Sunday, December 23, 2018

Chris Offutt's Book, My Father, The Pornographer: A Book Review by Todd B. Vick

My Father, The Pornographer: A Memoir
by Chris Offutt
Atria Books 2016

(Because this review discusses two Offutts, when necessary I use first names to distinguish between father and son, this is not intended to be disrespectful, just a means of distinction.)

If you grew up in the 70s or 80s and were a fan of fantasy fiction, there is a good chance you either heard about or read Andrew J. Offutt’s work. Offutt was a prolific science fiction and fantasy author. Fans of Robert E. Howard and his characters Conan and Cormac Mac Art, have likely run into Offutt’s popular pastiches for both these characters. In fact, Offutt was admittedly an ardent fan of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, and an unabashed fan of Robert E. Howard’s stories. When Offutt was not writing pastiches, he busied himself with writing his own fantasy novels, predominantly sword & sorcery, but also science fiction. His output was noteworthy, he published 30 works in the genre. However, Offutt’s sci-fi/fantasy work is grossly paled by his work in the erotica publishing industry.

Andrew J. Offutt died April 30, 2013, at the age of 78. His eldest son, Chris, inherited his father’s desk, rifle, and, according to Chris, eighteen hundred pounds of pornographic fiction. When his father died, Chris was left by himself to sort through the remaining vestiges of his father’s life. Chris’ siblings made it quite clear they wanted nothing to do with their father’s business, stories, or his legacy. That being the case, Chris spent the following year, with a little help from his mother, poring through his father’s belongings, sorting and organizing what remained. He details what unfolded during that time, nostalgically and emotionally, in a 2016 memoir titled My Father, The Pornographer, which quickly became a New York Times Bestseller. Despite the title, Chris spends more time in this memoir trying to come to terms with his father’s verbally abusive and unloving behavior than he does discussing his father’s pornographic/erotic work. As Chris sorts through what remains of his father’s life, he slowly discovers and discusses why he thought his father was incapable of having meaningful relationships, with anyone.

It was not an industry secret that Andrew J. Offutt wrote erotica and porn. Other writers in the science fiction and fantasy publishing industry were doing the same, all to make more money. Often the two genres would cross over. Andrew was known for mixing erotica with science fiction (e.g. Spaceways). In fact, his Conan pastiches are, in many ways, more sensual than the other writers in that arena. Be that as it may, regarding his father’s work, Chris maintained a steady focus within each specific genre as he discussed them, only mentioning the crossover works when he details various “personas” or nom de plumes his father used. And, according to Chris, those various personas revealed an aspect about his father he never fully understood until after his father’s death.

Andrew began writing porn when his son, Chris, was a child. He finished reading an erotica novel, tossed it on the coffee table, and loudly complained that the author did not know how to write. He boasted that he could do a much better job. Seeing his frustration, his wife challenged him to sit down and do just that. Andrew took the challenge personally, and, in the words of his son, “the rest is pornography.” Chris points out that he was constantly reminded that his father began writing porn to pay for his kid's needs, but this reminder was too often accompanied by a declaration of how Andrew wished his own kids had never been born. Something Chris spent years trying to come to terms with. Chris also details how he pored through boxes of his father’s manuscripts, categorizing them by genres and then specific topics. His method was meticulous and well thought out, based on genre, subgenre, and works that were something of an anomaly. He was careful to highlight that his father’s writing, and personal collection was utterly void of “kiddie porn,” something for which he felt great relief. The idea he might run across some while sorting through the collection had apparently been in the back of his mind.

While delving into his father’s pornographic/erotic works, Chris never declares that the porn was responsible for his father being an overbearing verbally abusive husband and father. He does, however, reveal how the porn might have been an extension of his father’s deeply troubled psyche, especially his jaded and disturbed attitude toward women. As the memoir unfolds the reader discovers Andrew’s hidden life and how, on several occasions, he confided with Chris that the porn kept him from becoming a serial killer. On the surface this sounds absurd, but Chris ponders whether the porn his father wrote did, in fact, kept those so-called demons at bay, or did his father merely say that to justify the works? It is not until the end of the memoir that Chris reveals the truth of his father’s claim and the psychological torment Andrew was apparently suffering. At that point, the question is answered when Chris reveals a hidden box he discovered among his father’s belongings, buried behind the desk. A box that Andrew declared was his “great secret.” It had always been hidden from his family. Even Mrs. Offutt, who knew more about her husband’s “secret life” than anyone, had no idea this box existed. What Chris reveals about this secret of secrets is both painful and insightful, bringing to light a few answers to aid him in his own struggle to understand his father. It also uncovered the degree of anguish and torment his own father might have endured.

