Monday, August 31, 2015

Necronomicon 2015: A Trip Report by Scott Valeri

I was fortunate to attend Necronomicon 2015 as my personal stars aligned with the dates of the convention: Thursday 8/20/15 ( HPL’s 125th birthday) to Sunday 8/23/15.  The FB promotions for the event were too tantalizing to resist, although I had some trepidation in having no idea what the experience would be like. I have gone to Howard Days and a hometown comic book convention on a regular basis but Necronomicon promised to be somewhat odder or unusual, at least in my imagination. After all it was HPL’s 125th birthday and these guys celebrate Cthulhu and other Lovecraftian Old Ones. They even have a Cthulhu prayer breakfast on Sunday! I hoped they had some idea of the forces they might be unleashing. No one wants to be at ground zero of the Cthulhu Apocalypse. So I approached it a little like the opening of the Large Hadron Collider, where scientists were pretty certain they were not going to generate a giant Galaxy devouring Black Hole, but … not 100% certain. However, I knew Howardians would be there as Rusty Burke, Jeff Shanks and Mark Finn were manning an REH Foundation table in the Dealers Hall. So there was  barbarian backup if needed.

My travel plans immediately hit a snag as weather cancelled my 8:30 PM Wednesday night flight and I could not get on another until 8:40 PM Thursday night. I would miss the opening ceremonies at the First Baptist Church which fortunately can be seen on You Tube where guests of honor Leslie Klinger (The Annotated Lovecraft) , Ramsey Campbell (World Fantasy Life Achievement Award winner), and Robert M Price (writer, scholar, and anthologist) all gave speeches. Flying into Providence late Thursday night the pilot announced that we should not worry about the cloud banks on either side of the plane that were putting on a lightning show as we were flying in a ‘clear’ corridor between them. Very reassuring.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Mirror of E’ch-Pi-El: Robert E. Howard in the Letters of H. P. Lovecraft (Part 1) by Bobby Derie

Today, it is easy to know about the friendship of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Their correspondence is collected in the two-volume set A Means to Freedom (with some partial drafts in the Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard - Index and Addenda), and these letters provide fans and scholars with considerable insight into both men, their travels, philosophies, and arguments written out in their own words. Taken as a whole, the thousand pages of AMTF represents a literary achievement at least the equal to any of their fiction. Yet it is not quite the whole story.

A postcard from H.P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith,
ca December 1933.
Lovecraft epistles (both letters and postcards) numbered in the tens of thousands. Several mentioned Robert E. Howard, or his work. Ranging from brief snippets to full pages of text, these references to and about Howard informed Lovecraft’s audience and helped shape their vision of the man from Cross Plains. Since none except E. Hoffmann Price met Two-Gun Bob in person, and relatively few corresponded with him on their own, these comments from Lovecraft likely formed the only picture they had of “Brother Conan,” outside of his fiction.

The earliest references to Howard in Lovecraft’s published letters date before the two men began writing to one another, noting the “The Skull in the Stars” (ES1.176),  “The Shadow Kingdom” (ES1.200), and “Skull-Face” (ES1.243) as stand out pieces at Weird Tales, with Lovecraft praising Howard to editor Farnsworth Wright (LA8.22). Lovecraft later recalled the beginning of their correspondence:

I first became conscious of him as a coming leader just a decade ago—when (on a bench in Prospect Park, Brooklyn) I read Wolfshead. I had read his two previous short tales with pleasure, but without especially noting the author. Now—in ‘26—I saw that W.T. had landed a new big-timer of the CAS and EHP calibre. Nor was I ever disappointed in the zestful and vigorous newcomer. He made good—and how! Much as I admired him, I had no correspondence with him till 1930—for I was never a guy to butt in on people. In that year he read the reprint of my Rats in the Walls and instantly spotted the bit of harmless fakery whereby I lifted a Celtic phrase (for use as an atavistic exclamation) from a footnote to an old classic—The Sin-Eater, by Fiona McLeod (William Sharp). He didn’t realise the source of the phrase, but his sharp eye for Celtic antiquities told him it didn’t quite fit—being a Gaelic (not Cymric) expression assigned to a South British locale. I myself don’t know a word of any Celtic tongue, and never fancied anybody could spot the incongruity. Too charitable to suspect me of ignorant appropriation, he came to the conclusion that I followed a now-discredited theory whereby the Gaels were supposed to have preceded the Cymri in England—and wrote Satrap Pharnabazus a long and scholarly letter on the subject. Farny passed this on to me—and I couldn’t rest easy until I had set the author right. Hence I dropped REH a line confessing my ignorance and telling him that I had merely picked a phrase with the right meaning from a note to a Scottish story while perfectly well aware that the language of Celtic South-Britain was really somewhat different. I could not resist adding some incidental praise of his work—echoing remarks previously made in the Eyrie. Well—he replied at length, and the result was a bulky correspondence which throve from that day to this. I value that correspondence as one of the most broadening and sharpening influences in my later years. (SL5.277, cf. SL5.181)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Remembering H.P. Lovecraft on the 125th Anniversary of His Birth

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937) born in Providence, RI on August 20th, 1890, was a a prolific author, poet, essayist, and epistolarian during his relatively short life-span. While Lovecraft was popular within the writing and reading circles of the magazines in which he published, he gained greater fame and respect posthumously. And while this fame and respect took decades to achieve, it was, nonetheless, well deserved. In 2005 the Library of America published a collection of his works: Tales, edited by Peter Straub. His work has also been included in countless compilations and academic anthologies.

