Sunday, June 22, 2014

Study This, Not That!: A Suggested Bibliography for REH Studies, Part One

Have you ever seen those bestselling books titled Eat This, Not That! ? They contrast the kinds of food it is best to eat with the kinds of food it is best not to eat. They are quite informative. Interestingly enough, in the realm of Robert E. Howard studies there is certainly material on both sides of the line, so speak. In other words, there is available material that is actually good to study, and available material that is not so good to study. This article's intent is to inform the serious seeker in REH studies about the best research material to study and the reasons why. 

In any field of study/research there is always material that is better than others. What one may not understand though is what makes some material better than others and how you tell the difference? A good question to ask when embarking on research is do the data and methods used support the conclusions? In terms of historical research—which is what most REH scholars are essentially working with outside of REH's manuscripts—new data is often discovered which can render old data outdated or sometimes obsolete/wrong. The point of research is to investigate ideas, facts, events, etc. and uncover useful knowledge. Useful knowledge is obtained from eyewitness accounts, documents, manuscripts, recorded history, pictures, letters/correspondence, etc. You get the idea. This is why when new data arises it tends to out-date or sometimes make obsolete older research material. That does not necessarily mean that older material is always "bad" or rendered useless. But it certainly helps to know how new data overrides old data. 

Quality research also demands good judgment, honesty, and proper context. Poor research is usually easy to spot. It entails poor judgments, contradictory evidence, quick/poor assumptions, and/or a lack of solid evidence. While all of the above is certainly not exhaustive, it is a pretty solid foundation from which to start when considering research methodology. 

All the above considered, let me now suggest some research material that I have used to further my knowledge in REH studies. I'll attempt to explain why I think that one might want to study this and not that. It should be noted that I am simply suggesting what I have considered better research material. Also, it is always a good thing to research all material within the arena of your topic. The key factor in doing so is an ability to discern what material is best. That being the case, let's take a look at what's out there:

REH Biographies

Study This . . .

Blood & Thunder by Mark Finn

First Edition
Monkey Brain Books
ISBN: 9781932265217
Second Edition

REH Foundation Press

There are two editions of Mark's work. The second edition makes improvements on grammatical/textual errors from the first edition. Plus, the second edition adds new material based on current research findings, etc. However, even though the second edition is updated, the first edition still holds its own. I own a copy of both editions for purposes of actually being able to see improvements between the two texts and to be able to contrast the updated material between the two editions. The works themselves draw heavily on REH's letters, first person accounts, historical documents, and corrections of silly myths that have developed over the years about Robert E. Howard. There is also an emphasis on the fact that Robert E. Howard was a Texas writer, something that certainly influenced his works. To miss this point, Mark emphasizes, is to miss the man in his work. To this date, this is the definitive REH biography and an important addition to REH studies.

One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard: The Final Years by Novalyne Price Ellis

Donald M. Grant Publishers
ISBN: 093798678X
First published in 1986
This is not your typical biography. In other words Novalyne did not do the standard footwork on the life of Howard like a biographer who had never met Robert E. Howard would be forced to do. This biography is more a kin to an autobiography because Novalyne actually knew Robert E. Howard. In fact the two of them dated toward the end of Howard's life. This work is an account of her experiences with Howard during that time frame. The information is taken directly out of a personal journal she wrote at the time they dated. So not only is this work a first hand account, but it's written in such a style that makes it very readable and personable. In fact, the book was so well received that popular independent film director Dan Ireland based his film The Whole Wide World on this work. So the movie and the book have had a significant cultural impact. The importance of the book lies in the fact that there is no other account of REH's life like it. It provides the reader/researcher intimate insight into the life of the writer and the man. Moreover, there are personal conversations about politics, Texas history, religion, teaching, writing, etc. Howard details his characters, how he creates them, his writing style, why he sells various stories over others, what was selling at that time, and interesting conversations about what both Novalyne and Robert were reading at the time. This book is well worth the time invested.

The Last Celt: A Bio-Bibliography of Robert E. Howard by Glenn Lord

Glenn Lord's work, though no longer in print, is well worth tracking down. There are still copies to be had at various online bookstores (in fact here's one such place).
Berkley Windhover Books
ISBN: 0425036308
November 1977
This work contains Robert E. Howard's autobiography, essays on/about his life, an account of his suicide, family photographs, original artwork by Howard, letters from publishers, a detailed bibliography, and so much more. Glenn Lord was single-handedly responsible for current research being as effective as it has been. Not only for his own published material but for his work and help with all of the most important current REH scholars and their work. In fact, this work is merely a drop in the bucket of all the material Glenn Lord has provided for current REH research. The Last Celt is one of the best starting places for doing REH research, even though it is somewhat dated. The material is reliable, the research is well performed, and the footwork that Lord performed to garner the material is astounding. I owe much of my early research about Howard to this single volume. It is well worth tracking down.

Not That . . .

Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard by L.Sprague de Camp

The main reason I place this work in the "not that" group is due to it's lack of objective research. For too long this biography was the only one available. Unfortunately the repercussions still linger from this work today. However, those repercussions are waning due to current scholarship. I can't stress enough the poor research quality of this work. L. Sprague de Camp (henceforth de Camp) apparently took it upon himself to speculate about various things for which he was unable to find supporting facts. de Camp is not bashful about his speculations either. In fact, he prefaces those speculations with phrases such as "I suspect", "I believe", "It probably . . .", etc. Additionally, because of de Camp's background in psychology, he takes it upon himself to psychoanalyze Robert E. Howard, who at the time was long dead. And de Camp did this despite the fact that at the time psychoanalysis was being seriously questioned about its genuine validity. Today the practice has all but been dismissed as faulty and outdated. If you do decide to tackle this work do it with a full salt shaker and an active discerning mind. The small redeeming qualities of this book are its photographs of Cross Plains (from the 70s) and the REH home from the late 70s early 80s, and its early bibliography.

Robert E. Howard: The Supreme Moment by Francis DiPietro

Unless you are glutton for punishment, I would avoid this biography altogether. Of all the biographical
material I've read (and I've read pretty much everything that's available) this is the worst. In fact, DiPietro prefaces his biography by explaining that he is not a biographical writer. Is that an apology or merely self loathing? However, he does detail his previous works/credentials, all are fictional parodies based on Robert E. Howard's works (e.g. The Hour of the Dragon). Additionally, he admits to researching all the current REH scholars and lists each of their names. All the names are from the standard lot. It should be noted here that by listing names all he in fact accomplished was admitting that his work is derivative of their work. Perhaps derivative is too complimentary a term, a type of plagiarism would be closer to the truth. Regardless, the material in this work is more speculative than de Camp's biography. Despite the poor narrative quality of DiPietro's work he doesn't add any meaningful material to Howard studies. When I say 'meaningful' I mean DiPietro has done nothing to further the research, he has merely taken what is already available and speculated upon it. The most frustrating thing about this work is when DiPietro writes various claims or statements and then leaves them with no further explanation or support. Why? This does nothing but frustrate careful readers. I certainly do not recommend this work at all.

REH Primary Works

Study This . . .

The Del Rey Robert E. Howard Works
Del Rey Books
ISBN: 0345461517
December 2003
Del Rey Books
ISBN: 0345461509
July 2004

In 2003 Del Rey published a volume titled The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian illustrated by Mark Schultz with an introduction by Patrice Louinet. This volume took what was previously done on Wandering Star a few years earlier and made the price accessible to everyone. Morever, buzz about the authenticity of the stories being based solely on the original submitted manuscripts by REH to Weird Tales made the volume all the more appealing. Plus, the appendices included Patrice Louinet's work titled Hyborian Genesis, part one of a three part essay on the historicity of the creation of Conan and the chronology of those manuscripts. The other parts of Hyborian Genesis would continue in the two subsequent Del Rey Conan volumes. Besides the Conan volumes from Del Rey, other volumes would soon follow. All said, 11 Del Rey volumes would be published, including volumes devoted to Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, Kull, El Borak, REH's Horror Stories, historical adventures, etc. The only pitfall I can think of regarding these volumes is that there were no volumes of REH's western and boxing stories. But the REH Foundation would soon remedy that. All of the Del Rey volumes include first rate artwork, excellent introductions, and informative appendices. Each volume is a must for any serious REH reader or researcher.

Not That . . .

The Lancer/Ace Conan Series

Unless you're just into collecting Frazetta's artwork, I would not recommend the Lancer or Ace Conan series. Granted, there are a few volumes where Robert E. Howard's work is present, albeit edited. And, these are not the purist copies. Even though many fans discovered Robert E. Howard (me included) through these volumes, L.Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter included too much of their own work. That's right, the volumes are filled with pastiches from de Camp and Carter, and the Howard works are edited (sometimes quite heavily). Don't misunderstand me here, I'm not slamming de Camp or Carter for their own efforts, it's just if you want to read the real Robert E. Howard stories then stick with the Del Rey editions. Moreover, the introductions to the de Camp/Carter volumes are wrought with problems/issues. No different than the problems/issues in de Camp's biography about REH (DVD). Even so, when I was younger and first introduced to REH (back in 1981) through the Ace editions of these books, I certainly could tell the difference in writing styles/voice/quality between the de Camp/Carter stories and the REH stories. All this being the case, buy them for comparisons to the Del Rey stories and see how they stack up. If you are doing textual analysis then by all means collect these and see how the stories were re-worked/edited compared to the original Weird Tales publications (or original manuscripts). It is for that very reason I own all the Lancer and Ace editions. Otherwise, pass 'em up.

(More to come . . .)


Chris Gruber said...

This is an great idea and an excellent beginning. In all likelihood I would use this article as a guide to point academics in the "scholarly" direction.

Todd B. Vick said...

Thanks for the kind words, Chris.