Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Happy 113th, Robert E. Howard

Today, January 22nd, is Robert E. Howard's 113th birthday. 

On this day (January 22nd) back in 1906, Hester Ervin Howard gave birth to Robert. Just prior to Robert's birth, the Howard's were living in an area called Dark Valley. Toward the time Hester was to deliver, Dr. Howard took her to a little bit bigger community, Peaster, Texas to give birth to their boy. At the time of Robert's birth, the attending doctor documented the wrong day—January 24th, 1906—as seen in the Register of Births pictured below.

Interestingly, the date from the Register of Births—January 24th, 1906—also appears on the historical marker that sits next to the Howard Family headstone in the Greenleaf Cemetery, Brownwood, TX. Apparently, according to Damon Sasser, the person who wrote the application for the marker took the erroneous date from de Camp's biography, Dark Valley Destiny. The Historical Society of Texas declared that they could replace the marker for a sum of $1200.00. Perhaps a fundraiser for this cost can be performed and a new marker with more accurate verbiage can be created.

Little did the Howards know at the time of their son's birth, he'd grow to be a world renown writer, creating some of the most memorable characters and establishing a sub-genre for adventure and heroic fantasy. Because of Isaac M. Howard's occupation, a family doctor, the Howards moved around quite frequently until Robert was thirteen, in 1919 when the family settled in Cross Plains, Texas. At the time the Howard family settled in Cross Plains, it was in the midst of an oil boom. During these oil boom periods, the town would see a strong surge in population. Once the boom abated, the population would drop back down to the regular residency size. These oil booms had a strong impact on young Robert. He would encounter some unusual and wild characters, fodder for his future writing career. Later in adulthood, Howard discussed these oil booms in his correspondence with fellow writer H.P. Lovecraft.

In his later teen years, Howard had some success at writing which helped to prompt him to submit stories for some of the magazines he was reading at the time.  In July 1925, at the age of just nineteen, Howard's story "Spear and Fang" was published by a struggling pulp magazine called Weird Tales. This was all it took, Howard would spend the next eleven years creating stories around memorable characters such as Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, Kull, El Borak, sailor Steve Costigan, Cormac Mac Art, Breckinridge Elkins, Buckner J. Grimes, Pike Bearfield, and of course, Conan the Cimmerian along with many others; one of my personal favorites is Corcoran. Howard also was a prolific poet, writing some 700 or so poems.

Howard's most popular character, Conan the Cimmerian, has crossed several pop culture boundaries. Conan can be seen in books, comic books, movies, television shows, board games, role-playing games, graphic novels, and video games. In the last 80 plus years, Conan's popularity has only increased. Another of Howard's characters, Solomon Kane, has also seen the silver screen in a relatively recent film titled after the character's name. Michael J. Bassett placed the character in a European film that garnered so much success the film was able to make a U. S. debut on August 24th, 2012. While the character and story line in Basset's film was different from Howard's Kane, at least, the film helped various viewers who had no idea who Robert E. Howard was, find out about the author. One such person was Anne Rice, who on her Facebook wall announced that she saw the film and wanted to read more works from Robert E. Howard.

The general tradition in Howard fandom is to read a story by Howard and while doing so, imbibe your favorite beverage!

So . . . Here's to the first of all dog brothers . . . Cheers!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Conan and the Little People: Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft’s Theory by Bobby Derie

This theory is not generally agreed to, but I scarcely think that it has ever been disproved, and it was upon this that my story “The Lost Race” was based — that the Gaelic tribes preceded the Cymric peoples into Britain, by way of Ireland, and were later driven out by them. […] The blond Britons appear to me to be a closer branch of the ancient Aryan stock, the Gaels arriving later, and being mixed with some Turanian or Mediterranean blood. But every man is entitled to his own view and a writer has the right to use any and all theories, no matter how conflicting, in his stories. I may write a story one day upholding a certain theory of science, letters, anthropology or what-not, and the next day, a story upholding a theory directly opposite. A fiction writer, whose job is to amuse and entertain, should give all theories equal scope and justice. But I’m taking up too much of your time. —Robert E. Howard to Farnsworth Wright, Jun 1930, CL 2.43

