Thursday, June 14, 2018

Hot (and a little bothered) Off The Press by Gary Romeo

A Critique of Patrice Louinet’s The Robert E. Howard Guide

Robert E. Howard Days 2018 saw the release of Patrice Louinet’s The Robert E. Howard Guide (Skelos Press, 2018).  It is in the tradition of Robert Weinberg’s The Annotated Guide to Robert E. Howard’s Sword & Sorcery (Starmont House, 1976) and Marc Cerasini and Charles E. Hoffman’s Robert E. Howard Starmont Reader’s Guide (Starmont House, 1987).  Patrice’s book is less weighty than either of these books in that it gives only brief commentary on the stories mentioned.

Most entertaining for me were the summaries of fifty great REH stories.  Patrice revisits the twenty best in Chapter 3, followed by thirty more in Chapters Four and Five.  It is always fun to remember why you love REH in the first place and the comments on these stories really do reemphasize why REH is a writer worthy of respect and study.

There is little new here for older REH fans but there may be things for older and newer REH fans to digest and argue about.  Especially Chapter One where Patrice discusses common misconceptions about Howard. 

Chamber of Darkness #4
The first myth brought to task is that Howard was convinced Conan had really existed.  Patrice rightly destroys this notion mostly originating from John Milius.  It has always been my opinion that Milius may have read Chamber of Darkness #4 (Marvel Comics, 1970).  This issue contains a very good story by Roy Thomas and Barry Smith entitled “The Sword and the Sorcerers.”  The story features a sword & sorcery author named Len Carson.  Len is having nightmares about his Starr the Slayer character and decides to kill him off.  Starr materializes from the ether and kills off Len before Len can kill him in his story.  This is a great tale about a sword and sorcery author and is easily morphed into it being about Robert E. Howard if you are so inclined.

Myth number 2 is that Howard could not face life without his mother.  Patrice rightly brings out that REH had suicidal inklings since age 17.  Patrice sums up: “[Howard’s mother’s death] provided the occasion Howard had been waiting for.”

Nevertheless his mother’s impending death was the occasion.

Here is Novalyne Price from One Who Walked Alone, (Donald M. Grant, 1986):

“[Howard] seems very attached to his mother,” Dr. Daughtery said.  “So are all of us,” I snapped.  Then because there was something about Bob’s affection for his mother that had always bothered me, and because Dr. Daughtery was a dear friend and a good listener to my thoughts, I leaned toward him. “I don’t think it’s all affection,” I said slowly.  Then I told him [about] the almost fanatical way Bob took care of her.” (Page 190)

 De Camp states it this way in Time and Chance (Donald M. Grant, 1996):

“Howard] was afflicted with an exaggerated dependence on his mother and with a longstanding fascination with suicide.  In 1936, aged thirty with a promising literary career before him, when his aged mother lay dying, he killed himself as he longed planned.” (Page 216)

Myth number 3 is that Conan enjoyed a special status in Howard’s mind.  Myth number 5 is that Howard was a recluse.  Myth number 8 is that Howard was sympathetic toward fascism.  These are all correctly and easily dealt with in quick fashion.

Myth 4 is that Howard had a wretched childhood.  “Wretched” sounds like pure hell.  Did Howard have a happy childhood?  If you start thinking about suicide at age 17 the chances are it was not great.

Novalyne Ellis mentions a bullying incident to Robert E. Howard and Howard reacts from familiarity.  From One Who Walked Alone:

“That kid got a hurt that will stay with him the rest of his life.  […] When I was a kid, I had a few overgrown bullies make me miserable.  […] you don’t know what it is to get beat up in a fight every day.” (Page 220)

We also have Doctor Howard’s letter from The Collected Letters of Doctor Isaac M. Howard (The REH Foundation Press, 2011):

“After a long series of bag punching, bar lifting, spring exercises of his hands [and] general muscle training, I asked him one day: “Robert, what’s this all about?”  He replied: “Dad, when I was in school, I had to take a lot because I was alone and no one to take my part.  I intend to build up my body until when a scoundrel crosses me up, I can with my bare hands tear him to pieces, double him up and break his back with my hands alone.” (Page 207)

Howard recounts another bullying story in The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard Volume Two: 1930-1932 (REH Foundation Press, 2007):

“I was working at a carnival, at one of those blasted cat-stands.  I was behind the rack bending over to pick up a cat, when some bully let go with everything he had.  […] I was only about fourteen years old.”  (Page 404) 

Howard most likely had no more difficult a childhood than the average intellectually inclined child.  Maybe a little worse or maybe not.  But by his own testimony he was burdened with the memories of past hurts.

