Category Archives: Cross Plains

Report on Howard Days, Part 2: Saturday

Things started a little later on Saturday than they did on Friday.  I slept late (or what passes for late for me), showered, went into Cross Plains, and joined some folks for breakfast.  After some good conversation, I toodled over to the pavilion and hung out there for a while.20150613_092954

The first panel (all panels where held in the library) was another great discussion.  Entitled “A Means to Freedom”, Rusty Burke led the conversation about the correspondence between Lovecraft and Howard.  The general consensus was that it was a good thing the internet wasn’t around in those days, or the two men would never have gotten any fiction written. Continue reading

Report on Howard Days, Part 1: Thursday and Friday

HDs2015 Long Banner SmallRobert E. Howard Days 2015 has come to an end.  And while I have enjoyed them all, this has probably been the one I’ve enjoyed the most.  There are a number of things that came together to make this one of the most enjoyable Howard Days for me.  The weather couldn’t have been better.  The high temperatures were in the low 90s, which means it was warm but not really hot, especially since there was a breeze and the humidity wasn’t too bad. Continue reading

Howard Days 2013, Part 1

I’ve been attending Howard Days for approximately a decade now.  I think this was the most enjoyable one of all.  The weather couldn’t have been better.  It was unseasonably cool, so much so that I never worked up a sweat.  Joe Lansdale was the surprise guest, and he really added to the experience.  I got to meet a reader of this blog I’d not met before (Hi, John!), renewed some friendships, and had a fantastic time.

I’ll break this post up into parts for a couple of reasons.  First, I don’t think I can get everything written tonight.  Second, I’ve got a lot of pictures, so I’m going to break things up to keep the post from getting too long.

The official events started on Friday, but there’s always an informal kickoff dinner at a steak restaurant in Brownwood.  This was the first year I’d managed to make that part of the weekend.  Robert E. Howard is buried in Brownwood alongside his parents.  I’d not visited the grave before; I’ve always stayed at my parents’ house for Howard Days and they live an hour in the opposite direction.  So I made sure I had time before dinner to swing by the grave site and pay my respects.

Then off to dinner.  The food was good, and there were over two dozen people there, scattered over at least 5 tables.  I was at the largest, and as in any gathering of Howard fans, the conversation was far ranging.  Among the topics discussed were movies, the differences between male and female Howard fans (Ain’t opening that can of worms here; ya had to be there.), comics, auto repair, and the food.  We also got to see two recently uncovered photos of Howard that haven’t been published yet, although there’s some uncertainty about whether one is really him.  After dinner, people split up.  Some went to back to Cross Plains to the Pavilion while others went to the cemetery.  I went back to the cemetery with that group.  That’s most (but not all of them) in the picture. They are (l. to r.) Lee Breakiron, Jeff Shanks, Deuce Richardson, John Bullard, Tim Arney, Al Harron, Barbara Barrett, Bill “Indy” Cavalier. 

Greenleaf Cemetery is one of the old style, elegant cemeteries you don’t see much of anymore.  There are a lot of tombstones, small statues, and obelisks, but not too many of the flat markers meant for lawn mowers to run over.  It was a peaceful place.

After visiting the Howards’ gravesite, we stopped at Tevis Clyde Smith’s grave.  It was getting late by the time everyone left.  While I would have liked to have gone back to the Pavilion and socialized, I went on home and got some sleep.

Don Clark (l) leading the tour

The next morning, I made it down to the Howard House just as the tour was starting.  The tour varies every year so that it’s not the same thing all the time.  This year, local historian Don Clark (who always does an outstanding job) took us to the nearby communities of Cross Cut and Burket, where the Howards lived before moving permanently to Cross Plains.  There’s not much left of either town, although in the early part of the century they were both boom towns.  We saw the gazebo in Burket where Hester and her young son would read together.  The house is gone, the gazebo being all that remains.

Harron, Truman, Shanks, Finn

We drove back to Cross Plains, and I visited the House, bought some items in the gift shop, and head downtown to the library for the first of the panels.  The morning panel consisted of Al Harron, GOH Tim Truman, Jeff Shanks, and Mark Finn discussing the history of REH in the comics.  It was extremely educational.  I didn’t know that Conan’s first comic appearance was in the 1950s in a Mexican comic.  Conan was blond and was a supporting character.  The main character was Belit.  The comic was titled La Reina de la Costa Negra (the Queen of the Black Coast).  The comic ran for a number of years in two formats.  Not much is known about it.  When the panel was done, I headed off to lunch (fresh grilled chili dogs) at the Pavilion.

Mexican REH comics
Closeup of Mexican comics
Mark Finn defending his position at dinner.

I’ll discuss the other panels and the rest of the events in the next post.  For now I’ll leave you with some pictures. 

Report on Howard Days 2011, Day Two

The second day of Howard Days was pretty laid back for me.  I arrived at the Pavilion about 9:00 or so.  One of the anniversaries being celebrated this year is the 50th year since Glenn Lord’s zine The Howard Collector first appeared.  At the banquet the previous night, one of the announcements was of a new issue.  The issue went on sale at the Pavilion Saturday morning.  I, of course, bought one.  It contains the the original version of “Black Canaan” as Howard wrote it, an untitled poem that wasn’t included in the collected poetry, an untitled Breckenridge Elkins fragment, and a drawing by Howard.  If I heard correctly, there are only 200 copies.  I don’t have information about purchasing, so if someone reading does have that information, I would appreciate it if you could put it in a comment.