The book is not solely about abuse, pain, and anguish. On a much lighter note, Chris spends several chapters discussing his father’s writing career in the sci-fi/fantasy publishing industry. It is here that Chris reveals some of his favorite memories. As a child, he recalled reading through his father’s collection of adventure stories from authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Daniel Defoe. Chris also recalled the science fiction/fantasy conventions his family attended and the various personas his father would portray at each convention. There are interesting stories about his father’s relationship with other popular sci-fi/fantasy writers, such as Piers Anthony. And, Chris reveals an embarrassing moment at the Hugo Awards where Andrew usurped the introduction he was supposed to give for the guest of honor by rambling on about himself.

Throughout the book, stories are divulged about Andrew’s idiosyncratic behavior toward insignificant things that would set his temper aflame. Things such as the ratio of air to chip content in a certain potato chip company’s bags. To appease his anger regarding what he interpreted as the company slighting their consumers, Andrew wrote a letter to the company arguing his case and expressing his disgust. In response, they sent him a case of potato chips. Overall, the book is written with concise and emotionally moving prose. Chris has a way of peeling back his father’s veneer and dissecting his behavior in a delicate and poignant fashion. This certainly draws his reader into the narrative. Because of this, I found myself loosing track of time, often unable to put the book down.



Sunday, December 9, 2018

Conan and E’ch-Pi-El: Robert E. Howard in the Biographies of H. P. Lovecraft by Bobby Derie

It is fair to say that the study of the life and art of Robert E. Howard owes a debt to the study of H. P. Lovecraft. The six-year friendship of the two pulpsters represents a substantial exchange of letters for both men, the moreso for Howard as his letters to Lovecraft constitute the bulk of his surviving correspondence; they influenced each other’s work, most notably in the shared setting of the Cthulhu Mythos; and they had many friends and associates in common, including Farnsworth Wright, E. Hoffmann Price, Clark Ashton Smith, Henry S. Whitehead, Wilfred Blanch Talman, C. L. Moore, and August Derleth.

Howardiana was published alongside Lovecraftiana in fanzines like The Acolyte and The Ghost, and Arkham House, founded to publish the works of Lovecraft, put out two collections of Howard’s fiction and poetry: Skull-Face and Others (1946), Always Comes Evening (1957) and The Dark Man and Others (1963). Arkham House would also publish parts of Lovecraft’s letters to Howard in the Selected Letters (1965-1976), which some years later would inspire the publication of the Selected Letters of Robert E. Howard (1989/1991, Necronomicon Press). The “Howard boom” in the 1960s also coincided with a surge in interest in Lovecraft’s fiction.

For all of their association, however, Robert E. Howard was almost nonexistent in the early biographies and memoirs about H. P. Lovecraft. Most of the Lovecraft’s autobiographies predate their correspondence; F. Lee Baldwin’s “H. P. Lovecraft: A Biographical Sketch” (Fantasy Magazine Apr 1935) lists Howard as one of Lovecraft’ many correspondents; W. Paul Cook makes no mention in “In Memoriam: H. P. Lovecraft” (1941), nor Winfield Townley Scott in “His Own Finest Creation: H. P. Lovecraft” (1944); Howard appears in August Derleth’s H. P. L.: A Memoir (1945) only as one of Lovecraft’s correspondents (Derleth 61), the creation of Unaussprechlichen Kulten and von Junzt (Derleth 72), and part of a lengthy quote from one of Lovecraft’s letters:

Our distinguished fellow weirdist Two-Gun Bob has succumbed to this fashion to the extent of hashing up his own middle name (Ervin—distinguished in Southern history for 200 years) and signing himself ‘Robert Eiarbihan Howard.’ (Derleth 54)

The lack of reference to Howard in memoirs of Lovecraft is understandable, most were written by friends who had never met or corresponded with Howard, and possibly never heard of him. Those who did not already know of the Lovecraft-Howard connection would learn little of it from the Lovecraft side of things, and that would focus strongly on Howard’s contributions to the shared Mythos—Lin Carter’s focus in Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos (1972).