De Camp, no doubt, overstated the case in Dark Valley Destiny.  I think this was done out of sympathy and projection.  De Camp had a rather unhappy childhood himself.   From Time and Chance:

“It would be tedious and self-pitying to narrate all the jumps I was put through during this decade.  Anyone interested can read my story “Judgment Day.”  The narrator, Wade Ormont, tells of his own boyhood and youth, to explain why he makes a decision that may blow up the Earth.  Every incident, in Ormont’s tale of his school days, is a fictionalized account of something from my own boyhood.” (Page 54)

One little bit of irony here is that Patrice himself has added to the myth of REH’s unhappy childhood by borrowing from de Camp.  Howard wrote to Lovecraft that the gloominess of his nature could be traced to the area where he spent his baby-hood.  De Camp and Patrice use this information to reach a conclusion.  Indulge me in quoting myself from The Cimmerian V1N1 (April 2004):

“In the endnotes of […] Del Rey’s The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, Patrice Louinet goes into great detail describing a theory he seems particularly excited about having discovered: one delineating how Howard’s childhood time spent in Dark Valley influenced his later creations.  […] Dark Valley and Cimmeria may thus have been very closely linked in Howard’s mind.  If de Camp were alive he would likely agree with Louinet’s theory, seeing as how he’s the one who popularized it almost twenty years ago.

On the online REH Inner Circle discussion group in a posting dated December 17, 2006 Patrice had this say about the “borrowing:”

“[…] there is absolutely no denying de Camp made the Dark Valley connection before me.  Not acknowledging this fact – the anteriority of the link, not the so-called borrowing – was an editorial decision on my part.  De Camp […] was not gonna be in this book, period.”

Myth number 6 is that Howard made more money than the banker of the town.  This is usually said to praise REH, a way to reemphasize that REH was a successful professional writer.  It is not a harmful myth.  But Patrice is right.  We really don’t know what the “banker” made.

Myth 7 is that Howard died a virgin. This is more a point of discussion than a myth and really should not have been listed in this chapter (if at all.)  We simply don’t know.  Howard wrote about going to brothels but whether he really did or not is unknowable.     

Myth 9 is that Howard wrote a poem before committing suicide.  Well, of course, Howard wrote several poems before committing suicide.  And several of them are about suicide!  But Patrice is specifically talking about the couplet supposedly found in Howard’s typewriter:

All fled, all done; so lift me on the pyre
The feast is over, and the lamps expire.

Patrice rightly states: “The anecdote was a pretty one, and full of dark romanticism.  Too pretty.”  Doctor Howard most likely found the typed couplet in either REH’s room or wallet as he originally stated.  How soon before the suicide it was actually typed he had no way of knowing.  But Jack Scott was a professional newsman and like the newsman in the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance felt secure in perpetuating the myth of it being found in the typewriter.

To my thinking Patrice demolishes six myths, quibbles over one, puts his own spin on one, and jumps to an unsupported conclusion on one.  Probably the same odds any REH scholar faces when confronting the sometimes-sketchy facts about REH life.

The biography in Chapter Two is the standard one.  There are a few digs at Doctor Howard.  Doctor Howard’s actions do not seem even remotely mercenary considering the real economics of the situation.  He was burdened with the tragedy of his wife’s passing and his son’s suicide and his own health was poor.  He needed money.

Chapter Six and Seven and Eight are similar to Chapter One.  The myths destroyed would only be committed by those who never read Howard or read very few of his stories.  Patrice’s summary in Chapter Six about the value of REH being available in pure text volumes is unarguable. 

A segment of Chapter Nine posits the question “Did L. Sprague de Camp Save Conan (and Howard) from Oblivion?”

The answer is, of course, no!  That de Camp’s work popularized the character and Howard is without question a fact.  The Lancer series sold in the millions and paved the way for other REH works to be published.  But as de Camp himself said numerous times (probably finally) in his autobiography, Time and Chance: “I daresay others could have done better as a custodian of the saga […].  But I happened to be there at the time.”  (Page 308)

Patrice is not an honest broker here.  He writes about de Camp: “Smelling [my emphasis] the potential of the series, he took over for his friend, John D. Clark on the editorial duties for the Gnome Press volumes […].  “Smelling” instead of “Recognizing” certainly stacks the deck.  Later Patrice lists a bunch of quotes without any counter or context to stack the deck even further.

 De Camp knew REH was the cat’s meow immediately upon reading “The Hour of the Dragon” in its Gnome Press form, Conan the Conqueror.  De Camp enjoyed the REH stories and wanted to try his hand at it.  What die-hard fan has not wanted to do the same?  De Camp being a professional writer was in a position to do just that.

And de Camp was applauded for his efforts.  His posthumous collaborations sold and earned himself and the Howard heirs a small bit of money.  The Hyborian Legion was formed.  De Camp was elected Royal Chronicler.  The hardcore REH fans appreciated his efforts at the time.  But as de Camp got older some new fans thought a revolution necessary and they carry on their Cultural Revolution campaign mostly by emulating their Red Guard counterparts and denounce de Camp for being a successful capitalist. 

The book really jumps the shark in this section as Patrice leaps into pure speculation as to why Donald Wollheim may have turned down the Conan series as proposed by de Camp.  Patrice supposes that Wollhein was too cheap to pay de Camp for his additions.  It is the type of alternate universe thinking that de Camp revitalized in Science Fiction with his “Wheels of If” novella.  The postulate goes that if de Camp had not included his revised stories in the sales pitch the price would have been acceptable to Wollheim and we would have had a popular REH only series.  It is possible.  The same way that the South could have won the Civil War, that the Nazis could have won WWII, etc.  But the fact is that de Camp went with Lancer and was successful beyond his dreams.  