While Lovecraft is predominantly known as one of the members of the Triumvirate of Weird Tales (along with Clark Ashton Smith & Robert E. Howard), and it is there that his most popular stories were originally published, he also wrote dozens of poems and hundreds of essays throughout his writing career. S.T. Joshi edited a nice five volume set of these essays. But, more than any other thing, Lovecraft was a prolific writer of letters. His correspondence is so large it actually fills dozens of volumes already published.

H.P. Lovecraft by Virgil Finlay
Aside from all of Lovecraft’s stories, poems, essays, and letters, it seems that various aspects of his writings and life sank their teeth deep into the past and current culture. If you are adventurous enough you can find movie lists based on Lovecraft’s workA number of biographies (Joshi’s obviously being the definitive one), Cthulhu stuffed animals, models, statues, artwork, etc., tons of t-shirts, and other various paraphernalia. There have also been several documentaries made about Lovecraft and his career. But, more than anywhere else, Lovecraft’s influence extended quite deeply into the world of writers who were not only contemporaries of him, but also followed in his footsteps for many decades after his death. Writers like Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, E. Hoffman Price, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, William S. Burroughs, Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Alan Moore, Joe R. Lansdale, Brian Lumley, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, etc. used Lovecraftian elements in some of their stories.

In the arena of comic books, Mike Mignola and Simon Bisley have declared that Lovecraft had a major influence on their work. In film, John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon and especially Guillermo Del Toro have all cited Lovecraft as an influence.

I’m not going to be able to say anything about H.P. Lovecraft that has not already been said many times before. So, if you have not read his stories, his letters, his poetry or his essays, then I certainly encourage you to do so. Below, I will provide a brief bibliography of his works for further reading and research. Feel free to list any others in the comments section of this post you would also recommend and . . .

Happy 125th , Mr. Lovecraft!

For further reading and research:

Books (Not in any particular order)

Lovecraft, H. P. H.P. Lovecraft Letters to Robert Bloch and Others. Ed. David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi. New York: Hippocampus, 2015. Print.

Lovecraft, Howard P. Collected Essays Volume 5: Philosophy. Autobiography and Miscellany. Ed. S. T. Joshi. New York, NY: Hippocampus, 2006. Print.

Joshi, S. T. I Am Providence: The Life and times of H.P. Lovecraft. Vol. 1-2. New York: Hippocampus, 2013. Print.

Lovecraft, H. P. H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2011. Print.

Lovecraft, H. P., and August Derleth. Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth, Volume 1-2. Ed. David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi. New York: Hippocampus, 2013. Print.

Lovecraft, H. P., and Robert E. Howard. A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Ed. S. T. Joshi, David E. Schultz, and Rusty Burke. Vol. 1-2. New York, NY: Hippocampus, 2011. Print.


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Barbarism and Civilization in the Letters of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft: A Summary with Commentary (Part 1), by David Piske

The 2015 Cross Plains Postal Cancellation
artwork by Mark Schultz

Like most others, my first taste of Robert E. Howard’s writing was his Conan stories. A prominent theme in these works is the tension between Conan and the city. It helped define the character and fuel conflict, I thought little else of it. But during my second visit to REH Days in 2014 I learned of the debate between Howard and H.P. Lovecraft on barbarism and civilization. The topic immediately became my hook, drawing me deeper into the study of Howard.

My initial bias was against Howard. How could anyone defend barbarism? Not that I believe that our present civilization is all it is made out to be by some. But I enjoy the relative safety of my domicile provided by the rule of law. And I am happy to have access to medicines and treatments that are the result of vigorous scientific study. Neither of these, nor many other benefits, could exist without at least some degree of civilization. Though Howard never knew the mad joys of smartphones, the addictive buzz of social media, or the rush of illegally downloading the latest episode of Game of Thrones, I could not believe that he would suggest throwing away the other benefits of civilization, especially in favor of subsistence living and constant threat of physical violence. I had to know more.

My first step involved haranguing other fans and some experts at REH Days. Based on responses my impression was that everyone knew of the debate, many had actually read it, but few had anything like an analysis of it. The most memorable response I received about the written debate was, "It was all just bullshit." Unsatisfied, I resolved to read the debate and assess the merits of the arguments myself. The following reflects my attempt to do that. My primary source is A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, edited by S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz, and Rusty Burke. I will attempt to provide context as I proceed through the debate, but anyone wishing to follow along would be well-served by having this two volume set handy.

It is well known that REH initially wrote to HPL in June 1930. HPL responded, and the  correspondence continued until REH’s suicide in June 1936. Many of their letters were quite long, and the topics of conversation were wide ranging, spanning months and sometimes years. My focus in this project is on the portions of the letters that specifically deal with the debate. In all but the earliest letters in the debate the subject is clearly introduced with a statement like, "as for barbarism versus civilization." Unless otherwise noted I confine my attention to these.

REH and HPL frequently discussed history, especially the fates of ancient civilizations and the circumstances around them. But not until two years after they began corresponding did these ruminations coalesce into a conversation about barbarism versus civilization. As the conversation continues the controversy intensifies. A likely cause for this is that neither of them define their primary terms. When they refer to "barbarism" they generally connote something primitive, but the specific meaning varies. In one place it refers to the animalistic or aggressive inclinations in humans. In another context it means lawlessness, either the actual absence of law, or behaving against the law. At other times they intend the term to mean a primitive social order. The term "civilization" is similarly multifaceted. Remembering this will be helpful in understanding the arguments in the debate, especially in the later letters.

