Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Letters of Robert E. Howard

Today I'm going to begin reading the letters of REH. I have two sets of books which contain Howard's letters. The first is titled The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard Vol. One: 1923-1929; Vol. Two: 1930-1932; Vol. Three: 1933-1936.

These volumes were edited by Rob Roehm and have an introduction and annotations by Rusty Burke. The inside dust jacket flat declares: The Collected Letters reveals a side of Howard's personality that readers of his fiction might not suspect existed. Full of humor, philosophical musings, travelogue, historical sketches, and opinions on contemporary politics and events—local, national, and international—Howard's letters provide important insight into the life and times of the most influential pulp-era writers of the twentieth century.

The above is why I am delving into these letters, to gain insight into the ideals, philosophies, and various opinions and beliefs of Howard for current research. These three volumes include all of Howard's correspondence not just specific letters to specific people. I am not certain, but I think the Robert E. Howard Foundation still has copies of these volumes for sale at their web site here.

The next set of letters I will be reading include all the available correspondence between Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft (pictured above). These volumes are aptly titled A Means To Freedom: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard: 1930-1932 & 1933-1936. These volumes are edited by S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz, and Rusty Burke.

The REH Foundation does not sell these volumes, but you can find copies at various online book vending spots. The inside flap on these volumes reads: 
H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard are two of the titans of weird fiction of their era. Dominating the pages of Weird Tales in the 1920s and 1930s, they have gained worldwide followings for their compelling writings and also for the very different lives they led. The two writers came in touch in 1930, when Howard wrote to Lovecraft via Weird Tales. A rich and vibrant correspondence immediately ensued. Both writers were fascinated with the past, especially the history of Roman and Celtic Britain, and their letters are full of intriguing discussions of contemporary theories on this subject. Gradually, a new discussion came to the fore-a complex dispute over the respective virtues of barbarism and civilisation, the frontier and settled life, and the physical and the mental. Lovecraft, a scion of centuries-old New England, and Howard, a product of recently settled Texas, were diametrically opposed on these and other issues, and each writes compellingly of his beliefs, attitudes, and theories. The result is a dramatic debate-livened by wit, learning, and personal revelation-that is as enthralling as the fiction they were writing at the time. 
All the letters have been exhaustively annotated by the editors. In the second volume of the letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, the two authors continue their wide-ranging discussion of such central issues as the relative value of barbarism and civilization, the virtues of the frontier and of settled city life, and other related issues. Lovecraft regales Howard with his extensive travels up and down the eastern seaboard, including trips to Quebec, Florida, and obscure corners of New England, while Howard writes engagingly of his own travels through the lonely stretches of Texas. Each has great praise for the other's writings in Weird Tales and elsewhere, and each conducts searching discussions of literature, philosophy, politics, and economics in the wake of the depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt's election. World affairs, including the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, also engage their attention. All letters are exhaustively edited by the editors, and the volume concludes with an extensive bibliography of both writers as well as the publication of a few letters to Lovecraft from Robert E. Howard's father, Dr. I. M. Howard, in the wake of his son's tragic and unexpected suicide.
I'm very much looking forward to reading both sets. I'm sure this will occupy a big chunk of my reading for awhile, at least the next few months.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Robert E. Howard House and Museum and REH Days

If you have never visited Cross Plains, Texas to see that tiny little home off of highway 36, you are missing out on a truly historic place. On the western edge of Cross Plains sits the small one bedroom house where the greatest pulp fiction writer of the 20th century lived and dreamed. If it were not for the neat picket fence and historical marker in the front yard, the house would inconspicuously sit there off the main highway.

My first visit to the Howard home was back around 1982 or '83. At that time someone was living in it, and it looked quite different than it does today. The paint was peeling, the fence drooped, and the yard needed to be cut. There was a large pecan tree in the front left corner of the yard that is no longer there today. But you know what? I was 16 or 17 years old and I was staring at one of my favorite author's house. For me that was all that mattered.

I didn't see the house again until around 2002. That was when I found out that a group of Howard fans met there every year for what was called REH Days. I was with my step-father, we stopped by the Cross Plains Public Library to see copies of REH's original manuscripts. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the person I spoke with, but she gave me some literature on the house and REH Days. I had promised myself I would attend. On this trip, we were unable to find the person who gave the tours, so I was not able to go into the house. But, seeing facsimiles of REH's manuscripts was awesome.

Another visit to the house included my sister. Shortly after my step-father died, we were in our hometown (Abilene) taking care of estate issues. The trip I took with him to Cross Plains came up in our conversation and we decided to stop off in Cross Plains on our way back to Dallas. It was fairly early in the morning when we arrived. On this trip, there was a new pavilion that had been built next to the house on the old Butler property. There were several people at the pavilion, so my sister and I walked up to greet them. A guy was taking camera equipment out of a large bag, so I chatted with him about what was going on. He told me they were about to film a documentary about REH Days. Realizing that REH days for that year began the next day, I turned to my sister and explained to her what it was and how the person at the CP Public Library had given me information on it.

The camera man asked if we were in Cross Plains to attend. I said we were just passing through. I had to get my sister back to Dallas so she could catch a flight to Minnesota (where she lived). But inside I was screaming at myself for having to miss it. We asked if there was someone around who could let us into the house. Several people made calls, found someone, but it would be a few hours. We could not wait that long and had to leave. I thanked the guy for helping us and wished them luck on their documentary. I found out a few years later that this was the documentary crew I had met that day.

Once again, in that "lost decade" from first finding out about REH Days (in 2002) to this year when I finally attended, I missed out on all the fun. I was so close to attending the year I visited with my sister.

