One day five years ago my good friend, Todd Vick (the guy responsible for this venerable blog), said to me, "Hey, you wanna take a trip next month to Cross Plains to see the home of Robert E. Howard?" I am usually game for a trip out of town to see new sights (and sites). And I am a life-long geek for sci-fi and fantasy movies and TV shows (especially Star Trek). However, I read mostly nonfiction, so naturally I replied to Todd's question with a quizzical look. "The home of who?" Thus began my interest (and education), first in Conan, then in Robert E. Howard.
|The REH Days banner in front|
of the REH House & Museum
This past weekend was the third time I traveled with Todd to Cross Plains, TX for Robert E. Howard Days, and already I think this informal fan (mini-)convention is something special, with potential to become a much bigger deal. This year the informal theme of the gathering, which was fleshed out in two panels, was the relationship between Robert E. Howard and fellow pulp writer, H.P. Lovecraft. The guest of honor was Mark Schultz, an artist with a number of credits related to REH, including comics work with King Kull in Savage Sword of Conan, and illustrations in Conan the Cimmerian (by Wandering Star Books, and later reprinted in the Del Rey books). In addition to participating in a Q&A, Schultz delivered the keynote presentation at the banquet on Friday night, summarizing the history of REH-related illustrations with slides featuring the works of numerous artists including himself, Roy Krenkel, Jeffrey Jones, and (of course) Frank Frazetta.
|Panel: Conan Vs. Cathulhu|
Mark Finn, Jeffrey Shanks, & Scott Cupp
Like any convention, one of the biggest draws to REH Days is the panels. Or at least it should be, because the panels have improved every year I have attended, mostly due, I think, to sharpening topical focus. For me, the highlight was a panel on Saturday: "A Means of Freedom: The Letters of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft", which was about the complicated, and sometimes heated written correspondence between these two pulp titans. The panelists, Rusty Burke, Jonas Pridas, and Dierk Guenther spoke about the contours of the conversation the two writers carried on by mail from 1930 to 1936. For months I have been reading these letters, analyzing the rhetoric both men employed in their "controversy" about the relative merits of barbarism and civilization. So, naturally, I hung on every word. The panelists observed that REH developed his ideas about barbarism as he debated with Lovecraft, and that this development can be seen in the Conan stories he wrote during the course of this debate. The panel also observed how the two writers' correspondence differed from what we might expect from a similar argument today.
|Panel: A Means To Freedom: Letters of REH & HPL|
Rusty Burke, Jonas Pridas & Dierk Guenther
In the panel on "REH and Gaming," Patrice Louinet, Jeffrey Shanks, and Mark Finn discussed the ongoing development of two different games. Louinet brings his attention to detail and a purist's zeal to a Conan board game being produced by Monolith Board Games. With his role in the production, he gets the final word on what characters and story details are included in the game and how they will look. Anticipation for this game is tangible. At the start of the game's Kickstarter campaign the goal was $80,000, but supporters soon blew the top off, raising a total of $3.3 million. Role playing fans also have something to look forward to. Shanks (as well as Finn and Louinet) are involved in the development of an RPG by Modiphius Entertainment called, Robert E. Howard's Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. The game and its expansions will offer players adventures that are truer to Howard's stories than many previous adaptations of Conan. Players who got to sit down for a game test (in the living room of the Howard home) attest to its flexible game play.
|The Howard Family Bible|
Brad Howard, Amanda Howard-Williford,
Patrice, & Jeff Howard
|Mark Schultz & Rusty Burke|
|Fun at the Pavilion|
It was also a treat to talk with Howard experts. Patrice Louinet exuded passion for REH and gratitude to Glen Lord when he spoke of the origin of his own interest in Howard. He also opined on how L. Sprague de Camp did not really rescue Conan from obscurity; given an opportunity, Donald Wollheim would have done much more for Conan's fame. And Louinet called attention to something not all REH fans have come to terms with: that Conan is an asshole. While he is compelling, a thinker, and multi-faceted, Conan's acts included attempted rape and the slaughter of innocents. Frank Coffman offered perspective on contradictions that appear in REH's ideas about barbarism, noting that Conan is a complex of characters, rather than a single, coherent character. He also suggested a source of inspiration to Howard: G.K. Chesterton, especially his "The Ballad of the White Horse." And in talking with Mark Finn at the outdoor barbecue I found affinity in our overlapping taste in beer and appreciation for art.
|Cat & Barb Bq|
Photo courtesy of Rob Roehm
As I would at any convention, I hunted down new additions to my collection. Opportunities to part from my money abounded; between the museum's gift shop, the swap meet, and the silent auction, it's a wonder how I will still pay my bills this month. I was outbid at the auction, yet even on my modest budget I came away with some new volumes for my Howard library. I still await a reissue of The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, but Paul Hermon explained that the release of an expanded second edition is being held up by licensing issues. One of the collectibles I will prize most from this weekend is the one I spent the least on. I will display on my bookcase the postcards that were stamped at the Cross Plains post office with a postal cancellation mark (specially designed for this year's Howard Days by Mark Schultz).
|REH Gravesite at Greenleaf|
|The Presidio de San Saba|
|Mark Finn, Jeff Shanks & Patrice Louinet|
". . . if you come to visit me, I will do my best to entertain you. I certainly hope you will come."
—Robert E. Howard to Tevis Clyde Smith