 The Barbarian Festival was moved from downtown to Treadway Park just down the road from the house.  I intended to swing by but never made it.  I got to talking to several folks, including Paul Herman of the Foundation, Willie Siros and Scott Cupp of Adventures in Crime and Space Books, and author James ReasonerDave Hardy joined in the conversation shortly before we adjourned to The Staghorn Cafe for lunch and more conversation.  If you’ve been to Cross Plains and not stopped in for their chicken fired steak, you’ve missed out.  The Staghorn was named an honorable mention in Texas Monthly‘s list of the 40 Best Small Town Cafes in Texas.  If you think about how many small towns there are in Texas, you’ll realize that’s no small accomplishment.

I don’t have many pictures for two reasons.  One is that people sitting around talking generally don’t make for exciting photos.  The other is that my camera had gotten turned on and by the time I discovered it, the battery was dead.  I do have a couple of pictures from my phone of the signing and the ascent of Caddo Peak. 

After lunch Scott and I decided to take in the new art museum.  One of the ladies in town has taken the old Methodist church building and converted it into a museum.  It exceeded my expectations, containing some very nice pieces.  I bought my wife a bracelet, just to say “Thank You” for allowing me to abandon her at my parents’ house while I went off and had fun.

While there we ran into Mark Finn (interviewed here and here).  Mark and I agreed that you should always have some money tucked away for emergencies and that a new issue of The Howard Collector you weren’t expecting constituted an emergency. 

We went back to the Pavilion and sat around talking for a bit.  I got the contributors who were there to sign my copy of Dreams in the Fire, the new anthology of original fiction by current and former REHupans.  Look for a review here in the next week to ten days.  

I was having such an enjoyable time visiting with friends that I never made it to the library and the panels held there.  Those included Paul Sammon on Conan Movie History, Howard Fandom with Damon and Dennis, and REH Historical Poetry with Barbara Barrett, Alan Birkelbach, and Frank Coffman.

Book signing at the Pavilion

The last panel of the day was held at the Pavilion.  Rusty Burke, Fred Malmberg, and Paul Herman discussed what’s happening with REH.  Some of the upcoming projects include a new Kull movie, a new edition of the collected poetry that will include all of the poems discovered since the last volume (now out of print) was published, Mark Finn’s biography, Howard’s biographical writings which will include Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, a collection of Howard’s spicy stories in their original form (racier than the published versions), and a collection of all of Howard’s science fiction.  Lots of good stuff to look forward to.

There was a brief signing of Dreams in the Fire, then everyone headed out to the barbeque.  The picture above is of the signing.  The people at the table in front are, from left to right, Amy Kerr, Mark Finn, Angeline Hawkes, Christopher Fulbright, Gary Romeo (in the purple shirt).  The gentleman on the right side of the picture in the black T-shirt and tan shorts facing to the left is Rob Roehm.  If you look carefully, you can see the bottom of the Howard house on the right side.  The rest of the house is lost in the glare.

Before we ate, there was the traditional assault on Caddo Peak.  This is the west peak.  The east peak is owned by someone else who doesn’t want a bunch of folks traipsing around.  Makes sense seeing as how he has cattle grazing there.  The heat wasn’t too bad.  I think it was around the upper 90s but the breeze and low humidity allowed the evaporative cooling to offset the discomfort. 

Al Harron and Miguel Martins atop Caddo Peak

When we got to the top, one gentleman passed around a small bottle of scotch.  We each took a sip and toasted our achievement (not keeling over from heatstroke).  I’ve forgotten the gentleman’s name, but if he happens to read this, many thanks, sir.  I found a nice multi-fossil specimen; Al Harron kindly identified some components. 

View from Caddo Peak looking east towards Cross Plains

After that we headed down to an excellent dinner of brisket and sausage with all the fixings.  Paul Sammon sat at the table I was at, and he, Willie Siros, and Scott Cupp talked about writers they’d known who are no longer with us.  People like Phillip K. Dick, R. A. Lafferty, Karl Edward Wagner, and Theodore Sturgeon.  I was insanely jealous that they had known these men.  It was a wonderful meal and conversation, and I hope Paul will take the time to write some of his memories down.  One thing that frustrates me is how much oral history has been lost in the science fiction and fantasy fields because no one has bothered to write things down.


When the meal was over, we went and watched the Sun set.  Then those who were so inclined headed back to the Pavilion.  I went for a few minutes but didn’t stay long since I had an hour’s drive in the dark ahead of me and didn’t want to sleep at the wheel.  I got Barbara Barrett to sign Dreams in the Fire since she hadn’t been at the signing earlier and chatted for a few minutes with Damon Sasser.  Last year, Dave Hardy provided some homemade mead.  It was good, but this year’s batch was better.  I had a taste and really wished I didn’t have to drive.  I would have loved to have some more.  Thanks for bringing it, Dave.  I need to get the recipe from you.

Then I hit the road, and Howard Days 2011 became a memory, at least for me.  But a very good memory…

Report on Howard Days 2011, Day One

The side of the Cross Plains library

Robert E. Howard Days 2011 was a great success, at least in my opinion.  The weather was hot, but not humid, and the breeze helped keep things cool.  Some people might say we had wind, but since the sky didn’t turn brown from dust like it has for the last few months where I live, I’ll say we only had a breeze in Cross Plains.