Around 2008 or '09, and I cannot remember the exact year, I finally told my wife that I had missed out on simply trying to visit Cross Plains and see the inside of the Howard home. So I told her to pack her stuff. "We're going!" I said. "Going where?" she asked. "To Cross Plains!" You have to understand, my wife is not a "spur of the moment" kind of gal. She likes to plan things, be prepared. So this was out of her comfort zone. But she did it. We jumped in the car, drove to Cross Plains, and decided to stay the night while we were there. 

We arrived in Cross Plains and immediately booked a room in the tiny motel adjacent to the pavilion on the Butler property. The Motel was called 36 West Motel. We then visited the public library, found a person who could let us into the house and set up a time for us to visit: 9 a.m. the following morning. So, here we were in tiny Cross Plains, Texas trying to decide what we could do. We hung out in the library for a few hours then grabbed a bite to eat, and went back to our motel room. I might add that the rooms in the 36 West Motel are paper thin. Seriously, you can hear everything outside and in the next room. My wife got a kick out of the motel because it reminded her of her grandparent's motel in Waxahachie, TX called The Drifter's Inn.

The next day, we took a tour of the house. Finally, I actually got to see inside REH's home. Believe me when I say this, I was in awe. The house is set up complete with furniture, books, pictures in the hallway, memorabilia in the kitchen, etc. The person giving us the tour provided us with a nice history of the house, explained which items actually belonged to the Howard's, and then let me enter REH's small nook of a bedroom to see the area where he worked.

The first visit is difficult to explain. All kinds of emotions were coursing through my being. To actually be in the very room where Howard created his characters, hammered his prose on his Underwood No. 5, is an experience that, well, you can only experience for yourself. At this point, I'd been reading Howard's work for three decades, so seeing his work space was like seeing the holy grail of fiction.

I was so impressed with this visit, I talked it up to my best friend. So, the next visit I made to the house was with him. I cannot remember the date we went (I think it was sometime in 2010).  But, we did sync our work schedules, set up a tour with a guide and decided to take a one day road trip. We arrived at the designated time, met the guide at the house and took the tour. I had introduced my friend to Howard a few years before, so he had already read several of the Conan stories. He had also heard me talk about Howard for years before this visit. When we were there he bought a Del Rey copy of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. We stayed in the house for a couple of hours and talked to the tour guide about all the people from around the world who had visited the house over the years. Then she took our picture in the shop at the back of the house.

The tour guide also talked about REH Days. I explained to her that I had been meaning to attend the last few years but never made the time. She gave me a much needed lecture on why I ought to attend and I merely nodded my head in shame.

After this trip, I talked about the REH house and museum with my brother. He was so compelled by what I was telling him he wanted to see the place for himself. This visit was on 6/20/2011. Notice the date? It is just after the 2011 REH Days. My brother was in town for a weekend, I had just been laid off as a teacher/aide by the State of Texas and was looking for a new job. Because I needed to "get away," we planned this trip around our schedules. My father wanted to tag along, so he went with us; not an easy trip for him, he was 75 at the time. We set up another tour of the house and decided to stay for the day. We took several pictures while we were there. Below is one of the pictures taken just outside the Cross Plains Public Library and on the front porch of the house.

That same trip, we visited REH's grave site at the Greenleaf Cemetery, in Brownwod, TX (where C. M. Grady, the famous Texas Ranger is also buried). After this visit, my brother was so impressed, he talked about attending the REH days the following year. We did. So, in 2012, I finally attended my first REH Days—ten years after finding out about it. Being in the house with other serious Howard fans is a real treat. Hearing how they were introduced to Howard's work while standing in the very place Howard created that work is an experience I'm not able to put into words.

If you have wanted to visit the Howard House and Museum and/or attend REH Days in Cross Plains, TX, don't do like I did and put if off. I  regret having so many near misses, and not rearranging my schedule to attend REH Days. Seeing the house and attending REH Days is like no other experience. So, if you have a chance, utilize every effort to make it happen. You'll be so glad you did. I promise.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Age of Conan

I know I'm about four or so years late to the party, but I recently started playing the online version of Age of Conan. Over the past three or so days I've reached level 12. The story line is a bit cheesy, the graphics are nice though.

My character, named Winrift, a Cimmerian in honor of Conan, of course, has fought the Picts, thieves, tomb robbers, alligators, more Picts, tigers, gorillas, assassins, guards, and everything else you under the sun. 

The game, for me anyway, was not intuitive. It took me a good while to figure out all the controls, how to fight, what moves to make, how to climb, open things, etc. But, once I figured these things out, the action and play took off. I'm still learning various aspects of the game like where to store excessive items, who to talk to, how to use the map, etc. As the game progresses, periodically Basil Poledouris music score from the 1982 John Milius film Conan the Barbarian will begin playing. I thought that was pretty cool. Also, Age of Conan was featured in the hit television show The Big Bang Theory (season 2, episode 3—The Barbarian Sublimation). Penny gets addicted to the game in that episode (it's quite funny). I've provided a link below.

The game does not follow any of Robert E. Howard's story lines, but the spirit of the Conan stories is evident. Overall I've enjoyed the game. But, I have to watch myself when it comes to video games, I tend to get too involved in the game, look up at the clock and suddenly see that I've been playing for fours or five hours. Nonetheless, I'll take my time on this one and hopefully not waste too many hours that would otherwise be spent reading, researching, or maintaining an actual life.

Anyway, if you have not played Age of Conan, try it out. Paradox Entertainment and Funcom have done a nice job on the game. It's nice to see Conan in the current culture, even if it is a video game.

The Big Bang Theory Season 2, Episode 3

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Underwood No. 5

The Underwood typewriter was designed and invented by Franz Xaver Wagner. Wagner eventually showed the device to John Thomas Underwood who purchased the rights to manufacture and sell the machine. The first Underwood (No. 1) was introduced to the public between 1896 and 1897, followed by the No. 2, etc. It wasn't until just before 1900 that the Underwood No. 5 was launched. By the No. 5 edition of the typewriter, Wagner had perfected everything that was flawed in the device up to that point. So, the No. 5 was considered the first truly modern typewriter, and was marketed as such.

