Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Happy 107th Birthday, Robert E. Howard



Author's Note: This is an artifact from the time capsule. In 2002, I was finishing up my first year in REHUPA and I wrote this review/rant in my 'zine for the month of December.  Please note the date--2002. I am pleased to report that since then, much of what I am kvetching about in this article has come to pass. Some of it, incredibly, was done by me. Other pieces and parts were picked up by others. And while I was not the first, nor the last, person to issue such a call to action, it was a shot in the arm for some folks. I've been a member of REHupa for 11 years now, and I didn't think I'd make it to year two. Shows what I know. One thing I have always tried to do is lead by example. And one of the things I've always tried to do is to do right by Robert E. Howard. Looking back on the radio shows, Blood & Thunder, all of the articles and essays, and now the ongoing academic push, I feel I've done just that. Read for yourself and see just how far Howard Studies has come. 

Happy Birthday, Bob. Thanks for the inspiration.


 A Bad Reputation: Robert E. Howard and the Indifference of the Academics




The Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers
By Lee Server ISBN: 081604578X
From the early days of dime novels to contemporary mass-market paperbacks, pulp fiction is a vital part of popular culture. This volume offers a survey of the scores of well-known and unsung heroes of popular literature. It seeks to cover the entire spectrum of pop literature's greatest entertainers and artists; the multimillion-copy bestsellers; and the inventors of the modern genres, such as the western, the hardboiled detective novel, the spy thriller, science fiction, horror, the legal thriller, crime fiction and the erotic/romance novel. The work also profiles colourful but lesser-known underground figures, as well as a wide variety of talented paperback authors who were never given their due. Each of the 200 entries includes a brief biography along with a list of the author's writing credits. The authors covered include: V.C. Andrews; Ray Bradbury; Jackie Collins; Lester Dent; Ian Fleming; Erle Stanley Gardner; David Goodis; Zane Grey; Chester Himes; Louis L'Amour; H.P. Lovecraft; Mario Puzo; Jacqueline Susann; and more. (REPRODUCED FROM CONTENT ON AMAZON UK)

It was a new book, fresh off the presses, and I had it in my hands. Clearly, this book had my name written all over it. It was also written by Lee Server, and that name was familiar. It only took a second to realize that this was the same guy who had written Danger Is My Business back in 1993, the first illustrated book about the Pulps since Tony Goodwin’s titular effort in the 1970’s. Server had also written Over My Dead Body, about the lurid paperback novels of the 1940’s and 1950’s, and Baby, I Don’t Care, a great biography about Robert Mitchum.

Ever curious, I eagerly flipped to the H section. There he was, roughly two pages worth: Howard, Robert E. The entry was a mixed bag. I won’t reprint the article verbatim for reasons that will become apparent below, but I will show some highlights, both good and bad.

Howard, Robert E.
(1906-1936) Also wrote as Sam Walser

Robert E. Howard, one of the great discoveries of the magnificent pulp magazine Weird Tales, wrote larger-than-life fantasy adventure tales for most of his brief but dazzling career. Much of his work belongs to a genre now called “sword and sorcery,” a category Howard himself helped to invent.
Robert Ervin Howard was born in 1906 in the small Texas town of Paster. When he was nine, the family moved to another small community, Cross Plains, where he would live with his mother and father for the rest of his life. Interested in writing from a very early age, he was greatly inspired by books of western lore. The pulps had begun to come into their own as Howard reaches his teen years. It was the heyday of Adventure magazine, Western Story, and other publications that offered a battery of new, imaginative, and innovative fiction writers, like Talbot MUNDY, with his combination of exotic locales, bizarre adventures, and touches of the occult and the magical, and his fearless, mighty superhero from the ancient world, the seafaring Tros of Samothrace; Harold Lamb, with his sweeping historical sagas and thundering warriors, Gordon Young, with his two-fisted, nihilistic, globe-trotting warriors; and H.P. LOVECRAFT, with his grim, disturbing horror stories and their stark portrayals of evil. These and other writers of the day would spark Howard’s own bursting imagination to empower his writing and the amazing body of work to come.

Outside of the typographical error of “Pastor” for “Peastor” and the exclusion of Howard’s other pseudonyms, these first two paragraphs aren’t so bad.

