Thursday, July 13, 2017

Howard Days 2017: A Trip Report by Scott Valeri

Panned view of the Howard House & Museum
(Picture courtesy of Ben Friberg)

As Howard Days 2017 approached this year I felt a mixture of emotions. This included the usual excitement in anticipation of seeing old friends again, the thrill of visiting Robert E Howard’s hometown of Cross Plains, and the house where he created all of the magical characters of his imagination, but also a little concern that this may not be a “great” year to attend. This is because I had heard that several wonderful Howard/REHupa friends would not be attending for various reasons. People like Barbara Barrett, Damon Sasser, and Al Herron and his grandmother and aunts. Although these folks were greatly missed, my concerns were unfounded and Howard Days 2017 was another great year with old friendships reaffirmed, new friendships made and lots of scholarship and learning packed into three days that had the feel of a family reunion (one where you really like everyone).

Dierk & Chie Guenther
Gary Romeo in background (R)
Travel day for me was Wednesday June 7, even though events don't really start until Thursday evening, because it makes the journey a little less tiring to stretch it out. Many folks do come in on Wednesday and it was great to catch up for an impromptu dinner and get reacquainted Wednesday evening before checking in to my motel in Brownwood. The “glow” of being around people that share a similar passion, that most people don’t understand, started the moment that I entered Cross Plains and lasted through the weekend.

Thursday June 8 started for me with breakfast at Jean’s Feedbarn with Todd Vick (spoiler alert, winner of two REH awards this year!) and David Piske. I had never had breakfast at this august establishment so it was on my must-do list. Excellent meal and company. Many of the REHupan’s were there at another long table and the conversation was lively and erudite. Then it was a pleasant, slow day of checking in to the REH House and Pavillion to meet others arriving for the weekend, greet and catch up. It is always a thrill to see who comes in and to make the initial walk through the house and take in the small room and desk where REH created all of his characters and stories. The Project Pride folks, like Arlene Stephenson and her husband Tom, are warm and hospitable and help create the atmosphere of inclusion and celebration that marks the long weekend.

Derie's REH Bar Guide
(Pic courtesy of Howard Works)
A real treat was having scholar Bobby Derie generously pass out a REH Bar Guide, spiral bound, that had everything REH had ever written, in letters and fiction, about alcoholic drinks along with drink recipes so anyone can recreate some of these libations. This was an 80-page scholarly labor and delighted everyone who got one.

Dinner that night was at the Senior Center on Main Street for a fish fry and more conversation with arriving folks like Jeff Shanks and his wife Claudia.  Rusty Burke and “Indy” Bill Cavalier, who are the initiators of Howard Days from their first formal gathering of fans here in 1986, were also in attendance. After dinner the Howard Days parade went through downtown Cross Plains to kick off the celebration.

Day 1
The REH Foundation
On Friday June 9 Howard Days officially started at 8:30 AM with registration outside the Alla Ray Morris Pavilion. Coffee and donuts were provided by Project Pride. From 9 to 10:30 AM Rusty Burke conducted his annual bus tour of Howard sites in the area. I can never miss this as I feel that I always pick up new information about REH’s life and upbringing. Jack Baum was in the bus with Rusty to fill in local color for the tour. This year we went to Cross Cut and Burkett.

These are very sparse villages now but in their day were much larger settlements. Rusty and Jack helped us fill in the scenery from the 1920s. The Howards lived on the N side of a cemetery in Cross Cut and had the Newton family as friends on the S side. Dr Howard would walk to visit the Newtons and whistle his way through the cemetery. The school REH attended here has been demolished.

As we rode the narrow road to Burkett, Jack Baum explained that a “sand rough” is an accumulation of sand and weeds that develop where there are fence posts and create almost a wall or a thick barrier outside a pasture. We saw them all along the way. The connection with Howard? “Post Oaks and Sand Roughs” is the title of REH’s semi-autobiographical novel. Dr Howard bought property in Burkett but did not build a house there and wound up moving to Cross Plains to the home we know, that he bought from JM Kaufman who built it. Dr Howard did a lot of land speculation in the many towns the Howards lived in prior to settling in Cross Plains. They moved 8 or 9 times prior to 1915 when they moved to Cross Cut. Relocated to Burkett in 1917 and then Cross Plains in 1919 when REH was 13.