Letter 60: REH to HPL (August 9, 1932)

In the letters leading up to the beginning of their specific conversation about barbarism versus civilization, HPL comments at length many times on various aspects of the classical worlds of Rome and Greece. REH repeatedly responds with polite interest, thanking HPL for the education, though admitting only minor interest. His real interests lie with the barbarians. Yet HPL persists many times in continuing to praise classical civilization, even at times expressing a plainly derogatory attitude toward the subjects of REH's interests. Two months before their "debate" begins, HPL characterized the Dark Ages, one of REH’s favorite historical periods, as "ignorant barbarism" (307). It was only a matter of time before their diverging attitudes clashed.

REH, posing as
Conan the Conqueror.
Cross Plains, TX ca. 1933
Photo by E. Hoffman Price
REH's response, in August 1932, is the point where the well-known conversation begins to solidify. The response is similar to previous ones, except this time REH is more specific and emphatic. He explains why he does not hold great interest in Roman history (with the exception of the early Republic, which REH described as a "a struggling tribal-state"):
"I am unable to rouse much interest in any highly civilized race, country or epoch, including this one. When a race – almost any race – is emerging from barbarism, or not yet emerged, they hold my interest. I can seem to understand them, and to write intelligently of them. But as they progress toward civilization, my grip on them begins to weaken, until at last it vanishes entirely, and I find their ways and thoughts and ambitions perfectly alien and baffling." (338)
At best, he can maintain interest in a race yet emerging from barbarism, but the farther they get from that primitive state, the weaker his interest becomes. Clearly this more specific explanation perturbs HPL, for after this, he finally seems to get the point.

Letter 61: HPL to REH (August 16, 1932)

HPL acknowledges his and REH's diverging historical interests, and suggests that the cause is their own early environments. For his own part, HPL states: "Greece and Rome are prime realities because they had the same general problems and attitudes which the settled nations of modernity have" (359). The similarity he refers to is developmental. Each of these societies advanced beyond the early stages by securing basic material and defensive needs, which allowed their minds to develop in new ways:
"Important brain areas – such as those connected with pure intellectual curiosity and with the finer nuances of rhythm and coordination – which had been necessarily underdeveloped in the peril-beset barbarian, began to expand and enrich life among the people who had reached a stage of relatively stable adjustment to nature and to the problem of group-defence" (359).
To HPL, the trajectory of development itself teaches us which stage is to be preferred. The "few simple motives and pleasures" of more primitive man represents "only a small fraction of his heritage as a highly evolved primate," especially compared to civilized man's "infinitely vaster variety of stimuli and rewards which accrued from a more all-around development of his capacities" (359). Indeed, HPL cannot fathom "why the half-life of barbarism is preferable to the full, mentally active, and beauty-filled life typical of the age of Pericles in Greece or . . . the age of the Antonines in Rome or . . . in pre-war England and France" (359). Though one wonders why HPL seems so affronted by REH’s merely personal preference for barbarism to mount such a crushing attack on it.

The only merit of which barbarism might boast is its "simple ruggedness" and "spirit of physical struggle." But to regard this as a primary value is only appropriate during the early stages of society's development when it is concerned primarily with survival. In a society that has advanced up the "scale of humanity" physical strength is regarded in equal proportion to other qualities (like reason). For this reason "a vigorous, intellectual, and orderly civilization at its zenith . . . is about the best system under which a man can live" (359). But HPL admits that as a society declines it may loose its esteem for "physical prowess" to such an extent that it is threatened. Only in this state of decadence might we understand the nostalgic look back to "a primal barbarian age when the lost quality was in its fullest flower" (359).

HPL at Van Wickle Gates
Providence, RI ca. 1933 (?)
At this point HPL seems like he is about to conclude his comments on this topic: "Accordingly I can't feel any great kinship with barbaric tribes, even when they happen to be my blood ancestors" (360). This echoes his introduction of the topic on the previous page in which he reports a natural interest in civilizations like Greece and Rome. It also parallel’s REH’s statement in his previous letters about how civilized societies are alien to him. Perhaps writing the next line triggered a tangential line of thinking for HPL: "As I told you once, my sense of personal identification leaves the English race when I go back to the period of early Saxon England – skipping over to Rome and causing me to view all antiquity through instinctively Roman eyes. . ." (360). 

HPL expounds on this subject for a page and a half (as they appear in the published volume). First he writes for more than twenty lines repeating, detailing, and emphasizing his identification with Rome and the "strangeness" of barbarism to him, both in general, and that of his own Germanic ancestors. Finally he distills a general principle: 
"[B]lood is thicker than water only up to a certain point. At all times, the force of cultural environment . . . is a potent competitor of biological instinct; so that when the two are opposed, it is hard to say which will win the tug-of-war." 
He mentions two possible contingencies that could interfere with the force of assimilation (one of which is a plainly racist assumption), and then illustrates the principle with the Romanization of the Gauls. A once defeated people can become so assimilated into it's host culture as to view its own history from the perspective of their adopted identity. 

This phenomenon of cultural assimilation is not directly relevant to HPL’s argument for the superiority of civilization over barbarism, and yet he writes nearly twice as much about it as he does to present his argument. As such it is unclear what HPL’s intention was in proceeding at such length. Verbosity is characteristic of his letters, so perhaps we should not be surprised. Perhaps also HPL feels the need to justify what he might otherwise consider betrayal of his own race (i.e., a descendant of Saxon England claiming identity with Rome).