Festivities started on Thursday night, but I wasn’t able to arrive until Friday morning.  I’ll report on what I participated in.  Al Harron, at The Blog That Time Forgot, has posted daily summaries, starting with this one for Thursday.  Al and I participated in some of the same activities but also a number of different ones, so check out his posts as well.  Others will be posting their reports, and I’ll try to provide links throughout the week as I become aware of them.

I’ll put in more photos than I usually do, at least for the first day.  My camera battery died on the second day, so all I have are a few photos I took with my phone.  I’ll put the best of those in.

I got to the Pavilion shortly before 9:00 a.m.  Several familiar faces were already there.  I grabbed a donut and coffee and began saying hello after swinging by the bin with the issues of The Cimmerian for sale.   I picked up a few and began mingling.  One of the people I had the pleasure of meeting was Miguel Martins.  Rusty Burke was leading a trailer tour again this year.  Until last year, this was known as The Walking Tour, but a trailer with chairs on it has taken its place.  And a good thing, too.  Even though it was still relatively cool at this time in the morning (low 80s Fahrenheit), it would have been hotter than that before the tour was over.

House where Novalyne Price lived

Just before the tour started Al Harron, arrived.  I met Al last year and made it a point of saying hello before we left.  The tour was packed.  All the chairs on the trailer were taken and four people were piled into the bed of the pickup towing us.  We went by the cemetery (the Howards are all buried in Brownwood) and behind downtown, crossed the highway, and went by the house where Novalyne Price lived while she worked as a teacher at Cross Plains High School from 1934-1936.  That’s her room on the right with the air conditioner sticking out of the window.  If you haven’t read her memoir about her relationship with Bob,  One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard the Final Years, you should.  It formed the basis of the movie The Whole Wide World, starring Vincent D’Onofrio and an at the time nearly unknown actress named Renee Zellweger. 

Rusty Burke leading the Trailer Tour

We also saw the building where the dry-cleaning business Bob worked at was once located, the location of the drug store where he once worked, and the building where he had his stenography business. Trying to take phhotos from a moving trailer turned out to be harder than I thought, so I don’t have many.

After we returned to the Pavilion, I wandered through the Howard house.  There were a number of new docents this year.  The gift shop had the usual number of books and zines, as well as copies of The Whole Wide World and various T-shirts and caps.

Hester’s room, left side
Hester’s room, right side

 I’ve included three photos from the house.  The first is of the left side of Hester’s room, taken from the doorway.  This is the front bedroom that looks out on the porch.  When you enter the house through the front door, you face a long hall with the living room on the right and Hester and Isaac’s room on the left.

The second photo is the right hand side of the room.  Off to the right, out of the field of view, is a dresser.  There’s a small closet to the left of the bedroom door.  As you can see, the room would be considered small by today’s standards.  My memory says that the bed was in front of the window on previous visits rather than to the side, but I’m not sure.  I’ll have to see if I can locate some photos from a previous visit.

The window on the right looks out on what was originally a porch.  It became Bob’s room.  You can see a trunk through the window if you look carefully.

The third photo is looking into Bob’s room.  The brightly lit window looks out onto the side yard.  The windows on the right have a picture of what the backyard would have looked like in the 30s.  A later owner of the house added a room which is now the gift shop.  The typewriter and writing table on the right are the originals.  The original table was sold or given to someone who cut the legs off to make it into a coffee table.  There is a typewriter whose owner claims is Howards, but last year Paul Sammons found a typewriter which may be the original one.  That question has yet to be answered conclusively.  The books on the dresser on the left are copies of ones Bob was known to have owned, although they are not original.  Until you stand in front of it, it’s hard to imagine how small Bob’s bedroom is by contemporary standards.  If I had to live in such a cramped space I think I would imagine being a wanderer.  It’s no wonder he spent so much time in his car driving around the countryside.

Bob’s room

Then it was time for the morning’s panel, which was held at the library.  Rusty Burke and Bill Cavalier related how the first Howard Days came about.  It was a group of fans who wanted to see where Robert E. Howard had written his tales of Kull, Solomon Kane, and Conan.

After the panel, I gave a ride back to the Pavilion to some friends, stopping at the Post Office on the way.  Each year the Cross Plains Post Office commemorates Howard Days with a unique postal cancellation.  I had missed the cancellation on previous visits, but this year I managed to get two post cards and an envelope with the cancellation.  They’re going to go into frames.

Lunch was chili dogs with all the fixings at the Pavilion.  Then it was back to the library for panels on They Kept the Legacy Alive with Damon Sasser, Dennis McHaney, Lee Breakiron, and Bill Cavalier and Howard’s Historicals with Barbara Barret and Amy Kerr.  I was late and missed most of the first panel, but caught all of the ladies’ panel.  Each focused on one of Bob’s strong women characters.  These ladies know their stuff.

Cross Plains has a top notch library.  It was one of the three finalists last year for Best Small Town Library in the US.  I took a minute to look at some of the pulps  and books the library put on display.  They have quite an extensive collection of Howard’s publications.  These usually stay locked up in the bank vault, but the library puts them on display for Howard Days.  Closely watched, of course.  Here are some shots of what they have.  I turn green with envy every time I see them.