In Burkett, we crossed the Burkett Bridge over the Pecan Bayou that was seen in the movie The Whole Wide World. The movie was mostly filmed in Austin as it was too expensive to film more in the country. Other facts from Jack Baum and Rusty were that REH did not hunt because he did not like hurting animals, but he would tag along when his friends David Lee and Lindsey Tyson hunted.

"The Glenn Lord Collection" panel
(L to R: Paul Herman, Rob Roehm, Patrice Louinet)
11 AM was the first panel on “The Glen Lord Collection” with presenters Paul Herman, Rob Roehm, and Patrice Louinet.

All panels were at the Methodist Church fellowship hall on N Main St which was a new location that was spacious, bright and had excellent acoustics. It was very generous for the Methodist Church and pastor Kevin Morton, to go out of their way to provide all the attendees with a great venue to see and hear the presentations. It made the experience richer and more comfortable. I don't know how we can all say thank you enough for this privilege.

Ben Friberg has videoed all of the panels and they are posted on YouTube. I would encourage everyone to look at them as they were all informative and full of wonderful moments.

This first panel went over details of how REH wrote and how his his manuscripts can be, in part, dated and tracked by forensic knowledge of mechanical key errors that developed over time on Howard's typewriter, such as a slightly dropped lower case “a” or a “t” with a “tail.”

REH did not keep an index for his manuscripts which has made sorting them out very difficult. He also would write multiple drafts of stories and use the back of one draft to start a second draft.

He did not always number his pages and when he did he often made mistakes. Many of his drafts did not have titles or the titles changed. “Servants of Bit Yakin" became “Jewels of Gwahlur.” surprisingly, Farnsworth Wright did very little editing of REH’s stories. However, De Camp, for the most part, tended to leave published stories alone. But, as we know, he did extensive rewrites of stories and partial drafts if they were not published.

Glenn Lord started collecting all of Howard manuscript drafts together in 1960 or 1961. He initially got all the drafts from the Otis Adelbert Klein agency (OAK was deceased but it was run by his wife and daughter for a while) and then spent years, from 1966 to 1971, tracking down the manuscripts that Dr. Howard had sent to Ed Price in California (who lent many of them out to various individuals).

We have 13 King Kull stories rather than 2 because of Glenn’s persistence. There are two "Post Oaks and Sand Roughs" scripts and the original title was likely “Clutchers at the Fringe,” as remembered by Tevis Clyde Smith.

The Harry Ransom Center
Austin, TX
All in all this presentation was an amazing tour de force in the manuscript history of Howard’s stories. It was a testament to the hard work of Glenn Lord in assembling manuscripts, and Patrice Louinet and Paul Herman in making sense of the massed pages. All manuscripts from the Glenn Lord collection are now at the Harry Ransom Center, Rare Books Collection, at the University of Texas in Austin.

1:30 PM Panel was “Collecting REH: What Makes for a Core Howard Collection?” with panelists Jeff Shanks, Lee Breakiron, Patrice Louinet, and Bobby Derie.

This again was a tour de force overview of collecting REH in multiple forms: Pulps, pulp reprints, books starting even before Arkham House's “Skull-face and Others,” chapbooks, paperbacks, fanzines, comic books, trade editions, and letters collections. It was an exhaustive overview. You can watch Ben Friberg's video at this link on YouTube.

Just a few nuggets:

 “Collecting REH:
What Makes for a Core Howard Collection?”
(L to R: Lee Breakiron & Bobby Derie)
REH was published in hardcover in England while he was alive in the Not At Night anthology series that reprinted many Weird Tales stories by various authors. REH is in Grim Death 1932, Keep on the Light 1933, and Terror at Night 1934. He was also published in the 1933 edition of Modern American Poetry.