We do know a real reason that one publisher turned down de Camp.  Richard A. Lupoff, a friend of de Camp, worked at Canaveral Press where he encouraged his bosses to turn down the Conan deal.  Lupoff recounts his firsthand experience in his article in The Cimmerian V3N5 (May 2006):

“I told [the two men in charge], frankly I didn’t think it would work.  The books had been published not very long ago before by Gnome Press, and it seemed to me that a new edition - even if it involved some shuffling or trimming of the material – would be superfluous.”

Patrice goes on to discuss Howard’s Greatest Fan.  Glenn Lord was a tireless Howard promoter but to imply he was solely a pure text guy is simply not true.  The Grant Conan’s which were hyped as pure texts were edited as badly, if not worse, than the Lancer series.  Also, de Camp’s moneymaking idea of incorporating pastiche into canon (in the same book) was duplicated within the Cormac Mac Art series.

I’m positive that Glenn had a personal preference for pure text but in his role as agent for the heirs he certainly had to compromise just as de Camp being a professional writer whose livelihood depended on publishing forced him to make compromises.  De Camp always said that with the benefit of hindsight he would do thing differently.

Patrice’s final chapter is a cry to negate the genre of Sword and Sorcery.  Surprisingly I am sympathetic to this.  De Camp, Carter, and others who wrote fantasy saw Morris, Dunsany, and Howard as influences on their own work.  They recognized that the Howard branch was different from the Tolkien branch but had the same roots.  To reconcile any contradiction Howard was eventually awarded the appellation “the father of Sword and Sorcery.”  De Camp was never completely comfortable with the appellation of Sword and Sorcery despite being the genre’s first anthologist and preferred Heroic Fantasy.  When Sword and Sorcery was a viable genre and the writers of it were friends promoting one anothers’ works and selling it to publishers this pigeon holing was arguably useful.  Now it is somewhat of an albatross.  Nevertheless, as interest in Howard grows so does the reprinting of Elric, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, etc.  Robert Price is having some success revitalizing Thongor!  Skelos Press, Patrice’s US publisher, is primarily a horror and S&S venue.  Lin Carter’s crowning of REH as the father of Sword and Sorcery is probably going to stick a while longer.    

Whether Patrice’s book is worth buying will have to be a personal choice.  Patrice’s decision to highlight 20 stories then another 30 after that seems indicative of his vision: not 20/20 but 20/30.   All things considered I’d prefer someone else driving the car.


About the Author:

Gary Romeo is a long time REH fan.  He first visited Cross Plains in 1977.  Gary was a frequent contributor to The Cimmerian.  He also has an article in The Robert E. Howard Reader (The Borgo Press, 2010.)  Most recently he had posted several articles on the now defunct REH: Two Gun Raconteur website.  Gary says he looks forward to providing more articles here.


Angeline said...

I've not got Patrice's book, so I don't know how he deals with this, but here's some views I have on Myth number 2.
- With all respect to Novalyne Price, she was not the main carer of someone terminally ill. As the main carer of someone disabled and having gone through a pretty rough patch for the past half year, I'll say that it's not a matter of "get a doctor". The ill person will take center stage of your life, and you've got to make any decision with that person in mind. And believe me, that takes energy. We've been very happy with an excellent medical team propping us up and not having to worry about finances - just imagine what it does for someone in the arse-end of Texas in the Depression.
- So, instead of Howard having an exaggerated dependence on his mother, the truth would more likely be that his mother had an enormous (though not exaggerated) dependence on him.
- DeCamp is very wrong about the "promising literary career". I'm cutting corners here, but after a decade chafing at the bit, he was still having a hit-and-miss rate at the pulps. Pulps were not very stable with magazines being terminated, and most importantly: his main market was lousy in paying. So, with no prospect on a stable source of income from his writing, you can hardly call it a promising literary career (it'd been promising for years, but no fulfilment in sight for the promise). Add that to the black cloud hanging over him.

The Mercenary Isaac Howard - this bugs me to no end! The man just buried his wife and son. He'll have heard his son about the money that was owed, and *which could have made their lives easier*. His son, heck - his wive - might have lived if the money owed was promptly paid. Of course he was going to get that money from that editor. If anyone was mercenary here, it's F. Wright!

As to "The Father of Sword and Sorcery" - I see REH as having very little root in Morris, Dunsany, etc. and more from more direct adventure novels like those of Rider Haggard. To link him to Morris and Dunsany looks to me like wanting to give him more 'noble' forebears. Classism? High Fantasy is doing fine, but so is Sword & Sorcery - Game of Thrones, for example, is owing more to REH than to Tolkien!..

Scotty Henderson said...

I’m waiting to receive my copy of this book as I need to read it myself. Having known Patrice and Gary for many years we are all long time scholars of REH, yet while I agree with both on some things, I have my own POV on others. Once I’ve had a chance to digest it myself I’ll have my own thoughts to share. Perhaps it will spur me to write my own tome on all of this. Gary does raise some good points and I note he has matured as a commentator on Howard and has become more rational in his placement of de Camp and his relative importance.