1975 was a seminal year in Lovecraft studies, with the publication of L. Sprague de Camp’s H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography, Frank Belknap Long’s Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Night Side, and Willis Conover’s Lovecraft at Last. These three books published more biographical material on Lovecraft than had been readily available in any half-a-dozen Arkham House volumes—and at the same time opened a window on his relationship with, and comparisons to, Robert E. Howard. In the preface, de Camp wrote:

I learned about Lovecraft little by little. I also learned about other members of the Lovecraft-Weird Tales circle, especially Robert E. Howard. While I enjoyed Lovecraft’s fiction, Howard’s stories came closer to the kind of swashbuckling adventure-fantasy that I most enjoy reading and writing. Later, I became involved in completing, rewriting, and editing a number of Howard’s unpublished tales; but that is another story. (de Camp xi)

De Camp had been associated with the science fiction fan scene and a pulpster since the 1940s; in the 1950s he became associated with the Robert E. Howard properties, re-writing stories in the Gnome Press volumes The Coming of Conan (1953), King Conan (1953), Tales of Conan (1955), and co-authoring The Return of Conan (1957) with Björn Nyberg. In 1966, de Camp and Lin Carter began editing and writing the Conan series in paperback from Lancer, the beginning of the Howard Boom of the ‘60s. Robert E. Howard ‘zine Amra (1959) was already a focal point for Howard Studies, and de Camp’s articles from Amra were reprinted by Mirage Press in The Conan Reader (1968); de Camp and George Scrithers went on to edit two further collections of Howard-related articles by de Camp and others: The Conan Swordbook (1969) and The Conan Grimoire (1972). This familiarity with Robert E. Howard is a significant part of what de Camp brought to his approach to Lovecraft.

De Camp gave the standard note Howard was one of Lovecraft’s correspondents (de Camp 114, 301, 376), even paraphrasing notes from Howard’s letters to Lovecraft:



Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Last Line of the Last Letter by Todd B. Vick



For decades, fans have speculated about the writing/publishing direction Robert E. Howard would have taken had he not died on June 11, 1936. Questions such as what genres would he have ventured into? Would he have continued writing Conan stories? Would he have published more westerns? Some have decried these questions and their answers as vain attempts or pure speculation. But are they? I think there is enough evidence available to formulate a solid idea as to which publishing direction Howard was headed, and would have likely remained on for a spell, when he died, at least in terms of the first few years after his death: from 1936 to 1940. How is this possible, you might ask? My answer is based predominantly on three publishing trends Howard went through in the 12 years he was actively publishing his written material. And, a fourth, impending publishing period he was headed toward at the time of his death. Let me try explain what I mean.

Over the twelve years Howard published stories, various patterns can be detected during these years. Not patterns of style, though they may be there as well, but in terms of content and genres in which he wrote. In simplistic terms, Howard’s twelve-year publishing career (from 1924 to 1936) can be divided into three periods lasting about four years each. Based on several years of looking at Howard’s published work from a birds-eye view (or holistic perspective), in my estimation this is how I have charted his career. Initially, there is an amateur (juvenile) period lasting from 1919 to 1923 (also a four-year period). I have not included this period in the chart below, but it could easily be placed before the three periods represented and aptly called his “amateur or juvenile period.” This period is a smattering of both humorous and serious history, mystery, and the like. 


From 1924, when “Spear and Fang” is written and submitted to Weird Tales, to 1928, is a period I call Howard’s "discovery period" (or early fiction). Howard experiments with several genres like horror, history, and fantasy. Additionally, it is during this period that Howard begins to experiment with his adventure influences (e.g. Rafael Sabatini, H. Rider Haggard, et. al) using some of those elements in his stories. He also nails down his prose pace, which is arguably the strongest aspect of his fiction. In this first period Howard uses a smattering of historical (and mythological) elements to begin to create some interesting (albeit young-ish in style and prose) stories. Because of this, Howard is directed into the second period of publication, what I call his historical fiction period, from 1928 to 1932. This period clearly shows Howard using aspects of the history he has researched up to these years. Howard also begins to mix genres (e.g. adventure with horror) during this period.

Between the first period (early fiction) and the second period (historical fiction), Howard creates two characters (Solomon Kane and Kull) who overlap these two periods to generate what is to come in his third period of publication: what I call the adventure fantasy period. From 1932 (with the publication of Conan) to 1936, Howard’s primary attention is on adventure fantasy. During this period, Howard is developing the Hyborian Age and giving the reading public Conan the Cimmerian, his most popular character.