Cross Plains Library collection

More of the collection
Original publication of some of Bob’s work

They don’t make covers like this anymore.  Sigh.

The last item of the afternoon was the trailer for the new Conan movie in the high school auditorium.  Specifically, the “Red Band” trailer, or the R-rated trailer in other words.  Fred Malmberg of Paradox Entertainment led the discussion.  Star Jason Mamoa had wanted to be there but was unable to due to a wedding he needed to attend.  He did send a video clip clip greeting, which was pretty cool.  I’ve got pictures of some of hte pro0ps they had on hand.  I’ll post those later this week or early next week.  We were told we could take pictures but were asked not to post them until late this week.  They hadn’t been publicly shown before.

Miguel asked me after it was over what I thought.  I said that it will be visually stunning and would probably be a good movie about a character named Conan.  Whether that character had any resemblance to a character of the same name created by Robert E. Howard remained to be seen.  
I went back to the pavilion and visited with friends for a little while, then proceeded on to the banquet.  Like last year, the food was good, fajitas with rice and beans.  Fred Malmberg sat across and and one seat down from me, so I got to talk with him some.  He seems to be very knowledgeable about Howard’s works and wants to have them adapted faithfully to the screen.  I gained some insight into how the whole process of bringing a property to film works from talking to him.  Paul Herman presented the Robert E. Howard Foundation scholarship.  This is a $1000 scholarship presented each year to the winner of an essay contest.  This year’s winner read her essay, which was over one of Howard’s poems. 

Dennis McHaney

Damon Sasser

Guests Dennis McHaney and Damon Sasser gave gave brief speeches on how they came to be involved in Howard fandom.  The silent auction was didn’t seem to have as much stuff as last year, or maybe I had better self control.  I didn’t get everything I bid on, but I did okay.  The auction is a fundraiser for Project Pride, the community development organization that hosts Howard Days.  I heard the next day they raised over $1500.  If that’s not correct, someone please let me know. 

Al Harron accepting his award

The Robert E. Howard Foundation Awards were announced.  Rob Roehm won more than anyone, but there were a number of other winners as well.  I don’t have a complete list, but I will post a link when the Foundation posts them.  Two of the most surprised winners were David Hardy and Al Harron. That’s Al accepting his award in the photo. 

Bill Cavalier

Bill Cavalier received the Black Circle Award, which is for lifetime achievement.  It’s not easy to win.  You have to be nominated one year and then receive a certain percentage of the vote the next.  That’s him holding it up.

Adventures Fantastic would like to congratulate all of the winners.

After the awards, those of us who didn’t have a long drive went to the Pavilion for the poetry throwdown.  I was tired and decided not to push my luck and headed on home.

I’ll write about the second day in a followup post.

Blogging Kull: The Altar and the Scorpion

Kull:  Exile of Atlantis
Del Rey
trade paper, 317 p., $17

This is another of the brief tale, although unlike the previous one, “The Striking of the Gong,” Kull isn’t featured in this one but merely mentioned. This is a minor story in the Kull canon, and upon close examination it’s easy to see why. 

Howard opens the story with an unnamed youth bowing before an altar of a scorpion and imploring the scorpion to save him and the girl he loves, also never given a name, from the evil priest Guron.  Guron isn’t a priest of the Scorpion God but rather the  Black Shadow.  Guron and his priests are sacking the city, something else that doesn’t have a name.  Guron plans to sacrifice the pair on an altar to the Black Shadow.  From what Howard tells us, the cult of the Black Shadow practices human sacrifice. 

The city is somewhere within the kingdom of Valusia.  Kull is leading his army to rescue the city, but he won’t be able to arrive in time to rescue the youth and his lover.  The young man is imploring the Scorpion God on the basis of a promise the deity made generations ago when the young man’s ancestor Gonra died defeating a horde of barbarians intent on plundering the temple of the scorpion.  As a reward for his faithfulness, the Scorpion God promised through his priests that he would aid all of Gonra’s descendants. 

As the young man finishes his prayer, his lover bursts into the room, pursued by Guron.  Guron is a giant of a man, tall and strong.  He is able to bind both the young man and the girl single handedly, in spite of their struggles.  He also gloats that even if he is defeated by Kull, he will have his revenge on the line of Gonra.  He also mocks the Scorpion God as a deity almost no one worships any more.

As he is about to carry the pair off, Guron screams, drops his captives, and falls to the floor.  Dead.  The girl says a scorpion “crawled across my bare bosom, without harming me, and when Guron seized me, it stung him!”  The young man tells her a scorpion hasn’t been seen in the city in generations, so this must be the Scorpion God’s deliverance.

The two crawl to the altar, still bound, and worship the Scorpion God.

Two things stuck out to me when I read this story, and I suspect it has to do with having spent a number of my growing up years less than an hour from Cross Plains.

The first is the prayer the youth prays to the Scorpion God.  It’s long and bombastic, and basically reminds the deity of his obligations and points out to him how dire the present circumstances are.  Most people would simply dismiss this as a form of infodump.  I think there’s a little more to it than that. 

While he wasn’t what you would call a regular church-goer in his adult years, Bob Howard was certainly familiar with what went on inside the walls of at least some of the local houses of worship.  His mother was a regular attender of services until her health began to prevent her from going.  His father also attended, at least sporadically.  One of his parents was a Methodist and the other a Baptist.  I want to say his mother was the Methodist, but I don’t recall for certain.  I’ve got that information written down somewhere, but I’m not sure where.  And it really doesn’t matter.