In 1937 in the UK A Gent from Bear Creek was published by Herbert Jenkins. As most fans know this is the rarest of Howard collectibles with only 17 known copies and 7 of them in major libraries with 10 in individual hands.

The show stopper finale for this panel was when 5 of the 10 copies were brought out for inspection sitting side by side on the table. Patrice owns the Glens Lord copy which is the only known copy with a dust jacket. He had his prior “reader” copy which has been sold to a collector. Lee Breakiron obtained a copy this year on eBay, and the Howard family copy was brought to the panel (it had been given by Dr. Howard to his brother) and the REH Museum copy donated by Leo Grin. That’s 5, count ‘em. No one will probably ever see that many copies together again.

2:30 PM Panel “Travels with Ol’ Two-Gun” by Rob Roehm, Bob Roehm (Rob’s dad) and Todd Vick.

“Travels with Ol’ Two-Gun”
(L to R: Todd Vick, Bob Roehm, Rob Roehm)
This panel really needs to be seen on Ben Friberg’s videos at You Tube because there are so many great photos. As many know, Rob Roehm along with his dad and mom have visited nearly every site REH set foot in. Rob and Bob presented an extensive overview of the rambling life of Dr. Howard and his family as they moved nearly every 8 to 10 months after REH was born in 1906 until finally settling down in Cross Plains in 1919. This record of travel is supported by many hours of courthouse work tracking birth and death certificates signed by Dr. Howard and his physician registry records filed when he would relocate.  Why all the moves? Best guess is that Dr. Howard was chasing boom towns and trying to make a speculator score in land purchases. Railroads were being built and towns were blossoming everywhere a new spur sprouted.
Todd Vick gave a presentation on traveling to Bagwell, Texas to track down the grave site of a former slave named Mary Bohannon. She helped the Howard's clean and possibly cook in Bagwell, but she also used to tell a 7 year old Howard ghost stories. Todd showed pictures of the abandoned grave site near Bagwell, Texas where Mary Bohannnon was buried. He then turned his attention to Lincoln, NM to track a photo of REH taken in front of the Murphy Store (and eventual Lincoln County Courthouse) from the Lincoln County Wars and Billy the Kid fame. REH is with Ramon Maes—actually Roman Maes, Howard made a common name error in his letters—who Todd confirmed was the grandson of Lucio Montoya, the sharpshooter for Lawrence Murphy who ran the town with the Sheriff (Brady). Both, along with several others, fought John Tunstall, Billy the Kid, and the Regulators during the Lincoln County Wars. Tunstall's faction lost. Todd explained that he spoke with Roman Maes' family to confirm that Roman Maes was the man standing next to Howard in the photo.

6:30 to 9 PM Robert E Howard Celebration Banquet and silent auction at the Community Center.
This is a Howard Days tradition and not to be missed. Chicken fried steak from the Staghorn Cafe and a silent auction to benefit Project Pride which hosts Howard Days and supports the REH House/Museum. There was a great collection of books, fanzines, posters, and art to bid on this year. I scored a bound collection of the Arkham Collector donated by Bobby Derie at a very reasonable price and the original art for Indy’s first Howard Days poster. There were a lot of happy bidders when the auction ended. 

Paul Herman was a fantastic speaker. He began his talk by dropped the mike (since his speaking voiced boomed throughout the room) and spoke emotionally and profoundly about his life story. He discussed his discovery of REH's work and how that impacted his life as a poor alienated teenager from modest means attending a wealthy prep school. Conan was an outsider and proud of it and used his differences/talents to his advantage. Paul learned to accept his differences and talents without embarrassment and he also used them to create a rich and full life. It was a very inspiring speech that may be the very best one I have heard at all the Howard Days I have attended. As always, a young man from the community—Nain Martinez—was given a $1000 scholarship to use at the college of his choice. The Cross Plains community was well represented with ministers, business leaders, and the hard-working Project Pride volunteers.