In fact, the design of the Underwood No. 5 was so popular it became the design standard for all subsequent typewriters, until the 1960s when the IBM Selectric came out. Production of the Underwood 3, 4, and 5 lasted until 1932. Between the three models, the No. 5 was the most popular for several reasons. First, the typebar on the No. 5 gave it speed and accuracy like no other typewriter during that time. 

The typebar was a U-shape where the keys rose from the U at the front of the machine to hit the page with precision and force. This U-shape gave the keys a stronger stroke and a deeper indention on the page. All other typebars until that point were "understrokes" instead of a "frontstroke." The understroke machines were called "blind writers" because they typed from the bottom of the platen, not the front. What that meant was the typist had to raise the carriage to see what had been typed. The carriage and keys (frontstroke) on the No. 5 were designed especially for the typists to see the work being typed; a plus in its design and popularity.

Additionally, the key lay-out of the Underwood No. 5 was QWERTY, a standard that has lasted up to today. Look at the keyboard on your own computer. The first few letters on the first line of letter keys reads Q-W-E-R-T-Y and all other letters cascade from this line in such an order that makes finding letters easier as you type. This arrangement of letters was introduced on the Sholes and Gibbon machine of 1874. Several typewriting companies resisted this odd format, but by the late 1800s (1892-94) QWERTY was the standard keyboard layout on most all typewriters.

The last two features of the Underwood No. 5 were the four-bank keyboard with single shift and ribbon inking. A four-bank keyboard with a single shift allowed the typist to type fast. Most keyboards up to that point were "full keyboards" with an individual key for each letter. While some typewriters had three banks of keys along with two-shifts (one for capitals and one for numbers and symbols), but the No. 5 had four-banks and a single shift. The extra bank for numbers and symbols, the single shift for capitals. Like I mentioned earlier, speed was the idea. As for ribbon, other typewriters prior to the Underwood (and later), used ink rollers or ink pads. These required care and frequent replacement. Ribbons, even though the type was not as neat as rollers/pads, needed to be replaced less often and were easier to change.

Besides its popularity in the 1920s, Robert probably chose an Underwood No. 5 based on all the factors above. It is not for certain when he purchased his Underwood No. 5. There is indication from his correspondence that he probably bought one around 1925. Pictured below is an add for the Underwood No. 5 from around 1922-23. Something Robert might have seen in one of the magazines he read.

Underwood No. 5 typewriters are quite common today, even though collectors still collect them. Because of their popularity and the amount that were manufactured between 1900 and 1932, they are not as rare as you might think, making them fairly easy to find and not priced too high. If you ever have the opportunity to type on an Underwood No. 5—I actually have—they are not as easy to use as you might think. The constant pounding down on the large keys can be wearisome. And, after a while your fingers become numb. Which merely means that I'm too spoiled with the ease of use on my computer's keyboard. 

If REH did buy his No. 5 in 1925 (and this is likely the case), that would mean the bulk of his work was created on a machine that was built for speed and accuracy. I can imagine him sitting down at his desk pounding out his yarns as he voices them aloud. I can even hear the metallic clicking of the keys as he presses each down; sounding so much like swords clashing. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Sunday Afternoon with an REH Website

I spent yesterday afternoon perusing one of my favorite REH blogs on the internet: REH: Two-Gun Raconteur. I jumped to the sites archives, beginning January 2007 and read all the way through to the current post, August 1st 2012.

If you are new to Howard studies, this site is a must. Even if you are old to Howard studies this site is a must. Just about every possible topic, announcement, new book or fanzine about Howard, etc. is mentioned or discussed on this site. The site also contains links to REH Publishers, REH Scholar Resources, Other REH Websites (which I am proud to say that the old URL for On an Underwood #5 is listed, hopefully the new URL will be listed soon.), and other links such as Friends of TGR, etc. are present on the site.

Having spent the afternoon reviewing all the posts, there were a few that really grabbed my attention. These are certainly worth mentioning:

Feminism and The Women in Robert E. Howard's Fiction—Part 1

This article, written by Barbara Barrett and Amy Kerr, is about how society over the centuries has viewed women, their roles, and how that differed in Howard's stories. This article has three parts and every part is a great read.

Yellow Jacket by Rob Roehm

This article is a brief but wonderful history about the Howard Payne College student newspaper and several stories authored by Howard. These stories were previously "lost" until they showed up in Vol. 4, #3 Fall 2010 REH Foundation Newsletter. Read this article by Rob and you'll get a nice history of REH's beginnings as a published writer.

Psycho Thomas Ellison Makes a Mess by Damon C. Sasser.

Along with a few others—here and here—the "Psycho" article is an attempt to respond to faulty information/posts by others who may not have their facts straight about Robert E. Howard. The faulty articles are worth reading as well, if for no other reasons than the responses given by core Howard fans who actually know what they're talking about. Misinformation about Howard, and downright lies still circulate, it's these posts and hopefully future ones that will aid in correcting the errors, at least via the internet.

Other items of note: Brian Leno offers some nice posts on Howard's favorite books and films, along with those Howard disliked. Leno's articles are well written and informative and well worth a thorough read.

Almuric—One Wild, Wild Planet by Keith Taylor

This article is an expositional treatise about Howard's unique work titled Almuric. The article is well written and also touches on some of the influences of Howard's within the story (e.g. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom.). Taylor adds great insight into the story and a bit of the historicity of ill-fitted Earth men getting a new start in an alien world since Almuric. This piece is well worth reading. In fact, I'll go so far as to to say that if you only read a few things from the "Two-Gun" website, certainly read this one.

