Friday, June 17, 2016

Robert E. Howard Days 2016: A Trip Report by David Piske

This year was my fourth year attending Robert E. Howard Days. The annual pilgrimage to Cross Plains has become a special event for me, but this year it was even more so for several reasons. For one thing, coming to Cross Plains early afforded a chance to take part in a tour that wasn't officially part of REH Days. Secondly, Howard Days experienced a couple "firsts" this year. Also, as with the last three years, I was pleased to reconnect with friends, and make several new ones. Adding to the significance of this year's celebration, 2016 marks many anniversaries related to Robert E Howard. Three in particular were observed at the celebration last week: the 50th anniversary of the publication of Conan the Adventurer from Lancer Books, the 30th anniversary of the very first Robert E. Howard Days, and the 20th anniversary of the release of the film The Whole Wide World. These were observed and celebrated through panels dedicated to each, and by the guest of honor, Michael Scott Myers, screenwriter of The Whole Wide World.

As always, I went to Cross Plains with my friend Todd Vick (editor and host of this blog). We arrived on Wednesday night. I didn't know what there would be to do in Cross Plains two days before the event, but I'm always willing for an extra day or two of vacation. To my surprise, I learned that it pays to show up before the official start of Howard Days. The Howard Home and Museum is a natural rallying point for pilgrims, and we weren't the first ones who decided to arrive early. Let the fellowship begin.

Cross Plains Review
On Thursday the Cross Plains Review held a tour of its facility. Founded in 1909, the Review is the town's longest running business, and one of Texas' oldest continuously running newspapers. Jack Baum served as our tour guide, noting an interesting connection between the paper and Robert Howard. Around 1925 Howard worked briefly for the paper, reporting oil news. And since Baum had worked extensively on the paper's printing machines as a boy, he guided us around through the process and explained the tense and often dangerous job of getting a paper to press. Antique fixtures still installed at the paper include a 1922 Linotype, several type cabinets, a guillotine-like newsprint cutter (on which several people lost fingers over the years), and the highlight: an original Babcock printing press, which is so massive it had to be set on the property's foundation before the building was even constructed. As an added bonus original copies of the Review from 1936 were displayed. Pages included obituaries of Robert's and Hester's deaths, and Robert's story, "A Man Eating Jeopard," which was published a week after his death. These come from the Southwest Collection at Texas Tech University, and were brought by Rob King, who has been working on digitizing original copies of the paper (which can be viewed here []}.

Activities on Friday always start in the morning with registration at the Howard house. It's a good time to to meet up with other arriving attendees and peruse the tables at the "REH Swap Meet" under the pavilion. In a quiet moment I picked up a few new volumes for my small but growing REH library at the museum gift shop/obsession-enabler, and a bit later I got to spy two original issues of Weird Tales that Patrice Louinet was displaying (to everyone's envy).

30 Years of Howard Days
(L to R: Cavalier, McNeel Childers, & Burke)
All of the day's panels were held at Cross Plains High School; the first of these, "Thirty Years of Howard Days" took place in the school's library. Rusty Burke and Bill Cavalier told stories about their first pilgrimages to Cross Plains, and related how the annual gathering we now know came to be gradually organized. And Susan McNeel Childers of Cross Plains told stories from the hometown perspective. Similarly, during the Q/A segment, Cross Plains native and former holder of the Howard estate rights, Jack Baum, talked about the growing receptivity of the town to Howard pilgrims.

Mark Finn (L) & Michael Scott Myers (R)
After lunch, we assembled at the school's auditorium for the next panel, where Mark Finn interviewed this year's guest of honor, Michael Scott Myers, screenwriter of The Whole Wide World, which (as all Howard heads know) is an adaptation of Novalyne Price Ellis' memoir, One Who Walked Alone, about her relationship with Howard. Myers talked about how he first knew Ellis as his high school speech teacher, and about how he came to write the screenplay. He admitted that he did not finish the memoir upon his first reading. But after seeing the Merchant Ivory film A Room with a View, he had a vision of what could be done with a small cast a low budget, and revisited One Who Walked Alone with an eye toward adapting it to the big screen. Inspired by his vision Myers approached Ellis, and she sold him the rights for $20. Myers shared further about the process of writing the script, casting the movie, and other aspects of production. His accounts of interactions with the actors on set during the three and a half week shoot were fun too.

After a recess, we returned to the auditorium where Rusty Burke and Bill Cavalier presented the REH Foundation's annual awards. Bobby Derrie took two awards – The Atlantean for outstanding achievement, for his book, The Collected Letters of REH: Index and Addenda (REH Foundation Press), and The Venarium emerging scholar award, in recognition of his book and the many essays he has contributed to REH: Two Gun Raconteur and On an Underwood No. 5. The unstoppable Jeff Shanks took The Hyrkanian award for outstanding achievement for the fourth year running, for his essay "Evolutionary Otherness: Anthropological Anxiety in Robert E. Howard's 'Worms of the Earth'" (from The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales). And I was honored to tie with Barbara Barrett for The Cimmerian award for outstanding achievement for online essay. Her essay, "Hester Jane Ervin Howard and Tuberculosis" can be found at REH: Two Gun Raconteur, and mine can be found here at On an Underwood No. 5. Damon Sasser took two awards for outstanding achievement (the Stygian and The Aquilonian) for his blog REH: Two Gun Raconteur, and the print journal of the same name.