When HPL finally concludes by reestablishing common ground with REH, saying that while he does not identify with barbarians personally, he does take an objective interest in them. And while he does not understand them, he admires them. And when they are contrasted with decadent societies, he actually takes the barbarians’ side (361).

Letter 65: REH to HPL (received September 22, 1932)

REH's response on the topic comprises only three paragraphs in a much longer letter. Here he doesn't directly refute anything in HPL’s letter. Rather, he seems to leverage HPL’s argument (tangential as it was) against him; he uses the idea of assimilation to an environment to subvert HPL’s boast about civilization’s superiority.

First, REH agrees with HPL on the relative strength of "cultural environment" over "blood heritage." He offers the Americanization of second and third generation immigrants as further example of the principle. Then he proposes a hypothetical scenario in which he is suddenly transported back in time with an option of living where he wished:
"I would naturally select the most civilized country possible. That would be necessary, for I have always led a peaceful, sheltered life, and would be unable to cope with conditions of barbarism. Thus, for my own safety, I would select Egypt rather than Syria, to which otherwise my instincts would lead me. . ." (377).
With this hypothetical, REH strengthens HPL’s comments about the force of cultural environment. Despite his own preference for barbarism, REH recognizes the effect of living in relatively nonbarbaric circumstances: he is ill-suited to survive in a much more primitive environment.

REH then expresses his truest preference with a more fanciful hypothetical. Given the chance to be born in an earlier time, with no memory of this life, he would choose to be a barbarian, "to grow up hard and lean and wolfish, worshiping barbarian gods and living the hard barren life of a barbarian" (377). This scenario is obviously unrealizable (and self-defeating, as HPL will imply later), but REH uses it as a springboard to his argument.

He says that primitive life is hard and barren only by comparison. Knowing no other condition, a barbarian does not suffer under his circumstances as a modern person doubtlessly would under the same situation, and actually finds contentment unknown to moderns. As evidence, REH appeals to conversations he has had with "old pioneers." They endured hardships that would kill many moderns, but REH claims that they all report that pioneering is a "fuller, more vital" and more content life, as compared to "this newer phase" (377). Therefore, "To a man of intellectual accomplishments the life of a frontiersman would be intolerable; but to a man who has never known anything else, such a life would be full of vital interest" (377).

In other words, assimilation to a particular set of conditions cuts both ways. A civilized man would not be able to adjust to barbarism, but this is not an argument against it, for a pioneer cannot adjust to civilization, either. By posing this equivalence, REH cleverly uses the concept introduced by HPL to argue against him (though the point itself makes several assumptions which could be debated). Further, REH’s argument is not formal, but it is structured. Starting with a hypothetical, he then makes a claim, offers evidence, and then concludes by roughly reiterating the claim. Despite not being highly educated, REH presents himself here as a shrewd intellect that HPL would be wise not to underestimate.

Barbarie vs. Civilisation
Hand drawn poster ca. 1900

Letter 67: HPL to REH (October 3, 1932) 

HPL’s response is briefer than both his previous entry and REH's last contribution. He introduces the topic as "the relative merits of barbarous and civilised life" (401). Clearly he has interpreted this discussion differently than the apparent intent of REH’s claims, and views this as a debate, though this letter does not represent a strong defense.

He reiterates (with some contingency) his position: "the odds may be in favour of civilisation for those who utilise its advantages to the full" (401). But he claims this description does not fit the pioneers that REH mentioned in his last letter. As they moved into a more urban way of life, the pioneers probably never experienced its full benefits:
"The transition is apt to come a trifle too late in the history of the individual to permit him to extract the most good from the intellectual and aesthetic advantages of civilisation. Therefore, the thing he weighs unfavourably against his old pioneer existence is by no means civilisation at its best" (401).
This would be a good point if REH had used the testimony of pioneers to condemn civilization. But as noted, it is more likely REH used the pioneers to demonstrate that a person can be just as content in a barbaric setting as another person can be in a civilized one. Apparently, to HPL, claiming any kind of equivalence between barbarism and civilization is an affront to the superiority of civilization, which must be rebuffed. This echoes his reaction to REH’s initial statement of personal preference for barbarism.

Even less valid is the swipe HPL takes at the pioneers: "there is always a tendency to exalt the conditions of one's own youth" (401). Here HPL is quick to identify the bias of nostalgia in the pioneers, but fails to recognize it in his own preference for civilization.

Appearing to concede somewhat to REH, HPL says that barbarism and civilization both have their merits, and that personal preference for one or the other naturally vary. But just as before, he follows by reiterating the claim from his last letter: "Yet I think certain types of civilisation add much more to life, than they subtract from it" (401). If he believes what he says about the role of personal preference, it is difficult to understand why he is so animated about proving civilization’s superiority. It seems more like a merely superficial demonstration of fair-mindedness. Also the phrase, " certain types of civilisation" qualifies his statement so much as to be almost unfalsifiable.