A Mysterious People by Keith Taylor

Another article by Keith Taylor reveals REH's love for history, various peoples, lands, civilizations, times, etc. This article dicusses all these things and more. Taylor brings to bear correspondence between H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard regarding the Etruscans (Tuscans), their Roman origins, and how they play a role in Howard's research and writing.  The historical details in this article are first rate. Here is another "must-read" at Two-Gun by Keith Taylor.

I could mention a lot more but I trust that most of you who read this post will certainly take the time, if you already haven't, to read the posts at REH: Two-Gun Raconteur. Between Sasser's informative articles about new publications, new blog sites, etc., Rob Roehm's excellent "time capsules" on Howard's history, from the smallest piece of history to the more popular history, Keith Taylor's historical expositions, Brian Leno's work on Howard's influences and favorite authors/movies, and others, there's enough on this great blog to keep you busy on a hot Sunday afternoon. Cheers!

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Del Rey Collection

If you are new to reading Robert E. Howard, consider yourself blessed because you are now able to read his works in their closest originally written form. When I first started reading Howard, the options were slim - Ace Books had the L. Sprague de Camp editions of Conan. These included Lin Carter's and de Camps' pastiche chapters/additions, so you really did not get all of Howard's original work. Glenn Lord published a nice paperback series through Berkley Medallion Books in the late 70s, but by the early to mid-80s these were somewhat tough to find.

Today, Del Rey has published a series of all of Howard's original works. And, it should be pointed out that these books are a must-read/must-have collection. Each volume has a nice introduction written by various Howard scholars (e.g. Rusty Burke, Patrice Louinet, etc.), several of the volumes contain Rusty Burke's Short Biography of Robert E. Howard, each volume has illustrations by various excellent artists (e.g. Gary Gianni), and Notes on the Original Howard Texts. If you stumble onto this post here at On An Underwood No. 5 and have not heard of these volumes, then you're in luck. Each book is listed below with the blurb from the back of the book describing its contents. I hope this post helps you decide that if you have an interest in Robert E. Howard, these volumes are a worthwhile investment. Feel free to click on any of the links and order the volumes.

[Listed in chronological order according to their publication dates]

