Thursday, June 18, 2015

Robert E. Howard Days 2015: A Report by David Piske

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
Their disagreement grew more bitter over time, yet they both continued to include details about their lives in their letters. As Guenther quipped, if such a correspondence were held today, for example over social networking, it would likely end with someone being "unfriended"!

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
 In another panel, Louinet interviewed cousins of REH, Brad and Jeff Howard, and Brad's daughter, Amanda Howard-Williford. They seemed amused and bewildered by Louinet's (and Rob Roehm's) detailed knowledge of their family history, and expressed gratitude for the dedication of fans that have kept REH's legacy alive. Panel attendees were rapt as the Howards revealed a few family artifacts. Even Louinet had not seen the items beforehand. He inspected a first edition hardcover of the Breckinridge Elkins novel, A Gent from Bear Creek, and could not contain his glee as a family Bible, published in 1857, was revealed. Louinet personally inspected its hand-written genealogy pages, discovering the names and dates of birth/death of many members of the Howard family, including REH.

Mark Schultz & Rusty Burke
In one panel Rusty Burke interviewed guest of honor, Mark Schultz. And in another, the connections between the stories of REH and HPL were discussed (highlighting especially REH's horror stories, such as "The Black Stone"). On Friday the REH Foundation awarded several people for their achievements in Howard studies. Among the winners were Deke Parsons, Jeff Shanks, Rob Roehm, and Damon Sasser. (See here for a full list of awards and winners.) Also, the yearly post-banquet "panel", Fists at the Ice House, featured a somewhat avant-garde reading-in-the-round of various Howard writings by Shanks, Finn, and Chris Gruber. Each year, behind the taxidermy shop that now stands there, it is easy to picture the gritty scene after hours at the ice house, where rough men, including Howard, exchanged blows and settled scores.  

Fun at the Pavilion
While the panels are an obvious part of the attraction to Howard Days, it is impossible to downplay the satisfaction of interacting with fellow Howard Heads. It was my pleasure to make new acquaintances with folks like Scott (comic-book enthusiast), Russell (fellow connoisseur of Earl Grey tea), Chris (generous sharer of beer), James (fan of classic blues), and Aurelia (de facto poet laureate of this year's Howard Days). Though the absence of REH Days' Scottish contingent was felt, as well.

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
 Speaking of the barbecue, this year it was held on the museum grounds instead of at the usual spot at Caddo Peak Ranch. I believe the change in location was due to recent rainfall and the presence of poisonous snakes. I barely missed the sunset viewed from the peak, though. My attention was monopolized by the beef brisket smoked on-site by Cat & Barb Bq.

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
Aside from the activities of Howard Days, the trip to Cross Plains provided an opportunity for a geeky side adventure. On Sunday Todd and I followed in some of REH's steps, guided by Rob Roehm's well-researched Howard's Haunts. To begin, we visited the Howard family grave site at GreenleafCemetery in Brownwood, TX. Then, we drove to Menard County, TX and explored the various buildings and ruins of the old frontier outpost, Fort McKavett. We also visited the ruins of Presidio de San Sabá, an outpost established by the Spanish in 1757 to protect the nearby mission. Howard never documented a visit to this site, but because it is on the road to McKavett, it is hard to believe he did not stop at least briefly. Visiting these sites and absorbing the Texas countryside along the way feeds my historical imagination and gives me some insight into the way Howard's environment might have shaped him.

The Presidio de San Saba

Mark Finn, Jeff Shanks & Patrice Louinet
Cross Plains was part of REH, and it is also part of REH Days. And that's part of its appeal. Howard fans do not gather in a place like San Diego. Cross Plains, and thus Howard Days, is small and out of the way. It lends a sense that those who attend just "get it", that they are in on something that no one else is. I imagine many well-known conventions started out similarly. Yet sharing one's passion is part of being a fan, too, and I get the sense that even many long-time Howard Heads believe that REH has not gotten the attention befitting one of the three great pulp writers. Accordingly, the media projects of REH evangelists like Shanks, Finn, and Louinet aim at generating a fresh wave of interest. Cross Plains can never host enormous crowds, but as interest in Howard grows, I would like to see Howard Days serve as a rallying point for both veteran and beginning fans, even if it will involve some growing pains.

 I did not know of Robert E. Howard five years ago. As a Johnny-come-lately to this party, it is easy to feel like an outsider. Such is the experience of beginning anything worthwhile. But my adventure and education in the writings of Robert E. Howard are now linked to this annual pilgrimage to Cross Plains, TX. I know I will have conversations there that I do not have anywhere else. I also now have acquaintances there that I will miss the rest of the year, and want to see again. I expect the panels to continue to stimulate, perhaps as Howard's other characters are intentionally brought out of the shadows. No doubt the deals on books and swag is a plus, but they are outweighed by the sense of history that one feels while reading Howard's poetry on his porch, visiting the ruins that ignited his imagination, and standing on the boxing spot where he might have got the crap knocked out of him a time or two, and in turn knocked the crap out of others. And did I mention the barbecue?

". . . 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

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