and have not read the comic books or Robert E. Howard's The Hour of the Dragon and do not want anything spoiled, then stop reading here and go read the comic books and/or Howard's story first. Everyone else let's continue.

King Conan: The Hour of the Dragon (Part 1 of 6) opens with something that is not included in Howard's original work; namely a much older King Conan, torch in hand, standing before Zenobia's tomb. He's in a kind of nostalgic state about his former bride until Pramis, a scribe, enters the room and startles Conan. When I initially read this I was a bit disappointed. This preface really deviated from Howard's work. My heart sank, but I forced myself to read on. What Truman did here was preface Howard's work with a narrative that sets up the story. In the long run, I think it works itself fairly well into the story. After much consideration I could only think of one pitfall with this kind of preface. It somewhat takes away the mystery and suspense about Conan in the story. Granted, if you're a seasoned REH reader then you've probably read all of the Conan stories. However, for those who have not read Howard or his Conan stories the possibility that Conan might die in one is quite real. Conan is confronted throughout Howard's stories with some heinous and deadly situations. Beginning a narrative with Conan telling a scribe the story certainly eliminates the possibility that Conan might die, somewhat removing the suspenseful nature of various confrontations and battles. And yet, this is my biggest complaint about the entire series so far and in certain parts of the comic books it works well with Howard's descriptive narrative from the original work.

From this preface Truman launches into the story Howard wrote. In a tomb in Nemedia, Orastes, who is a former priest of Mitra, along with Amalric, Tarascus who is the younger brother of the king of Nemedia, and Valerius, the former king of Aquilonia, use the Heart of Ahriman to awaken an ancient Sorcerer and High Priest of Set named Xaltotun. I was quite surprised when I compared Truman's adaptation with Howard's work. To a large degree Truman uses the dialogue directly from Howard's work. Plus, Tomas Giorello's artwork is phenomenal. He does an amazing job of capturing the details of not only the characters but of Truman's/Howard's narrative throughout the first six issues. Giorello's artwork definitely helps bring each scene to life, often exactly as I imagined it when I read Howard's original story.

Truman certainly stays quite true to Howard's original work with only a few slight deviations. For instance, in the original story when Zenobia frees Conan of his bondage from Xaltotun, she explains to Conan she must depart from him for a short time. No reason is given. However, before she departs she gives Conan specific instructions about where they are to meet again and a warning to be careful as he treads down a certain path to his destination out of the prison cells. In Truman's account she stays by Conan's side throughout this scene and even helps him to battle the haunter of the pits. Even so, this is a small deviation and works well in the comic book because first, it maintains the spirit of Howard's character and does not alter the story to such a degree as to render it unrecognizable. Second, it works well to strengthen Conan and Zenobia's relationship because they are working together to fight off a creature and Zenobia's concerns for Conan's well being is highlighted. It keeps the spirit of Howard in his character Zenobia in so far as Truman displays her to be a strong female. This is also something Howard's Conan would certainly admire.

Another minor deviation (which is really more of a summation to make it fit into comic book panels) occurs from the 4th comic book with Zeleta's visions. Zeleta is a witch whom Conan saves from several Nemedian soldiers. Conan kills the soldiers and the witch helps Conan by providing him important information via various visions to aid him in his quest to restore his kingdom. While the visions from the comic books are not identical with the books, they do follow the basic gist of what Howard wrote. The visions from the comic book detail the past, Conan losing his crown and the people in despair in the Capital city of Tarantia. The book, of course, gives greater detail and mentions names within this first vision, and Conan thinks the witch is toying with his mind. The second vision in the comic book is simply a brief summary of the second vision from Howard's story, once again I'm assuming this is done to fit it into the panels of the comic book. It shows Valerius being crowned king and those who fell out of favor with Conan celebrating his coronation. Something Conan already had knowledge about from earlier in the story. The third and last vision is also a summation of Howard's story. This vision is of an ancient time. It shows the body of Xaltotun in a sarcophagus and the Heart of Ahriman upon an alter. Conan does not yet understand the meaning of the stone, but he certainly recognizes it. These visions leave both the witch and Conan confused. The witch suggests they sleep and perhaps the answers will arise in their dreams. In Howard's original story, only Conan is completely confused, the witch has a better understanding of the visions but that understanding is not complete. She recommends they rest and perhaps a full understanding will come to her in her dreams. However, before they sleep she mentions that in the morning she may have the answer to this "mystery." The mystery lies in a remark she made earlier (in the comic book and Howard's original story), "I fear the heart is gone from your kingdom."