Publication Date: December 2, 2003 “Between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities . . . there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars. . . . Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand . . . to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.” Conan is one of the greatest fictional heroes ever created–a swordsman who cuts a swath across the lands of the Hyborian Age, facing powerful sorcerers, deadly creatures, and ruthless armies of thieves and reavers. In a meteoric career that spanned a mere twelve years before his tragic suicide, Robert E. Howard single-handedly invented the genre that came to be called sword and sorcery. Collected in this volume, profusely illustrated by artist Mark Schultz, are Howard’s first thirteen Conan stories, appearing in their original versions–in some cases for the first time in more than seventy years–and in the order Howard wrote them. Along with classics of dark fantasy like “The Tower of the Elephant” and swashbuckling adventure like “Queen of the Black Coast,” The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian contains a wealth of material never before published in the United States, including the first submitted draft of Conan’s debut, “Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard’s synopses for “The Scarlet Citadel” and “Black Colossus,” and a map of Conan’s world drawn by the author himself. Here are timeless tales featuring Conan the raw and dangerous youth, Conan the daring thief, Conan the swashbuckling pirate, and Conan the commander of armies. Here, too, is an unparalleled glimpse into the mind of a genius whose bold storytelling style has been imitated by many, yet equaled by none.
Publication Date: June 29, 2004 With Conan the Cimmerian, Robert E. Howard created more than the greatest action hero of the twentieth century—he also launched a genre that came to be known as sword and sorcery. But Conan wasn’t the first archetypal adventurer to spring from Howard’s fertile imagination. “He was . . . a strange blending of Puritan and Cavalier, with a touch of the ancient philosopher, and more than a touch of the pagan. . . . A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things. . . . Wayward and restless as the wind, he was consistent in only one respect—he was true to his ideals of justice and right. Such was Solomon Kane.” Collected in this volume, lavishly illustrated by award-winning artist Gary Gianni, are all of the stories and poems that make up the thrilling saga of the dour and deadly Puritan, Solomon Kane. Together they constitute a sprawling epic of weird fantasy adventure that stretches from sixteenth-century England to remote African jungles where no white man has set foot. Here are shudder-inducing tales of vengeful ghosts and bloodthirsty demons, of dark sorceries wielded by evil men and women, all opposed by a grim avenger armed with a fanatic’s faith and a warrior’s savage heart. This edition also features exclusive story fragments, a biography of Howard by scholar Rusty Burke, and “In Memoriam,” H. P. Lovecraft’s moving tribute to his friend and fellow literary genius.
Publication Date: November 23, 2004 In his hugely influential and tempestuous career, Robert E. Howard created the genre that came to be known as sword and sorcery–and brought to life one of fantasy’s boldest and most enduring figures: Conan the Cimmerian–reaver, slayer, barbarian, king. This lavishly illustrated volume gathers together three of Howard’s longest and most famous Conan stories–two of them printed for the first time directly from Howard’s typescript–along with a collection of the author’s previously unpublished and rarely seen outlines, notes, and drafts. Longtime fans and new readers alike will agree that The Bloody Crown of Conan merits a place of honor on every fantasy lover’s bookshelf. THE PEOPLE OF THE BLACK CIRCLE Amid the towering crags of Vendhya, in the shadowy citadel of the Black Circle, Yasmina of the golden throne seeks vengeance against the Black Seers. Her only ally is also her most formidable enemy–Conan, the outlaw chief. THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON Toppled from the throne of Aquilonia by the evil machinations of an undead wizard, Conan must find the fabled jewel known as the Heart of Ahriman to reclaim his crown . . . and save his life. A WITCH SHALL BE BORN A malevolent witch of evil beauty. An enslaved queen. A kingdom in the iron grip of ruthless mercenaries. And Conan, who plots deadly vengeance against the human wolf who left him in the desert to die.
Publication Date: May 31, 2005 From Robert E. Howard’s fertile imagination sprang some of fiction’s greatest heroes, including Conan the Cimmerian, King Kull, and Solomon Kane. But of all Howard’s characters, none embodied his creator’s brooding temperament more than Bran Mak Morn, the last king of a doomed race. In ages past, the Picts ruled all of Europe. But the descendants of those proud conquerors have sunk into barbarism . . . all save one, Bran Mak Morn, whose bloodline remains unbroken. Threatened by the Celts and the Romans, the Pictish tribes rally under his banner to fight for their very survival, while Bran fights to restore the glory of his race. Lavishly illustrated by award-winning artist Gary Gianni, this collection gathers together all of Howard’s published stories and poems featuring Bran Mak Morn–including the eerie masterpiece “Worms of the Earth” and “Kings of the Night,” in which sorcery summons Kull the conqueror from out of the depths of time to stand with Bran against the Roman invaders. Also included are previously unpublished stories and fragments, reproductions of manuscripts bearing Howard’s handwritten revisions, and much, much more. Special Bonus: a newly discovered adventure by Howard, presented here for the very first time.
Publication Date: November 29, 2005 “FOR HEADLONG, NONSTOP ADVENTURE AND FOR VIVID, EVEN FLORID, SCENERY, NO ONE EVEN COMES CLOSE TO HOWARD.” –Harry Turtledove In a meteoric career that covered only a dozen years, Robert E. Howard defined the sword-and-sorcery genre. In doing so, he brought to life the archetypal adventurer known to millions around the world as Conan the barbarian. Witness, then, Howard at his finest, and Conan at his most savage, in the latest volume featuring the collected works of Robert E. Howard, lavishly illustrated by award-winning artist Greg Manchess. Prepared directly from the earliest known versions–often Howard’s own manuscripts–are such sword-and-sorcery classics as “The Servants of Bit-Yakin” (formerly published as “Jewels of Gwahlur”), “Beyond the Black River,” “The Black Stranger,” “Man-Eaters of Zamboula” (formerly published as “Shadows in Zamboula”), and, perhaps his most famous adventure of all, “Red Nails.” The Conquering Sword of Conan includes never-before-published outlines, notes, and story drafts, plus a new introduction, personal correspondence, and the revealing essay “Hyborian Genesis”–which chronicles the history of the creation of the Conan series. Truly, this is heroic fantasy at its finest.
Publication Date: October 31, 2006 “Howard’s writing seems so highly charged with energy that it nearly gives off sparks.” –Stephen King “Robert E. Howard had a gritty, vibrant style–broadsword writing that cut its way to the heart, with heroes who are truly larger than life.” –David Gemmell In a meteoric career that spanned a mere twelve years, Robert E. Howard single-handedly invented the genre that came to be called sword and sorcery. From his fertile imagination sprang some of fiction’s most enduring heroes. Yet while Conan is indisputably Howard’s greatest creation, it was in his earlier sequence of tales featuring Kull, a fearless warrior with the brooding intellect of a philosopher, that Howard began to develop the distinctive themes, and the richly evocative blend of history and mythology, that would distinguish his later tales of the Hyborian Age. Much more than simply the prototype for Conan, Kull is a fascinating character in his own right: an exile from fabled Atlantis who wins the crown of Valusia, only to find it as much a burden as a prize. This groundbreaking collection, lavishly illustrated by award-winning artist Justin Sweet, gathers together all Howard’s stories featuring Kull, from Kull’s first published appearance, in “The Shadow Kingdom,” to “Kings of the Night,” Howard’s last tale featuring the cerebral swordsman. The stories are presented just as Howard wrote them, with all subsequent editorial emendations removed. Also included are previously unpublished stories, drafts, and fragments, plus extensive notes on the texts, an introduction by Howard authority Steve Tompkins, and an essay by noted editor Patrice Louinet. “Howard was a true storyteller–one of the first, and certainly among the best, you’ll find in heroic fantasy. If you’ve never read him before, you’re in for a real treat.” –Charles de Lint “For stark, living fear . . . what other writer is even in the running with Robert E. Howard?” –H. P. Lovecraft
Publication Date: August 14, 2007 Robert E. Howard is one of the most famous and influential pulp authors of the twentieth century. Though largely known as the man who invented the sword-and-sorcery genre–and for his iconic hero Conan the Cimmerian–Howard also wrote horror tales, desert adventures, detective yarns, epic poetry, and more. This spectacular volume, gorgeously illustrated by Jim and Ruth Keegan, includes some of his best and most popular works. Inside, readers will discover (or rediscover) such gems as “The Shadow Kingdom,” featuring Kull of Atlantis and considered by many to be the first sword-and-sorcery story; “The Fightin’est Pair,” part of one of Howard’s most successful series, chronicling the travails of Steve Costigan, a merchant seaman with fists of steel and a head of wood; “The Grey God Passes,” a haunting tale about the passing of an age, told against the backdrop of Irish history and legend; “Worms of the Earth,” a brooding narrative featuring Bran Mak Morn, about which H. P. Lovecraft said, “Few readers will ever forget the hideous and compelling power of [this] macabre masterpiece”; a historical poem relating a momentous battle between Cimbri and the legions of Rome; and “Sharp’s Gun Serenade,” one of the last and funniest of the Breckinridge Elkins tales. These thrilling, eerie, compelling, swashbuckling stories and poems have been restored to their original form, presented just as the author intended. There is little doubt that after more than seven decades the voice of Robert E. Howard continues to resonate with readers around the world.
Publication Date: November 27, 2007 The classic pulp magazines of the early twentieth century are long gone, but their action-packed tales live on through the work of legendary storyteller Robert E. Howard. From his fecund imagination sprang an army of larger-than-life heroes–including the iconic Conan the Cimmerian, King Kull of Atlantis, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn–as well as adventures that would define a genre for generations. Now comes the second volume of this author’s breathtaking short fiction, which runs the gamut from sword and sorcery, historical epic, and seafaring pirate adventure to two-fisted crime and intrigue, ghoulish horror, and rip-roaring western. Kull reigns supreme in “By This Axe I Rule!” and “The Mirrors of Tuzan Thune”; Conan conquers in one of his most popular exploits, “The Tower of the Elephant”; Solomon Kane battles demons deep in Africa in “Wings in the Night”; and itinerant boxer Steve Costigan puts up his dukes of steel inside and outside the ring in “The Bulldog Breed.” In between, warrior kings, daring knights, sinister masterminds, grizzled frontiersmen–even Howard’s stunning heroine, Red Sonya–tear up the pages in stories built to thrill by their masterly creator. And in such epic poems as “Echoes from an Anvil,” “Black Harps in the Hills,” and “The Grim Land,” the author blends his classic characters and visceral imagery with a lyricism as haunting as traditional folk balladry. Lavishly illustrated by Jim and Ruth Keegan, here is a Robert E. Howard collection as indispensable as it is unforgettable.
Publication Date: October 28, 2008 Here are Howard’s greatest horror tales, all in their original, definitive versions. Some of Howard’s best-known characters–Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, and sailor Steve Costigan among them–roam the forbidding locales of the author’s fevered imagination, from the swamps and bayous of the Deep South to the fiend-haunted woods outside Paris to remote jungles in Africa. The collection includes Howard’s masterpiece “Pigeons from Hell,” which Stephen King calls “one of the finest horror stories of [the twentieth] century,” a tale of two travelers who stumble upon the ruins of a Southern plantation–and into the maw of its fatal secret. In “Black Canaan” even the best warrior has little chance of taking down the evil voodoo man with unholy powers–and none at all against his wily mistress, the diabolical High Priestess of Damballah. In these and other lavishly illustrated classics, such as the revenge nightmare “Worms of the Earth” and “The Cairn on the Headland,” Howard spins tales of unrelenting terror, the legacy of one of the world’s great masters of the macabre.
Publication Date: February 9, 2010 Robert E. Howard is famous for creating such immortal heroes as Conan the Cimmerian, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn. Less well-known but equally extraordinary are his non-fantasy adventure stories set in the Middle East and featuring such two-fisted heroes as Francis Xavier Gordon—known as “El Borak”—Kirby O’Donnell, and Steve Clarney. This trio of hard-fighting Americans, civilized men with more than a touch of the primordial in their veins, marked a new direction for Howard’s writing, and new territory for his genius to conquer. The wily Texan El Borak, a hardened fighter who stalks the sandscapes of Afghanistan like a vengeful wolf, is rivaled among Howard’s creations only by Conan himself. In such classic tales as “The Daughter of Erlik Khan,” “Three-Bladed Doom,” and “Sons of the Hawk,” Howard proves himself once again a master of action, and with plenty of eerie atmosphere his plotting becomes tighter and twistier than ever, resulting in stories worthy of comparison to Jack London and Rudyard Kipling. Every fan of Robert E. Howard and aficionados of great adventure writing will want to own this collection of the best of Howard’s desert tales, lavishly illustrated by award-winning artists Tim Bradstreet and Jim & Ruth Keegan.
Publication Date: January 25, 2011 The immortal legacy of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Cimmerian, continues with this latest compendium of Howard’s fiction and poetry. These adventures, set in medieval-era Europe and the Near East, are among the most gripping Howard ever wrote, full of pageantry, romance, and battle scenes worthy of Tolstoy himself. Most of all, they feature some of Howard’s most unusual and memorable characters, including Cormac FitzGeoffrey, a half-Irish, half-Norman man of war who follows Richard the Lion-hearted to twelfth-century Palestine—or, as it was known to the Crusaders, Outremer; Diego de Guzman, a Spaniard who visits Cairo in the guise of a Muslim on a mission of revenge; and the legendary sword woman Dark Agn├Ęs, who, faced with an arranged marriage to a brutal husband in sixteenth-century France, cuts the ceremony short with a dagger thrust and flees to forge a new identity on the battlefield. Lavishly illustrated by award-winning artist John Watkiss and featuring miscellanea, informative essays, and a fascinating introduction by acclaimed historical author Scott Oden, Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures is a must-have for every fan of Robert E. Howard, who, in a career spanning just twelve years, won a place in the pantheon of great American writers.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Transitional Howard: Racism and Solomon Kane, Part 3