The last few lines do little to strengthen HPL’s already shaky case. They seem like half attempts to maintain his position without actually arguing or giving any evidence. And he  concedes to a moderated version of one of REH’s points, as if to show fairness. He notes that some literature conveys an overly flattering view of the barbaric life, concealing flaws which we might not even suspect. And yet, he agrees that some individuals would be more happy under barbarism than under the conditions of a decadent civilization past its peak (401-2). He then ends simply: "The whole question is a complex and baffling one, and perhaps no conclusive answer is possible" (402). Here it seems HPL is willing to bring this topic to an end, being at a somewhat subjective impasse, yet poorly pretending to have the upper hand. It seems that he has indeed underestimated REH and as a result come up with a weak hand.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Clark Ashton Smith: January 13, 1893—August 14, 1961

 54 years ago today, Clark Ashton Smith died. Part of what is called the "Triumvirate" of Weird Tales writers (which also includes Robert E. Howard & H.P. Lovecraft), Smith left a legacy of excellent poetry and stories. In Memoriam, here are a few samples of his work along with a few quotes . . .

“Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-colored sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizons infinite.”

From The Last Oblivion: Best Fantastic Poetry of Clark Ashton Smith

“To me, the best, if not the only function of imaginative writing, is to lead the human imagination outward, to take it into the vast external cosmos, and away from all that introversion and introspection, that morbidly exaggerated prying into one's own vitals—and the vitals of others—which Robinson Jeffers has so aptly symbolized as "incest." What we need is less "human interest," in the narrow sense of the term—not more. Physiological—and even psychological analysis—can be largely left to the writers of scientific monographs on such themes. Fiction, as I see it, is not the place for that sort of grubbing.”

"In his bleak mercy, Death forever strips The soul of light and memory, rendering blind Our vision, lest surmounted deeps appal, As when on mountain-heights a glance behind Betrays with knowledge, and the climber slips Down gulfs of fear to some enormous fall." from The Unremembered

“Not as the plants and flowers of Earth, growing peacefully beneath a simple sun, were the blossoms of the planet Lophai. Coiling and uncoiling in double dawns; tossing tumultuously under vast suns of jade green and balas-ruby orange; swaying and weltering in rich twilights, in aurora-curtained nights, they resembled fields of rooted serpents that dance eternally to an other-worldly music.”― from Lost Worlds

Below is a letter from Robert E. Howard to Clark Ashton Smith postmarked March 15, 1933, thanking Smith for a story and lamenting about the demise of Strange Tales magazine:

Dear Mr. Smith:

I hardly know how to thank you for the copy of The Double Shadow. I have read the stories with the most intense interest and appreciation, and hardly know which I like the best. All are magnificent, splendid examples of that poetic prose which is so characteristic of your work. I envy you your rich and vivid style.

It was a pity that Strange Tales went out of circulation, and I am sorry that the magazine's demise left so many of your stories unpublished. They had only one of my yarns when they quit. However, I sold them only three stories, altogether.

I am very glad that you have found the Conan series of interest, and appreciate very much the kind things you said about the yarns. I shall look forward with eager anticipation for "The Dark Eidolon" and the other stories you mentioned to be published in Weird Tales. Incidentally, your story in the current Weird Tales is splendid.

I am enclosing a check for Ebony and Crystal and would feel most honored if you would write your autograph on the fly page.

Thanking you again for the magnificent Double Shadow, I am,

Most cordially yours,


Here's another letter to Smith from REH dated July 23, 1935 . . .

Dear Mr. Smith:

I'm ashamed of my long delay in answering your letter, but I assure you it was from no lack of interest. Since writing you last a number of things have combined to interfere with my correspondence: a month I was forced to spend in East Texas, during time I did no writing of any kind; a journey to Santa Fe, New Mexico; and a number of shorter trips to various points in West Texas, and the necessity of catching up on my fiction work which accumulated during the time spent on these trips, all caused me to get away behind on my letter-writing.

But I have, as always, followed your work in Weird Tales. I very much enjoyed "Dark Eidolon", "The Last Hieroglyph", "The Flower Women", and the splendid poem: "Dominion". I am not exaggerating when I say that I do not consider that I ever read a finer poem than that. I'd give my trigger-finger for the ability to make words flame and burn as you do.

I've been concentrating on adventure stuff recently, trying to break into that field permanently. I've made a start, with yarns published in Action, Thrilling Adventures, and Top-Notch; got a couple of covers designs in a row with Top-Notch and am toiling manfully to become a regular contributor. Sent a three-part serial to Wright yesterday: "Red Nails", which I devoutly hope he'll like. A Conan yarn, and the grimmest, bloodiest and most merciless story of the series so far. Too much raw meat, maybe, but I merely portrayed what I honestly believe would be the reactions of certain types of people in the situations on which the plot of the story hung. It may sound fantastic to link the term "realism" with Conan; but as a matter of fact - his supernatural adventures aside--he is the most realistic character I ever evolved. He is simply a combination of a number of men I have known, and I think that's why he seemed to step full-grown into my consciousness when I wrote the first yarn of the series. Some mechanism in my sub-consciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prizefighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian.

Lovecraft tells you are doing some impressive work in carving, using dinosaur bone; I envy you your splendid variety of talent--artist, poet, author, and now sculptor.

With best wishes.


Robert E. Howard


Sunday, August 9, 2015

REH and Callahan County by Damon C. Sasser

Robert E. Howard wrote the following in a February 1933 letter to August Derleth:

Whether the history of Callahan County will ever be written is doubtful. At least, I’m far too lazy to do the work necessary, though in a way it would be easier than writing the history of Brown, since it was settled at a later date, and more sparsely. At the same time, records of early settlement are not so plentiful. If I ever write any chronicle of the County, it will deal only with the time beginning at the date on which I came here. What with oil booms and the like, its history during that time has not been tame, though undoubtedly lacking the general interest of the early frontier days.