In the prelude to his correspondence with Lovecraft, as discussed in Howard, Lovecraft, & “The Sin-Eater,” Robert E. Howard had written to Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, to praise and question H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Rats in the Walls.” Wright forwarded the letter to Lovecraft, who in turn wrote to Howard. In the first extant letter from Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, the discussion of “The Rats in the Walls” has led to the question of the ancient population of the British Isles:

This departure from the original Celtic stock might have taken place in Ireland after the invasion, despite legends to the contrary—might have merely been a result of the conquerors mingling with their Mediterranean subjects.—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 1 Jul 1930 (MF 1.22) 

Arthur Machen
Though Howard did not know it, the segue led into a line of thought which Lovecraft had been developing on his own for some time. In early 1923, Lovecraft became aware of the work of Arthur Machen, when Frank Belknap Long lent him The House of Souls (1906). The book contained “The White People,” “The Three Impostors” (including “The Novel of the Black Seal”) and “The Red Hand,” and Lovecraft immediately became a Machen fan. (DS 49, SL 1.228) “The Novel of the Black Seal” and “The Red Right Hand” both concern the survival of a strange, prehistoric, subterranean race; essentially connecting the idea of the fairies or “Little People” of the British Isles with euhemerism, the idea that myth has some basis in fact:

They would be seen by a peasant in the fields walking towards some green and rounded hillock, and seen no more on earth; and there are stories of mothers who have left a child quietly sleeping, with the cottage door rudely barred with a piece of wood, and have returned, not to find the plump and rosy little Saxon, but a thin and wizened creature, with sallow skin and black, piercing eyes, the child of another race. Then, again, there were myths darker still; the dread of witch and wizard, the lurid evil of the Sabbath, and the hint of demons who mingled with the daughters of men. And just as we have turned the terrible 'fair folk' into a company of benignant, if freakish elves, so we have hidden from us the black foulness of the witch and her companions under a popular diablerie of old women and broomsticks, and a comic cat with tail on end. [...] Supposing these traditions to be true, who were the demons who are reported to have attended the Sabbaths? I need not say that I laid aside what I may call the supernatural hypothesis of the Middle Ages, and came to the conclusion that fairies and devils were of one and the same race and origin; invention, no doubt, and the Gothic fancy of old days, had done much in the way of exaggeration and distortion; yet I firmly believe that beneath all this imagery there was a black background of truth. —Arthur Machen, “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895)

Machen also wrote another tale dealing with the idea, “The Shining Pyramid,” but Lovecraft would not read that until 1925. (LNY 135) The Welsh reporter would also write an essay “The Little People” which appeared in Dreads and Drolls (1926), but it is not known if or when Lovecraft ever read that. In either case, Machen was deliberately pursuing a line of contemporary anthropological thought, seeking a grain of historical truth in tales of the elves, fairies, or “Little People” by conflating them with a “Mongoloid” or “Turanian” dwarf race that existed in Europe before the coming of Caucasians. (Silver 141, 146). After discovering Machen, Lovecraft would read Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921):