It was to Lovecraft’s pulp home, Weird Tales, that Howard made his first professional sale, Spear and Fang, which was printed in the July, 1925 issue. It was a momentous occasion. Howard would become a regular contributor to Weird Tales, and would also come to be known as one of that unique magazine’s three greatest contributors, with Lovecraft and Clark Ashton SMITH (though many of WT’s other regulars also had their rabid acolytes). Howard, unlike the other two members of the triumvirate, saw himself as a professional writer, and did write for other publications and in other genres—straight adventure, westerns, boxing stories—though he did not have much success in breaking into the mainstream prestige pulps (such as Adventure, Argosy, and the like). In retrospect, the ornate, daring, out-of-the-mainstream pages of Weird Tales were the perfect place for a writer as different and powerful as Robert E. Howard.
His stories were intensely imagined, action-packed, ruthless, and blood-drenched, written in a vivid, harsh, muscular prose. He created an assortment of fierce, pitiless warrior-heroes. There was Bran Mak Morn, leader of the Caledonian Picts against the legions of ancient Rome; Solomon Kane, an Elizabethan Puritan, battling savagery and sorcery in darkest Africa; Kull, a king in the antediluvian Atlantis; and his most popular and still thriving creation, Conan, the barbarian adventurer.

Okay, two more paragraphs that I won’t quibble with. Factually acceptable and not misleading in any way. So far, so good, from Mr. Server. But I had the strangest feeling I had seen some of this before. Especially in the next long paragraph, which talked about the Hyborian Age and how Howard jumped around chronologically in telling the Conan stories. He quoted from Conan in “Queen of the Black Coast,” the passage about life being an illusion and burning with life. “I love, I slay, and am content.” The next paragraph is very interesting.

Physically, Howard had grown up to be a powerful-looking young man who might well have served as a model for the illustrations of the sword-wielding heroes who strode across his pulp stories. But there was psychic autobiography at work in those pages, too. In dreams Howard often saw himself as an ancient barbarian, and some of that self-absorption and passionate identification with the character gave Conan and other Howard characters their vivacity. It is part of the mythos of Weird Tales, part of what put that pulp in a category apart from all others of the 20’s and 30’s, the hectic golden age of pulp hackery—the notion that writers like Howard were stranger characters than the other pulp pros, in some way or other more closely a part of the material they invented, whether from artistry or psychological disturbance. For the readers, anyway, the result was stories that could have an intense, hallucinatory force and yet felt very real. Howard put readers right inside those barbaric, imaginary landscapes. His typewriter caught the blinding glare on flashing steel, missed no splash of crimson blood, described landscapes that were at once familiar and bizarre, but three dimensional, pumping with life.

This is damning with faint praise, in my opinion. It’s nice that Mr. Server notes that there’s a mythos to the lunacy of the WT writers, but doesn’t really refute anything said about Howard. His comments about Howard’s prose are spot-on, but again Server leads with the crazy vibe. Apparently one can’t write well unless they are bonkers. The next paragraph continues this thought.

Fantasy and “weird” stories and publication in the marginal, little-read Weird Tales was not considered a particularly admirable accomplishment in some areas of America in the 1930s. In the constricted community Robert Howard lived in, writing for Weird Tales—particularly as a result of the sexual, bosom-heaving cover art of Margaret Brundage—looked not unlike writing pornography. (Adding insult to injury, Weird Tales was often very far behind in its payments to contributors, even—or perhaps especially—to regular contributors like Howard.) Though as a young man he participated in the typical masculine rites of hunting, fishing and drinking, Howard was not a typical Texas boy at all. With his brooding, his daydreaming, and his bizarre imagination, he clearly stood apart from the simple farmers and small-town mentalities of Cross Plains, and was generally thought to be something of a strange duck among the locals. Howard once wrote, “It is no light thing to enter into a profession absolutely foreign to the people among which one’s lot is cast.”

This is now the third usage of the word “bizarre” in this article. Clearly, it’s the only adjective that really applies to Howard and his work, since it’s so frequently referenced. And while the facts in the above paragraph may be accurate, the slant in the writing shows that Mr. Server is at best uncaring or at worst antagonistic about the details of Howard’s personal life. The very next paragraph:

Howard was known to have been unusually devoted to his domineering mother. He was prone to bouts of despairing self-reflection and spoke of suicide on a number of occasions (though depression did not seem to slow his productivity, as thousands of pages of prose, poetry, and correspondence flowed from his battered Underwood typewriter).
In the spring of 1936, Mrs. Howard became gravely ill. On the morning of June 11, after a sleepless night at his comatose mother’s bedside, Robert was informed that she would never recover. At the typewriter in his workroom he wrote some lines of poetry, then went outside to the family’s ’31 Chevrolet sedan. From the glove compartment he took out a Colt .380 he had borrowed from a friend, thumbed the safety, placed the barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

There it is. Howard and his mother. Again. What’s nice about this is the intimation that Howard wasn’t depressed enough to not write, just depressed enough to kill himself over his mother.