The one thing I was most pleased about in Truman's adaptation was his inclusion and emphasis on Zeleta's "mystery" about the heart of Conan's kingdom. This idea is revealed in the comic books pretty much the same as it is in Howard's original work. Howard was certainly connecting the Heart of Ahriman and Conan's kingdom in an obvious way—the one was used to take away the other—but also subtly adding the element of Conan's feelings for Zenobia. Howard does not bring out the Zenobia element until the end of his story when after defeating Tarascus, Conan requests Zenobia from Tarascus' seraglio because Conan will make her his queen.

Truman cleverly incorporates Conan's feelings and the love aspect of Zeleta's mystery via the narrative between Conan and the scribe Pramis. This is emphasized on the last page of the 6th issue in the comic book. While narrating the story for Pramis, Conan questions Zeleta's true meaning behind her statement. The panels actually read as follows: "Find the heart of your kingdom . . . that's what the old witch Zeleta had told me . . . but was the Jewel of Ahriman the heart she truly meant?" The next panel shows an image of Zenobia in the background, Conan in the foreground. It is at this point in the comic book Conan truly understand Zeleta's mystery and rushes forward to claim his destiny. None of this is in Howard's original work. However, I thought this was extremely well done and really appreciated Truman's interpretive license here. What this tells me is that Truman truly knows Howard's work inside and out, and is actually providing a small amount of commentary based on this understanding. Other than what I mentioned above there is no other noticeable deviation from Howard's original work.

While The Hour of the Dragon is not one of my favorite Conan stories, Truman and Giorello have certainly elevated my appreciation for it. And I thought they brought it to life quite meaningfully for both unseasoned and seasoned REH readers. But unlike so many who have taken Howard's characters and placed them in new stories, Truman has genuinely adapted Robert E. Howard's work as it ought to be adapted. In my estimation this is the best comic book adaptation of a Conan story, and I am very much looking forward to the next six comic books in the series.

If you have not purchased the first six comic books in this series then run, not walk, to your local comic book store and buy them. Also, the first comic book titled King Conan: The Conqueror (Part 1 of 6) was released a week or so ago. So the second 6 issues are now in full swing. As mentioned earlier, King Conan: The Conqueror make up the last 6 parts of Howard's novel The Hour of the Dragon. I highly recommend this series.

Friday, April 11, 2014

"Now, come all you punchers, and listen to my tale,
When I tell you of troubles on the Chisholm Trail!"

"Steve Harmer was riding Texas-Fasion, slow and easy, one knee hooked over the saddle horn, hat pulled over his brows to shade his face. His lean body swayed rhythmically to the easy gait of his horse."—First Line from REH's western yarn titled Drums of the Sunset.

If that doesn't stir your interest to read Robert E. Howard's western tales then there might just be something wrong with ya!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Saddle Up for the Wild, Wild West

When you think of western fiction what writers come to mind? Naturally one would be quick to name the modern genre greats such as Louis L'Amour, William W. Johnstone, Larry McMurtry, Cromac McCarthy, Elmer Kelton, Ralph Compton, or even lesser known western writers such as Dirk Fletcher, Luke Short, or Tabor Evans. If you read westerns regularly, chances are you recognize most of these writers in that genre. But, did you know that Robert E. Howard wrote westerns?

Long before any of the above mentioned names, Robert E. Howard was writing and publishing western short stories. That's right, the creator of the Sword and Sorcery (a.k.a. Heroic Fantasy) genre also wrote westerns. Obviously Howard's heroic fantasy stories are unarguably his most popular stories, but let's not be so quick to dismiss other genres this Texas tale spinner worked within. Howard wrote westerns that were comic and dialect, serious westerns, as well as weird westerns.

In fact his humorous westerns can be found in an out of print collection titled The Riot at Bucksnort and Other Western Tales edited by David Gentzel. For additional western stories Rusty Burke's edited volume titled The End of the Trail: Western Stories is a good volume to track down. Another excellent volume—still available—of Howard's western tales, including several unpublished stories and characters is titled Robert E. Howard's Western Tales—see the REH Foundation website for that particular volume.

It's no surprise that Howard took to writing western stories. He was born in Peaster, Texas and spent the better part of his days in central West Texas. This would certainly lend to his fascination with gun fighters, western outlaws, Texas Rangers, and the like. I'm sure he spent time listening to stories about "old-timers" and their tales of the old west, the gun fighters, cattle towns, etc. Also, in his own personal library Howard had several books about the wild west and famous outlaws. One such book was titled The Saga of Billy the Kid by Walter Noble Burns. Howard also mentioned Billy the Kid in a letter to H.P. Lovecraft (circa 1931). Of course all this lends to the fact that Howard was no stranger to western tales and folklore.
Many casual fans may not know that Robert E. Howard was so influenced by Texas lore, western tall tales, and stories of struggling pioneers that this influence eventually found its way into several of his heroic fantasy yarns, namely several Conan stories (e.g. Beyond the Black River). Additionally, one of Howard's more successful characters, created and published toward the end of his life was none other than Breckenridge Elkins. Elkins first appeared in Mountain Man, a humorous western story published in Action Stories Magazine Volume 12 Number 7 (March-April 1934). In fact, in my humble opinion, I think Breckenridge Elkins is one of Howard's more interesting characters (other than Solomon Kane). 

With a hearty zeal Breckenridge bursts on the literary scene high in a tree with his fist in a bee's hive. Here are the first few lines from Mountain Man, and the first appearance of Howard's flamboyant character—
I was robbing a bee tree, when I heard my old man calling, "Breckenridge! Oh, Breckenridge! Where air you? I see you now. You don't need to climb that tree. I ain't goin' to larrup you."
Gary Chaloner has done a wonderful job animating this first scene in the illustration at the left.

From these first lines Breckenridge lights up the printed page with wild shenanigans that are deeply funny and wonderful to read. Breckenridge is tough but tender and he's not really a trouble maker but always seems to find himself in the middle of trouble. And, just when you think Howard can't elevate this character any higher, he gives Breckenridge a brutish temperamental horse named Cap'n Kidd. If we stopped with just Breackenridge and Cap'n Kidd, you'd have several action packed afternoons of great reading material. One of my favorites of these stories is titled The Haunted Mountains. Howard certainly wrote one of the most hilarious and memorable beginnings to this story:
The Reason I despises tarantulas, stinging lizards, and hydrophobia skunks is because they reminds me so much of my Aunt Lavaca, which my Uncle Jacob Grimes married in an absent-minded moment, when he was old enough to know better.
I can't think of an opening line in Howard's westerns I enjoy more than this one. Not only did it make me laugh for several minutes the first time read it, but it makes the reader really want to know just who this woman is. It should also be noted Howard created several other characters in his humorous western stories: Buckner J. Grimes and Pike Bearfield. While Breckenridge is from Nevada, Buckner and Pike make their homes in Texas. All in the same vein, these characters are humorous and larger than life. All of the humorous western stories are well worth reading.

Among the other western tales Howard wrote—the serious westerns and weird westerns—The Dead Remember is another favorite. This weird western tale is quite unconventional, especially for the time frame in which it was published: in a magazine called Argosy August 15th, 1936. The story unfolds through a series of letters and statements, not in the usual narrative fashion. It opens with a letter from the protagonist to his brother. The letter is bleak. Jim Gordon writes his brother to tell him that he is certain death is imminent because of what Jim has done to a particular witch woman and her man. From here the reader is treated with various witness statements, all of which lead to a very unusual demise for Jim Gordon. 

Howard's weird westerns and serious westerns are replete with twists, turns, second guesses, action, outlaws, gun fights and the like. All very interesting, especially for those who love the western genre. Even if you don't particularly enjoy the western genre, I think it's quite possible Howard's western tales may change your mind.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

An Odd Encounter

I had what I would consider an odd encounter with another Robert E. Howard fan today. I took my typical Wednesday trip to the comic book store to buy two comics - East of West issue #9 and Conan and the People of the Black Circle #4.

When I took the two books to the counter, the guy at the register asked me if I was enjoying the Conan series. I told him I had not had time to read them yet, but was not holding my breath. He gave me a strange look and asked if I was a Howard fan. I nodded and asked, "You?" He said, "Yes, huge fan."

Huge fan, I thought to myself. Hmm. He told me he liked this series but was waiting to read Howard's story The Hour of the Dragon before reading Tim Truman's comic book series titled the same. I told him that was a good idea (even though Truman does his best to stick with Howard's storyline), but make sure you read the story from the Del Rey book. He nodded and said, "The Del Rey's are the original manuscripts, right?"

I told him they were, and that those were the best editions to buy. He then asked me if I had ever been to Howard Day's in Cross Plains. I told him I had gone the last two years and intended to go again this year. He said he had friends who attended a lot, rattled off a couple of names I had never heard (which doesn't mean anything) and then told me he was from Brownwood. I explained I was from Abilene.Small world.

This led to a discussion about the Howard home and he detailed his story about seeing it for the first time. I told him the first time I saw Howard's home someone was living in it. I don't think he understood the time frame or weight of that claim. During this brief conversation, he brought up the new Conan movie (now in pre-production) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. I cringed inside and did not voice an opinion, until he said he really enjoyed the first two Conan movies with Arnold. I shook my head and told him I did not care for them. He told me he thought the wizard in the first film made the movie great, then preceded to quote a line the wizard has said from the film. I tried to explain to him that I thought those movies were good Sword & Sorcery films for their day, but they were certainly not REH's true character. I told him I thought L.Sprague de Camp was too heavy an influence on the filmmakers. That comment was pejorative, I'm just not certain he understood that.

He told me he was introduced to Conan through de Camp's Conan series. I told him I was too. However, I then preceded to explain how I realized that de Camp did a wonderful job introducing reader's to Conan but a terrible job introducing readers to Conan's creator. He gave me an odd look (I think he was attempting to process what I sad), then he piped up and said, "de Camp's introductions in those books were wonderful." He then made the most ignorant anachronistic statement I have ever heard, "Howard even gave his approval of those introductions by de Camp."

I was so taken aback by the comment it tied me up for a few seconds in stunned silence. "That would be impossible," I replied, "since Howard had died decades before de Camp ever wrote those introductions." The guy's face went pale green. To avoid any further embarrassment I said, "The problem I have with de Camp's introductions is their futile attempt to psychoanalyze Howard. I have a real problem with those introductions in that they gave the reader the wrong impression of just who Howard actually was." He looked a little winded at this point but I continued. "I honestly think de Camp did far more damage to Robert E. Howard than he ever did to Howard's characters, though he certainly did not help there much either, unless you consider the amount of people who came to Howard's characters, especially Conan, through that de Camp series." I continued, "Outside of this, I really don't think de Camp was amicable to Howard's real history. However, I am glad you are aware of the Del Rey books - read those introductions and stories and you'll get the real Robert E. Howard, history and works." He nodded.

Now while I think this guy truly is a fan of Howard and his character Conan, it does pain me to see a fan that misinformed. I told him he ought to go to Howard Days and hear for himself a few purist Howard scholars and fans. However, I'm afraid by the look on his face after our discussion, Howard days might short circuit him. I'm rather mild compared to some of the other Howard fans and some of the Howard scholars out there.