Of course Howard could not foresee the advent of the Information Age and the invention of the Internet, which made the history of everything, including Callahan County, easily accessible to everyone. You can throw a dart at a county map of Texas and no matter which county the dart’s point hits, odds are that county is going to have a violent and storied past. Such is the case of Howard’s home county of Callahan.

Callahan County Courthouse ca 1900-1929
Callahan County was established in 1858 from parts of Bexar, Bosque, and Travis Counties. Those counties covered huge areas of Texas in the early to mid-1800s and were divided up into smaller counties, allowing locals more governmental control over the area they lived in. The new county was named for James Hughes Callahan, a survivor of the Goliad Massacre and leader of the Callahan Expedition. But hardly anyone was interested in settling this isolated region for the first eighteen years of its existence. This was due to the fact that the Comanche Indians roamed the rolling plains region of Central Texas where Callahan County is situated.

There were numerous clashes between the early settlers and the local Indian tribes and Howard recounted some of these battles in his letters. Here is a real life account of the Sipe Springs Indian incidents, as told by Miss Carrie Childress:

Captain M.W Hall organized a company of Minute Men in 1873 for protection of the settlers against the Indians. In 1873 the Indians drove off the horses of a ranching operation owned by a Mr. Justice and (Cal) Watkins on the Sabano.  A man by the name of Gass Evans notified the company and they followed the Indians into Callahan County and recovered the horses. The last Indian raid was made in 1874, when the Indians killed Bob Leslie on Rush Creek. In leaving the country they touch[ed] the point where the house now stands on the old Tom Hale place east of town and swung into the north and west. A few earlier raids had been made in the early part of January 1870, the Indians raiding the Schmick and Follis ranch, and driving off the horses; Bill McGuire, the only man on the ranch who had been left to protect the women and children shot at the Indians but they made their get-away with their horses.

The Comanches remained a threat well into the 1870’s when a contingent of troops under the command of Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie defeated the Comanches at Palo Duro Canyon in 1874, which was to be the last battle in the Texas Indian Wars. The few remaining hostile Indians were driven away later that same year by William J. Maltby commanding Company E of the Frontier Battalion of the Texas Rangers.

After the end of the Indian wars, more and more settlers moved into the area – part of the ceaseless westward expansion. Gradually, the string of forts manned by the US Army that threaded south to north across the West Texas Plains were abandoned one after the other until the last one lowered its flag in 1891.

Map of Callahan County
 In 1877, the County was formally organized and the Callahan County Commissioners Court held an election in December to name the county seat. The town of Belle Plain was in the running and so was the temporary county seat, Callahan City; no doubt so named with hopes of becoming the permanent county seat. But the name advantage did little good – when the votes were counted, Callahan City lost its county seat status to Belle Plain. This sentenced Callahan City to a slow death. But as it turned out, Belle Plain only got a brief reprieve from that same fate.

Stations for the new Texas and Pacific Railway line were being built from Dallas to El Paso, with stops planned for Putnam, Baird, and Clyde – small settlements which quickly developed into towns. The railroad had completely bypassed Belle Plain six miles to the north. In January of 1883, an election resulted in Baird being made the new county seat. The effect of this outcome led to Belle Plain’s stone jail and most of the residences being moved to Baird, leaving only a handful of families in the dying town.
Texas farming ca 1890s
During period from the 1880s until the early 1900s, farming and ranching were the mainstays of the County. Corn, wheat, oats and cotton were the primary agriculture crops, while beef cattle accounted for the majority of the ranching, with some sheep being a commodity during the decade from 1880 to 1890. The population grew from 8,768 in 1900 to 12,973 in 1910. The pace of growth slowed after 1910 and started to decline by the mid-teens. The number of citizens in Callahan County fell to 11,844 by the time the Howards arrived in Cross Plains in 1919. The Texas Central Railroad had only come to Cross Plains seven years before the Howards bought a house and settled down. After the railway was built, the town became a major trading center for cotton and other crops.

The agriculture boom that Callahan County enjoyed had its price. Increased demand for land caused the price of real estate to rise. As a result of this, a lot of newcomers could not afford to buy land and this led to an increased number of tenant farmers. By 1920 nearly half the farmers (823 of 1,649) were tenants. The majority of these were sharecroppers who were permitted by landowners to farm the land and collected only a share of the harvest as payment for their efforts. While most sharecroppers in the state were African American, the reverse was true in Callahan County – all but one of the tenants was white.

Eventually, overgrazing, drought, soil erosion, and a shortage of potable water took its toll on ranching and farming in the county. This led to several conservation programs being established.

The decline in agriculture was somewhat offset by the discovery of oil in Callahan County and adjacent counties in 1923. A number of promising fields were found in Cross Plains, Pioneer, Cross Cut, and Blake, and by the late 1920s the oil business was booming bigtime. The oil and gas revenues generated from the production from the numerous wells in the area made it easier for some landowners to survive the economic slump of the 1930s and even made a few large landowners quite wealthy.