The next paragraph is a long quote from Jack Scott (and that same anecdote, yet again, about the lines and the coroner). Following that is the eulogy from Farnsworth Wright that ran in Weird Tales. The article ends with a completely inaccurate bibliography of Howard’s works, the only parts of which that are correct is the list of the Conan stories. All other material is mislabeled, missing altogether, or just wrong.

As you can imagine, this entry angered me and sent me into my own books, looking for my copy of Danger Is My Business. There, on pages 43-45, I found just about the same information, in a different order, as what was listed in the Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers. To his credit, Mr. Server had updated his material slightly, removing the reference to “his love life—or lack of it—has been the subject of much speculation” just prior to mentioning his domineering mother and unusual devotion. So, it’s a step forward, I suppose, but in my mind, it’s still a baby step.

The fact is, Mr. Server simply reworked what he had already done some ten years ago and stuck it in the book. While there was no mention of, for example, Cornell Woolrich’s alternative lifestyle in his entry (it must have just slipped Mr. Server’s mind), I can’t think of any reason why Mr. Server would have wanted to rewrite any of his material on Howard...especially since no one has published anything to the contrary in any visible form since 1993.

There have been exceptions, to be sure. James Van Hise put out a great book a few years back (The Fantastic Worlds of Robert E. Howard) that was, in fact, a collection of scholarship from REHupa. I have a second printing of the book, because the first printing sold out. After I got my copy, I never saw another one again. Then there was Cross Plains Comics’ Short Biography of REH, written by our own Rusty Burke. Sold primarily to comic shops, it was marketed more like a graphic novel/art collection than any kind of serious scholarship. We can count in this short list The Whole Wide World, based on One Who Walked Alone. It got an art house release and then went straight to...well, laserdisc. No current DVD plans at this time, at least not that I have heard. Let’s see, have I left anyone out? Oh yes, Wandering Star. Currently aimed at the collector’s market, with affordable trade paperbacks due out in the next year or two...hopefully.

This in no way diminishes the value of the above work. I enthusiastically supported and publicly applauded all of the above endeavors, and will continue to do so. But on the thirtieth anniversary of REHupa, and on the heels of Leo Grin’s well-reasoned rant about how much money these newsletters cost and how many copies of REHupa are to be distributed, I say to you that we are doing it wrong.

Every time Howard gets omitted in anthologies like The American Fantasy Tradition, every time Howard’s name and deeds are crucified by idiotic directors on special edition DVDs, every time the inaccurate facts and “crazy” bias of Howard’s biography get reprinted over and over, we all write emails, articles in REHupa, and bitch to each other and to our significant others. Well, it’s our fault that it happens.

How long has Dark Valley Destiny been out, been available in shops? In 2003, it’ll be twenty years. Isn’t it time for a new Howard biography? How about some serious examinations of his work, his influence? Better still, is there any reason at all for these kinds of things to not be available to as many people as want to see them?

There is a pop culture/American culture association, made up of college professors and other academics, with national and regional groups. I stumbled onto their listserv and told them I was a writer. They signed me up. I’m stunned at the paper topics that get presented; it’s stuff that we wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Buffy and Lesbian Culture. The Role of Board Games in the Twentieth Century. I’m not kidding. There was an X-Men question that ran through the listserv about two months ago. College professors and doctors with PhDs were scrambling to wax factual about Magneto.

Is there any reason that anyone can give me why some, if not all of the REHupans, aren’t involved with this organization? Has anyone introduced themselves to Carlton Stowers, who wrote that great article about REH in the free Dallas weekly last year? Where’s your website with your section devoted to your REH scholarship? Going to Cross Plains isn’t going to cut it, not if you are looking for a literary conversion. Put your face out there. Write your book (or finish it) and then speak to others about it. We need to be who people ask about Robert E. Howard, not Lee Server, or John Milius.

All of you are accomplished writers, with passionate arguments about REH and a strong desire to see his name restored and his literary works made available. It is time to reach out of the bubble and step forward with your knowledge. Sitting on your hands isn’t going to do it; not anymore. If we want to repair Howard’s image, we need to assume that no one else is going to do it for us.

I intend to present a paper on REH at the 2004 Southwest Pop Culture/American Culture Conference. I want some, if not all of you to be there with me. Let’s wake up the rest of the academic world and restore REH’s place in literary history.



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