This small town opens its heart to a bunch of eclectic Howard fans every year to create an event that is part celebration and part reunion. Friday's dinner is a forum for all of us to commune and appreciate the impact that REH’s writings have had and continue to have on all of us. This banquet is the heart of Howard Days.

A staple of Howard Days with dramatic readings of boxing stories by Mark Finn, Chris Gruber, and Jeff Shanks under the stars on the slab floor of the Ice House where REH boxed in his time.

Readings were from "Sluggers on the Beach"
                                 "Destiny Gorilla"
                                 "Bulldog Breed"
                                 "Pit of the Serpent"
The dramatic readings are too good to miss. I especially appreciate the theatrical talents of Mark Finn, who is almost "Shakespearean" in his delivery. Chris Gruber almost made me cry with his story of bulldog Mike, and Jeff Shanks educated us all about fighting and mixed martial arts which were present in Howard’s day.

The presenters emphasized how knowledgeable Howard was about boxing with an insider’s understanding apparent in how he choreographed his character’s ring battles. Boxing in Howard’s time occupied the same popularity that football does now. His passion for the sport is evident in the 4 volumes of boxing stories that collect his writings in this genre. He wrote boxing stories from 1926 through 1936. Steve Costigan stories were published from 1929 until 1932 when Fiction House dropped boxing. REH restarted selling boxing stories with Klein’s help in June 1933.

Whew, that was a long, packed first day! Many went back to the Howard House for poetry readings but I staggered back to Brownwood at 11 PM. There was still another day!

Day 2
On Saturday June 10, the Barbarian Festival was open at Treadway Park, 3 blocks west of the REH House. I did not make it there this year but, it is a wonderful community event that is great fun. I missed the funnel cake! The Pavilion was open for trading and visiting, and the library was open to see old pulps and their collection of REH manuscripts, photo copies of which can be purchased on site. There was also some gaming going on that again I did not participate in.

Paul Herman Interview
(L to R: Paul Herman & Mark Finn)
11 AM first panel was “Paul Herman, 2017 Guest of Honor” which was a wide-ranging interview of Paul Herman conducted by Mark Finn. Paul related his ongoing REH life journey starting from where he left off the night before after discovering Conan. He related moving to Houston in 1985 and contacting Glenn Lord for lunch and developing a lifelong friendship. He developed his bibliography of Howard works as he pursued collecting all the various versions of Howard in print. He discovered the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin and eventually got Glenn Lord to tour the place in 1992 to consider it as a final destination for the Howard typescripts, probably Paul’s proudest accomplishment.

He described publishing public domain Howard works with Wildside press. In 2006, he was involved with setting up the REH Foundation with a mission to pick up publishing works where the Wandering Star/Del Rey editions left off and now nearing the completion of that mission. Because of these efforts all of Howard’s writings in every genre have been reprinted, often from the original typescripts, but with a minimum of editing.

Following this panel, the REH Foundation Awards were announced and can be found on the REH Foundation website.

"Pictures of Howard" panel
(L to R: Paul Herman, Rusty Burke, & Patrice Louinet)
1:30 PM "Pictures of Howard" panel with Rusty Burke, Patrice Louinet, and Paul Herman. Again, this panel is probably best appreciated on YouTube as it is primarily visual. There are so far 37 surviving photos with REH in them. Many of the iconic photos were reviewed. An interesting photo from August Derleth’s collection caused the most controversy as it is labeled on the back, "REH," but did not appear to look like REH although the clothing looked familiar and appropriate. Even Patrice Louinet who owns the photo does not quite feel comfortable declaring that it is, in fact, REH. The photo is called, “Dude on a rock."

2:30 PM "The 2nd Annual Glenn Lord Symposium" was convened. Jeff Shanks moderated the presentations and spoke about the efforts being made to get more REH recognition from the academic community through the Popular Culture Association (PCA) meetings and the International Conference for Fantasy and the Arts (ICFA)

"Glenn Lord Symposium"
(L to R: Frank Coffman &
Jeffrey Shanks)
Frank Coffman gave an excellent presentation titled "Thru a Glass Darkly" or "The Bright Barbarian," which was an argument that Don Herron's The Dark Barbarian portrayal of Conan may need to be revised. Conan was a complex of characters, not just a monolithic barbarian. In “the Devil in Iron” he looks more like Errol Flynn. Conan was familiar with many cultures and fluent in a multitude of languages. He clearly was intelligent, grew, and matured over time.