As Wings in the Night progresses, the reader finds out that the Bognadi tribe chose a lush land to cultivate and live on, but they are soon tormented by the flying beasts they call akaana. The akaanas (harpies) eventually control and kill the Bogandi tribe leaving about 150 tribe members at the time Solomon Kane finds them. Because their numbers have dwindled due to the harpies, the Bogandi could not escape to the West because of the large numbers of cannibals. Kane pities the Bogandi people and vows to help them. It is at this point that we see the first reference of a black tribe in any of Howard's writings being referred to as human beings instead of black people:
Kane shuddered at the thought of a tribe of human beings, thus passing slowly but surely into the maws of a race of monsters. (The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, Del Rey, p. 302)
 Kane is disgusted with the thought that these harpies have caused this group of people to suffer so much. His pity is not aimed at them because they are black, but because they are people. Since Kane had already killed two harpies, the beasts stayed at bay for a period. Kane remains with the tribe and racks his mind to devise a plan to get rid of the beasts. For a time the village is at peace until the harpies launch a final attack.

In the night, Kane is awaken by a full blown assault. The harpies have descended on the helpless Bogandi tribe; a surprise attack in the night. In the midst of the turmoil, Kane attempts to help the people but is as limited as they are with weaponry. Feeling utter despair and responsibility for these people Kane goes mad. In his temporary madness he lashes out in all directions killing harpies and screaming at the top of his lungs in the process. The harpies finally leave the village in total ruins, everyone has been slaughtered except the maddened Kane. And it's here that Howard writes one of his most telling paragraphs in the story about the "white man":
And was he [Kane] not a symbol of Man, staggering among the tooth-marked bones and severed grinning heads of humans, brandishing a futile ax, and screaming incoherent hate at the grisly, winged shapes of Night that make their prey, chuckling in demonic triumph above him and dripping into his mad eyes the pitiful blood of their human victims? (p. 312)
There are several important things to note in the above paragraph. First, why does Howard refer to Kane—the only person in the scene who is white—as a symbol of Man? Why is man capitalized? It has nothing to do with masculinity. Nor does it refer to Kane's status. I think Howard is using the the phrase in connection with two features of the story: the fact that the Bogandi thought Kane was a god, and the fact that Kane is white. So race here is an issue but not racism toward blacks per se. Kane has failed this tribe, he's gone mad due to that fact. He feels responsible. Also, Howard calls the tribe, once again, humans and not blacks in the above paragraph. I think "Man" is capitalized in the above paragraph to refer to "whites,"—Kane being the white man on the scene—and has a religious referent (a god). This assessment is based on what immediately follows: the sub-title "The White-Skinned Conqueror."

This sub-title jumps off the page deliberately. Howard uses it to grab attention, but it is this sub-title that has lent to the idea that Howard is being racist when just the opposite may be a work here. Reading on, we see Kane surveying the death and destruction at the claws of the harpies. Kane observes the dead Bogandi people, especially those whom he has come to admire (e.g. Goru). Then this happens:
Kane looked at the shambles that had been Boganda, and he looked at the death mask of Goru. And he lifted his clenched fists above his head, and with glaring eyes raised and writhing lips flecked with froth, he cursed the sky and the earth and the spheres above and below. He cursed the cold stars, the blazing sun, the mocking moon and the whisper of the wind. He cursed all fates and destinies, all that he had loved or hated, the silent cities beneath the seas, the past ages and the future eons. In one soul-shaking burst of blasphemy he cursed the gods and devils who make mankind their sport, and he cursed Man who lives blindly on and blindly offers his back to the iron-hoofed feet of his gods. (p. 313-15)
Suddenly we read what might appear as a maddened tirade. However, this tirade speaks volumes not only about the content of this story but about the content of the human condition and current affairs during Howard's day and the century that lead up to Howard's day. Once again we see Howard capitalize the word "Man." He does so in the same context as the last passage—referring to "whites." This time Man is followed by a most telling passage: "who lives blindly on and blindly offers his back to the iron-hoofed feet of his gods." 

What does Howard mean with his use of "iron-hoofed feet"? Is this a reference to slavery? To hatred? To racism? The answer seems to be, "yes", to all the above. And, as Howard has declared, "Man . . . blindly offers his back" to these things. Moreover, the harpies in this story certainly represent those who have oppressed and destroyed certain people, namely the oppression of blacks. Howard is brilliant in his subtlety with this point, but the careful reader will find the message. 

So what does Kane (the "white god") do in response to all this? He acts like a god and exacts punishment. He devises a plan and traps the harpies in a hut. He then sets fire to the hut, destroying the beasts. The religious allusions in the conclusion of the story are obvious. But is this what Howard thinks should happen to those who practice oppression of certain races? Howard's struggle with the issue of racism is apparent, which leads me to think that Howard was at least attempting to deal with the issue through his stories. I, for one, think the use of this story to defend Howard's racism is wrong headed. A closer look reveals a much different story, and a potentially transitional Howard in his previous views about racial issues.

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Transitional Howard: Racism and Solomon Kane, Part 2

It's not an accident when Howard places a black character in a positive light. It's certainly not done merely to improve or sell a story. In fact, in the late 20s and early 30s, racism ran rampant across the country (especially in Texas). It would be unusual for a racist writer to take a black character and detail that character in a positive way. So it would have been "normal" for Howard to always paint his black characters negatively. And, as was pointed out in the first part of this series, Howard did occasionally do that. Nonetheless, to elevate a black character in a story or place that character in a positive light is risky in Howard's day and demands some seriously clever writing. This is what I think Howard has done in a slow but steady progression throughout his Solomon Kane stories.

In The Hills of the Dead Howard returns to negative stereotypes for his black characters except for one; a small girl which he declares is:
[A] much higher type than the thick-lipped, bestial West Coast negroes to whom Kane had been used. She was slim and finely formed, of a deep brown hue rather than ebony; her nose was straight and thin-bridged, her lips were not too thick. Somewhere in her blood there was a strong Berber strain. (Del Rey edition; The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, p. 230-31).
There are several things going on in this passage that the casual reader could too easily overlook. First, it is quite obvious that Howard has done his research and done it well. He describes the indigenous Berber people of North Africa who lived west of the Nile river. Second he describes this type as a higher type. What does he mean by "higher type"? Is he merely trying to demean the "lower type" by calling the Berbers "higher?" Or is he pointing out diversity among various indigenous Africans? Third, his use of a small child is ingenious because it practically demands sympathy. What better way to gain sympathy for a dark skinned person than to make her a girl and a child at that? All these factors, especially the understanding of diversity between people and Howard's use of a small female child is a clever and subtle way to get his reader to slowly empathize and understand characters who would otherwise be thought of as racially sub-standard.

