Category Archives: Dark Valley Destiny

Blood and Thunder, Release 2.0

Blood and Thunder
Mark Finn
The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press
$45 REHF members, $50 nonmembers, plus shipping

It’s been a few years since the first edition of this volume was published, and in that time Howard studies have moved forward, with new biographical material coming to light.  In fact, new biographical details  have continued to be unearthed since this edition went to press. That will probably (hopefully) continue for some time.

As he explained in the two part interview posted here last year (part 1, part 2), Mark Finn felt it was time for a second edition.  Rather than rehash his remarks, I’m going to get straight to the point and discuss the book.

Including the endnotes but not the bibliography and index, the book comes in at 426 pages.  It starts slow, giving family background information.  That’s typical in any biography, so please don’t take the previous sentence as negative.  That’s just the way it is.  The book is divided into four sections, same as in the previous edition, with some chapters being heavily rewritten and others hardly touched.  Again, not surprising or in any way atypical of many biographies that have new editions.

The book really took off for me in the second section, with the first chapter, “Authentic Liars”, discussing the oral storytelling tradition in which Howard grew up.  It’s the tradition of the porch raconteur, the spinner of tall tales, the person who mixes enough truth into his words that you’re never really sure at which point he begins pulling your leg.  It’s also a tradition that is vanishing, and in many parts of the country, lost.

This chapter sets the tone for much of what follows.  Finn’s central thesis, or one of them at least, is that to understand Howard, one must understand the Texas in which he grew up.  It’s a valid point, and one which is easy to overlook.  With many of the traditions and values of the time being passed down relatively unchanged, we often forget how much has changed.

While this concept was central to the first edition of the book, Finn has expanded on it.  What’s fairly new, and in my opinion of major importance to future Howard studies, is Finn’s assertion that an understanding of Howard’s humor is required to truly understand the man and his work.  This is in my opinion one of the strengths of the second edition.  I’ve never gotten into Howard’s humor.  After reading the new material on his humorous stories, and reading again about how those stories fit in with the tall lying tradition, I’m going to be seeking them out.  There’s a lot there I’ve been missing.

Finn tries his best to avoid the excesses of arm chair psychoanalysis engaged in by L. Sprague de Camp in Dark Valley Destiny.  In many ways this book was written as a refutation of that biography.  Fans of de Camp, and of DVD in particular, won’t be pleased with what they find here.  While some interpretation of how events in Howard’s life showed up in his work is inevitable in any study of the man, Finn walks a delicate line between projecting his own agenda and biases on his subject and erring on the side of caution too much by not offering any interpretations at all.  For the most part, I think he’s successful.  He tries to delineate what are his opinions and what are facts.

By the time I turned the last page, I had a new understanding of Robert E. Howard the man.  While I had always pictured him as someone who wanted to fit in, some of the details had been filled in.  Hopefully I’m not merely projecting my own experiences growing up in a similar small Texas town nearby onto what I read.  Finn  quotes from Howard’s correspondence (collected in three volumes by the REHF Press), especially his correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft (collected in two volumes by Hippocampus Press).  I’ve got these volumes but haven’t finished reading them.  I will, if for no other reason than I want to understand better the different facets of his personality Howard presented in his correspondence.

Never one to shy away from controversy, Finn has expanded his remarks on Conan.  Rather than get into Conan here, I’ll just say that he thinks “Queen of the Black Coast” isn’t one of Howard’s best Conan tales.  While I’ve not posted anything new in my series on Conan (see links in the sidebar) in a while due to other projects, I’ve not given up on the series and will save my remarks for upcoming installments. 

I do have a few gripes about the book overall, though nothing major.  At the front is a map of West Central Texas during Howard’s time, showing the roads.  Mark told me at ConDFW last weekend that he had pieced the map together from several maps and had removed more than one road that didn’t exist in Howard’s lifetime by hand.  He missed one major highway, though:  Interstate 20.  The interstates weren’t built until a couple of decades after Howard’s death.  This might seem to be a minor thing, but it does call into question the accuracy of the rest of the map.  For what it’s worth, the interstate is near the top in the middle of a number of other highways (I used a magnifying glass to confirm it was there), and thus easy to miss.  I personally don’t think it’s a huge deal.

A map of Cross Plains during Howard’s lifetime would have been nice, though.  Surely it wouldn’t have been too difficult to obtain one.  I was also disappointed in the number of photos.  Each chapter opens with a photo.  There’s no section of photographs, and some of the more famous ones are missing.  Primarily on this point, there’s no photo of Novalyne Price.  I’m not that crazy with the one on the cover, either.  In fairness, I realize that copyright issues probably prevented Finn from including some of the photos most readers might expect.  Also, more pictures of Cross Plains in the 20s and 30s would have been a nice touch.  And I’ve never seen a drawing or map of the Howard property at the time of his death.  Where was the car parked?  Was it outside or in a garage?  Did they even have a garage?  Also, Howard took to wearing a mustache near the end of his life.  Did he still have it when he died?  It’s clearly visible in the last known photo of him (included in the book).

Overall, though, this a major work.  Howard scholarship and fandom are contentious enough that it would be easy to stoop to the level of picking nits (which I’m sure some will say the preceding two paragraphs did).  Finn has set the standard here by which future biographical projects will be measured.  By examining the cultural influences on Howard, Finn has expanded the avenues by which scholars can approach their subject.  I would like to see further analysis of Howard’s humor for example.  Still, this is a volume that belongs in the library of any serious fan of Texas literature, Robert E. Howard, or the pulps.

Publications from the REHF Press tend to be priced out of the range of the casual fan.  The production values make them worth the money, and the limited print runs mean if you want a copy, don’t wait.  While popular titles go through more than one printing, not all of them do.  While I have every expectation this one will see a second printing, they take time.  If you want a copy, grab one now.

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.