Like all Texas oil boom towns of that era, the oil fields in and around Callahan County were flooded with land speculators, oilmen, roughnecks, prospectors, panhandlers and fortune seekers. Those in turn drew in a seedier element of society, including card-sharks, prostitutes, bootleggers and drug dealers. Here, in a December 1930 letter to H.P. Lovecraft, Howard expresses his disdain for what his town and county became during the boom years:

You’re right about oil booms — they bring a lot of money into the country and take more out, as well as ruining the country for other purposes. This might offend men in the oil business, but it’s the truth that I’ve seen more young people sent to the Devil through the debauching effects of an oil boom than all the other reasons put together. I know; I was a kid in a boom town myself. The average child of ten or twelve who’s lived through a boom or so, knows more vileness and bestial sinfulness than a man of thirty should know — whether he — or she — practice what they know or not. Glamor and filth! That’s an oil boom. When I was a kid I worked in the tailoring business just as one terrific boom was dwindling out, and harlots used to give me dresses to be cleaned — sometimes they’d be in a mess from the wearer having been drunk and in the gutter. Beautiful silk and lace, delicate of texture and workmanship, but disgustingly soiled — such dresses always symbolized boom days and nights, to me — shimmering, tantalizing, alluring things, bright as dreams, but stained with nameless filth.

An oil well in Cisco ca. 1920s
Howard made other references to the ills brought about by an oil boom, but this one in particular stands out. While the county prospered when the oil was flowing, once it stopped everyone who came seeking their fortune moved on leaving the permanent residents of Callahan County to clean up the “nameless filth” they left behind.

With the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, many of the county's farmers, both tenants and owners experienced hard times and were heavily indebted. A combination of falling agricultural prices coupled with a boll weevil outbreak caused most banks to cease extending additional credit to the struggling farmers, forcing many of them off the land they owned or sharecropped.

By the end of 1936, the year Howard died, things were turning around for Callahan County and the rest of the nation as it slowly started climbing out of the depths of the Great Depression. While Howard had no interest in writing the history of his county, he did have a strong desire to write a great novel of his beloved Texas, a desire that went unfulfilled.

About Damon Sasser:

Damon Sasser has been a staple in Robert E. Howard fandom and REH Studies for four decades. He is the founder of REH: Two-Gun Raconteur website and journal. Sasser is a member of The Robert E. Howard United Press Association (REHupa) and has written countless articles for various fanzines and journals.

Sasser also has a nice Facebook Page for both the TGR website and journal. Be sure and check it out and "like" the page. You will not only get updates about articles posted on TGR but other tid-bits of great information on REH, H.P. Lovecraft, pulp zines, and what is circulating around the REH scholarly network.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Writer, A Saloon, and A Famous Town: Robert E. Howard in Lincoln, NM by Todd B. Vick

On June 19th of 1935 Robert E. Howard and his good friend Truett Vinson set off on a road trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. During that same trip they visited the historic town of Lincoln, New Mexico. Howard had always been fascinated with Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County Wars, so when Truett needed to take a trip to Santa Fe, Howard certainly took the opportunity to go with him. Fortunately, for us today, Howard detailed this trip in a letter to his long-time correspondent and fellow writer friend, H.P. Lovecraft.

I can’t help but wonder if Howard plotted this trip in such a way that passing through Lincoln on their journey to Santa Fe would be inevitable. According to Howard, the day he and Vinson left, they drove over 500 miles and made it all the way to Roswell, NM. About that town Howard declares, “Roswell is a neat, spotless modern town, with the usual streams of tourists pouring through continually.” (Howard  3: 344) The next morning they loaded up the car and made their way into Lincoln.

The Old Courthouse (Murphy's Shop) ca 1930s
In June of 1935, Lincoln, NM was virtually the same as it was 55 years earlier during the Lincoln County Wars. The roads were still unpaved and none of the buildings were yet owned by the State. In fact, the County of Lincoln obtained the Murphy house (a.k.a “The House”)—what later became the old courthouse where Billy the Kid made his notorious escape— on December 15th, 1880 for $15,000. It wasn’t until 1937 that the State of New Mexico bought this building, and in 1949 other buildings and sites were purchased and transferred to the Old Lincoln County Memorial Commission. Additionally, in 1977 the town officially became an historical site fully owned by the State of New Mexico. So when Howard and Vinson visited Lincoln, the Murphy House (courthouse) was empty and used as a storage building.

When Howard and Vinson entered from the East into Lincoln they had their minds set on finding that one particular building . . .
“[T]he old courthouse whence Billy made the most dramatic escape ever made in the Southwest. We rounded a crook in the meandering street and it burst upon us like the impact of a physical blow. There was no mistaking it.” (Howard  3: 346)

They parked the car and explored the exterior of the courthouse for some time. Since the building was not being used for anything other than storage, it was locked. Looking around, Howard described that they noticed, across the street, the La Paloma Saloon[1] “which bears a sign that claims existence in the Kid’s day.” (Howard  3: 346)

Evening at the La Paloma Bar, Lincoln, NM ca 1945.
Roman Maes inside of bar leaning on screen door
(Picture by Walt Wiggins)
It was in this establishment where Howard and Vinson met a man named Roman Maes. In his letter to H.P. Lovecraft, Howard describes not only meeting Mr. Maes but also gives Lovecraft a brief history about one of Maes’ relatives who fought in the Lincoln County Wars. Here is how Howard details it,
“The owner [of the La Paloma] is one Ramon [sic] Maes[2], grandson of Lucio Montoya, ‘Murphy’s Sharpshooter’ as he told us with pride—a supple well built man, tall for a Mexican and broadshouldered, with a thin-nostrilled Mountain Indian look about his face. The name of Montoya is woven into the Kid’s saga. He took part in the three-day fight in which McSween was killed; he lay on the mountain that commanded the Montana House, with Crawford, firing from behind a boulder.[3]” (Howard  3: 346)