Throughout these three periods, beginning with the latter part of the first period up to the early part of the third period, Howard published his boxing stories as a separate entity (or genre, if you will) altogether. What I mean by this is that his boxing stories do not neatly fall into any of the three categories as primary works reflecting those categories. There are elements from each of those periods present in his boxing stories, but they stand alone as an individual genre overlapping the periods. A very simple chart/table of these periods would look something like this:

1924—1928
1928—1932
1932—1936
Early Fiction
Historical Fiction
Adventure Fantasy
Smattering of genres, some historical
Primarily historical, some fantasy
Primarily Fantasy, some western
(From the latter part of the first period to the early part of the third period — boxing fiction)

NB: This idea (and above chart) is a general, broad sweep of Howard’s writing career. A much more specific account could be created, examining specific stories and genres with explanations as to why they fit into each of these periods. Perhaps something to consider for a future article. Let us just say, these three periods stand out over Howard’s twelve-year publishing career, and as presented should be sufficient, along with other evidence presented a little later, to demonstrate Howard’s fictional direction at the time of his death. It should also be pointed out that once Howard moved away from a character (e.g. Solomon Kane, Kull, etc.) to begin a new character or genre trend, he did not returned to that character.

 Now, with regard to what has been typically dismissed as speculation about the writing/publishing direction Howard was headed at the time of his death, using Howard’s letters, his published fiction, and Novalyne Price Ellis’ book One Who Walked Alone, I think a fourth period, which was developing by June of 1936, can be determined.

As mentioned above, regarding the third period of Howard’s publishing career (the adventure fantasy period), Conan was the dominant character around which Howard build some of his most popular stories. But what was Howard saying about Conan in the last year or so of his life? By December of 1935, Howard confessed to Lovecraft, “The last yarn I sold to Weird Tales—and it well may be the last fantasy I’ll ever write—was a three-part Conan serial which was the bloodiest and most sexy weird story I ever wrote.” (CL 3.393) Aside from possibly Novalyne Price, Lovecraft is the first person to whom Howard admits he is moving away from adventure fantasy (and from Conan). Moreover, Howard has spent several years discussing the Texas and western frontier. These discussions have likely fueled his desire to write more about that topic.

By the Spring of 1936, Howard’s writing slowed due to the care he was giving his mother. However, by this time, he had stopped writing adventure fantasy altogether and was writing and publishing predominantly westerns. His focus was on Breckenridge Elkins, Buckner J. Grimes, and Pike Bearfield. Even so, months before this season, while he was still working on Conan stories, Howard admitted to Novalyne Price that he wanted to write a story (perhaps a novel) about the Texas frontier. (OWWA 223, 227) Because Conan was Howard’s bread and butter character, He and Price discuss Conan and the barbarian versus civilization issue fairly regularly (or at least Howard frequently brings it up in their conversations). On several occasion, Price mentions that Howard told her he was ready to stop writing Conan stories and focus his attention on westerns or his Texas frontier novel. And she had agreed with that idea and expressed hope that he would. (OWWA 223, 226-227)

 Howard’s western output had increased in the months prior to his death. He had also corresponded with Jack Byrne at Munsey Publication about a new humorous character in the same vein as Breckenridge Elkins. Howard explained to Byrne, “I have in mind a new character, Pike Bearfield, of Wolf Mountain, Texas, about as big, dumb, and ludicrous as B. Elkins.” (CL 3.435) All the while, Howard continued to write a few El Borak stories, and several new horror stories, but his main focus was on westerns. In fact, the last line (aside from the farewell line) in the last extant letter Howard wrote to H. P. Lovecraft states, “I have always felt that if I ever accomplished anything worthwhile in the literary field, it would be with stories dealing of the central and western frontier.” (CL 3.462)

It is likely that Howard would have set Conan aside, but it is uncertain whether he would have ever returned to the character. If he stayed on track with the previous characters he set aside and never returned to, then it is likely he would have not returned to Conan. Though I wouldn't rule it out. Even so, examining his final stories, and the direction in which he stated he wanted to go, and his desire to move away from Conan stories, it seems likely that his fourth writing period would have predominantly been western stories. And if that is the case, he may have actually completed the novel about the Texas frontier.
___________
Abbreviations
CL  The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard
OWWA  One Who Walked Alone