My point is the prayer here is similar to a number of prayers that Bob would have heard growing up.  I’ve certainly heard enough like it over the years, although never to a scorpion.  I suspect Howard was imitating the style of prayer with which he was most familiar. 

Scorpion common to the Cross Plains area

The other thing is that scorpions are a common hazard in that part of Texas, so they would be something Howard would not only be familiar with, but probably had a healthy respect for.  The tales of people shaking out their boots before putting them on have a lot of truth to them.  And I know from first hand experience that scorpions can crawl on you and never sting.  So Howard having the scorpion crawl across the girl’s breasts without it stinging her is completely believable and quite probably based on Howard’s personal experiences.

That having been said, it’s easy to see the influence of his small town Texas environs on Robert E. Howard when he was composing this story.  It’s not one of the best Kull tales.  The fact that the two main characters are never given names, nor is the city in which the story is set named, is rather unusual for Howard.  He typically gives names to most of the characters, major or minor, in his works.  Still, if you know where to look, you can see Howard incorporating the familiar and transforming it into something strange and exotic.

The Adventures Fantastic Interview: Mark Finn, Part 1

Mark Finn should be no stranger to hard-core Robert E. Howard fans.  He is the author of the Howard biography Blood and Thunder as well as numerous articles and essays about the man from Cross Plains.  In addition to his writings about Robert E. Howard, Mark is also a fiction author with a number of short stories to his credit.  He took time out of his schedule recently to sit down with Adventures Fantastic to answer a few questions.  Here, in the first of two parts to this interview, Mark discusses why he writes, why he felt the need to write a biography of Robert E. Howard, his admiration of jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden, and what other projects he has in the works.
AF:  Why do you write?
MF:  Why do I write?  That’s a good question.  When I was a lot younger, I wanted to be an entertainer of some sort.  I went through a period where I remember in the 70s television would always have these variety shows, so I got to see ventriloquists and magicians, and guys who could do impressions, Rich Little.  I used to watch the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts with Foster Brooks.  I didn’t understand why it was so funny, but my parents just thought it was the best thing ever.
AF:  I remember those.
MF:  Oh, they were so funny.  And Foster was great.  I mean really underappreciated kind of guy.  So I went through phases where I studied ventriloquism, and I studied magic.  I still play with magic on a strictly amateur basis right now.  But as I got older I wanted to do special effects makeup for the movies and found kind of accidentally that I was good at writing.  And I kept wanting to do other things.  I wanted to draw.  I’ve always wanted to tell stories.  I’ve always wanted to entertain people and tell stories.  However that needed to happen.  I found that of all the things I wanted to do, the thing that came easiest to me was writing.  If I spent a lot of time and went to school and learned art and got a degree in commercial art or graphic art and sat down and made an effort at getting into comics, I probably would be pretty good.  But I was always naturally better at writing than I was anything else, so by the time I was fifteen, I met somebody, incidentally, who was gifted in art the way I was in writing, so that’s what made me go, “Oh, I get it.  All right.”  And he and I have been friends, and he, John Lucas, has pursued the art career, and I’ve pursued the writing career.  For me it boils down to entertaining people, storytelling. I think that’s our primary means of communicating with one another, whether it’s a joke or “Honey, you won’t believe the day I’ve had.”  It’s all stories.  I like that form.
AF:  What got you interested in Robert E. Howard?

MF:  I was a nerd.  (laughs)  Yeah, in the 70s I liked all the monster movies, the Saturday afternoon stuff, Jason and the ArgonautsIt was the time of Star Wars and later fantasy movies and Dungeons and Dragons and all that stuff.  Dungeons and Dragons, when it came out, the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, had a list in the back of recommended reading.  That was interesting to me because I had been reading science fiction up until then.  I was just transitioning over into Edgar Rice Burroughs, and I got into D&D about the same time the Conan movie came out.  I was too young to go see it in the theater, but with a little finagling, when it came to HBO, I was able to watch it.  And so when I recognized that the Conan created by Robert E. Howard, according to the movie, was the same guy they were recommending the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons book, I said, “Well, I’ve clearly got to read this guy.”  And so it was through other influences that led me to check out Howard.  That’s been where my heart has been ever since.  Well, it just spoke to me in a way that very few other authors have before or since.  So, the short handed answer is through the movie, and the long handed answer is through Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and the movie.
AF:  This could be a two part question, depending on how you want to interpret it.  What led you to write a biography about Robert E. Howard, and why did you see a need for a revised edition?