The most revealing and stupefying book among those I have been reading is “The Witch Cult in Western Europe” by Margaret Alice Murray, which was published in 1921 and reviewed with great attention by Burton Rascoe in the Tribune. In this book the problem of witchcraft superstition is attacked from an entirely new angle—wherein the explanation of delusion and hysteria is discarded in favour of an hypothesis almost exactly like the one used by Arthur Machen in fiction [marginal note: The Three Impostors]—i.e., that there has existed since prehistoric times, side by side with the dominant religion, a dark, secret, and terrible system of worship nocturnally practiced by the peasants and including the most horrible rites and incantations. This worship, Miss Murray believes, is handed down from the squat Mongoloid peoples who inhabited Europe before the coming of the Aryans; and reflects the life and thought of a barbarous culture in which stock-breeding had not yet been supplanted by agriculture. THis latter feature is clear from the dates of the two great nocturnal feasts and orgies...Roodmas, or April 30, and Hallowe’en, or October 31—dates having a connexion with nothing whatever in agriculture (unlike such agricultural festivals as Easter, Harvest-home, etc.), but corresponding with uncanny fidelity to the breeding-seasons of the flocks and herds. Buttressed by an amazing array of sound documentary evidence taken from witchcraft trial reports, Miss Murray unhesitatingly asserts that the similarities and consistencies in the testimony of witch-suspects cannot be explained on any assumption save one which allow for a certain amount of actuality. In her mind, practically all the confessions treat not of dreams and delusions, but form highly coloured versions of real meetings and ceremonies conducted in deep woods and lonely places betwixt midnight and dawn, attended by secretly initiated peasants stolen thither one by one, and presided over by local cult-leaders clad in animal skins and called the “Devils” of their particular branches or “Covens”. The hideous nature of the cult-rites is amply attested—and the whole subject takes on a new fascination when one reflects that the system probably survived to comparatively recent times.—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 30 Mar 1924, LNY 53-54

Murray’s hypothesis opens fairly directly:

The connexion of the witches and fairies opens up a very wide field; at present it is little more than speculation that the two are identical, but there is promise that the theory may be proved at some later date when the subject is more fully worked out. It is now a commonplace of anthropology that the tales of fairies and elves preserve the tradition of a dwarf race which once inhabited Northern and Western Europe. Successive invasions drove them to the less fertile parts of each country which they inhabited, some betook themselves to the inhospitable north or the equally inhospitable mountains; some, however, remained in the open heaths and moors, living as mound-dwellers, venturing out chiefly at night and coming in contact with the ruling races only on rare occasions. As the conqueror always regards the religion of the conquered as superior to his own in the arts of evil magic, the dwarf race obtained the reputation of wizards and magicians, and their god wa identified by the conquerors with the Principle of Evil. The identification of the witches with the dwarf or fairy race would give us a clear insight into much of the civilization of the early European peoples, especially as regards their religious ideas. (Murray 14) 

This was expanded upon in “Appendix I: Fairies and Witches”:

The dwarf race which at one time inhabited Europe has left few concrete remains, but it has survived in innumerable stories of fairies and elves. Nothing, however, is known of the religious beliefs and cults of these early people, except the fact that every seven years they made a human sacrifice to their god—‘And aye at every seven years they pay the teind to hell’—and that like the Khonds they stole children from the neighbouring races and brought them up to be the victims. That there was a strong connexion between witches and fairies had been known to all students of fairy lore. I suggest that the cult of the fairy or primitive race survived until less than three hundred years ago, and that the people who practised it were known a witches. I have already pointed out that many of the witch-belief and practices coincide with those of an existing dwarf race, viz. the Lapps. (Murray 238)

Thomas Henry Huxley
That Machen and Murray dovetail is not surprising, given that they both were following a definite trend in anthropology. Murray’s emphasis on Lapps (the Sami people) jived with scientific racialism of the day that followed Thomas Henry Huxley’s delineation of the human species into three broad racial categories: Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid—the latter of which encompassed all Asian peoples, Native Americans, and some Europeans, as Lovecraft would later make a point of Robert E. Howard:

He asked me what the native races of Europe were, and I told him Caucasian and Mongolian. That last didn't suit him, and he began to tell me that Asia was the only home of the Mongol. Then I reminded him of the Lapps, and of the original stock, at least, of the Finns, Magyars, and Turks.—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 25 Mar 1933 (MF 2.582-583) 

Lovecraft was so taken by the combination of Machen and Murray that he began to work it into his stories: