Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Kid, Two-Gun, and History by Todd B. Vick*

Few American lives have elicited more tales, rumors, and folklores than that of Henry McCarty. I would go so far as to say that of all the famous Americans who have lived such a short life span—two meager decades—McCarty has the most amount of words written about him. He perhaps has also influenced more authors than any other old west figure. And despite all this, he remains one of the most elusive figures of the old west. So who is Henry McCarty? History knows him as one Billy the Kid. The foremost scholar of Billy the Kid, Frederick Nolan, claims “Few American lives have more successfully resisted research than that of Billy the Kid.” (Nolan 3). Evidence for this lies in the fact that The Kid did not receive serious scholarly attention until nearly 100 years after his death. 

            Why is that? What makes Billy the Kid so fascinating that for the better part of the 20th century his life has resisted serious research and remained in the mainstream arena of folklore and myth? No scholar of the Kid seems to have a definitive answer to that question. It might simply be that facts are not as exciting as the mysterious. Regardless, from the late 1950s to the present day reliable research, scholarly articles and books have been written and new historical documents uncovered. Granted, the mythos remains and makes for wonderful movies and exciting novels but we now live in what should be considered a more enlightened era with regard to our understanding of The Kid.
            There was a long period of time where scarcely a word was written or spoken about Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County Wars. This span occurred between the death of the infamous sheriff (Pat Garrett) who killed Billy the Kid in 1908 until 1925 when Harvey Fergusson raised the question in an American Mercury article, “Who remembers Billy the Kid?” Apparently, the Kid’s reputation had faded and Fergusson wondered why (Nolan 295). All this would soon change in 1926 when Walter Noble Burns published The Saga of Billy the Kid, and the Kid would once again be thrust into the limelight of folklore and myth. This was the very book that sparked interest in the mind of a young boy who would later become the premier scholar of Billy the Kid studies, Frederick Nolan. Moreover, Walter Noble Burns, with his flamboyant style and highly exaggerated account of Billy the Kid, would also influence a series of western writers of the early to mid twentieth century. One in particular was a popular pulp fiction writer from Cross Plains, Texas named Robert E. Howard. Although the focus of Howard’s writing had pretty much been the fantasy and action adventure genres, Burn’s book would ultimately set Howard in a new creative direction.
It is no secret to Robert E. Howard aficionados that Howard had a serious interest in the Old West. This interest became so predominant toward the latter years of his life he shifted his writing career in the direction of publishing western stories and even proclaimed in correspondence to August Derleth:
“I’m seriously contemplating devoting all my time and efforts to western writing, abandoning all other forms of work entirely; the older I get the more my thoughts and interests are drawn back over the trails of the past; so much has been written, but there is so much that should be written.” (Howard Letters 2:  372).

In studies about Robert E. Howard’s western writing career there is no definitive time frame or specific cause that pushed Howard in the direction of western tales. Howard had written westerns in his earlier years and sporadically throughout his fantasy and action adventure years, but what made him tell Derleth that he wanted to devote all his time to western writing? There was likely no single factor or date, rather a series of events that hinged upon at least one thing—Walter Noble Burn’s book The Saga of Billy the Kid.
Walter Noble Burns was born October 24th, 1872. As a teenager he became a junior reporter for the Louisville, KY Evening Post. (Nolan 295). This led Burns into a fairly long career as a writer and reporter which eventually led him to Chicago where he would work for both the Chicago Examiner and Chicago Tribune. It was his work with the Tribune that would launch him into his most famous research and work. In 1923 Burns would visit New Mexico to interview  various people who were still alive during the Lincoln County Wars and the days of Billy the Kid. This research would ultimately end up in Burns’ book The Saga of Billy the Kid (from here on referred to as SBK).
SBK was the definitive book about Billy the Kid’s life until the late 1950s and early 1960s when scholars took pen in hand and began seriously researching the Lincoln County Wars. Today SBK is considered nothing but a novel work on the Lincoln County Wars. It has all but been dismissed as exaggerations, myths, and fun folklore. Regardless, from 1926, the year SBK was published, to the early 1960s, Burns’ work set the tone for movies, western pulp stories, dime novels, and even magazine articles about Billy the Kid.
When SBK was published it quickly became a national best seller, rivaling the sales of other popular books of its day. In just a few short months Nolan explains,


Sunday, August 13, 2017

A 2017 Howard Days Highlight: Gaming

The Monolith Conan Game
On the Howard House
front porch
As mentioned in an earlier post, I've been attending Howard Days since 2012, and what I have noticed each year is there is always one or two things over the weekend that stand out from everything else. One of this year's highlights was the RPG and Board gaming in the Cross Plains public library and on Robert E. Howard's front porch.

This was not the first year Howard Days hosted gaming. A few years ago, the RPG game launched on Kickstarter by Modiphius, was playtested by a group of gamers in Robert E. Howard's dining room. This very RPG game, now a successful Kickstarter campaign was once again played by a group of gamers in the Cross Plains Public Library.

There was an acting Dungeon Master (DM) for the gamers, and from what I've been told, I did not witness the gaming in the library, it was quite eventful. A smaller faction of the Cross Plains Library RPG gaming group relocated to the front porch of the Howard House. This small group set up the new, highly successful Kickstarter board game, called Conan, created by Monolith Board Games LLC. Having participated in this Kickstarter campaign, I spent a good portion of that game watching the inner workings and witnessing it at play.

Howard House front
porch gaming
This game's Overlord (who functions similar to a DM) was Wesley, from Wyoming. Game players included Wesley's wife Elizabeth, Chris, James, and Danny. The group selected a pre-provided scenario, characters, and then simply followed the rules of the game. This was the first time I had seen this game actually being played live. And though it is slightly complicated, once the participants got involved and began understanding the rules, the game slowly picked up and became increasingly more interesting. I am certainly glad I was able to witness this game play, especially since I own the game.

But here's the kicker, while the Monolith Conan game was being played on Robert E. Howard's front porch, the game play was being filmed for YouTube by Robert E. Howard's great nephew, Jim Howard! A nice added feature, to say the least.

I was told by several of the gamers that they wanted to make this an annual affair at Howard Days. I think that is a wonderful idea, and I certainly hope to see more gaming at subsequent Howard Days.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

A 2017 Howard Days Highlight: The Robert E. Howard Bar Guide

I've been attending Howard Days since 2012, and what I have noticed each year is there is always one or two things over the weekend that stand out from everything else. One of this year's highlights was Bobby Derie's free book titled The Robert E. Howard Bar Guide.

Bobby Derie, who is a regular guest writer here at On an Underwood No. 5, sent me a message via Facebook, about this idea a few months prior to Howard Days. A month or so later, he sent me the first 20 or so pages to proof and fact check, and after reading those pages, I knew Howard fans were in for a huge treat. Of course, any article or book from Derie is a treat, and well worth reading (and I'm not being bias simply because he's a regular at On An Underwood No. 5 - just ask around, people will confirm this).

If you were unable to attend Howard Days this year and have not obtained a copy of the Bar Guide, then you're in luck. It is still available in PDF format, at this link.

The Bar Guide is a blend of history and brew. The first 20 or so pages detail REH's history with alcohol, prohibition, bootlegging, and is "a biographical look at drink and drinking in the life of Robert E. Howard." (excerpt from page 1). This is followed by various concoctions, recipes, and assorted exotic drinks that Howard discusses or has himself experienced. For this, Derie makes use of Howard's stories and his letters. He also includes newspaper clippings from the Cross Plains Review about the various times Cross Plains legalized beer (in Callahan County), about bootleggers in the area, vintage ads about alcohol, about "moonshine," etc. This certainly adds a nice flavor to the contents.

Various types of drinks, straight and mixed, are included, referenced from Howard's works or letters, and "period recipes culled from contemporary cocktail guides" (Howard Works, The Robert E. Howard Guide) The bar guide is also peppered throughout with illustrations from Weird Tales, Argosy, Spicy-Adventure Stories, and other publications. And, the back cover sports a hand-drawn illustration by Howard himself. The print editions that were distributed at this year's Howard Days were numbered and will surely end up being a nice collector's item in the future.

With much appreciation, let's all raise a glass to Bobby Derie for this wonderful Bar Guide. Cheers!