Ben Friberg at work in the
REH House
(Picture courtesy of Rusty Burke)
The Black Lotus award for outstanding achievement in multimedia went to Ben Friberg for producing the videos of the Howard Days panels. The Black River award for special achievement went to Rob Roehm for his biographical research which can be found at REH: Two Gun Raconteur, On an Underwood No. 5, and The Black Gate. Tomas Giorello and Jose Villarrubia took The Rankin award for artistic achievement in the depiction of REH's life and/or work, for their art in King Conan: Wolves Beyond the Border, issue 1 (Dark Horse). And in recognition of his significant and long-lasting contributions to REH scholarship, Roy Thomas was awarded The Black Circle lifetime achievement award. Thomas wrote for Marvel's Conan the Barbarian, King Conan, and The Savage Sword of Conan. And in 2006 he wrote Conan: The Ultimate Guide to the World's Most Savage Barbarian, and was guest of honor at REH Days.

The highlight of Friday's scheduled events is always the banquet at the community center. To kick things off, Rusty presented the REH Foundation scholarship to this year's winner. And after recognizing all who helped organize this years festivities, Michael Scott Myers delivered the keynote address, giving an augmented account of the writing and production of The Whole Wide World. As usual the Staghorn Cafe delivered the goods, serving a dinner of chicken fried steak with sides. I don't always eat chicken fried steak, but when I do it's from Staghorn. And it's delicious. And this year's silent auction saw the same vicious bidding as always. I was outbid on all the items I wanted, but I hear Jeff Shanks won an original shooting script of The Whole Wide World. And Myers even signed it!

After the banquet Mark Finn, Chris Gruber, and Jeff Shanks discussed one of REH's favorite pastimes, boxing, and the importance it had for him. Attendees illuminated the concrete slab behind the taxidermy business, which is the famed site of the old, rail-side ice house, as we listened to readings from Howard's boxing stories. By way of background, Gruber discussed rough-and-tumble fighting, which featured grappling, biting, and eye-gouging, and which was prevalent in the South and on the frontier, and which Howard wrote about both in his letters and in many stories. He also noted that Howard's story, "Hard-Fisted Sentiment," might be the first fictional account of a mixed martial arts fight, in that it portrays Costigan fighting – one after the other –  three "hard eggs," each of whom was a practitioner of a different martial art. Following the ice house panel, attendees settled in at the pavilion for an evening of conversation. The porch light poetry reading had been scheduled, but was postponed to the next evening. Staying at a motel down the road in Cisco, Todd and I were not able to stay late; there was an early morning planned the next day.

Gary Romeo on the Lancer/Ace
Panel discussion
The first panel on Saturday was REH and Frazetta: Celebrating the Fifty Year Legacy of the Lancers. This was held at another new location, the Senior Citizens' Center, across the street from the well-known former panel site, the Cross Plains LIbrary. While others sorted out some technical difficulties, Bill Cavalier introduced the panel, reminiscing about how he came into REH fandom through Conan the Adventurer from the Lancer/Ace series. Comprised of Rusty Burke, Jeff Shanks, and Gary Romeo (Val Mayerik, was unable to attend), the panel talked about how, under the editorial eyes of L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter, Lancer Books began publishing the series in 1966, and that it was later continued and reprinted by Ace Books when Lancer when out of business. Despite the flaws of the series and its editors noted by many fans over the years, the panel emphasized that the series was a milestone in the publication history of Howard's works. Not only did it bring Conan to a new and larger audience, its covers showcased the art of Frank Frazetta. As Shanks noted, Frazetta's cover art represented a high mark in Conan illustration at the time, conveying a vital energy that surpassed previous portrayals, and even today is still iconic and rivaled by few.

The panel also featured a first for Howard Days; panelists were joined briefly via Skype by Frank's grand-daughter, Sara Frazetta. She shared memories of her famous grandfather and talked about how she and her mother Holly acquired Frank's business after his death in 2010 and are continuing his legacy. She even answered questions from the audience and as she gave her farewell she enticed fans by announcing that the website ( will be stocked with new merchandise in the next couple of weeks.

The Life of REH Panel
After lunch we gathered again at the Senior Citizens' Center for the panel, The Life of Robert E. Howard. Drawing heavily on The Collected Letters, the panel members discussed important influences in Howard's life. Chris Gruber noted the importance of Howard's friendship with Tevis Clyde Smith, which he said brought out the best in Howard, providing stability and an opportunity for personality development. And he talked about how the topics of conversation covered in their letters overflowed into Howard's writing, especially his boxing stories and Kull tales.