MF:  My initial intention with writing Blood and Thunder was two-fold.  One, I knew that Rusty and Patrice [Rusty Burke and Patrice Louinet] were busy doing the Del Rey texts and preparing those and would have no time to finish these biographical projects and what they were doing in time for the Centennial [the centennial of Robert E. Howard’s birth] in 2006.  That just sort of happenstance coincided with Chris Roberson from Monkey Brain saying, “Isn’t the Howard Centennial coming up?”  And I said, “Yeah.”  And he said, “Do you want to do a book for us?”  And I said, “Sure, I’ll edit an anthology, and I’ll put everybody together, and we’ll do essays, and it’ll be great.”  And he said, “No, no, no, I’m thinking just you.”  That was when the idea first came to me.  I knew right away that I couldn’t do a kitchen sink, warts and all kind of book.  Those types of things take a while.  You’ve got to go three years in and really do a bunch of stuff.  I had a small window.  I had one year.  So I chose to write the biography I would have wanted to read, that I’ve always wanted to read as a fan, and couldn’t.  I wanted a biography that was easy to read.  Not simple, but an engaging story.  I wanted something that dealt with the literature that he wrote, and I wanted something to put it all into context.  There were things I emphatically did not get in reading Dark Valley Destiny.  In fact I decided to make that the critical yardstick, if you will, for Blood and Thunder.  I looked at everything I didn’t like about Dark Valley Destiny, and I either didn’t do what he [L. Sprague de Camp] did, or I wrote an answer for what he posited.  And so as a biography, it’s not a complete book in so much as it is a reaction to de Camp’s various theses.  And so when it came out, I had to turn it in at the end of 2005, beginning of 2006. 

Then in 2006, a bunch of things happened.  Most notably, The Cimmerian magazine that Leo Grin was doing went monthly, and with the monthly schedule came all these finds, all this new stuff.  That’s always the case, it’s never gonna be finished because if I wanted to stop right now and add new stuff, I could.  But I had to have a cut off point because of the process they were using to do the book.  There was a lot of stuff found in 2006, interesting speculations and some cool finds, subsequently, in 2007 and 2008, that weren’t in the first edition.  I made a deal with Monkey Brain for the mass market in trade.  So everybody was asking if there was going to be a hardcover.  I shopped it around to a few people, including Del Rey.  They liked the book, but it wasn’t in their cards to do it.  They were just really wanting to concern themselves with the fiction.  So I went to the Foundation [The Robert E. Howard Foundation] because, again, Rusty and Patrice are still working on their own stuff.  Patrice is still preparing texts.  They’ve got the boxing and the funny western stuff left to do.  So that’s somewhere between six and eight more books if they do it right.  Rusty, too, same thing.  So I knew that those biographies they’re gonna have are eventually going to come out.  But the Foundation could use a biography right now that they could market and sell, so I thought, I’ll just ask them.  But I wanted to put in the new information, I wanted to rewrite the last chapter, which is very problematic in the first edition.  I wanted to add a bunch of things people asked me about.  One of the few negative comments I got on the book was “I really liked learning about all the other stuff, but I kinda wish there were more Conan stuff in there.  He doesn’t spend a lot of time on Conan, aannndd I understand why, but it still would have been pretty nice.”  With that kind of luxury, with another year to go back through the manuscript, I can clean up a bunch of stuff.  Now it’s got 30,000 extra words in it.  And all those things have been addressed.  All the technical errors and lapses in concentration on my part have been fixed.  I’m very happy with it.  It’s a little weightier of a book.  The last chapter got completely reorganized and feels a whole lot more focused and less chaotic.  I would say probably four of the chapters at least have gotten a substantial revision or were completely revised.  Another four of the chapters had extra bits and pieces and things inserted into them, so if you’ve read the first edition once or twice, you’ll quickly start hitting stuff where you go, “I don’t remember that from the first time I read the book.”   Then you’ll go and get to the sections and go, “Wow, I don’t remember any of this.”  That’s the new stuff.

Illustration by Mark Schultz

AF:  Any possibility that you can foresee a third edition somewhere down the road, or is this your final word on Robert E. Howard’s life as far as a formal biography?
MF:  I would say, for everything that I wanted the book to accomplish, it largely did.  Now we have a talking point opposite de Camp’s book.  The thesis I wanted to work into the first edition regarding Breckenridge Elkins is now in there.  Unless some big evidence shows up that changes something fundamental, I don’t know that a third edition would need to come out.  I wouldn’t want to do it unless I could put another thirty thousand words into it, and if I put another thirty thousand words into it, now we start getting into an awful lot of lit crit.  Which is great if you’ve read it.  If I’m talking about Solomon Kane, if you’ve read all those stories, then a little literary criticism discussion, breaking stuff down isn’t going to hurt anybody.  You might agree or disagree,  You would at least be able to go, “Oh, yeah, ‘Wings of the Night,’ I’ve read that.”  If I put it in there, and you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re going to be more likely to skip chapters, which is exactly what I do when I read a literary biography and come across something I haven’t read yet because I don’t want to be pre-informed when I read the story.  So I don’t think a third edition is in the works anytime soon.  I would be more inclined to just do more articles and essays and fill in gaps that way.
AF:  Any other biographies you plan to write?

