Friday, September 21, 2012

Sentiment: An Olio of Rarer Works

I purchased this the other day from Robert E. Howard Foundation web site. I'm looking forward to digging into the collection. The book is described by the Foundations as such:

The volume is the Howard collector’s dream, containing those hard-to-find stories from various small press publications from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. No longer will readers have to seek out copies of Pay Day, Lurid Confessions #1, or The Dark Man #2; all of the Howard content in those volumes, and many more, is included here.
Also included are many items seldom seen by collectors. “The Rivals” makes its first appearance outside of a Foundation Newsletter; all three issues of Howard’s amateur press publication, The Right Hook, are presented in their entirety; and many other hard-to-find pieces have finally found a home in Sentiment. For most of these items, this is their first publication in book form. Many of the pieces in this collection are juvenilia.

The great thing about this volume is that it contains all of Howard's attempts at being a writer. Most writers who live to control their legacy do not allow material like this to be published. I mean seriously, do you see any extremely early works in print by the great novelists of the 20th century? John Steinbeck? William Faulkner? How about Ernest Hemingway, or Virginia Woolf? Nope. This is the reason I'm excited about this purchase. Here is a chance for Howard fans to look behind the curtain, so to speak, and see the boy who eventually becomes the greatest pulp fiction writer to take up pen and write.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

An Anchronism in Robert E. Howard's Wings in the Night

A few weeks back I was re-reading Howard's Wings in the Night, researching for a series of posts on this blog and I ran into an unusual thing. I'm not sure why Howard did this. Was it intentional? I can't help but think it was purposeful because it's too large of an error for a writer of his intellectual caliber to overlook. Who knows? Regardless, he's not the only author who has ever made this error, and won't be the last.

In Wings of the Night, Howard anachronistically referred to evolution in the story line. On page 318 of the Del Rey edition titled The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, Howard writes:
Perhaps they [the harpies] were the offspring of a forbidden and obscene mating of man and beast; more likely they were a freakish offshoot on the branch of evolution—for Kane had long ago dimly sensed the truth in the heretical theories of the ancient philosophers, that man is but a higher beast.  
At best this is unusual, but perhaps can be easily explained. While Howard does not elude to Darwin, his use of the term evolution is odd. He should have known better, especially since he has the Solomon Kane stories set around the turn of the 16th to 17th century. This clearly makes the use of the term anachronistic since evolution was not used until the late 19th century (a few decades after Darwin published his now famous work titled Origin of the Species).

By definition an anachronism is a literary error in chronology, or placing an event, item, ideal, or language expression in the wrong period. The most common anachronism occurs with language expressions. The lack of research regarding idioms and their time frames is a constant error in fiction. However, a philosophical or scientific concept is not as common.

Notice in the quote how Howard uses the term evolution but refers back to ancient philosophers. He's correct in this assessment—Aristotle and Plato both refer to mankind as higher animals (or as Howard puts it, "beasts.") but why use the term evolution? I think he did so because evolution was a hot topic in the 20s. The Scopes Monkey trial was a landmark trial in 1925, just a few years prior to Howard writing Wings in the Night. The fuss and talk about evolution and it's ramifications were a hot topic during this period.

Most, if not all, evangelical fundamentalists rejected the theory of evolution during this time. Howard obviously recognizes this and uses the language of his day, commonly used by these same fundamentalists: "for Kane had long ago dimly sensed the truth in the heretical theories." Even though this is a fairly large literary error in the story line, I do not think it was accidental. I think Howard was well aware of what he was writing and used it anyway due to current debate and events. Moreover, I think this makes the story more interesting because it let's readers of his day and today realize that Howard was using theories, ideals, and philosophies of his day to grapple over in his stories.

I actually love it when I find things like this in fiction, especially the obvious anachronisms. You know, the ones that we can be certain that the author clearly would have never used if not for a particular purpose.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Pigeons from Hell: The Graphic Novel

The other day I traveled to north Dallas with a good friend of mine to visit Titan Comics. While I was there I found this . . .

I had no idea this existed, so when I saw it and jumped at the wall to grab it and shouted, "oh, man!", heads turned in the store wondering what this crazy guy was doing. I have not sat down to read it yet, so I am uncertain if it sticks with REH's original story. The artwork, by Nathan Fox and Dave Stewart (of Marvel & DC fame), is quite nice.

The back of the novel reads: Master horror storyteller Joe R. Lansdale throws his scathing wit and wild, otherworldly creations into the mix as he brings Robert E. Howard's classic tale of dark revenge to the present . . . and into the unwilling lives of the Blassenville mansion heirs, twin sisters Claire and Janet. When Griswell fled the Blassenville estate those many years ago, he couldn't have imagined the grotesque horrors that would eclipse the ones he saw then - but they're here!

Online booksellers detail this graphic novel with these words: With more than twenty books to his credit, Joe R. Lansdale is an acclaimed storyteller. He's been called "an immense talent" by Booklist; "a born storyteller" by Robert Bloch; and The New York Times Book Review declares he has "a folklorist's eye for telling detail and a front-porch raconteur's sense of pace." He's won a ton of awards, including five Bram Stoker horror awards, a British Fantasy Award, the American Mystery Award, the Horror Critics Award, the "Shot in the Dark" International Crime Writer's award, the Booklist Editor's Award, the Critic's Choice Award, and a New York Times Notable Book award.