Howard and Maes talked for some time, probably about Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County Wars. In his letter to Lovecraft Howard declares,
“He [Roman Maes] was very courteous and eager to point out interesting spots, and answer our questions,
 [. . .]
 Maes gave us the key to the old courthouse, which was once Murphy’s store. It is used as a storeplace for junk now, and there is talk, we were told, of tearing it down to build a community hall. It should be preserved.” (Howard  3: 347)

(L to R) Roman Maes & Robert E. Howard
ca June 1935
Howard and Vinson spent some time in the courthouse, wandering around, walking through the rooms, and imagining everything that happened that infamous day when Billy made his notorious escape.[4] Sometime between getting the key from Roman Maes and spending time in the old courthouse, Robert E. Howard and Roman Maes posed for a picture, now popular in Howard fandom (The actual picture is above, taken in front of the old courthouse). In the past it had only been speculated that the man to the left of Howard in the photo was Roman Maes. Thanks to several Lincoln, NM park rangers I was able, through social media, to track down the granddaughter of Roman Maes. She confirmed for me that the man in the photograph with Robert E. Howard was, in fact, her grandfather.

According to the Maes family, Roman Maes lived in Lincoln, NM his whole life. He acquired the La Paloma in 1935 and operated it until the mid-1980s when his wife became ill (cancer) and was forced to shut down operations. During World War II, Maes could not get liquor for the bar so he turned the La Paloma into a small grocery store and later sold Indian curios.[5] Roman Maes’ daughter, Priscilla Maes, would have been 6 years old when Robert E. Howard visited Lincoln, NM. She stated that she remembered people would stop in town at the bar, talk with her father, and he would show them around, but she never remembered anyone’s name. So, it's quite possible that she could have met Robert E. Howard when she was a child. Both Roman Maes and his wife, Theodora, are buried in the old cemetery of Lincoln on the East side of town.

I took a picture with a zoom lens of the
peak where Maes climbed.
During my visit to Lincoln, NM[6] I spoke with several park rangers. While discussing the La Paloma and Roman Maes, one of the park rangers told me that back in the 1940s, Maes, with a donkey, climbed the mountain on the southern side of town in order to place a cross on its peak. When he and the donkey neared the peak of the mountain, the donkey lost its footing, tumbled and slid all the way back down the mountainside. Concerned for the animal, Maes worked his way back down to find the donkey was uninjured. He took this as a sign from God, loaded the wood back on the donkey, and proceeded to climb the mountain again. This time he reached the peak, built a wooden cross on the mountain top, and slowly worked his way back down the mountainside. Today, Maes’ cross has been replaced with PVC pipe, but it still stands on the peak of the southern mountain. 

After spending a few hours in Lincoln, Howard and Vinson traveled toward Carrizozo, then up to Albuquerque, and northward reaching Santa Fe by nightfall. The following day, June 20th 1935, in Santa Fe, NM, Howard mailed a postcard to fellow writer and friend, August Derleth, with this handwritten message on the back of the postcard:
“This card was purchased in Lincoln, NM from a descendant of a participant in the Bloody Lincoln County Wars. REH.” (Howard  3:  329)
The postcard had the famous tin photograph of Billy the Kid on the front. Howard purchased a few of them from Roman Maes at the La Paloma Bar.[7] Below is the actual postcard (Front & Back) sent to August Derleth.[8]

The Front of the Postcard sent to
August Derleth, ca June 20th 1935

The Back of the Postcard sent to August Derleth
(The Postcard is from the Wisconsin State Historical Society)

[1] Howard called the La Paloma a “Saloon” in his letter to H.P. Lovecraft. This is, in fact, what it would have been (a saloon) in Billy’s day back in the late 1870s early 1880s. However, at the time of Howard’s visit it would have been named The La Paloma Bar.
[2] In his letter Howard actually typed the name Ramon Maes. The man Howard and Vinson met was actually named Roman Maes. After corresponding with Rusty Burke (one of the editors of A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard: 1933-1936) about this, he concluded that Howard probably misheard Roman’s name. I will continue to quote Howard’s letters exactly as Robert E. Howard wrote them, but note that "Ramon Maes" is actually named Roman Maes.
[3] For a more detailed account of this event refer to Frederick Nolan’s book, The West of Billy the Kid, pages 151, 155, and especially 158.
[4] I will be writing a second article about this aspect of Robert E. Howard’s visit to Lincoln, NM.
[5] This information was provided to me by Roman Maes’ granddaughter, Roberta Maes Baker. She and her mother (Priscilla Maes)—Roman Maes’ daughter—were very helpful in providing me with facts and information for this article.
[6] I just recently took a trip to Lincoln, NM (July 25th to 26th, 2015) to research facts and information for this article and an article to soon be written.
[7] Roman Maes did in fact sell postcards from the La Paloma back in 1935, a fact confirmed by the Maes family. Maes was also the grandson of Lucio Montoya, involved in the Lincoln County Wars.
[8] Thanks to Rob Roehm for providing me scanned copies of the postcard. I would also like to thank Rusty Burke for answering several questions about the REH letters. And lastly, thank you to the Maes family and especially to Roberta Maes Baker and Priscilla Maes for providing answers to all my questions about Roman Maes and the La Paloma Bar.


Howard, Robert E. The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard. Ed. Rob Roehm. Vol. 1-3. Plano, TX: Robert E. Howard Foundation, 2007. Print.

Nolan, Frederick W. The West of Billy the Kid. Norman: U of Oklahoma, 1998. Print.