MF:  Weirdly enough, yes.  (laughs)  I want to do a biography of Jack Teagarden, who was a jazz trombonist during the Big Band era.  He’s from the town I currently live in, Vernon, Texas.  He’s the Jimi Hendrix of the jazz trombone.  That kind of sounds like a trite way to say it, but he played the trombone in a way that it was not played before or since.  His style was so singular and signature that jazz trombone died when he did.  And so he’s largely forgotten by modern jazz aficionados.  In the Big Band era, he was kinda on the second tier.  People have heard of him, go “Oh,yeah, I know that, trombone, right?” He’s got a pretty big international following still.  I recommend him.  If anybody is reading this, do a google search for him on Utube and check out how he plays.  The guy was a virtuoso.  The kind of which, you won’t believe what you’re hearing is a trombone.  He’s that good.  I want to do a biography of him.  I think he’s a fascinating guy.  He’s another one of those Texas creators who took two disparate things and combined them to make a unique sound.  I use him in the introduction to Blood and Thunder alongside of Howard Hughes and Bob Wills as inventive Texans who were able to take the best of two separate elements and combine them to make something new.  He’s one of those kind of guys, and I’m fascinated by those type of guys.  Historically, I’m attracted to subjects who displayed that kind of brilliance, maybe even to the cost of their own lives.  Orson WellsBenjamin Franklin.  Howard Hughes.  Harry Houdini

Robert E. Howard.  These guys, Jack Teagarden, all had this sort of intensity about them, this sort of effortless means of creation that was responsible for why they were the way the were but also made them so flawed and so tragic.  I don’t have a timeline on the biography.  I’m waiting for a bunch of stuff to come together.  I’m probably through writing biographies for a few years.  I really want some time to study Teagarden more before I get into it.  But, yeah, I definitely want to tackle him.  Now I have to be mindful of something.  I do not remember who said this, but there’s a very famous quote from a critic.  I should now who said this.  The quote is writing about music is a lot like dancing about architecture.  I’ve got to find a way to write about his stuff, maybe not in a way that you understand it, but in a way that makes you want to listen to it.  That’s really the goal.  If you’re a jazz fan and you pick up the book, I’ve got to be able to write about what he’s doing in a way that the jazz fan will say “Yeah, he totally nailed it.”  And you, who have never heard him at all, will go, “I don’t what he’s talking about but, man, I got to check that out.”  And that’s a balancing act.  Who knows how long that’s going to take?

AF:  I enjoyed your novel excerpt that you read earlier this morning.  What fiction do you have in the pipeline, and where can someone go to get copies of what you’ve already head published?
MF:  I’ve got two…I’ve got a bunch of stuff in the pipeline, actually.  I’ve got a lot of neat stuff coming out this year.  I just wrapped up a script for Dark Horse for their Howard theme anthology entitled Robert E. Howard’s Savage Sword.  It’s an original story about El Borak, Francis Xavier Gordon.  I’m really excited about it because it’s the first comic book appearance of El Borak.  As such it’s also a kind of an introduction to the character for people who don’t know who he is.  This will get picked up by a lot of people who’ve maybe read Conan, Solomon Kane, even Kull. and might be curious to try this.  I’ve only got eight pages in it, so I basically have got to provide you with a sort of …I think of it as a fictional essay, really, on what makes him so cool.  Eight pages isn’t enough adapt an original story.  It isn’t enough to get into a richly detailed plot, so I came up with an incident.  So we basically decided as long as we have eight pages of El Borak doing the things that we know he can do best, it’ll be pretty cool.  That comes out in May.  The novels I’m working on, I’ve got two in progress. 
The Domino Chronicles has been shopped to a couple of people.  I’m not sure if I’m gonna get any bites any time soon. 

The other thing I’ve been working on, I’ve been researching this guy for years, and I’ve finally got the means to put it into a novel form.  It’s about Sailor Tom Sharkey, who was an actual golden age boxer from the turn of the century.  The story involves him and his adventures.  He was a very larger than life character, and the model for Robert E. Howard’s Sailor Steve Costigan, at least in terms of physicality and fighting ability.  So for me, what I like about that story is I’ve loved the funny boxing stories for forever.  That’s no secret to anybody who’s met me for more than five minutes.  And as much as I want to go play in that sandbox, I really have a problem with pastiche authors, particularly the ones who don’t get it.  Or “I want to do my thing with Conan.”  Well, if you do your thing with Conan, why don’t you go do something else?  So I decided that what I wanted to do was something in the funny boxer genre, but not necessarily a Robert E. Howard turn.  Because Howard’s sense of humor is not my sense of humor.  My sense of humor is different.  And it would be bad for me to try and imitate Howard’s sense of humor.  This gave me an opportunity to do something really funny in stories with this unreliable narrator, kind of a la Steve Costigan, but not a direct rip off.  We’re dealing with somebody who’s at the end of his life or he’s in the twilight of his career and he’s looking back and regretting some decisions he’s made.  He decides to go on this vaudeville circuit, which actually happened. What he doesn’t realize is that the vaudeville circuit train he gets on turns out to be a quest for a golden belt he left back in New York City.  Things get pretty weird after that.  By doing a kind of fantastical historical, that’s something that Howard never did either.  His funny boxing stories are pretty straight up.  Definitely it owes a great debt to that work, but ultimately I’ve moved to where I feel far enough away from it that, again, only people who’ve read the boxing stories will go, “You know, that was a Costigan flourish.”  I think everybody else is gonna read it and go, “Where the hell did you come up with this guy?”  And I’m gonna have to tell them, he’s straight out of history.  That’s a work in progress.  I hope to have that done this year and shopped around. 