Additionally, on the back of this edition it declares: "This collected edition also includes an afterword by Robert E. Howard scholar Mark Finn, a look into Nathan Fox's sketchbook, and bonus never-before-seen pinups from Guy Davis, Greg Ruth, Tomer Hanuka, Jim Mahfood, and others!

I'm excited to have found this item and look forward to reading it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

His Character Precedes Him

I was visiting my local Lone Star Comic Book shop today, picking up the zero issues of my favorite DC New 52 hero comic books. While waiting to check out there was a guy at the opposite register checking out at the same time. The cashier and this guy struck up a conversation about Conan comic books. My ears perked when I heard the name Conan. The cashier and the customer began comparing notes about what they enjoyed about the character Conan and the various line of Conan comic books.

They began chatting about the recent line of Conan the Barbarian comics published by Dark Horse (Wood, Harren & Stewart). Nearly in unison they launched into a formal laud of the series. I cringed inside because personally I'm not fond of it. I think the artist (Becky Cloonan) ruined the character by making him look like something from a Manga book. After a few seconds the customer mentioned the name, Robert E. Howard. He declared that he had been looking for a particular work since the early 90s, unfortunately I did not hear the name of the work. At this point the cashier at the register where I was checking out told me my total and I handed him my payment. I had every intent of asking the other customer a few questions about his interest in Conan and Robert E. Howard, but by the time I paid for my items and looked up, he was gone. So I simply left the store thinking about the situation.

This circumstance is not new to me. I'm used to the fact that a single character of one of my favorite writers precedes his own reputation. REH is not the only author who suffers from this. He joins the ranks of several greats such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (e.g. Sherlock Holmes) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (e.g. Tarzan). This being the case, I'm used to people knowing who Conan is but not really knowing about other REH characters. Now, I'm not saying this particular customer fell into that category of knowledge, but hearing his discussion made me think about the character Conan in the larger scope of culture.

In my experience, many Conan fans know that Robert E. Howard is Conan's creator, but few know that Conan was merely one small character in Howard's repertoire. Howard's other characters always pale by comparison. There have also been times when I have asked various Conan fans if they were aware that Howard wrote westerns, or ghost stories, etc. This is usually followed by stunned disbelief. It's this stunned disbelief that has constantly reminded me that Conan's reputation will probably always precede Robert E. Howard's. I have to admit that it was via REH's character Conan that I was introduced to the writer behind the character.

Because of this phenomenon Conan is a bittersweet character for me. While I like Conan, he is certainly not my favorite Howard character. But, his cultural popularity is overwhelming with three movies, tons of comic books, several television shows, action figures, video games, and loads of books. And even though much of what I listed above has in various ways distorted Howard's most popular character, the phenomenon of this character remains.

Personally, I've come to view Conan as Howard's "gateway" character. It is through Conan that perhaps someone who would otherwise not know about REH can be introduced. But, it is also necessary to take that introduction a step further. To me it's a given that if someone enjoys Conan they will more than likely enjoy a few of Howard's other characters. Also, the fact that Conan is so popular at least keeps REH's name in the general public, such as the discussion I heard today at Lone Star Comics. But this does have a downside—as I mentioned above, Conan is bittersweet for me. In my experience, Conan has also caused people to develop a stereotypical view about Howard's writing based on this one character. I've heard many tell me that REH only writes stuff like Conan, wild barbaric characters who do nothing but womanize and destroy. Granted this is not even a good description of Conan, but as mentioned earlier, larger culture is being fed a particular character through various media. Sadly, Howard has written so much more than Conan, but due to current cultural manifestations of this one character, all of REH's writings tend to get lumped into this genre. Another reason why I attempt to spread the word about the genuine diversity of Howard's work.

Mentioning Howard's westerns, ghost stories, boxing stories, and even his poetry is something I always try to do. It was the very thing I wanted to do while at Lone Star Comics this morning. I'm always glad to hear people discuss Conan, but I'm always happier if I know they understand that there is way more to REH than this one character. Had I had the opportunity to discuss Conan and REH with the guy at the comic shop this morning, I wanted to ask him if he'd heard of other REH characters. Additionally, anytime I run across someone who enjoys Conan in light of cultural experiences such as the movies or comics, I invariably tell them about Paul M. Sammon's book.

When Sammon's book was published in 2007 I was beside myself. Here was a book that took the cultural phenomenon of Howard's character and placed him in a correct light. Moreover, Sammon gave his reader a proper history of Howard and how Conan has been viewed and "used" culturally over the past five or so decades. This was a godsend for me and my encounters with culturally minded Conan fans. And, to this day I always recommend this book.

Given the fact that Conan will always be in the spotlight amongst all of REH's characters, my lesson from this is to merely use that to introduce the real Robert E. Howard and other Howard characters. As I have said a million times, Howard's writing is so much more than merely one character.