Jason Ray Carney did an in-depth analysis of “Post Oaks and Sand Roughs,” the REH semi-autobiographical novel and made the argument that it is a complex work that contained a multitude of genres. This genre plurality was an attempt to accurately render the reality of being a marginalized writer in a rural community. The struggle to find an accurate genre is a symptom of underlying social and political unrest and dislocation, which makes sense given that it was written in 1929 (depicting REH’s life in 1924 to 1927).

Dierk Guenther gave a presentation on "Civilization Collapse" which expounded on REH’s belief in the ultimate domination of barbarism as the most natural state of mankind and the cyclical nature of civilizations that rise but then invariably fall. A discussion enjoined by Jeff Shanks ensued about the 1920s understanding of societies progressing from Savagery to Barbarism and then Civilization. Barbarism was seen as a point of equipoise between Savagery and Civilization. Rusty Burke pointed out that Howard felt he was not prepared for a barbaric world and would most likely not have survived if thrown into one. But he still believed that barbarism was the most natural state for man.

Behind the Howard House
(L to R: Jeffrey Shanks, Patrice Louinet,
Scott Valeri, & Rusty Burke)
At 5:30, attendees went to the Pavilion for a cookout—sponsored by Janet Swanson & the food is cooked by Cat & Barb BBQ— along with libations to celebrate the end of Howard Days. The food was excellent and Ben Friberg brought his famous homemade ice-cream. Most everyone gathered at tables of 5 or 6 people and had long discussions under the shade of the Pavilion or some large trees as their shadows lengthened. I thoroughly enjoyed my discussion with Lee Breakiron, Todd Vick, David Piske, and Jason Ray Carney. Conversation ranged from Howard collecting to literary theory as applied to fantasy and sword and sorcery to Roman and post Roman Britain. All inspired by the last few days presentations and the comfort of being with people who share a deep appreciation for the works of Robert E Howard. As the sun set, I left the multilingual poetry reading on the front porch and headed back to Brownwood, then on back to Dallas early the next morning to catch a flight home.
(L to R: Anthony Tollin &
Chris Gruber)

Howard Days would not exist if not for the efforts of the Cross Plains community and Project Pride volunteers who are among the most generous and hospitable folks you will ever meet. What a rare privilege to spend quality time with people like Rusty, Indy, Jeff, Mark, Chris, Patrice, Paul, and Rob. And every year that I spend time talking with Jack and Barbara Baum I come away more impressed with their hospitality, generosity and love for REH and his fans.

If you have never been to Howard Days I hope this trip report inspires you to make the journey. It is well worth the effort and should be on the bucket list of every Robert E Howard fan.

Multilingual Poetry Reading
(L to R: Barbara Baum, Chie Guenther, Dierk Guenther,
Patrice Louinet, and Bill Cavalier)

About the Author: Scott Valeri

"I discovered Conan and REH with the Lancer book Conan the Conqueror in 1967. I was drawn to it by the Frazetta cover art and collected all the REH paperbacks I could get at that time. I rediscovered REH from a Wandering Star's Bran Mac Morn hardcover that I bought at Heroes Con in 2010 and discovered the REH Foundation and joined then. Just in time to get all the Foundation books as they came out. Went to my first Howard Days in 2011 and have attended every year but one since. Jeff Shanks, who I met in 2011, got me hooked on Howard book collecting, and Lee Breakiron on fanzine collecting. More than anything I value the friendships I have made with all the amazing REH fans and scholars I have met at Howard Days along with the folks of Project Pride."

1 comment:

Bobby Dee said...

Great report. Hope to see you there again next year, Scott!