If you want a taste of it, we’ve got a short story collection coming out here that will be ready before Howard Days.  It’s called Dreams in the Fire:  Fiction and Poetry Inspired by Robert E. Howard.  It’s actually a REHUPA project.  Current and former REHUPAns have donated stories to this anthology.  And we got a couple of ringers in there.  Bob Weinberg did a story for us; Don Herron has a good poem in there.  The whole thing is a fiction anthology in the vein of Robert E. Howard.  Everybody had different characters and different concepts.  We’ve got some pirate stuff.  We’ve got some American frontier stuff.  We’ve a Sailor Tom Sharkey story.  All kinds of things.  The entire book will be sold online, through the usual outlets, also through the gift shop [at the Robert E. Howard House].  And all the money goes to Project Pride.  So it’s going to be our fundraiser book from REHUPA.  And we’ll keep that active for a year, and all the profits we’re going to give over to the Howard House to let them continue the good work and keep the place up.  So hopefully I’ll have that out by mid-May, if not sooner.  That’s in the final stages.  Really, right now between the novels and some more comic work that’s coming down the pipe, I’ll have quite a few things out this year.  I’m looking forward to having all this out and published. 

Next Week:  In part 2 of this interview, Mark discusses adaptations of Howard to film, the state of Robert E. Howard scholarship today, and what one question he would ask Howard if he could.

Blogging Kull: The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune

This was the second Kull story published in Howard’s lifetime, and the last one to feature Kull as the viewpoint character.  He would make one more published appearance, in “Kings of the Night”, but that tale is primarily a Bran Mak Morn story with Kull in a secondary role.  After that, no more Kull stories would be published in Howard’s lifetime.

This is an extremely short piece, more brooding than action.  In fact, Kull never draws his sword at all.  Only Brule engages in any slaughter. 

Howard chose to open this tale with a quote from Poe, and it’s quite appropriate.  Kull is burned out when the story opens, in what Howard describes as “the time of great weariness”, and what would be called today a midlife crisis.  (I’m looking forward to my midlife crisis and getting a Harley and a hottie, but I will probably ease into it slowly with the one that requires the least maintenance.  That would be the Harley.)  Instead of grabbing a wench and a fast horse and hitting the road, Kull merely broods about the meaninglessness of life and how nothing satisfies him now.  While Howard wasn’t fond of religion and the church, I have to wonder if he had been reading the book of Ecclesiastes when he wrote this.  Howard describes Kull’s daily routine as “an endless, meaningless panorama”, much like the author of Ecclesiastes describes life as “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” 

When no one is around, a servant girl suggests to Kull that he visit the wizard Tuzun Thune.  Whereas Conan would have probably ravished the girl, Kull merely follows her suggestion.  Tuzun Thune tells Kull to gaze into his mirrors and become wise. 

The first mirror shows the past, and the savage battle for survival against flying dragons and other beasts.  It’s a world of endless struggle, with Death the only certainty.  The second mirror shows the future, in which Atlantis and Lemuria are beneath the waves, and only their mountaintops remain, islands in the vastness of the ocean.  Valusia and the other Seven Kingdoms are gone and forgotten, all their splendor and treasures dust.  Tuzun Thune says this is the way of the world, one tribe supplanting the previous.  It’s all very depressing.

Then Tuzun Thune has Kull look in a third mirror.  Kull sees only his reflection and wonders who the man is who gaze matches his own.  He once knew him   Kull begins to wonder who is the man and who is the reflection.

Kull visits Tuzun Thune every day, staring at his reflection in a mirror.  He becomes more and more fascinated by the world in the mirror and wants to know what he would find if he passed through to the other side.  He is in the process of doing so when when Brule shatters the mirror.  Kull comes to his senses to find the lifeless body of Tuzun Thune on the floor before him, Tuzun Thune’s blood dripping from Brule’s sword.  Brule informs Kull that he is the victim of a plot by one of the other nobles, a plot only discovered that very day.  The servant girl who told Kull to visit Tuzun Thune is in on it.  She’s on the floor covering in fear for her life while this exchange between Kull and Brule is taking place.  Amazingly Kull says she was merely a pawn and lets her go unpunished.  After the girl tells Kull about Tuzun Thune, Howard describes her this way:  ” the smile of her scarlet mouth was cunning behind Kull’s back, and the gleam of her narrow eyes was crafty.”  That doesn’t sound like someone who was a pawn to me.  We know she and Tuzun Thune were both members of the Elder Race, who once ruled Valusia.  Conan would never have dismissed her this way, although he probably would have let her live.

In a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith sometime in February 1929, Howard lists all his sales to date.  He records that he got $20 for “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” and that it was “more of the Shadow Kingdom, occult and mystical, vague and badly written; this is the deepest story I ever tried to write and I got out of my depth.”  [Collected Letters Vol. 1, REH Foundation Press, 2007, p. 311]

This is a deep story, but I don’t agree with Howard’s assessment.  It’s not badly written at all.  Some of the paragraphs are quite powerful in their descriptions and mood.  Howard was in his early twenties at this time.  It’s wouldn’t be unusual to feel that sense of weariness he describes.  Here’s a young man who is trapped in a small town where no one understands him.  He had to wonder at times if his desire to write was worth it.  I spent part of my adolescence in a small town about fifty miles from Cross Plains, and I can tell you that what Howard describes is a very real sensation.  Anyone who doesn’t conform to the lowest common denominator expectations of society in those towns will sooner or later experience the fatigue (the weariness) that comes from trying to be your own person when all you meet is opposition and exclusion.  Instead of being out of his depth, Howard seems to me to have poured out his feelings and his experience in this story. 

I think he nails it perfectly, and that’s why for all its brevity, this is a major story in Howard’s oeuvre.