Another example of how Howard's personal correspondence spilled over into his fiction also demonstrates Howard's emphasis on personal liberty. Mark Finn mentions a scene in "God in the Bowl," in which Conan is questioned by "police" at the scene of an official's murder, and after an indignant response by Conan an officer facetiously says, "One of these citizens with rights, eh?" Finn notes that this scene echoes a discussion Howard just recently had with HP Lovecraft about individual rights. Patrice Louinet mentioned an exchange with Tevis Smith about a recent police beating as another possible inspiration for that scene.

During the Q/A session, Louinet and Paul Herman both talked about the how much Howard loved to travel, and how important it was to him. Herman acknowledged that Howard's travel compensated for a feeling of being trapped and noted that this came out in his writing in the form of characters who were (almost universally?) itinerant. Louinet seemed to downplay the idea that Howard was trapped, noting that he had his own car since 1932, and was not tied to home to care for his mother until the last year of her life (1935-6).

Jonas Prida
There was no need to disperse after the panel, as the next panel followed shortly in the same room. The panel was another Howard Days first. The first annual Glenn Lord REH Symposium offered a venue for REH scholars to present their academic research. Four presentations were made. Jonas Prida (College of St. Joseph) combined charisma and acumen in his discussion of Howard's use of old, southern, (especially bawdy, violent, and hyperbolic) humor with his paper, "Antebellum Antecedents: Old Southwest Humor in Breckinridge Elkins."

Todd Vick
(Picture courtesy of Rusty Burke)
Dierk Guenther
Two other presenters summarized papers that they had presented in March at the PCA/ACA conference in Seattle. Independent scholar, Todd Vick, delivered a controversial correction to the popular conception of Conan in, "The Mistaken Identity of a Barbarian: Conan, Hero or Antihero?" And in his presentation, "Pseudo-History and Reincarnation in Robert E. Howard's Fantastic Fiction," Dierk Guenther (Tokushima University) demonstrated how Howard's use of reincarnation in the James Allison stories ties together the overarching pseudo-historical timeline that comprises many of Howard's character-based series (including Kull, Conan, and Solomon Kane).

Rounding out the symposium, Daniel Look (St Lawrence University) gave the most engaging presentation on statistical analysis that I am sure I have ever seen with his paper, "Some Stylometric Results Concerning the Authorship of Almuric." While offering a tentative conclusion, Look's methodology suggests exciting prospects for its use in literary analysis and textual criticism.

Daniel Look
The level of interaction during the Q/A section that followed the presentations demonstrates the receptivity of Howard Days attendees to this new forum. Indeed, I think this symposium was the high point of the gathering this year, and gave us an opportunity to hear some new voices and introduced us to the leading edge of REH scholarship. Despite some logistical and technical problems the symposium seems to me to mark a phase of fresh growth for REH Days, and I hope to see it continue in following years in a venue more fitting for presentations and discussion. (The high school auditorium seems ideally suited.)

Naturally, the discussions that ignited at the symposium overflowed the allotted time and were carried over to the pavilion. Good food and engaging conversation provided a fitting end to the weekend, thanks to Cat & BarbBQ, who had been smoking brisket on-site in their smoker-trailer since that morning. And Ben Friberg's now famous home-made ice cream made a perfect end to the meal.

Cimmeria in 6 languages

The Porch Light Poetry slam that had been scheduled for the previous night kicked off after the barbecue instead. A little before sunset Howard's poem, Cimmeria, was read from the front porch of the Howard home in six languages: English (by Bill Cavalier), French (Patrice Louinet), German (Dierk Gunther), Japanese (Chie Gunther), Italian (Barbara Baum), and Spanish (Kurt Shoemaker). Afterward several books of REH's poetry made the rounds as readings went well-past sunset. A few die-hard poetry fans recited poems from memory, and several revealed their flair for the dramatic. Chris Gruber read "A Man" with the help of his daughter, Malayna. I'm not certain, but I think it might have been her debut! And veteran poetry slam participant, Alex Shanks, shared several of his favorites, including "Flight" and "Earth-born."

There are many things that have drawn me to attend Howard Days these last four years: the many panels, the opportunity to acquire new books for my personal collection, and the distinctively Texan food. But the opportunity to meet new people with similar interests, make new friends, and catch up with friends made in past years is one of the best aspects of this event. All of this, combined with the new developments in the Howard Days program, and an unexpected glimpse into the history of Cross Plains made this year's pilgrimage an especially enjoyable experience.


Chris Gruber said...

Great write-up, Todd. It was, indeed, Malayna's first attempt at reading poetry. She was spellbound by the earnest passion each reader brought to Howard's front porch as they read there a poem that spoke to them. She heard me tell my wife that I was going to read a couple and she asked me if she could read it with me. I was filled with joy when she mounted the steps and read with me. She may well be the first 5 year old to read REH poetry on REH's front porch! A wonderful and exciting time was had by all.
Chris Gruber

Todd B. Vick said...

Thanks, Chris. I'll pass your compliment on to David Piske (he wrote this trip report, not me). That's great that Malayna was brave enough to get on the porch with you. That was also one of the highlights of the poetry reading. It was good to see you again. Cheers!