What is more, and this is crucial, N'Longa reappears at the beginning of The Hills of the Dead. Only this time N'Longa gives Solomon an important gift—the famous Staff that is older than the world. Even though Kane is hesitant to take the staff, an exchange like this between a black person and a white person is, at best, extremely unusual given the decade in which the story was published. It can certainly be viewed as a positive action between two races who are otherwise always at odds with one another. Moreover, the staff is an instrument of help, and is intended to help Solomon in his travels. It's almost as if this is a type of peace offering between two races.

Now we come to Wings in the Night. In this story Howard is in rare but extraordinary form. He begins the story with this opening sentence:
Solomon Kane leaned on his strangely carved staff and gazed in scowling perplexity at the mystery which spread silently before him. (Del Rey edition; The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, p. 275)
The first thing Howard mentions is the staff given to Solomon Kane by N'Longa. A staff that will later be used to help a tribe of natives in Bogonda. As the story progresses, Solomon Kane is chased down by a group of flying human-like beasts (we later find out are harpies). Kane kills one of the beasts but is injured. He is brought unconscious to a tribe of natives. These natives nurse Kane back to health.

The interesting thing about the natives from Wings in the Night is that they are not like any other natives Howard has written. First, they have a more appropriate manner of speech (as crazy as that sounds it is an important detail). Second, they are more intelligent than any other Kane has encountered. Third, this area, called Boganda, has never encountered a white man. Fourth, because they have never seen a white man and they witness Kane kill one of the harpies (what they call an akaana) they assume Kane is a god. Kane corrects them and declares, "I am no god. . . . but a man like yourself, albeit my skin be white." 

Two interesting things occur in Kane's response. First, Kane claims that he is equal with these men—"I am a man like yourself." Second, to correct their claim of deity toward Kane, he explains—"Albeit my skin be white." Howard eliminates any sense of superiority and uses the fact that these natives have never seen a white man to defeat the idea of deifying one. The combination of color and the fact that Kane has killed a beast that has given these people grief for so long is why they mistake him as a god. But Howard levels the playing field, so to speak, and has Kane declare that he is their equal. This, I might add, is a pretty liberal thing to write in Howard's day. But, there are more interesting things to come in the story. (To be continued).

[The illustration used in this post is Gary Gianni's and comes from the Del Rey edition of The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane.]

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Transitional Howard: Racism and Solomon Kane, Part 1

A discussion has been taking place lately on the Robert E. Howard Readers Facebook page about Howard and racism. Yes, this issue has raised its ugly head again. Was Robert E. Howard a racist? The hard and fast answer: yes. Is this a pointless issue as some think it is? I guess that answer is reserved for individual opinion. The only reason I think it might still be important is due to the fact that it keeps being brought up. So, to some, it's not a settled issue and is perhaps important.

Regardless, this post is not about whether Howard was a racist. It's not an attempt to defend Howard's racism because he was a "product of his time." No. This post is about how Howard might have dealt with the issue in his stories; more specifically in his Solomon Kane stories. 

When the issue of Howard's racism is discussed there are usually three main stories tossed to the forefront of the stage: The Vale of Lost Women, Shadows in Zamboula, and Wings in the Night. The first two are Conan stories, the last one is Solomon Kane. There are others mentioned besides these three, but these usually top the list. My concern is with the last story mentioned. I think Wings in the Night gets pigeon holed into being a work that "clearly" demonstrates Howard's racism. It clearly demonstrates something about the issue of racism, but not, perhaps, that Howard was being racist in the story. But, let me back up a step. Asking whether Howard was a racist is, I think, asking the wrong question. Here's what I mean.

Howard's racism has already been well established. No one is actually denying it are they? If so, they might want to get their head examined, or do a little better research on the issue. So the question is he a racist, is he not, is moot. A better question is, did Howard ever attempt to deal with his own racism? I think he did to a certain degree and I think this can best be seen in his Solomon Kane stories.

No one knows the exact chronology of the Solomon Kane stories. The Del Rey edition titled The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane has the stories in as close to chronological composition order as possible. That being the case, all one has to do is read the edition from start to finish and you'll see what I'm about to point out.

As readers of this volume we are first introduced to black African characters in Red Shadows (e.g. N'Longa). By The Moon of Skulls Howard has an entire black civilization living in an underground city that was once occupied by an ancient civilization. In these two stories Howard has referred to his black characters as "negros"; a term that dates back to around 1440 to 1442 when the Portuguese stumbled upon sub-Saharan Africa in their attempt to find a feasible route by sea to India. The Portuguese used the term negro—which meant "black"—to refer to the indigenous people. By the 1970s this term became pejorative and is now no longer used. In Howard's day it was quite common, and not pejorative, to use the term "negro" to refer to blacks. So the term certainly does not connote any form of racism by its use in Howard's stories. However, Howard has caricatured his black characters. This is done through Howard's use of dialogue and description.

In The Moon of Skulls Howard describes the black civilization in the underground city as not intelligent enough to have figured out the what would otherwise be fairly obvious hidden passageways. He also implies that this black civilization is a lesser form/status of people, and that they need to be punished for keeping captive an innocent white girl named Marilyn. So right away it seems that Howard's black characters are not off to a good start. But, one of Howard's main characters, the black queen named Nakari is elevated a bit in the story. She is described as moving like a she-leopard and having lithe beauty, Solomon even catches himself in admiration of her. Why would Howard put a black main character in such a positive light? What is he trying to tell his reader, if anything? What does Howard then do with his black characters in subsequent Solomon Kane stories? (To be continued)

[The illustration used in this post is Gary Gianni's and comes from the Del Rey edition of The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane.]